Saturday, December 20, 2008
With the economy in the doldrums in Japan, people here are buckling down as they wait for the recession to sort itself out. The Japanese have a magical phrase that allows them to endure all manner of adversity, which is sho ga nai meaning "it can't be helped," and that sentiment is being expressed more than a little right now. Yet there's one group that never seems to notice economic hard times: the komuin (KOH-MOO-een), a class of national and regional government employees that are the last bastion of absolute job security in Japanese society. Komuin are modeled after the civil service traditions of Western nations, and a wide range of professions are part of the system, including police, fire fighters, and teachers at public schools and universities; before their respective industries were privatized, all employees of the JR train line, the Japanese post office and even Japan Tobacco were government employees. While I have memories from my college days of the hard choices the State of California had to take to make its budget stretch in rough times, including cutting a wide range of budgets, I can't say that I've seen any case when public employees here faced serious job or budget cuts in similar situations. These days criticism is being focused on eight so-called "independent government corporations" like JETRO, an agency that promotes trade between Japan and other countries, which were found to be giving their employees hefty "food allowances" of up to $90 a month amounting to $14.5 million since 2003. Considering how wasteful these agencies are under the best of conditions, I can certainly understand the ire of Japanese taxpayers when they heard of this special treatment lavished on beauracrats that no one else is entitled to.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
I talked a couple weeks ago about how the Japanese language lacks definite and indefinite articles like "a" and "the" and how the many nuances of these ostensibly simple words can cause frustration even for Japanese who have studied English for ten years or more. (For example, why do we talk about being able to "play the guitar" if there's no actual guitar in the room that we're referring to?) While Japanese certainly is a challenging language to learn, I have to say that there were quite a few areas where the language was actually less complex than English. Right off the bat, the Japanese have only one verb form for simple present and simple future tense, so there's no need to differentiate between "I study [everyday]" and "I will study [tomorrow]" unless you need to for some reason. One of the banes of ESL students everywhere is the subjunctive mood, like "if I had known that yesterday, I wouldn't have driven the car," but happily this grammar doesn't exist at all in Japanese, so that's one less thing for gaijin to need to study. Japanese has no plurals for nouns, so there's no need to study strange phrases like "a pair of jeans" (which looks to Japanese people like a single object), and there are no issues with count/non-count nouns, although the different counters used for thin objects, small objects etc. used in Japanese can be challenging for foreigners to learn. The bottom line is that while kanji represents a big challenge for Westerners, there's nothing overtly difficult about the language itself. Why not start today?
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Of all the aspects of Japan I had to get used to when I came here, the educational system was one I remember being especially confused by. My very first morning in Japan was a Saturday, and to my surprise the children of the family I was staying with got up and rushed off to school. Compulsory attendance on Saturdays had been part of public education here for decades until it was abolished in 2002 under the yutori kyoiku or "Slow and Easy Education" reforms, but that first sight of students cheerfully walking to school instead of playing was hard for me to wrap my brain around. More confusion was waiting for me when I started teaching junior high students at a juku, an after-hours school to help students keep up with their schoolwork and prepare for future entrance exams. I was perplexed by the idea of children willingly studying in a classroom until 10 pm instead of watching TV and having fun like I did at that age. Another point of confusion for me was that mandatory education stops at the ninth grade here, and by definition all high schools are optional for students, although nearly everyone attends. Since students choose schools based on their academic level and future goals, high schools function like a miniature version of the university system, with top-ranked schools competing to attract the smartest students and other schools specializing in subjects like engineering, commercials skills like bookkeeping, or (since our prefecture is quite rural) agriculture. Speaking of schools, I've got some good news: my daughter passed her examination for the private junior high school she wanted to enter, and was accepted! I think I'll get some victory sushi on the way home tonight.
Monday, December 15, 2008
When I was six years old, I lived in New Zealand for a year. Besides falling in love with something called Big Ben's Meat Pies, I learned that the BBC makes historical dramas that really delve into the past, which was interesting to me since it's not something Americans are used to seeing. Japan's NHK follows the BBC model very closely, making many jidai-geki or "period dramas" -- this is incidentally where we get the word "Jedi" from -- that bring various episodes of Japan's long past to life for modern TV viewers. There are many productions shown over the course of the year, but the best is always the Taiga ("Big River") Drama, which runs from early January to the end of December and has the biggest budget and the most beautiful costumes. This year was the 47th Taiga Drama since the series started in 1963, and it told the story of Atsuhime, a girl who married the 13th Tokugawa Shogun. The period was an especially tumultuous one, which saw the arrival of Admiral Perry and his "Black Ships" then culminated in the Meiji Restoration, when the 250-year rule of the Tokugawa clan ended and a modern government was founded around the Japanese Emperor. It stared the popular actress Aoi Miyazaki, who gave a brilliant performance and won many fans for the show, which pulled in ratings of 28% last night.
If you went to the supermarket recently, you might have picked up some cereal and put it in your cart. I bought some cereal recently too -- 12 boxes, in fact. Although breakfast cereal can be found easily in Japanese supermarkets, with familiar names like Corn Flake, Corn Frosty, Choko-wa (chocolate loops), Genmai Flake, and recently, Fruits Loops (the "fruits" is a fluke of Japanese phonetics, I love it for some reason), the boxes are so tiny that an American shopper would probably laugh out loud in the middle of the store, with just 1.5-2 "normal" servings of cereal in each box. So I occasionally decide to make an order from the Foreign Buyers' Club in Kobe, a service that lets foreigners living in Japan purchase anything from the U.S. (or Britain, or Australia), as long as they don't mind ordering by the supermarket case, which usually means 12 boxes. Having that much of any single brand of cereal is a little tiring, but it's nice to have the option of buying natsukashii (nostalgic) food from home when I want it.
It's quite interesting to see how Geoffrey Giraffe, Tony the Tiger and so on have been adapted to Japan. Creepy sometimes, but interesting.
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Each year the organization that publishes the Standardized Kanji Test announces the "kanji of the year," the single character that best sums up the events of the past twelve months. The kanji character is announced at a ceremony at the beautiful Kiyomizu Dera temple in Kyoto, one of Japan's most famous places, and it's fun to try to guess what it will be ahead of time. The character for 2008 has been announced, and it's truly a kanji we can believe in: hen 変, meaning "change," reflecting the many changes that Japan went through this year, including a new Prime Minister, plenty of economic turmoil and the election of a new American President with a similar message. The mechanics of individual kanji characters can be quite complex, and the hen character is used in many words, including normal verbs like kaeru 変える (to change [something]) or kawaru 変わる (to change [yourself]), and it's also the word for "strange," as in hen na gaijin 変な外人 (strange foreigner), something I've been called more than a few times. Anime fans may be familiar with some words that incorporate the hen kanji, too, like henshin 変身 (transform!), a staple of so many Japanese TV shows, taihen 大変(meaning "terrible" or "what a shame"), and that infamous "H" word hentai 変態, which has come to represent the more naughtier elements of anime, manga and computer games from Japan but which just means "not normal" or "perverted" in Japanese. Other characters that were considered this year included kin or "gold" to celebrate Japan's Olympic medals, raku meaning "fall" due to the stock market drop, and shoku or "food" in reference to the food scandals from China.