Saturday, August 16, 2008

Some Pictures of my Weekend

Here are some pictures of my weekend so far, if you're curious.

I thought I'd drive up to our place in Karuizawa, to get away from work a little. Unfortunately it wasn't exactly put-the-Miata-top-down weather, and was very dreary going up and coming back down.

I felt more sorry for the poor people trying to enjoy a fireworks festival in the rain. Bleah...

Useful iPhone trick #1713: bookmark webcams of the roads you need to use to check the weather or traffic situation there. This is the intersection nearest where I turn to get to our place. Actually, the car in the intersection is mine ^_^ Incidentally, the iPhone does things like automatically sync your bookmarks with Safari, so you have everything in the same place on both browsers.

Through the drizzle there's Mt. Asama, the biggest and most active volcano in the area. Some gaijin went urban exploring in a building I've wanted to visit myself, an old observatory for the volcano that's been abandoned for 20 years or so.

More rain. I didn't mind so much once I got th our place since all I do is sit in the onsen for as long as I can and then read and laze around the place. I like this effect.

Fairly cool Kirin beer ad using an image from the 1920s.

My cats. Su-chan is the one with read collar, and Komin is the young cat on right. Su-chan just had three more babies but every time I come near she hisses at me and then hides the babies. She hates me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Japanese Bone Festival

Speaking of graves, Japan is in the middle of Obon (pronounced "oh, bone!"), a three-day Buddhist holiday to remember the souls of one's ancestors that's kind of a combination of Halloween and Thanksgiving, when all is said and done. Much of Japan shuts down on August 13, 14 and 15th as people travel to their jikka, or "real home," meaning their parents' home or wherever their family's Buddhist altar is located, to spend some quality time with family members. The custom of haka-mairi, making a visit to the family grave, is also important, and Japanese will go to their family's gravestone to wash it with clean water and decorate it with flowers. Ancestors are extremely important in Japan, and Obon is a good time for people to take a break and remember how important family is, including those who have gone on. Just as Christmas has grown beyond its original meaning to become a big part of the culture of the West, many of these traditions are practiced by all Japanese, even if they don't actively consider themselves to be Buddhist. The Obon holidays are also a popular time to travel, and this week hundreds of thousands of Japanese are taking vacations overseas. If you live in a place that receives many Japanese visitors like Hawaii or California and you're wondering why there are so many Nihonjin around, now you know.

The lantersn that light the way for the dead to return home, or something like that


Languages are interesting because each one has its own unique features. For example, double negatives like "I didn't see nothing" are considered incorrect in English, although they're perfectly permissible in Spanish. If you've watched some anime in Japanese or had dinner with a Japanese family, you may have noticed the word that's spoken before eating, itadakimasu, pronounced "ee-tah-dah-ki-MAHS." Essentially meaning "I humbly receive the gift of this food" or less obsessively "let's eat," it's a polite way to thank the person who made the food for you, and the word is interesting because it illustrates some of the "back end" of Japanese grammar. There are two verbs for "to receive" in Japanese, morau and itadaku; the former is a neutral word, which you'd use when telling your wife about the movie tickets you got from a co-worker, but the latter is a polite word that basically means to receive something from someone socially higher than you, like your boss or a guest. (It's the root of the word itadakimasu.) Since subjects are often left off of Japanese sentences, it's conceivable that you might find yourself in a linguistic situation that called for you to understand the overall context of a sentence based on what verb someone chose to use. For example, my mother-in-law might say to me, "Itadakimashita yo," which essentially means "[we] received [something from someone]." It would be up to me to figure out the larger context, namely that we'd received some gift from someone that my mother-in-law wants to be polite to who's standing nearby, and I should come and say thank you to that person for the gift. Japanese can be a confusing language, but with practice, some of these situations start to make sense.
This might be more Japanese than you wanted to know. And if so, I apologize ^_^

Gaijin Bochi: Foreigners' Graveyard

When is a graveyard likely to be filled with tourists snapping pictures? When it's a gaijin bochi, or "foreigners' graveyard," which you can see in several old Japanese cities that have had Westerners living there for a long time, like Yokohama, Kobe and Hakodate. Japanese burial rites involve cremation and placing the bones and ashes of the deceased inside a family grave, customs which are very different from the West, and these special foreigners' graveyards are places where Europeans and Americans can be interred according to their own traditions. The oldest can be found in Nagasaki, the only city where trade was allowed during the Edo Period, and you can see the gravestone of a Dutch trader that dates from 1778. By far the most famous gaijin bochi in Japan is the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama, in the Naka Ward region that's been popular with foreign residents for more than 150 years, and it's up there with Chinatown and the Marine Tower on my list of attractions to hit when I'm visiting the city. The cemetery was commissioned by Admiral Perry himself, who requested a place for Westerners to be buried when one of his sailors died during his second visit to the country in his fleet of "Black Ships" in 1854. Whenever I'm there I like to walk through the headstones and wonder what these early sojourners to Japan experienced here, and how things compare to today.

The famous Gaijin Bochi in Yokohama

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's Tough Being an Expat in Japan

Being an expat in another country involves making certain compromises you'd never consider at home. In Japan, it means giving up familiar things like good American peanut butter for the triple-sweet stuff they sell here, or drinking at a bar where the most exotic beer on the menu is Budweiser, or knowing that the box of Kellogg's "Corn Frosty" you just bought wil be gone in two mornings, since it's so tiny. Then there's ignoring the fact that the nachos you were so excited to find came with a packet of tomato sauce instead of salsa, or trying to smile while eating s'mores with your daughter's Girl Scout Troop made with Saltines instead of Graham crackers, since they don't have any Graham crackers in Japan. When I got here in 1991, the world was a very different place, and foreigners here really couldn't be choosey about anything: there was one decent English book store in the entire country, and if you wanted to buy some books, you took the train to Shinjuku and visited the sixth floor of Kinokuniya Book Store. Similiarly, if you wanted to watch some TV in English, you tuned in to Beverly Hills 90210, since there was nothing else on. All-in-all, things have improved immensely, thanks mostly to the Internet but also thanks to various American companies entering the Japanese marketplace and forcing many outdated, dinosaur-esque Japanese companies to change.

This is Takashimaya Times Square and Kinokunia (to the left) in Shinjuku's South Side. It's one of the nicer areas of Tokyo. There's a Krispy Kreme nearby too, but I haven't wanted to wait in the 2+ hour long line just to buy doughnuts. Do you like the replica of the Empire State Building?

About Kanji and Land

One of the stranger aspects of Japan's kanji-based writing system is the way many people lose some ability to write characters as they get older, although reading skill is generally not affected. I can read around 2500 kanji, including both the kun (Japanese) and on (Chinese) readings of most characters. My ability to write said characters is another matter, however, and since I haven't studied the language formally for a decade or more, my writing skills are far lower than my reading. (I used to do "kanji battle" tests with my kids as they progressed through elementary school, but had to give it up because I kept getting beaten too badly.) As a foreigner I can perhaps be excused, but the phenomenon happens with native Japanese too: when J-List employees like Tomo or Yasu have to write something by hand in Japanese, it becomes a little more difficult to recall how to write the characters properly. The primary reason for the decline in kanji writing ability is the rise of pasocon (personal computers) and keitai (cell phones), which make producing kanji as easy as hitting a button until the character you want comes up. The technological advances we enjoy have brought great convenience, but at a cost, since almost everyone in Japan's ability to write kanji is lower than it was a generation ago.

Yes, after studying Japanese at SDSU then living here for 17 years (ack! I shouldn't have calculated that), I'm generally able to read most of the kanji characters that I happen across, unless I pick up a book about a specific subject I have no experience in, like biology or Buddhism; Japanese history is also a challenge, since by its nature it's filled with archaic characters that are no longer used, but which are still important when talking about the past, which sucks since it's one of my favorite subjects. Once I was driving with my wife and saw a character on a sign that was new to me; it turned out to be bunjo (分譲), literally meaning "dividing of land into smaller lots for sale." In a country where half the population of the U.S. is crammed into a space 1/25 the size, there's not really any "new" land for people to use, and a major way land is acquired is by waiting for some larger patch of it -- a factory that moved to a new location, or agricultural land being opened for development -- to be divided into smaller lots that people can snap up. Our own prefecture of Gunma is very conservative, and there's a constant battle between groups that want to keep land zoned for agricultural use from being developed, versus people who want to do things like build houses on their own land, and it took us a year to get permisison to build the J-List office, since our land happens to be in one of these special agricultural zones. In Tokyo, the dynamics are different, since there are so many people and so little land, and it's not uncommon for someone to cram a three-story home on a ridiculously tiny plot no bigger than three parking spaces.

Monday, August 11, 2008

All About Japanese Futons

Before you left for work today, did you hang your bed out of the window to dry in the sun? That's what millions of Japanese do each morning, if they sleep on futon, the traditional fold-away bedding that's been used since, well, forever. A Japanese futon is basically a soft sleeping mat, a separate foam mat that goes below that, and a thick blanket on top. Futons are enormously convenient for living in small spaces because they can be folded up and put away in a closet during the day, which allows a room to fulfill two separate roles. Because the sleeping maps absorb sweat, they can become damp, which is why they're hung from the balcony to dry and kill germs; there's almost nothing nicer to sleep on than a Japanese futon that's been hung and beaten to get any dust out of it. While traditional futons are nice, it can be a chore to put them away each morning and lay them out again at night, and over the past couple of decades, there's been a tendency for Japanese to switch to Western-style beds instead, something that my wife's parents recently did when they "reformed" (remodeled) their bedroom last year. Even if they opt for conventional beds for themselves, most every household in Japan has a "guest" futon for use when unexpected visitors need to sleep over, which is great because it takes up almost no space when not in use. Companies often sell wooden-frame futons in the U.S, but these are very different from traditional sleeping futons in Japan, and they're not sold here at all.

Japanese Kanji Names and Goggling

I wrote recently about how Japanese names are (usually) written in kanji, and how there are many possible ways of writing a particular name, just as many Western names have various alternate spellings. One of the challenges when making a new business contact in Japan is learning the person's name characters properly, which is one of the reasons for meishi or "name cards," what business cards are called here. It's extremely rude to write someone's name using the wrong characters, and when it comes time for J-List to send the customary mid-year gifts to the various companies we do business with (distributors, the makers of the anime dating-sim games we publish, and so on), we check carefully to make sure every gift is properly addressed using the correct name. An interesting facet of names being written with unique kanji characters is that when you perform a search using Google or Yahoo in Japanese, you need to already know the correct kanji if you want to get any results. Since this isn't always possible, Japanese net users will often do a search using hiragana or romaji (the Roman alphabet), which generally brings up the Wikipedia page for the person in question, containing the correct characters so that a second search be made. The Japanese government maintains a list of officially approved "name kanji" to keep people from naming their children with improper or archaic characters that aren't used anymore, although parents sometimes take issue with the government telling them what names they can or can't use for their children.

Japan Olympic Update

Well, the Olympics are here, and Japan is buzzing with sports fever, hoping that their athletes will do well at the games. Ryoko "Yawara-chan" Tani, the darling of the the women's Judo world, was hoping to win her third consecutive gold medal -- her slogan was "Mama demo kin!" ("Even though I'm married and am a mother now, I'm going to bring home the gold!") -- but unfortunately she came away with only a bronze this time. Other athletes hoping to shine include the super-cute "table tennis idol" Ai Fukuhara, women's freestyle wrestling champions Chiharu and Kaori Icho (who are sisters), and the badminton doubles team of Kumiko Ogura and Reiko Shiota, nicknamed "Ogushio" by fans. Japan already has two gold medals, Masato Uchishiba in men's judo and Kosuke Kitajima in the 100m breaststroke, and they're hoping to add to that tally in the next few days. We wish them luck!

Smack that ball, Ai-chan!

The Ogushio girls playing badminton. It's very intense to watch ^_^ Since they work for / are sponsored by Sanyo, they train here in Gunma Prefecture.

Chiharu Icho is the on the left. She could probably kick my butt in no time.

Ryoko Tani, whose name was Tamura before she got married, is probably the single most famous Japanese athlete, who's been a judoka since the age of five or something, kicking and throwing girls much older than her. Bummer that she didn't get her third gold.

This is Yawara!, where Ryoko gets her nickname from. I put thepic here because I like Fashionable Judo Girls.