Friday, February 27, 2009

Gunma Red String Project: a "Marriage Encouragement Initiative."

The Japanese government continues to wrestle with the country's falling birthrate, among the lowest in the industrialized world, and one area they're trying to focus on is the trend of people waiting longer to get married and start having children. Recently 52 single men and women gathered for a singles' party that was put on by our prefectural government as part of its "mariage encouragement initiative" that brings people together so they can meet and socialize. The program is called the Gunma Red String Project, evoking the image of the "red string of destiny," a Japanese belief that two people who are destined to fall in love are tied together with an invisible red string that connects their pinkies. The goal is simple: to help salarymen and women who are too busy to engage in normal dating to get out and meet people they might be compatible with, and hopefully help them fall in love. Since the Japanese already have a tradition of omiai, often thought of as "arranged marriage" but really more like a formal meeting between two single people to see if they think they'd be compatible, the idea of a party organized for singles to meet each other was probably less strange in practice than it seems at first. Let's hope Cupid Gunma-chan finds some targets!

Our prefectural mascot Gunma-chan is engaging in some match-making.

Filial Piety and the Japanese

The other day I was listening to the audio book of Children of Men and I heard a word I'd known of for a long time but had never encountered in my native language. The word was "filial piety," meaning the love and restpect you should show to your mother and father, and the only reason I know the word at all is because its Japanese version, oya koko (oh-ya koh-koh), comes up quite often in daily life here. While most of the James Clavell-derived images of Japanese people are completely false -- I have yet to meet anyone who was ready to commit ritual disembowelment to defend the honor of their ancestors -- one area where the classic image of nihonjin is dead on is their custom of showing special respect for their parents, both while they're alive and after they've gone on. This phenomenon is complex and takes many forms, from a son who studies extra hard so he can get into one of the cheaper national universities to save his parents money to children who alter their own lives because of the needs of their parents. For example, my mother-in-law spent some years in Tokyo in her younger days, and there was a special someone she wanted to marry, but when her parents called her back to Gunma to take over the family liquor store, she had to leave Tokyo forever. My wife, too, would have been more than happy to live in the U.S., but since she's an only child and needed to take over the family home she returned, which was good for me since I was waiting for her. So go give your mom and dad a call and show them some filial piety!

The ultimate expression of filial piety, carrying your aged mother up the stairs to bed.

All About Japanese Health Masks

I've managed to catch the cold that's been going around the J-List office, so I've got one of those Japanese health masks on right now. I remember my first few days after arriving in Japan, wowing at everything from the vending machines that were less than a few inches in depth to allow them to be placed along narrow streets to highly urbanized areas which nevertheless had rice paddies in the middle of them. Every time I'd head out to explore my city, I'd encounter a person wearing what appeared to me to be a surgical mask, as if they'd just ducked out of the operating room to get some air. These masks are worn by anyone experiencing cold or hayfever symptoms, done to avoid infecting others with your germs and to also to give them a visible warning that you're sick and they might want to keep their distance. In a country where one of the most important virtues is gambaru -- that is, do your best, give your all, work hard, always show your effort -- the image of an employee working hard at his or her desk with a gauze mask on, perhaps enduring a slight fever, is in some ways a classic cultural image.

You see many people wearing gauze masks in Japan.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Desserts in Japan -- Coffee Jelly, anyone?

Desserts in Japan can be a little different from what you might find back home. One popular dish in Japan is coffee jelly, coffee flavored gelatin that's really good with whipped cream on top -- Starbucks even sells a Coffee Jelly Frappe in the summer which I love. Another popular dessert in Japan is purin, egg custard flan pudding with caramel sauce on top which was unknown to me before I got here. Nata de Coco is a well-known dessert in the Philippines with firm, chewy squares made from coconuts, and it's popular in Japan -- it's really good in yogurt. Cake is big here too, and most cake shops are small, highly professional outfits who bake fabulous delicacies and sell them for $5 per piece (you almost never buy a whole cake in Japan, it'd be too expensive). Finally, there are many kinds of ice cream in Japan, from matcha (green tea) and azuki (sweet Japanese beans) to variations on Italian gelatin and "soft cream" (what soft-serve ice cream is called here), although my favorite is vanilla with a little matcha powder sprinkled on top.

Beautiful Japanese Dolls

As a person from a relatively young nation, at least compared to Japan's long history, I'm often floored by how old some of the traditions here are. March 3 is a special day for families with girl children, called Hina Matsuri or Doll's Festival, which seems tailor-made to be fascinating to Japan-obsessed gaijin. A few weeks before, families will set up an extensive arrangement of beautiful dolls called hina ningyo, which are meant to represent the Japanese Emperor, his wife and the imperial court. On March 3rd, the family will have a special dinner, eating colorful rice crackers called hina-arare (yes, Dr. Slump fans, that's where Arale-chan's name comes from) and one of my all-time favorite foods, chirashi-zushi, essentially a "tossed salad" of fish mixed with sushi rice. It's important to take the dolls down right away, it's said, or your daughters will get married late in life. Amazingly, the custom of families celebrating their daughters with beautiful dolls dates back to the Heian Period (795-1185), which is six times longer than my hometown of San Diego has existed as a city. Note that J-List has some interesting Hina Matsuri items on the site -- click to view!

Beautiful Hina Ningyo dolls on display.

Interesting Japanese Culture in Anime

Being an anime fan means more than just enjoying pretty moe [mo-EH] girls and watching robots battle each other: it's a journey of discovery in which you often find yourself grappling with cultural concepts that go well beyond what your Japanese dictionary tells you. Like the idea of senpai and kohai, senior and junior members in a school or organization, labels which carry nuances of responsibility and respect that aren't easily translated into English. Another potentially difficult concept is osana-najimi (oh-sah-nah nah-jii-mee), or childhood friend, which describes a special kind of close friendship between people who grew up together, very common in anime, manga and games. Yet another word that has a larger cultural footprint to it than it appears at first is tenkosei, meaning a student who has transferred from another school in the middle of the school year. Life in Japan is a lot more stable than it was for me in the States, and while I thought nothing of changing schools 5-6 times between the first and eighth grades, this would be quite rare here. Imagine moving to a new city and attending a school filled with people who have known each other all their lives, and you're the only one who's different -- it might make fitting in quite difficult. The drama of this kind of human interaction is apparently interesting to anime creators, and there are plenty of tenkosei characters around, such as Koizumi, the "mysterious transfer student" that Haruhi is so happy to have found in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Our game YUME MIRU KUSURI has an arc where you must save transfer student Aeka from being teased by her classmates.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Proud Time for a Parent in Japan

It's a proud time for J-List's Yasu, the guy in charge of stocking cool artbooks and Japanese study items on the site: the oldest of his three daughters is starting first grade this April. He recently took her to a furniture store and had her choose a study desk so she can get into the proper habit of studying for several hours a day, since education is taken so seriously here. The desks themselves are well designed, made of higher quality wood than the desk I have at J-List, with many features like built-in lights for reading and many small drawers for kids to organize their study materials in. Another important choice for a new first-grader is what kind of school backpack to buy. School backpacks are called randoseru, from the Dutch word ranzel, and they're extremely well made hard leather backpacks designed to hold everything the student needs over six years of elementary school. What's amazing to me is how little this ceremony of putting one's child on the road to being an industrious student changes from year to year, and when we bought the desks and backpacks for our own kids it was exactly the same as when my wife had entered the first grade so many decades before that.

It's a rite of passage to buy a study desk and school backpack for your child in Japan.

Laughing at my Students

All things considered, laughter only belongs in a foreign language classroom if it helps build confidence in language skills, and it's really not a good idea to throw your head back and laugh at the mistakes your students make. Although I've tried to hold to this goal, there have been times during my career as an ESL teacher when it was very difficult to keep the giggles away. One older student was describing a scene about skyscrapers in New York, but she kept saying "skycrapper" instead, which had me twisting this way and that picturing some kind of divine lavatory in the sky. Another time a student told me how he fixed his car radio over the weekend, only he didn't say "fixed," but another word entirely which starts with the same letter, and I struggled to keep from laughing out loud at this. We were talking about careers once, and one student who planned to take the test to enter the National Postal Service told me his dream was to become a "post officer," which struck me as amusing, even though it's a logical mistake when you stop and think about it. Then there are those bits of insight that only a learner of a foreign language can have, like my student who observed, "We cannot go to Antarctica because it is under penguin rule." I feel bad about laughing at my students from time to time, although I know that I've given as good as I got, providing the Japanese with many hours of amusement thanks to my own language slip-ups over the years. Like the time I tried to order some mango juice in a restaurant, and substituted a "k" for the "g," resulting in pretty much the rudest word that exists in Japanese (which is "manko" and is a word referring to the female genitals).

"We cannot go to Antarctica because it is under penguin rule."

Handicapped in Japan

I've often gotten the impression that Japan has a reputation for not matching the standards set by the U.S. and Europe when it comes to helping its handicapped enjoy more normal lives, perhaps due to the many places that can only be accessed by climbing stairs in Japanese cities. While more could certainly be done to make the country "barrier free" (a made-in-Japan English word that describes environments that can be used without limitation by elderly or handicapped), overall it's been my experience that Japan works quite hard for its citizens with physical challenges. There are many concrete examples, such as daily broadcasts of news programs for the deaf on NHK and Japanese schools extending that "one big happy in-group" mind-set to the special-needs classes in public schools, allowing kids with, say, Down Syndrome to participate in the annual Sports Day events along with everyone else. There are 350,000 legally blind individuals living in Japan, and they can get around town with the use of crosswalks which play different songs depending on the direction so people know which way to cross -- one of the songs is "When a Body Meet a Body Coming Through the Rye" by the way. Guide dogs that help the blind get around are also quite common. As an interesting aside, Japanese guide dogs are trained to follow commands in English rather than in Japanese, for example "right side!" or "wait!" rather than Japanese versions of these commands. This is because there's quite a lot of difference between the way men and women speak in Japanese, with men tending to use the rougher command form of a word like "sit!" (suware! soo-wah-reh) while women would use the softer-sounding request form of the same verb (suwatte! su-wa-tte), potentially confusing the animal. It's an interesting example of Japan's language being too multi-layered and nuance-filled for its own good.
A box soliciting donations for training of seeing-eye dogs.

Here's the train crosswalk music, both songs.