Friday, June 20, 2008

Is Competition Good for Students?

One interesting aspect of education in Japan is how students face competition in many forms which helps make them better students. Starting with junior high school, many students are ranked according to their test scores, with a board hung outside the class that lists each student's rank is in relation to everyone else. If you're the #1 student in your class, you can bet your classmates will be gunning for your slot, so you'd better study hard. The system of having to take an entrance exam to get into high school also provides a reason for students to be more serious about their own education, since you have to hit the books if you want to get into one of the best high schools. (My 13-year-old son is already preparing for a high school that's known for its engineering and robotics courses.) Although I often wonder if it's really a good idea to put pressure on kids to study at such a young age, I can see benefits from creating a more vigorous study environment for teenagers. Growing up in the public school system in Maryland and California, I can honestly say I don't have a single memory of studying hard or being challenged until I got to college, and getting kids to apply themselves at a younger age can't be a bad thing.

So what do you think? There is the obvious question of sad outcomes that can happen when young people have more pressure than they can handle, but on the other hand, there is no gang violence or drug problems or other terrors that prey on kids in the U.S. I wonder which approach is better. 

The iPhone and Japan

The iPhone is finally coming to Japan, and I'll certainly be in line to get one when they become available next month. But how will the device really do here? I'd say that while there is a lot of interest by Japanese fans in the phone, it's still unsure whether it will be a runaway success or not. First of all, Japanese consumers are extremely fickle -- there's a reason J-List does no business within Japan, and never will -- and anyone doing business here needs to really be on the ball if they want to do well, especially if you're selling a device that does things in a totally new way. Another problem comes from the syllabery nature of Japanese, which can express sounds like KA-KI-KU-KE-KO but not "k" by itself. It turns out that it's quite easy to type Japanese using a standard numeric keypad by entering, say, 1992*44444 for arigato, and -- I am not kidding, here -- there are novelists who write their works exclusively with a numeric keypad on a phone because they can type faster that way. The new iPhone will have support for an on-screen kana-based method of text entering, but my guess is that it won't feel the same to Japanese phone users, who are used to walking or riding bicycles while pecking away on their phones. Finally, there's a slew of handy local features iPhone won't support, like a payment system that lets you buy train tickets by touching a panel with your phone and a low-bandwidth TV system called Wanseg (from "one segment"). I've heard from many Japanese computer users that American companies like Apple and Microsoft regularly get little details wrong when producing products for the Japanese market, so I wonder what other small aspects of the iPhone will feel funny to users here. Still, considering the number of things you can do incredibly well on the thing -- I use my American phone a few hours a day in Japan, where it's not even usable as a phone -- I've got a feeling Apple will do quite well.

The Japanese and English Webs

I like to read sci-fi novels with mind-bogglingly big ideas in them. One series I enjoyed was the Uplift Saga books by David Brin, which described a galactic society of races that gained status in each others' eyes by discovering pre-sentient life and "uplifting" them to intelligence. There were two fundamental forms of life in the books, oxygen-breathing types like humans and hydrogen-based life that lived inside gas giants and stars, and the great differences between these two groups meant that they could never interact but must exist side by side instead. Sometimes I feel this way about the Japanese and the English web: both are vibrant, constantly inventing new mini-trends and memes and fads, yet they're largely separated by the Great Wall of Language. Most Japanese people will instinctively click away from an English page they happen to land on, perhaps as a result of being forced to study it for all those years in school; likewise, most native English-speakers I know won't spent a lot of time trawling Japanese-language websites unless they're there for a reason. They come together at certain points, of course -- YouTube is a good example of a bridge that has joined the two halves nicely -- but by and large, English-speaking web surfers will tend to be more familiar with the latest "I Can Has Cheeseburger" cat jokes while Japanese fans watch videos of computer-generated vocal idol Miku Hatsune singing while waiving her leek back and forth.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Skinship & Ticklishness?

Are you ticklish? My kids certainly are, and I only have to move my hands towards them in a threatening manner to have both of them giggling on the floor in laughter. My Japanese wife, however, isn't the slightest bit ticklish, and you could spend hours rubbing feathers over her body and not get the slightest response. I know nothing about the physiology of ticklishness or were it comes from, but my own pet theory is that stimulation of the the body during a young age causes the nerve endings to become more sensitive, which results in ticklish bodies when the kids get older. When my kids were babies, we did caress them and touch them a lot, something the Japanese wisely call skinship, yet my wife says that it's very un-Japanese to touch your children so much, and insists that she was never held or played with that closely when she was small. I've always believed that my wife's being raised in a traditional Japanese environment which had a lot less warm parent-to-child touching (imagine the planet Vulcan basically) led to her never becoming ticklish. Do you think people raised in happy, loving households are more ticklish as a result?

"Nice on!" and Other Strange English Phrases

In the Japanese version of Wii Sports Golf, a player who gets his ball onto the green is rewarded with a voice that says, "Nice on!" which of course means "That was a very good drive that resulted in getting your ball on the green!" It's an example of the "reduced English" that's used so often in Japan to communicate the most meaning in the simplest language possible. It's really quite logical -- when a woman is pregnant you might say she's "baby in," while it's natural to think of a male salaried employee is a "salaryman." Instead of taking a recreational vehicle camping, just rent a "camp car" instead, and when you take a shower reach for the "rinse in shampoo" (that is, shampoo with cream rinse in it, or conditioning shampoo). Within the context of the Japanese using English within their own society, the shorter and more direct the phrases can become, the better, since all those extra English words can really make a person's head hurt. I get so used to seeing shortened or simplified English around me that properly formed language stands out. At Japanese hot springs, the usual notice about customers with tattoos not being allowed to enter the bath (because of yakuza) is usually limited to "NO TATTOO." However, at one bath near us the notice says, "Please understand that we cannot accept customers with tattoos." I was really impressed with how politely they had worded that.

Shinyo (Trust) and the Japanese

One of the most important concepts in daily life in Japan is shinyo (SHIN-yo), which means "trust," and when Japanese have dealings with individuals or businesses, choosing someone they can trust is extremely important. Of course, everyone wants to deal with people and companies they believe will do right by them, but in Japanese society the idea of only working with trustworthy entities is elevated to a much higher cultural level. One way to make sure you're working with people you can trust is the concept of shokai (SHO-kai), a kind of introduction whereby someone who is already trusted by a third party will formally introduce you to them, in effect sharing the goodwill they've already established with both you and the third party. Because both parties have a trust relationship involved, they have an obligation to make sure everything goes smoothly to avoid "stepping on the face" (to use the Japanese phrase) of the person that brought you together. There isn't a single aspect of Japan that isn't improved by this trust-based relationship system, and time and time again I've found myself depending on people who had been formally introduced to me by someone else I trusted. My wife recently sold her car through a used car dealer, and I happened to remark that it was odd that cars are seldom sold between individuals in Japan -- there's no local version of the Auto Trader or eBay Motors. The reason, I was told, was that no one would ever be able to trust a stranger enough to buy a car, since they might be lied to about important details or otherwise taken advantage of, so they instead rely on professional companies whose reputations they can verify, of course paying more for the privilege.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Japan Father-in-Law Buys an HD Television

Like many other Japanese men, my father-in-law likes baseball. I mean, he really likes Baseball, so much that he'll watch a game on TV while listening to another one on the radio, with three sports-related newspapers beside him. (Japan has no less than ten national sports-dedicated newspapers published daily, if you can believe that.) One day our cat climbed on top of our TV and, as we all watched in horror, managed to vomit inside the case, causing the circuitry to fry and the picture to go dark. It was an inconvenience, but the timing was actually quite good -- like the U.S., Japan is in the middle of phasing out the old analog TV broadcasting system for digital terrestrial, and by 2009 everyone will have had to make the switch one way or another, so we couldn't get too mad at our cat. On the way to the denkiya (home electronics store) to shop for a new television, my father-in-law asked me to make sure we picked out an "HD" model, but the way he pronounced these letters -- ecchi deh -- was very amusing to me. Due to a quirk of Japanese phonology, the sounds ti and di could not be written in the katakana writing system until a few decades ago, so teh and deh were substituted instead. (Basically, they hadn't officially started using ティ and ディ as sounds in katakaka yet.) The result of this is that everyone above the age of 50 or so has memorized English words like party, DVD or Disneyland as par-teh, deh-vee-deh, and Dehs-neyland, and the mere act of using these older pronunciations marks you as an old fogie. To hear a super high tech word like "HD" pronounced using this outdated pronunciation system was quite unexpected, and I had to laugh.

Make Japan an Immigrants Country!

Many industrialized countries are battling falling birthrates, as human societies change and shift. The numbers of babies born per female in Russia, Italy, and Germany, for example, are 1.25, 1.29, and 1.35 respectively. There are all too few babies being born in Japan, too, just 1.29 per female, a situation made worse by the lack of imigration to offset the drop in real population here, unlike the U.S. and Europe. To avoid a future in which there are too few people in Japan to do the jobs that need doing, a group of Japanese Diet members has for the first time put forth a proposal calling for Japan to create a forward-looking immigration policy and accept 10 million foreigners over the next fifty years as a way of keeping its society and economy healthy. In making the proposal, Japanese legislator Hidenao Nakagawa said, "There is no way to save Japan's future without turning to other nations. Japan must open its doors as an international state and shift toward establishing an 'immigrant nation.'" I've long thought that Japan should form relationships with countries and eliminate barriers to long-term work-stays and full-fledged immigration, and maybe this will be a first step. Incidentally, while many nations are seeing their birth rates fall, they're actually on the upswing in the U.S., up to 2.2 per female on average. Japanese leaders must be asking themselves how America can keep its birth rate high without the social programs that give parents a monthly bonus for having three or more kids, which are common here. It's hard to know what the reasons for the difference in birth rates are, but personally I think the American tendency to be positive about the future plays a big part. The Japanese are rather quick to see huge, unsolvable problems when they look to the horizon, which can cool couples to the idea of having another child, but Americans are (at least as seen from the outside looking in) much more likely to be optimistic about the future, and I think this is one factor at play here.

Nakagawa-san is on the left, and the otaku who almost became Prime Minister is below

Chibi Maruko-chan and the Blue-Eyed Friend

Sunday nights at our house is time for Chibi Maruko-chan (Little Maruko), one of the most popular anime shows in Japan despite it not being terribly well known internationally. It's the story of Maruko, a cute but lazy third grader who lives in the magical time of the 1970s, a simpler age when there was no Internet and even the idea of a wireless remote control for your TV was a dream. It's a great show because of the many cultural references it makes to the late Showa Period, allowing kids to see the (sometimes silly) stuff that was popular when their parents were young. In last night's episode, Maruko's wealthy classmate Hanawa-san invited Maruko and her friends over to meet a mysterious "blue-eyed person" who was staying at his house, which turned out to be a girl named Pearle, visiting from overseas. Immediately there was mass chaos as all the characters tried to come up with some English to say to the girl, but no one knew any, so they sat there shyly. Maruko went home and asked her family to teach her some English, but all she got was useless phrases like "this is a pen" and "hello! thank you! goodbye!" When Maruko finally was able to figure out how to say "nice to meet you" to the foreign visitor, she was met with puzzlement. It turned out that Pearle was from France and didn't speak any English, which caused even more confusion. It was an extremely funny episode -- I've observed the Japanese tendency to assume that any Western-looking foreigner walking down the street must be a native English speaker very often.

Here is the opening credits from the show by the way. It's been the most memorable anime song, and among the top five karaoke hits, over the past decade and a half. The title is Odoru Pompokorin.