Friday, November 14, 2008

Prime Minister Aso's Favorite Word

In Japanese politics, as elsewhere, certain words or phrases get permanently attached to politicians. When Shinzo Abe came into office in 2006, he declared his intention to create a "beautiful nation, Japan" which would respect culture, possess dignity, have the vitality to grow towards the future and be trusted by its neighbors, and while his success in this area can be debated, his era will forever be tied to this phrase. The current Japanese leader is Taro Aso, beloved of anime fans and 2-channelers (as users of the famous Japanese BBS "2ch" are called) for his affinity for reading manga, and he's coming to be known by the phrase nantonaku (nahn-toh-NAH-koo), which means "somehow" or "for some reason" or "don't ask me how, I just know." Overuse of the phrase is the mark of an "about" person, that is, an imprecise speaker who doesn't focus on specific questions or plans, and his tendency to use the phrase in official settings is getting him some criticism by the press. (Kind of reminds me of my father, counting how many times I said "y'know?" in a sentence back when I was a teenager.) Poor Aso-san is also being teased in the media for making mistakes when reading common kanji characters, although this sounds to me like a mild case of dyslexia, something I also suffer from. Here's hoping this isn't the start of the decline in his popularity, since he's the most interesting Japanese PM in a long time.

Gaijin Workers in Japan

As with other countries, there are many foreigners living and working in Japan, each contributing to society in different ways. The total number of foreign workers (counting me) has been up quite a bit in recent years, to more than 300,000, and while this might sound like a lot, it's still tiny compared to other countries. While most of us might think of gaijin as English teachers or foreign employees of a company based overseas, the real picture of who is working where in Japan is more complex. There are foreigners from America or Europe doing web design at Japanese companies, "working holiday" travelers from Canada or Australia,

and even people from India employed by studios like Soft on Demand. One large group of workers in Japan are the nikkeijin from countries like Peru and Brazil, who have an inside track to getting a work visa for Japan if they can prove Japanese ancestry. These people work largely in manufacturing, like the large Sanyo plant in our prefecture or the Toyota plants near Nagoya, and if you drive a Japanese car there's a good change someone from South America helped make it. Incidentally, I'm asked about my visa status a lot by readers. I came to Japan on an "cultural" work visa which I'd set up ahead of time with an English school that hired me. After a certain number of years renewing a normal work visa, the authorities will consider granting you "permanent resident" status, which I got after being here for about six years. My nationality is still good old USA.

Manga and Learning Japanese

Naturally, the Japanese that's taught in textbooks isn't always the most natural-sounding, and I remember being frustrated by some of the language I was learning at college, which seemed to be too formal to me. I augmented my own studies by reading lots of manga in Japanese, a great way to expose one's self to the language as it's spoken since nearly all of what's written on the page is character dialogue, which gave me a model to use when speaking myself. (Plus reading manga is fun.) I'll never forget how taken aback my teacher was when I first asked her for help in understanding what I was reading in the comics, though: "That is not Japanese! You should not read it!" she said, refusing to even answer the question I had. Now looking back, I can understand her position somewhat, since when learning a foreign language it's important to avoid being rude when using words you might not understand completely, and erring on the side of politeness is never a bad idea. I certainly have offended more than one Japanese person by using all those cool words I learned from Fist of the North Star on them. The question I'd tried to ask my teacher back then was certainly one that would never have appeared in any textbook: it was the colloquialism tte, that is, a small pause and the syllable te, which is put on the ends of words or sentences. It's meaning can be quite complex, but it usually corresponds to "he said" or "or so I've heard." For example, if you are telling someone that you've heard this parfait shop is good, you can add tte to the end of a sentence, i.e. kono mise wa oishii tte, meaning, "They tell me that this shop is really delicious."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Car Related Culture Shock

When I first got to Japan, I had plenty of culture shock related to automobiles. Cars are very important to the Japanese, and in all cities except for the largest ones, a car is really required to get anything done. Auto theft is quite uncommon in Japan, so it's not at all rare to see someone leave his beautiful Nissan Fairlady Z parked in front of the conbini (convenience store) with the engine running -- the idea that his car might be stolen just doesn't enter into the thinking here, so it's perfectly safe. Japanese cars have the steering wheel on the right side, as in England and Australia, and the Japanese have perfected the art of starting the car without getting in it, since the ignition is easily accessible on that side of the vehicle. When stopped at a light at night, it's considered good manners to turn your headlights down to "park" so you don't blind the person in front of you, and when someone lets you go ahead of them in traffic, flashing your emergency lights at them once or twice conveys your thanks -- although this is done by polite Tokyo drivers, not Gunma locals, who have bad driving manners. Japanese love their cars, and there are many interesting products that allow drivers to deck their vehicles out, including bizarre and interesting accessories, gaudy air fresheners, and flashing lights that are great for picking up girls. And if you love anime as much as you love your car, you can of course deck it out as an ita-sha, a word that sounds like "Italian car" but which is written using the kanji for "pain." Although ita-sha have really taken off lately, cars decorated as shrines to anime have always been around, and I remember seeing a gorgeous air-brushed custom van with images of Lupin III on it when I first arrived in the country.

It's "Its"

One of the more enjoyable aspects of living in Japan is discovering strange English, which is literally everywhere since the Japanese are apparently dedicated to learning just enough of the language for them to create funny phrases like "For Beautiful Human Life" and "I Feel Coke" and "Crunky Kids Crunch Chocolate." The Japanese find English to be quite kakko ii (meaning "good style" or "cool") and like to dress up just about anything by adding some English to it, even when it doesn't seem to make much sense to you or I. When when I first got here I had great fun roaming through my city with a camera, documenting everything I came across. Then one day I went into a electronics store and the ultimate expression of funny Japanese English: a toaster oven with "It's" written in large letters, followed by "It's Contemporary Basic Gear, by Sanyo." Nearby I found a rice cooker, also with the "It's" brand on it, and then a small refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner, and more. Sanyo had developed the "It's" brand as the perfect way for young people outfitting a new apartment to include a little style, and since I was still accumulating the things I'd need for my new life in Japan, I made sure to buy as many "It's" products as I could.

Mmm, Vermont Curry

When the Japanese think of Georgia, they naturally think of Georgia coffee, the brand of canned coffee made with the finest beans from the slopes of Mt. Oglethorpe. Similarly, what would Vermont be without the delicious taste of Vermont Curry, made with all those rare spices the state is so famous for? (In reality, Georgia Coffee gets its name from from being the home state of the Coca Cola Company, while Vermont Curry supposedly contains the taste of apples from the state, although no one knows this.) Like in other countries, Japanese marketers often pair place names with food products to sell them more effectively, and as a result people can develop the strangest associations. Like Oregon Strawberries, the most famous "brand" in Japan thanks to the efforts of the Oregon Strawberry Commission, or Bulgaria Yogurt, sold in supermarkets across the country, or the inability of Japanese to comprehend that there's anything in the state of Kentucky but chickens and KFC. We do this all the time, too, with words like Canadian Bacon, which you can't find in Canada, except maybe at McDonald's, or Swiss Cheese, which I'm told is known as Emmenthaler cheese in Switzerland, since it comes from the Emmenthal region.

Nice Vote.

Haha, this was just too cool not to post. If you don't get the joke, see our T-shirt.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hot Springs and the Onsen Mark

Like many people in Japan, I am a furo-bito, or a person who likes taking baths in natural hot springs. Like Finland and their famous saunas (two million units in a country of just five million residents), volcanic hot springs are almost a national treasure in Japan, and I love hitting the onsen as often as I can. Most hot spring baths have a official-looking sign posted somewhere describing the chemical make-up of the water and affirming that it is a true volcanic hot spring, since some establishments have gotten in trouble buy promoting water heated in a boiler as natural. Each bath usually features a metal plate boasting of all the ailments that will be cured if you sit in the water, such as rheumatism, chills, muscle or joint pain, skin problems, cramped shoulders, sleeping disorders, and even anemia. The long list of cures can get quite silly, in fact since merely taking a bath could never fix so many problems, but reading through the list you can sense the pride the Japanese feel at their culture of relaxing for hours in the bath. One famous image associated with Japan's culture of bathing is the onsen mark, the official icon used to denote the presence of a public bath on maps. This character came into official use in the Meiji Period, when German engineers arrived in Japan to take the first modern surveys of the country and adapted the local image to their maps, although the first use of an onsen mark goes all the way back to 1661, on a map of our own prefecture of Gunma. Being an officially recognized character in the Japanese language, the onsen mark is present in any Japanese-language computer font, almost as if it were an alternate kanji character.

Sake and the Japanese

As a rule, the Japanese are rather fond of their spirits, and enjoy a wide range of recreational alcoholic beverages, from sake to beer to one of my favorite drinks, a Grapefruit Sour, a glass of a gin-like alcohol called shochu which comes with half a grapefruit and a juicer, requiring you to extract the juice and pulp and add it to your drink. The last decade has seen a long-term boom in the popularity of wine in Japan, with many people developing a taste for red wines from all over the world, in part to promote good health. Even the humble liquor shop that my wife's parents run has seen quite a transformation in recent years, with the share of traditional sake in the store shrinking (partially due to our sake-buying customers dying of old age, sad to say) and being replaced by imported wines. My wife and I are signed up with a company that sends us six bottles of wine from a different part of Europe every month, complete with information on the region -- I like to read through the newsletters they send and get a feel for how "winespeak" in Japanese compares with English. Right now the Japanese are preparing to go ga-ga over the beaujolais nouveau, a traditional wine from France that goes on sale at midnight on the third Thursday of November, which is transported in huge quantities to Japan by air cargo.

Time to Choose a Junior High School

In many ways it's been Japan's blessing to have very little in the way of natural resources compared to, say, Saudi Arabia: this has forced the country to invest heavily in its own citizens through education. There are quite a few mechanisms for encouraging students to be serious about their studies from an early age, for example the many standardized tests for everything from English to kanji-writing to calculating numbers with an abacus, which provide goals for students that help them buckle down and apply themselves in ways I didn't learn until I got to college. My daughter will be entering Junior High next year, but we're not too keen on the idea of putting her in the normal public Junior High schools here, so famous for taking students that stand out (as my daughter is sure to) and hammering them into shape until they're just like everyone else, in accordance with that famous Japanese axiom deru kui wa utareru (DEH-roo koo-EE wa oo-TAH-reh-roo), or "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Instead, we're applying to a private Junior High in our area that's got quite a long history, having been established back in the Meiji Period. (On the school grounds they've preserved the original building the American missionaries who taught at the school in the 1880s lived in, and I love going in there to soak up all the history.) Since my daughter has to pass a test to get into the school, she's worried about how to prepare for it, but thankfully there's another useful mechanism for helping students out: the mogi shiken or "mock exam," where students can take last year's test and learn exactly what kinds of subjects will be on the new test, get used to pacing themselves, and so on. She took her mock exam over the weekend and is feeling much better about the upcoming entrance exam.