Friday, June 05, 2009

How Japanese Name Endings Work

Have you ever wondered what all those suffixes added to the ends of Japanese names mean? They can be quite interesting, so I'll go through them for you here. First, -san is the basic name suffix that everyone is familiar with, and it indicates formality, like adding Mr. or Mrs. to a name in English. Used with the last name usually (e.g. Fujita-san), it can also be added to the first name (Tomo-san) to indicate some politeness while also showing a measure of familiarity. In business settings, companies are referred to collectively with -san, too, e.g. J-List-san. Two other common name suffixes, -chan and -kun, are used when talking to girls and boys who are younger than the speaker (e.g. Hanako-chan and Taro-kun), or when you're close to the individual. Note that males adding -chan to a girl's name in some situations can be seen as sexist and rude. In Japanese companies or in school settings, there are strict differences between upperclassmen/superiors (senpai) and underclassmen/juniors (kohai), and I can generally tell the relative ages of members of a group by listening to who is more polite to whom. Some other name prefixes that are used often include -sensei (an honorary suffix for teachers, doctors, politicians and -- really -- certified public accountants); -senshu (athletes, e.g. Ishikawa-senshu when referring to golfer Ryo Ishikawa); and -anaunsah (announcer), a name suffix for newscasters.

The way name suffixes are used in Japan is incredibly complex.

What part of San Diego is your family grave located in?

The other day my wife asked an unexpected question: "What part of San Diego is your family grave located in?" I blinked at her ability to surprise me even after 15 years together, and told her we didn't really have one. In Japan, of course, this would be unthinkable, as the concept of a "family" is forever anchored to the family grave, where the ashes and bones of your loved ones will be stored in ceramic jars after they die. My wife's family grave is located in a small plot with twenty other gravestones near our house, and on certain days of the year such as the Obon Buddhist holidays or the meinichi (death anniversary) of her grandmother, she'll visit the grave and bring her departed family members up to speed on what we're all doing, while washing the gravestone and lighting some incense. When a man or woman gets married and moves into their spouse's home, they're removing themselves from their parents' official family registry and joining the registry of their spouse, by extension declaring that they're going to enter the grave of the new family when they die. Of course, graves can be incredibly expensive, especially the closer you get to Tokyo, which has spurred the creation of "grave mansions," multi-level apartment buildings that make it easy to visit your loved ones just by riding the elevator up a few floors. The word for grave in Japanese is haka, but like many solemn Buddhist-related words it's nearly always used with the honorific o on the front (e.g. ohaka).

The gravestone is a central part of defining the family in Japan.

The True Story of Afro Samurai

It's fun to dig around Japanese history for interesting tidbits to discover. Like William Adams, the Englishman who arrived in Japan with a Dutch ship in the year 1600 and who was befriended by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the third of Japan's three great unifiers. Adams' arrival was good timing for Tokugawa, who used the 19 cannon on the ship to win the Battle of Sekigahara, the watershed victory that made him the Shogun (military general) of all Japan and ushered in the 265 years of peace known as the Edo Period. In return, Adams was made a daimyo, or samurai lord, and given a fief with retainers in present-day Yokohama, which is about as awesome as it gets for a gaijin in Japan. But Adams wasn't the first foreigner to attain the status of samurai. In 1581 Nobunaga Oda, the first of the above three unifiers, met a black slave traveling with an Italian Jesuit. Since Nobunaga loved unique things from foreign countries, he took an intense interest in the man, giving him name of Yasuke and making him a retainer. As a samurai, Yasuke served Nobunaga faithfully, and when his lord was attacked by a turncoat general at Honnoji Temple in Kyoto, Yasuke went to assist Nobunaga's son, and fought very bravely. He was eventually captured and turned over to the Jesuits, and no further mention is made of him after that. Who would've thought that Afro Samurai was based on a true story?

(Of course, you can read the novel Shogun to get a slightly shifted but interesting look at the Englishman who became a Samurai lord.)

Did you know that Afro Samurai was based on a true story?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Unexpected Benefits for Learning Japanese

The Japanese system of phonology is a unique one based on syllables, for example allowing for the sounds ka, ki, ku, ke and ko to be expressed, but not 'k' by itself. This limited phonetic system is the primary reason Japanese often have thick accents when speaking foreign languages, since you can't easily fit the subtleties of English or French through a filter with only thirteen consonants and five phonetic vowels. This linguistic deficiency contains some unexpected benefits for foreigners learning the language, however, The simpler phonetic system means fewer difficult sounds to master, and no intonation to mess with at all. In addition, there's no confusion about how to pronounce a given word as long as you know the kana reading. For example, many anime fans might debate about the correct pronunciation for Evangelion, whether the 'g' in the middle is hard or soft, but katakana never lies, and tells us that the 'g' is indeed hard, and the show should be pronounced evan-GEH-lion. As I often write, the best way to learn Japanese is always using a textbook that starts you off memorizing words in real hiragana rather than romanized Japanese, since the brain tries to apply linguistic rules like 'silent e' to Japanese written with the Roman alphabet. which harms your early pronunciation. (The Genki textbook series or the White Rabbit kanji flashcards that we sell are great examples of study tools that force you to read hiragana and katakana right from the start).
How do you pronounce Evangelion?

Summer Time is Jinbei Time

Summer is here, which means attending festivals, shooting off fireworks with the kids, drinking mugi-cha (barley tea) and engaging in "air-con wars" with my wife, who won't let me turn on the air conditioning until the room is hot enough to melt lead. It also means I can change to my preferred sleep-wear of choice, my jinbei, which is essentially a light Japanese cotton kimono worn after getting out of the bath or for sleeping in, or to events like the neighborhood festival. The other day I came out of the bedroom wearing my jinbei to find my Japanese family standing there, of course wearing normal yofuku ("Western clothing"), i.e. jeans, T-shirts and so on. because they'd been up for a few hours already. We all just stood there for a few seconds contemplating the irony of the gaijin who was dressed like a samurai and the Japanese wearing normal clothes, and then laughed. By the way, we've gotten some of these cool jinbei pajamas in stock if you'd like to check them out.

Summer is the season for wearing a jinbei.

Gaijin in Japan: an Overview

Although the average Japanese person on the street might think there are a lot of foreigners living and working in Japan, in reality the number is tiny, just 1.63% of the overall population here. This number, which includes Japan-born Koreans and Chinese who choose not to take Japanese citizenship for cultural reasons, compares to 8% foreign-born residents in the U.K., 9% for Germany, 11% for the U.S. and 13% for the Netherlands. Although the number of foreign barbarians in Japan may be low, the Japanese never seem to get used to us, and it's fun to observe the confusion that arises when the two worlds intersect. First of all, all Westerners are assumed to be American, which is the country the Japanese are most familiar with; similarly, Japanese expect that all gaijin can speak English. Last month I met a guy from Italy who didn't speak my language, so we stood there chatting in Japanese about various topics, a sight that provided great amusement to the Japanese people walking past us. Although I do still occasionally receive compliments from older Japanese on my use of chopsticks, for the most part people have come to terms with the idea that foreigners will do things like know how to order sushi in Japanese or have vast knowledge about obscure topics. For some reason, I've met quite a few people who were surprised when they heard I've married a local girl and have Japanese kids going to normal schools, despite having been here for 18 years.

Gaijin always seem to confused the poor Japanese.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Linguistic Quirks of Japanese

Each language is special, with unique features that may cause confusion for speakers of other languages. For example, Romance languages like Spanish and French have noun genders, forcing English speakers to puzzle over why a pen is feminine while a pencil is masculine. Although Japanese do consider it a point of pride to think of their language as being especially hard to learn, I am convinced that no language is intrinsically more or less difficult than all the others. Still, there are some barriers to learning Japanese that must be overcome, starting with the two syllable-based writing systems, hiragana (the wavy looking one) and katakana (the boxy, masculine looking one), which you can tackle by memorizing the shapes and what sound they make (we can help). Kanji is also no small challenge unless you happen to come from China, although you'd be surprised how much you can read with just a few hundred characters under your belt after a year or two of study. Grammatically there are some confusing areas, such as having to get used to two different verbs for to be (in a place), aru (ah-ROO) for inanimate objects like a car or building, and iru (ee-ROO) for anything that's alive, like people or animals. Whenever you learn something new, it's important to test it to find the limitations on that new piece of information so your brain can internalize it, and I remember bugging my sensei about which verb was correct for objects like zombies, cyborgs, freshly-killed corpses and Venus Fly-Traps.

Is a Venus Fly Trap animate or inanimate? I'm actually still not sure which verb to use.

Newest Hair Trend from Tokyo

Besides promoting world peace through shared popular culture and Hello Kitty bento boxes, I consider it my mission to try to help our readers categorize and understand this wonderful country called Japan as best I can. This can be a challenge since it is such a chaotic place, and we're never sure what new and interesting thing will come along next. The newest trend among fashionable females is called "mori hair," from the Japanese word moru, meaning to pile on (as in, to pile food onto a plate), and it describes women with hair that's lifted off the head so that it looks thick and luxurious. While the original gyaru-esque fashion style can be said to have gotten its start with the rise of J-POP diva Namie Amuro and her "Amullers" (that is, Amuro with -ers on the end, referring to the generation of girls who copied her style), this more refined look takes its cues from Japan's "cabaret clubs," hostess bars where extremely glamorous women will pour drinks for men, and is related to the Little Devil Ageha school of Tokyo street fashion. Of course, you can follow these and other hot trends in Tokyo by checking out the fashion magazines that J-List sells by convenient revolving subscription. Since you never have to pay in advance for the issues (although you have that option if you want), you can cancel or change magazines at any time. Individual issues are often available too.

"Cele-up" your look with mori-hair, which means to act more like a celebrity.

Himiko, Ancient Queen of Japan

Japan's archeology world is buzzing after evidence that an ancient burial mound near Nara may have contained Queen Himiko, the legendary early ruler of Japan. According to Chinese records including the famous Legend of Three Kingdoms, Himiko was the queen of a land called Yamatai in the nation of Wa (the oldest Chinese name for Japan), a mysterious sorceress who could use magic to foretell the future, and who was waited on by 1,000 female attendants, and one male one. She's celebrated in popular culture in many ways today, including an anime and manga series by OH! Great. Now a 280-meter "keyhole type" burial mound has been successfully dated to around the year 248 A.D., the year of Himiko's death, indicating that it may have been the actual resting place for the legendary ruler. Sadly, it's like likely that we'll never know for sure if the burial mound did contain Himiko or not. The exact location of Yamatai isn't known, and scholars debate whether it was located near Nara or instead in the Kyushu area, with each region loudly insisting that it is the location of the ancient kingdom, no doubt so they can sell little boxes of Himiko-themed cakes to tourists. The city of Saga, in Kyushu, even went so far as to create a replica of a 3rd-century Japanese village for visitors to explore, in order to cement its claim as the birthplace of culture in Japan in the minds of people.

Himiko is the legendary early ruler of Japan during the Yayoi Period.