Friday, August 22, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese Food

It's funny how so many of the foods eaten by the Japanese on a daily basis aren't very Japanese at all. Sure, people here eat plenty of things that are associated closely with Japan, like soba and udon noodles, sushi and sashimi, or donburi ("big bowl") dishes like gyudon (beef bowl) or oyakodon, the "parent and child" rice bowl consisting of chicken and egg cooked together and put over rice, but there are many non-Japanese foods consumed here, too. Of course, there are many dishes that have been imported from China, like gyoza (pot stickers) or ramen, although the Japanese don't consider the stir-fried yakisoba noodles to be Chinese in origin, much as they look like chow mein to me. The Japanese have internalized foods from many other countries, including Italian spaghetti, French croquetes (which go so well with that Japanese Tonkatsu sauce) or American "hamburg steak" (steak made from ground beef). The single most popular food in Japan might just be that ubiquitous curry rice, the thick curry sauce served over steaming rice, which was imported from India via Britain during the Meiji Era. We probably eat it 4-5 times a week at our house.

Jiko Shokai: Japanese Self Introductions

One interesting concept I learned about soon after coming to Japan was jiko shokai, which just means "self introduction" but which seems to have a special cultural significance here. In almost any situation where people will be interacting, be it a classroom, a part-time job or the local PTA board, a new member will always stand and make a formal self introduction, telling the others their name (including how to write it in kanji), where they're from, what their hobbies are, and so on. Giving this information to the other members of the group allows everyone to categorize the newcomer properly, and afterwards the others will do their own jiko shokai in turn. These self introductions are also heavily used in ESL teaching, too, since formal self introductions are seen as the "most basic" form of human communication in Japan. Back when I was an ESL teacher, I taught children a lot, and I made sure to spend a lot of time teaching self-introductions, since I knew that the parents of my students expected that their kids have this ability before anything else and would complain if their kids couldn't recite basic information about themselves to others.

Dokdo or Takeshima?

They're known as Takeshima in Japan, Dokdo in Korea, and internationally as the Lincourt Rocks: two ridiculously small volcanic islands located between Japan and South Korea, which were mapped by the French whaling ship Lincourt in 1849 and which both neighbors are claiming ownership of today. The Japanese side of the argument seems to be that they annexed the two uninhabited islands in 1905, which were officially entered into the books as Japanese territory. After World War II the status of the islands was not specifically addressed in the postwar treaties, which is where most of the current problem flows from. There's plenty of evidence to support each side, for example an 1880 German map showing the rocks as belonging to Japan (hence the world powers of the era considered the islands to be Japanese), a passage in a 1714 historical document in Korea that expressed worry about "Japanese territory" (the Lincourt Rocks) being so close to Korea's, and the fact that Korea doesn't seem to have ever named the islands in antiquity or mapped them clearly. On the other side of the argument, there are documents that show that the government of Japan considered the islands as belonging to Korea from the 1870s, and the Korean government did make an official survey of the islands in 1900, five years before Japan's annexation. The bottom line is that neither side has an iron-clad claim, and each only seemed to start caring about the islands when the other party showed interest, making the whole thing rather like two children fighting over a toy. I predict that South Korea will win the struggle in the end, because a) they have possessed the islands de facto for 50 years now, b) Dokdo/Takeshima are slightly closer to Korea than to Japan, and c) the Koreans are smart enough to make YouTube videos featuring foreigners from around the world holding signs that say "Dokdo belongs to Korea" -- if that doesn't clinch it, nothing will. Even the Korean branch of Dunkin' Doughnuts got into the fray recently with a line of "Do you know Dokdo?" T-shirts promoting Korea's claim to the islands. Um, whatevs.
For (way) more information on this topic, I recommend Occidentalism.org or Dokdo-or-Takeshima, two outstanding resources.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

So You Want to Teach English in Japan?

I get rather a lot of questions from readers interested in working in Japan as a teacher, and I do my best to guide them to useful information, although I haven't been working in the field myself for more than a decade. Teaching ESL is a potentially fun option for people wanting to work for a few years in Japan, as long as you have realistic goals and know what you're getting into. Teaching English in Japan might not be the best long-term career choice, due to ongoing problems with the industry in general, which took a big hit when the large eikaiwa chain Nova imploded last year. One of the most popular choices for teaching in Japan is the Japan English Teacher (JET) program, operated by the government to get native English speakers into the country to teach and also facilitate "grass roots Internationalization" of Japan, and judging from the capacity crowd at the JET panel at Anime Expo, there is a lot of interest among anime fans. Unfortunately, getting accepted into the JET system can be a challenge since there are so many applicants each year, but I'll be happy to give the very few points of advice I can offer. First, there are two types of JET jobs, Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) who do the actual teaching, and Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs), who help guide the program and who need a minimum amount of Japanese. As a rule, I generally recommend people with a deeper interest in Japan to consider trying for the latter job, which will probably contribute more to your understanding of Japan overall, and could help you build kone (KOH-neh, or connections) for the future. There are plenty of alternatives to JET, too: for example, most cities have "sister cities" in Japan, for example our city of Isesaki is has a relationship with Springfield, Missouri, and often there are ALT jobs or exchange study opportunities open through these connections. Increasingly, Japanese school districts will rely on outside companies that take the teacher hiring responsibilities out of the hands of the city, so finding these companies is a good idea to consider for anyone seeking these jobs. Note that there are alternatives to full-fledged teaching in Japan -- for example, the Lion's Club has an International Camp and Youth Exchange Program, which (I hear) often don't have enough applicants. Bottom line, if you want to come to Japan, there is probably a way!

One of my Favorite Words: Kokoro


One Japanese word I like a lot is kokoro, which can be a little difficult to translate into English, which makes it all the more mysterious. Basically, kokoro means the heart, but the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of it -- it's often translated into English as as soul, spirit and mind. Kokoro is your inner self, similar to your soul, although there's a more complex word for that particular concept (which is tamashii). The kokoro is thought to reside in the chest, in contrast to most Westerners, who would probably put the mind's physical location as being inside the head. The concept of reading one's mind is expressed in Japanese as kokoro o yomu (to read one's heart), and if something really hurt you you might say kokoro ga itamu (my heart hurts). There are other words in Japanese that correspond to other meanings of the English word heart, such as shinzo (the heart that's hopefully beating in your chest right now) and haato (the English word rendered with a Japanese accent, which describes the classic heart shape). Learning a language is fun because it makes you realize that complex ideas can't be simply brought over on a 1-to-1 basis all the time, which makes you reflect more on what language is all about.

I Don't Know My Own Kids

I have a rather strange problem: I don't know my own kids. Or rather, I know the half that speaks Japanese, that works diligently on homework and reads books or plays video games in Japanese. The English-speaking side of my children is something I'm less familiar with, for the main reason that my kids are unable to function naturally in English when my Japanese wife or I am around. One thing I've learned from becoming bilingual is that once you have a certain "language relationship" with someone, it's almost impossible to change later on. I speak Japanese to my wife but English to my kids, however everyone speaks Japanese back to me, and no amount of pretending to not understand will get my kids to switch to English -- kind of like Han Solo and Chewbacca, conversing in two different languages at once. That's why we send our kids to the U.S. every summer, so they can get a good dose of fun American culture and speak lots of English. I hear reports from my family about how open and outgoing my kids are, using English just as naturally as if they'd been born in the States, but I never get to see it for myself since if I am around, everything reverts to Japanese. Since a person's personality in one language can be quite different in another, I feel as if there's a big part of my own children I'm unable to know.
By the way, aren't these cool? I guffawed at first when this line came out, but they're so fun when you get past the weirdness of transforming Star Wars.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Many Peopple have Loved You?

Oops, forgot to post this pic after all that. The girl was like 15 years old, so it added a layer of bizarreness to the whole experience. The caption below says "We are the world" (naturally).

This reminded me of my past trip to the U.S. and a girl was getting on the plane with a shirt that had the F-word on it as large as could be. Going to the U.S. I couldn't resist taking her aside and giving her some clothing advice...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Confused Gaijin in Japan

I write a lot about how one of the challenging aspects of leaning Japanese is getting in tune with what isn't being overtly stated, learning to pick up meaning from situations or from the air around you. This is called mugon ryokai or "understanding without saying," and it presents special challenges people coming over from English, a language in which the subject and object of sentences are always stated. Once I got a call from my wife, asking if I would drive down to the station where she was waiting. She was sure I would understand that she was with her mother and that I should come pick up both of them in our normal car, yet she left this part out, in essence, saying, "Would you come pick [omitted] up." Of course I assumed she was alone, so I drove my Mazda Roadster (aka Miata) down to pick her up, which caused all kinds of problems since three people can't fit inside. The inability of non-native Japanese speakers to completely master the built-in vagueness of the language has the effect of turning even the smartest and most intelligent foreigner into a buffoon who doesn't know what is going on around him, at least some of the time. When you watch anime series that have a gaijin kyara or a foreign character, they often fit this mold: kind and well-meaning, but bumbling linguistically and generally causing problems for the Japanese around by always misunderstanding the situation.

From a popular book about a Japanese woman married to a foreigner, Darling ha Gaikokujin. Oops, I mean wa, sorry.

Getting Out of Tokyo: The U-Turn

Imagine if 25% of all Americans lived around the Washington DC area? It would be pretty crowded, and not very fun to get in and out of around holidays. That's exactly the case with Japan, though, where one in four people live in the sprawling Greater Tokyo Area, and as you can imagine, holidays like the just-ended Obon break end with incredibly long trails of cars as people hurry to get back home in time for work on Monday. While most of Tokyo's residents seem quite happy living in an area with a population density north of 5500 people per square kilometer, some decide they'd rather leave the crowded metropolis behind forever. Japanese who came to Tokyo from a more rural part of the country and decide to return home make what's called a U-Turn in Japanese, in essence giving up their life in Tokyo to return to their hometown to live. Perhaps the area of Japan they originally came from is a little too rural for them, and they'd prefer to live in a city near their home town instead: this is known as a J-Turn, essentially a "partial" U-Turn, since a J looks like half of a U, or something like that. Finally, Tokyo-ites who just want to get the heck out of the city and live a simpler life in a less populated part of thr country make what's known as an I-Turn, from the word inaka, meaning "the boonies." I've got a (gaijin) friend who did this: he worked in Tokyo, saving money while searching for a suitable plot of land to buy in Nagano Prefecture, where the Olympics were held in 1998. Now he's enjoying life away from the bustle of Tokyo, able to do the same work he did before thanks to the Internet. I wonder if the same dynamic is at work in New York or Los Angeles, with cities that get so big they start pushing people out?
Here's a picture of the kisei rush or return-to-Tokyo rush. Would you like to sit in a car for 10 hours on the last day of your vacation?

Funny and Creative English in Japan

It never fails: you're going about our business in Japan, when suddenly you come face to face with some really bizarre English. Like a guy with a hat proclaiming, "Hey bad boy!" or a pretty girl wearing a provocative shirt that asks, "How many people have loved you?" or an air cleaner called "Clean Poo." Often the funny English takes the form of advertising, as companies make use of the kakko ii (cool) status of the English language to evoke emotional responses in customers which may lead to them making purchases, since printing something like "canned beverage makes you refresh" on a can of juice can give an otherwise hum-drum product a real "image up." Similarly, most every can of beer you will find in Japan features an extensive statement of quality, like, "Sapporo beer is made from the finest hops for a delicious taste and refinement," although I've never known anyone's purchase choices to be influenced by the English on the can. Some of my most enjoyable moments as an ESL teacher involved seeing how creative my students could be, like when one wrote that, "Humans cannot travel to Antarctica now, because it is under penguin rule." Although many foreigners in Japan love to find every bit of hidden English around them they can, I find that after being here so long, I almost don't notice it -- it's part of the general background noise of Japan.

Wow, that's a pretty cool T-shirt