Friday, October 17, 2008

Confusing Ideas about Japan: Nihonjinron

One concept you eventually bump into when studying about Japan is nihonjinron (nee-HONE-JEEN-rone), a word which literally means "theories on Japan." A collection of ideas that grew out of the Meiji Period, the nihonjinron concepts generally have to do with describing Japan as a completely unique country, unlike the nations of Asia or the West, with a linguistic and developmental history unlike that of any other nation. Part of this is the belief, held by almost all Japanese, that their language is one of the most difficult in the world, with its mixture of Japanese words and grammar overlaid by Chinese characters with readings that shift by context and region, all complicated by heavy borrowing of foreign loan words. Another part of the reason Japanese is so hard, supposedly, is that it's so subtle, with so many shades of grey and information that's implied rather than being specifically stated, which no one but a Japanese could ever really comprehend. Although some of the nihonjinron ideas can be interesting to contemplate, there's a high amount of voodoo in them. Besides, Japanese ESL student know that English is the hardest language in the world to learn...

Trick Your Mind into Learning Japanese

Part of mastering a foreign language involves coming up with strategies that help you trick your brain into learning. In my own case, I figured out early on that I learned better if I made word associations, allowing me to tie a word like kurai (dark) to the similar-sounding English word "cry" using the sentence "cry in the dark," or combining shinu (to die) with the English words "she knew," creating "she knew he was going to die." These word associations can get quite silly, but when you make a connection this way you'll probably have it forever, so they can be useful tools. My kids are preparing for the Eiken test this weekend, which is the primary test of English in Japan, and to help out we've tried to come up with innovative ways for them to learn. My daughter has trouble sitting still for a long time, so we do short lessons with lots of breaks in between. Also, when reading through word problems, she's allowed to change the subject of any sentence so that it talks about one of her family members, making it more fun for her to get through, like Mad Libs. In the case of my son, I help him memorize vocabulary words by coming up with lines from the Star Wars films, when I can. For example, one word he wasn't getting was "contamination," so I turned on my C-3P0 voice and spat out the Episode IV line, "I've got such a bad case of dust contamination I can barely move." It was just the mental hook he needed.

star wars

"It's Me!" Scam Update

Japan continues to have problems with a type of fraud known as furikome sagi (translatable as "Transfer the Money Now!" Fraud) in which someone of dubious character calls an elderly person up and pretends to be their grandson, suddenly in need of money to pay back a loan to a yakuza gangster, or tells them that a family member has committed some wrongdoing and will get into trouble unless money is transferred to the following account immediately. One enterprising fraudster even posed as an agent for the National Tax Agency on the phone, carefully walking an elderly victim through the steps needed to transfer her life savings to them under the guise of helping her pay her taxes. The National Police Agency has declared October to be "Elimination of Bank Fraud Month" and has assigned 60,000 officers to stand guard at banks and talk to elderly customers that come in to make sure they're not being swindled. Japanese "cash corners" (as ATMs are sometimes called) have been updated to display messages warning against the dangers of bank fraud, too. The new measures seem to be helping somewhat, although 16 of the 94 reported bank fraud cases so far this month happened right under the noses of police officers standing guard, including a poor elderly woman who was fooled into transferring $28,000 to an unknown bank account. Japan is a very conservative society when it comes to saving, and seniors on average have $200,000 in cash, twice the $100,000 the average household has saved, which is still a huge amount.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Accents and Fake Mexican Food

You've been in Japan too long when you get a nihongo ga jozu and feel really insulted. It's an odd fact of life in Japan, but foreigners who are learning Japanese strive for that magic moment when people will stop complimenting them on how good their Japanese is. Being told "your Japanese is very good" (nihongo ga jozu) is a sign that your language ability is good, but not "there" yet -- if it were really good, the person you're conversing with would just shut up and talk to you like a normal person. After studying Japanese for four years at SDSU and living in Japan since 1991, I am hopefully as fluent as I will ever need to be, although there are still occasional difficulties like discussing specific subject areas. Once I went to KFC to order a Twister (if you put taco sauce on them it's almost like you're eating Mexican food), but for some reason, I couldn't make myself understood by the girl taking my order. It turned out that she was a foreigner herself, a university student from China, and hadn't understood my American Japanese accent.

Career Women vs Office Ladies

I talked last time about how some work-related terms like "office lady" (OL) and "career woman" are used to differentiate certain full-time workers based on their status in the company, and how this seemed odd to me. This is part of a system created in the 1990s as Japan realized it wasn't very good at that whole male-female equality thing. The way it works is this: when an employee joins a (largeish) company, they usually have the option of choosing which career path they want to be on, either doing general but important tasks in the company, or opting for more challenging work that offers increased responsibility and possibility for advancement. For example, at the bank we use at J-List, there are two types of staff: ippan or "general" employees who work as tellers and wear these cute little bank teller uniforms, and sogo or "regular" employees (yes, I know general and regular sound like the same thing), who do more important jobs like manage other workers, handle currency exchanges and go out and find new business for the bank. Since both male and female employees are free to opt for either type of work without discrimination, it seems like a good system, although in practice I'm not sure how much real effect it has promoting equality when both sexes are pretty happy with things the way they are. When my wife started working for a Japanese company back in the late 80s she was eager to acquire new skills, but all she was called upon to do was memorize which green tea cup belonged to which male employee and how they liked their tea, which she hated. She wishes they had the current system in place back then.

National Mythology of Japan

A nation is defined by several factors, including language, geography and politics, but also by its shared mythology. In America we grow up with stories of George Washington telling his father "I cannot tell a lie" when asked about the cherry tree, or Paul Revere famously shouting, "The British are coming!" which give us a warm and fuzzy patriotic feeling. We (hopefully) realize later in life that a lot of these events didn't actually take place, but are embellishments after the fact that have nevertheless become part of our culture. I've always enjoyed observing the Japanese version of this mechanism and see how its national folk heroes are made. In 1594 a ninja known as Goemon Ishikawa tried to assassinate Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the Japanese ruler who's interesting because he started out as a peasant yet became the most powerful man in the country. The attack failed, and when Goemon was publicly executed by being boiled alive in a pot he became a kind of national hero to the country. (Goemon from Lupin III is his descendant.) The feudal lord of the Mito region during the early Edo Period became an unlikely folk hero when a book called The Record of the Wanderings of Mito Komon was published, making the fictional adventures of the kindly old samurai who flashed the official mark of the Tokugawa clan to shame evil-doers as famous as Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid. And then there's one of the most respected names in Japanese history, Ryoma Sakamoto, who almost single-handedly came up with a plan to force the Tokugawa Shogunate to surrender power after an nearly bloodless conflict, which led to the establishment of Japan as a modern nation. His adventures have been written about and embellished so much that many apocryphal stories are believed to be real.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Strange English in Japan

The Japanese use a lot of English, but it's not always easy for gaijin to figure out what's being said. "Punk" doesn't mean a tough-looking guy, but a flat tire (it comes from the word puncture). If someone is "cunning" in Japan, it means they're cheating on a test. For some reason, the English word "glamor" has come to mean women who are well-endowed, so you might want to use the Japanese word for grammar (bunpo) to avoid chuckles in your classroom. If you buy a "bike" for your child you might get looked at funny since the word always refers to a motorcycle and never to a bicycle. If you have a business proposal to make to a Japanese woman, there's a slight chance she'll start blushing on you, since the English word "propose" is only used for marriage proposals in Japan, not for other kinds of formal business suggestions. If you "rinse" your hair, you're applying cream rinse, and if you live in a "mansion" it means you live in a nice townhouse that you own yourself. Living in Japan can be wacky!

This is a mansion by the way. Lots of people live there.

Wither the Salaryman?

The word "salaryman" is a wasei-eigo (lit. "made-in-Japan English") term referring to a salaried male employee of a company. The word came into use in the Taisho Period (1912-1926) to describe the new professional class of company employees doing jobs we'd think of as "white collar," and during Japan's period of rapid economic growth in the postwar years these salarymen were responsible for Japan's economic miracle. The trademark of the salaryman is his conservative dark suit, called a sebiro in Japanese, which probably came from the English word "civil" since they are civilian clothes, i.e. not a military uniform. Although the salaryman is still the basis on which Japan's modern economic society is built, there are an increasing number of people turning on their backs on working full-time in a monolithic company, whether it's young people who choose to live as freeters, never tying themselves to one job for long, or men who escape their status as salarymen (known as datsu-sara), quitting their jobs to open a restaurant or a Japanese inn or go into business for themselves. The word salaryman describes male employees; female employees would likely be called "office ladies" (OLs) if they're doing standard clerical work, or "career woman" if they've made a choice to pursue their careers, which puts them in a different career track than normal OLs. Personally, I can't get past the fact that labels are used in such an overt way in Japan, the ultimate land of subtlety, where in the "always say exactly what you're thinking" U.S. it would be much more common for a more general term to be used for all employees.

Salarman and Torii

Gaijin and Real Ramen

One thing foreigners visiting Japan should be sure and try is "real" ramen. Thanks to its cheapness, virtually everyone in the world is familiar with instant ramen noodles like Cup Noodle, and I sure ate my share during my days as a poor college student. The difference between instant noodles and the real stuff found in Japanese ramen restaurants, though, is like night and day. Although you might think of ramen is being a Japanese dish, it originated in China around the start of the 20th century, and within Japan ramen is considered Chinese food, on par with gyoza dumplings and spring rolls. (They even write the name for it in katakana, as it's a foreign loan word.) Ramen comes in one of several basic soup flavors, with the most common being shoyu (soy sauce), followed by miso (my own favorite), shio ("salt" flavor), and so on. I love ramen now, but it took me a few months to work up the courage to try many different kinds of the noodles when I first got here -- I was bowled over by the naked variety of ingredients, many of which I couldn't identify, that it took time for me to take it all in. Although you can probably find a ramen shop within twenty meters of you at all times in Japan, I recommend you try a yatai, or outdoor ramen stand, which is a wonderful icon of Tokyo; it's fun to talk with the Master while you eat. If you fancy yourself a ramen fan, plan on visiting the Yokohama Ramen Museum next time you're in town. Besides various displays on the history of the noodles, you can wander a perfect recreation of a 1958 Tokyo street and dig your chopsticks into the noodles of a bygone era.


Would you like pickled bamboo shoots with that?