Friday, May 01, 2009

The Ancient Art of Speaking a Foreign Language While Inebriated

Back in my college days at SDSU we had a "Japan-America Friendship Club" that would organize events like beach side bonfires attended by the ESL students from Japan and gaijin who were trying to learn Japanese. It was at events like these that I learned the ancient art of speaking a foreign language while mildly inebriated, which allows you to communicate significantly better than you otherwise would, at least until you pass out. It's as if there's a barrier in the mind that's always trying to keep you from making a fool of yourself, which gets deactivated when you have a beer or two. Of course, the benefits of alcohol on foreign language ability are as fleeting as cherry blossoms in the spring, and you can quickly find things going in the opposite direction if you're not careful. Happily, the Japanese have another tradition I've been known to make use of from time to time: whatever a person says or does while under the influence is generally forgotten about and ignored forever. Isn't this country great?

Alcohol can help your Japanese-speaking ability...and then harm it.

The Socio-Fashion Phenomenon Known as Gal-Mama

Whenever I go to Tokyo, I start to pay more attention to my surroundings when the train hits Omiya, a large city on the outskirts of the sprawling capital. This is the point that all the Japanese females around me start to become extremely fashionable, with expensive name-brand clothes, tall leather boots, expertly styled hair and a general air of elegance I've found nowhere else in the world. While New York or Paris might be ahead of Japan when it comes to setting worldwide fashion trends, I don't believe there's anyplace where females spend more energy on looking oshare (oh-SHA-reh), the catch-all term for being stylishly dressed. One of the most enigmatic groups in Tokyo's fashion world are the gyaru, or "gals," the young women in Shibuya or Harajuku who feel compelled to place fashion before all else. This general social trend has changed and morphed many times, starting out with the Amullers who imitated popular singer Amuro Namie, moving through ganguro or "black face" girls who spent hours at tanning salons, the older and more sophisticated one-gyaru, and finally the current age-jo (ah-gay-joh), named after a butterfly called ageha that's become the symbol of their generation. I'm extremely interested in the socio-fashion phenomenon known as gyaru mama, essentially extremely stylish girls who have gotten pregnant and become mothers, but since they're not willing to relinquish their love of beautiful clothes and make-up, they share this world with their children. It's quite interesting to see these girls, wearing the most flamboyant outfits while they push their baby carriages, and I can tell it really takes an inner strength to resist the never ending pressure from society at large to conform. If you're interested in the Japanese fashion world, be sure and browse the magazines like Egg and FRUiTs and S Cawaii, available either as revolving subscriptions or as single issues.

A Golden Week to Remember

It's shaping up to be a Golden Week to remember here in Japan, as hundreds of thousands of Japanese make use of the extended holiday period to travel to exotic destinations like Guam, Hawaii, Australia or California. Fears of the "new-type influenza virus" (as it's being officially referred in the news) will certainly make things more interesting when they all come home, and Narita Airport is on its highest state of alert, scanning returning passengers with special cameras that show body temperature in case anyone gets infected abroad. There were two reported cases of the new virus here in Japan, but happily both turned out to be the more conventional Hong Kong strain -- whew. The Japanese are already quite at home wearing surgical-style health masks whenever they feel under the weather or during hayfever season, and these masks are even more common nowadays. Anyway, we hope you all have a safe and enjoyable Golden Week, wherever you are in the world!

Mask-sporting Japanese tourists head overseas. Glad I'm not among them.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hey gaijin! You are "good head"

I've written about how speaking a foreign language requires a special "other" sense, which the Japanese call kan (kahn). If you are kan ga ii (having a good sense about abstract things) you might be able to figure out that someone who compliments you by saying you are "good head" is probably telling you you're smart, since atama ga ii (good head) is how you express intelligence in Japanese. But while a big part of interacting with people from other language groups means understanding what they're saying to you even if it's not communicated clearly -- like when my wife asked for "gross lipstick" for Christmas, meaning gloss -- there are times when you need to get meaning across to others. When my mother was visiting from the U.S., I left her alone with my kids as much as possible so they could have lots of time practicing their English with her. (Apparently I register as a Japanese person to them, since they know I speak Japanese, and they speak almost no English when I'm in the room.) My daughter was saying something about how much fun she'd had at Sea World in San Diego the previous summer, but she couldn't remember the English word for the animals she'd seen. So she used her imagination, flapping her hands together like flippers and barking like a seal until my mother knew what she was talking about.

In other news, did you know that the word for brains in Japanese is noh-miso, lit. the "miso paste of the brain"?

What's better than making an order for some great bento, J-snack, anime or traditional items from J-List? Getting a free give back in return, which is what you get during our "End of Fiscal Year" special sale. For every $100 you spend, we'll give you a cool gift code for $5 to use with your next purchase. Why not see what excellent products from Japan J-List has for you today?

Japan: Land of Exotic Desserts

Before I came to Japan, I fancied myself a bit of a dessert aficionado. Pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream was one of my favorites, and I've always had a soft spot for dipped chocolate soft-serve ice cream from Dairy Queen. I learned how much I'd been missing when I got here, though, as I was introduced to a world of amazing sweets from all over the world. The Japanese have a long history of taking ideas from the outside and improving on them, and many of the exotic desserts found here were brought over during the Meiji Period, like the dreamy Japanese-style custard-filled cream puffs called shu cream, pronounced just like the stuff you clean your shoes with (from the French chou a la creme), which naturally come in Hello Kitty and Totoro-shaped variations, too. Another French dessert the Japanese have embraced are crepes, and my kids have an amazing ability for knowing where the nearest crepe vendor is so they can beg me to buy them the strawberry and whipped cream-filled pastries. While some sweets were imported so long ago they seem uniquely Japanese now, such as the 400-year old konpeito candies and famous Castella sponge cakes from Nagasaki, some are more recent imports, like Nata de Coco, a dessert from the Philippines that's eaten in yogurt. You can often see the exotic side to Japanese desserts in the snacks we sell through the site, like the smash hit of the season, Tiramisu Kit Kat (which will be disappearing from the site soon, fair warning). One side benefit to living in Japan is learning to appreciate that a very small yet very delicious food is superior to something mass-produced and served in large servings.

The Japanese love crafting delicious desserts as much as I love eating them.

Foreigners and the Japanese

The most common word for "foreigner" in Japanese is gaijin, written with the characters for outside + person, although since this word has a slightly negative connotation you'll generally hear the softer-sounding gaikokujin -- outside-country-person -- spoken on the news. Foreigners serve many purposes here, teaching English or translating or working as fashion models or manufacturing goods in factories. Since native English speakers usually work as ESL teachers, the first impression most nihonjin have of non-Japanese is the English teacher who taught him to say "apple" and "banana." To the Japanese, we foreigners often come across as overly outgoing, and very emotional, always expressing our joy or dislike on the surface rather than holding it inside, as is more common here. That's part of the general character of gaijin, though, and if we weren't getting excited and going on about something, they'd probably ask us what was wrong. The Japanese have become quite comfortable with the fact that many gaijin are advanced anime otaku, and are no longer very surprised when they encounter a foreign visitor with extensive knowledge about obscure anime and manga.

Native English teachers provide the first impression of gaijin to most Japanese, and yes, this guy looks creepy

Monday, April 27, 2009

Fun with Japanese Sound Words

One aspect of the Japanese language that's fun to study is onomatopoeia, the words we use to describe the sounds all around us. Naturally, the Japanese have assigned unique words to the physical sounds in their world, for example a dog says wan wan! to the Japanese but woof woof! to us. Some other examples of these sound words are "twinkle twinkle" (kira kira), "drip drop" (potsun potsun) and the sound of rain pouring down (zaa zaa). Some of the sounds they think up can seem quite strange. For example, the "sound" of eyes looking left and right is kyoro kyoro, as in the popular line of bento boxes we sell, which is not something any English speaker would think a sound was needed for. The sound of snow falling has a word, too, shin shin (pronounced "sheen sheen"), which summons up pleasant images of whiteness outside a frosty window. There is a "sound of silence" in Japanese, which is shiiin ("sheen," with a lengthened vowel). When I make a joke that my kids don't think is funny, they'll usually make this sound to highlight how bad my joke was.

The many sound words used in Japanese are fun to learn.

Buddhism vs Shinto

There are many things that American houses have which their Japanese counterparts lack, and vice-versa. A Japanese home will generally have a recessed area by the front door for people to leave their shoes, hardwood floors with unusually steep stairs, and at least one washitsu or "Japanese room" with traditional tatami mats and paper doors and other cool things like that. Homes in America are different, with big ovens for baking (very rare in Japan), a garbage disposal for getting rid of uneaten food (not allowed here because rice would gum up the pipes), and central heating (unthinkable in this country where rooms are heated one at a time). Another thing you'll find in Japanese homes but not in most American ones is a butsudan (boo-tsoo-dahn), or Buddhist Altar, the centerpiece of Japanese family life, and afterlife, if you will. Every morning, my mother-in-law takes the first bowl of rice out of the rice cooker and offers it at the altar along with three sticks of incense, so so her mother and father know they're not forgotten. Strictly speaking, only the head of a household will have one of these altars; other family members such as children who have moved out will return to their "base home" to participate in family events at various times during the year, which binds the family together in ways that are difficult for Westerners to comprehend. To my unfamiliar eyes, the Buddhist altar in my house is very similar to the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a radio for talking with one's dead ancestors.

While Buddhist icons like temples or home altars focus attention on those who have gone on ahead, the other side of Japanese religious imagery is Shinto, which celebrates kami or spirits in natural objects like a mountain or a stream. While the austere imagery of Buddhism provides comfort during times of sadness such as funerals, Shinto ceremonies are happy and life-affirming: weddings, naming a new baby, breaking ground on a house to be built, praying for good luck on the New Year or carrying a mikoshi, a kind of portable shrine, around at the summer festivals. For cultural reasons that I can't quite understand, it's much more common for those of us who became interested in Japan through its popular culture to be more familiar with Shinto imagery than Buddhist. Whether you're talking about the manga stories of Rumiko Takahashi or watching the many anime characters who wear the now-famous garb of a Miko-san (Shrine Maiden), it's far more common for the themes found in Shinto to find their way to the minds of outsiders like us than Buddhist imagery. I wonder why that is?

A Buddhist Altar is a radio for talking with one's ancestors; some otaku have fun carrying a mikoshi in Akiba.