Saturday, March 01, 2008

Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese part II

Speaking of MacArthur, here's an ad for a Takarazuka production about him that I saw. Bet you've never imaged anything like this ^_^ Takarazuka is the all-female production company started in response to Kabuki being all male.

Friday, February 29, 2008

On the Endless Road Construction in Japan

I went to the dentist the other day to get my teeth checked. Normally, it's a ten minute drive, but I ran into no less than five teams of men digging up the road between the J-List office and my destination. It's all part of living in Japan, of course: the end-of-year road work, when government agencies hurry to use up their budgets before the Japanese fiscal year ends March 31. Japan is a country that's addicted to construction, and by law all car- and gasoline-related taxes must be used to build roads and only roads, even if there are other priorities. As a result, March always marks a huge increase in road work throughout the country, despite there being no actual benefit to anyone. Because roads are usually more narrow in Japan than in the U.S., it's common for construction areas to employ one or two "road guides" whose job it is to guide cars safely around the site, holding a flashlight to indicate whether it's okay to go or if you need to wait for a car coming from the opposite direction to go past. The only thing you can say about roads in Japan is that they are well maintained -- I do believe I've never hit a single pothole on a Japanese road.

Little Mis-Pronounciations of English in Japanese

The Japanese, of course, use a lot of English in their daily lives, even if serves mainly as a decoration, like a businessman showing his intelligence by peppering his speech with haughty-sounding katakana words like "compliance" "collaboration" or "initiative," the reverse version of American businessmen using trendy Japanese buzzwords. But because the Japanese have a limited phonetic range compared to English, and because words have been brought in over a space of many years, English words are sometimes imported "wrong," at least as far as my Californian-American English ear is concerned. The other day I asked my wife to get some yogurt from the refrigerator for me, specifying that I wanted the "Bio Yogurt" that was there. Since I was speaking Japanese, I said the word "bio" with its Japanese pronunciation of "be-oh," and this gave me a little shiver of weirdness since it's not said that way in my native tongue. Some other English words that are often changed compared to American English include "micro," which is pronounced "mii-cro" about half the time; energy, which sounds like "eh-neh-ru-GEE" with a hard "G"; and cocoa and aloe, both of which get their final silent syllables pronounced. There's nothing for it but to get used to these alternate pronunciations, and it's really not that hard -- before I know it I'm talking funny in English.

Web 2.0 Baka

Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese

You probably don't think about Douglass MacArthur very much, but to the Japanese, he's quite a figure. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific, he battled the Japanese throughout the region, and his was the hand that officially received the surrender on the USS Missouri, ending the war. But to the Japanese, it was in the postwar period that MacArthur did great things, guiding the rebuilding of Japan as a "kind and loving father" to the nation, not entirely different from the Founding Fathers of the Meiji Restoration 78 years before. He brought in many democratic reforms, writing a new anti-war constitution. He broke up the zaibatsu conglomerates and redistributed five million acres of land to individual farmers, which no doubt helped contribute to Japan's healthy middle class today. More than anything, I think that MacArthur knew the importance of not "stepping on the face" of the Japanese, to borrow a phrase from their language. They were defeated, but the General took care to protect the Imperial Family from responsibility for the war, which was an important symbol to the people. I can find no evidence of "Abu Ghraib" like events during the Occupation, possibly thanks to the policy of choosing soldiers who had not fought in the Pacific theater, and thus had no special grudges. A lot of the plans he implemented were undone after the Occupation ended, such as the ban on all forms of martial arts and Kabuki plays, but the important changes stuck. The generation growing up after the war ended has the most reverence for the man. When I asked my wife's mother what her impression of him was, she practically gushed. "It's because of MacArthur that Japan is here today."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

History Lesson on the Mitsubishi Zaibatsu

One concept you get used to when living in Japan is the ubiquitity of certain famous companies in many different industries. Take Mitsubishi, for example, a sprawling conglomorate of companies (keiretsu) that engages in everything from building cars to shipping to operating nuclear power plants and Japan's largest bank. (They also built the Zero during World War II.) The history of Mitsubishi began in 1870, when Iwasaki Yataro founded a trading company that would become Mitsubishi Shokai, a large shipping and trading interest, which soon diversified into coal mining, banking, insurance and military procurement. The name of the company comes from mitsu (three) and hishi (water chestnut), which is shaped like a diamond, and the famous logo is based on Yataro's family crest. The company grew quickly, eventually becoming one of the "big three" zaibatsu, along with Sumitomo and Mitsui, which wielded so much economic power that they could influence the political direction of the entire country. After World War II, all of the old zaibatsu were broken up for their role in the conflict, but all survive today as loose groups of associated companies.

On Traditional "Sento" (Public Baths) and Street Fighter II

If you ever come to Japan, you really should be sure to sample the bathing culture here. Although onsen (natural volcanic hot springs) are more famous, bathing was traditionally done in public baths known as sento, a word which literally means a place you can take a bath for a sen, an old coin equal to 1/100 of a yen, although they cost about 400 yen now. Sento have been around for centuries, with the first opened inside Edo Castle in 1591, and these traditional bathing places have been depicted in ukiyoe art for centuries. In more modern times, sento bring up images of the Showa Period, when most Japanese didn't have baths in their homes, and the picture of young apartment-dwellers walking to the sento with their bath kits under their arm is a classic one from the postwar era. Sento are famous for the extensively detailed Japanese art on the walls for customers to enjoy, as well for these yellow buckets that advertise a headache medicine called Kerorin; a glimpse of these buckets is enough to make most any Japanese person extremely natsukashii (NOTS-ka-shee), or nostalgic. Two of the most famous Japanese public baths in popular culture outside of Japan include the E. Honda level from Street Fighter II and the baths seen in Hayao Miyazaki's fim Spirited Away.
 Japanese bath

Understanding Kanji: The Basics

The Japanese writing system is based on kanji, the pictographs evolved by the Chinese starting around 2500 B.C., and China serves a similar role to Asia as Rome does in the West as the primary basis of writing and culture. Although learning to read kanji is a challenge for Westerners, it's actually quite a logical when you get used to it. First, the simplest characters are stylized representations of everyday objects, like mountain (yama) or rice field (tanbo), both of which look so much like what they mean you might be able to guess them just by looking. One of the most famous kanji characters in the West is naka (also read chu), which means "inside" or "middle" and can be seen on the costume of the Greatest American Hero and in the film Red Dragon, as well as in the name for China itself ("the country at the center of the world"). Kanji is composed of "radicals," essentially characters within characters which help to organize things. For example, the kanji for "to say" (iu) looks like a stack of books, and many kanji with similar cognative meanings, such as to read (yomu) or language (go) feature this character on the left half. In the Chinese speaking world there are two standards for characters, Traditional (used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and Simplified (used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia). Since kanji have been used in Japan since the 6th century B.C., Japan uses the former, with the result being that I can probably read a menu with little problem in Hong Kong (although I couldn't prounce anything correctly), but I'd be quite lost in China proper.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Aizuchi, the Japanese Tradition of Saying "yes" All the Time

Leave it to Japan to turn concepts as simple as "yes" and "no" into something more complex than it needs to be. But because of the differences in language and culture, sometimes even these simple ideas can cause confusion. "Yes" in Japanese is hai, and in addition to affirming a statement or question, it's also used to let the person whose talking to you know you're listening attentively. This is called aizuchi, words of agreement that a Japanese will say while listening to another person. It's not uncommon for gaijin to assume that a person saying hai...hai or so desu ne (yes, that's so) to us is actually agreeing with what we're saying, when in fact the opposite may well be true. A classic example of this this tradition to insert words of agreement in the middle of what someone else is saying are folk songs in which one singer sings the lines of the song, interrupted by a chorus of shamisen-playing background singers who shout out their agreement to what the first singer has just said. I learned soon after arriving in Japan that to not give this verbal feedback to someone who's talking to you can be rude, and they're likely to stop what they're talking about and ask, "Are you listening to me?"

The Pachinko + Speed Racer Connection

Japan's Pachinko industry continues to innovate in interesting ways as it tries to appeal to new kinds of customers, and the current trend of tying new machines to famous anime series seems to be going strong. The latest offering is a Speed Racer Pachinko game no doubt designed to capitalize on the upcoming film by the Wachowski Brothers. The game goes beyond traditional Pachinko by adding video game elements on an LCD screen, urging the customer to keep playing so he can finish the current race and displaying new screens of art as the player shoots the metal balls into the machine. There are several game types, including a special "Battle Reach" mode that lets the Mach 5 do some of its signature tricks when you play well. Personally, I love the marriage of anime with pachinko, even though I'm not exactly a fan of the game itself, as it gives popular manga-ka a chance to update their characters, like the gorgeous redesign of the Galaxy Express 999 universe by Leiji Matsumoto. Other pachinko machines with interesting themes you can find in Japan include the 70s anime classic A Dog of Flanders (watch poor Nello and Patrasche ascend to heaven with angels all around them as you play), the Korean drama Winter Sonata, and that campy classic Knight Rider, which was such a hit in Japan back in the 80s.

Car Names: Naked, Every, Sunny Bluebird, and "That's"

Although Japan is famous for its extensive rail network, allowing people living in large cities like Tokyo to get by without owning a car at all, most families in less urbanized areas do own automobiles. Some of the cars sold here have names that sound extremely strange to gaijin, like the Daihatsu Move Latte I saw driving on the road the other day. Would you be caught dead in a car called Naked? What about an Every, or Sunny Bluebird, or maybe a Thanks Chariot? Or the Honda That's -- I'm not kidding, "That's" is the name of the thing. Or maybe a Life Dunk, which I guess is supposed to make you think of the most excellent game of basketball you ever played. Although drivers perceive English to be very kakko ii (cool), it's increasingly common for car companies to mine languages like Spanish or Italian for car names, which gives us such interesting cars as Demio (Spanish for "of mine"), the Familia S-Wagon ("family sporty wagon") or the Spacio ("space"). One of the few names derived from a Japanese word is the Toyota Camry, which comes from kanmuri meaning "crown," part of the company's strange fixation with this word. Other cars in this series include the Corona (Spanish for "crown"), the Corolla (Latin for "small crown") and their current flagship luxury model in Japan, the Crown Royal Saloon.

(This is the Honda Vamos. I just love that name.)

Honda Vamos