Friday, September 05, 2008

The Best Time to Come to Japan

One of the cardinal rules for gaijin coming to Japan is, try your best to make it over here as a university student. College life in Japan is a kind of magical time between childhood and adulthood, mercifully free of the stress that normally comes with studying at university, where you can make lifelong friends and see Japan from a viewpoint you won't ever get to enjoy again. I was too poor to come to Japan when I was in college, so I had to come here as a shakai-jin, a "society person" or full-time worker, which colored my experiences in a different way, but I'd have given anything to be able to visit Japan during school. Many universities offer study abroad programs that allow students to spend a semester or a year living in Japan, so if you or a Japan-focused young person you know would like to come to Japan for a year, start looking into what's available. Remember my theory that every young American should be made to live for a year outside their home country, which would do wonders for the way we view our own country and the rest of the world.

If you are lucky enough to come here during your college years, this is what you get to look forward to:

Fun with Japanese Company Names

For some reason, studying the etymologies of Japanese company names is fascinating to me. Like how the founder of Canon got the name for his company from the Bodhisattva Kannon, a kind of Goddess of Mercy revered by Japanese Buddhists, or how the name Epson was formed from "Son of Electric Printer." When you study Japanese, you start to see these famous brands in a new light, for example watchmaker Seiko is written with characters meaning "delicate and minute engineering," while Nikon is an abbreviation of Nihon Kogaku ("Japan Optical"). Yakult got their name from the Esperanto word for yogurt, which was suggested by a Polish researcher working with the company at the time, and Subaru is the local name for the Pleiades star cluster, deemed fitting as the company was formed by merging six smaller companies together. Bandai's name is rather complex: it comes from Bandai Fueki, one of the books in Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and the phrase means "forever unchanging," since children's toys should be something that are constant throughout the ages. A lot of Japanese company names have the word ya at the end, such as toy maker Kotobukiya or the bookstore chain Kinokuniya. This is a character meaning "roof" which is used to denote a shop, like hana-ya (a flower shop) or ramen-ya (a ramen shop) in addition to being part of various proper names. There's a new sporting goods store that just opened in our city called Himaraya, which is great since it fits the standard Japanese naming practice yet makes you think of the mighty Himalayas. Their official company slogan is pretty cool, by the way: "We have a fine dream."
And in case you don't know what a Bodhisattva Kannon is, our neighboring city of Takasaki just happens to have a giant (as in 5-story) statue of the goddess, which I'll show you.

4000 Years of Chinese Traditional Medicine

Don't tell anyone, but I'm on a diet. You could call it the "iPhone diet" because I'm using one of the many applications (iTunes link) for my iPhone to track daily calorie intake. My plan is to eat whatever I want while accurately recording everything, which will help me identify the stuff I've been eating that's the most harmful. To help me out, my wife bought some bad-tasting medicine, saying, "Now, this is kampo, so it will definitely work." A word that literally means "Chinese way," kampo refers to the traditional herbal medicine of China, and it occupies an almost mythical place in the minds of the Japanese, in effect being a complete class of medical science that's separate from Western medicine. Many products, from energy drinks to various "enhancers" to Yomeshu (a kind of medicinal sake loaded with Chinese herbs) advertise themselves as making use of the magical power of kampo to relieve symptoms. Many kampo medicines have the full backing of the medical community here, and health insurance even covers them. In the U.S., however, traditional Chinese medicines are completely ignored by almost every major company. It'd be interesting if there were some really effective drugs sitting right under our noses that have been in use in China for thousands of years.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wither Gaijin?

The most common word for "foreigner" in Japanese is gaijin, written using the characters for "outside" and "person." While ostensibly referring to any non-Japanese person, the term is most often used to mean American and European foreigners, and never to, say, Chinese or Koreans, who are referred to by their own specific nationality (e.g. chugoku-jin, kankoku-jin). Depending on who uses it and in what way, the word gaijin can sound derogatory to some, which is why TV newscasters will always use the more polite gaikokujin or "outside-country-person" instead. Recently there's been some discussion on various blogs about how bad the term gaijin really is, and weather we should be trying to stop its use. My own take is that it's just a word, and no worse than the term "alien," which sounds a little strange when you've grown up watching sci-fi films then realize it can refer to people from other countries, too. The reality is that the majority of the "discrimination" many foreigners get in Japan is positive -- people offering to pay you $40 an hour to speak your native language with their kids, pressing gifts into your hands, and girls writing their phone numbers on the back of chopstick wrappers. Personally, I think that if someone you don't know starts buying you beers in a bar and inadvertantly calls you gaijin, as has happened to me, it's best to not be too quick to take offense -- you are enjoying their beer, after all. Of course, Japan is by no means perfect, and improvements should be made. Still, when I compare my own experiences here with what the reverse situation might be, I really can't find reason to complain.

The Cup Ramen Museum in Osaka

Next time you're in Osaka, consider visiting the Monofuku Ando Memorial Ramen Museum, a sprawling facility commemorating the achievements of the Taiwan-born Japanese inventor of instant ramen. In the postwar years, Japanese were eating bread made with wheat flower brought in by the occupying U.S. military, and Momofuku (then operating a small business extracting salt from seawater) wondered why they didn't eat noodles instead, which were more familiar to the Japanese people. In 1957, a bank he was director of went under, taking his personal finances down along with it. In order to get out of debt, he returned to his idea about noodles, trying to find a more convenient way to prepare them. The result was Chikin [sic] Ramen, a delicious chicken flavored raman that's still being sold after fifty years. (I had some for lunch today.) At the museum, you can see different varieties of Cup Ramen from around the world, like broccoli ramen from Germany or curry flavored noodles from India, which are made without the soup base so that the noodles can be eaten with the hands, as is the custom in that country. Cup Ramen in all Western countries have noodles that are shorter than in Japan, to make them easier to eat with a fork. The museum sports a virtual reality room showing what happens as ramen is made, from the viewpoint of the raman itself, and afterwards you can mosey up to the Instant Ramen Bar and order some ramen with custom toppings that you can specify. (One of the most popular flavors is Seafood Milk, ugh...)

Prime Minister "Baton Touch"

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda surprised everyone by suddenly announcing his resignation on Monday. He's stepping down, he says, to take responsibility over the political stalemate that's grown between his ruling Liberty Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which has control of half the Japanese legislature and which is stubbornly resisting working with the LDP to resolve various issues. Incredibly, this is the 10th leadership change since I came to Japan in 1991, compared with only three in the U.S. and Britain during the same period, which illustrates a real problem with Japan: the near total lack of long-term quality leadership. Of all the recent head honchos in Japan, only the popular Junichi Koizumi was able to overcome the strange phenomenon of Japanese politicians withholding their support for their own leaders the minute they try to lead long enough to enact any reforms -- I really have to feel sorry for Fukuda-san, who was never given a break by anyone. The anime-watching world is all aflutter with the hopes that Fukuda's second-in-command Taro Aso will become the next PM. Aso-san is famous for being an otaku, known for carrying volumes of manga with him onto the Diet floor and calling for the government to support artists and companies exporting manga and anime to the world. In addition to his appreciation for Japan's popular culture, Aso-san is a maverick in other ways, being Roman Catholic in a very Buddhist nation, and fluent in English after studying at Stanford and the London School of Economics as well as spending two years mining for diamonds in Africa.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Japan's Prince of Tennis

Japan has a new Prince of Tennis, by the name of Kei Nishikori, who is kicking butt in the U.S. open right now after his big win against David Ferrer over the weekend, making him the first Japanese tennis player to advance to the 4th round since 1937. Born in in rural Shimane Prefecture in 1989, he took up a racket at the age of five and would hit balls against the side of his house for many hours, showing a remarkable aptitude for the sport. He took the incredible step of leaving Japan behind, crossing over to the U.S. at the age of 13 to be trained at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which caused quite a lot of buzz at the time. As usual, Japanese who compete in the world stage and raise the image of Japan in the eyes of foreigners become overnight sensations in here, and suddenly his name is on everyone's lips. I certainly hope that Nishikori-kun can follow stars like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata in redefining the international image of Japan through sports. Ganbatte, Nishikori!

Understanding Star Wars through Anime

I finally got to see the new Clone Wars computer animated film, which just opened here. One of the minor agonies of being a Star Wars fan in Japan is having to wait an extra long time for films to open, because George Lucas likes Japan and always wants to personally be here for any of his film releases. Whenever a new Star Wars film comes out, my son and I pick through it to see what character names were obviously inspired by Japanese words, like Count Dooku's name from doku meaning poison, or the obi in Obi-Wan meaning a kimono belt. The new character in this film was Anakin's padawan Asohka, which seems like it can only have come from the phrase ah, so ka? meaning, "Oh, is that so?" The new film was obviously inspired by Japanese animation to a certain degree, and I noticed the animators even followed the recent convention of including an okama or gay character, in the form of the makeup-wearing Ziro the Hutt, nephew to Jabba. It's quite common for recent anime series to feature one effeminate male character, called okama kyara in Japanese, to provide comic relief and act as a foil for the main characters. Some examples of these fabulous characters include Leeron, the capable and flamboyant engineer from Gurren Lagann, and Bobby Margot, the helmsmen of the Macross Quarter from Macross Frontier, so manly and yet so girlish. Heck, Gonzo's gorgeous Romeo x Juliet anime remix even featured an okama character: it was William Shakespeare himself, repurposed as a mentor to the starcross'd lovers.
As for the Clone Wars film, hrrm, it was a nice extension of the Clone Wars animated shorts, that's for sure. As long as you hypnotize yourself into pretending you're a 12 year old boy again, it was great.

Things a Japanese City Will Definitely Have: Hanabi Taikai

There are certain things that every self-respecting Japanese city will be sure to have. For example, a large central Culture Hall, or bunka kaikan, to hold important events like concerts, piano recitals and taiko drum performances put on for parents by the local kindergarten kids. In April, Japan's cherry blossoms explode with color, and virtually every Japanese city has an established park or two lined with cherry trees for their citizens to sit under, as they try pretend that their city alone is famous for sakura. If a city has more than a million residents, it starts to pine for a large tower in the center of town, and almost every major city from Tokyo to Kyoto to Fukuoka sports a tall Space Needle-like tower. Then there are big fireworks festivals, large displays of color put on for everyone's enjoyment on a specified day during the summer. Our city's fireworks festival was on Sunday, and the entire city oo'd and ah'd as the sky was lit up with beautiful "fire flowers," as they're called in Japanese. Fireworks, of course, go back a long way in Japanese history, and you have to wonder what it was like seeing a fireworks display back in the Edo Period.

Japanese fireworks