Friday, October 24, 2008

Stereotypes and Japanese Salarymen

Stereotypes are not good since they cause us to make assumptions about people from other countries before we've gotten to know them. When I taught English as a Second Language, I used to do a lot of part-time work, going to people's homes to teach their kids once a week, and I was able to come into contact with a lot of people from average families trying to help their kids learn English to extremely wealthy students who seemed to think it was fashionable to have foreigners hanging around. One family I taught seemed to be a pretty average Japanese family on the surface: bustling mother overly concerned about her kids' education; bright daughter; younger son who loved Pokemon and "UFO Catcher" (crane game) machines; and a salaryman father who often worked late. The father surprised me one day by showing me pictures of his journey from Vladivostok to Moscow on the Siberian Railroad, which had been a lifelong dream of his, and I was immediately sorry I'd assumed he was such an average Joe. The leader of my daughter's Girl Scout troop is another such person. At first glance, she's an average middle-aged Japanese woman, worrying over how to make her daughter study more and tending a small dairy farm. Turns out, she's also a published author of children's books, and quite well-known in her field, which I never suspected, looking at her. I wonder if the Japanese I meet here have stereotyped ideas about what I'm like before they get to know me?

South Korea [Hearts] Japan

Today marks an interesting 10-year anniversary: the first legal performance of a Japanese song in South Korea, when singer Tomoe Sawa performed several classic Japanese melodies including Furusato (Home Town) in a concert in Kwangju. Ever since the end of World War II, South Korea maintained an official ban on "cultural imports" from Japan, allowing no Japanese music, no Japanese-language manga or animation, and no films to be distributed inside their country as a way of protecting themselves from the strong influence of their island neighbor and former enemy. (I'm told that a healthy black market for JPOP and anime products always existed, if you knew where to look.). The government-approved performance was the beginning of a major shift in relations between the two countries, allowing many new kinds of trade to flow across the Sea of Japan (a name the Koreans hate, by the way). The result has been a renaissance of cultural exchange resulting in a flood of everything from popular South Korean Dramas to films to Winter Sonata-themed pachinko machines here, while Japanese singers like Gackt and many dramas and films have become popular in South Korea. Tourism between the two nations has blossomed, too, as Japanese feel more welcome in South Korea and vice-versa. Being an outsider to both countries, I'm aware of how inadequate my overall understanding of the Japan-Korea relationship is. I do know, however, that the old slogan of "world peace through shared popular culture" is totally true, and just as Japan's international standing has been raised by people around the world embracing its culture as their own, South Korea has a lot to gain by opening up and sharing with Japan.

All About Buddhism and Greco-Japanese Art

Like most questions related to Japan, religion is complex and interesting. The major religion of Japan is Buddhism, distributed among dozens of sects like Nichiren and Shingon and Tendaishu, although it's frankly all Greek to me (see below). Although around 70% of Japanese describe themselves as Buddhist, it's hard to separate the religion from the overall culture of Japan, since so many aspects of life here (like not sticking your chopsticks up in your rice, or not sleeping with your head pointing north) flow unconsciously from the religion. I arrived in Japan in 1991 knowing nothing about Buddhism, and I still know nothing in 2008, although I've enjoyed observing everything around me, even if I didn't always understand what I was seeing. One surprise I had in store for me was that Buddhism in Japan doesn't seem to have much to do with trying to achieve Enlightenment through fasting or denying yourself worldly pleasures -- truth be told, most Buddhist priests I've known owned really expensive Mercedes Benz cars. No, Buddhism here is all about remembering and loving your ancestors, and over the course of a year there are many events related to making those who have died before you know they're not forgotten. Another surprise I got happened during my first visit to Nara, the capital 1200 years ago. Outside Todaiji Temple there are two giant statues of Buddhist guardian deities -- manifestations of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, or something like that -- which looked to my eyes like something out of Ancient Greece. And indeed, the Nio figures are good examples of the Greco-Buddhist artistic tradition, which made it all the way to Japan. Amazing!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Amuro, the Nature Documentary Narrator

The other day my son and I were watching an NHK documentary on penguins and elephant seals living on King George's Island, near the South Pole. We were interested in the show because of the beautiful and mysterious creatures they were showing us, but also because the narrator was Tohru Furuya, perhaps the most famous anime voice actor in Japan today, who provided the voices of Amuro Ray from the Mobile Suit Gundam universe, Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, Kyosuke from Orange Road, and about a bazillion other roles over the years. My son and I (who like Gundam way too much) made a great game of spitting out Gundam-esque lines and laughing as "Amuro" replied with fascinating information on the mating rituals of the wildlife on the island. In many ways, anime is everywhere in Japan, and there's no a person under the age of 45 here that can't wax a little nostalgic about some anime they watched as a youngling, even if they're not an active otaku today. That's part of the fun of being an anime fan -- it means there's the potential for an unexpected connection with any Japanese person you meet, even when you least expect it.
By the way, if you're a Gundam fan, hunt down the Zeta Gundam compilation movies. They're quite cool, since you can watch the entire Zeta Gundam series (truly the Empire Strikes Bath of the Gundamverse) in a short time. The altered character designs are hard to get used to, though. Cool, but switching back and forth is a little funky.

The Three Stages of Gaijin Eye Aversion

My wife came into my office the other day holding the latest copy of Newsweek (the Japanese version) that contained some interesting article she'd just read. "Did you know the secret rule of gaijin in Japan? When they see another foreigner on the train, they avert their eyes!" Of course after living here for so long, I was well aware of the strange tendency for foreigners to avoid making eye contact with another foreigners they see on the street, be they from Europe, the U.S. or Brazil, and I've even done it myself. It's a strange phenomenon indeed, which I've come to think of as the Three States of Eye Aversion. First, a foreigner who has moved to Japan is enjoying himself and getting used to living in a country in which 98% of the people identify with the same ethnic group, which feels a bit strange for a while. Then along comes some Sri Lankan guy on his way to Tokyo, making you re-think your neat little world view of Japan, so you do your best to ignore him. You realize it's silly to ignore someone for a silly reason like that, though, so you decide to go talk to him, but you then find out that not everyone from Sri Lanka speaks English, so you embarrass yourself terribly. Finally, you decide to keep your eyes to yourself the next time you see a foreigner on the train, which makes for a simpler Japan Experience anyway. Incidentally, I don't think the odd eye aversion thing applies to tourists or anyone visiting Japan for a short time, so you never need to worry about running into unfriendly people here; this odd custom only affects foreigners living in Japan on an extended basis.

Then there are the times when you avert your eyes for other reasons...

Japanese Sound Words, and Underwear Fanservice Anime?

Would you like to learn to speak Japanese fluently? If so then you want to become pera pera, an odd but fun Japanese onomatopoeic word that means "able to speak a foreign language very well." After a trip to the beach, don't you hate the feeling of sand in your shoes? That's zara zara, which every Japanese immediately recognizes as the gritty sound of sand. Then there's one you hear in anime quite a lot, doki doki, the "sound" of a nervous person's heart racing, perhaps as they prepare to confess their love to someone special. While there's a whole class of "normal" onomatopoeia that mimic actual sounds like cats and dogs (nyan nyan and wan wan, in case you were curious), the Japanese take these concepts a step further by creating highly descriptive sounds for abstract ideas as well, and because they're so unlike anything we have in English, it's fun for students to learn about them. Something that's brand sparkling new is described as pika pika, while old and run-down is boro boro. If you work fast and efficiently (bishi bishi), your boss might give you a bonus, but if you're slow and lazy (dara dara) he or she might fire you. Eating quickly is known as paku paku, which is where the famous video game character got his name from, while the useful phrase giri giri means "barely," as in barely arriving on time, barely having enough money to buy something, or (in some situations) barely having clothes on. Then there's suu suu, which describes feeling especially drafty: in the classic episode of Strike Witches, the anime about World War II-era magical girls who wear mecha to fight powerful alien enemy, there's an episode where the playful Italian Francesca Lucchini makes off with Yoshika Miyafuji's underwear, forcing her to prepare for battle without her skivvies on. Poor Yoshika complained loudly using this colorful phrase ("suu suu suru!").

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Few of my Favorirte Japanese Foods

sushi, sashimi, and udon or soba when you think of food in Japan, people here have an incredibly rich and varied diet, with popular Chinese and Italian and Indian dishes, American favorites like "Hamburg Steak" (a large steak made of hamburger meat, which Japanese assume we eat every day in the U.S.), and so on. A lot of the foods I really like now are ones I hadn't even known existed before I came to live here. One of my all-time favorite meals is katsu, a cutlet of pork or chicken that's fried and eaten with rice and that heavenly sauce, and it's one of the dishes the J-List prefecture of Gunma is famous for. Then there's Chicken and Egg Soboro, perhaps my favoritest food ever. It's basically teriyaki chicken, flavored ground beef and scrambled egg eaten over steaming rice, and I always have to fight with my kids for seconds when we have it at my house.

Sitting on the Floor in Japan

One of the minor challenges for a foreigner living in Japan is getting used to sitting on the floor a lot. While Western-style furniture like comfortable sofas and chairs can be found everywhere here, it's common for most houses to also have one or more washitsu (Japanese rooms) complete with tatami mats and little cushions to sit on called called zabuton (literally, sitting futon). In my house, we often eat with my wife's parents, with everyone sitting around the kotatsu, a low table with a heater inside for keeping warm in the winter, while everyone grabs from a large pot of food boiling away in the center. Even after living for so long in Japan, an hour or so of sitting on the floor like this starts to get uncomfortable, and I'll usually switch to a nearby chair when no one is looking. I remember when I met my future mother-in-law for the first time: she took me out to experience a really traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which requires that you sit in seiza ("correct sitting") position with your entire body's weight resting on your knees and feet for about 10,000 hours. Japanese always expect that foreigners won't be able to sit for long in that position, so of course I had to summon up every ounce of will I had in me and endure my legs falling asleep without complaint. I guess I made a good impression since she let me marry her daughter.

Do you know the Sino-Japanese numeric system, man?

The Arabic number system used in the West is based on 1,000, but the kanji-derived number system used in Japan uses 10,000 as its central numerical unit, a concept that takes a while to get used to. Basically, if you want to buy something that costs 10,000 yen, you need to think of it as ichi mahn en, or one "ten thousand." Want to pick up a laptop that goes for 100,000 yen? It'll be juu mahn en, or ten "ten thousands" of yen, while a car that costs a million yen is hyaku mahn en or one hundred "ten thousands." The conversation is not only a chore to do on the fly, it's a huge source of potential translation errors, since your brain latches onto the first number it hears like "ten" and immediately assumes a value of 10,000, when it's really 100,000. The mahn character comes up in many other words, too, making it an interesting oddity for students of the language. For example, the character can be found in the word for fountain pen, man'nen hitsu, literally a pen you can write with for 10,000 years; a number of ancient proverbs in both Japanese and Chinese, like "cranes live for 1000 years, turtles live for 10,000 years"; and in the famous battle cry banzai! which is written with characters that mean "to live for 10,000 years." The name for the Great Wall of China in Japanese uses the character, too: Banri no Chojo, or the Long Castle of 10,000 Leagues. Because the character for 10,000 is accurately transliterated as man, it's common for foreigners to sometimes pronounce it like the word "man" in English, when it should be said like mahn, with a long vowel. Little problems like this are one reason I recommend that anyone interested in studying the language avoid texts that use Romanized Japanese but instead force you to read in hiragana and katakana right from the beginning, like many of the items we offer. Besides giving you a quick start at being literate, your pronunciation and accent will be much improved by not having to un-learn the brain's natural tendency to apply the pronunciation rules of English to other languages.