Friday, September 26, 2008

Understanding Katakana English

I wrote last time that one of the challenges of living in Japan is getting accustomed to Japanese-accented English, sometimes called katakana English because of the way it's filtered through the syllable-based phonetic structure of Japanese. Back in high school, I listened to the old-school Macross song "0-G Love" for more than a year before it it dawned on me that the phrase was English -- the unfamilar pronunciation confused me enough that I wasn't even able to identify it as my own language. Of course, everyone has an accent when speaking another language, including me, and I might have similar challenges understanding the local English whether I was in Japan or China or Jamaica. Part of the probem is, the special nature of Japanese phonology makes words that are a single syllable to us (like "truck") into three when spoken by a Japanese person (torakku, pronounced to-RAH-kkoo). Some other vocal concepts we take for granted need to be remapped into sounds that exist in Japanese, which is why "where" sounds like "oo-eh-AH" and "twins" comes out like "tsoo-EE-nzoo," which can take a while to get used to. Then there are words that are used differently here, even though they're ostensibly English, like VIP and UFO, which are pronounced as "veep" and "you-fo."

Ah, Mari Iijima, you still got it...

Hot Japanese Female Politicians, Lack of Children

Taro Aso is getting down to business as the 92nd Prime Minister of Japan, forming his cabinet quickly after his landslide election. One of his first moves has been to appoint Yuko Obuchi, the 34-year-old daughter of the former Prime Minister who sadly died in office, as a new Special Minister in Charge of Measures Dealing with the Falling Birth Rate. Obuchi, who happens to hail from J-List's home prefecture of Gunma, might be the perfect person to serve as poster child for the issue, since she's got a lot of visibility as a young female lawmaker (following recent political trends, she's quite the hottie), and she has a one-year old baby, too. The problem of shoshika, literally "fewer children-ization" or the increasing dearth of children in Japan, has got a lot of people worried as its effects start to be felt in earnest, and Japan's population is projected to drop from 130 to 100 million by the middle of the century if things don't improve. Already Japanese cities are being forced to close some elementary schools, tearing them down or re-purposing them for use as general municipal buildings. There are many reasons why Japanese women are waiting longer to start having children and are having fewer when they do, with everything from the high cost of raising a child to changing social roles to a general lack of patriotic spirit among Japanese suggested. Prime Minister Aso will likely face more debate on the issue if an election is called in the next few months, as is expected, and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has been floating a plan to pay each household $250 per month for every child they have. Personally, I'd feel better about bringing children into a world where the government is solvent and not wasting its money in silly ideas, but that's just me.
(This is a chart of the Japanese birth rate, going form 4.5 children per female in 1947 to 1.4 today. The dip you see in the middle is the year of Hinouema, the Year of the Fire Horse, 1966. According to superstition, girls born in this year are supposedly very headstrong, and parents avoid having children in this year to avoid having daughters that can't find husbands.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Announcing the Beginning of Pocky Season

Chocolate Season has Begun! J-List is happy to announce the return of chocolate snacks to our website, now that it's cooled down here. We're busting out all the new flavors of Pocky for the 2008-2009 chocolate season, with an excellent new Crush Pocky in an extra large package and two new flavors of Dessert Pocky, the richest and most delicious stick snack ever. In addition, we've classics like Original Pocky and Men's Pocky back on the site. As usual, you can buy individual boxes or opt for shrinkwrapped cases at a special discount price.

Japan's New Otaku Prime Minister

Japan's next Prime Minister has been decided, and as expected, it's to be Taro Aso, who received more than 95% of the votes by his ruling Liberal Democrat Party. One of the few really interesting Japanese politicians, he worked his way through college at Stanford before his parents called him home to keep him from becoming too "Americanized," so he went to England to complete his studies instead. He mined diamonds in Sierra Leone, represented Japan in the Olympics in 1976 at Clay Pigeon Shooting, and he's quite technically minded, having assembled his own PCs from the motherboard up for the past ten years. When discussing Japanese politicians, the word "thoughorbred" often comes up, and this term applies to Aso-san as well: his father was a former cabinet member, his grandfather a former Prime Minister, and he's the great great grandson of Toshimichi Okubo, one of the most important reformers of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It's well know that Aso-san is a fan of Japan's manga and anime culture, which has helped him attain popularity among younger Japanese, especially among 2channelers and the English anime-related blogosphere. He supposedly reads three volumes of manga a day, sometimes on the Diet floor, and much of the recent recognition of the importance of Japanese popular culture have come from Aso-san, who has said he would like to create an international "Nobel Prize" for manga. His interest in comics -- for example, he promoted education about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima using the famous manga story Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) -- has caused the term "Manga Diplomacy" to be coined, and it will be interesting to see how his ability to name all the Lucky Star characters will color his leadership. One of the most refreshing things about Japan is their ability to have elections without contemplating the religion of the candidates in question in the slightest. When I mentioned to my wife that Aso-san happened to be a devout Roman Catholic, a rarity in a Buddhist country like Japan, my wife was surprised to hear it. At no time had the issue even been brought up by the Japanese news media.

This is the picture that "outed" Aso-san as an otaku and won him millions of fans on the Internets. They call him Rozen Aso now.

Wisdom on Living in Japan

When foreigners come to live in Japan, there are certain skills they will need to acquire. When I first arrived in Japan back in 1991, I was surprised to see that almost none of the roads in Japanese cities had names, which made it extremely difficult to learn my way around. I had to get good at visualizing routes inside my brain and learn how to refer to roads in vague terms ("the road with the beauty shop and the convenience store") when asking for directions. Another skill is getting accustomed to the accents of Japanese people you'll be interacting with, which can be quite a challenge, as your brain doesn't immediately understand that someone asking for uu-OH-tah wants a glass of water. When speaking Japanese with people, you'll need to get good at identifying the subjects of sentences since they're often left off when the meaning is otherwise clear from the context, or at least faking understanding in certain situations, such as the time I was picked to stand up and conduct the Maebashi Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Afterwards, the MC asked me something that I didn't catch, and rather than embarrass myself on the stage with hundreds of people watching me, I replied with the non sequitur so desu ne, which should mean "yes, that's so" but in effect doesn't mean anything.

Speed Racer Service Centers

Would you get your car serviced at a Speed Racer Service Center? I sure would. It's an interesting gimmick by entrepreneur and former Super GT race driver Tetsuji Tamanaka, who licensed the characters from Tatsunoko Production's venerable "Mach GoGoGo" to create a chain of Speed Racer-branded service centers, gas stations and used-car dealerships designed to bring a well-known face to the "total carlife support" they offer their customers. The familiarity of the character Go Mifune (as Speed is called in Japanese) combined with the current income level of the generation that grew up watching the original show has proven to be a big win for the company, which is opening franchise shops throughout Japan that do everything from buying used cars for sale through its national network to auto painting and that annoying sha-ken car inspection that drivers of older cars must pay $1500 for every two years. This isn't the only company that ties anime to car culture: there's also a chain of car repair shops that uses the famous Space Battleship Yamato logo and characters to promote themselves. These businesses are somewhat unique though: while anime is enjoyed by literally everyone at some point in their lives here, it's not usually something you see while driving down Main Street very often. Like Cowboy Bebop and Akira, Mach GoGoGo is one of those shows that became far more popular internationally than it ever was inside of Japan, and I for one am glad to see that Speed Racer hasn't been forgotten in the country of his birth.

Of course, they also have their own sexy Race Queens:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Trying to Get Into the BBC

I got a good laugh the other day while watching an episode of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. During the "Moments of Zen" compilation of coverage of the two political conventions, British comedian John Oliver tried to walk into the BBC's preparation room, despite not having an official pass. "I'm British," he said, with his proper accent, "and you don't need a credential to be British. My voice is my credential." It was extra amusing to me because I'd done a very similar thing in Japan. A decade or so ago, they held an international speed-skating competition in my prefecture, so I decided to go check it out. As I went to find my seats in the bleachers, I happened to notice a door for coaches and other VIPs, most of whom were from the U.S. or Europe, and on a hunch I wondered if I could get into that room just by being American. The Japanese person watching the door didn't want to let me in at first, but the right mixture of appearing to be in a hurry and speaking English at him rapidly got the job done, and I got to enjoy the skating competition while helping myself to beers and munchies. It wasn't very nice of me, of course, but it was an experiment I felt had to be made at the time.

(The BBC bit starts around 3:10 or so)

Wacky English T-Shirts!

During the Sports Festival, I engaged in a little hobby of mine: hunting for bizarre English T-shirts. For some reason, the parents who attend these sporting events often choose to wear T-shirts with the most interesting English phrases on them, so every year I walk around with my camera and see what I can see. My search got off on the right foot when I came across a young woman whose shirt said, "Gluttons: Smile Positive and Good Heart," followed by a man whose shirt proclaimed "Make Up Foundation For This World." Some of the slogans I saw seemed quite deep ("Music: Make a Recording, Life 83% Full"), while others were more perplexing ("Sense of Pitch 1962, Rosegirl"). Sometimes the messages were silly ("You're my Hearo [sic], Fashion Icon!!") while others tried to offer insight into that elusive concept of "freedom" which Japanese often associate with the USA ("Liberty Bell is Prime Wish -- I Love Me"). Of course, no one gives a second thought about what their T-shirts have printed on them in Japan, since for most people, English is primarily a decoration that's considered kakko ii (cool) and not something actually used for communication, which is why there's no problem with displaying a message like, "Definite Difference: That Oneself Cannot Be Ruled Is Not Free." Of course, we've been known to sell a wacky T-shirt or two here at J-List, but in Japanese rather than English. If you like the idea of having a wacky shirt with aesthetically beautiful kanji that no one around you can read, why not browse our lineup now?

Here are some of the pictures I took:

Autumn in Japan: School Sports Festivals!

Autumn is upon us, and in Japan that means one thing: School Sports Festival, a special event held at all elementary schools where kids run relays, do tug-of war, have egg toss competitions, perform dances that they've been practicing for months, and so on. Known as undo-kai in Japanese, pronounced "OON-doh-kai" and having nothing to do with the undo feature on your computer, the Japanese tradition of a special day when kids can show off their athletic abilities to their parents began in 1874 when an English teacher named Frederick William Strange organized the first "outdoor games" as a way for Japanese to learn about Western sports. Today, Sports Festivals are held across Japan, which turns out to be quite profitable for companies like Panasonic and Sony, who are all too happy to sell this year's hot new video cameras to all the oya-baka ("parent-fool"), the word for parents who go ga-ga filming their own kids. Saturday was my daughter's last Sports Festival of elementary school, and we dutifully gathered to cheer her on during the various events she was in. It's an annual tradition at the school that the sixth graders treat everyone to a brass band performance of the theme to Space Battleship Yamato, aka Star Blazers, and everyone did a great job.