Friday, March 27, 2009

False Cognates

I remember when I first learned the Japanese word for "name" -- which is namae, nah-mah-eh -- I noticed the similarity between the two words and wondered if the Japanese could have borrowed theirs from some Western language. It turns out that this isn't the case, and the parallel between the two is purely accidental, a surprisingly common occurrence that's known as a "false cognate" in linguistics. In Japanese you thank someone by saying arigato, which is very similar to the Portuguese for the same phrase, obrigado, but this is another example of unrelated words accidentally having similar pronunciations. Or the word so, which by an amazing coincidence corresponds perfectly with the word "so" in English as in so desu ka? "is that so?" Often words have pronunciations that are slightly shifted but still close, like boya which means "boy," hone (ho-ne) which means "bone," and the Japanese word for road, which is doro, phonetically the exact opposite of the English word.

The word for "bone" in Japanese is hone, which as in sebone (se-bo-ne) or backbone.

Of Cherry Blossoms and Taepodong Missiles

My mother is visiting from the U.S. right now, having come to spend some quality time with the kids in their native habitat. We'll also take her to some beautiful Japanese parks so she can enjoy the sakura, as the timing of her visit worked out great this year. (It can be quite hard to plan a trip to Japan to see the cherry blossoms as you're never sure ahead of time exactly when they'll bloom.) It seems that every time my mother visits Japan she experiences some of the more frightening aspects of the country, like the typhoon, earthquake and minor eruption of Mt. Asama that happened the last time she was here. This trip she might be in for an even more exciting time, as North Korea prepares to test fire one of its Taepodong-2 missiles, er, I mean launch a peaceful satellite, which has everyone here very jittery. North Korea has fired test missiles before, including one in 2006 that went over Japan's air space, and Japan has threatened to shoot down any missile that approaches. Living in Japan is great fun, but being next to North Korea? Not so much.

Japan is nervous about a possible North Korean missile launch.

What Is Normal?

During my time here I've learned a lot about the Japanese. For example, they can be very "boom"-oriented, happy to jump on the bandwagon when something becomes popular only to change their minds soon after, which happened a few years ago when everyone suddenly decided Korean dramas were the neatest thing since microwavable rice. They have a tendency to be meticulous and obsessive, too, like the student of mine who was desperately in love with a boy she knew but was too shy to confess her feelings...over the course of fifteen years. I've also observed that many Japanese want to be thought of as futsu (foo-tsoo), that is, normal, ordinary, or just like everyone else. I had a friend in college who was quite a unique individual in many ways, for example being so passionate about learning English she'd try to memorize an entire dictionary page each day. I once told her my opinion, using the word kawatteru (ka-wat-teh-ru) which carries the nuance of being unusual or slightly eccentric, rather than the word hen ("strange"), which would have been rude. Although I'd meant it as a compliment -- after all, I don't have a "normal" bone in my body-- she was taken aback by my statement, saying, "No, I'm a normal girl, the same as everyone else." In the anime Clannad After Story there's an episode in which Nagisa tells Tomoya she can't go on a date with him because she has to take a "mock exam," a practice test for the coming college entrance examinations. "But you're not going to university. Why take the test?" "I want to take it with my classmates, so I can be the same as them."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More Fun with Japanese Abbreviations We Don't Understand

I wrote recently about how the Japanese often find new and inventive abbreviations for words using the English alphabet, such as OL ("office lady"), what female office employees are called, or 2LDK, shorthand for an apartment with two rooms and a main living/dining/kitchen area. The Japanese have some other innovative uses for the English alphabet, too. The English letter E happens to have the same pronunciation as the word for "good" (as in quality, not as in taste), which is ii, and as a result it's common for advertisers to use that letter to promote a positive image of their products. In a similarly odd fashion, the letter W has come to mean "double" to the Japanese, and Meiji might advertise their delicious Fran brand of double-coated stick snacks as "W chocolate," which would be understood by everyone here to mean there were two kinds of chocolate used. The letter "w" is also used on the net as shorthand for the Japanese word warau (to laugh), and adding "ww" to a Twitter post is roughly the same as typing "LOL" in English to indicate laughing out loud. If you play Japanese RPGs like Brave Soul, you may notice how the highest rank you can attain is usually "S" rank, which seems to come from the English word "special." Of course, one of the most famous (or infamous) creative uses of English letters in Japanese is the "H," which has come to serve as a universal euphemism for anything related to sex.

Graduation in Japan

Yesterday was my daughter's graduation ceremony from elementary school, and my wife and I watched proudly as our little girl finished this first phase in her journey of life. There are many customs regarding formal ceremonies in Japan, and this ceremony required that students perform a complex dance of bowing to the principal and teachers before getting up on the stage to receive their diploma, all in accordance with the idea of kata, the shape or form that things should conform to. Afterwards, there was a series of long speeches by the school principal and various community leaders which were peppered with English words like "leadership," "challenge" and "goal." I wore my reifuku, a convenient black suit that goes well with any kind of formal event such as a funeral or wedding -- just change the color of your tie and you're ready to go. Japan is a country that doesn't change very quickly, at least in the small rural city we live in, and amazingly both my wife and her mother attended the same elementary school as our daughter, including graduation ceremonies that had changed little over the past few decades. When I think of how different America is from region to region, and how much things have changed since when I was young, this strong connection with the past really blows my mind.

Visiting the school for the last time as a parent of one of the students, I reflected on the small and large cultural lessons I'd learned there, which provided me with plenty of neta -- what the top part of sushi is called, or in this case material for these little missives that I write -- over the years. I remember my surprise when I first visited the school, which seemed to my eye to be like something out of Soviet Russia, built with the dreary concrete that all public buildings seem to be made of here. Or my fascination that students had a weekly class called "morals," and I remember wondering what topics might be covered in this country that wasn't founded with any kind of Judeo-Christian base. (They included lessons on common sense and family, awareness of the problems of bullying, and free-thinking exercises about, say, whether someone who left their wallet on a table and got it stolen was partially to blame for not being more careful with his money.) As we were walking out of the school, I encountered one last bit of culture shock from the Japanese public school system: a poster intended for first graders showing "the" correct way students should sit during class, which struck me as something you'd never try to specify in an American classroom.

Beautiful image of graduation, Clannad style.


Sit with your feet on the floor, pencil in the hand correctly, sitting up straight, other hand balled into a fist while you study.


Another, presumably older picture telling how "good children study." Could be as old as ten years but probably not much older.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fires and Japan

Japan seems to have an especially tragic relationship with fire. The combination of older homes built close together, the common use of kerosene heaters to heat rooms and the lack of smoke detectors (which only became required by law in the past few years) means that whenever I watch the news, I wonder if there'll be a new report of some horrible fire killing an entire family. Last week there was a terrible fire at nursing home in our prefecture resulting in ten deaths, an event that has Japan asking itself many hard questions about the quality of care it gives to its elderly. Then over the weekend came a report that the historic home of former Prime Minister Yoshida, who oversaw the signing of the peace treaty with the U.S., had burned to the ground. Whenever we hear the air-raid siren in our city sound at night, we know there's a fire somewhere, and on two occasions we've looked out the window to see houses near J-List burning. Fires have played a big role in Japanese history, too, and whenever you visit the beautiful old buildings in Kyoto you have to get out your guidebook and check how long the current building has been standing since the last big fire destroyed it.

Tragic fires are all too common in Japan.

Speak Japanese using English Words you Already Know

You may know that if you want to to express "you're welcome" in Japanese you can say "don't touch my moustache" and the meaning will be communicated, since this phrase is similar to dou itashimashite. There are plenty of other English words that happen to match up closely with Japanese ones, from "cheek show" which sounds like chikusho! ("Damn!") to "bimbo," which happens to mean "poor" in Japanese (binbo). Some people will say "yada yada yada" to indicate unimportant details, but in Japanese the similar-sounding iya da means "no" or "I dislike that." When you announce something with a lot of fanfare you might say "Tada!" but this word (tada) happens to mean "free" (as in beer) in Japanese. Often everyday names seem to sync up with Japanese words in odd ways. I have a friend name Debbie who everyone calls Deb, but this isn't very flattering in Japanese as debu means "fat"; similarly, people named Jimmy might not want to use that name in Japan, as it happens to mean plain and boring (jimmi). You can sometimes combine names to make other words, like Ben, Joe (benjo) which means "toilet," or Joe, Ken (joken) meaning "condition." Finally, the name of Chewbacca from Star Wars sounds like someone who is crazy about kissing (chu baka), while his nickname of Chewie sounds like Japanese for "beware of..." (chuui), as seen in our popular Beware Perverts wacky kanji T-shirts. Now you know some (probably useless) Japanese!

You can speak Japanese using English words you already know!


Time to Buy a New Cell Phone

Over the weekend I went with my son to get him a new keitai, or cell phone. Portable phones are so ubiquitous in Japan that NTT has actually started removing some payphones from public areas due to lack of use. With the penetration rate for cell phones near 100%, things can get pretty competitive between the three cell phone companies, who offer bonuses of up to $250 for defecting from other companies. As usual, it was fun to browse the lineup of phones offered and see how they differed from what's available back home. While most phones sold in the U.S. are made by Nokia, Motorola or South Korean manufacturers, nearly all handsets sold here are from well-known Japanese companies, and you can buy co-branded units like a Sharp Aquos phone to go with your Aquos flat-screen TV or a "Wooo" phone sold by Panasonic under that brand. As usual the current lineup of phones are long on style, many being so beautiful you might have trouble identifying them as phones. Most support common features such as "1-seg" TV viewing, screens that slide sideways to allow you to view PC-style websites during your morning train commute and support for electronic payment systems that let you touch your phone to a magnetic plate to pay for train tickets, food and so on. I'm amazed at the breakneck pace the industry runs at, and the life of a given model of phone is only four months or so, after which time the manufacturers have to upgrade it or risk falling behind. Japan's cell phone culture is cool, but it may end up harming the country's long-term standing as a technically advanced nation: the phones are so good that many forgo owning computers, and thus often don't have basic skills that most of us take for granted, like how to use a spreadsheet.

Cell phones in Japan are fun, but are they harming Japan's future?