Friday, April 18, 2008

Understanding Japanese History through Science Fiction

If you read a lot of science fiction novels, as I have, one vehicle you'll find writers using is the idea of a "great renaming" in which familiar place names are changed, usually to denote much time passing or a period of great upheaval. (For example, 5,000 years after the original Dune novel, the planet Arrakis becomes known as Rakis.) It sounds very cool and science-fictioney, and yet a "great renaming" is exactly what happened in Japan during the Meiji Reformation, when the old system of feudal domains (han) was retired in favor of a modern prefectural system with all new names. As a result, virtually every region of Japan has two names associated with it, its current one (for example, Gunma Prefecture, where J-List is based), and its old name (which is Joshu-no-kuni). The archaic names aren't official anymore, yet they're still used quite often, for example an udon restaurant might advertise "authentic Joshu noodles" to make customers associate their food with something old-fashioned and tasty. Sometimes the use of the archaic names seems to be custom-made to confuse foreigners living here. For example, the freeway that goes from Tokyo to Niigata is the Kan-etsu Freeway, which makes use of the kanji for the old name of Niigata (Echigo), something that almost no poor gaijin would be likely to know.

What Shall We Do About Summer?

My family is going through our annual "what are we going to do about summer?" decision-making process, trying to make plans for our kids to go to the U.S. Figuring out what to do with kids during summer vacation is a challenge for any parent, I'm sure, but in our case it's extra difficult due to various cultural and scheduling differences between Japan and America. First of all, summer vacation is very short in Japan, being only six weeks long, so the time we have to work with is quite limited. We like to find activities for our kids that will help them maintain their English skills, like Girl Scout Camp for my daughter and various science-related camps for my son, but choosing the right program is never easy. While I think summer should be a time for kids to relax and have new experiences at a leisurely pace, my wife always goes into kyoiku mama ("education mother") mode, insisting that anything we choose for the kids to do have serious academic value. While the idea of doing homework over the summer break is totally alien to American children, kids in Japan aren't so lucky. In addition to everything else, we've got to factor in about 20-30 hours for the mountain of homework my kids will have to work through before school starts in September.

Capitalism and Delicious Sauce called "Sauce"

Japan is a great place, and I like it a lot. The people are kind and honest, and every day is a learning experience for me, both in terms of language as well as the wider world of Japanese culture around me. Japan is a free-market country in which products can be introduced into the marketplace to create value for smart companies with good ideas, the investors who provide capital to the companies, and the consumers who get the benefits of having innovative products to choose from. However, there are some areas in which Japanese-style capitalism doesn't always function in the way that a Westerner might expect. First of all, many companies must deal with competition from an unexpected source, the Japanese government itself, which chooses to involve itself in a wide range of businesses including operating Japan's horse racing industry and a government-subsidized provider of life insurance (Kanpo) -- they even ran Japan's largest tobacco company until it was privatized in the 1980s. Last year, an investment group called Steel Partners tried to engineer a U.S.-style takeover of Bull-Dog Sauce Company, the makers of that heavenly tonkatsu sauce that's usually usually called "sauce" in Japanese. While I'm all in favor of my favorite condiment company not being bought out in a hostile merger, there is the small issue of companies being owned by the actual shareholders, and not the management of the company, who seemed bent on preserving their own positions above all else as they fought off the takeover bid. Japan is a wonderfully litigation-free country, which is certainly a good thing all around. However there are times when a functional democracy might just need a few lawyers, for example if the management of a company did something that actually harmed the investors, yet in Japan concepts like shareholder lawsuits are completely unheard of.

Bull-dog sauce

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coffee Jelly Time!

Starbucks Japan has a new product for the coming summer season: the Coffee Jelly Frapachino, which is a coffee frap with chilled coffee-flavored gelatin at the bottom. Although coffee jelly ("jello" to our American readers) is probably up there fermented soybeans (natto), puffer fish (fugu) and pickled squid intestines (shiokara) as something you wouldn't expect to find gaijin eating, it's actually really good and easily one of my favorite desserts in the summer. It's sold in every convenience store or supermarket , usually in the form of little plastic cups that come with a separate container of sweetened milk that you add to your coffee jelly before eating it, just like you'd do to a cup of black coffee. There are many ways to eat coffee jelly, including pouring the milk over the pristinely shaped gelatin then digging in with your spoon, but I prefer to mix my coffee jelly up first then add the milk, letting it seep everywhere before I eat it.

The History of Bento

Bento are the amazing boxed lunches from Japan that are both delicious to eat and pleasing to look at, and since J-List has brought so much bento goodness to customers all over the world, I thought I'd write about the history a bit. The origin of rice in a portable box for easy carrying began in the Heian Period (794-1185), when people would pack rice that had been cooked then dried again as well as onigiri (rice balls) for journeys. The emergence of the ornate stackable bento box (jubako) came later as a way for nobles to enjoy a beautiful meal while drinking tea and viewing the cherry blossoms in the Spring. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), a popular form of boxed lunch called maku-no-uchi bento or "between-the-acts" boxed lunch appeared, which was eaten by playgoers during intermissions at public performances, or (according to another theory) by aficionados of sumo wrestling, who would wolf down the lunches in between bouts. With the coming of trains to Japan, people needed a convenient way of taking their lunch with them, which was the beginning of ekiben or train station bento, which has blossomed into a huge industry unto itself, with each region of Japan creating bento lunches you can only buy there, making even something as commonplace as lunch something special.


Religion in Japan

The subject of religion in Japan is a complex one. The two main religious traditions here are Buddhism, which was introduced through the Korean Peninsula along with the kanji writing system in the 6th century; and Shinto, the naturalistic original religion of Japan which sees kami, gods or spirits, in trees, rivers and mountains. Anywhere between 63-96% of Japanese report themselves as being Buddhist, with around 3% and 1% for Shinto and Christianity, respectively. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, though, since there's no subject more "about" (an English word the Japanese use to mean nebulous or imprecise) than religion here. Although someone's family may belong to one religion or another, nearly everyone mixes themes regularly over the course of their lives, generally turning to Shinto or Christianity for life-affirming ceremonies like weddings or baby namings and Buddhism for funerals and ceremonies that pay respect to family members who have gone on. It's quite a mish-mash, really, but somehow each group is able to coexist alongside the others without friction. If you ever have a question about religeon in Japan, feel free to ask a Japanese person about it, but be prepared for a less than satisfactory answer, as Japanese rarely think deeply about their own country and culture in the way that foreigners fascinated by the country do. One of the great achievements of modern Japanese society is that they've managed to completely separate religion from politics, and when election time rolls around, the question of what religious background a certain candidate might have isn't contemplated in the slightest. (A possible exception to this might be members of the New Komeito Party, which is affiliated with the "evangelical" Buddhist movement, Sokka Gakkai, and whose members are presumably a member of that religeon.)

Religion in Japan

Monday, April 14, 2008

On Superstitions and Lucky Days

One thing that surprised me about the Japanese was how superstitious many people here are, and there are many superstitions here that seem odd to foreigners, such as, don't cut your fingernails at night or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die, don't whistle at night or snakes will come and get you, and so on. Many of these beliefs come from Japan's unique flavor of Buddhism, which seems to be very death-oriented -- for example, it's bad luck to sleep with your head to the north (kita makura), as dead people about to be cremated are laid with their heads to the north. In this vein, there's a complex system of lucky and unlucky days according to a Buddhist calendar, with six different days that cycle throughout the month. It's good luck to get married or start construction on your home or take delivery of a car on the luckiest day (called Taian), but if you were to get married on the unlucky day (called Butsumetsu), you'd probably end up divorced and unhappy. The six days, and their kanji meanings, are Sensho ("win first"), Tomobiki ("take away with"), Senpu ("lose first"), Butsumetsu ("Buddha's Death"), Taian ("Great Calm"), and Shakkou ("Red Mouth"). Supposedly, it's lucky to do things in the morning on Sensho, but it's unlucky to do anything in the morning on Senpu -- wait til the afternoon instead on that day. Never have a funeral on Tomobiki, as the soul of the deceased will be taken away instead of staying near his loved ones, while Butsumetsu is a general unlucky day, and virtually all Japanese avoid doing important things on this day. Today (the 14th) is Taian by the way -- I hope everyone enjoys good luck today!

Is it Possible for Someone to Forget their Native Language?

Is it possible for a person to forget their native language? You wouldn't think so, but during my years of living in Japan, I've definitely noticed my skills at English changing in alarming ways. The first to go were my college-level reading skills, something I realized with a shock while thumbing through a graduate school catalog less than a year after graduating from SDSU and coming to Japan to teach English as a Second Language. Teaching ESL is especially challenging since you're surrounded with students who speak very simple English, and in order to make yourself understood you find yourself talking more slowly, perhaps, or pronouncing the "t" sound in "party" more than a native speaker would. When you go for months or years without hearing English vocabulary words above the Junior High School level, the brain can have real difficulties pulling difficult words like "irreplaceable" or "gynecologist" out on short notice. But it's really shocking when you make an actual mistake, which happened to me once when my family and I were in the U.S. In Japanese the words for splinter (a sliver of wood) and thorn (the prickly things on a rosebush) are the same, toge (TOH-gay), and once, when my daughter got a splinter in her foot, I got the two words confused in my head. When my mother heard me asking to help get the "thorn" out of my daughter's foot with tweezers she looked at me funny.

Oh no, a splinter!

How Japan Deals with War: Anime?

Japan's defeat in World War II was a huge emotional blow to the country which is still felt today. Although more than sixty years have passed, the subject of the war is still in many ways "taboo," and not discussed very often outside of certain specific situations. (Kind of reminds me of growing up in the 1970s and asking what that Vietnam War thing was all one seemed to want to tell me.) One interesting mechanism the Japanese have evolved to allow them to deal with the subject of war has been an unlikely one: animation. While the traditional image of a "soldier" used to be tied to black and white photographs from the historical Pacific War, this has changed somewhat after three decades of popular culture in which the idea of "war" was more likely to be defined in sci-fi terms, such as the One Year War of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, in which spacenoids living in orbital colonies fight for independence from Earth. While it's not generally possible for Japanese to wax romantic about the real war, which they lost, you can probably find fans within a certain age range who could tell you about the First Battle of Jaburo between Char Aznable-lead Zeon forces and the Federation in great detail, or a Space Battleship Yamato fan who can get misty-eyed about the Battle of Saturn, when dozens of Andromeda-class battleships were destroyed by the Comet Empire. If you asked Japanese who they considered the most respected "military heroes" of the country were, you might find some who would answer Amuro Rei or Bright Noah or Captain Okita/Captain Avatar, the legendary characters from these war-oriented anime series. It's not unlike the original Star Trek, which was able to tell stories about race relations and other difficult topics that couldn't be discussed in the 1960s unless they were disguised as science fiction tales far off into the future.