Friday, January 16, 2009

Would You Put Socks on a Dining Table?

If you want to learn about the cultural differences between East and West, I recommend marry a Japanese woman. The other day I happened to place a (clean) pair of socks on the dining table as I was getting dressed, which resulted in a hailstorm of shock from my wife, who had never seen anything so scandalous. One of the most important concepts in understanding Japanese people is joshiki, or "common sense," the body of knowledge that everyone here magically seem to possess, except foreigners like me. In this system, things associated with the floor or the feet are intrinsically dirty and thus should never be brought into contact with clean things. If I spilled some milk on the floor, I'd probably reach for a rag to wipe it up then return the rag to the sink, but this would get me in hot water again: in the mind-set here, there must be different "levels" of rags for cleaning different things, with the cleanest reserved for wiping the dishes we'll eat off of, another for wiping things like the dinner table, and a third for cleaning dirty things like the floor. Some other things gaijin do that violate the joshiki system include washing shoes in the same washing machine you clean your clothes in, carrying paper money loose in the pocket rather than in a wallet, going skiing without buying $2000 of professional-grade equipment first and flying a kite at any time of the year other than New Year's Day.

An example of not using common sense. The joke is that the word for Emergency Exit is 非常口 which looks like it means "abnormal mouth" or in this case, abnormal knowledge, or lack of common sense. Which is what it would take for a guy to run into the girl's public bath dressing room.

Obama Hitchhikes to Obama

A major category within the world of Japanese comedy is mono-mane (moh-noh MAH-neh), or comedians doing impersonations of famous people, and there are even two-hour TV shows where look-alikes will do their best impressions of actors and singers in a "Super Impersonation Battle," often while the real stars look on laughing. While Americans might think of Elvis when they think of impressions, in Japan the most popular targets of mono-mane include director Beat Takeshi, professional wrestler Antonio Inoki or baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima. These days a Japanese comedian named Nocchi is using his resemblance to Barack Obama to score some laughs on Japanese TV. In one segment I caught, the TV network sent him on a mission to Obama City, Fukui Prefecture, which famously has the same name as the PEOTUS. The catch was that he had to hitch-hike there while wearing his Presidential suit, and camera crews followed him as he approached people at freeway rest stops to ask if they could take him in the direction he wanted to go. Whenever he got his next ride he'd turn to the camera and declare, "Yes, we can!"

Commedian Nocchi as Obama

Japanese, Language and Particle Physics

Nihongo, also known as Japanese, is the language spoken in the nation of Japan, as well as Hawaii (ha-ha). Its origin is somewhat unclear, with no agreed-on linguistic connection to other language groups except for Okinawa, although evidence sometimes crops up suggesting an ancient link to Turkish, Hungarian or Basque. Among the many unique aspects of Japanese is the way its based on syllables rather than individual sounds, meaning you can express ka, ki, ku, ke and ko but not "k" by itself. In addition to contributing to the thick accents Japanese speakers of English sometimes have, this strange "poverty" of sounds means there's a higher instance of unrelated words having the same pronunciation (homonyms), which can sometimes get in the way of communication. For example, the words for "public" and "private" schools in Japanese have the same pronunciation (shiritsu meaning public and private) despite their opposite meanings, forcing people to invent linguistic workarounds to avoid being unclear. The words for "science" and "chemistry" are also the same, so when you hear kagaku spoken you're never 100% sure if it's 'science' or 'chemistry'. My 13-year-old son is currently interested in how atoms work and is reading many books on the subject, which puts me in the rather precarious situation of needing to learn the basic terminology of particle physics in Japanese if I want to talk with him about it. (It's hard to explain, but a bilingual brain abhors not having words in both languages properly stored and cross-referenced.) I was surprised to find another confusing accident of phonetics: the word for the nucleus of an atom and the shell that the electrons travel around are both called kaku, a linguistic accident that has probably tripped up more than a few students at test-time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

1984: Do You Remember English?

I'm quite an old school anime fan, having gotten into it in the early 80s. Back then, there was precious little anime in English, and if you could come away understanding even 10-15% of what you were watching it was a good day indeed. The idea that anime could be watched with dubbed English voices or English subtitles was a long way off, and so fans got very good at figuring out the story with nothing more than a few lines of synopsis someone who didn't understand Japanese either had written up and xeroxed for you. So whenever some English popped up in the background of an anime series I was watching, it was really something special, and I remember getting quite obsessive about catching every bit of English I could find using the frame-by-frame feature on my VCR. In the classic Macross: Love Do You Remember? film, there's a frame where Minmei is reading an English translation of the final song from the film, which provided a wealth of information in a time when my comprehension of the language was near zero. Then there was that silly English on a computer screen in the original Macross series, which read, "If mice could swim, they would float with the tide and play with the fish down by the seaside. The cats on the shore would quickly agree." While it's certainly nice to see so much anime available in English these days, I'm often concerned that it might be harder for people to teach themselves Japanese.

Fun With Japanese Kanji: "Ki"

Sometimes part of the fun of studying a language like Japanese is "surfing" the linguistic elements that are totally different from anything found in one's own native language. One of the most common kanji characters is ki, a rather all-purpose kanji for expressing abstract ideas, read chi in Chinese. Translatable as spirit, soul, nature, heart, mood, feeling, or atmosphere, it generally deals with concepts related to the air, invisible forms of energy, or a person's awareness. The ki character is found in some of the first words a student of Japanese encounters, like genki (happy, energetic), tenki (weather) and kuuki (air). The word can express intention (shinu ki = the intention to die) as well as a person's feelings or emotions (kimochi ii = that feels good, honki = serious intention). The concept is also used in martial arts and yoga, which seek to focus the mind's ki in beneficial ways. It pops up in words like kiai, the verbal yell you release when focusing your strength in martial arts, and the weird energy that emanates from an anime character when he fights is called touki, "fighting energy." The word can be found in several Japanese idioms that are used quite often, such as ki wo tsukete (be careful; literally "fix your body's energy and attention on the task at hand"), or ki wo tsukau (to be considerate of; literally "to use your ki on behalf of another person"). As a Star Wars fan, I have a fantasy that George Lucas was taking a Japanese 101 course at USC back in the 60s, where he encountered this mysterious character, and it planted the idea for The Force in his mind.

example of bowing

Dual Citizenship

Japan is currently engaged in a debate that I'm quite interested in: the subject of dual nationality. Currently, when a child is born with parents from Japan and the U.S. they get citizenship in both countries until the age of 22, at which time they must choose between the two. Since both Japan and the U.S. are a part of my kids, I'd love it if they could enjoy the benefits of citizenship in both countries all their lives rather than having to give one or the other up. The United States has no problem with allowing dual citizenship -- Governor "Shuwa-chan" retains his Austrian citizenship, for example -- but the problem is good old xenophobic Japan, which officially refuses to recognize more than one nationality at a time. Happily, this rule seems to be a good example of tatemae (ta-teh-MAH-eh), something we pretend is true even though we know it's not, rather than honne (HON-neh), the truth or the way things really are. In other words, holders of dual nationality are required to choose one by the age of 22 and surrunder the other country's passport, but if you don't, make sure you don't tell the Japanese government about it. Japan is exceedingly good about vague stuff like that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Japan's Entertainment World

Japan's entertainment world, which encompasses all actors, singers, anime voice actors, bikini idols and everyone else in the public eye, is large and complex and unlike anything seen in the U.S. First and foremost, Japan's show business industry is extremely professional, with virtually every aspect of a given star's career carefully managed by talent agencies with names like Big Apple, Keep Smiling, Queen's Factory and Abiru Agency, including what stars will appear on which TV shows, what "guarantee" will be paid, and even what kind of bento they'll be served while working. There are similar model agencies and management companies in the U.S., of course, but one big difference is that here, everyone is quite aware that the irresistibly cute model Yoko Kumada works with Artist House Pyramid while this year's red-hot "talent" Suzanne is managed by K-Dash Stage. I've even seen game shows where popular idols were divided into teams according to their management companies and asked to answer trivia questions in competition with each other. It's common for stars associated with the same company to sometimes appear together. For example, director/comedian Takeshi Kitano runs a successful talent agency called Office Kitano which discovers and manages young comedians and other "talents," and any show he produces will often feature members of his "Takeshi family" of performers. Japan's talent management companies often become so influential they can leave a lasting impression on popular culture. For example, the Yellow Cab Agency created a boom in busty swimsuit idols which defined the early part of this decade. And the current popularity of ikemen (extremely cute guys) in dramas, music and variety shows is all made possible by Johnny's Entertainment, which has been setting the standard for boy-idols for decades. I've known a lot of Americans who were turned off by the apparent "fakeness" of Japan's entertainment industry, but personally I think having everything out in the open, including which companies are managing which stars, is actually refreshingly honest.

Happy Monday!

It seems there's no aspect of Japan that can't be made more kawaii. Whether it's a big, faceless bank adopting a little chipmunk as its official character or the post office using an anthropologic mailbox to promote its services, Japan's culture of cuteness is everywhere. It just seems to come naturally to the Japanese, and when you've been in here a few years, you don't think twice about Sukiya using little beef bowl characters to illustrate its lineup of products to customers. Cuteness is often used to break up something that would otherwise be monotonous, and the user's manual for most any home electronics product sold here will probably show a manga version of the product smiling if it's working correctly, and groaning with pain to indicate a problem. The Japanese government is no stranger to using cuteness to make its programs more acceptable to citizens. If you're looking for a job, you'll need to visit your city's local Hello Work, which is what the local employment office is called. (Their website features a computer reading through a book of job listings, with a Japanese headband on to show us how serious he is about finding a job.) Similarly, when the Japanese government wanted to promote a more leisurely lifestyle among families it adopted a system whereby holidays that formerly fell on weekends or in the middle of the week would be moved to the nearest Monday, allowing more three-day weekends. The official name for this new policy is the "Happy Monday."
Speaking of Happy Monday, today is a holiday in Japan, Seijin-no-hi or Coming of Age Day. Venture into any Japanese city today and you'll see hundreds of 20-year-olds decked out in the finest kimonos and sparkling new suits, greeting each other and taking group photos together. In Japan, the official age of adulthood is 20 (as commemorated in our wacky "you must be 20 years old to purchase tobacco and alcohol" T-shirts), and today is a special day to mark their official debut as shakai-jin (lit. "society-person"), or full-fledged members of society. Today, 20-year-olds throughout the country will endure long speeches by elderly community leaders, have lunch with friends, then go drinking in the evenings to enjoy their new freedom. For parents it's a proud day too, and doting fathers are all too happy to plunk down $5000 for a gorgeous kimono that their daughters will in all likelihood wear only once.