Friday, November 23, 2007

On speaking a language without using sentence subjects, the joy of funny English all around me, and a golden "Santa-san"?

One thing you don't hear very often when speaking English is someone saying, "Wait, what's the subject of your sentence? Oh, okay." But in Japanese, a language that often omits the subject since it's understood by both parties anyway, it's possible to be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly need to verify what the other person is actually talking about. While cutting down a sentence like "Shall we go to lunch now?" to just "Go?" may sound odd to English speakers, it's usually not a problem in Japanese -- if you were talking about someone specific going somewhere, you'd put that in the sentence, but if the meaning is obvious from the context, it makes sense to shorten things. I've noticed that when Japanese speak English they sometimes use the wrong third person singular pronoun, saying "she" when talking about a man and so on, and this seems to be related to the fact that in their native language they never have to consciously specify a gender-based pronoun for a person when referring to them. There's nothing more embarrassing than when the invisible Japanese subject causes you to lose the thread of what's being said around you, and one skill smart learners master early on is how to B.S. others, making them think you're following along when you have no idea what's being said. Phrases like so desu ne, which should mean "Yes, that's so," but often means nothing at all, are a good place to start.

Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable things about living in Japan is taking in all the funny English that comes my way. Although mistakenly-used English is often the result of translators with more self-confidence than actual linguistic ability, a lot of amusing English comes in the form of products sold by companies that can presumably afford to hire native speakers to check things. Some of these wacky product names are known to people outside Japan, for example, the most popular brand of powered milk for your coffee is Creap, short for "creamy powder," and Pocari Sweat, which brings to mind the image of floating on a cloud (pokkari) after a hard day's exercise. (Note: the product contains no sweat ^_^) Some other products that have caused snickering by gaijin living here have included Beaver and Woody, two separate air conditioning systems sold by Mitsubishi, which apparently has some wise guys working in their new products department. Japanese snacks are often named strangely, with Crunky, Asse or Meltykiss being good examples. Some other funny-sounding products that I've seen include Birdy, a canned coffee apparently aimed at golfers; Toyota's Carina ED, which was taken out of the market when ED came to stand for something else entirely; and the popular homogenized fish sausage from the Maruzen Corporation with the unbelievable name of Homo Sausage. Ah, Japan, don't you ever stop being so wacky.

The world is officially in "Holiday mode" now, and Japan is no exception. Here you can celebrate the season in a unique way, with your very own solid gold statue of St. Nicholas. A famous shop in Tokyo's Ginza area is selling the 24-carat gold image of "Santa-san" (as the Japanese usually call him), complete with a gold-mesh bag full of gold coins, to well-heeled collectors. The idea is that owning something made of gold will bring good luck, although it seems to me if you can afford the $1.8 million for the golden Santa you've already had more than your fair share. The Japanese have historically been big fans of gold -- Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who rose from a peasant farmer to the de facto ruler of Japan, built a tea room made of gold -- and you can see that many of the omamori and other traditional good luck charms that J-List sells have gold imagery incorporated into them in some way, for example the gold coin (called a koban) around the neck of the famous Lucky Cat.

J-List has more than 4000 excellent reasons to check the site this weekend, as we're just loaded to the gills with great products and gift ideas for your loved ones, from Totoro blankets to plush toys to delicious Japanese snacks to our Japanese T-shirts and warm hoodies and more. J-List has the fun and exciting items that the people on your list will really love and remember all year long. We've beefed up our stock of virtually every product we carry and have also added extra staff, allowing us to ship items out to you as quickly and efficiently as possible. Let J-List help make this a really great Christmas for everyone important to you this year!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All about "joshiki" (Common Sense) and the Japanese, negative aspects of this, and some thoughts on turkey

Unlike the U.S. or most of Europe, Japan is a very homogenous country, where people tend to consider themselves part of the same genetic stock despite the sometimes obvious differences in facial features and hair and skin tint due to the presence of Korean, Mongolian, Ainu, Russian and other blood in the veins of "pure" Japanese. Somehow this tradition of "one-ness" has amalgamated into the unifying body of knowledge known as joshiki, things that any reasonable Japanese person is expected to know. Just as all Japanese take it for granted that chrysanthemums are a flower reserved for laying on gravestones rather than giving to one's wife, as I accidentally did to her great amuseent, we foreigners often have our own joshiki that can seem alien to the Japanese. We have a friend who owns a company and once complained that he had rather a lot of debt, including several different bank loans at different interest rates. I made the obvious (to me) suggestion that he get one new loan at as low a rate as possible and use it to retire all the other loans, and this was the most brilliant idea he'd ever heard -- apparently no one thinks of things like that here. When it comes to saving for a rainy day, the common sense of many people is to put their money in the bank, even if it pays a paltry 0.2%, or a whopping .75% if you opt for a 10 year CD. I once tried explaining one American joshiki of investing -- that the younger a person is, the better it is to hold stocks, since you have more time to recover from any problems you run into -- to my conservative mother-in-law, who has never owned stock in her life because some people have lost money in stocks in the past. Suffice it to say that she didn't see the point I was trying to make.

While this Japanese tradition of most people being on the same wavelength is usually a positive thing, there are downsides, one of which I call the "tyranny of the majority." My wife made breakfast for me the other day, which included two eggs fried "eyeball" style (what fried eggs are called in Japanese) and several strips of bacon. "This is turkey bacon, right?" I asked her, and she gave me a sidelong glance at my sarcasm. While Japan is a great place, with warm and friendly people and many beautiful sights to see, it lacks some of the choices you'd expect to find in a wealthy, modern country, including any kind of healthier products made with turkey meat. Whenever I go back home to San Diego I bask in the many choices around me, from the variety of imported beers available in stores to authentic Rold Gold pretzels to delicious whole-grain breads, and bagels, oh those bagels. I drink skim milk most of the time when I'm back home, not because I like it, but because it's all but impossible to find here in Japan, a country where the majority has decided that milk should be thick and creamy, with 4.7 per cent milk fat. This can make it a challenge for people with special needs to live in Japan, for example vegetarians often have trouble finding food that is completely free of animal products. Before I started J-List, I worked for a few months at the local city office as a "Facilitator of Internationalization," basically helping other foreigners who needed help getting city services. The person who had been in the job before me had left early due to various frustrations that reportedly included not being able to drink anything, since everything from cola to green tea has caffeine in it, which was against his religion.

All of us at J-List wish everyone in the U.S. a warm and happy Thanksgiving on Thursday. This is one of those holidays that can be hard to follow when you're far from home, and it's quite common for our entire Thanksgiving to consist of a bucket of "Kentucky," as KFC is called here. It's possible to find frozen turkeys imported from Brazil (which contain guidance about how the turkeys were prepared in accordance with the laws of Islam, since they are also exported to the Middle East), although the bird we got last year was so small we had to modify the cooking instructions downwards. This year we've got a box of good American stuff like mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and of course pumpkin pie, but we've decided to substitute turkey with pollo a la brasa, spit-roasted chicken from our favorite Peruvian restaurant. While you're recovering from dinner, remember that J-List stands poised and ready to help you with any and all shopping needs this long weekend, and we've got thousands of rare and amazing products for the Japan-focused person on your list this year.

We've got an announcement for fans of our PC dating-sim games today: the upcoming Snow Sakura has been declared "Golden Master" and is now being duplicated, just in time for the start of winter (don't you love our timing?). This is a really special game of love and "H" in Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, in which you play Yuuji, an average Japanese youth surrounded by a circle of beautiful girls, Saki, Kozue, Rei, Misaki and Misato. Although you knew the girls when you were small, for some reason you can't remember much about those days, only that you made a promise to one of the girls under the magical Snow Sakura tree. The mystery is, which girl was it, and why did you forget? This game has it all -- great characters, a long story with lots of depth, hilarious comedy scenes and a huge number of beautiful "ero" game CG. You can still preorder it and get free shipping when it ships!

Monday, November 19, 2007

My family treating me like an "American," thoughts on learning a foreign language, and the pain of sitting in "seiza" style

Being an American in rural Japan can be a challenge, and while I do my best to fit in with the larger society around me, sometimes I just gotta be me, which incidentally is known as "going my way" in Japanese. It's common for my wife to get on my case about my being "too American," which (to her) is usually about my tendency to be loose with my schedule, to forget important dates because I know she'll remind me anyway, and to say "yes, I'll be there in fifteen minutes" then show up three hours later. But my wife isn't the only one who takes me to task for being such a Yankee -- my kids do it too, which never ceases to amuse me, since they're, y'know, American as well. A few weeks ago I was driving in the mountains with my daughter, and we stopped at a restaurant that serves the most delicious thin-crust pizza, although we had to hunt around for the place since they have no sign indicating which road to turn at. When I mentioned my intention to tell the owners that they might consider investing in a lighted sign, my daughter said, "Why do you have to say anything to them at all? You always say whatever comes into your head without thinking -- you're such an American." One of my most embarrassing moments as a parent was when my son was three or so, at the playground. It was time to go, but of course he wanted to stay, so I had to gently insist that he go now. He got mad, and in front of dozens of amused parents shouted, "Don't you know there are rules grown-ups have to follow when they want a kid to leave the playground? You're an American, and Americans don't understand rules!" It's always interesting to see one's self through the eyes of a child.

Naturally, mastering a foreign language requires hard work and many hours learning things like grammar and vocabulary, but you also have to develop a "sense" for the language itself, internalizing the "real meanings" behind what you hear. Two handy words students of Japanese encounter soon into their studies are sukoshi (su-KOH-shi) and chotto (CHO-toh), both of which essentially mean "a little bit." If it's a little cold, you could say either chotto samui desu or sukoshi samui desu and your meaning would be communicated properly. One slight difference between the two words, however, is that chotto sometimes has a negative context, especially when used by itself without an adjective after it. If a girl makes a not-too-delicious bento lunch for you then wants to know how it tastes, you might reply "chotto..." which essentially means, "it doesn't really taste that good, but I'm too polite to come out and say it directly." Or, if there was someone you disliked, you could imply something bad about them without actually saying anything, by using "ano hito wa chotto..." ("That person is kind of..."), with the details of what you were going to say left up to the imagination. Although the Japanese have perfectly good words for "yes" and "no" -- hai and iie, pronounced HA-ee and EE-eh -- they're not really used that often. Instead, agreement or disagreement is more commonly expressed with softer, more nuanced and less direct words and phrases.

One of the banes of foreign visitors to Japan is seiza (SAY-za), the traditional way of sitting on your knees. Written with the characters for "proper sitting," it is an important part of many traditional Japanese cultural activities, from tea ceremony to flower arrangement to martial arts, and somehow sitting that way seems to encourage reflection and calm the mind. To sit seiza style, kneel with your knees together, then sit back so that your rear end is planted on the bottoms of your feet. Unfortunately, sitting this way for more than a few minutes can be quite a challenge for those not born here, and Japanese always chuckle amusedly at the sight of a gaijin trying to keep his legs from going to sleep while he kneels. One of the wackiest items we've ever carried at J-List is the Girlfriend Knee Pillow, a soft set of knees siting seiza style that's great for single guys to lay their head on after a hard day's work.