Friday, July 04, 2008

Useful Hooks in Japanese for Foreign Loan Words

There's nothing more interesting than studying a foreign language, of learning the way its unique grammatical rules work so you can form sentences and ideas and communicate with others. Language is always rule-based, and even dialects like Ebonics and Cockney which may sound "wrong" to speakers of standard American or British English are actually formed around their own suites of unique grammatical rules. The Japanese make heavy use of foreign loan words, usually borrowed from English, but since the grammar of the two languages is different, something is needed to "bridge" the two, and conveniently there are two such grammatical aides built right into the language. The first is the adjective particle na which allows an adjective to be plugged into a Japanese sentence without breaking any rules, and you can hear phrases like surimu na onna (a slim, slender woman), gohjasu na hoteru (a gorgeous hotel) or torendii na dorama (the latest trendy drama on television) spoken every day in Japan. I've even heard the word "epoch-making" used in this fashion -- as in, epokkumeekingu na ibento, meaning an event that is truly Earth-shattering in nature. The other tool to help foreign words be used in Japanese is the catch-all verb suru which means "to do." Words you might hear in Japanese include getto suru (GET-toh suru, to get or find something), doraibu suru (doh-RAH-ee-bu suru, to go for a drive), kamingu auto suru (kah-min-GU AH-oo-toh suru, lit. to do "coming out" or to come out of the closet about something), and of course, sekkusu suru (to have, well, you know). The staff at J-List uses lots of English in their Japanese, too, and you can hear terms like sukyan suru (to scan something), pikku suru (to pick products in preparation for shipping) being used everyday.

Are you coming to Anime Expo? If so be sure and stop by booths 624-626-628 to say hello, and check out the many anime figures, plush toys, T-shirts, Hoodies, manga and dating-sim games we've got for you. We'll also be holding a panel on bishoujo games on Saturday July 5th from 8 to 9 pm in room LP4 (LACC 411), with free stuff for everyone who shows up, including a raffle and more. See you there!

Pleasantville, Japan

One of my favorite movies is Pleasantville, a fun film about two modern-day teenagers who get transported inside a 1950s-era black-and-white TV show similar to Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver. In the strange universe of Pleasantville, every wife stays in the kitchen cooking her family's dinner, and there's a funny scene where the husband comes home to an empty house to find no wife and no dinner waiting for him, which utterly confuses him since it's supposed to be impossible in the world he lives in. Watching that scene the other day amused me because just that day my Japanese father-in-law had been upset because his wife had gone off to a UNESCO meeting without leaving his dinner, forcing him to fend for himself in the kitchen, never an easy task for an older Japanese man. The idea that a funny joke about life in the 1950s could still describe people in contemporary Japan is a surprise, but then Japan is a very different place from the U.S. In my family I'm considered the daikoku-bashira or the "big black pillar" that holds up the family, and it's always interesting to observe from a cultural standpoint the way my Japanese wife or her mother jumps up when I get home from work, fetching me a bowl of rice and my chopsticks in a way that reinforces my role in the family. Part of me feels like resisting that kind of treatment, since I don't think it's particularly necessary, but in the end I usually just shut up and eat my dinner.

Anime Expo 2008

We're here at Anime Expo, the most excellent anime-themed annual event there is, with something like 40,000 other fans who have gathered to celebrate the important alternate popular world culture of Japanese animation. I've been involved with American anime fandom from the beginning -- I was at this event back in '91 when it was called Anime Con, when no one was sure if there were enough anime fans to fill a whole convention. As I wander the halls of the Westin Bonaventure hotel looking at the inspired kids (I'm at that age where most everyone I see can be described with this word) I see, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Speaking English vs. Japanese, Part II

Last time I talked about how there are times when gaijin in Japan might find that some doors open for them if they speak English rather than fluent Japanese. I'm not sure why this, but the tendency for Japanese to react positively to someone speaking English seems to be related to the strange "English complex" they possess, the various difficult emotions each Japanese person has about the language, which most study for years but don't really master. Tomo tells me it's related to what's known as seiyo suhai shugi, translatable as Worship-of-the-West-ism, the tendency for Japanese to assume that Europe and America are more socially advanced and inherently superior to Japan. Basically, when a person speaks English, he seems to be elevated to a higher rung of the social ladder than if he spoke fluent Japanese -- even if he could recite the Tale of Genji from memory while performing tea ceremony and folding origami (sigh). One area that tends to be important to males living in Japan is, well, meeting females, and the great agony of gaijin who have studied a lot Japanese is the inverse relationship of language study to how popular you (might) be with certain kinds of Japanese girls. It seems that a fun English-speaking foreigner might just be more interesting (mysterious?) than a Japanese-fluent gaijin who can discuss the various historical causes for the Saigo Takamori's Rebellion which took place after the Meiji Restoration. Of course, this is a pretty big generalization, and I know that my wife was intereted in me because of my deeper passion for Japan rather than in spite of it. But seeing newly-arrived teachers in the JET program go drinking with girls hanging off them at the local pub made cramming for Level 1 of the Japan Language Proficiency Test just a little bit harder. Oh well.

The Last Samurai

All About Japanese Pen Spinning

Pen spinning is the art of spinning a pen around your fingers and doing amazing tricks with it, and J-List has recently added a line of specially weighted spinning pens to our site for you to check out. The unique activity of twirling a pen is thought to have originated in Japan with ronin, a word which once meant a masterless samurai but in modern days refers to a student who has failed his university entrance exams and must live in limbo as he studies to take the tests near year. Since these students had plenty of free time, they'd get really good at spinning their pens in their fingers while they studied. The First Pen Spinning Boom got underway in Japan around 1976, when students of several famous national and private universities became known for the ability to spin pens. It was later learned that all these students had attented a yobiko (cram school) called Sundai Preparation School, which soon became legend among "spinners" for birthing the sport. In 1997 a pen spinning fan named Hideaki brought spinning to the Internet age with the first website dedicated to the activity, which ushered in the Second Wave of Pen Spinning. The Third Wave arrived with the defining of the various pen spinning tricks (backaround, infinity, palm spin and so on -- they are frankly over my head, although they look cool) and the rise in pen spinning internationally in the form of world tournaments. How long will it be before Electronic Arts comes out with Extreme Pen Spinning for the Playstation 3? I'll let that be a question for the ages.

My Journey to San Diego, and Reverse Culture Shock

Well, I've made the big hop from Japan to San Diego, in preparation for the upcoming Anime Expo, which is sure to be a blast. The trip is 24 hours door-to-door, which includes 3 hours on a bus to Narita, sitting around the airport, and the total flight time. It's a stressful journey to be sure, although I'm always happy to make it because one of my two favorite places (San Diego or Japan) is waiting for me on the other end. As usual, I've spent a couple days experiencing various forms of reverse culture shock, being surprised at things like "small" drinks here (quite large compared to Japan), how dirty some people let their cars get (you just don't see cars that beg to have "wash me" written in dust as you sometimes do here), or how American school buses and mail delivery trucks manage to stay exactly the same as they were when I was a kid in the 1970s. I'm also fighting off the late-afternoon jet lag that starts to slowly creep up on me, so if I fall asleep during this update, I apologize in advance.

This city is why I love to drive convertable cars like the Miata / Mazda Roadster.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The General Japanese Traditional of Nostalgia

I wrote before about how, in the complex world of obsessive otaku culture in Japan, there are (for example) fans of Japan's various city towers, who love to travel to Yokohama's Marine Tower or Osaka's venerable Tsutenkaku Tower (the name means "Tower Reaching to Heaven") and fill scrapbooks with pictures and ticket stubs from their journeys. This odd tower fascination is part of a larger general tendency of Japanese to feel natsukashii (nats-kah-SHEE) or nostalgic, about the past, especially the early or middle Showa Period (1925-1989). There seems to be no end to things the Japanese can feel nostalgic about, and there's even a well developed otaku culture that worships the old city busses used in the postwar period, like the charming bus the father rides in on in My Neighbor Totoro, as well as a fondness for those old covered shopping streets that used to be so important to commercial life in Japan, but which are now largely dilapidated. When J-List's Yasu first came to work for us, we took him to Yukara, a delicious local restaurant that opens at 11:30 pm, and their food is so good that there are dozens of people lining up to eat even at that late hour. (It's kind of an official initiation for J-List employees to go there and eat.) While we were standing in line, Yasu walked up and down the street admiring the run-down houses in that part of the city, many of which didn't even have people living in them anymore. While some might just see ugly old buildings, he was fascinated with the kinds of construction used back when the houses were built, including the wooden sliding doors or the large recessed areas by the front doors (genkan), which were often bare earth rather than concrete or tile as you'd have today. I can understand the Japanese fascination with cool old things -- I personally have an odd compulsion about pictures and postcards of Disneyland and Las Vegas from the 1960s and 70s which I can't explain. 

So, what do you feel natsukashii about?

Seasons, Summer and Cold Ramen Noodles

One thing you learn about Japan pretty quickly is, what a seasonal place it is, with people doing different things at different times of year. It's summer now, time to enjoy traditional activities like listening to the soft sound of fuurin (Japanese wind chimes) as the wind blows in and watching fireworks at the Tanabata Festival while people mill around wearing yukata and eating shaved ice. If you are male and live with a female, you can expect to have your share of what I call "air-con wars" over what temperature the room should be, with females shivering at anything below 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) while males like me instead prefer that the temperature be cold enough to see your breath. Summer is also the season to eat one of my favorite dishes, hiyashi-chuka, essentially cold ramen-style noodles in a tangy sauce, with things like scrambled egg, ham, crab and cucumber on it, a dish I've never come across in the U.S., although it must be available at some Japanese establishments. Restaurants only offer this dish in the summer months, and when summer is over it's off the menu, letting you know that the season has finally ended and Autumn has arrived. While I'm never too sad to see the heat and humidity of Japan's summer go, seeing that hiyashi-chuka is no longer available at my favorite restaurant always brings a tiny pang of sadness to me.

The Benefits of Speaking English over Japanese

Between studying Japanese for four years at SDSU and living here for 17, I've pretty much got the Japanese language down. I've actually forgotten a large part of what I studied over the years, especially written kanji, since the great convenience of computers that let you select the right character by hitting the space bar means that almost no one writes kanji as well as they used to, including both Japanese and foreigners like me. Although I'm functionally fluent in the language, I've learned something odd, that it's often better to speak English in some situations. The other day I was at the public bath with my son (it's called Yura no Sato, which translates as Village of Hot Water Relaxation) when one of the other bathers struck up a conversation with me, asking me where I was from. He'd just finished an interesting trip around the world, visiting China, the Middle East and Europe, and was planning on going to the U.S. next. While my long years of studying tempted me to speak Japanese with him, instead I spoke only English, since I knew that getting to practice his language skills would really make the man's day. Speaking English instead of Japanese can open doors that might not otherwise open for you. Once I speaking with a Japanese female airline employee at a ticket counter about about the possibility of an upgrade to business class, and I received a somewhat cold reaction to my suggestion when I spoke in Japanese to her. I decided to ask at another counter run by the same airline, this time speaking polite English and batting my "gaijin Bambi eyes" as best I could, and darned if I didn't get that upgrade. My wife tells me that if I want to yell at someone for something, it's much more effective to do it in English -- it seems that angry words just carry more impact in English than in Japanese.

By the way, Aya Ueto is really cute.