Friday, November 21, 2008

Japan [hearts] Britain

One of the themes of being an American living in Japan is discovering how much the country has taken various cues from Britain. It starts out with cars, getting used to "strange" car-related words, like the hood of the car being called a bonnet, or seeing your first Toyota Super Saloon, a car with a name that makes Americans think of the Old West until they learn that saloon is just the British word for sedan. Americans might make a visit to the bathroom or the restroom, but in England (I'm told) they are more likely to use the word "toilet," which is the same in Japan -- and I've gotten some funny looks in stores in the States asking the cashier where the "toilet" was. Then there are clothing-related words that the Japanese imported from Britain, like a jacket or sweater being called a "jumper," and of course the infamous word "pants," which refers to trousers, jeans or slacks in the U.S. but underwear in Britain and Japan. It seems that the Japanese have looked to Britain in other ways, too. For example, I can't think of a single situation where I'd call a friend or acquaintance by his last name, but it's common for classmates in Japanese schools to do this, for example saying, "Nagashima, let's go" instead of using the person's first name of Takeshi. When reading the Narnia books with my son, I saw characters referring to each other by last names, and it made me think that Japan and Britain were somehow closer than it seemed on the surface.

More Thoughts on Kanji

There's no doubt about it: the most complex part of learning Japanese is kanji, unless you're fortunate enough to already be fluent in Chinese, and if you are, I envy you. An educated Japanese person generally uses around 2000 kanji, compared with 3500-5000 for the same person in China. Because the Chinese writing system was basically grafted onto the existing Japanese language in the 5th century, there are fundamentally two ways to read any character, the on (rhymes with bone) or Chinese reading, and the kun (rhymes with spoon) or Japanese reading, the latter being an existing Japanese word that's been assigned to a kanji based on the character's meaning. As a general rule, you use the Chinese reading for compound words made up of two kanji (for example, the word for "hibernation," toumin, written with the characters for winter + sleep), and there are quite a few Chinese and Korean words that are the same in Japanese for this reason. The Japanese reading is usually used for characters that appear by themselves (e.g. the character for winter written all by itself, fuyu), or in special cases like names of people or places. It's hard to believe, but it's easier to memorize Japanese vocabulary words through kanji than, say, learning from a book which prints Japanese in the Roman alphabet. For example, the character for "most" can be combined with a variety of other kanji to describe ideas like tallest, shortest, etc., like saikou (most + high = highest, also meaning the best), saitei (most + bottom = the lowest, meaning a real jerk when applied to a person), saisho (most + begin = the first), saigo (most + after = the last), and saishin (most + new = the newest). Memorizing these words in kanji only takes two "bytes" of your brain's memory once you've gotten used to the characters themselves, but memorizing the words in the Roman alphabet would be harder since they're just a jumble of letters.

My Knock Knock Joke Reconsideration

What if you met a Japanese person who went around telling "knock knock" jokes in English all the time? It would be pretty strange, I'd wager, and you might not know what to make of them. But that's essentially what I do in Japanese: making wry Japanese jokes called dajare (da-jah-reh), although in my family we call them dadajare, since I'm the Dad. As a strange side-effect of learning Japanese, my brain has developed the subconscious ability to come up with strange jokes whenever I hear a word or phrase that acts as a trigger, quite unrelated to what I'm thinking about at the time, and when the family does something together they know I'll probably be making little puns until they're groaning for me to stop. For example, one way to say "I don't have it" or "there aren't any" in Japanese is nashi, which also happens to be what those delicious Japanese pears are called, so naturally I might reply "Japanese pear" if my wife asks me if I have her car keys. In Japanese, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is called Pisa no Shato, and since the final word sounds like the French word for castle, I might make a bad joke about how I've always wanted to go see the famous Chateau di Pisa. The other day I was watching TV and needed to switch the sound from Japanese to English, and as I looked around for the remote control, my wife asked me what I was searching for. The Japanese word for "sound" is onsei (OWN-sei), which my brain told me is similar to the word for "eleven" in Spanish (once). So I said, "I'll give you a hint," and proceeded to count from one to ten in Spanish. The next number was eleven, and suddenly everyone knew that I was looking for the remote control so I could change the sound on the TV. For some reason, telling dajare jokes is the domain of middle-aged men in Japan.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sleep Like a River

The Chinese writing system, kanji, is an inseperable part of the Japanese language, the same way Latin or Greek is a part of Western languages, and this relationship with the written word pops up in the language in interesting ways. In Sazae-san, the long-running anime that captures in calming, peaceful tones the happiness of a traditional Japanese family, Sazae and her husband Masuo sleep on futons with their son, Tara-chan, sandwiched in between. This is called sleeping in kawa no ji style, literally "sleeping like the character for river" since it imitates the three flowing lines that make up the character for river. Similarly, my daughter, rambunctious tomboy that she is, usually sleeps in a dai no ji, or the shape of the character for "big", with her arms extended and legs spread as far as possible, the better to take up as much room as possible when sleeping with her mom and dad.

Announcing the 2009 PC Dating-Sim Game Sale.

Announcing the 2009 PC Dating-Sim Game Sale. We thought it'd be a great time to do something nice for our customers who play Japan's amazing PC dating-sim games, and so we're having special sale just for you. First, take $5 off the price of shrinkwrapped package versions of dozens of great games from G-Collections and Peach Princess, our way of saying thanks for your past and future support. Then, we're going to give you free games from Hirameki with every two titles you pick up, which are fun to play. Of course, the discount you get for buying multiple games together still applies. This is a great time to pick up an interactive PC dating-sim game or six! Browse all items now!

Taro Okamoto Art Display in Shibuya

If you go to Tokyo's Shibuya Station right now you can see an incredible piece of art created by late Japanese artist Taro Okamoto. The sprawling 30-meter wide mural is called Myth of Tomorrow, and it depicts the terrible event that was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, right down to images of fire engulfing a giant skeleton in the sky while small people flee with their bodies on fire. The painting, which had been missing for a quarter-century, was found in a warehouse in 2003 and restored, and is now on display for everyone to see. It was interesting to see it shown in such a public place, since the subject of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki isn't exactly something that's openly discussed even after more than six decades. I can't think of a single conversation I've had with a Japanese on the subject that didn't immediately turn into a long silence with a change of subject at the end. I'm not sure what it is about the bombings that makes it almost impossible for Japanese to voice an opinion or show an emotion one way or the other, even if it were to berate me or express anger or even thanks, since they did bring the war to an end. Maybe the display of the mural is a sign of more openness in this area in the future.

The Wrath of Kan

(Note: we had a problem with the site right after the last update, with many products not appearing in product categories for several hours. We fixed the issue, and are sorry if you were inconvenienced. You can see Monday's update, and browse the items in that update, here.)

I've written before about how effectively studying a language requires certain things. A real desire to learn is important, as is being inventive enough to figure out how your own brain learns best. It's also useful to have what the Japanese called kan (kahn, 勘), a word which means perception or intuition, and which refers to the ability to figure out meaning in abstract situations. If you're kan ga ii then you're good at make sense of something from very little information, but someone who is kan ga warui is terrible at picking up meaning from a few threads. Because I'm married to a Japanese woman whose English is less than perfect (which is my fault, since frankly my Japanese is "too" good for her English level to grow -- sorry, honey), my American family has had to develop these sixth-sense abilities if they want to communicate with her. For example, when my wife added "gross lipstick" to her Christmas list, my sister was able to guess that she probably wanted gloss lipstick instead, and get some for her, and when my wife sends my mother information on what time my "fright" arrives at the airport, it's not hard to figure out that she's talking about my flight. Someone who is kan ga ii will probably be able to intune out that a Japanese person asking for "potato" at a fast food restaurants would like French Fries, or that someone who's about to "take a bath" to your house is really going to catch a bus, but if they're kan ga warui, well, who knows what could happen. I love languages because they really give you a chance to get to know your own brain in new and interesting ways.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tokyo Gift Update

I was in Tokyo the other day, passing a sprawling stand selling various omiyage (OH-me-YAH-gei), or gifts given as souvenirs after a trip. The Japanese are master gift givers, and have many customs related to giving and receiving them, which provides a valuable "social lubrication" that makes all manner or personal and business relationships work more smoothly. Whenever a Japanese person goes somewhere, they will be compelled to spend plenty of money on gifts to give to whoever was left at home, and taking a trip in Japan always includes setting aside some time to see what the gift shops have for sale. In July and December there are two special gift-giving seasons, when people will give gifts to thank teachers or others in the community to thank them for their past assistance. Predictably, these specially made gift boxes containing anything from coffee to cooking oil to laundry detergent are often passed on to others, with some gifts changing hands many times before they're actually used. Incidentally, if you ever come to Japan, it's probably a good idea to bring some items to give out as gifts to people you might encounter here, as it will really make things so more smoothly -- something representative of wherever you're from, or even a carton of cigarettes from your home country, always a popular item. (The smoking staff of J-List says that Newport Menthols are a good brand, since they're not sold here.) Incidentally, remember that J-List now carries a lot of these fun gift-able boxes of snacks, the perfect thing to get the Japanophile on your list this year.

Japanese Fire Department Report

Clang clang! Clang clang! Right outside my window right there's a fire truck driving by slowly, ringing a bell and playing a recorded voice: "This is the community volunteer fire-fighting brigade. Please remember to extinguish all flames before going to sleep tonight." Japan lacks American-style central heating in its homes, with the majority of people using kerosene heaters to warm individual rooms, although there are other options such as "fan-heaters" which use kerosene to heat the room but electricity to run a fan and regulate the temperature, and shut off the flame every three hours for safety and ventilation purposes. With so many heaters like this in use, it's not uncommon for fires to occur, and the Japanese are extremely cautious about making sure they don't, which is why when it gets cold out, our small local fire department will make the rounds and remind people of how important it is to make sure heaters are turned off before bed. Fire has long been the bane of Japan, a country with a high population living in homes of wood and paper, and the tradition of fighting fires goes back to the Edo Period. Over the past few years, Japan has -- finally, from my American-centric point of view -- gotten more serious some of the public safety concepts that we take for granted, and now requires that smoke detectors be installed in all new homes.

To Pull One's Leg

Recently my kids took the Eiken Test, the primary standardized test of English used in Japan. They really dislike it when Japanese people assume they get their English for "free" just by being born with an American father, and both put a lot of effort into preparing so they'd do well. During the weeks before the test, I'd offer to help them study, but I was usually chased away by my wife. "We don't need any native English speakers around here confusing them," she'd say. From the other side of the room I'd bend my ear and listen to them studying using the many textbooks published specifically for the Eiken test. The way they broke English down into mathematical formulas, like "infinitive or gerund + be + ing" or "used to + verb" was fascinating for me. Also, they'd discuss familiar English idioms in the driest grammatical ways, like "to pull one's leg" or "to crash one's party" which seemed bizarre to me, but it helped them organize the many kinds of phrases and vocabulary words in English in ways they could handle, since learning it organically like native speakers do is impossible when living in Japan. Although it was strange to see my kids learning English in this artificial way, I knew that passing a test in Japan meant having a strategy, and a lot of the time spent "studying" for the test was really used discussing the best way to tackle the different sections, for example focusing on the listening portions of the test which they're good at, and spending less time on the long reading comprehension parts. I'm happy to announce that both of them passed their tests with flying colors! To celebrate, we took them out for their favorite Korean BBQ.