Friday, October 10, 2008

Cuteness in the Bath, and Everywhere!

While most people in the U.S. probably opt for a shower to get clean, in Japan hopping in the furo (bath) is the norm, a nice custom that gives you time to relax after a hard day, although it does mean you need to wash your bathtub every other day or so. (Japanese baths come with heating units to allow water to be re-heated and used the next day, which is possible because you always wash yourself outside of the bath, keeping the water ostensibly clean.) This unpleasant task usually falls to me, since my kids are masters at disappearing the moment I go to ask them to do it. The other day I went shopping for various things for the home, including a new bath sponge, and I was surprised to see that the universal concept of kawaii (cute) was alive and well even in such mundane industries as cleaning supplies. Looking at the sponges the store offered for sale, I saw one that had a cute happy face that smiled back at me, so of course that was the one I reached for. Incidentally, J-List has many cute things in stock for you, including cute items for your bath, in our Wacky Things from Japan section.

My Wife's Uncle, the World War II Survivor

Yesterday we went to visit my wife's uncle in the hospital. Making a hospital visit to a sick friend or family member is quite an involved custom, called omimai (oh-me-my!), not to be confused with omiai (oh-me-eye!) which is formal meeting with a prospective marriage partner usually arranged by your parents. This is the guy who fought in World War II, and he just loves me since I'm the only one who listens attentively to his recollections of the war. I don't mind at all: it's great to be able to talk with someone who lived through such vibrant history during a time when our two countries were bitter enemies, and I gladly listened for an hour as he talked about his years manning the large guns on the Battleship Ise, a mammoth vessel that was retrofitted after Midway so that the back end could serve as a carrier. (Being an anime fan, I had to convert the scenes he described into proper Yamato vs Galimas space battles.) During the war, he escaped death no less than three times. The first was when an American bullet grazed his face, leaving a long scar. Then, his ship was to have been sent out with the Yamato on her final one-way mission, but there was no fuel so they got to stay at the shipyards at Kure. Finally, after the atomic bombing of nearby Hiroshima, the captain picked eight crew members out of a line to go to the city and see what had happened, and all eight men ended up dying of radiation poisoning. My wife's uncle had been the tenth man in that line.

Interesting Observations by Children and Linguistic Children

One thing that's fun about having kids is all the creative observations they make. Like the time my daughter saw a toy German airplane from World War II I had at home and proclaimed, "This airplane looks angry," because the Luftwaffe insignia looked like the "anger mark" seen so often in anime and manga. Or the time my family went to stay with a friend in Malaysia, and my daughter wondered why the (normal) maids that worked at our friend's house weren't wearing extremely kawaii uniforms like the ones she'd seen on Japanese TV. Then there was the time my son made a mistake in English, so he shrugged and said, "My name is stupid English," making a joke on that most elementary of ESL phrases. But you don't need to be a kid to be creative: just start learning a foreign language like Japanese. The natural period of exploration you'll go through as you engage in silly wordplay games in order to discover the boundaries of the language will have you coming up with the most expressive and inspired observations in no time, just like children do. This "linguistic childhood" effect also can also serve as a defense when your wife wants to know you're still geeking out over episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam at your age. Since I started learning Japanese in college in 1987, linguistically I'm only 21 years old!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The 1000th Anniversary of The Tale of Genji

2008 marks a special event: the 1000th anniversary of the completion of The Tale of Genji, the famous story penned by a woman known as Murasaki Shikubu, who was born in the year 973. Often called the world's first novel, the book was written in installments which were delivered to the ladies of the Imperial Court, with each chapter developing the 400+ characters in new ways, essentially making it the first Japanese soap opera. It's the tale of a fictional Japanese Emperor named Hikaru Genji ("Shining Genji") who was quite the playboy, and the first part of the story is largely concerned with the many noble women who loved him or who were loved by him. Just as students in English classes must schlep through Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespere, which they usually hate at the time but hopefully come to appreciate later, all students here have to tackle Genji, although it's difficult because the Old Japanese the story was written in is so different from the modern language. The novel was written at the height of the Heian Period (794-1192), a kind of Golden Age when cultural influences from China and Korea enabled a level of peace and civilization hitherto unknown, before Japan came to be dominated by samurai warriors who warred for control of the country. To commemorate the millennium anniversary of the Tale of Genji, there are special museum displays going on throughout the country including one in Yokohama this month. The Japanese Post Office has gotten into the game, too, issuing a set of commemorative stamps for collectors.

Do Foreigners Freak Out Japanese People?

I was recently asked "Are Japanese afraid of gaijin?" It was an interesting question which I had to think on a bit before responding. Certainly the answer is no -- although Westerners are sometimes viewed as mysterious and confusing creatures by the locals, I wouldn't say anyone feels actual fear, except possibly for small children who might hide in their mother's skirts when a big foreigner comes lumbering up to say hello. Of course, foreigners here do perplex the Japanese around them on a regular basis with some of the strange things they do, whether it's leaving a box of laserdiscs out in the rain then taking them back to the store the next day as defective (as a friend of mine did once), using a mimikaki ear cleaner as a coffee stir, or squealing with delight at the most mundane sights and sounds of the country, like my unending fascination with Japanese railroad crossings. Of course, there are times when Japanese are freaked out by foreigners for good reason, like when a British tourist from Spain decided it would be a good idea to take his clothes off and go for a swim in the moat around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, after he'd accidentally dropped a bag he was carrying in the water. It took the Japanese two hours to finally corner and arrest him.
Here are some pics. Hope you're not eating now ^_^ Who thinks this guy deserves to be made into an Internet meme?

Tama the Feline Stationmaster

You never know what's going to become popular in Japan next. It could be a new variation on the Maid Cafe concept like the Code Geass Cafe in Akihabara, where all the employees dress as characters from the anime series, or the "Morning Banana Diet" craze that supposedly has people buying up all the bananas in Japanese supermarkets right now. In Okayama Prefecture, a cat named Tama has been made honorary stationmaster of Kishi Station, which has created a huge spike in popularity for the region as tourists flock to see the cat of the hour and buy his official cat photobook. Kishi Station is located in an area so rural that it's been reconfigured as an unmanned station, with no permanent staff working there. Tama is owned by a man who runs a kiosk outside the station, and the cat became such a local icon that the train line decided to name him official stationmaster and buy him a little hat to wear. The popularity of the cat has been credited with bringing millions of yen to the entire prefecture in the form of increased tourist revenue, and the rail company has offered Tama all the cat food he can eat to show their thanks. I can has lifetime employment?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Japan Universities vs. U.S.: Which are Better?

Japan is a great place with a lot to offer many people, whether you're interested in learning the language, making good friends or just surfing the weirdness (of which there is plenty). One area where I feel America beats Japan handily its university system, which provides an incredibly rich array of options for anyone wanting to broaden their horizons. I've got a friend who worked for a major computer company doing a job that was not terribly fulfilling for him (I believe "soul crushing" were his exact words). When he was laid off a couple of years ago, he decided to make a big change by going back to school and getting an art degree. Although Japan's competitive university system does do some good by helping students set goals for themselves early on, one downside is that almost no one has a hope of getting into a major university unless they're near the age of 18 and are very focused on their studies -- going back to school in your thirties or forties is almost unthinkable. Japanese universities are inflexible in other ways, for example each major is generally walled off from the others, with little ability for students to experience a broad range of subjects. If you're a poly sci major and decided you want to switch to education, you're going to have to start your entire college career over from scratch, rather than being able to change majors and keep most of your units. Back during my time at SDSU (affectionately called "Suds University" by students because of all the beer we drank), students deciding they wanted to change majors was a regular occurrence, and even encouraged by the school, since the whole point of a university is to help students find their way.

Narrow Roads and Japan

You've been in Japan to long when, while driving on a two-lane road, you know the lane nearest the curb is going to be used as a parking lot. Since Japan has a lot less land area than the U.S., cramming four times the population of California into a space that's slightly smaller, allowances for the lack of space have to be made, and on most streets you can expect to see cars pulling over along the side of the road so people can run into the conbini (convenience store) and buy milk. There are always two or three cars in front of my parents' liquor shop on Sundays, too, since that the day Shonen Jump comes out. In all my years of driving in the U.S. I've never been on a road that was so narrow that two cars couldn't pass side-by-side, but it's not difficult to find roads like that in the more rural parts of Japan, and one of the skills you need when driving on such roads is the ability to back up until you can find a wider spot for the oncoming car to pass. Since there are many blind corners on narrower Japanese streets, there are curved mirrors posted to help you see oncoming cars or pedestrians, although learning to drive while being aware of these mirrors is quite a challenge -- they just don't enter my vision at all.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is the latest film by Hayao Miyazaki, and it's been quite an event here in Japan. It's the story of a curious fish named Brunhilde who decides to sneak away from her father and sisters and see what's on the surface. There she's befriended by a human boy named Sosuke who names her Ponyo, and the two become fast friends. Because Ponyo licked a cut Sosuke had, she acquired the magical ability to assume human form, and she makes up her mind to leave the sea and live with her friend forever. It's a simpler film than Miyazaki-sensei has made in the past, closer to My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service than to more plot-driven action films like Laputa. Just as his famous character Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was based on a character from Homer's Odyssey and a Japanese folk story of a princess who loved insects, Ponyo is a fusion of multiple sources, namely The Little Mermaid with its core elements rearranged; the local version of mermaids, as drawn in a famous woodblock printing from the Edo Period; a reverse version of Urashima Taro, the tale of a Japanese fisherman who visits a magical undersea palace; Little One-Inch, the story of a tiny child who goes to live with a Japanese couple, eventually attaining full size after many adventures; and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, about a child who emerges from a bamboo stump who turns out to be the Moon Princess. (This last tale is, I am certain, the basis for E.T. as well,) As is usually the case with Miyazaki's films, there's always one song that you can't get out of your head, and the Ponyo theme (iTunes link) has been the most popular song in Japan for months. Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo...sakana no ko...