Friday, May 23, 2008

Eye Creases and Beauty in Japan

In Japan, there are often concepts that are difficult for Westerners to grasp. One measurement of beauty here is related to the number of creases in a persons eyelid when their eyes are open -- one crease is called hitoe (hee-TOE-eh), two creases is futae (fu-TAH-eh). Single-creasers have slender, traditionally Asian eyes, while those with more creases have larger eyes that look European to the Japanese. Getting plastic surgery to change the appearance of your eyes is quite popular among TV stars and young Japanese people, and my wife likes to regularly report on which TV stars who have suddenly changed their faces. (There are even products that promise to make your eyes look larger and more "Western.") I have to admit, I'd never considered that people had different numbers of creases in their eyelids until coming here -- it was a totally alien concept to me. Another measure of beauty is having a "high nose" (hana ga takai), an important feature for anyone who wants to be considered one of the Beautiful People here; the opposite is a "low nose" (hana ga hikui). The rule is, if you can touch your chin and the tip of your nose with one extended finger without contacting your lips, you've got a "high nose." I never really thought of schnozzes as anything other than "big" or "small" before coming to Japan, but apparently there is more to a person's nose than meets the eye.

The Japanese Think You Know Everything

One of the first things you learn as a foreigner in Japan is that people here will assume you're intimately familiar with every word written in katakana, the writing system used for expressing foreign words, just by being a native speaker of English. Although the majority of foreign-loan words do come from English, many are taken from other languages, such as the medical terms that were imported from German during the early 20th century, or various everyday words like ankeeto (questionnaire, from the French d'enquete) or arubaito (part time job, from the German arbeit). I remember trying to make curry back in my bachelor days and stumbling because I didn't know what the "ruu" the instructions called for was. (I now know it's roux, the French word for cubes of curry or consomme.) This assumption that every foreigner knows everything associated with America and Europe goes beyond words, too. I was asked by the PTA of the special English school my son attends if I thought the International Baccalaureate program would be a good base for students wishing to attend university in the U.S. I'd never heard of this system, which seemed to confuse the PTA members. I was a gaijin, wasn't I? How could I not know? They were disappointed when (after doing some research) I told them the IB program, which is widely accepted in Europe and elsewhere, wasn't officially recognized by most mainstream U.S. universities the students would likely attend, since Japan considers itself an honorary European nation.

Here's my proof: Japan and Europe have the same DVD region code!

Journey to the Sea at the Center of the Earth, or, Thor's Day???

Learning a foreign language is good for reasons beyond the obvious benefit of being able to communicate and share ideas with people from other parts of the world. It can also give you unexpected insights, including the etymology of words you might miss otherwise. The name China uses for itself literally means the Kingdom at the Center of the World, which seemed overly ethnocentric to me when I heard it for the first time. Of course, the Mediterranean Sea means the exact same thing, the Sea at the Center of the Earth, something I never would have picked up on if I hadn't seen the name in kanji characters. Similarly, I'd never consciously realized the days of the week were named after the ancient gods, although it's very clear when you write the Japanese days of the week in kanji, which correspond to Moon Day, Mars Day, Mercury Day, Jupiter Day, Venus Day, etc. (The names in English have been filtered through the Germanic/Norse pantheon, for example Thursday comes from silly-sounding Thor's Day, although the system is the same.) Sometimes words can get lost in translation when they move from one language to another. Despite Japan being a pretty non-religeous country, the name for the Statue of Liberty in Japanese is jiyu no megami, or Goddess of Freedom, and the official word for the Olympic Torch translated as the Holy Fire of the Five Rings. Sounds like a magic item from a video game.
Sea at the Center of the World

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

TOTO, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore

If you've ever visited Japan, you've probably answered the call of nature at some point, and seen the famous TOTO logo featured on most every toilet here. If you're a wise-cracking gaijin like me, you might have been compelled to say, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Or like my son says, 等々トイレを見つけた tohtoh toire o mitsuketa, "I finally found a toilet," since tohtoh also means "finally" or "after a long time." Toto is the largest toilet maker in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world, and if you've ever enjoyed the warm feeling of having your butt carefully washed and dried by your toilet, you have these people to thank, since the "Washlet" is their invention. The company was launched in 1916 in response to the need for Western-style sanitation as Japan grew more modern, and it experienced rapid growth during the rebuilding after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Like many Japanese company names such as Kyocera ("Kyoto Ceramics"), its name is an abbreviation, in this case Toyo Toki, or Oriental Porcelain. In addition to high-tech toilets, they invented the "unit bath," an easily constructed one-piece bath, sink and toilet room common in Japanese apartments. They also had a successful line of porcelain tableware, although I for one wouldn't want to eat off porcelain plates with that TOTO logo on it.

Apparently Toto is pushing hard to get Washlets accepted in the U.S., although sales are slow so far, with 1000 or so moving each month. By comparison, they're selling a million units a year in China. Click the image below to go to their site and see a pretty amazing website that will probably get you thinking about "that happy Washlet feeling." Clean is happy!

Toto Toilets


One of my favorite anime/manga series is Genshiken, an exploration of the deeper aspects of anime, manga and related culture as seen through members of a university club dedicated to the Study of Modern Visual Culture. The show follows the main character Sasahara as he comes to terms with his own self as an otaku, and examines different areas of popular culture through the other club members, like Ohno the obsessive cosplayer; Tanaka, who likes costumes and plastic models; Madarame, the textbook super-obsessive Gundam fan; Kugayama, the group's first doujinshi artist; Kasukabe, who's only there because her boyfriend is a member; and Ogiue (oh-gi-OO-eh), the enigmatic yaoi-obsessed female who secretly hates otaku. One of the funniest moments in the series is the introduction of two American characters who are friends of Ohno: tall, elegant Angela, who possesses way too much knowledge of underground otaku culture, and petite Sue, who's managed to memorize the most embarrassing lines in anime and says them at inappropriate times. The reaction of the Japanese characters to the two Americans is priceless, and (as usual in this series) also very accurate: despite six years of English study in Junior High and High School, they freeze up and are almost completely unable to even try to communicate. I've occasionally had that reaction from people here, despite the fact that I was speaking fluent Japanese to them the whole time, so it was hilarious to watch.

Mechanisms Behind the Harmonious Life in Japan

I write often about how harmonious Japan appears to foreigners living here. Seen from our special position as outsiders (which is what the word gaijin really means, after all), most Japanese seem to possess joshiki, a kind of "national common sense" which keeps them generally in sync with society at large; in cases where an individual moves away from accepted norms, the phenomenon of hito no me ("the eyes of others") will usually bring him around, or at least get him to keep his penchant for [fill in any slightly anti-social but fun activity here] hidden from general view. This tendency to get along with each other doesn't just happen automatically: there are concrete mechanisms in place that help make Japanese society the happy, feel-good place it is. When I walked to school back in the U.S. I walked alone, and my primary concern was avoiding getting beaten up by a bully along the way, but in Japan, kids walk to school together in a group called a han, with the oldest child acting as hancho (remember, "head honcho") which forces kids to interact socially in positive ways. Our larger neighborhood is divided into sections called kumi, which plan various community events, establish schedules of mothers who will stand along the route kids walk to school to make sure they're safe, and publish information on designated evacuation areas in the event of a disaster. They also distribute the kairanban (kai-rahn-bahn), a circular with information on various goings-on in the community, another subtle way of building social ties since it has to be manually passed from house to house. When I married my wife in 1994, I puzzled at the small speaker wired to one wall in their living room, out of which a calm voice would occasionally sound, announcing things like an ikebana class being held in the Community Center, or the all-important-in-fire-prone-Japan reminders to make sure your kerosene heaters are turned off at 10 pm. The system eventually fell out of use and the speaker was removed when we "reformed" our house (as they say in Japan, meaning remodel), but while it as hooked up I was amazed at the benevolent 1984-esque-ness of it all.

A kairanban is a clipboard with a list of names, and when you've seen the news on the clipboard you sign your name and take it to the next family. Do they have anything like this in the U.S.? Hmm, maybe the Amish do, come to think of it.

Picture of a Kairanban

Monday, May 19, 2008

Useful Japanese: the Honorific "O"

An interesting aspect of Japanese polite grammar is the honorific "o" that goes in front of some words to give them a higher status. Various words that are especially important in Japanese society receive this prefix, like money (okane) or relationships like mother or grandmother (okaasan, obaasan). It's interesting to notice the patterns of words that take this unique honorific. For example, words having to do with death or Buddhism tend to take it (otera = temple, okoh = Buddhist incense), yet words related to Japan's Shinto religion usually don't. English words don't take the honorific, with the exception of o-new, a slang word for something purchased recently that's very important to you. Adding the honorific "o" to words sort of "softens" it, so words related to children or babies often feature it (omaru = child's potty, omutsu = diapers, oshiri = a cute word referring to a person's rear end). An alternative reading for the "o" kanji is "go" and some words have "go" on the front instead (such as gohan, a polite word for rice or any food). Conceptually, "o" and "go" are exactly the same, since they're written with the same kanji character.

And then there's the always useful omanko, that naughtiest of all words, which takes the honorific "o." Reply in the comments if you don't know that it means.

Wasted Food in America vs. Japan

I saw a report that said Americans throw away an average of 27% of available food, an unfortunate reality in a world where not everyone has enough to eat. Being a prosperous nation, Japan has a similar problem, with a large amount of perfectly good food being disposed of instead of eaten, dispite the loud protests of members of the generation that grew up immediately after World War II, when the country knew real starvation. There are various reasons for this waste, such as unsold food being disposed of in supermarkets and convenience stores at the end of the day, food being tossed due to the expiration dates having passed, or food being left behind in a restaurant by patrons. (There's no custom of taking home a "doggie bag" in Japan and most Japanese would be horrified at the thought of asking for one.) Still, there's a big difference in the potion sizes between Japan and the U.S. with the average plate of food here probably about 25-30% smaller than in the States, and it's surprising how easy it is for foreigners living here to get used to this. Among the benefits of these smaller portions are by ability to be satisfied ordering a "child's" ice cream or frozen yogurt when visiting the States, since the size is just right.
My whole family would be happy sharing something this huge:

World War II and Japan

World War II officially ended 63 years ago with the surrender of Japan, but the legacy of the war isn't completely over. On Sunday, an unexploded bomb dropped from a B-29 was discovered in Tokyo, forcing the evacuation of 16,000 residents while the Self Defense Forces were called in to defuse it, which they did successfully. Although this was a unique reminder of the reality of the war for modern Japan, I've always wondered why tangible signs that there really was a war here are so rare today. There are a few, of course -- a really straight road in a nearby city that locals will tell you used to be the runway for the Nakajima Air Base, a playground with an old Zero fighter converted for kids to play on, and a deactivated American bomb on display in a library. Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, though, I remember visiting Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial, and I feel as if I was more aware of the war than Japanese kids growing up here, where it actually happened. There's nothing like Arlington here in Japan, no equivalent to Veteran's Day or Memorial Day -- I guess there are psychological factors at work in the minds of the Japanese that are hard for an American to fathom.