Friday, February 20, 2009

The Queen of Subtitles

The other day I saw my wife watching an American movie that was being shown with Japanese subtitles, although I had no idea what it was because she had the volume turned too low to hear anything. When I commented on this, she said, "Oh, I didn't notice the volume was turned down. I was reading the subtitles." The Japanese consume a lot of TV and movies from the outside world and are quite at home with reading subtitles, a big difference from in the U.S. where subtitled films historically are not popular. When a Hollywood movie studio wants to make sure their film will do well in the Japanese market, they go out of their way to hire Natsuko Toda, known as the Queen of Movie Subtitles, who is so in demand that her personal schedule often determines what movies Japanese people see and when. Just about every famous film from Star Wars to Apocalypse Now to Harry Potter movies have begun with the "Subtitled by Natsuko Toda" title, letting moviegoers know they won't be confused with the flow of the story as they watch. One interesting side-effect of being so comfortable with subtitles is that the latest Will Smith film might be grouped together with, say, a French art film, since Japanese viewers are getting information through the subtitles and are not understanding the spoken lines in the film. Thus, films that might not get attention in the U.S. because they are "foreign" might have greater success in Japan.

Ms. Toda loves her Hollywood stars, and is always on hand whenever they visit Japan.


Japan Crime Bizarre, or the Lens of the Internet?

In 2007 a sad event occurred in the town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, which is incidentally famous for being the site of a mass suicide of samurai who chose to commit Seppuku rather than become part of a modern, Western-style Japan during the Meiji Restoration. A 17-year-old boy walked into a police station with a shoulder bag containing the severed head of his mother, who the disturbed boy had just killed. Perhaps it's due to the relative rareness of violent crime in Japanese society, but some of the tragedies that do occur seem especially horrific and at times even creative. Like the man who kidnapped his neighbor at knifepoint then, afraid the police would catch him, killed her and flushed her body down the toilet to dispose of it. (He was sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole this week.) It would be easy, judging from news reports of these sad and bizarre cases, to get a distorted view of Japan, especially when seen through the lens of the Internet. It's not unlike the perception that the Japanese are always eating bizarre desserts just because some parts of the country sell wasabi or squid ink-flavored ice cream as a novelty. Although it's not very exotic, the boring reality is that the most popular flavor of ice cream here is vanilla. While any loss of life is tragic, Japan happily remains a reasonably safe country, with a national murder rate lower than that of New York City.

Crime is always sad, and sometimes some really bizarre stuff seems to happen in Japan.

Haikyo: Modern Ruins

One of the more interesting things about Japan is haikyo, or exploring the ruins of our modern civilization, and whether it's spelunking through run-down factories or exploring abandoned love hotels, it can be quite interesting to see a side of the country that doesn't make it into the travel books very often. I've done my share of this, going with some of my students to check out ruins of an old prison that had been abandoned for decades, and near our city we can see the remains of an amusement park I used to take my kids to, which seem to be watched over by a giant statue of a Buddhist Kannon deity nearby. The grand-daddy of modern ruins in Japan is Hashima Island near Nagasaki, nicknamed Gunkan-jima or Battleship Island because of the way it looks like a ship floating in the water. When rich coal deposits were discovered at the end of the 1800's a colony was set up to house the miners, and during the heyday of the island in the 1950s there were nearly 5000 people living in close quarters there, complete with high-rise apartments, a pachinko parlor and even a movie theatre. It all came to a screeching halt when the mine was closed in 1974 and everyone left, in some cases with cups of undrunk tea still sitting on the table. Now the most famous ghost town in Japan has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Let's hope they get it open to the public soon!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All About J-List's Home Prefecture of Gunma

J-List is based in Gunma Prefecture, a crane-shaped piece of land that's located right in the center of Japan -- the heso (belly button) of the country, as the locals like to say. Situated on the edge of the Kanto Plain, where Tokyo and Yokohama are, Gunma appears regularly in crime dramas after someone commits a murder needs a conveniently rural, mountainous place to dispose of the body. Because the name of Gunma is written with characters that mean "a herd of horses," people in other parts of the country think there are lots of horses here, but it's completely untrue -- we don't even have a horse racing track anymore. The primary cities in Gunma are Maebashi, the Prefectural capital, famous for wooden kokeshi dolls; Takasaki, a vibrant commercial city, although because it was never bombed during World War II the roads are noticeably narrower and more difficult to drive in; Ota, home of the Subaru corporation, and the old Nakajima Air Works, where Japanese Zeros were built; and our own Isesaki, famous (?) for J-List and for the photographer of Russian model Yulia Nova, who happens to live about 2 km from us. Virtually all the cities in Gunma are former castle towns, and almost without exception the City Offices are built on the grounds of the former castle ruins, which fulfills some kind of continuity with the past that I as an American can't quite fathom, although it's rather cool. In keeping with Japanese regional tradition, Gunma is famous for many things, including konnyaku, a gelatinous food made from yams that's so firm that several elderly people a year choke on it and die, kara-kaze, the biting wind that blows over the mountains in the winter, and kakaa-denka, extremely strong-willed women (like my wife). Now you know a little bit more about Japan!

Our home prefecture of Gunma at a glance. Hot springs, vibrant nature, Daruma dolls: we've got it all.

Hillary in Japan

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making her international debut right now, having chosen Japan for her first official visit. She's been incredibly busy meeting with a wide range of different groups since arriving here, but while everyone is smiling for the cameras, her visit is shaping up to be a rather strange one. First, she was received by the Empress Michiko rather than Crown Princess Masako, who is still suffering from depression and avoids nearly all public appearances. She asked to meet with Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of Japan's main opposition party, apparently hedging bets that the current ruling coalition might not be in power for much longer. She also met the parents of Megumi Yokota, the poor girl who was kidnapped and spirited away to North Korea, as a gesture of support. Ms. Clinton's visit came at an especially embarrassing time for current Prime Minister Taro Aso. First, an opinion poll was released showing public support for his administration to be around 9%, the timing of which was no doubt helped along by reporters with whom Aso-san is famous for quarreling. Then in Italy, Japanese Finance Minister Nakagawa announced he would step down after apparently giving a press conference while drunk as the proverbial skunk. I'm sure it was a real Nyoro~n moment for Akihabara's famous politician.

Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Nakasone; Former Japanese Finance Minister "Shochu" Nakagawa.

The First Japanese-English Dictionary

I write a lot about Japanese history because it's an interesting way to get a feel for how unique the country is. I'm particularly interested in the "firsts," like my recent post about the first beer brewed in Japan, which formed the foundation for the Kirin Brewery Company. The other day I wrote about how Japan had enjoyed a special relationship with The Netherlands throughout the Edo Period, and in fact referred to the study of all Western language, medicine and technology as Rangaku, literally meaning Dutch Studies. But fifty years before Admiral Perry would force Japan to open its doors to trade with the rest of the world, a Dutch translator in Nagasaki named Shosaemon borrowed a Dutch-English dictionary from a trader and created the first Japanese-English dictionary, which was completed in 1810. It was called the Angelia Gorin Taisei, or Great English Vocabulary Book, and it was used by Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of the fore-fathers of modern day Japan and the guy on the 10,000 yen note, when he made his historic fact-finding missions to America and Europe to explore how Japan should approach modernization.

A really, really old dictionary. It blows the mind.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Functional Japan, Dysfunctional Japan

In a lot of ways Japan is quite a well-run country. For example, when Vice Defense Minister Takamasa Moriya was found to have accepted bribes from defense contractors in violation of the law, prosecutors did what they'd do in any similar situation, invading the Ministry of Defense with an army of men in suits to probe for evidence to support the indictments. That this was the equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department serving warrants on the Pentagon to search for evidence of wrongdoing impressed me, since I can't see something like that happening under America's less transparent system. Also, the Japanese Finance Ministry rightly foresaw the problems with U.S. mortgage-backed securities and ordered all Japanese banks to steer clear of them, resulting in far less damage to the banking industry on this side of the pond. Still, Japan does have their share of problems, and one of the most famous is the practice of amakudari, which means "descent from heaven." It's essentially the practice of high-ranking government officials taking cushy jobs in industries they used to oversee when they retire, which creates a lot of you-scratch-my-back cooperation that really shouldn't exist between the private and public sectors. It's analogous to the practice of former members of Congress becoming lobbyists after they retire, and it can create a lot of potential for improper exchanging of a lucrative career for influence that I think we'd be better off without. Amakudari has been a fixture of the postware era for so long it'd be difficult to imagine a Japan without it, and even American companies like Aflac and Coca-Cola owe their current position in the Japanese marketplace today to smart decisions to hire former high-ranking beauracrats to steer their companies through the complex regulatory system here. Still, embattled Prime Minister Taro Aso has declared his intention to end the practice of Amakudari by the end of the year, and I certainly wish him good luck on that. Of course, it's likely that Mr. Aso won't be Prime Minister for too much longer at the rate things are going for him. Maybe he can get himself a primo job at a government contractor before the ban kicks in.

The original meaning of the term, relating to Shinto gods journeying from heaven to visit the Earth.

Hand Written Kanji Messages

The other day we went out for one of my favorite Japanese foods, katsu, or fried cutlet of pork or chicken, which is of course made so much better by that heavenly Bull-Dog sauce they have here. As we were paying at the cash register, I noticed a framed piece of cardboard displayed on the wall with a handwritten message by the president of the company, declaring in flowing characters his company's dedication to quality ingredients and to greeting customers in a genki (cheerful, energetic) manner when they come in the door. The practice of putting a hand-penned message where customers can see it is quite common in Japan, and I think it helps communicate the passion of the business owners while providing a source of motivation for the employees. In the classic baseball anime Touch, there's a similar handwritten sign hung on the wall in which Minami declares her support for Kazuya's dream of taking his team to Koshien, the national high school baseball championship near Osaka. When Kazuya is killed in an accident, his twin brother Tatsuya must take Kat-chan's place, and the sign on the wall becomes a focal point for this goal. Japanese brush calligraphy, called shodo or "the way of writing," is quite a popular art form in Japan, and the ability to write beautifully formed characters is considered an important trait for a person to have. Incidentally, we stock plenty of cool Japanese calligraphy items on the site, and we're also happy to announce the return of our Custom Kanji Board service, where we'll write any character, phrase or other message, including your name in kanji, and send it to you.

"Kazuya, aim for Koshien! by Minami Asakura" from Touch.

Have some Fruits by Minutes Made while wearing your Suits and a new Shirts!

I went with my son to a public bath the other day, always a fun way to relax and wash away the day's cares. My son asked me to get him a "buckets," using the plural form of the English word, and so I brought him two of the little buckets used for splashing water on yourself, knowing of course that he only wanted one. For phonetic reasons, some English words are imported into Japanese in their plural forms, including words like shirt, suit, swimsuit, peanut, fruit and sport, which always appear with the 's' sound on the end (shirts, suits, etc.), even if you're talking about just one of the item. In Japanese, one refers to a suitcase as a "suitscase," and it takes the brain a few months to get over the weirdness of this -- ditto for learning to ask for "peanuts butter" or "Minutes Maid Orange Juice," and of course the English word "bucket," which always appears as "buckets" in Japanese. There seem to be three reasons for some English words being mapped to their plural forms like this. First is the rather convenient lack of singular/plural in Japanese grammar: saying hana ga kirei could mean either "the flower is pretty" or "the flowers are pretty" depending on how many flowers you happen to discussing, and as a result, the Japanese don't sweat the plural/singular state of a word any more Americans consider the gender of nouns in Spanish when they speak English. Another reason is that the softer tsu ending on the plural forms is easier for Japanese to pronounce than a hard 't' consonant sound. Finally, converting some words to their plural forms also avoids the dreaded L/R confusion that can be a problem in the language. Because "fruit" and "flute" would have the exact same pronunciation when rendered in katakana, the musical instrument became furu-to and the stuff you eat became furu-tsu.

Have some fruits by Minutes Made while wearing your suits and a new shirts!