Friday, March 14, 2008

Understanding How the Mind Recognizes Patterns, Eating Oden

The human mind is very good at recognizing patterns, which is why we can see floating rabbits when we look at clouds in the sky, or little bears and big dippers when we gaze up at the stars. Pattern recognition is quite important when learning a foreign language, of course, and one of the many skills your brain must acquire is the ability to make educated guesses about meaning that isn't clearly understood based on a few clues. Kind of like the time I was "randomly" picked to conduct a symphony playing Beethoven's 5th, but when I got up on stage, I didn't understand the questions the MC asked me, forcing me to make a guess about what she would likely have said and reply accordingly, all while being watched by a few hundred people. One thing I've noticed is that when the brain encounters new information, it tries to break it into familiar chunks like a computer might, but if the the information is totally alien, like an unfamiliar word or phrase of Japanese, the brain can have trouble even registering it, as if it'd heard static. Alternately, the brain may try to force unfamiliar words into similar-sounding holes, like the first time I heard the -san name suffix and was sure it means "song" because that's what my brain kept insisting. Today we're posting a rather cool sake bottle set that features the various ingredients of the traditional Japanese soup oden (oh-DEN), like tofu, boiled eggs and squid (aside: I actually married my wife partially because her mother's oden was so good). Because oden isn't very familiar to people outside Japan, however, the term might just conjure up images of the famous Norse god, despite there being no relation between the two whatsoever. Does your brain have trouble with new or unfamiliar concepts like this?

Japanese Oden (not Odin!)

Um, Playboy Bunny Socks?

Obi-wan Kenobi said it best: a lot of the reality we perceive depends on our point of view. I've talked before about how foreign visitors to Japan are sometimes shocked -- shocked! -- to see what appear to be Nazi swastikas on maps here, but of course these are different symbols entirely, left-facing swastikas called manji that are used to denote the location of a Buddhist temple. The other day I attended a musical performance held by my son's elementary school in which the students proudly showed off their considerable brass band skills while the parents listened. After the performacne was over, I volunteered to help put the heavier instruments away, and I happened to notice that one of the female students was wearing socks with a rather famous logo embroidered on them: the iconic Playboy bunny. I'm just guessing, but I'll bet most sixth grade girls in the U.S. wouldn't have socks sporting this particular image, however in the context of Japan, the logo is just a general image of America and thus, kakko ii (cool). It's similar to the tendency of Japanese to wear funny English T-shirts with messages like "Hamburger Friend: I feel happiness when I eat him" and never consider what the words might actually mean. Not that there's anything wrong with wearing shirts with interesting phrases written in foreign languages or anything.

Why it's Fun to Build a House in Japan: Tatami Rooms!

One of the joys of being a long-term gaijin in Japan is eventually building a house here. Houses in Japan are almost never pre-built by a developer as part of a community of homes as is often the case in California, or bought "used" from people who have lived in them previously. Instead, at least outside of large cities like Tokyo where people tend to live in "mansions" (an apartment that's owned rather than rented), houses are generally built from scratch, starting with an architect who will create a design based on your specifications and budget. For a foreigner, this is a great opportunity to go crazy designing the Japanese home of your dreams, adding tatami rooms, shoji paper doors, and perhaps a toko-no-ma recessed area for displaying some ikebana flowers. Of course, houses in Japan don't go up in value like they (historically) do in the U.S. and Europe -- unless you're talking about a huge house that a movie star lived in, only land has value here -- so when you build a home you're building just for yourself and your family. Which is actually kind of nice, since your house becomes a place to live in and enjoy, rather than a potential source of stress. For the record, buying a plot of land in our prefecture, about 100 km north of Tokyo, will set you back about $100,000. For a custom-built house, budget around $300,000, although you can cut that down a bit by considering one of those "import homes" where all the materials, from wood to concrete to nails, are boxed up in Canada and shipped over by container.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

All About Tokyo and What To Do Here

Tokyo is the sprawling capital of Japan, home to 12 million people, a number which rises by several million during the day as people commute to their jobs from the surrounding areas. It's not a city at all, but one of Japan's 47 prefectures, although it's got a special status as a "metropolis," not unlike the District of Columbia in the U.S. Some of the more famous areas of Tokyo include Shinjuku, a shopping and business area with many famous anime landmarks and lots of good food as well as Japan's largest bookstore; Shibuya, a hip area for young people and home of Japan's most famous dog statue; Harajuku, where people dress like they do in FRUiTs magazine; stylish Ginza, with many famous brand shops; and Asakusa, home of Tokyo's most famous shrine. People interested in anime and related culture will want to spend time in Akihabara, of course, where you can pick up the latest electronics and have it wrapped up for you by a girl in a maid costume (just kidding about that last part). For a more "off Akiba" experience, hit Nakano Broadway in Nakano, a down-and-out shopping arcade that re-invented itself to be more otaku friendly, or Otome Road, a shopping street for females interested in yaoi and BL culture, located in Ikebukuro. If you ever plan a trip to Tokyo, you'll have plenty to see!

Our "Second Childhood" Through Anime

One thing I like about being involved with Japan and anime is the "second childhood" it allows us all to enjoy. In a very real sense, a new part of your brain is "born" when you start to learn a new language, and just a children are less sophisticated than adults, that new part of yourself is closer to the intellect of a child, and just as precocious, creative and impressionable, too. Last night I was geeking out while re-re-re-watching the Macross: Do You Remember Love? movie, one of the watershed films in the development of otaku culture as a worldwide movement. My wife guffawed at me: "Why don't you at least watch something new?" She didn't understand, of course, that we all love what we're exposed to in childhood, be it X-Men comics or Scooby Doo or Star Wars, and we take it with us forever. Just as Japanese in their twenties and thirties now will always have a place in their hearts for the original Mobile Suit Gundam or Fist of the North Star because they saw it when they were young, the first shows we otaku were exposed to will always be special to us, even if we were 18 years old at the time. In the context of this exciting new language and culture, we were seishun shitemasu, or "living the springtime of our lives," a phrase I've used from time to time. What Japanese anime show is especially important to you?

Adapting to Group Culture when Living in Japan

Living in Japan has certainly made me a more considerate person, and I generally thinks of others before acting on my own personal whims. This wasn't necessarily the case when I first came to Japan, and it took me a while to pick up on the "group mentality" all around me. I remember in one of my first ESL classes, I noticed the clock in the room was wrong, so I stood on a chair to adjust it, which led to a gasp from my students. "That chair is everyone's chair! What about the next person who sits there?" one of them admonished. Japan really considers shoes to be filthy things, and because I'd stood on the chair without removing them, the faux pas I'd committed was significant. As a rule, Japanese walls are thinner, occasionally even being made out of paper in the case of tatami rooms with shoji doors (although these are not that common anymore); people here learn to make less noise, lest you cause inconvenience to other family members who might be sleeping. Another aspect of Japan's group culture is enryo, a word that means "to hesitate" or "to refrain from doing" and which is a major feature of polite Japanese relationships. While Americans might fight over the last slice of pizza, it's common for Japanese to stand there, offering the last piece to each other while its gets cold: "No, you take it. I'm full" "Oh, no, I couldn't eat another bite, you take it." The name for the last slice of pizza that no one wants to admit they really want to eat is "enryo pizza." Maybe that's the secret of how the Japanese stay so thin?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Daijobu: One of the First Words a Foreigner Learns

One of the first words a foreigner learns upon coming to Japan is daijobu (dai-JOH-boo), a very useful term which means "okay" "alright" or "no problem." It's quite a handy word since you can combine it with other words and people will understand what you mean, for example say wasabi daijobu will let the sushi chef know that it's okay to leave wasabi on your sushi, and daijobu? said as a question is very easy to say. The opposite of this word is dame (dah-MEH), meaning "no good" or "not okay." While it can be used in quite a few circumstances, dame can sound quite harsh, so a maybe consider softening it with chotto (CHO-toh, "a little") in front of it. Finally, a good work to know is kudasai (koo-dai-sai), an all purpose word that means "please [give this to me]" which has many uses from restaurants to office setitngs. Now you know some Japanese words!


In other news, there seems to be a U.S. band called Daijobu? Ah, the things Google tells us...

When you live in a country that's as different from the U.S. as Japan is, it's interesting to observe the many ways the "world view" of people here differs from what you're used to. There's that tendency for radio DJs to play a song and then proceed to talk over it, discussing what a good song it is or maybe reading the weather report. Or how Christmas carols are so fun to listen to, they'll be played well into February. Or the unwritten rule that Japanese never, ever touch anything under their car's hood, leaving everything up to the dealer. TV commercials are another area where you can see a lot of differences between the two countries. As a very general rule, commercials here are more about associating an image with a product rather than explaining the benefits customers receive when they purchase it. It'd be more common to see a man driving his Subaru Forrester through the mountains while an uplifting song plays than to hear a narrator telling you about new features in the latest Ford Fusion sedan. Since the Japanese market is so different from the West, it's rare to see companies using non-localized versions of their commercials here, instread creating new commercials for the local market. Some of the few companies that buck this trend are IBM, which has made dubbed versions of their "blue bar" commercials quite well known here, most of Apple's ads, since they're so simple, and AFLAC, since that darned duck is cute no matter where you come from.


Hm, trying to find an example of a Japanese-dubbed American commercial but that's not the kind of thing that makes it onto the web, I guess -- too vanilla. So here's a Japan-made AFLAC commercial from a few years back that made the career of Akiko Yada, a super cute video in which she sings "Think about it, money is very imporant..." with kids all around her.

Akihabara is the area of Tokyo famous for its Electric Town shopping district and for being the international "Mecca" of otaku culture. It's a popular destination with foreign visitors to Japan, and you can always tell the train has arrived there because all the gaijin will get off in a hurry. But Akiba, as it's often called, hasn't always been the Holy Land for anime geek and computer culture it is today. In 1869, after a devestating fire in the area, the Meiji Emperor ordered a temple built for prayers against future fires, which people started referring to as Akiba-sama, an unrelated Shinto/Buddhist diety believed to protect against fire, the scourge of old Japan. When the area was ordered cleared of trees to prevent further fires from reaching the more populated areas of the city, the field (hara) that resulted was named Akihabara, the Field of Autumn Leaves. The first Akihabara Station was built in 1890, and the region developed slowly over the next few decades as Tokyo's rail system expanded. Soon after World War II, shops began to open that sold items such as vacuum tubes to students attending a nearby technical school, and this formed the base of the electronics retailers that are so famous now. During the 1990s, home electronics and computers were available just about anywhere, and companies started feeling competition from mail order and later the Internet. Slowly, shops specializing in anime CDs and videos, doujinshi comics and PC dating-sim games rose in popularity, and today Akiba is as famous for its anime-related shops as it is for electronics. Now it seems that just about every new trend in Japan has something to do with Akihabara, like the latest boom, an izakaya bar for train lovers. In addition to waitresses dressed in super-cute costumes based on female rail employees, the menu is set up like a map of train lines in Tokyo. Also, while you eat a model train races around the restaurant on N-gague tracks. I'm going there the first chance I get.

Finally, because I'm totally geeking out right now, I'll show you the opening credits of Densha Otoko, e.g. Train Man. This is a drama about an otaku who won the heart of a beautiful girl, and the theme song is the otaku theme song, being used in the famous 1982 Daikon Opening Animation (which you can see in the upper left hand corner of this video). This video is basically the one that made Gainax possible. Enjoy!