Friday, June 06, 2008

Mm, Seafood Pasta

Have you had Tuna Spaghetti recently? I did for lunch, and it was really good, a fresh marinara sauce with chunks of white tuna and several stalks of asparagus on top. I don't remember seeing much in the way of seafood pasta dishes in the States, but they're among my favorites here in Japan, and many restaurants offer good spaghetti alla pescatora, even your basic famires (family restaurants) like Denny's and Coco's. Living in Japan certainly makes you appreciate seafood, and I eat all kinds of things I would never have otherwise, from sushi and sashimi to miso-stewed mackerel, although I do draw the line at shio-kara, which is pickled squid intestines -- that's just going too far. There's one problem: I tend to know the names of fish in Japanese, and can even write them in kanji in some cases, but I often have no idea what the name of the fish I'm eating is in English.

Learning to Mis-pronounce English

You've been in Japan too long when you can pronounce the constellation of Orion like the Japanese do, which sounds something like OH-ree-ohn. The Japanese use a lot of English in their daily lives, which is ostensibly good for native English speakers living here since it means fewer new words to learn, although you often have to spend time getting used to the alternate pronunciations, which is partially a function of the language being phonetically based on syllables rather than consonants and vowels. To you or me, the word "weekend" probably has two syllables, but in Japanese it sounds like "oo-EE-koo-EN-doh." Some other hard-to-get-used-to words include allergy ("ah-REH-roo-gii," with a hard "g" in the last syllable), energy ("eh-NEH-ru-gii," also with a hard "g"), and the word loose, which always seems to be pronounced "lose" (as in the word loose socks). Despite how odd these (mis-)pronunciations of familiar English words may feel at first, accepting them is all part of learning to speak Japanese properly. If you're interested in learning some Japanese and want to help improve your pronunciation, I recommend using textbooks or other study materials that force you to read everything in hiragana right from the start, and not romaji (Romanized Japanese), since your brain would try to apply the pronunciation rules of English where they don't belong. The Genki textbook series or the kanji cards from White Rabbit are both excellent places to bein.

Japanese pronunciation guide for English

This is how the Japanese memorize the sounds made in American English. Looks hard!

Negative Experiences in Japan

Japan is a great country, with a lot to offer both short-term visitors and tourists as well as people like me, who like the place so much we put down permanent roots. But still, Japan is far from perfect, and there are various sources of stress for gaijin living here, for example (if your language skills are still improving) not being able to talk freely to people or even to read what's written on some signs, not being able to understand local customs that might be taken for granted by everyone but you, or (if you live in a rural city like I do) having kids occasionally stare at you because you're different. (I just say hello to them in English.) I've lived in Japan for 17 years and have traveled quite extensively throughout most of the country, meeting a lot of people along the way. It has happened, so infrequently it's almost statistically insignificant, that not every experience I had here was a good one, and not every person I met was 100% happy to be dealing with an overly-exuberant American like myself. Like an old farmer who, when in his cups, asked me why "big America" had to beat up on "little Japan" during the war, or the scary yakuza gangsters I found myself surrounded by when I stupidly stayed at a 24-hour sauna in Kyoto, or the one time I tried to enter a bar in Roppongi and was told politely that they didn't accept foreign customers. (I should have worn our "No Gaijin" T-shirt.) Whenever I encounter some minor inconvenience I shrug and move on, reciting that useful Japanese mantra shikata ga nai (or more colloquially, sho ga nai), which means "it can't be helped," the main way the Japanese maintain their happy, largely confrontation-free society. I know that everyone is human, and for every minor negative experience I may encounter here in Japan, there are a few hundred positive ones. (Thoughts of girls' phone numbers scrawled onto chopsticks wrappers come to mind, but we don't go there.) ^_^

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Joy of Linguistic Enlightenment

One of the things I've liked about my years of learning Japanese is what I've come to call the "joy of satori," a sort of thrill that jumps through your brain when you make a difficult linguistic connection, solve a challenging kanji problem, or intuit a correct answer without really knowing why. Satori means understanding or comprehension, or written with another kanji, enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, and I believe our brains are hard-wired to feel joy when a difficult solution is finally comprehended. I remember back when I read reading my favorite manga, the Rumiko Takahashi classic Maison Ikkoku, the story of a university ronin who falls in love with the widowed manager of his apartment building and takes several years to woo her. There's a secret code embedded in the series, a number system based on the names of the characters and the apartments in the building: for example, the main character is Godai and he lives in room number 5 since go is 5 in Japanese; his neighbor Yotsuya lives in room 4 as yotsu represents that number; and so on, with Kyoko being zero, since her last name contains the character nashi (meaning "nil"). I'll never forget the thrill I felt when I puzzled this system out for the first time -- it was a small piece of enlightenment, but it was my own.

This is the ending to the Maison Ikkoku movie, which tells you the events of a couple days before Kyoko and Godai get married, not terribly canon but if you're an MI fan it's loads of fun. It's kind of the total climax of the Maison Ikkoku universe because of the ending credits, which count down the ten characters in numerical order from 9 to 0. The character of Nikkaido, who lives in room #2, was put in the film after being left out of the whole series just to make these ending credits possible. Anyway, this is a great snapshot from the end of the 80s, when everything was drawn by hand -- even the ending credits are embedded in the frigging cels, as they should be, without the video effect crap they do these days. Enjoy.


Let's Have Fun with Japanese Verbs

The Japanese can be quite creative when it comes to playing with words, whether it's coming up with an advertising slogan like "Shall We Sapporo Beer?" or making textbooks called "Let's English!" or Japan's leading cellular phone company changing its name from DoCoMo to DOCOMO (all caps). They also keep their language fresh by constantly adding new words, some of which come from English, although they're often adapted for easier use by shoehorning them into Japanese grammar. Since most Japanese verbs end in -ru, there's a tendency to make slang words by tacking on this ending, which creates interesting hybrids like memoru (to take a memo), daburu (to be duplicated, from "double"), misuru (miss + ru, to miss, to get an answer wrong on a test) or baguru (bug + ru, to get a bug in your software). Just as "to google" has become a verb in English, the unofficial word for "to search using Google" in Japanese is guguru, used by almost all Internet users. Another example of this trend is the English word "trouble," which is converted into the slang verb toraburu meaning "to get into trouble," which inspired the title for To LOVE-ru, a popular anime series about a princess from space who wants to marry a Japanese high school student, which combines this troublesome word with "to love," making an even deeper linguistic joke. These words conjugate just like a normal Japanese verb, yielding sentences like boku no geemu ga bagutta! "my game froze up!" or kore, gugutte mite "try googling this and see what comes up." Can you guess what these English-derived words mean? nabiru, takuru, hamoru, homoru, rezuru. (Answer at the bottom of this post, scroll down.)

(The answers to the quiz above are nabiru, to navigate, i.e. to serve as navigator for the driver when taking a trip; takuru, to go somewhere by taxi; hamoru, to harmonize when singing; and homoru and rezuru, which both mean to make love with someone of your own gender, depending on whether it's guy/guy or girl/girl.)

Rainy Season in Japan

Japan has entered its rainy season, a month-long period when it will rain most every day as the country does its best impersonation of Seattle. The word for rainy season is tsuyu, written with characters that mean "plum rain," and there are several theories about how this odd name came about, including that it comes from the fact that Japanese plums ripen around this time of year, or that the kanji for plum resembles the character for "every day" (as in, I can't believe it's going to rain every day). Although I complain about the dreary weather, the rain is important to Japan's rice growing, and odd years when very little rain fell have been followed by bad rice harvests. Incidentally, if you ever want to know what the weather will be like tomorrow, do what Japanese kids do and throw your shoe as hard as you can. If the shoe lands upright, it will be a nice day tomorrow; if it lands on its side, look for clouds; and if it lands upside down, it will rain.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bowing in Japan

You probably know that the Japanese have an extensive custom of bowing as a greeting or to show thanks or respect, called ojigi. There are three different kinds of bowing: the casual eshaku (EH-shaku) bow made with a 15 degree inclination, often made when passing coworkers in the hallway; the keirei, a deeper 30 degree bow that's most used in business; and the sai-keirei, in which you incline your head and body 45 degrees to show special respect to someone. To do a proper bow, stand up straight with your feet together, look the person you're bowing to in the eyes, and bow from your waist for 1-2 seconds before standing up again. Remember, in business settings, the goal is raise the other party up by lowering yourself, which in itself is quite a metaphor for much of Japanese society, hence learning to bow properly will help you understand Japan a little better. Bowing is also important in Japanese martial arts, and it can come in handy if you should encounter any Jedi Knights in your travels.

The Suicide Boom

You never know what's going to get popular in Japan next: maybe horn-rimmed glasses will suddenly come back into vogue, or a new restaurant will open in Akihabara selling gourmet instant cup ramen prepared by pretty girls in maid costumes (this actually exists). Sadly, there's been a tragic "boom" in Japan involving suicides using a concoction of easily available household chemicals which, when mixed, make for the perfect way to die. (Well, that's if you consider being paralyzed and slowly suffocating over two hours to be perfect.) So far there've been more than 40 cases involving the chemicals, not counting related deaths like the father who tried to save his son and also succumbed to the fumes, and it's feared the number will keep growing. There are many reasons why more Japanese are likely to willingly visit that sashimi bar in the sky, including the high degree of stress in Japan's overly urbanized society and differing attitudes about death in a country that has glorified suicide in the past, in the form of classic novels of shinju, or lovers' suicide; seppuku, the ritual self-disembowling of samurai; and of course kamikaze. Still, there are real reasons why there are so many suicides in modern Japan, including the near total lack of counseling services, the tendency for Japanese to widely ignore such services when they do exist, and mistrust of virtually all medications, making it rare for depressed people to be given drugs that might be able to help them. The government could be doing more, too: recent changes in traffic laws have managed to bring the annual number of people killed in traffic accidents to a record low of under 6000 per year (compared to 40,000 in the U.S.), but there are few visible signs that the government is trying to do anything to stop suicides. Although Japan has quite a reputation as a suicide country, it's only 10th in the world, with countries like South Korea, Russia and Lithuania ranking considerably higher.

Let's all keep on being supportive of each other and not be suicidal or anything, m'kay? We love you!


Magical Toilet Sound Obfuscating Water Princess!

I know I write about toilets in Japan quite often. For some reason, there's a lot of interesting culture to be found at the porcelain altar, between the seatless Japanese-style toilets that present foreign visitors with their first major culture shock in Japan to those wonderful "Washlet" toilet seats that clean and dry your rear end while you do your business. Once I went to a restaurant with my daughter, who was about five years old at the time, and had an interesting experience. She excused herself to go to the ladies' room, but came out a minute later saying she was too scared to go because there was a "strange sound" in the bathroom. She insisted I come in with her, so I ducked inside to see what this scary sound could be. It turns out it was a device called Oto-hime (a play on the name of a goddess from Japanese mythology, 乙姫、with the characters switched around to mean "Sound Princess," 音姫) which makes a chirping sound when ladies use the toilet, because Japanese women hate the idea of anyone being able to hear any sounds they make while they go. Before the device was introduced in the 1980s, it seems that female patrons in restraunts would flush the toilet multiple times to mask the sounds, which wasted an incredible amount of water. Since males don't usually go into public ladies' rooms, the existence of these strange sound-emitting devices is quite mysterious to men in Japan.

Here's a video of how they work. Just wave your hand over the button and the sound of water will come out of the device, allowing you to do whatever you need to do with without nervousness of people listening to the sounds you make.