Friday, July 18, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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 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
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.
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, 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.