Friday, December 14, 2007

The interesting status of voice actors in Japan, shortening foreign words in English and Japanese, and ways that the Japanese aren't so polite

Anime has really gotten big in the U.S. in recent years, changing the face of popular culture as people are more in sync with the anime world. This isn't a new phenomenon in Japan, of course, where animation has been a part of everyone's lives since the old days of Mighty Atom, Giants no Hoshi and the original Gegege no Kitaro. One thing I've often noticed is that the voice actors -- seiyu in Japanese -- in anime are often extremely famous in Japan, with many of the top stars essentially becoming household names. When legendary voice actor Yasuo Yamada, who provided the voice of Lupin III, died in 1995, it was a national tragedy, and everyone grieved to lose the original voice of Lupin. (He was replaced by a comedian who did Lupin III impersonations on variety shows.) Some other voice actors who are well-known to the average Japanese person include Akira Kamiya, voice of Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, the muscular Kinniku Man, and Ryo from City Hunter, and of course Tohru Furuya, who's played Amuro Rei from the iconic Mobile Suit Gundam along with a host of other roles. Perhaps the most famous voice actor of all is Nobuyo Oyama, the voice of the lovable robot cat from the future, Doraemon. When she retired in 2005, my kids stopped watching the show entirely, since they couldn't accept Doraemon with any voice other than the original. My wife watches lots of American TV dubbed into Japanese, and it's quite fun to play "pick the anime voice actor" while watching an episode of CSI: Miami with her. Oh, that's Inspector Zenigata!

One thing I've noticed is that people from all countries will reduce complex words into smaller chunks to make them easier to work with. In Japanese, it's common for various words to be abbreviated and reduced, to make them easier to say, especially English words which can be cumbersome when rendered into the Japanese phonetic system. For example, the Nintendo Entertainment System was sold here as the Famicom, short for Family Computer; similarly, if you want to go out to eat at a restaurant like Denny's or Coco's, just ask for the nearest famires (family restaurant). Words that are hip with young people tend to get abbreviated the most -- such as diji-kame (digital camera), ge-sen (game center) and sutaba (Starbuck's). Often companies will go out of their way to get people to think of their products in these abbreviated versions, advertising names as Pure-ste (Playstation) or Dora-Kue (Dragon Quest) to make them more familiar to customers.

The Japanese are famous for being polite, even when visiting Presidents throw up in the lap of the country's Prime Minister, as Bush I did on a visit here. It's quite silly, but when I first game to Japan, one small bit of culture shock for me was feeling that stop signs were "rude," because they used the informal command verb tomare ("Stop!") rather than some longer, more polite form. Although the Japanese generally are considerate, there are times when foreigners like me might consider what they do to be rude. First of all, the Japanese love to read over a person's shoulder, and if you're typing something in Japanese on a laptop, well, don't be surprise if a crowd gathers behind you. My mother taught me not to reach over people's plates when eating dinner together, but to ask for someone to pass the item to me; apparently the Japanese didn't get that memo, as it's common here to reach across the table to get what you need while eating. Similarly, Americans don't usually drink soup out of bowls, however it's almost a requirement that you do so here, since there are no spoons. Oh, and while eating any noodle dish like ramen or soba (not spaghetti!), you're expected to slurp your noodles as loudly as possible, and not doing so will likely elicit comments about how quietly you eat.

We've got some good news for fans of PC dating-sim games: the newest title from G-Collections, Snow Sakura, is in stock and shipping now. A super game that will appeal to a wide range of gamers, Snow Sakura puts you into the role of Yuuji, an average Japanese youth surrounded by a circle of beautiful girls (lucky guy). Although you grew up with your energetic cousin Saki, why Kozue, enigmatic senpai Rei, ditzy Misaki and your clumsy teacher Misato, 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, which somehow blooms year-round, even in the dead of winter. A great game in the tradition of the best interactive visual novels from Japan (*cough* Kanon *cough*), that we recommend for its great story and characters. Best of all, we've decided to give everyone a little present, and have lopped $5 off the price of the game for all new orders as well as existing preorders. This super game is now it's in stock -- make your order now!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Needing a sixth sense to communicate with people from other countries, this year's kanji, and all about "smorking"

Talking with people from other cultures often requires a sense for words that's quite unrelated to speaking a foreign language. Sometimes, someone says something to you that just makes no sense at all, and it's up to the deep part of your brain responsible for language processing to make the connection. Before I started studying the language, we had a Japanese foreign exchange student who stayed at my house. Once she praised me for something by telling me I was "good head." After more than a little confusion, I figured out that she was telling me I was smart, and this is indeed how you express this concept in Japanese (atama ga ii, lit. "good head"). Soon after arriving in Japan, I had a conversation with a student who was trying to tell me how good Mitsubishi vehicles were. "They are very good. They's car. You know, boom!" My cranial density kept me scratching my head, until I realized he meant tanks. Whenever my wife comes to San Diego she has varying degrees of success communicating with my American family, who can't always figure out that when she says something about "the glass" being green all year round she's really talking about grass.

"I hate it when someone smorks in my face." For whatever reason, the English word "smoke" is often rendered as "smork" in Japan. The issue is how the Japanese perceive certain sounds, especially the "r" phoneme that's not familiar to them. Because Japanese is a syllable-based language in which you can express sounds like ka, ki, ku, ke or ko, but not the consonant "k" by itself, English words like "hello" "goodbye" or "beer, please" must be forced through this rather alien phonetic system, resulting in haroh (the final "h" representing an elongating of the previous vowel), guddobai and biiru puriizu. The very first fast food I ate in Japan was a McDonald's clone called First Kitchen (home of the world famous scrambled egg burger, yech), and I remember some confusion as to whether the company was First Kitchen or Fast Kitchen. Without the full repertoire of English sounds, the Japanese render the latter as fasuto and the former as fahsuto, with the longer middle vowel serving the role of the "r" in "first." This rule gets over-generalized in some words, which is why the long middle sound of the word sumo-ku (smoke) ends up as "smork."

Every year a single kanji character is designated by the Kanji Examination Association which represents the events of that year, and this year the character is...itsuwari, which translates as falsity, lies or deceit. It was a big year for being lied to in Japan, with many scandals in the headlines. First, the problems with missing Social Security payments, which meant that thousands of workers wouldn't get credit for money they paid into the system decades ago. Learning that the freshness date on the food they order may not be accurate also shook the trust of consumers in Japan -- McDonald's got caught changing the dates on salads so leftovers could be sold the following day, and they'd been doing it for years. The scandal at the Ministry of Defense, in which Deputy Defense Minister Yoko Yamada demanded various perks in exchange for the awarding of lucrative contracts, resulted in a raid on the Japanese version of the Pentagon by prosecutors. Today there was an official ceremony at beautiful Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto in which a famous Buddhist priest wrote the character with a large calligraphy brush while hundreds looked on. The kanji for previous years have included inochi (life) in 2006, during which so many young people committed suicide; ai (love), after the birth of Princess Masako's daughter Ai in 2005; sai (disaster), in tragedy-laden 2004; and tora (tiger), celebrating the Hanshin Tigers victory in the Japan Series in 2003.

And still, the crack team of J-List employees is churning out packages left and right, making sure that orders both in Japan and San Diego go out in a timely manner. J-List's unique position, actually being based in Japan, really allows us to bring you a huge selection of mind-blowingly unique products from Japan, like our good luck Poop Hat, or those cool Santa Lucky Cat display items, or the cool Christmas ornaments we have on the site now. You can browse all new items using this link. Having trouble making up your mind what to give? We've got a few ideas for you.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Goodbye to New York, examining Japan's Buddhism and Shinto religions, Buddhist Altars, and fun linguistic coincidences

Well, our fun time in New York is at an end, and now it's time to head back to San Diego, which is a far less Christmassy place to be, all things considered. I have many memories of this convention, although my favorite was no doubt being surrounded by Domo-kun booth babes. It was a lot of fun, spending so much time in this amazing city, and I'll never look at New York quite the same way after this trip...

Japan is a mix of traditions taken in from different periods of time, and you can see this when studying the religions of the country. The original religion of Japan is Shinto, written with the characters kami (gods or spirits) and way or road, making it similar to other "the way of" words like shodo (writing + way = calligraphy), sado (tea + way = tea ceremony) or the martial art judo (flexibility + way). Shinto essentially finds kami, or spirits, in things like mountains, trees and rocks, making it seem very much to me like a Native American belief with its strong basis in nature. In the sixth century Buddhism was introduced into the country, and amazingly the two religions generally learned to treat each as an aspect of the other, allowing for much less conflict than you'd expect. Now, the various sects of Buddhism (which are as confusing to me as understanding the nuances of the Protestant churches are for my wife) are by far the most important religious tradition in Japan, and most families will surround themselves with Buddhist traditions even as they visit Shinto shrines on January 1st to pray for good luck in the New Year, or get married in Western weddings in beautiful churches.

One of the most famous everyday symbols of Buddhism in Japan is the butsudan, or household Buddhist Altar, which nearly every head-of-family household will maintain, unless they specifically identify with another religion. As far as I've been able to tell, Japanese Buddhism is primarily about respecting and remembering your ancestors, since (as my wife has told me), without your ancestors, you certainly wouldn't be here. Every morning my mother-in-law wakes up and makes an offering to her mother and father, by ringing a bell and burning a stick of incense for them. I've always thought that the absolute knowledge that you'll be remembered and loved by those you leave behind is one of the most comforting aspects of Japanese-style Buddhism. A butsudan is only maintained by the head of a household, the father or oldest son in a family, and if, say, a family has five children who move into homes of their own, they won't keep one but will return to their parents home on special events like the O-Bon holidays in the summer. A Buddhist altar is quite complex, filled with tablets on which are inscribed the names of your ancestors and an image of Buddha meditating, along with various other symbolic images. If you asked me what the most bizarre thing I've seen since coming to Japan is, I'd have to answer opening the newspaper and seeing an ad from a Buddhist altar store advertising a big sale on all the latest butsudan and grave stones. Wacky!

It's always fun to see what natural coincidences occur between languages. A Swedish friend of mine who's married to an Indian woman mentioned that the word for "no" in both Swedish and Hindi happened to be the exact same. This happens between Japanese and English, for example in the word "so" which has the exact same meaning in both languages (so desu ka? = is that so?). You probably known that "thank you" in Japanese is arigato, which sounds suspiciously like the same word in Portuguese, obrigado, although the Japanese word was in use before the Portuguese came to the country, making them unrelated. Most adjectives in Japanese end in an -i ("ee") sound, such as takai (high, expensive), yasui (cheap) or tsuyoi (strong), which is odd since many adjectives in English end in the same sound, like friendly, early or heavy. For the linguistically minded out there, these are known as false cognates, an accidental matching up of languages which seems related but which are totally separate in background.