Friday, December 12, 2008

Coincidences in Japan

Today's interesting word of Japanese is guuzen (GOO-zen), which means "coincidence." I don't know why, but there seems to be something about Japan that brings out the most unlikely coincidences, at least for me. On several occasions I've bumped into people I studied Japanese with at SDSU in Tokyo and Yokohama -- quite a feat, considering the fact that I live far from these places myself. The guy who lives next door to us decided to run for mayor of our city of 200,000 and won, so my next-door neighbor just happens to be the mayor. When racing manga/anime Initial D got popular in the U.S., I was surprised to learn that the mountain roads I'd been zooming up and down for years were the setting of the story. But the biggest guuzen of my life would have to be the fact that the city I just happened to come to live in was the home town of Mitsuru Adachi, the creator of Touch, the classic baseball manga that I used to learn Japanese from, and which formed much of my early perception of Japan and its language. What's more, the artist just happens to share a birthday with my wife, another incredible coincidence.

J-List is primed great Japan-related products to you, and we've got an incredible stock of great toys, bento boxes, traditional and wacky items from Japan, snacks and more. If you're looking for ideas, why not browse the "Top 50" pages of the site, seeing what items other J-List customers are picking up? You can browse the top-selling toys (general), toys (Ghibli-related), anime figures, Hello Kitty items, traditional products, Wacky Things from Japan, bento boxes, snacks, magazine subscriptions, anime artbooks, Japanese study items, PC dating-sim games on CD-ROM or download, DVDs, T-shirts, and more. It's fun to browse J-List!

On Wedding Kimonos and Gaijin

In my city there's a bridal shop that sells the most beautiful wedding kimonos for happy Japanese brides to wear, and on the outside of their shop they've got a large sign showing models wearing the kimonos that they sell. The funny thing is that the models are all foreigners, something that always surprises me when I drive past -- if the company is selling products to Japanese women, why use gaijin models? The answer is that the Japanese have a rather deep complex about Westerners and seem to perceive them as being superior to Japanese on some unconscious level, just as Europe and America are considered more advanced politically and socially than Japan, despite our many faults. As a result it's effective to sell certain products by associating them with foreigners in some way. While beauty may be difficult for you or me to define, the Japanese seem to have no problem in this area: for a woman to be considered really beautiful she needs to be very tall (at least 175 cm), have an 8:1 ratio of head to body, and have a "high nose" (meaning a nose that juts out at a bold angle rather than being flat against the face).

A Certain Magical Kanji Trick

I've started watching an anime series with the rather unique name of A Certain Magical Index, which is about magic-using espers living in a futuristic place called Academy City, and a girl named Index who has 103,000 magical books stored in her memory. The name of the series is interesting because it illustrates a flexible aspect of written Japanese. Normally, kanji characters have "readings" (official pronunciations), and the general rule is that a character by itself will be read using the kun or Japanese reading, like the word for water (mizu), while two characters forming a compound word will use the on or Chinese reading, as in the words for seawater (kaisui) or cold water (reisui). It's permissible to "force" readings of kanji characters by assigning them an original reading of your own, which is called ateji. When foreigners want to write their names in kanji, perhaps for one of those cool custom Japanese name stamps, they usually turn to this system: for example someone with the last name of Lockwood might choose characters for "lock" and "tree" for their kanji. Another use might be in novels, to show multiple ideas in a single gestalt. For example, the translator of the Harry Potter novels could choose to write "flying broom sport" in kanji with "Quidditch" in katakana above as the reading, which would communicate both the meaning and the pronunciation at once. The character Light Yagami from Death Note also uses ateji for his name, assigning the English word "Light" to his kanji of "moon." The "Index" in the title of the anime I'm watching now is written with characters that mean "catalog of forbidden books" (kinsho mokuroku), which adds additional meaning for the reader to pick up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

iPhone Diet Update

My "iPhone diet" is going surprisingly well, and I've managed to lose 12 kg (25 lbs) so far. On this diet I'm basically eating anything I want, but making sure I record what I eat in an iPhone app called Daily Count, which gives me visual feedback about how many more calories I'm allowed for the day. The other day I went to the onsen (hot springs) with my son, and he suddenly started dancing while singing "Everybody Dance Now," which is what we do in our family when something good happens for some reason. I asked him why he was doing the victory dance, and he nodded towards one of the other bathers, who happened to be quite a big larger than me. At 93kg (205 lbs), my weight is slightly above average for the U.S., but in Japan where people are so thin, I'm really huge by comparison, making seeing someone larger than me in the bath a noteworthy event. I've actually been asked in the past if I was a professional wrestler -- sigh.

Thinking Way Too Hard

For whatever reason, there are certain subjects I never managed to study during high school or college, including chemistry, philosophy, world religion or the history of classical music. I also never took Latin, which I've heard is a cool subject to study because you get a sense for how the words we use today have evolved from the languages of the past. While I may have no particular experience with the etymology of English words, I recall going overboard with my Japanese studies, trying to learn more about the grammatical structure of the language than was necessary to use it. For example, you probably know that arigatou gozaimasu is a polite way to express "thank you" in Japanese, but I'd catch myself going beyond the simple phrase, parsing the grammar and kanji to better understand why it meant what it did. Similarly, the phrase yoroshiku onegai shimasu (yo-roh-shkoo oh-neh-gai shee-MAHS) is used when meeting someone for the first time (making it similar to "nice to meet you"), or when asking something important of someone ("thanks for doing this for me"). I'd try to come up with the most accurate English representation for the phrase I could, which worked out to be something close to "I humbly beg your favor" -- potentially interesting on a linguistic level, but quite useless when trying to communicate with people. I also caught myself going overboard learning every kanji I encountered, despite the face that many weren't in active use in the Japanese language at all.

Poor Prime Minister Aso

Poor Prime Minister Aso is really getting beaten up in the press these days. His approval rating is in the doldrums having fallen to around 31 percent, a number that's being reported almost gleefully by the mass-komi (as the news media is called here, from "mass communications"). There's something about Japanese politics that compels people to attack anyone perceived as being a "standing nail" and try to hammer them back into place, and the minute any politician dares try to assume a leadership role the negative energy start flowing. The complaints being leveled against Aso and his cabinet include the PM's love of fine hotel dining (which he pays for himself), for occasionally misreading kanji characters in his speeches, and for his many slips of the tongue, like when he said that many doctors "lack common sense." Amazingly, plenty of the anti-Aso comments are coming from his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a phenomenon that's related to the complex system of internal factions (habatsu) within the larger party: Aso-san lacks support from a strong faction, so few will defend him. The new vogue of "Aso-bashing" might spell good news for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and its leader Ichiro Ozawa.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Yaeba, the Cute Crooked Teeth

Have you ever noticed that Japanese girls sometimes have very crooked teeth? Because the Japanese really never got into the Western custom of fixing teeth with braces, Japanese girls often have teeth that are quite oddly shaped, almost like they had too many teeth for their mouths. Fortunately, these teeth (which are called yaeba in Japanese, YA-eh-ba) look cute to the Japanese, and many Japanese singers and idols including the famous Seiko Matsuda have made their oddly shaped teeth part of their appeal. Although Westerners probably look at the crooked teeth as a negative, I kind of like the appeal they add to a pretty face. Maybe I've been in Japan too long.

Hop We Can Believe In

Every time I turn on the TV, it seems, one of Japan's big four beer companies is releasing some groundbreaking "new" brew which they hope will appeal to customers and win them a few points of market share over their competitors. Recently Sapporo brought out a new variety of its high-end Yebisu brand called "Yebisu The Hop," a name which highlights the fresh ingredients of the beer, based entirely on Czech Republic-grown hops as opposed to other beers that use rice and corn for part of the fermentation process. I like the name because it shows Japan's long fascination with the English word "the," which is truly difficult for them to master no matter how many years they study as the concepts of definite and indefinite articles don't exist in Japanese. The word "the" (rendered as za due to the limitations of Japanese phonetics) is used in marketing quite often, from department store Ito Yokado's semi-annual "The Sale" event to a tea bag I happen to have on my desk right now, which has "The Drink Bar" written on it as it was liberated from a family restaurant beverage bar at lunch. As is usually the case, the new Yebisu beer also has an extensive English explanation on it which is part decoration (since English is kakko ii or "cool") and part statement of quality. The text on the can, which is only slightly mangled, reads, "The exquisitely refined aroma of this beer is from select fine aroma hops and aroma hops, Yebisu yeast and slow maturation." I think I'll sneak down to my father-in-law's liquor shop tonight and try one.

Benefits from Living in Japan

Although Japan is certainly not a perfect place, in general there are benefits for gaijin who come here to live. First, it's not uncommon for foreigners to receive certain kinds of attention or enjoy some small opportunities that wouldn't be available to the locals, like the time I attended a concert given by my favorite band (Psy-s, if you know your 90s J-Pop) and was able to become friends with the singer because she'd happened to notice me dancing in the audience. As a foreigner you're considered part of a group that's outside the larger society of Japanese people -- gaijin literally means "outsider" after all -- and as such, it can be said that no one expects a lot from you at first. This allows you to either a) live up to their expectations and be a slacker, if that's your thing, or b) surprise them by speaking their language, and if you're able, quote rare kotowaza (traditional Japanese proverbs) that they don't expect foreigners to know, for shock value. Since coming to live in Japan means being far from home, you can usually spread your wings a bit and let go of any social inhibitions you might have had in the past. Then of course there's the small benefit you generally get with the opposite sex, since being a foreigner in Japan is something close to speaking with an exotic accent. I've had many instances where females found me more interesting than I really was mainly because of my gaijin status, and this allowed me to be more outgoing and have more fun overall. And have woken up after a night out drinking with an odd phone number scrolled on a chopstick wrapper. Remind me to tell you about the time I went flower viewing and met a girl who was boasting about what a good kisser she was...