Friday, February 22, 2008
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.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
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.
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
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.
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.