Friday, April 11, 2008
I happened to see that this month marks the 30th anniversary of the venerable "Invader Game," what Space Invaders is called in Japan. This was one of the most influential video games ever released, with many innovative features for its era, including being the first game to introduce the element of competition by recording the day's high scores. For me personally, Space Invaders represents no less than the point in history when just about everything cool started to come from Japan. While the Golden Age of coin-operated video games would still see plenty of innovative releases from American companies over the next few years, it wouldn't take long for icons like Mario, Link and friends to win the hearts of gamers everywhere, for the first time creating a generation that looked to Japan as a major source of its popular culture of choice. Japanese influence would continue to be felt everywhere, starting with the tired lineup of after-school cartoons which were really ready for a smack-down, through the world of American comic books, and all the way to Hollywood. Now, it's almost impossible to separate the ways in which Japan has influenced the world we live in, and to me, it all started with that simple, fun Invader Game.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Quick, what's the square root of five? I have no idea, but my wife knows: it's 2.2360679. How about the Periodic Table of Elements? My wife can recite the first dozen or so. Do you know what year the Kamakura Bakufu, the first military government in Japan, was established? She tells me that it was the year 1192. This isn't because she's especially smart -- like all Japanese she has a tendency to be self-effacing and regularly calls herself baka, or stupid. No, the reason she knows these tidbits of knowledge is because of the way Japanese memorize some forms of information, by converting it into easily learned phrases, which is called goro-awase. Through a mechanism few gaijin can really understand, numbers are easily mapped to syllables in Japanese, for example the "ee" sound can stand for ichi (one), and "yo" or "shi" for the number four, and "o" for zero. To conjure up the square root of five in the example above, my wife needs only to remember a phrase meaning "at the base of Mt. Fuji, a parrot cries" (Fuji-sanroku ni ohmu naku). Back in the late 1980s, the U.S. was going through a period of serious Japan envy, when just about everything from the country seemed to be perfect, especially the much-vaunted education system, and at least a small reason the Japanese were beating us on international standardized tests was because of these little mnemonic tricks. Of course, breaking information down into easy-to-digest chunks or memorizing by association are great ways to study more effectively. If you're looking for some innovative ways to learn Japanese, be sure to view our study pages for some good ideas.
Monday, April 07, 2008
Over the weekend I took my son up to the mountains for some quality onsen (volcanic hot springs) bathing, one of my favorite activities in Japan. As I've written before, virtually all public baths and hot springs here have signs saying that customers with tattoos are not allowed in, which is done to promote a "family friendly" atmosphere and keep scary yakuza gangsters away. Of course people with casual tattoos on their bodies regularly ignore these signs, which was the case with a man I happened to see who had a really awesome tattoo on his arm: the face of Ryoma Sakamoto. One of the "founding fathers" of modern Japan, Ryoma was a samurai from the small Japanese island of Shikoku who embraced the slogan sonno joi (Respect the Emperor and Expel the Foreign Barbarians), rallying around the Emperor, who had been a figurehead of Japanese rule for most of the past 2000 years, and against the Tokugawa military government. Fearing that any battle that resulted in a large loss of life among Japanese soldiers would see Japan colonized by foreign powers, he made a master plan to force the Shogun to surrender power by bringing the the rival clans of Satsuma and Choshu (modern day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi) together in a military alliance. Although he was fighting against the influence of the U.S. and Britain on his country, he readily adopted Western technology, carrying a Smith and Wesson revolver and wearing boots as opposed to normal samurai footwear, popularizing both. Sadly, Ryoma was assassinated by members of the Shinsengumi, a group of pro-Tokugawa samurai, a month after achieving his victory. Today Ryoma is a very popular figure in modern Japan, a combination of Che Guevara and George Washington rolled into one. And certainly worthy of a tattoo.