Friday, January 25, 2008

All about the Japanese word "Gambaru" (do your best)

One word that comes up in anime a lot is gambaru (gahn-BAH-roo, alternately written ganbaru, in Japanese 頑張る), a happy, cheerful term which means to do one's best, to work hard, to give one's all and so on. It's usually heard in its formal form gambarimasu (gahn-bah-ri-mass, "[I will] do my best!"), or else as a request, e.g. gambatte or gambatte kudasai (gahn-BAH-tay koo-da-sai, "please try hard!"), or alternatively in its "command" form, gambare! (gahn-BAH-ray, "Do your best!"). If you want to learn some phrases to surprise Japanese people with, these are good places to start, since everyone will react positively to them. In a country that embraces hard work and diligence as much as Japan, it's not surprising that this term is used on an almost daily basis in many different situations. Japanese salarymen are expected to gambaru at work, while their kids gambaru in their studies at school, and the sick must do the same while they work to get over their illness. As long as a person is giving his all, he's got the seal of approval from Japanese society in general.

What Happens to Foreigners who Live in Japan Too Long

Strange things can happen to foreigners who live in Japan for too long. They might watch TV while drinking beer and eating shredded, dried squid as a snack without thinking about how odd it would look to their friends back home, or start bowing to people while talking on the phone. They'll probably think nothing of a grown man riding a bicycle with a basket on the front and a little bell on the handlebars that makes a lovely ding! sound. If from the U.S., they'll probably only know their shoe size and weight in the Japanese (Metric) system. (When I was in California last month I actually kept my iPhone's weather widget set to degrees Celsius, which is unheard of for an American.) Carried to the extreme, being in Japan for too long can even change your personality. There's a legendary gaijin living in our prefecture who came here from the States during the Vietnam War and forgot to leave. When some English teachers formed a basketball team, he volunteered to coach, but it didn't work out very well. It turns out that the guy had been mellowed out by Japan's extremely non-confrontational, cooperative society so much that he was unable to motivate the players as a coach should, threatening to kick their sorry asses off the team if they didn't shape up and play better, and so on.

More thoughts on the LOLification of English and strange Japanese Internet slang

As the Internet Age marches on, the ongoing LOLification of my native language often has me saying WTF? even though the picture of that kitten that made the cookie but eated it did have me ROTFL. Japanese Internet users love to invent slang words, too, and venturing onto the legendary BBS 2ch (pronounced ni-channel) to check out all the l33t-speak can really get confusing fast. 2-channelers love to use strange words like nin-shin (妊娠), which usually means "pregnant" but has come to refer to Nintendo fanboys for some reason; gugure (ググれ), a morphing of Google as a Japanese verb meaning "look it up on Google, fool!"; or wwwww, which is laughing, just as zzzzz represents sleeping. Just as Japanese uses many words imported from English, some foreign-derived slang terms include kopi-pe (koh-pi-peh, meaning "copy & paste") or su-re (soo-REH, スレ、from the Japanese pronunciation of the word "thread"). Many words embraced by internet users here are abbreviations of Japanese phrases with the vowels removed, which allows them to be input quickly even when using Japanese input software. Two examples are KTKR (short for kita-kore キタコレ, meaning "Yes, this is it, baby!") or WKTK (wakuwaku-tekateka ワクワクテカテカ, meaning "I really can't wait for that to happen, I'm on pins and needles"). Just as popular U.S.-based BBS 4chan has its /b/tards, 2ch has a sub-group known as the VIPPERS, who evolve even more bizarre net lingo to wrap themselves in.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Learning Japanese can be easy. No, really!

With a sentence structure and grammar unlike anything used in the West along with three different writing systems, learning the Japanese language can certainly be challenging. Then again, there are times when Japanese learners get off easy. First, there are whole swaths of words that are simple to learn, thanks to the way kanji words can be appended to the ends of other words. If you need to specify a language, just add the kanji for language (go) the end of a country name, resulting in France-go, Russia-go and so on. Similarly, nationality can be specified by sticking the character for "person" (jin, pronounced "jean") on the end of a country name, for example America-jin, Nihon-jin. When the Japanese adopted the Western calendar during the Meiji Era, they wisely named January ichi-gatsu (1-month), February ni-gatsu (2-month) and so on -- much easier than using the old esoteric names from the Edo Period. One of the most difficult areas of English for Japanese to learn are verb tenses like past perfect and present progressive, but I'm happy to report that none of these structures exist in Japanese, something bilingual foreigners are thankful for every day. Similarly, Japanese is not a tonal language like Chinese or Vietnamese, making it much easier for English speakers to pronounce. There are some difficult patches in the language, of course, including concepts like "sister" which get split into two, oneesan (older sister) and imouto (younger sister). When I'm talking about something my friend's sister did, my brain isn't used to filing away the age of the girl relative to her male sibling, and it can be difficult to pull that information out on the fly while speaking quickly.

Learn kanji

The truth behind "Omiai" (Arranged Marriages)

When I was growing up, I remember thinking that they had arranged marriages in Japan, probably something I got from watching the episode of Happy Days where Arnold gets married in a traditional Shinto ceremony. In reality, the Japanese custom of omiai (easily remembered as "oh, me eye!") is more like an "arranged meeting," a kind of formal get-together between prospective partners, usually organized by busybody aunts who can't stand the thought of their being any single people around them. Omiai can take place with all family members in attendance, or just the prospective couple. Interestingly, you're supposed to bring a Japanese resume form on which you can record your school and work background as well as interests (horseback riding and tea ceremony are recommended hobbies for prospective brides), just like applying for a job, which strikes me as a little odd. If the young people hit it off, they'll go out on more conventional dates to see where things lead. Before my wife met me, she had had omiai with a few men, including the son of a sake distributor that her parents have a business relationship with, hence she couldn't refuse. Fortunately for me, all of the men were quite bowled over by her extensive travels and ability to speak English, and she was still available when I came along.

Learning about the subtleties of Japan through children's programming

Living in Japan can bring you into contact with concepts that may be difficult to wrap your mind around. While Sesame Street has been shown here for years, it really never got that much traction; a much more popular childrens show is the NHK program Okaasan to Issho ("With Mother"), which has been broadcast non-stop since 1959. The show is divided into sections that feature different songs for kids to sing, presumably with their mother, although I would join in despite the title of the show. One song teaches kids "AIUEO" and the beginnings of the hiragana sound system, while another is the Pajama Song, which celebrates toddlers being able to put their pajamas on all by themselves, quite an achievement when you're that small. I've found it interesting to observe the little cultural differences between the show, which is watched by practically every child age 0-5 in Japan, and what I remember watching from my own youth. The show is always hosted by a Singing Older Sister and Singing Older Brother, who lead the kids through the various songs in each section. One day I noticed that the Older Brother host always spoke informal Japanese (早くなるぞ!) while the Older Sister spoke politely (早くなりますよ!), a bit of subtle role model-building for the kids to watch and imitate. When I asked my wife about it, I got a blank stare -- apparently no Japanese person could have noticed such a tiny cultural difference.

This video is the Dango Sankyodai, or the Three Dango Brothers, the story of three little dumplings who live on a stick that was shown on the With Mother show and became a national obsession a few years ago. At the top is the Oldest Son, on the bottom is the Third Son, in the middle is the Second Son, Dango Sankyodai. Dango, dango, dango, dango, danso sankyodai. Warning: this song WILL invade your brain and never leave!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The latest cool thing in Japan -- Hot Beer?

Japan is a country that likes to embrace new things, and whatever new and bizarre trend comes along, J-List will be there to report it to you. The latest cool thing in Japan might just be hot, as Kirin introduces its new "Hot Beer" that's consumed in a steaming cup like coffee. Based on the company's Ichiban Shibori Stout dark beer, the drink is served with a stick of cinnamon and sugar cubes on the side. The heat of the beer is supposed to bring out flavors not present when served cold, including a deep aroma not unlike that of coffee. The beer is being test-marketed at the Kirin factory in Yokohama, but the company suggests that curious beer aficionados can try it by microwaving beer to about 120 degrees Farenheit (50 degrees Celsius) and stirring it rapidly to give the beer a Cuppochino-like foamy head on top. It's supposedly good poured over vanilla ice cream, too.

Gaijin to get Language Requirement to Live in Japan?

There was a minor dust-up on the Internets in Japan this week after the government suggested that it might add a Japanese language requirement for long-term foreigners living here. Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura suggested that requiring foreigners renewing multi-year visas or applying for permanent residency status (which generally means foreigners who have been in Japan for 5+ years at least) to meet minimal linguistic requirements would help encourage the foreign population better fit in and be good for Japan's society overall. Some bloggers and others are crying foul at the suggestion, though, saying that it shows a xenophobic side to Japan's government, but I support the idea 100%. It goes without saying that someone trying to live in Japan will get a lot more out of their time here if they can communicate with people, and if the government can find a way to encourage foreigners to study the language, it can only lead to more understanding between gaijin and nihonjin. (Note that normal visas for jobs such as English teachers, which are issued on a year-to-year basis normally, would not be affected by this plan.) A lot of the comments I saw online had to do with whether or not getting foreigners to learn Japanese would lead to them actually being "assimilated" into Japan's society. That's a difficult question, since I know that even after seventeen years of living here, I could commit seppuku in front of the Imperial Palace and still not be considered Japanese, and I'm okay with that -- I'm just an American who happens to like living in Japan. For myself, I know that you can't learn a language without internalizing the values held by that linguistic group, and and the more foreigners take an interest in learning Japanese, the happier everyone will be together.

Work visa

Karaoke Update: The Age of the Singing Otaku

The J-List staff had fun at our New Year's Party on Friday, and afterwards we engaged in that famous Japanese past time, karaoke. While most people outside of Japan might imagine getting up and singing in front of a lot of strangers on "Karaoke Night" at a bar, in Japan people usually go to a karaoke box with individual rooms so groups can sing together privately, which mitigates a lot of the embarrassment of belting out songs in front of others. Karaoke uses extremely advanced technology in Japan, with a networked system that streams the songs and video to the machine you're singing with from a central location, which allows the most popular songs to be accessible to everyone immediately after a song's release. Looking at the selection of songs available, I was amazed at how much Japan had changed since my arrival back during the first Bush Presidency. Back then, there was a tiny section of "Anime & Hero" theme songs towards the back of the song book, but with the mainstreaming of anime and video game culture over the past decade, the number of anime-related songs available to sing has exploded. In addition to the main book of Japanese songs and a second book that listed offerings in English, Korean, Chinese and Tagalog (pretty international for Japan), the karaoke box we were at had a third book filled with songs from anime and video games. No matter what minor or esoteric song we searched for, from all the Final Fantasy themes to Dance Dance Revolution tracks and even some songs from the dating-sim games we publish in English, we found them all in the song book. Clearly, the age of the singing otaku is here.