Friday, January 11, 2008

Thinking about elections in Japan vs. the USA, a mechanism for sexual equality, and information you can get from the Japanese news

There are two things that are really strange to watch in Japanese: sportscasters giving the play-by-play of an American football game and news reporting on American politics. With the U.S. presidential race officially underway, everyone is watching the caucuses to see which candidates will look the most "presidential" by the time they're done. The Japanese masukomi -- what the news media is called here, from "mass communications" -- is no exception, following candidates around with cameras and explaining to viewers in extra detail just what is going on, since the American political process is about as confusing to the Japanese as, well, the rules of American football. Japan's political structure is quite different, a British-style parliamentary democracy in which two major and three minor parties compete for seats in the country's two legislative houses, with the party or coalition of parties in power electing the Prime Minister. Because the people don't choose their leader directly as with Presidential elections, there's a lot less dialogue between the Prime Minister and the people when it comes to the issues. The Japanese are often fascinated with the gap between flamboyant American presidents with their positive speeches that start with "My fellow Americans" and the more subdued politicians found in Japan, a country in which building consensus with other lawmakers is valued more highly than individual leadership skills. 
 American presidential debate 
I talked last time about how many Japanese women don't seem to set the same goals for themselves as women from the West, in many cases actively wanting to get married and become full-time housewives. Not everyone is this way of course: the more urban the area you're in, the more likely you are to find educated women with good careers they wouldn't give up for anything. But by and large, the majority of females live by the motto that "marriage equals quitting your job." Since Japanese law requires that companies provide equal opportunity to both men and women, companies have evolved a two-track system that lets employees choose whether they want to be on a "career" path or the less-demanding "office work" path. At the bank we use in Japan, there are two kinds of employees: tellers who wear bank uniforms while they help customers, and the managers wearing normal business suits, who are responsible for making decisions and bringing new business into the bank. "Career" employees of either gender have to take qualification tests, move around the company more frequently to expose themselves to all its operations and have their performance measured, but they receive higher pay and promotions; "office" path employees, on the other hand, earn less but have fewer responsibilities. While it's probably not perfect, this system seems to work pretty well. Employees who want to pursue a career in banking can opt for the more challenging path, while those who don't want the added work (or who want the option of being able to quit at any time, say to get married) aren't asked to be more career-minded than they want to be.
Tragedy struck the other day when a man got caught in the doors of a gondola at a ski resort in our prefecture, falling to his death, and I happened to note that the news report stated that he was a "part time employee" of the ski resort. A person's status as defined by how they're employed seems to be somehow more important in Japan than it is in the U.S., and news reports regularly inform viewers of whether the person being talked about is a kaisha-in (full-time company employee), arubaito (part-time employee, from the German word for "work"), komu-in (public employee) and so on. It can be odd to hear this information provided so meticulously, especially when the employment status of the person being reported on has nothing to do with the event in question. One of the most common "people categorizing words" you hear is mushoku, or unemployed, so often tied to reports of crimes in the news. It's not stated overtly, but it seems like the inclusion of a persons employment status in news reports helps viewers know how they're supposed to feel, with the assumption that something that happenes to a homeless man or a "member of a violent gang organization" (the polite way to say a Yakuza gangster) is fundamentally different from a white-collar salaryman.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Thoughts on men and women and marriage, things that surprise foreigners in Japan, and how we sound to the Japanese

Yesterday my wife and I went to our favorite restaurant and noticed that the girl who had been working there was gone, replaced by a young man who was waiting the tables instead. I guessed why the girl wasn't around -- "I'll bet she quit to get married" -- and when we asked the owner, that was indeed the reason. When it comes to men and women there's definitely a different mind set at work over here, with a high number of women actively yearning for kekkon taishoku (leaving employment due to marriage) so they can become housewives, at least until the kids are old enough for them to return to work. While I personally believe women can do anything they set their minds to, the goals that many women in Japan set for themselves can be quite different from what's considered the norm back home. During my career as a teacher I had one student who had really dedicated herself to learning English, studying in the UK and working hard to achieve her goal of becoming a "ground hostess" for JAL, one of the most sought-after careers here. Naturally she threw all this away when a coworker proposed marriage to her, quitting her job and becoming the only perfectly bilingual homemaker in the neighborhood. The challenge for me as an outsider is to keep from judging things like this from my own local world-view, since Japan isn't the U.S. and the U.S. isn't Japan, but sometimes it can be a challenge. 
I talk a lot about how difficult it is for Japanese people to learn English, with its complex grammar and pronunciation rules. But what about the reverse -- how badly to foreigners mangle Japanese when we speak it? First of all, Japanese is just a language, and it's not harder or easier than any other -- actually, the lack of equivelents for some of the complex grammar in English ("she would have been able to go...") is downright wonderful. Of course, foreigners speak Japanese with accents, and these depend on the speaker's native language -- an American speaking Japanese will sound very different from a person from China or Korea. Languages like English use intonation to stress meaning, and it's common for foreigners to accidentally apply these rules to their new language, resulting in speech that goes up and down like a roller coaster compared to Japanese, which is rather flat in intonation. (Remember my theory that Japanese people come from the planet Vulcan.) There are a lot of English words in daily use in Japan, like "weekend" or "elevator," and English speakers tend to say these words with their native pronunciations, not the (correct, in this case) more challenging oo-ee-koo-EN-doh or eh-reh-BEH-tah. Some foreigners supposedly speak Japanese too quickly: when the news program World Business Satellite comes on, I know my wife will make fun of the gaijin commentator from Morgan Stanley as he gives his rambling assessment of the latest economic numbers, somehow moving his head up and down like a chicken. 
When foreigners first come to Japan, there are many things that stand out as odd to them. Using coins for the equivalent of $1 and $5 bills, which Americans aren't used to. Having 50 or more vending machines all without immediate walking distance of wherever you are, and sliding a $100 bill into one to buy a drink. Manhole covers decorated with culturally significant images from each region of the country. Getting a hot meal at a convenience store. Horizontally oriented stoplights, except in Northern Japan, where they hang them vertically due to the heavy snowfall. Stores which let you know they're about to close by playing Auld Lang Syne through store speakers. Drinks with names like Pocari Sweat, Calpis or Volume Up Water. It's all very odd, but that's the fun of going to another country, seeing what it has to offer and comparing it with what you know back home.

As promised, here are a few pictures. Been so busy... :(

This is the pen he got from Prime Minister Hashimoto, if anyone remembers him.

Game with a letter, and is stamped with "Prime Minister of Japan" on it, which made our uncle very proud.

This was the watch he got last year. A gold plated pocketwatch, really nice.

This was the thing though, a beautiful silver cup (like the cups the fliers drank sake out of right before they went off on their kamikaze missions). Stamped with the symbol of the Prime Minister.

And here's the letter from the PM, in extra large letters. Essentially thanking him for fighting for his country so long ago. 

Monday, January 07, 2008

A useful word of Japanese, Japan's seasonal nature, and how to teach an 80 year old Japanese war veteran about the Internet

I've got a bit of a problem. On January 1st we did what we always do, visiting my wife's family, including making our annual trip to her 80-year-old uncle's house. He fought during World War II on the Ise, essentially a battleship on the front and a flight deck on the back which could launch a squadron of fighters. We like to listen to his war stories -- he talks about how he got the scar on his face from shrapnel from an American bomb, and how the only reason he survived the war is because they took the fuel from his ship and gave it to the Yamato for its final sortie. I like my kids to talk with him as much as possible, since it's hard to get the kind of insight he can offer us about the past. Anyway, he's decided he wants to learn how to use the Internet, and is hoping we can help him get online. Now, it can be a challenge for any older person to learn something that complex, but it's doubly hard for him. When he was growing up, it was considered "unpatriotic" to use foreign loan words from English, which resulted in words like "curry" being translated into kanji meaning "yellow sauce with meat on rice" (黄色肉入り汁かけご飯)for the duration of the war, and as a result, people from his generation understandably know almost zero English. Yet here I am trying to explain alien terms like "mouse" "browser" and "window," words that can't be translated into Japanese since they're exclusively used in English. It sure is a challenge. 
One of the more useful words of Japanese you might want to learn is nani, which essentially means "what," and is one of the first words that old-school anime fans from the 1980s like me learned -- we didn't have any of these newfangled "subtitles" or "English dubbed tracks" you kids have nowadays. While you can occasionally hear nani?! (what?!) when watching anime or dramas in Japanese, the word usually takes a more polite form in everyday use. The most common usage would be nan desu ka? (nahn dess kah), which is just "What [is it]?" with an implied subject that's usually clear from the context. If you want to ask what a specific object is, point to it and say kore wa nan desu ka? (ko-REH wa nan dess ka), which is "What is this?" In Japanese, there are "counters," words you use to count different types of items, like mai (for counting flat objects, like sheets of paper or coins) or hon (for counting cylindrical objects like umbrellas). You can combine these counters with nani to ask thing like "how many playing cards?" or "how many pencils?" which would be nanmai? or nanbon? respectively. Put this kanji together with the character for "hour" and you get nanji, what hour, e.g what time is it now. Since this word has the same pronunciation as that dreamy bread served in Indian restaurants (naan), all foreigners are required to make the same corny joke, holding up the bread and asking kore wa nan desu ka? (which would mean either "what is this?" or "is this naan bread?"). 
One thing I've noticed about Japan: it's a very seasonal place. Spring is beautiful with its short-lived cherry blossoms, summer is hot and humid with many festivals, fall is filled with crisp brown leaves, and winter is cold and frosty. I've met Japanese who tell me with great pride that, unlike America, Japan has four distinct seasons, and they enjoy every one of them -- apparently these people haven't ventured outside of Southern California. Japanese people try to avoid being kisetsu-hazure (ki-SET-tsu HA-zoo-ray), which means doing the wrong things for the wrong season, and foreigners regular receive comments like "What's wrong? Aren't you cold?" for wearing short sleeved shirts on warm days in October -- we're too dumb to know that long sleeves should be worn after October 1 regardless of the actual temperature. Once, I was teaching a lesson using an ESL textbook with my students which featured a picture of a boy flying a kite in summer. My students were amazed that anyone would do this -- it turns out in Japan, flying kites (called tako) is something you do on New Year's Day, and almost no one would think of flying kites during any other season. Our lesson turned into quite an interesting cultural discussion.