Friday, May 30, 2008

An Order of Pizza and Japanese Culture

Today is Inventory Day here at J-List, when we have to count the many thousands of excellent products we stock. It's quite a job, with our entire 15-person staff counting all the items throughout the day, so we make it fun by ordering lunch from Pizza Hut, which 99% of Japanese think is Pizza Hat. Anyway, we mis-calculated the number of people who'd be eating and didn't order enough quite pizzas, making me worried that there might not be enough food for everyone. However, I'd forgotten about the Japanese tradition of enryo (en-RYO), a word which means constraint, modesty or to refrain from doing something, and when we opened the pizza boxes and told everyone to dig in, it took five minutes or more for the Japanese staff to start eating. The girls would take one piece and say they were full, and we had to literally put the pizza slices on plates and press them into people's hands to get them to eat. In the end, there was just enough pizza to go around. It's difficult as an American to completely understand a concept like enryo, but part of the reason it was so hard to get everyone to start eating was, no one wanted to be perceived as being first to grab for food, so they stood around saying, "No, after you" to each other. This was probably due to having so many people in the same place at once. If there had been only 2-3 people and a single pizza, they'd have been less self-conscious.

We did not get the Macross Frontier pizza special they're running, because you have to order medium pizzas for that, and we needed larges this time. Are they implying that otaku don't have friends, or what?

Jump Magazine 40th Anniversary Canned Coffee?

Manga is the name given to Japanese comic books, although most people over the age of 35 or so will use the word to describe animation on TV as well. The word literally means "whimsical pictures" and was coined by Edo Period ukiyo-e artist Hokusai (the dude who painted the famous Red Fuji and Great Wave Off Kanagawa pictures you may have seen) to describe a book of woodblock art he'd done. Although manga can be associated with obsessive otaku culture, there really isn't a single Japanese person who didn't grow up with a favorite manga that they still feel nostalgia for, whether they're an active fan now or not. On Sundays our rural liquor shop gets the new issues of the popular weekly manga magazines, a day earlier than the large chains and convenience stores, one of the few bones thrown to small retailers in Japan. I always marvel at the customers who stop by to pick up the new issue: elementary school and junior high kids, of course, but plenty of adults, including a businessman in a really nice BMW who makes small talk with me and, since we live next door to our city's mayor by some strange coincidence, the deputy mayor of our city. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Shonen Jump, the popular manga weekly, and Japanese canned coffee maker Roots is putting on a major advertising campaign for its new coffee called "Innocent Blend" (I am not kidding), showing panels from the great Jump comics of the past, from YuYu Hakusho to Dragonball Z to Saint Seiya all the way up to Death Note. So everyone celebrate manga by, er, drinking some canned coffee, or something!

Gokuh: "After he shook hands with me, he wiped his hand off when he thought I wasn't looking!"

L: "I hit the snooze button on my alarm clock twice this morning, and ended up being late."

Here are some more. This is from Kimagure Orange Road, the novels for which I translated back in the day. This is from the last volume when the love trianble between Hikaru, Madoka and Kyosuke (who is a secret esper) is resolved. The ad says, "I went to make a purchasae with my 'point card' but it had expired..."

Another favorite of mine, Video Girl Ai, which is 1000% times better than the short anime they made, although the anime had Noriko Sakai to make up for it. This is Ai saying, "This guy only makes jokes that make himself look bad." Which is very funny when read in Japanese, very funny.

For the Bleach fans. This says, "S- So she was really trying to break up with me!?"

The Matrix vs. Megazone 23

No work is ever created in a vacuum, and everything is constantly being influenced by everything else. Every time I watch Silence of the Lambs, I marvel at how blatantly the X-Files draws its core inspiration from the film, right down to the geeky Lone Gunman characters who help out on the case, and I'm sure the creator of CSI: Las Vegas got his idea for that series while watching Manhunter, the 1986 film that introduced Hannibal Lecter (the 2002 film Red Dragon is a remake of Manhunter). The world of Japanese animation is not immune from taking inspiration from other sources either, for example the many cues Fist of the North Star takes from The Road Warrior, or my pet theory that the "magical girl" genre of anime rose in response to the popularity of My Wife is a Witch, aka Bewitched, which was popular in Japan during that era. If you've seen the film The Matrix, you know how Hollywood has been influenced more than a little by the world of anime. While a lot of the inspiration for the movie obviously comes from Shirow Masamune's hard-hitting Ghost in the Shell sci-fi series, a larger part of the story is a tribute to Megazone 23 (pronounced "two-three"), one of the breakthrough anime concepts of the 80s. In the series, the population of Tokyo thinks its the end of the 20th Century, but in reality it's 500 years in the future and everyone is living inside a space ship. Many elements of the Megazone series are borrowed for the Matrix, including the hacker-as-semi-messianic main character idea.
MZ23 the first was one of the great Haruhiko Mikimoto creations. He could snare fans with any illustration on a record album, a model box, you name it...
Part II has radically altered designs, although I didn't dislike it as much as I used to. This was the best anime sex scene of its era, though, You know you're an old-school anime nerd when you can say honestly that a girl has broken up with you over differing opinions on Megazone 23 character designs.

Part III is a new generation, several hundred years into the future. A lot of the Hacker Neo stuff comes from this one.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Election and Election News Coverage in Japan

There are some big differences between how elections work in Japan compared to the U.S. Because Japan uses a British-style Parliamentary system, the elections aren't held as regularly as they are in the States, and you never know when the Prime Minister will disband the government and throw us all into Election Hell, with candidates riding around in loudspeaker cars thanking everyone loudly for their support. Election advertising is usually limited to posters showing the candidate wearing a smart suit with his name in large kanji characters, and negative advertising and campaigning is strictly forbidden. There are two types of election news coverage in Japan: reporting done by NHK, Japan's version of the BBC, which by law must be neutral on all issues; and traditional masukomi (from "mass communications") outlets like Fuji or TBS. While the press in Japan seems well balanced when covering politics -- for example, even minor parties are given ample time to present their views on popular political talk shows, no matter how small their representation -- you can always count on Asahi Shimbun-affiliated TV Asahi to give the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a hard time because of their long history of opposition. Also, the news media is always careful to tip-toe around any issue involving the New Komeito, Japan's third-largest political party and part of the current ruling coalition, since many famous singers and actors are members of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist religion, which is completely unaffiliated (wink wink) with the New Komeito party (wink wink).
Here are the official Election Poster Places you see around town. You also see plenty of these posters in people's homes, where they're no doubt pressed into displaying them as a form of Japanese giri. But you don't see Hitler moustaches, one politician choosing unflattering images of his opponent for negative advertising, or anything. It's all about positive issues, slogans (sometimes in English), and gambarimasu (Japanese for "I will do my best for you").

Interesting Japanese Phrases: Yappari, Naruhodo, Masaka, Sasuga

When learning Japanese, I found myself fascinated by words or phrases that were completely unlike what existed in English. For example, there's a class of single-word phrases which, for some reason, have many possible translation paths in English, making them challenging (but fun) to use. First there's yahari (alternately, yappari), which you use to express your own expectations about something, roughly equivalent to "I knew it" or "just as I expected." When someone tells you something that you didn't know, you can use naruhodo (nah-roo-ho-doh), which means "I see" or "that's news to me." If you watch an hour of anime in Japanese, you'll likely hear the phrase masaka (mah-sah-kah) at least once, usually said by a shocked character -- it just means "it can't be!" or "you've got to be joking!" Finally there's a great word to pull out when you want to praise someone: sasuga (SAH-soo-gah), which roughly means "I always knew you were incredible!" So if you have a friend or coworker named Yamada-san who does something good, hit him with "Sasuga, Yamada-san!" and know that you've made his day.

Do You Know Miss Hanako of the Toilet?

Do you know the story of Toire no Hanako-san, or Miss Hanako of the Toilet? It's a Japanese urban legend that can be found at most every elementary school here, and it goes like this: if you go to the fourth stall of a specified girl's bathroom, usually on the third floor of the school, knock three times and call out "Hanako-san, are you there?" then you'll hear her reply, "Hai" (yes). Open the stall and you'll see a shimmering figure of a girl with bobbed hair with a red skirt on standing there. It's the ghost of Hanako, a girl who committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates (ijime), who is said to haunt the girl's bathroom looking for revenge. Or in an older version, Hanako is a girl who was playing hide-and-seek in the school bathroom during the war and was killed in an American air raid because she couldn't hear the air raid siren. Hanako-san is part of a pantheon of "school ghost" stories that are well known in Japan, like Kuchisake Onna or Split-Faced Woman, a female ghost who asks you if she's beautiful before trying to devour you, and Teke-Teke, the upper torso of a female who claws her way around Japan searching for her lower half, which was severed in a train accident in Hokkaido. Anyone hearing this story will supposedly see Teke-Teke's lower half walking aimlessly around the countryside within three days. Let us know if you see anything!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Exceptions to Rules in Japanese

When you study a language like Japanese, you learn many rules that make up the grammar, like the unique particles wa and ga which verbally mark the subjects of sentences; o, which conveniently marks the object of a sentence; how to change the verb forms to add whatever meaning you want to express, and so on. But as you study, you'll learn that to every rule there's an exception. For starters, the grammatical structures used in Japanese are important, yet in real spoken Japanese, most parts of sentences are usually understood by speakers and are thus eliminated, which can create confusion in the minds of students. When addressing someone, the Japanese add -san to the ends of their names for formal speech, and for relationships that are closer, -chan for girls and -kun for boys. But there are plenty of exceptions to this neat little system, for example, calling all children with -chan regardless of sex, mothers adding -san to the names of foods in bento lunches for their kids, -kun being used with females in formal classroom or military settings, or the Japanese obsession with nicknames, with the whole country thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger as "Schwa-chan" because that's so darned cute. Bottom line, any language is complex, and the best way to cover each different facet of it is to expose yourself to plenty of input in that language. Thankfully, it's quite easy to find interesting and compelling ways to get input in Japanese, whether from manga or anime or Japanese dramas or even the PC dating-sim games we sell.

Wacky Japanese You Already Know

It's time for another installment of Wacky Japanese You Already Know, featuring Japanese words that happen to be homophones with English, like hen, a word for a female chicken which happens to mean "strange" in Japanese, or the letter "E," which is an all-purpose word for "good" or "okay" here (Romanized ii, pronounced like the letter). In American English, "honky" is an impolite word for a white person, but in Japanese, honki means "serious," e.g. honki desu ka? "Are you serious?" The word "kinky" might make you think of something creative in the bedroom, but in Japan the region of the country containing Kyoto, Osaka and Nara is designated as the Kinki Region -- there's a popular "multi-talent" duo from the region called the Kinki Kids. If you've ever seen one of the Rambo movies, you know how to say "violent" or "violence" in Japanese, since that's what it means -- rambou. When a relationship has bumps, the word for this is giku-shaku, which sounds so much like "geek shack" that you can probably just use that word. "Emo" describes a kind of music and related counter-culture style of living, but in Japanese it's...a potato (imo). And if you've ever wondered how you say "voice actor" in Japanese, it's really easy: "say you" (seiyu). Now you know some more Japanese words. Wasn't that easy?

First European Wins a Sumo Championship. Honky desu ka?

History has been made in the Sumo Wrestling world with the victory of Bulgarian wrestler Kotooshu (koh-toh-OH-shu), the first time a wrestler from Europe has won a Sumo Championship. Born Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov in Bulgaria, he was a successful wrestler in his home country, but when his weight increased past 120 kg, the maximum for participating in the Olympics, he decided to try his hand at sumo wrestling instead after participating in a few bouts as a joke. He climbed the ranks in the sumo world quickly, attaining the 2nd highest level of ozeki after only 19 tournaments, the most rapid rise of a wrestler starting from the lowest rank. (There are six tournaments held each year, three in Tokyo and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Kyushu.) His handsome good looks and relatively low weight of just 152 kg / 334 lbs -- compare that to Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki, who was a massive 264 kg / 580 lbs -- have earned him many fans, and the nickname "the David Beckham of sumo." His wrestling name of Kotooshu combines the traditional Japanese musical instrument koto with the kanji name for Europe, Oshu. The top sumo wrestlers are always quite famous in Japan, appearing on TV commercials and talk shows, and I'm sure we'll be seeing plenty of this wrestler from now on. He's even won his first first sponsor: Meiji's Bulgaria brand of yogurt, which makes a lot of sense.
Go, Kotooshu!

The Melancholy of Hayao Miyazaki

Question. Should we make this as a T-shirt? ^_^