Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Friday the 13th

I've talked before about how the Japanese can be quite superstitious at times, and since today is Friday the 13th, I thought I'd revisit some of the more interesting folk beliefs here. Such as, don't urinate on a worm, or he'll get revenge by making your private parts swell up. Don't whistle at night or a snake will come, and don't play with fire or you'll wet the bed. When you sneeze twice, it means someone is gossiping about you, a joke that pops up in anime quite a lot. If you see a spider in the morning, it's good luck, so don't kill it. If you want to check the weather tomorrow, throw your shoe as far as you can; if it lands sole down, it will be sunny, but if upside down, it will rain. Being such a death-oriented place, there are a lot of related superstitions. When you attend a funeral you'll be given a packet of salt by the funeral home, and you must throw the salt over your body to cleanse it before crossing the threshold into your house or the spirits of the dead will move in. Don't cut your fingernails at night, or you won't be able to be with your parents on their deathbed. Don't write someone's name in red ink, or you'll shorten their life. Finally, if you see a hearse, you should hide your thumbs inside your fists, or one of your parents will die (this is due to the fact that the word for thumb in Japanese means "parent finger").

Oh, they know about Friday the 13th, but mainly associate it with the classic horror film only.

Japan has many interesting superstitions.

Japan's History of "Dutch Studies"

I like digging around in Japanese history to find interesting little tidbits. In 1853, Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his "black ships" into the harbor at Edo (modern day Tokyo) on a mission to force Japan to ends its "closed country" policy and trade with the U.S. (Interesting aside: his main goal was to get Japan to open its ports to American whaling vessels, which were killing whales by the hundreds throughout the Pacific, quite a turnaround from today.) Prior to Perry's visit, all foreign contact with Japan had been limited to the fan-shaped artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki, and it was death for any foreigner to land in Japan or for any Japanese to leave. The idea was to lock out all external influence, probably a good idea considering the penchant the world powers of the day had shown for colonizing countries and adding them to their empires, and the policy certainly was successful in preserving Japan's unique culture. Only the Dutch were allowed any contact with the Japanese, and they enjoyed such a close relationship with Japan for two centuries that the general word for studying Western technology and medicine during the Edo Period was Rangaku (lit. "Dutch studies"). When Napoleon annexed the Netherlands from 1810 to 1813, making the country a province of France, Dejima was the only place in the world where the Dutch flag flew.

The old word for the study of Western medicine and technology was Rangaku, lit. "Dutch studies"

The Sounds of Japan

I've always enjoyed the sounds of Japan, from the calming bong-bong-bong made by train crossings to sounds that mark the seasons, like the buzzing of the cicadas in the humid Japanese summer or the old man driving around selling ishiyaki imo, stone-baked sweet potatoes, and playing that eerie-sounding sweet potato song through speakers. Every day while working at J-List, I immediately know when noon has rolled around because a siren located in the center of town goes off. It's not just any siren -- it's essentially the same air-raid siren that sounded half a century ago when Japan was being bombed flat by Allied B-29s. The siren sounds every day at noon to announce that lunch time has arrived, but it serves some other purposes as well, including letting people know when there's a local disaster such as a fire, and hearing the siren at night means everyone should check their neighbors to make sure everything is okay. In this way, it provides a little "community glue" for the people living in our city, unconsciously making everyone feel a part of the same happy group unit since practically everyone in our city is within hearing distance of the loud siren. When I first heard it, it was somewhat un-nerving, since it's not a sound you normally encounter outside of movies about World War II. But now it's just a part of my life in Japan.
I love the many sounds of Japan, with the exception of the election cars asking me to support politicians I can't vote for anyway.

Here's a Japanese train crossing sound for you.

And here are some Japanese cicadas. Yes, I know they have them in other countries ^_^

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hillary is Coming to Japan-land

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be coming to Japan next week on her first visit in her new official capacity. While no one can say for sure if she'll think to bring Prime Minister Aso some Valentine's Day chocolate, she will likely meet with him to discuss the global economic situation, and may ask for help from Japan in making reforms in the U.S. auto industry. She has also expressed interest in meeting with the families of the 17 Japanese kidnapped by North Korea, a terrible situation, but one that seems very far from Washington. As one of the most powerful women in the world, Hillary is quite famous over here, reported in the news often and known to everyone here. Although the number of women in Japan's national legislature is only slightly lower than that of the U.S., female politicians of Ms. Clinton's stature are quite rare in Japan. The closest would probably be Yuriko Koike, a former newscaster and one of Japan's highest-profile female Diet members, who was responsible for the government policy of banning suits and ties among Diet members in the summer, to allow the air conditioning to be turned down to save money. Which is another example of avoiding being mottainai.

Will Hillary bring some chocolate for Prime Minister Aso?

Loan Words Over the Centuries, and Mottainai

Japan started its history more or less as a blank slate, with most of its architecture, religion and even written language borrowed wholesale from China and Korea starting in the 5th century A.D. As the country modernized after 250 years of being closed off from the West during the Edo Period, it started up the idea-importing machine again, bringing in thousands of foreign-loan words to express the new concepts that were flooding into the country. (For example, ramune started out as the English word lemonade.) Then something interesting happened: around the time Space Invaders became the coolest thing in the world, the trend seemed to reverse itself, with Nihongo suddenly flowing outwards to the rest of the world. Just think of the number of Japanese words the average person under 40 knows after three decades of exposure to Japanese animation, comics, films and video games: names for weapons used by ninja, abstract concepts such as The Force Bushido, and many other examples. Dyed-in-the-wool otaku know many more concepts in Japanese, and can probably debate the differences between the various genres of moé anime using all the correct terms. It's been interesting to see the Japanese word mottainai (moh-tai-nai) cropping up on some websites here and there. The word, which is actually a Buddhist religious term expressing regret, essentially means "What a waste!" and it's constantly used by Japanese mothers when their kids refuse to finish the food that's on their plate, leave the lights on or are otherwise wasteful. As people try to be greener, the phrase is serving as a kind of slogan to get people to think about using resources more wisely.

It's become quite fashionable to avoid being wasteful, using Kenyan Nobel winner Wangari Maathai as an example.

Japan's Efficient Toilets

Japan's toilet culture is quite unique, especially when you're coming from the outside. First, there are two types of toilets here, standard Western units you're familiar with -- they come in normal, butt warming and butt washing types -- and washiki or Japanese-style, which you squat over to use. For Westerners, going about your business without sitting down takes some getting used to, but after a while you come to appreciate the traditional toilets since nothing delicate touches anything dirty. While standard toilets have become more common in homes, the toilets found in shops and restaurants are usually Japanese-style. Japan is often criticized by foreigners living here for not valuing its natural environment enough, and its habit of covering mountains in concrete on the off-chance there might be a landslide someday does seem to affirm this. But the Japanese have come up with a great way to save water, with toilet handles that can be turned one way way when you only need to release a little water (called sho for shoben lit. "little convenience," i.e. pee) and the other way when you've gone no. 2 (dai for daiben, with apologies to London's famous clock tower). Even more water is saved by the faucet at the top of most toilet tanks, which lets you wash your hands with the clean water as it flows into the tank after a flush. Which keeps things from being, you know, mottainai.

Using a Japanese-style toilet isn't hard at all once you get the hang of it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

When Translating, Take It Easy!

When you become bilingual in a language, you learn a lot about how your own brain works, such as what actually goes on inside your head when, say, you learn a new vocabulary word. Every act of learning involves a physical change in your brain, the creation of a new synapse from one cell to another, and sometimes it seems you can feel this at work in your head. The "mystery of translation" is another thing that's fascinating to me, considering the work we've done bringing Japan's PC dating-sim games out in English over the past decade. Translating from one language to another takes place deep inside your brain, on a level below your conscious thought, like a process in a computer running in the background. When we translate our games, we're often faced with difficult questions that involve cultural or linguistic constructions that don't exist in English. For example, what's the best way to translate lines by a character speaking extremely polite Japanese, or a female tomboy-type character who's using male speech even though she's a girl? What linguistic elements can't be brought over into English and are best left out of the final translation, if the goal is to most accurately reflect the spirit of the original? What other ways might there be to translate that strange Japanese Internet meme yukkuri shite ite ne besides "Take it easy"? It's always fun to explore the differences between the two languages and come up with the best translation.

Take it easy? Please make yourself at home? Please take your time and go slowly? It all depends on the context.

Post Office Hotel Row

There's a big to-do going on right now over the proposed sale of a chain of luxury hotels operated by the Japanese national post office, called Kampo no Yado. The post office here has always worked like a giant bank, offering services like savings accounts to Japanese consumers, just another example of Japan taking its cues from the U.K., where a similar system has been in place since 1861. Since Japanese people love to save money, there's rather a lot of it in the postal savings system, a mind-boggling 106,000,000,000,000 yen or USD $1.15 trillion. (It took me several minutes to convert this number from the kanji-based numerical system used here to something I could wrap my head around.) Naturally, no politician could let that much money sit around and do nothing, so over the last two decades the government built a chain of luxury hotels for customers of the post office to use at a discount. Now that the post office has been privatized, they're required to sell off the money-losing hotels, and a company called Orix has put in a bid to buy all 70 for the low, low price of just $109 million, despite the fact that it cost $2.6 billion to build the hotels in the first place. (And you thought your 401(k) had done poorly.) Japanese Internal Affairs Minister Hatoyama, known for being a can-do organizer, has blocked the sale so there can be an investigation of how the bid process was managed, and he plans to try to sell the hotels in smaller chunks so that the government can get a better price for them.

Does your post office let you stay for cheap in a traditional Japanese inn?

Buddhism in Japan: Like the Air

Soon after arriving in Japan, I walked to a Seven Eleven to buy some onigiri, those triangle-shaped rice balls that are similar to sandwiches in the U.S. While I enjoyed my lunch, I wandered behind the convenience store and was surprised to see a beautiful Buddhist temple nestled in between a beauty shop and CD rental store. People were walking by, not paying the slightest attention to the small temple despite it looking to my outsider's eyes as out-of-place in a modern glass-and-asphalt city as a UFO. That's largely what Buddhism is for many in Japan, it seems to me: all around you like the air, but generally unseen until your life takes you to some point where it shifts to the foreground, such as the death of a family member. Buddhism has been a part of Japan since the beginnings of its culture, and you can see its footprint in many interesting places. Amano-jaku is a word that describes a person who is a contrarian and who does the opposite of what's expected of him because he wants to be "going my way" (that is, live life at his own pace), like a friend of mine who loves to quote ironic movies yet who has never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was surprised to learn was this word originally referred to a mischievous Buddhist deity known for tricking people into doing evil things. There are other signs of the religion in everyday language, such as the Japanese word for "to get ahead in life," which is shusse suru (shu-seh suru), which I realized one day was written with characters that really meant "to go into the next world," and which is related to Buddhist teaching.

One of the thousands of Buddhist temples in Japan;