Friday, December 07, 2007

My hop to New York, narrowly dodging staying in the city's worst hotel, and comparing it to the Star Wars Cantina

I've made the long hop from Japan to New York, and I'm now enjoying the 19 degree (with wind chill) temperatures. We're here to attend the New York Anime Festival, Dec 7-9, and can be found either at booth #408 or #340, with our great Domo-kun T-shirts, hoodies and hats as well as manga, PC dating-sim games and more. This show is going to be a really excellent one, with thousands of fans of many great companies all coming together, and we hope to see you there! Update: if for no other reason, come for the Domo-kun booth babes!!!!!

Its fun to "surf the culture shock" wave when in a new city, and New York has been a great place for this so far. I've stood on freezing subway platforms that look like they came out of a level of the game Max Payne (no relation, by the way), done power-shopping at the multi-story Toys "R" Us in Times Square, and narrowly avoided staying in New York's worst hotel. It's been extremely exciting, and we haven't even gotten started with the convention yet. Everyone knows that New York is an extremely international city, but the Star Wars Cantina-esque variety of cultures and languages around me has really been a surprise. I've gotten into a political discussion over delicious pasta with a family from India, debated similar issues with a taxi driver from Pakistan, and gotten into interesting conversations with people from the top of the world (Sweden) and the bottom (Australia). I'm staying in a very Jewish neighborhood, so I'm getting to see what a real Hanukkah celebration is like, too. It struck me that New York must be the perfect opposite of clean, homogenized Japan, where even speaking your a regional dialect of the language is frowned upon, at least in Tokyo.

Transliteration is the act of transcribing from one writing system into another, for example from Japanese to the Roman alphabet, and it's not an exact science, which is why we have alternate spellings for words and names in other languages, like good old Muamar Gaddaffi/Khadafi/Quadhafi, Mao Tse-Tung/Zedong, or Hanukkah/Chanuka for that matter. There are several aspects of Japanese that make writing Japanese words in English an inherently vague and challenging process. For example, there are long vowels in Japanese that are meaningless when written out in English since they don't change how foreigners pronounce the words. The correct way to write "pretty girl" in Japanese is "bishoujo" with the extra 'u' in the middle, and yet it's often shortened to "bishojo" for brevity's sake. Is it better to leave the long vowels in the word, although it complicates pronunciation and makes the words harder to remember, or should they be omitted? There's no simple answer -- although writing long vowel words with the shorter spelling is "wrong," it's no worse than the way meanings and pronunciations changed when French melded with English after 1066. Famous place names like Tokyo and Osaka also have long vowels that are cut to avoid making the name needlessly long -- since no one wants to write Toukyou and Oosaka. Another area where there is vagueness about how to write Japanese words or names in English is L and R. Actress and Tokyo University graduate Rei Kikukawa's first name could be transliterated as Lei without it being wrong, so is it okay to do this? There's often little agreement and so both names might be used sometimes -- there's no "right" way to write it. It can be very confusing, especially to search engines that can't tell that two similar words are the same.

Monday, December 03, 2007

One of the amusing things about living in Japan is seeing what can only be described as "American branding," selling a product by draping it in red, white and blue and associating it as closely as possible with the USA. Japanese generally have the impression that America is kakko ii -- literally "good style" or cool -- and are often open to owning items like Zippo lighters, a set of Coleman outdoor cooking gear and clothes from L.L. Bean. Branding your product as American can often bring a boost in sales, which is why the American restaurant chain Coco's adds "The California Restaurant" to their signs here, and why when companies like Jack Daniels or KFC communicate their advertising messages to their customers, they wrap themselves in images of old Tennessee or Kentucky. Levi Strauss stumbled trying to build a name for themselves in Japan during the 1970s, until they hit on the of using iconic Hollywood stars like James Dean, John Wayne and even Marilyn Monroe to advertise their jeans (they came cheap, since they were dead), which has to have been one of the most successful advertising decisions ever. The other day I happened on a store called Way Out! American Spirit that offered a variety of interesting and somewhat mundane things from the U.S., including thick Charmin paper towels, BIC pens, hard-to-find-in-Japan delicacies like chips and salsa and Swiss Miss Cocoa, and T-shirts with the Union 76 logo on them. It was quite interesting to stand there and watch what American products the Japanese shoppers were picking up.

The Japanese only started accepting Western culture only relatively recently, with the ending of the Edo Period and the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the Emperor was theoretically "restored" to power after centuries of having things run by the Shoguns. One thing I've always found interesting is the number of words in daily use here that remind you of the differences between what is Western and what is Japanese, many of which employ the kanji yoh, meaning "Western." When you get up in the morning, you probably put on some clothes, but in Japan, you put on yoh-fuku, or "Western clothes," the word used to separate the shirts, trousers and other things you wear from wa-fuku, or Japanese style clothes like kimono or yukata. If you go to a restaurant that serves spaghetti and "hamburg steak," you're eating yoh-shoku, or Western-style food, which is treated as a separate category entirely from the various types of Japanese or Chinese dishes eaten here. Japanese film aficionados break into two groups, those who enjoy yoh-ga or films from American and Europe, and fans of hoh-ga, or Japanese film. And while I've become quite accustomed to living in Japan, I still prefer the good old yoh-shiki toilet with a seat I can sit on to the seatless wa-shiki toilets, which require just a little too much dexterity to use sometimes.

Before I started selling Hello Kitty ice cube trays and Totoro bento boxes, I was an teacher of ESL, or English as a Second Language. I taught English to students from the age of three all the way up to an elderly woman whose family business was running the local Buddhist temple, which was always an interesting conversation topic. During my years as a teacher I accumulated quite a collection of English textbooks, vocabulary cards, and various games I would play in class. One such game was "English baseball" in which teams of students would get "hits" if they answered questions using English, which I passed many a lesson with. Another is the popular Japanese game "fruits basket" in which you put, say, ten chairs in a circle and put one child in each chair, with one more standing in the center. This child must ask a question like "Do you like bananas?" and all kids who like bananas must change seats as quickly as they can. The one left in the center is "it" and must ask the next question to the group. Another fun game is the classic Simon Says, which is good because it allows kids to listen and react without actually having to produce any speech, which mimcs how children acquire language. I'd have to prepare my students for a shock, though, whenever I told them, "Simon says...touch your chin," since chin (or more accurate, chin chin) is a common word for a boy's private parts used by children. Which makes that line in the Three Little Pigs just a little too embarrassing...