Friday, April 11, 2008

Words are Interesting Things

Like Cherry Blossoms in the Spring, words are fleeting things, and it can be surprising how their meanings change when they're imported into other languages. Many of the English words the Japanese use don't match up perfectly with their Japanese counterparts. When I had to replace a cooling fan in one of our Macs, I went to the local computer store ("Power Up Computing Life") and asked for a fan, using the English word, guessing correctly that the modern electronic concept of a fan would be covered by the English word. Other concepts that we use the word "fan" for go by very different names in Japanese, such as senpuuki (an electric fan), uchiwa (a fan you use to fan yourself, non-folding) and sensu (a traditional folding Chinese style fan). There are some other English words that the Japanese use, but only in limited ways. If there's a girl you're secretly in love with, a Japanese might advise you to "attack" her (meaning, go and win her love). The English word "camouflage" often refers to a gay man and woman marrying to hide this fact from others. And the English word "propose" is used in Japan only to mean a proposal of marriage, which certainly presents the potential for confusion in international work settings.

Space Invaders

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.

Fixating on Japanese Phrases and Kanji

One interesting side effect of studying a foreign language like Japanese is finding yourself naturally fixating on various aspects of the language as kakko ii, or "cool." While learning Japanese I found myself liking certain phrases or kanji, like the flowing character for hashiru (to run), which is quite fun to write, or the mystery of the word ku-no-ichi, written with three kana characters from the kanji for woman and meaning "femal e ninja." In Japanese there are quite a few four-character compound words imported from China centuries ago, which are interesting because they express highly poetic ideas, like jinba-ittai, a slogan adopted by Mazda which means "man and horse as one." If you watch anime, you already know some of these kanji-based idioms, such as ikki tousen, which literally means "one knight who is a match for 1000 enemies," i.e., really strong; or tenchi muyo, written with the characters for heaven + earth + no need, although its meaning is somewhat less elegant, since it's what they print on boxes to represent "this end up." One of these compound words I found myself drawn to during my studies was issho kenmei (ee-SHO ken-may), written with characters that mean "to put one's only life on the line," which in everyday use means to try very hard, to do something with all one's might. It encapsulates the Japanese ethic of working hard, whether it's beating your rival team at sports, studying hard and getting into a good university, or showing diligence to your boss and coworkers at work. Perhaps the most famous symbol of being issho kenmei about something is the traditional Japanese hachimaki headbands, which are worn by anyone who is fired up with passion for something, for example high school students studying for their university entrance exams, new employees in a company opening ceremony, volunteers at a political rally, and so on. We just happen to have a great selection of these traditional headbands -- check them out now!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Linguistics Land Mines in English and Japanese

If English is your native language, call up our parents and thank them now, because you've got it good. Japanese students learning English face an uphill battle on several fronts, not the least of which being the complex range of sounds they have to master if they want to be understood by anyone. Linguistically speaking, there are twelve vowels in most dialects of American English, with sounds like the schwa and the way New Yorkers pronounce "coffee" counting as separate vowels. One way Japanese learners can differentiate the various sounds in their minds is by memorizing "minimal pairs," sets of words that sound similar, such as walk and work, close and clothes, or election and, well, you know, that other word. I remember wondering why some of my former students would go out of their way to use "will not" as opposed to "won't" -- it turned out that they lacked confidence that the word wouldn't be mis-heard as want. There are pairs of words in Japanese that manage to give foreigners trouble too, and just about every expat living in Japan can tell about the time they really screwed up by using the wrong word in a delicate situation. Some of these tricky word pairs include kirei (kee-REY), meaning "pretty" or "clean," which is easily confused with kirai (ki-RAI), meaning "hated," as well as kawaii (KAH-WAH-ee), which means "cute," and kowai (ko-WA-ee), meaning "scary."

Japan and Brazil: the Emperor Comes to our Prefecture

The Emperor of Japan made a visit to our fine prefecture of Gunma on Monday, stopping by a community of Brazilian-Japanese citizens who worked at a large Sanyo plant. He was there with his wife, Gunma-born Empress Michiko, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of immigration between Japan and Brazil, when a ship from Kobe departed with 791 Japanese farmers in search of a better life there. During the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Japanese resettled in Brazil and neighboring countries, and many of their descendents have returned to Japan, forming one of the largest ethnic groups here. The town of Oizumi, about 30 km from J-List, has the highest official foreign population in the country (10%), although everyone knows that the real number about double that when people without valid visas are taken into account. It was quite a special event to have the Emperor in our neck of the woods, so naturally everyone dropped what they were doing to go try to get a glimpse of him, causing huge traffic jams everywhere.

Japanese Memory Tricks

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.

Mt. Fuji

Monday, April 07, 2008

The FUN Way to Learn Japanese

There are many approaches to learning a foreign language -- the Army Method (stress on learning through memorization), the Grammar Translation Method (learning a language by parsing its grammar), the Communicative Method (leaning by speaking and listening in the target language), and the Natural Approach (trying to replicate the steps that children go through when they learn a language). Then there's the "get attention" method, which I'll label the Social Feedback Method to give it a proper name. Basically, you learn whatever vocabulary and phrases that will make you the life of the party among your target linguistic group, be it fun ways to begin conversations with attractive Japanese girls or memorizing interesting phrases that will amuse people around you, like esoteric proverbs they don't expect foreigners to know. I have a friend who worked his way across Asia using this method, learning just enough of the local languages to be social and have fun with his hosts, and it seems to have worked very well for him. Bottom line, when you study a foreign language, make sure to keep your eye on the "fun" aspects of that language.

The Progenitors of the Otaku

The word otaku is a formal term meaning "you" or "your family" which acquired its alternate meaning of "obsessed fanboy" after a magazine article critical of the rising underground culture of anime and doujinshi (fan-created comics) first used the term in 1983. While the most common forms of otaku are fans who are devoted to anime and manga, there's no limit to the varieties of popular culture that can be encompassed with this word, and I've known karaoke otaku who sing for hours on end, a perfume otaku with more than 100 bottles in her collection, and an R/C otaku in our neighborhood who's been flying his airplanes in a nearby field every Sunday for a decade now. Still, although we otaku have a lot of fun with our anime figures and our life-sized anime hug pillows, the true progenitors of fanatical hobby culture would have to be the railroad fans, generally called densha mania in Japanese, a term for anyone with a deep interest in railroad culture and who enjoy taking pictures of or riding on different trains. Japan's history with railfans is long, with the first magazines for the genre appearing in the 1920s, although the hobby really took off in the 1960s and 70s as people acquired more time for leisure. One of the most famous rail aficionados is children's author Kenji Miyazawa, who brought his imagination and love of trains together in his famous story Night of Galactic Railroad, a tale about a train that flies through space.

The last word on otaku, the awesome anime Genshiken, about a college anime and visual culture club. I cannot recommend it enough. 

Ryoma Sakamoto, the Che Guevara of Japan

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.

Ryoma Sakamoto