Friday, March 28, 2008

The Special Relationship Gaijin Have With McDonald's

Like most other expats living in Japan, I've got a special relationship with...McDonald's. Back when I was getting used to life here, it was a place to go where things were familiar and you didn't need to stress out about what to order or what social rules to worry about while eating it. Although it's probably no one's favorite dining destination, it's at least well within the comfort zone. Plus, the company does do a few things right here, like offering salads as an option in place of french fries, and 100% orange juice rather than the orange-colored sugar water they sell to kids in the States. During the time I've been in Japan, McDonald's has reflected the larger economy in interesting ways, for example leading the charge to cut prices during the period of deflation in the early 2000's, and struggling to manage the BSE scare with images of parents enjoying quality time with their kids over a hamburger. For the past year or so, the company has been winning big with its "Mega Mac" offering, essentially a Big Mag with four patties, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago before the shift in eating habits. During limited product trials, the Mega Mac sold millions of units, and is will soon be added as a permanent menu item. While this is good for the company, who saw profits soar, I'm certainly concerned about the future health of consumers here. On the other hand, writing about this subject has made me so hungry I could really go for a Mega McTeriyaki Burger, which the company is also introducing.

More Instant Japanese Words from English Ones

Last time I talked about words in English that happen to have meaning in Japanese, too. We keep coming up with more of these odd linguistic coincidences at the J-List office: some others include include hen which means "strange" in Japanese; "you know me" which is a cup for drinking green tea (yunomi); "come on" which sounds like the word for a family crest (kamon); "safe," similar to the word for "government" (seifu); and "she knew" which is Japanese for "to die." Another such English word that's close in pronunciation to a Japanese one is the letter "E", which sounds like the word ii ("ee"), the most common way to express "good" or "okay." If you want to compliment someone on the quality of something or show your liking for something, you can throw out the letter "E" and it will probably be understood, thanks to the Japanese custom of omitting the subject whenever possible. (Note: food that tastes good uses a different word, oishii). But the Japanese language is nothing if not vague, and the word ii often carries the opposite meaning. If someone offers you coffee, for example, or the convenience store clerk asks if you want your bento warmed in the microwave, replying with ii will usually mean something close to "No, I'm fine." When dealing with marketers, it's important to make sure you don't answer them in vague terms, as they'll be happy to to misunderstand you and sign you up for a year's supply of salmon from Hokkaido.

The Story of the "Homeless Junior High School Student"

Do you know the story of the "homeless junior high school student"? When Hiroshi Tamura was was just ten, his mother died of an illness, which was a terrible shock to his family. A bigger surprise was in store five years later, however, when Hiroshi and his older brother and sister arrived home to find their house repossessed. Their father appeared soon after, explaining the situation: the family was penniless and had lost everything. "So we'll all go our separate ways now. Family, dismissed!" Determined not to drop out of school, he moved to a nearby park where he lived, sleeping on a sliding board for several months, eating rice when he could get it and cardboard boxes when he couldn't and washing himself with rain water. Through hard work, he was eventually able to graduate from high schoo, and now he's part of a successful Japanese comedian duo called Kirin. When he mentioned his sad experiences on the air once, an editor saw it and suggested he write a book about it. Homuresu Chugakusei became a huge hit, selling more than 2 million copies in Japan and spawning a movie deal. The story of a young person who's able to be thankful for something that we all take for granted -- the availability of hot water -- really struck a chord with modern Japanese readers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Scary Yakuza Experience in Kyoto

I'll tell you about the scariest thing to happen to be since coming to Japan. I'm a big fan of public baths and hot springs, and I learned early on that you can travel around Japan cheaply by staying at "saunas," which are 24-hour public baths that also offer traditional saunas as well as a communal room for customers to sleep in. They're cheap, costing around $30 to stay in the heart of a large city, and it can be fun to strike up conversations with the other patrons, who are often so surprised to see a gaijin in a place like that that they'll buy you a beer. All public baths, hot springs and saunas post signs that forbid customers with tattoos from entering, which is intended to keep yakuza (Japanese mafia) out of family-friendly establishments. The first time I went to Kyoto, I thought it'd be fun to stay in a sauna, but I hadn't realized at the time that Kyoto is a hotbed of these yakuza types, and the sauna I'd decided to stay at was filled to the brim with scary-looking gangsters with full-body tattoos and various scars all over their bodies. I tried to make the best of the situation, pretending not to notice the scary looks I was getting while I took in my surroundings. It was easy to pick out which man was the oyabun (yakuza boss), since he was the one getting his back washed vigorously by his underlings (kobun), who fell over themselves to do anything he wanted. Incidentally, if you have a tattoo you can still come to Japan: the signs aren't directed at you, and non-yakuza Japanese with tattoos just ignore the rule, too. (Incidentally, J-List stocks several cool magazines of Japanese tattoos if you're interested.)

Amaze Your Friends with Instant Japanese!

Languages overlap each other in interesting ways, and it's always fun to observe these accidental similarities, like how casa means "house" in Spanish but "umbrella" in Japanese. It's even possible to pick up some useful phrases by focusing on the words you already know, not unlike the way "Don't touch my moustache" happens to sound similar to doh-itashimashite, or "you're welcome" in Japanese. Here are some ready-to-use phrases of Japanese that happen to sound like English words you already know:

Cheek show! Damn! (chikusho)
Psycho! That's great! (saiko)
Bimbo Poor, no money (binbo)
Ohio Good morning (ohayo)
Show you soy sauce (shoyu)
Oh, you hot water (o-yu)
Never never sticky (like natto, fermented soybeans)
"E" good, ok (ii)
Cow buy (kau)

Amaze your friends!

Spring Vacation! Time to Think About Serious Studying

Spring vacation is finally here, and all through Japan children are getting ready to enjoy a well deserved two week holiday. This year is special for our family, because my son will be entering Junior High School in April, which is a big change. First of all, all Junior High students are compelled to join a school club like baseball club, karate club, art club and so on, and engage in bukatsu ("club activities") for several hours a day. My son likes music and has decided to join the school's wind orchestra club, which will be practicing into the evening three days a week. After spending time with club members, many students will then go to juku, evening school where students study for 2-3 more hours. While a lot of students attend these night schools because their friends are there, those who want to go to a good university start their power-studying at this time, attending a night school until 10 pm or so then coming home for a spot of dinner before studying even more. We're having a family debate right now over which course we want to pursue for my son. My wife is sure he'll need to attend night school every evening just to keep up with his studies and to prepare for his upcoming entrance exams for high school, since there's a lot of competition for the school he wants to go to. I'm of the opinion that family should come before cramming useless knowledge into the brain for a test that's three years off, but that's just me...

Ad for a line of juku

(This is an ad for a juku that promises to get you into your university of choice.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I'm Sorry Dave

Couldn't have said it better...

Monday, March 24, 2008

More about "Enryo" as a Window into Japanese Society

I talked recently about the concept of enryo, one of the most important aspects of social relationships in Japan. It literally means "to refrain from [doing]" and describes the tendency of Japanese people to be reserved around others, especially people they don't know well. If I had to pick, I'd say it's probably the single most important "ingredient X" that makes Japanese who they are. If you've ever noticed a Japanese person avoiding stating their own preferences or opinions without seeing what others think first, or watched a Japanese athlete make a very modest comment about a big win, you've seen enryo in action. You can also observe this phenomenon at a karaoke box, where groups can rent a private room and sing together. The first 15-30 minutes of a karaoke session usually involves shy Japanese people saying "no, you sing first!" "oh no, after you" without anyone jumping in, except for gaijin who don't know any better as they belt out "You wa shock!" (the opening from the Fist of the North Star theme song). While showing constraint and consideration for others certainly has its place, especially in a country with half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area 1/25 the size, it can be annoying, too. First of all, too much politeness is the "kiss of death" when it comes to making friends, and it seems the only way to make friends here is to willfully ignore some of the rules about what you should or shouldn't do in certain situations. Also, the Japanese can take the concept of hesitation too far. I had a Japanese friend in the U.S. who lived with us for a while, and he was trying so hard not to inconvenience us he had quite the opposite effect. We'd ask what he'd like for breakfast, and he'd say, "Oh, I'm not hungry. I'm still full from dinner last night."

Drinking in Tokyo Report

I had fun over the weekend, heading into Tokyo to go drinking with some friends. We hit the "Lost in Translation" bar at the Park Hyatt to soak up the atmosphere of the city from a high altitude, then went down in the trenches for some serious pub crawling. Although there's no shortage of drinking districts in Tokyo, with Roppongi, Shibuya, and Ginza all offering their own particular charms, we decided to visit Shinjuku's east side and see what trouble we could get into. I don't know how New Yorkers cut loose on a Saturday night, but I was amazed to see the incredible number of people roaming around the streets with us in Shinjuku -- there had to have been 50,000 or more walking around us, letting off the steam that had accumulated over the week. I took my friends into the Kabuki-cho region of the city, just about the only place in Tokyo were you might not feel safe, and it was fun to check out the neon gaudiness then leave for someplace more pleasant. One of the great benefits of cities that use trains as much as Tokyo does is the ability for large numbers of people to get around without driving, especially good when so many are inebriated. I introduced my friends to my favorite Japanese drinks, the Lemon Sour and Grapefruit Sour, essentially shochu in a glass with soda water and a fresh lemon or grapefruit that you squeeze to get juice to flavor the drink. The next day I did some sightseeing around Tokyo with my friends, doing normal Tokyo things like taking pictures of Goth-Loli cosplayers at the traditional Meiji Shrine. It was fun, but I was reminded of another aspect of living in Tokyo: you have to walk everywhere, running up and down stairs and rushing to catch trains before they depart.
And here are some pictures of my trip to Tokyo:

This is Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan. Like, ever.

At the California Bar in Tokyo. Nice place.

"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

A view of the lights. The building on the right is Tokyo City Hall. I wished I had had my Blade Runner soundtrack on my iPhone.

This is a Lemon Sour. I would so lover for these to become popular in the U.S.

Entertaining pretty Japanese girls near us.

Store my Ducks!

This is Meiji Shrine.

And these are the Gothic Lolitas we met there.