Friday, May 16, 2008

Japan is G8 Summit-Happy

Japan is preparing to host the 34th G8 Summit, to be held at beautiful Lake Toya in Hokkaido this July. One thing you learn early on about Japan is that it's extremely pleased to receive recognition from the nations of the West, and whenever events like the Nagano Olympics or the 2004 World Cup draw near, there's a flurry of construction as Japan makes itself look good for all the foreign visitors. Japan is extremely pleased to be hosting the other major nations at the summit this year, so much so that it's issuing commemorative 500 and 1000 yen coins to mark the occasion -- you'd think it was a World Expo all over again. The summit will be held in one of the most beautiful and least-spoiled parts of Japan, a decision the government no doubt made to help bring attention to the environment.

Hot Springs vs. the Beatles

Living in Japan, it's always interesting to observe the various "when worlds collide" moments that come along every once in a while. I remember back when J-List's Tomo came to work here, nine years ago. Like many Japanese who grew up in the postwar period, Tomo has always had a lot of respect for the music culture of the West, and he basically taught himsef English by translating and memorizing songs by the Stones and Led Zeppelin. I don't think he ever expected to meet an American who had done the opposite, embracing Japanese pop culture in order to learn his language, as I've done. One day we were talking about the classic 1972 song "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan, which a student of mine had ironically played at her wedding, not understanding the words. I was sure was a Beatles song for some reason, and I'll never forget the look of utter shock on his face that an American could get a fact like that wrong. Ever since coming to Japan I've loved onsen, Japan's volcanic hot springs, and I've been to dozens all over the country. When Tomo told me that he almost never went to hot springs, I was equally shocked that a person could live here and not love the bathing culture as I do. It was quite an educational experience for both of us, and these days, he goes to hot springs and I know more about Gilbert O'Sullivan.

The $24,000 Melon

Visitors to Japan will encounter many strange and wonderful sights, from thousand-year-old temples and five-stories pagodas to vending machines that manage to take up less than ten inches of space along narrow Tokyo streets. While prices in Japan are often quite reasonable -- we took nine J-List staff members out for Indian Curry and naan bread to welcome a new employee today, and it only cost $100 -- the opposite is sometimes true. For example, virtually all forms of media are pricier in Japan than they are in the U.S., with music CDs still costing around $30, and a video game in a ge-sen (game center) setting you back $2. Gas is expensive, too, currently up to $6.25 a gallon or so. Then there are those mysterious honeydew melons you see in produce shops which cost a mind-blowing $60-80. Japan being Japan, there's more to this high price tag than meets the eye, and these high-end fruits are nearly always purchased as gifts for individuals who have helped you out recently, given to bosses to butter them up for larger bonuses, or exchanged between companies. The bar for ridiculously priced fruits was raised this week, when a pair of exquisite melons from Yubari, Hokkaido (the Mecca of melons in Japan) fetched an unbelievable $24,000 at auction. The high purchase price helps local melon farmers doubly because the news generated by the new price record will no doubt generate a lot of extra interest in these high-grade melons all season long.

Yubari Melons

Thursday, May 15, 2008

OH! Mikey

In case you haven't seen OH! Mikey, this is my favorite episode:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Some Useful Japanese Proverbs

"Even monkeys fall from trees." This is one of the many bits of wisdom you can glean by studying Japanese kotowaza, or proverbs, which are so plentiful in Japan there are books to help you study them. This phrase is saru mo ki kara ochiru in Japanese, and it means that even experts make mistakes occasionally, and no one is perfect. Another one that comes up a lot is, "Sit on a rock for three years" (ishi no ue ni mo san-nen), which means you should stick to something for a certain time (three years) before knowing whether you like it or not, which can be good advice for young people who change their minds too easily. Or, "If you fall down seven times, get up an eighth" (nana korobi, ya-oki), meaning that you should never give up trying to attain your goals -- always come back swinging. One of my favorites, juu-nin toh-iro, which literally means "ten people, ten colors," or people are all different, so don't look at me funny for wearing this domo-kun hat, alright? Although these proverbs can be difficult to learn since they often use old or archaic grammar, pulling one out at the right moment can bring a look of astonishment to the face of a Japanese person that's pure gold for a gaijin. Most kotowaza were originally adapted from Chinese versions, but sometimes they're added from other sources, for example snippets of wisdom from the Bible or Shakespeare. There here are local versions of all the most famous English proverbs, too ("a bird in the hand" and so on).

Cultural Confusion in a Hard Rock Cafe

When you flit between the U.S. and Japan a lot, you can sometimes find yourself coming unglued culturally. I was in Tokyo yesterday on business, enjoying the best American-style cheeseburger in Japan at the Hard Rock Cafe, and when it was time to leave, I had a mini-stress attack as I tried to remember how I was supposed to pay. Should I ask for the check and pay at the table, as in the U.S., or take the receipt to the cash register near the door and pay there, as is done in Japan? I wasn't sure which custom went with which country for a moment, a fact that was no doubt exacerbated by my strange surroundings. Another area with the potential for cultural goof-ups is driving. Although it's not that difficult to learn to drive on the left (just make sure you're closer to the center of the road than your passenger, whichever country you're in), it's a constant challenge to remember which side of the car to get in, and I've gotten quite good at nonchalantly strolling around to the other side of your car after trying to get in on the wrong side. Similarly, although automobile controls are identical no matter what country you're driving in, the turn signal and windshield wiper controls are reversed between the U.S. and Japan. This increases the likelihood that I'll accidentally turn my wipers on when making a turn, usually when a group of attractive girls happens to be watching me.

Japanese Cultural Lessons from OH! Mikey

There was a bizarre Japanese TV show that was on a few years back called OH! Mikey, in which an American family moves to Tokyo and must get used to their new life in strange Japan. Since the characters are all played by mannequins who never move, well, it's one of the strangest things you can possibly imagine. Anyway, in one of the episodes, Mikey tells his mother Barbara that the teacher will be dropping by for a visit soon, which makes her sure that Mikey has done something scandalous at school. In reality, it's customary for teachers to visit the homes of their students once per school year, to observe the home environment first-hand and to talk with the parents about any concerns they might have for the new school year. It's another example of Japan being focused on the important issues of education and child-rearing, and it's something I'd like to see considered for adoption in the U.S. My daughter's home visit was today, and my wife spent an hour discussing various topics with her teacher. As usual, my daughter going to the U.S. for the summer was a minor problem, since even during summer vacation the other kids will attend various school events as well as practicing the theme to Space Battleship Yamato on brass band instruments, a rather unlikely tradition at their school. But my wife stuck to her guns, letting the teacher know that going to the U.S. to learn English and do fun things like Girl Scout Camp is equally important to our family.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Three WA's of Japanese

Part of the challenge of studying a foreign language is learning to categorize and separate the new concepts you encounter. Take the word wa for example, which English speakers sometimes use as a term for peace or harmony, as in, "Hey man, you're messin' with my wa." The character has other meanings, too, including "peace" as well as referring to Japan itself; it can be combined with other characters to form words like heiwa (peace), washiki (Japanese-style, as in a Japanese-style toilet), or washoku (Japanese food). A completely different word wa means circle or hoop, and in the context of Japanese relationships, a group, and it's quite common to hear phrases like wa ga aru kara "I have to think of the whole circle of people" or wa ga kuzureru ("the circle of friends would suffer"). Finally, there's wa, the grammitical "topic marker" used in Japanese sentences, which marks the topic of sentences, like kore wa enpitsu desu ("this is is a pencil") or gohan wa? ("What about dinner?").

Speed Racer Thoughts

At the anime convention in New York last December, I got to meet Peter Fernandez, the voice behind the legendary Speed Racer cartoon of the 1960s (he also directed and wrote every episode). As a child, I was a card-carrying member of the generation that thrilled to the ongoing adventures of Speed and his Mach 5, the car that could jump chasms, zoom at full speed through a thick forest thanks to retractable buzz cutters, and even drive along the bottom of the ocean. The show was originally broadcast as Mach Go Go Go! in Japan, the story of young race car driver Go Mifune -- a multi-level name which represents both the English word "go!" and the number 5, which is go in Japanese -- along with his former pro wrestler father Daisuke (Pops), his girlfriend Michi (Trixie), his michivious younger brother Kurio (Spridle), chimpanzee Senpei (Chim Chim), and who could forget the mysterious Mr. X (Racer X)? Speed Racer was unique in that it was more popular outside of Japan than at home, becoming a cult favorite in English and more or less enjoying a revival in Japan because of its international popularity. Although there are plenty of of snarky cultural references to Speed Racer in our culture, it's far more common for Japanese fans of the era to profess a love of Chiki Chiki Machine Super Race, the Japanese version of the Hanna-Barbara classic Wacky Race, or show you their impression of that cute dog Ken-Ken (Muttley) laughing. As if to mark the occasion of the new Speed Racer film, our cat Su-chan just gave birth to a cute baby kitten that has an "M" on his forhead. I think I'll name him "Mach."
Oh, this is the ONLY cultural reference to Mach GoGoGo! I was able to find, after 17 years of living in Japan, a commercial featuring Aya Ueto, It is pretty awesome ^_^

Taco Heaven in Japan

Last time I mentioned that the word "taco" (tako) happens to mean something very different in Japan: octopus. The Japanese get around any confusion related to this by always referring to the Mexican version in the plural, as tacos, which takes some getting used to when you're talking about just one. Sadly, tacos and all other forms of Mexican food are almost completely absent from Japan, and the closest thing you can find are the Twisters from KFC, which aren't that bad if you keep Taco Bell sauce in your car like I do. Imagine my surprise when I went to the local home center over the weekend and saw a real live taco stand set up, selling authentic "Mexican Tortilla Tacos." Every food must adopt to meet the tastes and expectations of the locals, however, so there were some changes to the tacos. These included the option of choosing sweet chili or Italian sauce instead of salsa, and fresh cabbage and cucumbers instead of lettuce -- yum. I certainly hope the taco stand does well so we can enjoy this special treat in the future, which folks in the U.S. are able to take for granted.

What a glorious sight to a starving gaijin!

It took me a while to figure out that "avocado sauce" was guacomole

It didn't look like I quite expected, but...

it was great!