Friday, January 23, 2009

Japanese Train Sleepers

I took a day off and went down to Tokyo yesterday to catch up with a friend over some beer and hot sake. On the train, I wasn't surprised to see several people around me doing what Japanese always do on trains: fall deeply asleep the moment we leave the station. Look around any train car and you'll be sure to see at least a couple of these amazing train sleepers, snoozing away while somehow managing to remain (mostly) upright. When they arrive at their station, they magically wake up through a mechanism I haven't figured out yet, and exit the train. To me the ability to sleep soundly in a public place like that is the ultimate expression of trust in one's society, and since Japan is a very safe place, people usually have no problem with dozing off while they wait to get wherever they're going. I believe it's analogous to children sleeping in the back seat of a car while your parents drive somewhere driving you somewhere.

Sometimes it can be nice to sit next to a Japanese train sleeper, if she's cute.

Gaijin: Foreigners in Japan

The word for "foreigner" in Japanese is gaijin, written with kanji meaning outside + person, making it essentially equal to the word "outsider." All countries have foreigners, of course, but Japan's status as one of the most homogeneous countries in the world has a special meaning for Westerners living here, forcing most of us to "be at peace with sticking out in a crowd." A person from Sweden or France could walk down the street in New York without anyone noticing that they came from another part of the world, but in Japan, the "other-ness" of a non-Japanese face can't be hidden. In my home prefecture of Gunma, it's quite common for me to go somewhere -- a school function, or my daughter's Girl Scout meeting -- and suddenly realize that I'm the only non-Japanese present, often out of hundreds of people. While I'm okay with this, I've known some who couldn't handle the stress of "living in a fish-bowl," as one friend put it. While few in super-polite Japan are rude enough to openly stare at a foreigner, children sometimes can't resist gazing at the great big American pecking away on his MacBook. Whenever this happens, I smile at the child and say, "Konnichi-wa," which hopefully gives him a positive impression of having met a foreigner. (For some reason I am positively obsessed with making sure I don't act in a way that makes young children think of foreigners as "scary.") My own response to the issue of being different from everyone around me is to embrace it, driving my Miata with the top down and my blond hair blowing in the wind.

Early images of foreigners mingling with Japanese in the Edo Period. That must have been fun.

More on Gaijin: Statistics in Japan

Here are some numbers on the 2.2 million foreigners who live in Japan and make up 1.63% of the overall population here. While the classic image of a bumbling American or Brit on a mountain bike asking for directions to the train station might be prevalent in the minds of most Japanese -- this is because the foreigners they've had the most contact with have been their English teachers -- in reality Americans and Europeans make up only a small number of the total. The largest "foreign" group here are Chinese followed by Koreans, and as I mentioned last time, many of these were actually born and raised in Japan but maintain a unique identity for cultural reasons that are beyond my ability to grasp. (Interesting aside for anime fans: Lynn Minmei from Macross would have fallen into this category.) The next largest group are the nikkei (Japan-related) from Brazil and Peru, descended from Japanese who went on a diaspora to South America a century ago. In general, foreigners in Japan each find their own specific niche to occupy, and truth be told, I couldn't tell you much about the daily lives of people in most other groups. When I was an English teacher, I did English-teacher-type things like go see American movies, explore my city for hidden temples and study Japanese. I did my best to break out of that shell, though, hitting all the Peruvian restaurants the Japanese are too timid to enter, working out with a big guy from Iran for a few months (we communicated in Japanese, always an amusing sight to see), and challenging a Chinese friend to see who could get a higher score on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. (I beat her score barely.)

Breakdown of foreigners living in Japan by country. I assume the U.S. figures count military stationed here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Akiko Wada: Resident Korean in Japan

One of the most famous singers in Japan over the past two decades has been Akiko Wada, who appears on most every music show belting out songs in her signature strong voice. I found out the other day that this pillar of the Japanese music world isn't actually Japanese, but zainichi kankoku-jin, or a South Korean residing in Japan. While discovering that an entertainer actually comes from a neighboring country shouldn't be any more surprising than learning that William Shatner or Michael J. Fox are originally from Canada, in Japan there's a bit more to it. Ms. Wada didn't immigrate to Japan from South Korea, but was born in good old Osaka to zainichi parents. To my American sensibilities, this means that she should be Japanese, not Korean, perhaps with a heightened sense of her unique ethnic roots, but in Japan there's a strong tradition of Koreans maintaining their cultural identities by preserving Korean citizenship, attending schools taught in the Korean language, and so on. (I once went to the North Korean high school in our city to recruit students for the school I worked at, one of my more bizarre experiences as an ESL teacher.) There are no insurmountable barriers to taking Japanese citizenship, and Koreans and Chinese living in Japan, who enjoy a special lifetime residence status, are welcome to become Japanese at any time. Those who choose to keep their citizenship do so for various reasons, including the desire to maintain their ethnic identity and their unwillingness to take a Japanese kanji name, which is still legally required so the person can be added to the family register. I could become a Japanese myself as long as I passed some minimal requirements, but I choose not to: it's more fun being an American in Japan rather than a Japanese who is bad at kanji.

Akiko Wada is a pillar of the Japanese music world, and can probably mix you up some great Kim Chee soup

Pronouncing English with Katakana

One of the small benefits of the Japanese language is its syllabic nature, which eliminates some of the nuance of how words are pronounced. I was listening to some music on my iPhone the other day when a song by Dido came up, and I realized that I had no idea how to pronounce her name properly -- was it DIE-doh, or DEE-doh? In Japanese, you'd generally have katakana written above a name which would provide a way for everyone to know with 100% accuracy how it should be pronounced. When I was a boy I loved dinosaurs, and I remember trying to figure out how on Earth you were supposed to pronounce names like diplodocus and acrocanthosaurus properly. This wouldn't be an issue in Japanese, though, since katakana syllables are always pronounced the same way. There are downsides to using a system like katakana for pronunciation, though. When I order Indian food in the U.S. I probably speak with a Japanese accent since I got into Indian curry after arriving in Japan, and to this day I have no idea how to pronounce camembert cheese properly, since I first ate it here.

The talented singer's full name is Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong, by the way

Study English with Obama-sensei!

Today saw the inauguration of Barack Obama, an event which was watched closely from Japan along with the rest of the world. I caught the ceremony on NHK, listening to the Japanese commentators giving their interpretation of the speeches, explaining unfamiliar terms to viewers, and so on. The Japanese have a good opinion of Mr. Obama, and everyone is hopeful that he will bring some much-needed change for the better to the world. One book publisher here had the good idea of selling a book of Mr. Obama's speeches to help Japanese students of English study in a fresh new way, and this series has turned into a runaway hit in bookstores throughout the country. One of the biggest differences between Japan and America is patriotism, and while the average Japanese person is certainly happy to be living in Japan, love of country just isn't expressed in the same way as in the U.S. Concepts Americans take for granted, such as the Pledge of Allegiance, getting misty-eyed when visiting Arlington National Cemetery or being addressed with the phrase "my fellow Americans" in a moving speech by one's president are completely missing from life here. Patriotism is an incredible source of power to a nation, and it's interesting to see that some Japanese, at least, are borrowing it from the United States by studying Mr. Obama's uplifting words.

You can study English with Obama-sensei

Monday, January 19, 2009

Japan's Untouchables: the Burakumin

I caught an article on the New York Times website the other day about Japan's little secret, the class of "untouchables" that lived at the bottom of Japanese society for centuries. Known as burakumin, which oddly enough can be translated as "village people," they historically did jobs such as tanning, undertaking and the slaughtering of animals, considered "unclean" in both Buddhism and Shinto. While there had been a lower class of people serving this role from antiquity, burakumin didn't become defined as a specific class until Toyotomi Hideyoshi came along. He was a peasant who managed to work his way up in the ranks until he was the most powerful man in Japan, shogun in all but name, and one of the first things he did was change the rules so that no one else could follow in his footsteps. He created the four-caste system (called shino-kosho), which re-aligned society into four groups, with samurai warriors at the top, followed by the peasants who grew the rice everyone ate, the artisans who made swords and other products, and finally the merchants. The fact that the burakumin aren't officially included in any of these castes highlights their status as "non-humans" -- they weren't even worthy of mention. The official status of the burakumin continued until 1871 when they were freed, but discrimination continues to this day. The extent of this discrimination and what form it takes is difficult for me to actually report on -- the issue of burakumin is so taboo that it's almost impossible to get anyone to talk about it. I can say that the Japanese are extremely conscious of how terrible it is to treat a person differently just because of what job his great-great-grandfather happened to do, and it's illegal to consider burakumin status in employment or other areas of society. I've never heard the subject of someone's burakumin history brought up in any form, and the fact that I've lived here for 18 years without, say, hearing a slang word referring to the group says to me that Japan has done a pretty good job of expunging this aspect of discrimination from its society.

Social organization of the Edo Period

Japanese Film, Onigiri and Finland

Japanese films (houga) are a unique genre of cinema that I'm fascinated with, and whenever I watch one I'm captivated by how there's usually no structure, unlike Hollywood films which are generally formed in three acts for maximum emotional involvement by the audience. Instead, the story in a Japanese film meanders here and there until it reaches whatever conclusion is coming, which is not unlike life, when you think about it. I recently watched an interesting film called Kamemo Shokudo (Kamemo Dining Hall), about a Japanese woman and two friends who run a Japanese restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, specializing in onigiri, the "soul food of Japan." At first their only customer is a Finnish manga otaku who shows up wearing a different kanji T-shirt every day, and the restaurant has trouble attracting other customers, who don't know what to make of the new restaurant. They experiment with local foods, making rice balls with reindeer meat inside, and have many adventures as they're slowly accepted by the residents of the city.

Making onigiri in Finland at Ruokala Lokki (aka Kamome Shokudo)

Joe Hisaishi

My favorite Japanese musician is Joe Hisaishi, the talented composer who created the music for Hayao Miyazaki's most memorable films, including My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and the latest Studio Ghibli work, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Born in Nagano Prefecture as Mamoru Fujisawa, he discovered his love of music at the age of 5 when he started taking violin lessons. After graduating from music college in 1969, he began his career as a composer, taking advantage of the international attention being paid to Japanese musicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto's Yellow Magic Orchestra. As his career started to take off, Mamoru decided to take a new name based on an American musician he respected a lot, Quincy Jones, using an alternative reading for kanji characters he assigned to represent the singer's name to come up with Joe Hisaishi. (I swear, I am not making this up.) In addition to his worldwide fame as the composer of the Studio Ghibli music, Joe Hisaishi is constantly in demand by movie directors like Beat Takeshi who want him to make soundtracks for them. His piano music is used in TV commercials (iTunes link) quite often, too, and he's the composer of the official Toyota Corolla theme. He's released dozens of albums featuring his healing piano music compositions, which you can browse and buy with the iTunes Japan prepaid cards J-List offers. Browse all his music via this link.

Joe Hisaishi plays the piano while simultaneously conducting an orchestra (the guy is a stud)