Friday, March 13, 2009

Misconceptions between Japan and the West, or, Do they have McDonald's in America?

It can be easy to get the wrong idea about other countries, and it's not uncommon for people to carry misconceptions around with them for years. Like the student of mine who asked me if they had McDonald's in America -- she'd eaten Makudonarudo all her life and had assumed it was a Japanese chain. Or an exchange student friend of mine who was sure that HBO was some kind of euphemism for "H-video." Japan is famous for its love hotels, places where couples can spend some quality time together, important in this privacy-challenged country where people in their 20s often live with with their parents, and sometimes their grandparents. Before the current word had been coined, these establishments were referred to as "motels" (mo-teru), with the result being that many Japanese think that America is littered with love hotels along every freeway. We can get the wrong idea about Japan and the Japanese, too. When I arrived here, I was sure all vehicles would be unbelievably small, yet there are plenty of large cars on the road, and I even see imported Cadillacs quite often. I expected Japan to be so expensive I'd have to sell my retinas if I wanted to eat a steak, yet I can gorge myself on Indian food for far less than what it would cost me to eat at the Star of India restaurant in San Diego. Whenever there's an earthquake that makes the international news I know I'll get emails from family members asking if I'm okay, as if Japan were such a tiny country that every quake could be felt. In reality, Japan's about the size of California but spread out so that it would reach from New York to Dallas, so most quakes are too far away to be felt. Oh, and and teriyaki sauce? The Japanese almost never eat it.

Do they have Makudonarudo in America?

The Joy of Enlightenment in Anime

I've written before about the "joy of enlightenment," the mysterious thrill your brain gets when it solves a puzzle or gains some new insight. Being a student of Japan means having many opportunities to overcome large and small linguistic and cultural hurdles, and it's one reason I encourage people to take an interest in studying the Japanese language. After writing about how Japanese often show affection for famous stars, TV shows etc. by reducing their names into abbreviated versions like the anime series Kare-Kano (His and Her Circumstances) and Puri-Kyua (Pretty Cure), I realized that the currently popular show Toradora followed this naming system, and wondered what it could possibly stand for. I searched my memory for several minutes until the answer suddenly popped into my head: the female lead character is Taiga (tiger), which is tora in Japanese, while the guy she's maybe kinda sorta attracted to is Ryuji, written with the kanji ryu for dragon (dora). The satisfaction of having perceived the answer was great, not unlike the (incredibly rare) times when my wife has trouble remembering how to write a certain kanji character, and I'm able to produce it for her.

Taiga and Ryuji make a great couple.


Beef Bowl and other Domburi Foods

Although Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi and sukiyaki are famous all over the world, the Japanese have an incredibly varied diet. A week's menu might feature curry rice, the Japanese adaption of a British version of the famous Indian food; all manner of broiled, stewed or raw fish; a joining of Chinese and Korean cuisine with kimchee fried rice; a tasty plate of seafood pasta; and delicious omrice, an omelette over flavored rice with a ketchup heart drawn on top. One category of Japanese food I like is domburi, basically big bowls of rice with various things on top. The most famous of these foods is gyu-don, Japan's ubiquitous beef bowl, enjoyed a million times a day at fast food restaurants like Yoshinoya and Sukiya of Yokohama. There are other types of foods served on rice in a big bowl, like katsu-don, fried pork cutlet on rice (yum), or Oyako-don, which means "parent and child rice bowl" and contains chicken mixed in with eggs served on rice (hence the wacky name).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Fun With Japanese Abbreviations: PA / IC / TPO / NG Edition

I talked last time about the Japanese penchant for abbreviating Japanese or kana-based English words, either to make unwieldy phrases easier to use or to show affection for their favorite drama, anime or tarento (TV talent). It's also quite common for Japanese to create English-based abbreviations for everyday words, which they invariably expect native English speakers to somehow magically understand just because they're written using the Roman alphabet. During GW (Golden Week) we might want to drive up to the mountains, so we'd get on the IC (interchange, or freeway on-ramp) then stop at a PA (parking area, or freeway rest stop) along the way to eat. While filming a CM (TV commercial), an actor made an NG ("no good," meaning an on-camera blooper), then forgot his TPO ("time, place, objective," i.e. his overall social situation) and cursed loudly. In some cases these abbreviated English words seem strange to Americans, but it turns out they've been imported from Britain, as with WC, meaning Water Closet (no, not that one). Anime fans tend to learn a lot of these specialized abbreviations, such as OP and ED (the opening and closing theme songs in an anime), or OST and BGM (original soundtrack and background music), which can lead to confusion when talking with non-fans who don't know what the heck you're talking about. Some of the "English" abbreviations that become popular in Japan are actually based on Japanese words, such as the slang KY, short for kuki yomenai or "can't read the air," referring to a person who isn't good at picking up on the feelings of those around him. Another slang word is TPI, supposedly used by high school girls to describe unfashionable males -- it stands for t-shatsu pantsu ire or a man who has tucked his T-shirt into his underwear.

A P.A. is a Parking Area, where you can buy food, gas etc. within the closed freeway system.

Japanese Snow Monkeys

Onsen (pronounced OWN-sen) are the volcanically heated baths that are so popular in Japan, and some hot springs like Arima Onsen near Osaka or Dogo Onsen on the island of Shikoku are mentioned in Japan's oldest written documents, indicating that the Japanese have been taking volcanically heated baths for longer than they've been writing kanji. But humans aren't the only creatures that like to take a hot bath here in Japan. If you visit Jigokudani ("Hell's Valley") in Nagano Prefecture, you might catch a glimpse of Japanese monkeys beating the cold of winter by going for dip in the hot water. Japan's "snow monkeys" are quite a famous image of winter, and the sight of a monkey family enjoying a hot bath together just like a human one is very touching.

Japanese monkeys

Japanese monkeys take a dip in the hot springs.


Hey, let's go to Kyoto!

Spring is here, and that means something special to the Japanese: sakura, the cherry blossoms that make the country blaze with beauty for a week or so, then blow away in the wind til next year. Although the first blossoms are still a few weeks away, Japan is starting to buzz about the coming Season of the Sakura (no, not that one), which can be enjoyed in practically every park, temple and shrine when the time is right, so common are cherry trees here. For the next few weeks, we'll all be tormented by TV commercials beckoning us to Japan's beautiful city of Kyoto, showing the most breathtaking scenes of cherry blossoms you can imagine followed by the city's official slogan So da! Kyoto e iko! ("Hey, let's go to Kyoto!"). You can tell how passionate Japan is about its cherry blossom culture by studying the many related words they use, like kaika ("first opening of the flowers"), zenkai ("fully opened" i.e. full bloom), sakura zensen (the "cherry blossom front" that moves up the country), and so on. I'm certainly ready for some flower viewing with friends and family!

Sakura cherry blossoms in Kyoto

The cherry blossoms in Kyoto are as beautiful as the city's marketing machine is brilliant.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Joy of "Haafu," Revisited

I've written before about the Japanese affinity for attractive faces that are haafu, or half-Japanese and half-Western, and it seems that every time I turn on the TV I see a beautiful star like Becky, one of the top "talents" in Japan these days. The popularity of hybrid features extends to newscasters like Crystal Takizawa or Helene Hayama, who have accumulated many fans with their unique un-Japanese look. This love of blended Caucasian features seems to fill a special need in Japan, a country that believes itself to be almost entirely of the same genetic stock, although this is largely a social myth. Foreigners can be scary and unpredictable, like the crazy man who stripped naked and took a swim in the Imperial Palace moat a few months ago, or they might speak rapidly at you in English, or do something else that's unexpected. But a person who combines both Japan and America or Europe will likely be more approachable, speak Japanese and do the things you expect them to do. To many Japanese, the blending of East and West represents the ideal, as visualized by the fashion doll Licca-chan, more popular than Barbie here. Licca's mother is a Japanese fashion designer and her father is a musician from France, and she can speak both languages. That's so cute! Of course, haafu stars are popular with J-List customers, too, as seen with enigmatic stars like who bring fans the best of both worlds like Maria Ozawa or Cecil Fujisaki.

Half-French Helene Hayama is a bridge between East and West.

Electronics Shop Language Lesson

Every once in a while I encounter a Japanese person who, for whatever reason, can't accept the fact that I speak their language. The other day I went to the denkiya (electronics store) to pick up some items and browse all the bright and shiny things they had on display. The store I was in had an excellent selection of Japanese massage chairs, and I decided to sit a spell and read email on my iPhone, since getting a shiatsu massage while doing email is a pretty cool combination. The minute I sat down, a female employee of the store appeared and, in rather broken English, started explaining the various benefits of owning a $3000 massage chair. Despite the fact that my replies and counter-questions were all in Japanese, she kept explaining in English, pushing buttons on the remote control to demonstrate the various functions of the chair. In the end I gave up and spoke English to the lady, who never seemed to register that I had lived in Japan for years and spoke the language fluently.

An electronics shop is a great place for a language lesson.

Japanese Kana Abbreviations

The other day my daughter asked me if I wanted to play Mari-Suma with her, and I replied that I'd rather watch an episode of Ame-Fani instead. She was speaking of playing Mario Smash Brothers on the Wii while I was talking about America's Funniest Videos, and we were both engaging in a rather strange Japanese custom of shortening words into smaller chunks. Like everyone, the Japanese don't want to use words that are long and clumsy so they developed a system of reducing words into (usually) four kana characters to make them easier to use. Foreign-derived words can be especially awkward, and so it's common to hear shortened words like Ame-komi (American comics), Yafu-oku (Yahoo auction) or pasokon (personal computer). The abbreviations are often created as terms of endearment by fans, and you could almost measure popularity based on which stars have these shortened Japanese nicknames and which do not, i.e. Brad Pitt is more popular than Harrison Ford because everyone says Burapi but no one uses Harifo. Anime series and games often receive the abbreviated name treatment, too, like Mari-Mite for Maria Watches Over Us or Sukisho for the game "I Like What I Like, So It Can't Be Helped" (also a slogan on a popular shirt we make). Some of the words you already know are actually the result of these Japanese word reductions, like the Nikkei stock average (short for Nihon Keizai Shimbun, or Japan Economic Newspaper) or Pokemon.

A book explaining the rules of Ame-Futo, or American Football.