Friday, March 06, 2009

Japan Suicide Update

The number of suicides in Japan has topped the 30,000 mark for the eleventh year in a row, with the official tally of of people who opted to go to that karaoke bar in the sky hitting 32,000 in 2008. This number is slightly higher than the actual number of suicides in the U.S., despite the fact that America has more than double the population here. As usual, the prefecture with the highest suicide rate was Yamanashi, near Mt. Fuji, home to a morbid forest called Aokigahara Jukai ("the Aokigahara Sea of Trees"), famous as a suicide spot ever since it appeared as the setting in a novel in the 1960s. Last month our rural city was shocked at the news that a mother who'd become disillusioned with life jumped under a train with her seven-year-old son, a terrible and needless waste. While Japan has made some strides in recent years, including logging 700,000 calls from troubled persons at suicide hotlines last year, clearly more needs to be done. While fixing problems with medicine isn't always the best solution, I can't help but think that part of Japan's suicide problem might be related to the cultural aversion to taking medicines -- many of the drugs used to treat serious depression in the rest of the world just aren't available here.

(By the way, do not google Akigaoka with safe search off. Just trust me on this, you will not like what you see.)

The eerie calm of Aokigaoka Jukai, second only to the Golden Gate in annual suicides.

Dialects in Japanese: Osaka-ben and Beyond

Every language has dialects, and Japanese is no different. I've heard that since Japanese people are more likely to stay in the same place all their lives, or move to Tokyo for work or education then do a "U-turn" back to their home prefecture a few years later, the country's dialects are more pronounced than in North American English. The most famous alternate dialect is Osaka-ben, where they say maido (mai-DOH) instead of konnichiwa for a greeting, reflecting the region's mercantile background (it's short for maido ari or "Thanks for giving me your business every day"). Often dialects are used to add a new dimension to a character in anime, and if you have a group of females in a given show, you can bet there'll be one whose "charm point" is speaking some cute but odd-sounding variant of Japanese. Beyond the major dialects -- rough and comical Osaka-ben, eerily polite Kyoto-ben, Gaelic-sounding Tohoku-ben from Northern Japan -- it's funny to observe the "artificial" dialect of gaijin-ben, the over-inflected Japanese that foreigners are known to speak, which is often used by radio DJs and announcers on TV shows to add a "chic" flavor to their speech.

Ogiue from Genshiken speaks a cute-sounding northern dialect.

Living in Japan: Plusses and Minuses

All in all, Japan is a fairly easy country for an expat to live in: people are friendly and interested in English, the country has low crime and it seems like there's always an interesting experience to be had somewhere. You have access to entertainment -- theatres show Western movies in English with Japanese subtitles, not dubbed over as in most foreign countries -- and having the best Internet in the world means you never feel that far from friends and family members back home. Another nice thing about Japan is public transportation, and if you live near a reasonably large city you can probably get by without the expense of a car. But there are some challenges to living here, as well. Japanese homes are not up to the quality standards of the U.S. (I'm cold all the time in mine), and moving into any rented home or apartment requires 5-6 months rent up front, what with the "thank you money" paid to the landlord and other charges that are customary. Another challenge for newcomers to Japan who haven't already studied the language is not being able to read. Although you can find signs written in English near train stations or on major roads, it's quite easy to find yourself in a place where everything around you is in Japanese. The good news is, nothing helps you learn like necessity!

All-in-all, Japan is an easy country for gaijin to live in.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How Japan Changes You

When you live in a place like Japan for long enough, it inevitably starts to change you. First it's the little things, like the inability to eat a meal without first saying "Itadakimasu!" (literally meaning "I am about to receive the gift of this food"), or politely turning your headlights down to "park" at intersections to keep from blinding the driver across from you. Before you know it you're bowing to people while talking on the phone, you can't remember your weight or shoe size as measured back home and you find yourself taking a long time to get to the point while talking to anyone. The other day my son asked me how they measure the area of rooms in America, and I vaguely recalled there being a something called "square feet" or "square meters" that I'd known about once. Japan, of course, uses that oh-so-traditional unit of measurement known as the tatami mat, and the size of a room is always expressed in how many tatami would fit inside, even if it's a traditional Western room with wooden flooring. A 6-jo (6-mat) room is a good sized space for one or two people to sleep in, while a 4 1/2 mat room (called yojo-han) is what the cramped rooms poor college students live in are called. After being here for so long I can perceive spaces in Japanese mats pretty accurately, but I have no idea how much 1200 square feet would be.

Tatami mats are used to specify room sizes in Japan.

Leadership Fail in Japan

Japan's political world was shocked at the arrest of the top aide to Democratic Party of Japan head Ichiro Ozawa over improper political contributions. At a press conference this morning Ozawa defended his aide, calling the contributions in line with the limits set by campaign law and vowing to beat the allegations. While he talked a good fight, it's likely the news will affect the DPJ's chances of winning a majority in both houses in the upcoming election, which will no doubt lead to more deadlock and other problems for the nation. Politically Japan is quite a basket case, currently on its 11th Prime Minister since I came here in 1991, compared with just three in the U.K. in the same span. While I often hear people complain about two-party political systems which lock out smaller groups, I can't say that Japan's system of one large disfunctional party and a collection of universally ineffectual smaller parties is any better.

Japan seems to suffer from a chronic leadership problem.

Re-Learning English Pronunciation

I've heard it said that when French people learn English, they need to work hard at re-learning how to pronounce their own language since so many words used in English originally came from French. Similarly, Japanese use many English words in their daily lives, but the pronunciation is far from what most of us might expect, making it necessary for foreigners to get comfortable with katakana English. The simple English word "weekend" becomes a bizarre-sounding oo-EE-ku-EHN-doh in Japanese, and if you want people to understand you you have to get used to saying it this way. Another word that's quite hard to get down is "wind orchestra" (oo-EEN-doh OH-keh-su-to-ra). Often when English words are imported into Japanese they're changed slightly, which can sound weird in English speakers for a while. The word "Google" comes through in Japanese as "goggle" (as in what you swim with), and Japanese web users universally perceive the double "o" in Google as a pair of eyes looking through goggles.

It can be odd to get used to English pronunciation that feels "wrong" at first.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Moe-teki Employment for Japan's Otaku

The word moe (mo-eh) is written with a kanji that means "sprout," but it's meaning is a bit difficult to pin down, essentially being translatable as "the warm feeling you get looking at your favorite super-cute anime character." As the moe anime genre takes over Japan completely it's appearing in some surprising places, like the Moe Diet Book, the Moe Guide to Investing in Stocks, and my personal favorite, Moe Particle Physics, in which a cute cat-girl explains electrons, neutrons and quarks in easy-to-understand language. Now a "Hello Work" (municipal employment office) located near Nagoya has gotten into the act, creating an "image character" called Miruku (Milk) Chita aimed at inspiring Japan's otaku and NEETs (Not involved in Education, Employment or Training) to get out and find jobs. While you could say that the government is being smart by shaping its message so that it will reach the young people of today, it's possible to look at things in a more cynical light: that they desperately want to get the country's anime-obsessed youths into jobs that generate taxable income to help support the ever-graying population.

Milk-chan is going to help Japan's NEETs get a job.

Japan's Vertical "Senpai" Culture

I write a lot about how Japan's society is considered "vertical," with concepts like senpai, a senior in a school, company or other organization, a role that comes with a degree of respect but also responsibility, such as the unwritten rule that you'll pick up the tab at restaurants when eating with your kohai (junior) from time to time. While it's common for a person's "social level" to be tied to their age -- an 18-year-old student in high school will be senpai to students who are younger than him -- there are times when this neat social system is upset. For example, what happens if a student is held back a year, and he suddenly becomes kohai to his former classmates? (Incidentlaly, the idea of a gifted student skipping grades is totally alien in Japan.) As early as a decade ago many workers could expect to stay at the same company all their lives, but now almost no one does, which means that at some point a 35-year-old is going to change jobs and find himself working under a new senpai who's ten years younger than he is. It's common in anime for age-based relationships to be turned on their ears as a vehicle for more interesting characterization. For example, when Haruhi forces Mikuru to join the SOS Brigade, part of Kyon's surprise is that Mikuru is a year older than the rest of them: so powerful is Haruhi's personality that she bends even an older student to her will. Other examples of this tendency for age-based relationships to be skewed in anime include Tomoyo from Clannad, who speaks in a brisk, rude manner to everyone including students older than her, and Taiga from Toradora, who clashes violently with her school's class president.

For the record, this kind of thing of thing happens in anime but not the real world very often. ^_^

It's common in anime for characters to disregard proper age relationships.

Teenage Girl Clothing Shock

There's no place quite like Japan for that paradigm-shifting-without-a-clutch experience. My daughter starts Junior High School next month, and she's been happily getting her school supplies together. The other day I saw her picking a new wardrobe at an online retailer that carried all the brands girls are wearing these days, like Beverly Hills Polo Club, School Scene, and of course, Playboy. Say what? It turns out that in Japan, the famous bunny logo is extremely popular with fashionable girls, who think it looks oshare (oh-SHA-reh), or stylish and chic. Hiding my surprise, I asked her what "Playboy" was, and she replied, "It's a famous maker of girls' clothes. Don't you know anything, Dad?" I shrugged -- if the symbol was removed from its special meaning in the U.S., I guess it didn't matter if some 13-year-olds had little bunnies sewn into their socks. It's similar to the way the perception of cursing changes in Japan, a country that has no "foul" language or anatomically-based swear words to speak of, with the most common insult being baka (stupid). If my son were to use the "F" word around me I'd likely not bat an eye, since it has no power in a country where no one would be shocked by it.

A surprising clothing brand for girls in Japan.