Friday, May 09, 2008
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Wherever you're from in the world. there's a good chance that your blood contains contributions from different national groups -- maybe some German or Italian blood from this branch of the family, or perhaps a dash of Cherokee to keep things interesting. To people from the melting pot that is the United States, mixed ancestry is taken for granted, and it's quite common to talk about about where your ancestors came from with others. This is one discussion you probably won't hear in Japan, a very homogenous country where virtually everyone considers themselves to be of identical stock. The exception to this rule are individuals who are haafu, or half Japanese and half-Western, who exist in the special place between futsu (normal) Japanese and the incredible varieties of face, hair and body types seen in Westerners. To many people here, haafu seems to be the perfect blending of Japanese sensibilities and Western mystique, and there's a large group of "talents" on TV whose mixed blood helps them appeal to fans. These include popular TV announcer Crystal Takigawa, whose soft half-French appearance might subliminally lend credibility when reporting on international news; half-English JPOP singer Kaela Kimura, who got her break when she was chosen to appear in the "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" TV commercials; and of course the super-cute Leah Dizon, whose ancestry includes French, American, Chinese and Filipino. Perhaps the current pinnacle of haafu cuteness is actress Erika Sawajiri, the Algerian-French-Japanese star, who's incredible beauty has won her many fans.
The question of "What makes the Japanese the way they are?" is an interesting one, and I'm certainly not the first gaijin to ponder it. While the U.S. is viewed by Japan as a "horizontal" society in which everyone is more or less equal, Japan's society is considered "vertical," with relationships that change based on relative age or status in a group. One example of this are the concepts of senpai and kohai, words that describe an upperclassman in a school or senior member of an organization, and underclassman or junior in a group, respectively. Another example is how the concept of, say, "brother" is split into separate words for older brother (oniisan) and younger brother (ototo), and it'd be difficult for the Japanese to think of the idea of a "brother" without classifying older or younger in his mind. (In the case of twins, by the way, the one that pops out first is the older brother.) My personal theory is that the the majority of Japanese social imprinting occurs in Junior High School, a unique period of three years in which students are first exposed to the strict reality of these top-down relationships for the first time. It's in Junior High that kids are forced to join clubs and engage in "club activities" with older kids, which includes greeting senpai in a loud, clear voice, showing respect at all times, and putting up with some hazing, no doubt. This period of intense social pressure seems unique to Junior High: in Elementary School, kids are still treated as kids and almost never interface with kids at other age levels, and High Schools function like a miniature version of the university system in Japan, with students choosing which school fits their study goals and academic abilities, so there's less social pressure (although there are plenty of other pressures, like college entrance exams).
This picture appears to be girls cleaning a boy's restroom in bare feet -- pretty gross. Or are they male students?
Monday, May 05, 2008
The name of Japan in its own language is nihon or nippon, alternate readings of kanji characters that mean "origin of the sun," a name given it by China, written 日本. The two names are interchangeable, with nihon being used in everyday speech and nippon used in more formal situations, for example by lawmakers or the straight-laced newscasters on NHK, Japan's version of the BBC. The first Westerners heard of Japan was through Marco Polo, who wrote about a strange country 1500 miles to the East of China called Cipangu, a place of great wealth where both temples and average homes were made of gold, and where the people were very polite, although they had a strange custom of eating human flesh. The modern name of Japan has been filtered through many other languages, including traders in Malaysia (who called it Jepang), Manchuria (Zeppen), and the Portuguese (Iapan), and first appearing in English as Giapan. For some reason, the Japanese have focused on the version Zipang as a cool, retro early word for their country, and this name is commonly found in books, video games, an anime and manga series, and computer CPU cooler.
(The anime Zipang is really good, by the way, a kind of Final Countdown in which a present-day Japanese ship is sent back to World War II...I recommend it a lot.)
Japan is a small country, which has to fit about half the population of the U.S. into an area just 1/25th the size. This makes it important for people to use less space, and you can see many ways in which the Japanese go about doing this in their cities. First of all, many businesses such as family restaurants or electronics retailers are built up high, with the ground level clear for cars to park, which saves a lot of space. Houses with business built into them are quite common in Japan, like Seven-Eleven convenience stores with apartments above for the manager to live in, or my own house, which contains the small liquor shop that my wife's family has operated for fifty years. Gas stations need to save space, too, and many have their pumps located in the roof, with hoses that can be dropped down from above, allowing for more space for cars waiting to be refueled. For parking a lot of cars in a small area, the Japanese have automated car storage systems that will whisk your car away and store it while you shop, then return it to you when you insert your parking stub. There's even a version of this for bicycles that has just gone online, which can store 9400 bicycles in a small underground space. Of course, building up always gives you more room with work with, but it's not always possible to do that in earthquake-prone Japan, which puts extra pressure on engineers to come up with ways of doing more with less space.