Friday, April 25, 2008

Trains in Japan

One of the best aspects about living in Japan are trains, an incredibly convenient way of getting around cities. Within just a few months of living in Japan I was hooked on the convenience of trains, and found myself paying attention to things like, where the best place to board the train is if I want to be at the top of the stairs when I arrive at my destination. Japan is a very precise country that likes to be on time, and this is reflected in its rail system, in which trains are never late except in the occasional cases of "bodily injury accidents," the code word for someone committing suicide by jumping onto the train tracks. Today happens to be the third anniversary of the terrible train derailment at Amagasaki, near Osaka, in which a commuter train jumped its tracks while rounding a sharp curve and slammed into an apartment building. The crash came about because the driver was trying to make up time and avoid being late for the next scheduled stop, and he'd pushed the train up to 108 kph despite the speed limit for that section of the line being a mere 70 kph. With 106 passengers killed including the driver, it was Japan's worst rail accident in three decades.

Funny Words in Japanese

One of the first things you do when learning a foreign language is, of course, to investigate all the "naughty" words. But this usually isn't too exciting in the case of Japanese, as the language lacks the satisfying range of curse words and anatomical references you find in English. Most of the "bad" words aren't even that bad, with the "s" word (which is kuso in case you were curious) used regularly on Japanese children's shows, and the average insults being along the lines of baka! "Stupid!" or sashimi yaro! "You cold fish without rice!" (Actually that last one was a joke.) Instead of focusing on the naughty words, some students instead find themselves giggling over words that sound "goofy" to the English ear for one reason or another. One such word I encountered early on was the word for "sometimes," toki-doki, written using the kanji for "time" twice. The word sounded so similar to "okee-dokee" that I couldn't stop using it in every sentence, to the great annoyance of my Japanese friends. Some other Japanese words that stood out because of the way they sound included haha, which means "my mother"; ware-ware (WAH-reh WAH-reh), a formal word meaning "we"; doki-doki, the sound of your heart beating in anticipation of something; and mokkori, which is defined as the sound something makes when it protrudes or sticks out suddenly (i.e. pitching a tent).

Please Do Not Smoke Unless You Really Have To

Today I ate soba noodles for lunch, and I was amused at a sign I saw above my head, which said narubeku kin'en, translatable as "No Smoking As Possible, Please." I found it quite amusing for the restaurant owners to ask customers not to smoke "if they can possibly avoid it." Although smoking rates have been falling in recent years, the Japanese do smoke quite a lot, with 41% of males and 12% of females currently lighting up, which compares to 27% and 24% in the U.K. and 24% and 18% in the U.S., respectively. Tobacco was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese during the 16th Century, and it took hold quickly, with a traditional pipe called a kiseru very popular throughout the Edo Period. Today cigarettes enjoy a rather unique status, since the Japanese Ministry of Finance is the majority stockholder in the country's largest tobacco company, and regional economies get 50% of the taxes collected on cigarettes by law. One area where the industry here has shown vision has been preempting some of the negative feelings about cigarettes by promoting good smoking manners, as with the "Ah! Delight" and "Smokin' Clean" campaigns that show smokers being considerate of others. Japan often seems custom-built to confound Westerners, and it's interesting that a country that smokes as much as it does still manages to enjoy long life spans, something that generally goes against expectations in the West.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Image of Foreigners in Japan

When Japanese think of foreigners, they think of overly tall, blonde Americans or Europeans with huge feet, trying to find their way to the right subway line. Even though some of us aren't that tall (I'm only 5'9"), they apologize for having such small cars when you sit in the passenger seat, and likewise apologize for living in such a tiny hovel when you visit them at home, whether or not their house is really that small. It's also assumed that every foreigner will speak English, and it's not uncommon to be told "sorry, I can't understand!" by a Japanese person even though you're speaking to them in their native language. In actuality, the vast majority of foreigners living in Japan are not Westerners, but are from both Koreas, Brazil, Peru, and China. Officially, 1.5% of Japan's population are resident foreigners, although that number doesn't take into account people who are here illegally, so the number is probably higher. Isesaki, the city we live in, has a much higher foreign population (3%) than average due to a lot of factories based here, which means a lot more choices when you want to eat ethnic. One of our favorite restaurants is a Peruvian place that serves the most heavenly pollo a la brasa.

My Favorite Word: Amanojaku

I've written before about how, while studying Japanese, it's easy to find yourself latching on to words or kanji characters as being especially kakko ii, a word that means "good style" or "cool," and one word I've always liked is amano-jaku, pronounced "Amano Jack." Originally the name of a shape-shifting Shinto/Buddhist deity known for tempting mortals into doing naughty things, today the term applies to anyone who is extremely contrarian in nature, and who avoids doing things that are popular simply because they're popular. For example, I've never in my life seen the movie Top Gun, because back when it was in the theatres it was so popular that I felt pushed away by that, unable to watch a movie that everyone was raving about so much, and in this the term definitely applies to me, and to anyone who hates being trendy. The opposite of an amano-jaku is mii-haa (like Me! Ha!), someone who loves popular things because they're popular, which happens all too often in Japan's group-oriented society.

Original Amanojaku

What is a Freeter?

A lot has changed in the 17 years that I've lived in Japan. I arrived here in 1991, also known as Heisei 3, being the third year of the current Emperor's reign. Although this sounds really cool if you imagine it in Star Wars terms, with the Emperor sitting in a high-backed chair or something, in reality the Japanese Emperor doesn't do that much. Back then, the Tokyo land bubble, which saw the value of Japan's capital climb higher than that of the entire USA, had just burst, but the economy was still humming along fairly well. Back in those days, it was a given that most young people entering the workforce would take a full-time job with a large company where they'd enjoy de-facto lifetime employment. Well, for males, anyway -- in those days, as now, the majority of women chose to quit their jobs within a few years after getting married, often despite spending years on their educations beforehand. After the roller coaster ride of the past decade and a half, however, many things have changed: for example the staff of J-List find themselves working in a company founded by an American, with a highly competent female (my wife) as company president. Today no one expects to be able to work at the same company throughout their career, making Japan a little more like traditional economies in the West. Perhaps in response to this general change in thinking, a sizeable class of young people who choose not to bother with full-time employment at all has appeared. They're called "Freeters," people between the ages of 15 and 34 who live at home and who are happy to bounce between part-time jobs without beginning a formal career. In order to spur the economy, the government is trying to come up with ways to get more young people to see the benefits of working full-time, including stability, opportunities for personal growth and higher income. Personally, I've long thought that Japan should institute a draft of persons between the ages of 18-20, as countries like South Korea and Switzerland do, to give Japan's youth some purpose and toughen them up for the challenges that await them in life. Young people in Japan are extremely heiwa-boke, a word that literally means "soft in the head from too much peace," and maybe serving a couple years in the Self-Defense Forces would do them some good.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Akihabara Update

Akihabara is the area of Tokyo famous for its electronics shops, and you can find whatever you're looking for there, whether it's the newest computer gadget or fifteen-year-old software for your Sega Mega Drive game console. Akiba is also the "Mecca" of otaku culture in the world, with hundreds of doujinshi shops, maid cafes and other companies selling products of interest to Japan's booming otaku generation. Take a stroll down the main street on a Sunday -- they close the whole street down since there's so much foot traffic -- and you'll see a spectacle like no other, with thousands of fans laughing, shopping or dancing while cosplaying their favorite anime characters, including more than a few males dressed up like female characters. Lately some less-than-savory elements have been showing up at Akiba, including up-and-coming bikini idols providing some, ahem, "fan service" for passersby with camera phones to increase their popularity, which tends to tarnish the area's image as a fun playground for nerdy types. As the fans get rowdier, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police have been increasing their patrols in the region, walking around and making grim faces at fans who look like they're about to start a "guerilla live" or sudden performance of anime karaoke along the side of the street. They've been checking the belongings of otaku shoppers, too, ostensibly to make sure they don't have any knives, which seems silly, given the extremely innocuous nature of most otaku types -- most of us wouldn't hurt a fly outside of a video game. There've been a lot of theories put forth about the crackdown on geekish activities, including that it's a lot safer to mess with the "A-boys" then, say, yakuza gangsters over in Kabuki-cho.


Innovative Uses for Vending Machines in Japan

Japan leads the world in many important areas, including sporting more vending machines than any other country in the world, with one operating machine for every 23 citizens. While there are vending machines that sell everyday items you'd expect to find, like canned drinks or Pocky, it's not hard to find machines offering frozen ice cream or 5 kg bags of rice, as well as machines that sell cigarettes and beer when you slide your drivers' license in for verification. The other day I was walking around our city trying to find a shop that would give me change for a 10,000 yen note, but I wasn't having any luck since there were no regular shops near where I was. I happened to walk past our city's Passport Center, the place where Japanese citizens in our city go to order a passport, so I ducked inside to ask if they could make change for me. The lady at the counter just shrungged, gesturing to a vending machine that stood behind me, and I knew I was out of luck: the Passport Center, like many businesses, used a vending machine that dispensed tickets that could be traded for the various services they offered. This allowed the office staff to completely avoid dealing with cash, which no doubt made their operations safer and more efficient, since all the cash was stored safely inside the ticket vending machine, which could only be opened by the armored car drivers who came to empty it every day. You also find these ticket vending machines at restaurants quite often: just insert your 500 yen, hit the button for "curry rice," and give that ticket to the waitress, who never needs to touch money herself.

Japanese Health Insurance Hell 2008

As a group, the Japanese are fortunate enough to enjoy extremely long lifespans, with the current average being 78.5 years for men and 85.5 years for women. There are many reasons for this longevity, including a healthier diet, an extremely safe society, and a tendency to build lifelong relationships that provide important support in later years. (My mother-in-law is still close friends with women she went to elementary school with six decades ago, something that's unthinkable to me.) Another reason Japanese live a long time is the health care system here, in which private institutions provide health services according to highly structured price schedules imposed by the National Health Insurance System. Currently Japan is going through "Health Insurance Hell" as various changes that kicked in April 1st continue to cause mass confusion. For starters, Japan used to offer free healthcare to everyone over the age of 75, but this has changed, and under the new system, some elderly users must pay a monthly premium. It's not clear which groups this applies to, however, and it's feared that the new system, which makes people pay more for health insurance the more often they use medical services, will keep sick people from going to the hospital. In addition, the government saw fit to change the Health Insurance Card from a large booklet to a paper-thin card, which is easily lost or thrown away by elderly Japanese.