Saturday, April 11, 2009

Is it possible for a person to forget their native language?

Is it possible for a person to lose the use of their native language? Studies in linguistics (which I did a bit of in my college days) say yes, under some conditions. Language is more than a means to engage in communication and commerce: it defines us more than anything else, and acts as our "operating system," to put it in computing terms. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, many Iranian students studying in the U.S. at the time were forced to stay permanently. With little hope of returning to their home country, some accepted their new life so completely that they stopped using their native language, until they essentially became unable to speak Farsi properly. During my time in Japan, I've never felt I was losing my ability to speak English, although I did go for more than a year without talking to a native speaker, which meant the English I was speaking was being subtly affected by my ESL students, which was quite a weird experience. It's amazing how hard it can be to recall certain seldom-used words when you live in a non-English speaking country like Japan, such as "potentiometer" or "gynecological," and at times I've been obsessed with trying to recall a word I knew existed but which I couldn't remember for some reason.

Naturally, it's not uncommon for Japan to affect the people who choose to live here in strange ways.

The Traditional Cuisine of Kytoo

The Japanese, of course, love to make meals into something that's beautiful to look at, a concept known as shoku no bi, or "the beauty of food." The ultimate embodiment of this concept is kaiseki ryori, the traditional food of Kyoto in which a great deal of care is taken with the presentation of the food, from the shape and color and texture to the elegant dishes it's served on. Since the Japanese love their seasons so much, what you're served will depend on what time of year it is -- in the fall your meal with have a momiji (Japanese maple) motif, while sakura petals will adorn your food in the spring. Kaiseki meals are served in courses, similar to fine French dining (which the Japanese also love, probably more than the French do), and courses include sashimi, tempura, grilled fish, rice, and various other foods. To be honest, it's not uncommon to have no idea what you're putting in your mouth when you eat kaiseki (at least one dish will contain a flower that you ar free to eat, if you like), but don't worry, everything is good. If you're curious about Japanese cooking, check the J-List site for some cool cooking books.

Tthe traditional food of Kyoto embodies "the beauty of food."

My Trip to the American Shopping Mall in Japan

I finally got a chance to visit the new American-style shopping mall that opened recently, called SMARK. Inside was a mix of Japanese and U.S. stores that offered a huge variety of products for consumers to buy, including Eddie Bauer, Gap clone innovative Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO, and other shops with names like HeartMarket, Dog Garden, and I's Palace. I smiled at a store called GENKI KIDS, but my daughter thought it was a great name. "Don't you know anything, Dad? It's really cool to write Japanese in romaji [the Roman alphabet]." We made sure to eat at Wendy's, the American fast-food restaurant famous for its square hamburgers, which is making a push into rural Japan in an effort to recreate the legendary success of "Kentucky" (as KFC is called in Japan). The menu was pretty much the same as back home, with the addition of a Teriyaki Burger, and the "regular" size Frosty was so small you practically had to eat it with chopsticks.

I finally got to eat at the Wendy's that recently opened near my house.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Japan's Police Boxes

The subject of Japan's police is an interesting one. Japan's boys in blue are organized under the umbrella of the National Police Force, one of the first areas of society to be modernized in the European model when the country began its transformation from a feudal backwater into an industrialized nation in the 1870s. As with the Ministry of Education, Japan's police are a very top-down organization, and there's little variation between police in different parts of the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. One reason often given for the lower rate of crime in Japan is the efficient system of Koban, the so-called "Police Boxes" or small police stations situated around Japanese cities. If you have a problem or need to ask for directions, there's usually a Koban nearby where you can get help at, and I think the system works better than large, centralized police stations. Up til now, these small police boxes have been staffed mainly by men, due to fears that female officers might be in danger if they were asked to work night duty. This policy is about to officially end, however, as police boxes in Tokyo start employing female officers at all hours of the day and night.

This koban in Shibuya is rather famous, since there's a "soapland" right behind it -- so much for prostition being illegal.

A Certain Somewhat Ugly Magical Kickboxer

The most interesting kickboxer in Japan would have to be Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima, an avid anime fan and cosplayer who happens to be extremely adept at judo and full contact karate. Famous for dressing in flamboyant anime costumes as he fights, the New Japan Kickboxing Federation-affiliated fighter manages to turn every bout into a huge performance, generating plenty of attention for himself from bloggers and the media in the process. So far his cosplay events have included Miku Hatsune, Haruhi Suzumiya, Shana of the Blazing Eyes and Index from A Certain Magical Index. It's enough to make me feel sorry for his opponents -- it's got to be one thing to take a beating in the ring, but totally different to get your butt kicked by some dressed up as the cute Ranka Lee from Macross Frontier. His goal in life is to climb to the top of the Japanese K-1 world and eventually get a studio to let him work as a voice actor. "I want to work hard to be the best anime otaku I can be." Oh, and his favorite cookies are Country Ma'am -- we agree!

Japan's anime cosplaying kickboxer is always entertaining to watch, although a little scary.

My favorite place in the world: The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo

The other day I took my mother and the kids down to Tokyo to see the Studio Ghibli Museum, pretty much the most excellent place in the world if you love the works of master animator Hayao Miyazaki. Inside, you can see a replica of the desk Miyazaki-sensei worked at while creating his most famous films (right down to his cigarette-filled ashtray), climb inside a giant plush Catbus, and take your picture beside a full-sized version of a robot from Castle in the Sky Laputa. Visitors are able to watch a short original Ghibli film while there, too, and we were fortunate to get to see the best one, Mei and the Kitten Bus, essentially the "sequel" to My Neighbor Totoro. It tells the story of an adventure Mei has with a baby neko bus in which she's taken to a conclave of Totoros and meets the Grandmother Catbus, who she befriends by giving her a delicious Morinaga caramel -- it's quite awesome. Mr. Miyazaki's hand could be seen in almost every aspect of the museum, from the winding staircase that only kids could climb to the toilets, decorated with acorns and wood; when you pay for something, the little tray you put your money in isn't made of plastic, but natural leather cut in the shape of a leaf. Inside the museum there's a cafe famous for selling coffee with Miyazaki's characters drawn over the top in chocolate. Sadly, Mr. Miyazaki decided that he didn't want visitors to the museum "eating" his characters, even in chocolate form, and asked the cafe to refrain from the practice -- bummer.

Tthe Ghibli Museum is my favorite part of Tokyo.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Happy Gundam 30th Anniversary

Today is an auspicious day for anime fans everywhere: the 30th anniversary of the start of Mobile Suit Gundam, which burst onto TV screens on April 7, 1979. Essentially the first anime series in which the humans were more important than the robots they piloted, it told the story of humanity after it had emigrated into space and of the One Year War for independence between the space-based Principality of Zeon and the United Earth Federation, with plenty of drama and political intrigue to go with giant robots destroying each other. Interestingly enough, the show was slow to catch on and was ended 9 episodes early. With the introduction of the Bandai's line of Gundam models and the three compilation movies, popularity began to pick up, and the show went on to become an icon of Japanese animation. Today, characters like the everyman-hero Amuro Rei and the charismatic Char Aznable are as much a part of Japanese popular culture as R2-D2 and C-3P0 are in the West.

Congratulations on 30 years of Newtypes, spacenoids and colony drops.

On Okinawa Lily Princesses, And More

We're back from our long weekend in Okinawa. It was a fun trip, and we got a lot of relaxing in as we explored the cultural differences between the island of Karate Kid's Miyagi-san and the rest of Japan, including sampling the local cuisine. The island's closer cultural proximity to the U.S. has somehow caused Okinawans to love tacos, which would be unheard of on the mainland where ordering tako would get you some delicious fresh octopus. Another local favorite is root beer, which surprised me since almost every Japanese I know thinks it tastes like the muscle cream Salonpas, yet business at the A&W restaurants we saw was brisk. Like many other Pacific islanders, Okinawans love Spam, and I made sure to try a "Spam musubi" type onigiri, a favorite of President Obama's from his days in Hawaii. One bit of culture shock we had was our inability to read any of the kanji names on signs, since they're so different from anything you see in Japan proper -- a good analogy would be a person from Boston visiting California and trying to pronounce the Spanish-derived names there. Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan, and there are definitely fewer expensive cars on the road. They get sweet revenge by living longer and aging more gracefully than anyone else in the world, even the already long-lived Japanese, thanks to diets low in fat and salt, lower levels of stress and a positive, supportive community.

Since I strive to bring my half-Japanese, half-American children up to see things from the viewpoint of both cultures, we visited some of the former battlegrounds from the terrible Battle of Okinawa, a three-month conflict that killed more than 100,000 Japanese troops as well as a quarter of the civilian population of the island, an event that hasn't earned Japan proper any love in the minds of the locals. I was especially touched by the story of the Himeyuri Lily Girls Squadron, 222 high school girls who were mobilized as nurses during a major Allied offensive. The girls were from wealthy families and had led very sheltered lives up to that point, yet suddenly they found themselves tending to hundreds of dying soldiers in makeshift hospital caves. A large number of the girls were killed during the fighting, but many who survived soon committed suicide, so great was their fear of the approaching kichiku-beihei ("beastly American soldiers") thanks to the propaganda that they'd been subjected to. Of course, one big difference between Japan and Okinawa is that there are monuments and memorials at all -- as I've written before, it's very rare to see any kind of reminder of the war years in Japan, for cultural reasons that are difficult for me to fathom. About the only place you can go in Japan to pay respects to the soldiers who fought and died for their country is Yasukuni Shrine, where the bones of Japan's worst war criminals are unfortunately also interred.

A memorial to the tragic Himeyuri Lily Girls in Okinawa; for the record, a castle in Okinawan is pronounced gusku, not shiro.