Friday, March 20, 2009

The Duality of Words in Japan

One of the skills you need to acquire when you come to live in Japan is the ability to deal with the "duality" of words, the strange tendency of linguistic concepts to split into two. For example, many European cities have two names, like Venice or Florence in English and Venetia or Firenze in Italian, and the Japanese seem especially adept at picking the city name you're least familiar with to use, causing confusion for English speakers. This eventually leads to a better understanding of the world, including that "win" (Wien) coffee with whipped cream on top has nothing to do with winning anything, and the wieners that kawaify your bento apparently come from Vienna. Any reference to a name from the Bible in Japanese will usually use the original Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic version, i.e. Yohane instead of John, so learning Japanese can lead to picking up other tidbits of interesting knowledge along the way. This idea of linguistic duality pops up in other places in Japan, too. First of all, there are fundamentally two ways to read any kanji, using the on or Chinese reading or the kun or Japanese reading. For example, you use the Japanese reading mizu for the kanji for water written by itself, but the Chinese reading sui when it's joined with other characters, like suido, "water pipe." Finally, virtually every place name in Japan comes in two versions, the modern one that everyone uses and the old Edo Period name. For example, Nagano Prefecture is famous for its soba noodles, and it's common for restaurants to advertise themselves using the old name of Shinshu, to associate themselves with the natsukashii (nostalgic) old days.

Bizarre Japan Mystery #442: "frankfurt" and "hamburg" are what frankfurters and hamburgers without bread are called.

Hey Baby, What's Your Blood Type?

I remember reading through old Saint Seiya manga back in college, wondering why they always write the blood type of each character along with their name, age and astrological sign, and now I know: in Japan, it's believed that you can tell a lot about a person's personality and character traits from his blood type. Type A people are neat, tidy, and plan things meticulously, almost to a fault. Type B are "going my way" (as the Japanese say), meaning that they do their own thing without worrying about the opinions of others, and don't plan things out in advance. They can be messy, and tend to act on impulse, too -- I am type B, and my wife is always commenting on why do some things I do based on my blood type. Type O people have a private world inside their minds, supposedly, and they're quick to become passionate about something, but then change to something else just as easily; type O people make good leaders. Finally, AB people have "two faces," one that they make in front of some people and another one they keep to themselves. Could there be something to it all? If you're feeling the urge to get into Japan's fun blood type culture, we've gotten in some cool phone straps today that let you announce your blood type to everyone.

Blood types mean a lot in Japan.

Newspapers in Japan Still Genki

Around the world newspapers are having a rough time as circulation continues to drop, thanks in part to the changes brought on by the Internet. This isn't really the case in Japan, where circulation at newspapers still remains high, around 10 million for the Daily Yomiuri and 8 million for Asahi Shimbun. Part of the reason for the relative health of the industry is related to how connected the large media companies are to everyone's lives here: Yomiuri, for example, also owns the Nippon TV broadcasting company and the Tokyo Giants. Also, newspapers sell for a higher price in Japan, $2 for the daily editions, making Japanese newspapers less dependent on advertising for profits. Finally, they benefit from people like my father-in-law who gets five newspapers each day, including three dedicated sports newspapers. While I like to sit back with a paper occasionally, I get most of my news from the net thanks to RSS feeds, which make it easy to follow just the information you want from news sites, blogs and other sources of information using dedicated RSS readers or services like Google Reader. (J-List also has an extensive RSS feed system too, allowing you to automatically view all updated products on the entire site, view new bento items only, and so on.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Difficult English and the Japanese

"Where is your domicile?" This was what a Japanese man I ran into at a party asked me, by way of making small talk. It gave me pause because it's not the clearest and most direct way to ask someone where they live, although it's not grammatically wrong. There are quite a few instances where English-speakers living in Japan find themselves dealing with more complex words than they might be used to in their daily lives. When you go for a ride on the Shinkansen, there's a sign in English asking passengers to avoid smoking in the vestibule, which I gather is what the area between the cars is called. Another English word I didn't know before coming to Japan was "alight" meaning to exit a vehicle, which I encounter whenever I ride the bus to the airport. I guess the idea is that if you've gone out of your way to learn a language, there's a tendency to want to use the longest and most complex words you can. And I've been guilty of this, too: I remember stubbornly writing every word I could in kanji even though my Japanese friends told me that they used simpler hiragana for those words instead.

Why learn difficult words if you're not going to use them?

Japan and the Entrepreneural Spirit

The economy here in Japan has certainly been better, and it seems that every day brings more news of production being scaled back in this industry or that. A big part of the problem for Japan is that their economy is closely tied to exports, which exposes companies to extra weakness when there's a slowdown in the rest of the world. But there are other problems with Japan, or at least they look that way to me when viewed from my point of view as an American living here. First of all, the country is positively addicted to building things like dams and roads and quasi-educational facilities like the Chiaki Mukai Memorial Science Center, built to celebrate Japan's first female astronaut. These projects are important, except when they're a big waste of money, like the time our city became nationally famous when the mayor (who lived next door to me) decided that we needed a brand new Ferris Wheel despite the perfectly good one we already had. Related to this is amakudari ("descending from heaven"), in which government beauracrats guide large public projects through the approval process then retire to receive lucrative jobs with the companies that directly benefited from those projects. Another challenge is the low amount of "entrepreneurial spirit" among many Japanese. When I see news of employees getting risutora (what layoffs are known as in Japanese, from the English word "restructure"), I always wonder if one of them won't take the opportunity to make the proverbial lemonade and go into business for themselves. There are actually some benefits to starting a business in a recession, including lower costs, the ability to hire good people cheaply and a great chance to learn how to be a bootstrapper, but I've not met many Japanese who would agree with me. More often than not, they'd fall back on that famous Japanese mantra of sho ga nai ("it can't be helped").

Sometimes the Japanese seem to lack the entrepreneural spirit.

Rice and Japan

Rice is the staple food of Japan, eaten two or three times a day by most people, and it's so ubiquitous that the word for rice (gohan) doubles as the word for "food" or "meal." Japanese usually eat white rice steamed in electric rice cookers that are owned by virtually every household (although there other convenient ways to enjoy hot steaming rice at home). Rice is usually eaten as a side dish to other foods (hamburger steak, sashimi, etc.), and many Japanese imagine that Westerners each every meal with a big basket of bread on the side. Supposedly, the idea of eating a small amount of a main dish with a lot of rice comes from Japan's wartime past, when everyone was poor and had very little to eat except rice -- it was common for kids to eat Hinomaru Bento, or bento of white rice with only a single red pickled ume plum in the middle, so that it looks like a Japanese flag. The best rice in Japan comes from Niigata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the country (the Snow Country in Kawabata's famous novel, if you've read it). It's called Koshi-Hikari, and restaurants proudly boast of serving only this type of rice to their customers. The latest trend in rice is to print cute moe anime girls on the side, which seems to have helped sales quite a bit.

The latest trend in rice is printing cute anime girls on the packaging.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Critical Thinking and Japanese Education

Because my son goes to a special immersion school in which the curriculum follows the guidelines set down by the Ministry of Education but with 60-70% of the classes taught in English, there are some differences between the education he's receiving and a standard Japanese one. The other day we went down to the school to attend Parents Participation Day, and one of the events they had prepared for us was a debate in which the students would discuss issues like, should drink vending machines be put in the school, or should chemical fertilizer be used for growing crops. I thought the debates went well, with the students researching many interesting points on both sides, but my wife had a negative reaction to them, saying, "If they want to learn to debate, they should wait until university." It seems that critical thinking isn't something that's associated with compulsory education in Japan, and the idea of students taking stands on various issues was a strange one to my wife, although it didn't seem that odd to me. I wonder if a decade or so into the future debates like the one the students demonstrated for us might not be more common. One of the themes of Japan as a nation is that it cares a great deal about the image it projects to Westerners. When the collective body of gaijin living here points out things like, there is very little free-style essay writing in Japanese schools, the government reacts by adding essay writing, as they did some years ago; and when we foreigners voice opinions along the lines that Japanese students spend too much time studying, they introduce programs like yutori kyoiku, the national policy of "easy-does-it education" in which school hours were cut back to allow students more free time (a policy that's since been reversed due to Japan's poor standing in national tests against the other nations of Asia).

Japan often changes its educational practices in reaction to the opinions held by foreigners.

Japan's Most Loyal Dog

I was in Tokyo over the weekend, waiting for a friend at the most famous meeting place in Japan, the statue of Loyal Dog Hachiko in Shibuya. Hachiko was an Akita-ken owned by a university professor in the 1920s, who would wait patiently for his master to return on the train every evening. One day the man failed to return, having died of a heart attack while at work, yet the loyal dog continued to wait for his master for years until he eventually died, too. Local residents erected a statue to the dog which has become such a famous landmark that you can tell anyone in Tokyo "meet me at Hachiko" and they'll know the exact spot. I noticed that the Japanese Ministry of Finance was putting Hachiko to work this tax season, using his famous image to encourage civic-minded Japanese to accurately declare their income via a sign around his neck that read, "Have you filed your income tax declaration with the Tax Ministry yet? Please be sure and do it as soon as possible!"

Japan's most famous dog is put to work by the Japanese tax office.

My New Dentist

Ask any gaijin living in Japan about dentists here and you'll probably hear a lot of complaints. I recently changed dentists because my old one loved to break routine dental work into multiple visits, like the time he took 18 months to put in an implant I needed. My new dentist is much more efficient, taking only one visit to fix my mushiba, or "bug tooth," the oh-so-cute word for dental cavities in Japanese. Apparently he hadn't worked on many Americans, and he went out of his way to tell me that the material he was filling my tooth with was made by 3M in the U.S., and to carefully explain exactly what work had was doing, since foreigners have a reputation for wanting more information from dentists and doctors than they normally provide patients. Like many businesses in Japan, the dental clinic doubled as the dentist's family home, with an attractive glass-and-concrete front door for patients to enter through and a residence built above. This is a common practice in Japan, and most of the convenience stores in our prefecture feature rooms built above for the manager to live in. My own house follows this business + residence pattern, too: the rear part of our house is a two-story domicile for our family, and the front is the liquor shop my wife's parents run. That's right, I live in a liquor shop -- why do you think I like living in Japan so much?

Many business are designed with residences built into them.