Friday, February 22, 2008

Money in Japan

You've been in Japan too long when, on a visit home, it takes you three tries to write a check. It's funny but true. Japan is a very cash-based society, and there are no such things as using personal checks to pay for goods. On payday, employees at many Japanese companies in Japan get a fat envelope of 10,000 yen notes as their monthly salary, which would be unthinkable in the U.S. A couple of years ago we bought some land in order to expand the J-List facilities, and I remember going to the owner's house to pay them for the land in cash, which was certainly an interesting experience. As a result of this lack of personal checks, foreigners who live in Japan for a long time completely forget how to write them and have to re-learn it every time they go home. When you need to pay for something in Japan, you usually do a direct transfer to their bank account, called furikomi in Japanese. It's inconvenient and the bank fees are high (around $6 to send $200 for some hard drives I bought recently), but that's the system that's used most commonly in Japan.

Do the Japanese Say "I Love You"?

Do the Japanese say "I love you"? It's an interesting question that touches on cultural issues as well as linguistic. There are several ways to express the concept of love in Japanese, with the most casual being suki desu ("I like you") or dai-suki desu ("I 'big-like' you"), both of which imply romantic love when used with a person as the object; or the phrase ai shiteru, which specifically means "I love you." As a general rule, Japanese couples verbally express love for each other a lot less than is done in the West. Part of this is just the culture here -- strong feelings like love are not displayed openly since (I've been told) saying a thing over and over again can rob it of its real meaning. Instead, Japanese couples in love rely on a concept baffling to foreigners called mugon ryokai, or "wordless communication," a kind of telepathic text-messaging that enables an idea to be perfectly understood by both parties even though it's never stated overtly. The concept of love can seem quite abstract in Japanese, and there are multiple Japanese words for the term. The word koi usually describes romantic love, while ai is a higher kind of love that is used for family or anyone who's very dear to you, or the steady, slow-burning love of marriage. These two words are combined into a compound word to make a general word for love that marries both sides, which is ren'ai.


On Being Unique: Japan's First Black Enka Singer

If you're thinking of breaking into Japan's tarento (talent) world, here's a bit of advice: you gotta be original. Japan's entertainment world is filled with singers, comedians and other famous people who often occupy mind-share with fans based on their originality, like the interesting twist that small-bodied cute girl Gal Sone brings to the TV screen as she shoves twelve plates of sushi down her throat. The foreigners who have found fame in Japan also depend on being unique, such as Bobby from Nigeria, who can really spice up a variety show about cooking, or the most famous Japanese-bilingual Italian in Japan, Girolamo Panzetta, who happens to be the only Japanese-bilingual Italian in Japan. The general rule is, if there's already a foreigner who can make jokes in the dialect of rural Yamagata prefecture, there's no need for a second one, so it's important to have a Unique Selling Proposition if you want to make it big. Now the world of enka, the eerily beautiful traditional music of Japan, is getting an injection of soul with the debut of the first black enka singer this week. His name is JERO, short for Jerome, and the quarter-Japanese, three-quarter African American singer has been nicknamed Kurobune by the Japanese press, after Admiral Perry's Black Ships. He grew up listening to his Japanese grandmother's enka records, and he came to Japan after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with the specific goal of becoming a singer in mind. His first single is Umiyuki, a song that captures the loneliness of the Sea of Japan in the winter, and it's available on the Japan iTunes Store along with lots of other great Japanese songs from every genre.

Jero, the black Enka singer

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Who Are the Role Models of Japanese Women?

It's interesting to watch the evolution of the various female role models in Japan over the years. Everyone has actors, singers, writers or others that they look up to for one reason or another, and in Japan these famous faces provide inspiration to millions of females throughout the country. Often the current female role models can be tracked by watching how many TV commercials they're in, and you can tell right away that a lot of young Japanese girls really love model and actress Yuri Ebihara (Ebi-chan), who always looks genki in her commercials. Angelina Aki is another popular role model who is half-Japanese and half-American and who grew up in rural Japan. She's made a great career for herself by letting her American side show while she sings, which of course makes her seem quite exotic to fans. Then there's the enigmatic Ataru Nakamura, a popular singer who was born male but suffered from Gender Identity Disorder, which drove her to finally receive reassignment surgery and become female. The unique story of Ataru's decision coupled with her one-of-a-kind singing voice has won her many fans throughout Japan.


On the Alien Registration Card for Gaijin

All registered foreigners living in Japan carry one of these, a Gaikokijin Toroku Shomeisho, aka the Alien Registration Card, which you get from the City Office in your local town when you first come to Japan to live. It lists the name, current address, employment status and photograph of the person in question, and generally provides whatever information authorities might need access to. It's quite an analog system, actually -- when information needs to be updated, the changes are hand-written on the back of the card by a City Office employee, along with a special stamp that proves that an authorized official has made the change. Theoretically, any policeman can ask to see the registration card of any foreigner, but I've never been asked to show mine and have always found Japanese policemen to be very courteous and nice.

Japan as a Communist Country?

I've often wondered at how Japan was able to become such a successful Communist country despite being free-market at the same time. Although it's a surprising statement, there are quite a few areas in which Japan seems to have the trappings of a Soviet-style state, right down to those drab public university buildings which always seem to make me think of Chernobyl. Japan's economy has always been famous for government intervention, such as the old MITI, a government ministry that set industrial policy for the nation during the postwar decades and guided the decisions of Japan's corporations. Many markets still seem to operate in this "command economy" model, for example all rice and wheat is bought and sold exclusively by the government to keep prices stable. Japan has a health care system that's pretty good, covering 70% of health costs to everyone who doesn't have existing insurance and forcing health care costs to grow slowly by nature of the caps its puts on various services. Yet despite this, taxes here are generally in line with the U.S. rather than the higher rates paid in Europe. Instead of the Soviet Union or China, it's Japan that ended up with the "classless" society, at least judging from the 80+% of people who consider themselves to be "middle class" (despite the BMW 5-series sedan sitting in the driveway). It's as if Japan was somehow able to take the best parts from both Capitalism and Communism for itself.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Japanese Word Abbreviations

The other day I was taking my 11 year old daughter out to lunch when she said to me, "Oh, can we go by Toys R Us? I'm looking for a new 'Dizu-puri' toy." Being a parent, I fully expect to not understand what my kids are talking about, but I figured I had a few years to go yet. Seeing my confusion, she told me that "Dizu-puri" was an abbreviation for "Disney Princess," and suddenly things were much clearer to me. Just as we come up with lots of acronyms in English, the Japanese make words easier to work with by abbreviating them, often by taking the first two katakana sounds of each word ("Famicom" and "Pokemon" are examples of this). This tendency to abbreviate words seems to be especially common among fans of video games and anime, and there are many titles that have been shortened by fans, for example the popular game and anime The Eternity that you Wish For is nearly always shortened to Kimi-Nozo, and Gainax's clunky This Ugly But Beautiful World is much easier to say as Kono-Mini.

On the Lack of Home-Grown National Organizations in Japan

Last time I talked about how Japan functioned pretty well as a modern democracy, despite some irksome problems. One area that's always struck me as odd is the lack of large-scale domestic organizations in Japan. Groups like Greenpeace, AARP, the NRA or the ACLU work to further the various political or social goals they've set for themselves, but when I try to find a similar large-scale national organization that tries to increase the visibility of a particular cause in Japan, I frankly come up short. I can only think of a few national-level groups, such as Japan Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Japan Lions Club, or the Japan Rotary Association, and all of them are imported from other countries. It seems counter-intuitive to say that the group-oriented Japanese aren't good at making groups, but it does seem that "organic" groups conceived in Japan tend to not grow beyond a certain size. I'm not sure why this is, although the general "top-down" nature of ideas in Japan, with change always emanating out of Tokyo rather than from the outside in, probably plays a big role.

History lesson: Japan's First English Teacher

It's interesting, looking at Japan through some of the "firsts" in its history. Like John Kendrick, the ship's captain who participated in the Boston Tea Party and fought in the Revolutionary War then went on to be an explorer, eventually becoming the first American to visit Japan. Or Horace Wilson, a teacher at the predecessor of Tokyo University, who thought it'd be fun to teach his students to play baseball back in 1873, which was the beginning of the long history of the sport here. The first English teacher in Japan, if you're curious, was a half-Chinook, half-Scottish man with the unlikely name of Ranald MacDonald. After hearing of the plight of three fishermen who washed ashore in Washington State but were unable to return to Japan because of their country's sakoku (closed country) policy, he started to feel a strange kinship with the Japanese people, which is interesting since we now know that American Indian and Japanese are indeed connected by blood. He decided to go to Japan, despite the fact that it was death for foreigners to enter the country, and booked passage on a whaling vessel that would take him close. Pretending to be a survivor from a shipwreck, he was rescued by the aboriginal Ainu and handed over to the local Samurai lord, who shipped him off to Nagasaki. The Japanese had a long relationship with Dutch traders, but none of them could speak English, despite the recent rise in power of England and the United States, so the officials got the idea of having MacDonald teach English to a class of fourteen students. The studies paid off, and when Admiral Perry showed up in 1853, students trained by MacDonald were able to communicate. Today there's a commemorative statue in Nagasaki thanking Mr. MacDonald for his contribution, and if I know Japan, I'm pretty sure they sell little cakes or rice crackers with his face on them, too.

First English Teacher in Japan