Friday, May 15, 2009

Tokyo as the Center of Japan

Japan is often said to be a "vertical" society, in which a given person has a higher or lower social level based on their status, age or number of years in an organization, a concept that takes some getting used to when coming from the U.S. Interestingly, there's a similar relationship between Tokyo and the rest of the country that seems to be a relic from Japan's past. Basically, Tokyo is by definition the "heart" of Japan by virtue of its being the designated capital, which is reflected in interesting linguistic ways. For example, all trains come in two types, nobori or "climbing" and kudari or "descending," and after a while I figured that this had to do with whether the train was going towards or away from Tokyo. Similarly, there are words like jokyo suru which means "to come to the capital," a concept I can't picture us making a special word for in English. "Standard Japanese" is defined as whatever people in Tokyo happen to speak, which is again quite different from the U.S., which has no official geographic linguistic center.

Tokyo is the center of Japan in more ways than are immediately apparent to the casual observer.

Interesting Japanese Foods: Takoyaki

Japan is home to many interesting foods, only a small number of which are generally known to the outside world. Like taiyaki, sweet bean paste cooked inside a shell shaped like a fish, great to eat in the winter (see a chocolate version here), or chawan-mushi, chicken and other good things steamed inside a heavenly egg custard, often served as a separate course in traditional Japanese meals. Another enigmatic food is takoyaki, especially popular in the Osaka region ever since it was invented in 1935. In stark contrast to the English word taco, tako is Japanese for octopus; to differentiate the crustacean from the Mexican food, the Japanese always use the plural word "tacos" (takosu) for referring to the latter, even if they're talking about just one taco. Takoyaki are basically fried balls of batter that contain a piece of cooked octopus meat inside, painted with a delicious sauce, which is great to eat piping hot while walking around a summer festival. While many wouldn't be too thrilled at the idea of eating octopus meat, it actually has no taste and is strangely satisfying to chew, and it's become one of my favorite foods. Once in rural Japan my wife and I happened across a takoyaki vendor who'd decided to call his little shop Tako Bell, which was such an unexpected thing to see we howled with laughter. If you're curious about this unique Japanese food, FritoLay has created a crunchy Takoyaki-flavored snack that we've posted today.

Takoyaki is a famous food in the Kansai region that I like.

Japanese People I Have Met

Before I came to Japan, I thought I knew pretty much what kinds of people I'd find here: lots of Japanese salaryman types riding the train to work, overstressed students struggling to get into university, and so on. This was 1991, when there were no blogs to provide "slice of life" information about Japan, and it seemed that every book on the subject was written by old-timers who came here after World War II and never left. I was naturally surprised to encounter Japanese people of every imaginable type here, which makes sense of course since I only had stereotypes to work from before. For example, I met a normal Japanese businessman who was an "airport otaku," able to discuss the features and history of just about every major airport in the world in great detail. Then there was the time some very average high school students I'd been teaching asked me to come and watch them dance. They were in a "rockabilly circle" (club) that dressed in extravagant 1950's era outfits and put on impromptu street performances -- it was really cool. Even the seemingly mild-mannered Jun, the J-List staff member who keeps our site stocked with interesting snacks and toys, surprised me: in his younger days, he traveled along the Silk Road through China, India, and Iran, and had perfected the art of eating with his fingers without making a big mess.

All things considered, I did not expect to meet Rockabilly fans when I came to Japan.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

English Words with Kanji

I wrote last time about an amusing marketing campaign by Georgia Coffee to sell canned coffee using the slogan "Yes, we can!" with the final word written in kanji. Say what -- a kanji character for an English word? While the general rule is that the katakana writing system is reserved for foreign names for people and places along with imported words like "bottle keep" (when you leave a bottle of bourbon you've purchased at your favorite bar with your name on it, trusting that no one else will drink it) or "skinship" (the Japanese word describing the important connection between a parent and child), some English words have been in use in Japan for so long they've been assigned honorary kanji, such as tobacco, coffee, or beer. This is an example of something called ateji, essentially assigning a pronunciation to characters that have a similar meaning. Sometimes the results are amusing -- for example, the characters for tobacco happen to be written with characters for "smoke" and "grass."

English kanji

My Son and the Coming Exam Test Hell

On Sunday my wife and son drove to his juku, or evening preparatory school (a.k.a. "cram school"), for a formal meeting with the teacher who oversees his studies there. Next year my son starts the third year of junior high, which is the beginning of juken hell as he prepares for the entrance exam to get into high school, and the meeting was to make a concrete study plan for the next 18 months. Japan's educational system is complex and difficult for Westerners to understand, but basically, compulsory education ends at junior high, making high school effectively optional, which creates competition for the best schools. Under Japan's meritocracy system, students who want to attend one of the top schools must study hard, and there's an entire ecosystem of large and small juku schools to help students reach their educational goals. My son is interested in engineering and has decided to shoot for the top boy's high school in our prefecture, a difficult goal which will mean many hours of studying on top of his normal schoolwork. It'll be hard for him, and also for me, since it means many months of doing almost no father-and-son stuff like playing catch or evening lightsaber battles. But it's all part of raising a kid in Japan.

Yoyogi Seminar is one of the largest "cram" schools in Japan.

Yahoo vs. Google: Which Female Users are More Sexy?

Women who use Yahoo vs. those who prefer Google -- which are sexier? That's a question posed by one ladies' magazine, which polled 600 female users of both websites about how they perceived themselves. While Yahoo's star may have been eclipsed by Google in the U.S. and Europe, the brand is still going strong here in Japan, where less-sophisticated users often associate the Yahoo website with "the Internet" in general, often not knowing there's anything beyond it. Yahoo just seems to "get" the Japanese market in a way that other companies have trouble emulating, and their market share for search in Japan stands at 51% compared with 39% for Google. The magazine's poll found that among female Googlers, 23.5 ranked themselves as "sexy" or "somewhat sexy" while just 9.6% of female users of Yahoo described themselves this way. The article went on to postulate that users of Google thought the service was kakko ii or "cool" because of its more technical approach to the web, while Yahoo Japan users thought less deeply about what tools they were using to get information.

Yahoo is still king of search in Japan, especially among females.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on Newsweek Japan and Job Interviews

My wife reads the Japanese version of Newsweek, and sometimes I thumb through it to see how it compares to the U.S. version, or the laughable "International" edition that just happens to have exactly one news story from each region it's sold in, e.g. India, Singapore, Japan, etc., whether or not there was any important news going on. Although Newsweek is published here in Japanese, the editors know their readers tend to be interested in English and international business, and I once came across an article on how to tackle an American-style job interview. The Japanese are used to treating English as if it were an exact science, with "one" right answer to a given question, e.g. the correct reply to "How are you?" is "Fine, thanks, and you?" These questions, however, would have been linguistic torture for Japanese ESL learners, with open-ended questions ("tell me about yourself"), requests that they accurately evaluate themselves ("what are your strengths or weaknesses?") and so on. This is the complete opposite of how job interviews are handled in Japan, where people looking for employment are expected to act in an extremely humble way, accurately representing your past work or educational history while dressing down what they're achieved in the past, and avoiding standing out from other applicants. If you don't wear this mantle of modesty during a job interview you certainly won't be hired in Japan.

The Japanese edition of Newsweek knows their readers are interested in English.

Interesting Social Observations Over a Bag of Chips

The Japanese, as I've often written, are a group-oriented people, and it's interesting to observe the subtle body language that goes back and forth when people get together. If you have a bag of interesting chips that you want to offer to friends, the correct way to do it is to open it "party-biraki" style, placing the bag with the seal facing upwards, then ripping the entire bag open so that the contents sit on the opened wrapping. This makes it convenient for everyone to take some of the chips, but it also helps your guests get past their enryo block. The Japanese have a tendency to avoid taking something that's offered, called enryo (translatable as restraint, reserve, or as a verb, to refrain from doing something), and it can be difficult to get people at a party to lighten up and have fun if they're so busy being polite to each other. By opening the bag so that the contents will go to waste if your guests don't eat, you give them an excuse to dig in.
The correct way to encourage Japanese guests to eat.

Famous English Phrases in Japan -- Yes, We [kan]!

For some reason, I'm able to recite the "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" part of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address address in Japanese. It's one of the most famous phrases in English, up there with the "I Have a Dream" speech, and since my students had to study it in their English classes, I picked it up while teaching them. Snippets of the Bible and of Shakespeare make their way into the Japanese language, too, and anyone who reads newspapers or magazines will be familiar with the local versions of "pearls before swine" or "frailty, thy name is woman," although they might be fuzzy on the source. The most famous English phrase in Japan is probably one you're not familiar with. It's "Boys, be ambitious," which was spoken by Professor Clarke, who taught English and agriculture at what would become Sapporo University in 1876. I have no idea why these words would become so well known here, but the Japanese of the day certainly took them to heart. The latest English phrase to become known by everyone in Japan is "Yes, we can!" and Georgia Coffee even made an advertisement for their canned coffee, substituting the kanji for "can" (kan) in the slogan.

(Although foreign loan words are written in katakana, there's a small subset that have been in use so long they have been given honorary kanji.)

Georgia Coffee came up with an amusing way to advertise their products using English.