Friday, August 08, 2008

Types of Friends in Japan

It's funny how how tenuous the meanings of seemingly basic words can be. In English, the word "friend" is pretty straightforward, meaning someone you are somewhat well acquainted or friendly with. Most of my English-speaking "friends" are close in age to me, but I certainly could have a friend who was 25, or 45, or 75 if I wanted to. It's not uncommon for someone who is only a passing acquaintance to be labeled "friend," too, for the sake of convenience or to avoid being rude. In Japanese, however, the word tomodachi (which literally means "those who you go with") and it has a more "close" feel to it than the English word friend. Tomodachi in school years are almost always the same age; otherwise you'd use the term senpai (for upperclassman) or kouhai (for underclassman), which are quite different concepts in Japan's vertically-oriented society. Once, my son was playing dodgeball with a boy he'd known since preschool -- they've played together for years. I talked about the boy with my wife, using the word tomodachi to refer to my son's friend. My wife corrected me, saying the boys weren't friends in that sense, but were instead osana-najimi (o-SAH-NAH NAH-jee-mee), translatable as "childhood friend," a concept that comes up in anime and bishoujo games quite a lot, referring to someone you've been very close to since childhood, and it seems to be both more and less than the English word friend. "An osana-najimi is different from tomodachi," my wife explained to me. "They're always there, and you don't even notice them after a while. You get so used to being with each other, it's like air."

In anime and the games we publish, of course, osana-najimi are all over the place. The standard pattern is the girl who comes to wake you up every morning because you are too much of a sleepyhead to get up yourself.

Bring on the Foreign Babies

I write a lot about how Japan is a homogenous place where everyone considers themselves as having come from the same genetic stock, which can be a useful vehicle for creating a more harmonious society despite the fact that there's actually quite a lot of variation in the local genetic make-up, with plenty of Korean, Mongolian, Russian, Ainu and other DNA hiding under the surface (including some I've contributed). The famous Japanese uniformity might be changing in the near future, though. A new statistic was recently released showing that one in 30 babies born in Japan had at least one foreign-born parent, reflecting both imigration as well as the popularity of kokusai kekkon (international marriage), currently 6.6% of all registered marriages. Japan is a fabulous country, but I for one would love to see some alternate cultural influences here, whether from Korea, Brazil, America or wherever, and an increase in foreigners settling here and raising families would help a lot. My half-Japanese daughter regularly has issues with the other kids who can't seem to understand why she's not completely in sync with them, but if each class had more students who were haafu or who came from other cultures outright, it'd be more acceptable to stand out. Remember my crazy theory that Japanese/foreign couples are less likely to fall into the same "sexless" rut that Japanese couples sometimes get mired in, and thus by intermingling with Japanese, we foreigners can do our part to help repopulate Japan.

I Left My Heart in Kamakura

If you ever come to Japan, be sure and visit Kamakura, a charming city located about 50 km south of the Tokyo-Yokohama sprawl, which makes a really nice day trip. A picturesque city by the sea with a very long history, it hosts many temples and shrines, the most famous being the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, founded in 1063. Old stuff like this always floors me as an American, since nothing any ancestor of mine is half that old. Kamakura is most famous for the giant bronze statue of Buddha, the second largest in Japan, and this alone would make the city worth a trip even if it weren't one of the prettiest places in Japan. Kamakura is also home to one of the most famous train lines in Japan, the Enoshima Electric Railway (nicknamed Enoden throughout Japan), which has been in operation since 1900 and which is beloved by Japan's many train otaku, who come from miles away ride on it.

Kamakura Daibutsu

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More Pictures from Japan

More pictures I had in my camera. Enjoy!

So nice to be back in Japan. I get to eat really good Indo again! In our prefecture the best Indian food can be found at a restaurant called Mahatma New Dehli, but we managed to find a place that's actually better.

Shot of where the warehouse will be. That's our house in the background, which is both 40 years old and very new since we've been adding onto it and "reforming" it so much.

It'll be nice having space to expand our stock once again.

More pictures of cell phones from Japan, since I had to go to au to cancel my old phone. This is a line of Color Therapy phones.

Follow up to Casio's popular "toughened" phone, which was one of the few keitai phones sold in Japan that was also available in the U.S. I have *no* idea why some of these Japanese phone makers aren't even trying to bring their phones out in the U.S. as well. It's bizarre, maybe it's not profitable for them for some reason?

Reason #722 to love Japan. Just sitting at the onsen and there's a variety show on anime theme songs, featuring the guy who sang the original Yamato theme.

It's funny how much cred these old guys have in Japan. My wife will regularly point out an actor or singer and tell me what anime history they have. Like Masato Ibu, the voice actor for Desler/Desslock from Yamato, or Narumi Yasuda, the actress who got her start singing the "Kaze no Tani Nausicaa" song. And this from a woman who doesn't have an otaku bone in her body -- it's just part of the cultural background here.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fish, Japan and Me

When I was a boy, I had some issues when it came to fish. I lived on the East Coast of the U.S., and for some reason, going to the beach in the spring in Maryland meant seeing (and smelling) hundreds of dead fish that would wash up on shore, not really something the Beach Boys would be likely to sing about. Never one to give up easily, I remember going out into the water to try to swim, and feeling all those dead fish bumping against my body as I moved through the water, a trauma that pretty much turned me off of eating fish for the next twenty years. Happily, I came to Japan, a country that takes a lot of good things from the sea, and was able to develop a real appreciation for all types of fish, from sushi and sashimi to the many kinds of broiled fish eaten as part of Japanese cuisine. When going drinking with friends, I'm apt to pick an izakaya that offers really fresh fish -- there's nothing like everyone gathering around a delicious hokke (which the Internet tells me is atka mackerel - I can never remember its name in English) and grabbing the soy sauce-dabbed fish with chopsticks. To me, the pinnacle of fish enjoyment is a sushi restaurant called Edokko, located in Narita City, near the airport. If you've ever got a layover there and want to try the freshest fish in Japan, with neta (the fish part of sushi) that's so big it falls off the rice, head to Narita Station and ask any taxi driver where Edokko sushi is. We were there last weekend and I can still taste it.

I just love izakaya food.

Japanese Names

Japanese names are generally written in kanji, the Chinese characters introduced to Japan around the 6th century A.D. Family names, which are written before given names rendering the terms "first name" and "last name" fairless useless here, usually contain two kanji characters; as with English last names such as Smith, Japanese family names like Tanaka ("in the rice field"), Yamada ("the rice field on the mountain") and Ishii ("the stone well") seem to indicate humble origins, despite the insistence by every Japanese that their ancestors were samurai warriors. Until January of this year, women had been required to take their husband's family name when they got married, but the law was recently changed to allow for married couples with differing family names. When it comes to deciding on a name for a new baby, there are many choices available to parents: even for a simple name like Yuko, there are a half-dozen or so common kanji to choose from, or they can opt for no kanji at all, writing the name instead in hiragana for stylistic reasons. Because there are so many ways to write a particular name in kanji, it's quite common for people to have no idea how to read someone's name properly, and when two people meet for the first time, there'll often be small talk about what characters they write their name with.

This is Yamada Taro, the most common name in Japan, or rather, the name that everyone thinks is very common but is actually very rare, like John Smith in English or Ivan Ivanovich in Russian (don't ask me why I happen to know that).

Monday, August 04, 2008

iPhone vs the Giant Cell Phone Robot

I got my Japanese iPhone 3G, and am currently experiencing that state of gadget-derived bliss known as "Nerdvanna." While I was waiting for them to process my phone, I wandered around the Softbank store to check out what other models they were selling, so I could do my semi-regular "State of the Cell Phone in Japan" post and also see what kind of competition the iPhone was up against. There was quite a lineup: a water-resistent phone that can be submerged for three minutes without damage (great for people who check their mail in the bath, I guess), a very thin cell phone with a 5.2 megapixel camera, and models made specifically for young children or the elderly. The company's "Premium" line of phones that come with leather or wood-grain exteriors was very stylish, as was the vibrant series that offered a phone in any of the Pantone colors -- wow. Japan is very big on Wanseg, a sub-set (i.e. "one segment") of the digital TV spectrum that lets you watch fairly passable TV on your phone, and many models trumpeted this feature, even offering slidable screens so you could watch widescreen TV without turning your phone. This being Japan, there was even a phone that could transform into a robot, based on a popular drama called Keitai Investigator 7. Still, while the slender and stylish phone offerings were nice, I've been extremely happy with my iPhone. The ability to use the web and email almost as easily as I do at J-List, and extend the functionality of the phone with a killer new third-party app or three each week, have been a big win for me.

Japanese cell phone battle

Fun Japanese Words to Learn

Life is a little more fun when you know Japanese, whether it's to communicate with nihonjin who can't use English or to catch the attention of cute Japanese coeds on campus. One word you can get quite a lot of mileage from is sugoi (sue-GO-ee), which means "amazing" or "incredible" and which can be used just about any time you need to praise someone. See a Japanese man who's adept at playing the Super Mario theme on an accordion? Just tell him sugoi! and your meaning will be instantly communicated. Then there's daijobu (die-JOE-boo), which means "okay" or "alright" and is generally one of the first words a person learns after coming here (well, one of the first anyway). Want to ask if someone is alright with your menu selection at a restaurant, or if they're okay after bumping into that drunk salaryman just now? Just say Daijobu? and they can reply, Daijobu (Sure, I'm fine). Finally, another fun short word you can find some interesting uses for is zan-nen (ZAHN-nen), which means "what a shame!" or "how unfortunate!" If someone misses the answer to a question or otherwise fails at something, you can pull this word out and get some laughs from them. It's used a lot by Japanese game show hosts when a guest makes a wrong answer and misses out on the $100,000 prize.

Familiar Things in San Diego

Hello from Japan, where the pound key on a phone (#) is called "sharp" (as in a musical note) and where screwdrivers come in "plus" and "minus" varieties.

Whenever I'm in the U.S., I like to "surf" the culture shock I naturally experience as a result of having lived for so long in Japan; it's fun to observe the differences between the two countries, from the size of a "small" drink to foods that really don't need to exist, like Chocolate Marshmallows. During my last trip, though, I was actually surprised at how many things I saw in San Diego that were quite familiar to me. First there was Book Off, a used book store chain serving the Japanese community of San Diego, which took me by surprise since they're all over the place here in Japan. Later I saw a sign advertising Gulliver, a Japanese company that buys used cars and resells them through its own network of dealers, a business model that makes sense in Japan, where there is no tradition of selling your own car through the Auto Trader. My wife and I went to the store to buy milk and found Yakult, the popular Japanese yogurt drink that's such an institution, they have their own baseball team (the Yakult Swallows), and in a movie theatre, we observed that they'd started showing commercials before films, another import from Japan (there's nothing like watching a commercial for Parliament cigarettes before a movie). But one of the biggest surprises came when we went to our local Costco. One of the employees heard us speaking Japanese, so he approached us and started reciting the prayer to Buddha, namyo horen gekyo, and told us that he was a member of Sokka Gakkai, the evangelical Japanese Buddhist religion which was founded in 1930 and which now has a presence all around the world. We came away from Costco with edamame beans and mikan (those little Japanese oranges), so we were feeling quite at home by the end of the day.