Friday, April 04, 2008

How Japanese Sound Word (onomatopoeia) Can Change a Gaijin

One of the surprising things about living in a country like Japan is, is how you can get used to the local giseigo, literally "mimic-voice words," also known as onomatopoeia. To English speakers, dogs go "bark" of "woof" and cats "meow," but of course these are different in Japanese, where a small dog makes sounds like kyan kyan but a larger dog sounds like wan wan, and cats say nya nya. A rooster may cock-a-doodle-doo in English, but in Japanese he makes the sound keko-koko, and while the Japanese manga called Gao! might sound odd to you, everyone here understands it as a dinosaur or a lion roaring. The extent to which you can become accustomed to this differerent system of sound words is amazing, proving that the brain really can accept and adapt to anything.

Patriotism, Japan Style and Kimigayo

I've written before about how the question of "patriotism" in modern Japan is a tricky one. In the U.S. we have many opportunities to show our patriotic spirit, enjoying hot dogs and fireworks on the Fourth of July or saying "oo" and "ah" as we take in an air show at a nearby military base. However, it's quite difficult for the average Japanese person to enjoy this experience. The sad fact is that many of the traditional symbols of the country, from the Japanese flag on up, are often associated either with Japan's wartime past or with modern-day right-wing extremists who drive around in speaker cars playing World War II songs like idiots. The official national anthem is another sticky spot. Written in 1880, Kimigayo (warning: sound link) is a brief, solemn anthem based on a poem from the Nara Period which calls for the Emperor's reign to last for eight thousands years, until the pebbles grow into boulders with moss growing off of them. Although that sounds very militaristic to us today, it was originally written as a Japanese version of God Save the Queen, and nothing more. Recently the government has been trying to force teachers to sing the song during school events, but there's been a lot of opposition to this on the grounds of protecting freedom of expression. What would you do to bring a reasonable sense of patriotism to Japanese young people?

Duality in Japan: Shrine Water and KFC

When you live in a place as different from the U.S. or Europe as Japan is, you have to get used to some changes, and something that I kept noticing back when I first arrived here was the great "duality" the country kept presenting me with. This tendency for things to divide into two contradicting halves goes beyond the obvious mix of old-and-new, of highly advanced electronics co-existing beside an old guy who drives around in a truck selling stone-baked sweet potatoes on the road, or drinking water from a centuries-old Shinto shrine to wash down the KFC you just had for lunch. One source of this perceived duality is the kanji writing system used by the Japanese, which usually has two readings or each character, the original Chinese one (the on reading) and the Japanese one (the kun reading). As a general rule, characters appearing by themselves will use the Japanese reading, for example words like ki (tree) or mizu (water), but compound words will use the more complex Chinese one, e.g. mokusei (wood + produce = made of wood) or suido (water + road = water pipe). This neat little system goes out the window when it comes to writing names for places or people, though, making it nearly impossible to accurately pin down the correct way to pronounce a kanji name without getting it wrong at least once. Since there are two answers to "how do I read this kanji?" and neither one is entirely wrong, it can all make your brain feel like it's being pulled in two different directions.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Honesty You Find in Japan

One of the nice things about living in Japan is the honesty and integrity people generally possess. A couple weeks ago, some friends and I went to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo to drink in the bar from Lost in Translation, intending to try the whiskey that Bill Murray's character advertised in the film. We accidentally ordered the wrong drink, choosing a $29-per-glass high-end whiskey, but our waiter steered us to the actual drink used in the film, which was only $19 per glass. This impressed me since he could have said nothing and gotten a larger bar tab. When fast hikari fiber (fiber optic) Internet finally came to our part of the city, I was so overjoyed I was ready to sign up for the most expensive dedicated line they had. Instead of selling me the costlier service, the NTT salesman talked me out of it, telling me that the standard shared line would be more than fast enough for us -- and he was right. Then there was the time I was shopping for a Minolta camera, the old kind with the silly pre-programmed cards that enabled certain camera effects. I was ready to buy a bunch of these optional cards with the camera, but the salesman at the store shook his head, telling me that they weren't worth the money, losing an additional sale but certainly gaining my trust.

Lost in Translation whiskey

Mitsukoshi, the 400+ Year Old Department Store, and Other Happy News

It's a day for congratulations in Japan. The mega department store chains Mitsukoshi and Isetan are getting married, formally tying the knot in a merger that should see a combined sales of the two store chains reach $15 billion this year. The news appeals to my history-challenged American brain because Mitsukoshi has been around since 1673, when Takatoshi Mitsui opened a kimono shop in Edo (Tokyo). He brought many innovations to the business world back in those days, introducing the first customer-friendly retail shop with pre-made products sold at clearly labeled prices, an improvement over the then-common custom of making products in a customer's home after an order was received. His lowly shop would eventually blossom into the Mitsui zaibatsu (business conglomerate), involved in everything from shipping to to mining and founding Japan's first private bank -- not bad. There's some other happy news in Japan today: in Sapporo a chimpanzee named Gacha has given birth to a baby chimp. The surprising thing is Gacha's advanced age: 41 years old, or over 70 in chimpanzee years. Mother and child are reportedly doing fine.

Mitsukoshi Dept. Store

On the Japanese Custom of Taking Responsibility

One concept you encounter quite a lot in Japan is sekinin (seh-kee-neen), meaning responsibility or duty. While the James Clavell cliches of Japanese who are bound by the bushido-esque code of honor aren't very accurate when applied to the country today, I have noticed that the idea of sekinin o toru, or taking responsibility for something, does seem to be an important aspect of the Japanese character. This can take many forms, with one of the most visible being the way students take responsibility for cleaning their own classrooms, including the toilets. Virtually all cleaning in Japanese schools is done by the students, who must learn to either take pride in their cleaning skills or study in a dirty classroom. The idea of sekinin is important in a business environment, too, and when some new job presents itself to us at here at J-List, I'm always interested in the way our Japanese staff divides the work into logical sections and assigns different parts to each person, so everyone knows who's in charge of what. Having a person's name associated with a job is one way to create a sense of pride, and in restaurants it's common to see a little clipboard hanging in the restroom indicating which employee has last cleaned, so everyone knows who is or isn't doing his job properly if there's a problem. I often wonder whether some of these little innovations might not be imported back to the West?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Japanese PTA Hell

My wife is having a challenging time right now. Our daughter starts the sixth grade in April, and by unwritten tradition parents are expected to join the school's PTA leadership for a year and do various things for the school and the community at large. These include organizing the kids walking to school into groups (called han) and choosing a group leader (called hancho, where we get the word Head Honcho from) who will be responsible for the group, especially the new crop of first graders who will walk to school with the bigger kids. The PTA also signs up neighborhood parents into "flag waving brigades," who position themselves at street corners along the routes the kids walk to school and make sure the children get to school safely each morning. My wife is in charge of creating materials to be distributed to all parents of elementary school kids in our part of the city, which involves compiling Excel documents with the names of new teachers so parents can have information on the changes for the new school year. She has several assistants, but they're not much help: as a rule, many Japanese are often happy with lower levels of technical skill than you'd generally find in the U.S., and none of the housewives in the group has a computer or knows what Excel is, making a lot of extra work for her.

The Season of the Sakura has come to Japan

The Season of the Sakura has come to Japan, and all throughout the country cherry trees are exploding like beautiful fireworks. One of my favorite Japanese traditions is hanami or flower viewing, which usually involves spreading a tarp under the cherry trees and having a party with your friends, drinking lots of beer and sake while the petals fall all around you. Flower viewing has been popular in Japan since the beginning of its written history, with the first hanami recorded in the Nara period (710-784), although the word initially applied to viewing of ume or plum flowers, which are also pretty. (Flower viewing is also mentioned in the Tale of Genji.) Because the window for cherry blossom season is so narrow -- in another week the sakura will have been scattered to the four winds -- it can be difficult for people living outside Japan to plan a visit, as unseasonably colder or warmer weather can move cherry blossom viewing season up or down in the calendar. Fortunately, Japan is oriented quite vertically, so if the cherry blossom season has ended in the Tokyo area, for example, you can travel farther north and catch the flowers at their best in some other part of the country. If you're not lucky enough to be in Japan during this time of year, maybe you can still enjoy Japanese cherry blossoms, as many cities (Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Vancouver) have great spots for viewing sakura, too.

Political Deadlock in Japan: Lower Gas Prices? Oh Please, God...

The two major political parties in Japan are the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, which is conservative and friendly to big business as well as the millions of the country's small farmers; and the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition group, which might be called the "anti-LDP" since they seem to exist primarily to oppose anything the ruling party puts forth, whether it's a good idea for the country or not. Now the DPJ has -- for the first time since I came to Japan as far as I can recall -- done something meaningful in the political stage, which may result in a break at the pump for drivers here. Unable to to change the law that requires that 100% of automobile and gasoline taxes be used for building of roads, regardless of whether or not more roads are needed, they were at least able to block a law renewing the "temporary" higher gasoline tax that's been in place for 30+ years. The result is that the price of gasoline may be dropping by around 25 cents a liter, from its current price of around $1.50 per liter (or $5.80 a gallon, ack). The Japanese economy is quite addicted to public works, though, and a lot of politicians are voicing concerns that the economies of rural areas will suffer if the gas tax rate isn't reinstated, so the LDP plans to return the tax rate at the end of April using its two-thirds majority, meaning that our lower gas prices might only last a month. It's funny that at no time does the subject of increasing the efficiency of government or finding ways to do a little more with a little less, enter the political debate. It's considered sho ga nai -- "it can't be helped" -- that the government will waste a certain amount of public resources and build a certain amount of roads that no one will use, and no one can do anything about it.