Friday, February 01, 2008

Different Kinds of "Green Tea" from Japan: Ryoku-cha, Matcha, and Beyond

Although coffee and Western tea are popular in Japan, many prefer the wide variety of Asian teas that would likely be perceived as "green tea" to most Westerners. The word for tea in Japanese is cha, and like many concepts that are especially important to every day life here, the word usually gets the "honorific" prefix o, making ocha. Popular varieties of tea enjoyed regularly include ryoku-cha, a slightly weak green tea; mugi-cha, a pleasant-tasting tea made from barley that's enjoyed in the hot summer; or genmai-cha, tea with roasted grains of unhulled rice in it. Oolong-cha, a dark refreshing tea from China, is perhaps the best-selling bottled beverage in Japan; it's nice because it cuts through oil, washing down anything greasy you've eaten, and the Chinese use it to clean the fingers while eating. Coca-Cola became the leading drink maker in the Japanese beverage market by being very smart about local tastes, and their popular Sokenbi-cha, which blends many different types of tea, is one of the top-selling bottled teas on the market. The other type of green tea is matcha, a bitter tea made from powder, used in the Japanese tea ceremony and is also a popular flavoring for ice cream and traditional sweets. The best matcha tea comes from Uji, a town a few kilometers outside of Kyoto, and this year's Matcha Kit Kat goes out of its way to advertise Uji Matcha on its box.

Japanese People think Americans Know Every English Word Ever Made

Before I started J-List, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to a wide range of Japanese students, including kids, OLs (female company employees) and even some elderly learners. Because I spoke Japanese, my services were quite in demand, since of course the first thing you look for in an English teacher is that he be fluent in Japanese -- kind of makes you understand why they aren't better at English than they are. For a while I had a weekly class teaching some retired women, and we had a lot of fun, with them telling me all the things that Americans seem to be interested in when they come to Japan, like what part of the city was bombed during World War II. During one lesson one of the ladies was telling me about the various charities she was involved in, including the local Rotary Club and UNESCO. "I'm also a Soroptimist," she proudly told me. This word was unfamiliar to me, so I asked her what it meant, and I'll never forget the look of shock on her face. How could I, a native speaker of English, not know this word? Didn't every speaker of English know every word? Getting over her surprise, she explained about the Soroptimist Society, an international organization that works to improve the lives of women around the world, which is also active in Japan. This tendency of Japanese to assume that every English speaker knows every word in the language happens with doctors, too, who spend years amassing knowledge of medical conditions in English then want to try them out on foreigners they encounter.

Green Tea picture

Funny Japanese place names: Eromanga??

There are some pretty hilarious place names in the world, like Hell, Michigan, Hookersville, West Virginia or Lord Berkeley's Knob, Scotland. There are some that sound funny to the Japanese, too. The second largest city in Idaho is Nampa, which happens to be a common slang term that roughly means "girl hunting," what bored young people in Japanese cities usually do on weekends. The Boyne Valley near Dublin, Ireland causes snickering when rendered into katakana, since boin is the sound of soft, round things going, well, "boing." In Holland there's a town called Scheveningen, which comes out sounding like sukebe ningen in Japanese, meaning "depraved human being" (I'm sure they could use some of our T-shirts there). In Texas, Michigan and Alaska there are towns with the name of Onalaska, which happens to sound like onara-suka, which is "Did you have flatulence?" in polite Japanese. The prefecture of Siliana in Tunisia gets more attention than it otherwise would, since it sounds like shiri and ana, a person's rear end and hole, respectively. The most common "catch-all" Japanese insult is baka, meaning "stupid," but in Osaka they prefer the term aho, and I'm sure the town of Ajo, Arizona gets at least a few additional tourists each year because of this name. But the strangest accidental place name would have to be Eromanga, a mining town that's the farthest point from the sea in Australia, with a name that sounds like manga comics that are naughty. Similarly, there's an island near Australia named Erromango, which got miss-transliterated as Eromanga in the Nintendo Wii weather program, making it an instant legend in the eyes of Japanese gamers.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How many words for "rice" do the Japanese have?

There are many large and small challenges you encounter when learning Japanese. For example, it's difficult being at peace with the idea that your brain actually can learn to read hiragana and kanji just like it perceives written English, and breaking through this barrier is an important early milestone. Another small challenge is translating single-word concepts in English into Japanese, which is usually more complex. For example, just as the Eskimo supposedly have many names for snow (which turns out not to be all that true), there are multiple words for rice that are used on a daily basis, like uncooked rice (kome), unpolished rice (genmai), steamed rice that's ready to eat (gohan, which also refers to all food), newly cultivated rice (shinmai, also used to refer to a new employee at an organization), and so on. Being an island nation, the Japanese eat various types of plants grown in the sea, which we call by the unappetizing name of "seaweed." Major categories include nori, the dried, green seaweed eaten with sushi; wakame, green leaves eaten in soup; and konbu, a kind of seaweed that's almost black, used as flavoring in soup or eaten on rice. The Japanese similarly have about five different kinds of tea which would probably be called "green tea" by the average Westerner but which are all very different.

Hmm, love that rice

More thoughts on Senpai and Kohai, and the origin of the word Honcho

I wrote last time about how living in Japan puts you in tune with the system of senpai and kohai, or seniors and juniors in a school or organization, and how even foreigners living here unconsciously organize themselves according to how long they've lived in the country. This vertical social system may seem odd to Westerners, but it generally works well in this country that has to cram half the population of the U.S. into a land mass the size of Montana. My daughter walks to school with a group of kids from our neighborhood organized into a unit called a han. When she was small, the oldest child became the leader, or hancho (which is where we get the word Head Honcho in case you wondered), who was responsible for making sure the younger kids kept up with group and that no one was being bullied. Next year, my daughter will be in the sixth grade, and it'll be her turn to help protect the younger kids in the group each morning. Although this top-down system works well through university, it gets stressed when it encounters the real world. While the senpai/kohai system used to work in parallel with the ages of individuals, so that a person at a certain age was always of higher rank than employees younger than him, today it's quite likely for a 35 year old to change jobs and find himself working with a 25 year old, who is the senpai and must be shown respect, even though he's younger.

Japanese ASCII Art Can Make you Cry

I've always been amazed at how expressive the Japanese can be, whether they're inventing new English words to describe products in amazing ways or creating onomatopoeia that capture not only, say, the pakku pakku sound of rapidly eating (which is where Pac-Man gets his name), but the sound of silence or of softly falling snow. Japanese net users are also very creative when it comes to making art with ASCII that expresses emotions and adds character to computer-based communication. A few months ago someone made a BBS post called "Sorry About Baseball" that was a tribute to his mother, decorated with extensive ASCII art. The post was picked up by other users who added music and made animated versions using Flash that have many crying in front of their computer monitors. It's the story of an uneducated mother raising her son alone, despite being very poor. One day, she received tickets to a baseball game, and the boy was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his first live game; but when they got to the stadium, they found that they weren't actual tickets, only coupons for a discount on regular tickets, which they couldn't afford. On the train back home, the mother showed a tear and said, "I'm sorry for being so stupid."The boy dedicated himself to his studies, eventually winning a scholarship to college so he could make his mother proud. Years later, as she lay dying, his mother woke up and said, as if suddenly remembering something, "I'm sorry about the baseball game." He tried to tell her "I had fun," but he couldn't make his voice work.

Monday, January 28, 2008

My Japan Reconsideration: the Concept of "Senpai"

Before I started J-List, I worked as an ESL teacher, sharing my native language with Japanese students. One Friday, an American co-worker and I took a new teacher who had just arrived in Japan out drinking, so we could get to know him and start showing him around our city. As we imbibed beer at the izakaya bar that was the popular haunt with the English teacher crowd back in the day, something was nagging at me, reminding me of something I was forgetting to do. Finally, I realized what it was, and I turned to my co-worker. "Dave," I said to him, fighting back the weirdness that comes from speaking Japanese with another foreigner, "you realize that you and I are senpai now? And you know what that means." He groaned, but nodded. To the new teacher, Dave and I were senpai, or senior, because we'd been in Japan longer than him, and he was our kohai, or junior. The Japanese social order absolutely required that we go out of our way to guide and help him get used to Japan, and that meant that we had to dig into our wallets and pick up the tab for the night. The social rules were quite clear on the subject, and we had to obey or be in opposition to those rules, which is not a good thing to be in Japan. It's interesting to note that the new teacher was older than both of us, yet still the time-in-a-place-or-organization took precedence over age.

Picture of an a Izakaya

Anime and Japanese Pop Culture Are Everywhere

One thing I really like about being so involved with Japanese popular culture is the global nature of it, how it appeals to so many people around the world. Whether it's singing the theme song to Heidi, Girl of the Alps with a roomful of German fans at a convention near the banks or the Rhine, hanging out with bloody Battle Royale cosplayers in Rome, or finding manga series that I struggled with in college for sale in English at my local bookstore in San Diego, I'm always amazed at how anime and related culture have been accepted by all of us. Back in 2006 a crowd protesting in the Gaza Strip helped their message reach a wider audience by printing a picture of Haruhi Suzumiya -- star of a mind-bending anime series about a girl who yearns to meet ESPers, time travelers and aliens, and gets her wish -- on their sign. The image was picked up by the Japanese press, who were amazed to see the popular anime character in so remote a place. I think part of the reason we can all embrace Japan's pop culture so freely is actually because of its distance from most of us, its lack of connection to our own historical or cultural backgrounds (or hang-ups), which removes barriers that might otherwise make it harder to accept something so different. In short, while we may argue over issues like religion, politics and economics, we can all agree that Godzilla knocking over Tokyo Tower looks pretty awesome, or that "Haruhi-ism" is pretty cool. So, world peace through shared popular culture, everyone!

Haruhi Palestine picture

Understanding Cultural Differences Through CSI: Miami

When you live in a place like Japan, you never know what cultural wrinkles you'll discover next. Maybe you'll stick your chopsticks upright in your rice (which is only done during funerals), pour your own beer (bad manners to do it yourself), or accidentally order some gyumotsu because you didn't know it was pan-fried beef intestines (yuck). My wife and I are both hooked on CSI: Miami, but because of the language difference, she usually watches the Japanese-dubbed broadcast on satellite channel Wowow while I stick the good old English version. During an episode we watched in English last night, the character Delko called his sunglass-wearing boss Horatio Cane by the nickname "H." "What did he just call Horatio?" my wife asked, not sure she'd heard correctly. "Oh, you know, Horatio's nickname is his first initial," I said, and her eyes went wide with surprise. For reasons unknown, the letter "H" has become the universal euphemism for anything related to sex in Japan. For example, if a person is "H" (always pronounced with a Japanese accent, ecchi) he or she thinks about it too much, and the most common way to refer to the act in general is H suru or "to do H." Thus, the idea of leaving Horatio's nickname intact in the Japanese version of the show was just not going to work, and the lines were rewritten.