Friday, July 18, 2008

Yuko Ogura is the First Gravure Idol Queen

I saw that super-cute Japanse idol/actress/singer Yuko Ogura (age 24) has been awarded the prestigious (?) First Gravure Idol Award from Sankei Newspaper's entertainment website "ZAKZAK." Yukorin, who was the girl dressed as a baby seal in the Youtube video with a polar bear you may have seen, got the award for being pretty much the single most popular bikini idol in Japan over the past eight years, and for breaking the iron-clad rule that a cute idol had to be, well, chesty in order to make it in Japan's cut-throat gravure idol world. (The term gravure comes from the word photogravure, a process for printing glossy magazines, but has come to mean sexy girls in bikinis in Japan -- no, I don't know what the heck is up with this word, either.) The Japanese are quite amorous of giving awards, and there seems to be no end to the prizes that can be given each year: popular idol/actress Yumiko Shaku recently won the "E-Line Award" from the Japan Association of Orthodontics for having the best facal profile, which includes a beautiful nose, jaw and chin. Literary awards are also rampant, and there are frankly so many -- the Yomiuri Prize, the Osaka Women's Literature Award, the Saitama Sports Literature Award -- that they all become kind of meaningles.

Park like a Rebel

Whenever I'm in the U.S., I find myself doing things in a slightly more Japanese way, just as I'm not afraid to openly embrace my gaijin side when I'm in Japan. For some reason, Japanese drivers always park their cars by backing in, so that Japanese parking lots are made up of rows of cars lined up the same way, like expertly groomed teeth. I refuse to follow this custom when in Japan, and pat myself on the back as I recklessly park my car front end first, with the back sticking out, and make sweeping statements to my kids about not being afraid to be original and choose your own path in life, which is incidentally called going my way by the Japanese. Today I noticed that most of the cars in the American parking garage I was in were parked front end first, so naturally I had to pretend I was Japanese, backing my car into the space, just to be me. Incidentally, living in Japan will make you a much better driver than you would otherwise be. The space I was backing my car into was far too small for the vehicle I was in, yet I expertly maneuvered the car into the space, something I probably could not have done before going to live in Japan.

Tacos, America and Handi-Vac Bags

There are many good things about being in the U.S., like being able to order a taco without getting octopus, since tako happens to be Japanese word for that marine creature. It's nice driving for free on the freeways instead of forking over $25 or so for a trip as I do back home, and having three dozen Mexican restaurants within a ten minute drive of my house isn't bad either. My wife is enjoying American television, from the endless reruns of CSI on cable channels to reality television like The Baby Borrowers, which seems oddly to be made in a way that a former ESL student like my wife can easily understand it. Even American TV commercials have her giggling with delight, from the ubiquitous ads for lawyers (unthinkable in Japan, where attorneys are so rare that I've never met one in 17 years of living in the country) to commercials for products she's sure would be popular with housewives back home, like the Reynolds Handi-Vac bags with a device that removes the air from the bag before you freeze it. Just as Americans might be amazed at watching television in Japan with all its chaos, it's fun for us to sit back and soak up the American TV that we don't generally get to see.
(Actually, you're going to shake your head at me, but octopus is one of my favorite foods.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Brain and Bilingualism

My wife and I are raising our kids to be bilingual in English and Japanese, and it's interesting to observe how thought processes work in both languages. For the past four years, my son has attended a special experimental school that teaches the normal Japanese curriculum but with 70% of the classes in English, and as a result, his brain has gotten quite used to thinking in that language. When working through difficult math problems, for example, I'll hear him utter, "Oh, they're talking about lowest common denominator" because he's more familiar with that term in English rather than in Japanese. Or sometimes it'll work the other way: once he didn't know what "gravity" was in English because he'd learned the concept in Japanese and hadn't built the synaptic bridge between the two words. When I came to Japan, I somehow managed to learn the word muri (無理), meaning "not able to be done," by having it explained to me in Japanese. As the word embedded itself in my brain I got quite comfortable with its use, and I never had the need to connect the word to an English equivalent. It was about a year later when I realized that the word had a very simple English counterpart, which was the word "impossible." It amazed me that the two parts of my brain could work so independently of each other that I could learn a concept in one language without it being hooked up on the other side. And yet, this is what happens in the minds of children who learn two languages growing up: both are separate and only come together synaptically when needed.

How to Pronounce Japanese Names

We certainly had fun in Las Vegas, enjoying some quality down time. On the way back to San Diego, our flight was delayed due to mechanical problems, causing us to wait at the gate to be put on another flight. When the airline counter called my my wife, they had the usual trouble with her Japanese name, stuttering over it several times, so I thought I'd write a simple pronunciation guide. Basically, keep in mind that:

a) Japanese words or names are made up of syllables, e.g. ka, ki, ku, ke or ko, never "k" by itself

b) the only syllables that don't come in consonant + vowel pairs are the five vowels by themselves and n, which can only come at the end of words; note that three sounds, shi, chi and tsu don't follow the neat consonant + vowel pairing, but just treat them as whole sounds

c) the five vowel sounds are always a ("ah"), i ("ee"), u ("oo"), e ("eh") and o ("oh"), with no exceptions

d) English rules of pronunciation don't apply to Japanese, and every syllable is pronounced, hence the name Kazue would be "KAH-zoo-eh" and not "kah-ZOO" (the English concept of silent e doesn't work in Japanese); note that Chi is always a hard sound, not soft as in "Chicago."

e) the best way to get comfortable with Japanese names or words is to listen to them, so watch anime in the original Japanese and repeat what you hear, or ask Japanese people to pronounce things for you.

Groups and Japan

Groups are, of course, extremely important to human beings, since you can't have much of a society without them. The various customs the Japanese have evolved regarding groups, such as having different categories of polite language for use when talking to someone from outside your company (soto) compared with someone from inside (uchi), or the inability to bring any group together without deciding who the leader will be (who then goes by titles like dancho, group leader, or kaicho, chairman), can really look odd to foreigners. While most people have different circles of friends they don't bring together -- I certainly wouldn't expect the local Miata Club members to mingle well with my anime friends -- the Japanese have raised this separation of different groups of friends to an art form. Because compulsory education ends with Junior High in Japan, most people have two groups of school-era friends: the ones that live in their part of town, who they went to the local Elementary and Junior High with, and a separate group of friends from High School, which is often located in another city. The idea of mixing these two groups together is almost taboo, since each group represents a separate set of experiences and memories that are walled off from each other, and going to dinner with friends from two different groups would be an extremely difficult situation for everyone.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Gaijin Leading Companies in Japan

There have been a lot of changes in Japanese society since we started J-List in 1996. First, the old concept of lifetime employment, that Japanese workers will generally stay at a firm their entire lives without ever changing jobs, fell by the wayside when iconic companies like Sony started eliminating jobs and laying off employees, something that had never been done in the past (although companies would often force layoffs in their subsidiaries when times got tough). Another big change was the idea that Japanese companies could be headed by (gasp!) foreigners, a trend which probably started when Brazil-born Lebonese-French Carlos Ghosn assumed leadership of Nissan in June of 2000, turning the company around by eliminating jobs that the company's core business couldn't support. Now it seems that many of the most visionary Japanese companies are headed by foreigners, for example Shinsei Bank, a popular Internet-based bank that's breaking rules and taking names in the extremely conservative Japanese banking world, introducing concepts like not charging a $6 fee to transfer $20 to someone's account, letting Japanese use ATMs without fees when traveling in other countries, and having bank branches that stay open past 3 pm. (My theory is that banks in Japan close so early in Japan to encourage young men to get married, so they'll have wives who can do their banking for them.) Foreigners have taken the lead in sports, too, for example Coach Bobby Valentine, who made a name for himself as the talented coach of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Nissan President

There's another company in Japan run by a foreigner which you may have heard of: it's J-List. When we founded the company, Japan was really at the dawn of the Internet -- I mean they were tapping stones together to send TCP/IP packets. When we incorporated, we asked our bank we could go about setting up an account for credit card processing, and our request was so bold and unexpected that one of the vice presidents of the bank came out to personally apologize, saying they didn't believe the Internet would be appropriate for processing financial transactions, forcing us to do our banking through the U.S. instead. I sometimes reflect on what it's been like for the Japanese staff who have worked at normal companies to come to J-List and suddenly have an American for a boss. My staff tells me that it's interesting working for a gaijin because I don't play games with the concepts of tatemae (something we pretend is true even though we all know it's not) and honne (the truth; the way things really are); we're more likely to call a duck a duck. (Although, me suddenly asking my staff what it's like to work for an American all but guarantees whatever they're going to tell me is also a tatemae, and I'm fully aware that it was a pretty difficult thing to ask them.) Also, foreigners have a way of doing things that would be impossible for Japanese, and that strange latent power that gaijin seem to have in Japan has helped us make J-List what it is today -- almost by definition, we don't know what can't be done because we don't know what the hell is going on around us. Personally, I'm sure it's challenging for them working for a person who's more emotional and less organized than a straight-laced Japanese shacho (company president) might be, but hopefully the fun we have bringing wacky and fun products to customers around the world make up for it.

Do you work for a foreigner, or otherwise challenging person because he comes from a significantly different background from you?

Hello from Las Vegas

Hello from Las Vegas, where my wife and I have come for some R&R without the kids, which is always a fun thing for married couples to do. While sampling the various casinos and other attractions the city has to offer (including Penn & Teller, which I recommend to everyone), we've been having some interesting conversations with the other tourists we've met here, including many Europeans, getting into debates about things like how there can be so many distinct accents in the U.K. My wife was taken aback at my talking with strangers at first -- after all, it's rare to have a deep conversation with someone you don't already know in more reserved Japan unless you're already comfortable with each other, and to an extent, aware of each others' role in the group, if there is a group. But she came around, realizing that it's quite interesting to strike up a conversation with someone nearby and learn about Oklahoma or Florida or France. I feel sorry for the many Japanese tourists who come to America but miss out on the chance to make new friends, either because of language barriers or needless clinging to invisible social rules.