Friday, August 29, 2008

Thoughts on Reading Kanji

When you can't read or write kanji, the idea of being able to recognize hundreds or thousands of the symbols probably seems daunting, but as with most things in life, it's not as difficult as it first looks. Kanji characters are built quite logically, with different quadrants of many characters organized around the meanings for that character. For example, the kanji for words like to speak, to read and to translate all feature the same left section, a radical which happens to look like a stack of books on a shelf, which is the character for "to say" (iu), indicating that all these characters are related to communication in some way. While Chinese might need around 3500 characters to read and write their language properly, Japanese is a bit more manageable, with 1006 characters taught in Elementary School and another 939 in Junior High, which are collectively known as the joyo kanji or "general use" characters. One of the most interesting thing that happens when you learn a language that's as different from English as Japanese is the moment you find yourself "reading" normally, without subvocalizing or translating into English -- nothing but your eyes, passing over the page and reading in the chunks of kanji, hiragana and katakana directly. The brain is amazing, really -- it can do anything.

Small "K" Cars in Japan: J-List's New Suzuki Every Wagon

Our new warehouse construction is nearly done, and we hope to be able to move in soon. To help us transport all the cool products that J-List is going to be bringing you, we bought a new company van yesterday. The one we got is an Every Wagon by Suzuki, and no, I didn't choose the car because of the wacky English name, although that was an added bonus. With its small 660 cc engine, the car belongs in a class of Japanese vehicles known as kei cars and trucks, meaning "light weight," identifiable by a special yellow license plate. These "K" vehicles are great for Japan -- inexpensive, easy to drive cars with small engines that are able to do just about anything a larger one can do, even drive on the freeway, although it takes a while to get up to full speed. Our van gets great gas mileage, too, around 16 kpl / 39 mpg, and because there are no newfangled hybrid features involved, it was very inexpensive to buy. With gas prices hitting the equivalent of $6.80 a gallon here, these small cars are more popular than ever, even without the tax benefits the Japanese government gives for owning more efficient cars. For some reason, these small "K" cars seem to feature names that are extra strange, like the Suzuki Carry, the Honda Acty, the Mazda Scrum, the Toyota Deliboy and the Daihatsu Applause. Sadly, these ultra-small cars are not generally sold in the U.S., although they're legal for non-freeway use in some more rural states and for specialized uses, like on college campuses.

Rain, Rain, Rain in Japan

Rain, rain, rain: this has been the wettest summer I can recall in Japan, and we've had wet weather off and on for weeks. The especially heavy rains this week brought Japan's famous Shinkansen trains to a stop, stranding thousands, and an evacuation warning was issued for the entire city of Okazaki, near Nagoya, as rivers that ran through the city overflowed, killing at least one. It was even more tragic in July, when rain-fed flash floods whipped through a riverside play area the city of Kobe had constructed to give children a place to play in the water, washing away a mother and three children. Summer in Japan brings thunderstorms almost daily, and last week lightning started a fire that damaged the Daigoji Temple in Kyoto. We're especially nervous about lightning around here -- twice J-List's building has been struck, killing our main air conditioning unit and causing us to go a week in the sweltering heat as we waited for it to be repaired. The extra wet summer is all the more puzzling because typhoon season isn't supposed to start until September -- which means we might have another month or so of pummeling and rain to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Japanese Mess Up English

What kind of juice would you like, cola or tea? The Japanese sometimes take liberties with words when they import them from English, adjusting their meanings to suit their needs. In Japan the word "juice" (ジュース)is often casually used to mean any canned or bottled beverage, and it's common for the term be applied to things like a can of iced tea or a carbonated drink, although we wouldn't think of these things as juice in English. Some other words the Japanese use with slightly altered meanings include "rouge" for lipstick, "manicure" for nail polish, "hair manicure" for hair coloring, and "milk" for powdered creamer to put in your coffee. If your house gets cold in the winter, you can turn on a "stove" (a kerosene heater), and if you want to check your weight, just step onto the "health meter" in your bathroom. The large number of differences between the meanings of "English" words as the Japanese use them and what they mean to native speakers can certainly get confusing: I remember a conversation I was having with a student about a shortcut I'd found while exploring the city that day, but she thought I was complimenting her on a short haircut she'd recently gotten.

Mmm, look at all that delicious juice.

Royal Milk Tea = juice?

Gunma History Lesson from Iwajuku

J-List's home prefecture of Gunma isn't as famous as Kyoto or Nara, but it can hold its own when it comes to ancient history. For example, there are more than 8000 burial mounds from the Kofun Period (250-538 A.D.), indicating a high level of civilization in the past, even though Tokyoites consider us to be a quaint place only useful for hot springs and skiing. But our prefecture's history goes a lot farther back. By an amazing coincidence, J-List is located only a few kilometers from the Iwajuku Archeological Dig, which happens to contain the oldest record of human habitation in all Japan. In 1949, an archeology enthusiast named Aizawa Tadahiro was digging for pottery shardswhen he hit on something much older: hand-made tools of obsidian and flint. At first, Mr. Tadahiro's discovery was mocked by the establishment, but his findings were verified, essentially pushing the timeline of humans living in the Japanese islands from 10,000 years ago to more than 30,000. Sadly, almost nothing else is known about the previous residents of Iwajuku, due to the fact that the area lies at the foot of Mt. Akagi, an active volcano that spits out highly acidic ash, but it's interesting that such a famous place is only a stone hammer's throw away from us. By another amazing coincidence (there are a lot of them in Japan for some reason), when J-List's own Tomo was in the 4th grade, he was in the hospital getting his tonsils out, and the man in the next bed over was Tadahiro-sensei himself. So Tomo got to hear all about the discovery at Iwajuku first-hand.

Useful Skills to Bring to Japan

If you want to live in Japan, there are certain skills you'll need to acquire. For example, you should be okay with popping something in your mouth without stopping to ask what it is, as food that's placed in front of you won't always be something you can identify. ("That can't really be a baby octopus, can it? OM NOM NOM.") If you're taller than 5'9" (175 cm) or so, you'll probably need to learn to duck or else bang your head in doorways a lot. There might also come a time when you want to let your friend know he should check out the pretty Japanese girl standing nearby, but do it in a way that the girl can't understand. This is where speaking extremely difficult English comes in handy, since most Japanese won't be able to pick up on intentionally complex words, like, "Hey John, I recommend that you examine the specimen of the opposite gender standing off your starboard bow. A delightful and tantalizing example of the human form, wouldn't you say?" I've had extensive conversations in front of members of the opposite sex, cloaking my conversation in this way, although the longer you live in Japan, the harder it becomes to recall really difficult words. Another suggestion is to use Pig Latin, a great way to obfuscate anything you want to say, since Japanese people don't know what it is. "Ook-lay at-tay at-thay ueaituful-bay irl-gay!" You never know what skills you'll need in Japan.

Baby octopus

Monday, August 25, 2008

More Fun With Chopsticks

It's known that the Japanese eat with chopsticks with almost every meal, deftly picking up even the tiniest morsels of food without a second thought. There are some important of chopstick manners that are practiced here, which you should be aware of if you ever find yourself eating with Japanese people. First, as you may know if you've seen our famous Japanese Manners T-shirt, you should never stick chopsticks standing up in rice, since this is done only at funerals as an offering of "last rice" for the dead. Similarly, don't hand food to someone else's chopsticks using your own -- always put the food down on a plate or something first for the other person to take. Finally, when sharing food with others, it's nice to turn your chopsticks around, using the back of your chopsticks to eat from a dish that others are also going to eat from, which keeps germs away from them. Using chopsticks isn't hard at all by the way, and J-List offers a wide range of authentic chopsticks from Japan with handy features for gaijin like us, such as rough patches at the tips to make it easier to grasp that last grain of rice, or training chopsticks that are great for starting out with. Why not browse J-List's chopstick, bento and other items now?

How to use chopsticks

Learning About Keigo (Polite Japanese) and Anime

Each language is special, with its own set of interesting features. Romance languages, for example, have nouns that come in male and female genders, which can be difficult for native English speakers to pick up -- why is a pen la puma but a pencil is el lapiz? In Japanese, there are some interesting features, too. As I often point out here, the subject and object are sometimes left off of sentences if the speakers know what is meant. Thus a girl might say to her friend "Iku?" which literally means "Go?" Who is going, and where are they going, and when are they going, are all implied (let's head out to lunch now). Another interesting aspect of the language is keigo, or formal polite language, which splits some verbs into "exhaulting," for use when referring to someone you want to show respect to such as an honored guest or your boss, and "humble," used to lower yourself or your organization, thus raising the person you're being polite too even higher. This polite form of Japanese can be quite removed from everyday life here, and when Japanese go to university or a trade school, part of their education will include training in how to use this higher level of polite language, so they don't embarrass themselves when they enter the workforce. One thing I've found interesting is how a Japanese person can angrily berate someone even while they maintain this careful keigo language mode. In the anime Gurren Lagann, there's a scene in which Nia, princess and daughter of Lord Genome, demands to know why her father has been forcing humanity to live underground. She's extremely angry as she speaks, yet her Japanese is polite the whole time. This is probably something that'd be impossible to recreate accurately in English.

Kandora: Korean Dramas in Japan

My wife is hooked on Kandora, short for Kankoku dorama or South Korean soap operas, and it seems every time I walk through the living room she's got another one on the TV. When I ask her what's so interesting about the shows, she gets very animated. "Oh, they're nothing like Japanese dramas," she says. "They're more intense, and the stories are much more involved and interesting. The characters really change and grow." It struck me that she sounded like me back in the 80s, describing why Japanese animation was so superior to whatever else was on TV back then for people to watch (I actually can't remember at this point). It seems to me that the human brain is wired to appreciate things that are fresh and new, and when a concept comes along that is totally unique, people are drawn to it irresistibly, which goes a long way towards explaining the revolution that Japanese animation has brought to the world over the past 20 years. My wife is finding that Korean series like Time Between Dog and Wolf, Spring Waltz and Something Happened in Bali are offering her a higher level of drama and depth, sometimes moving her to tears with their (often sad) stories. The Japanese soaps, with their lighter and more formulaic stories that you can usually guess ahead of time, don't seem to be doing it for her.

This is a magazine for fans of Korean dramas living in Japan. Yes, there are kandora otaku here too, mostly women in their 40s so it's kind of scary.

Korean drama magazine