Friday, June 12, 2009

Striking a Balance as a Gaijin in Japan

Every gaijin who decides to put down more permanent roots in Japan needs to strike a balance with his surroundings. Some, such as ESL teacher types who naturally speak English in their day jobs, or others who don't plan on spending more than a year or so here, might reasonably be content with learning only enough Japanese to get around town and make friends. Other newcomers to the country might embrace the language more formally, perhaps setting using the Japanese Language Proficiency Test held in December as a goal to help motivate themselves. Some foreigners get into life here so much that they "lose their gaijinity" as it were, like an American friend of mine who reads a Japanese newspaper every morning and files his own Japanese taxes even though he has a perfectly good J-wife who could do it for him. Sometimes it can go in the opposite direction, like another friend of mine who's a full professor at a university in Kyushu, yet he actively avoids using perfect polite Japanese with the other teachers to maintain a "comfort buffer" of lowered expectations around him. Personally, I am happy being an American expat, able to speak the language and interact with anyone I need to, but always being "me" at the end of the day.

This American guy was made the head of his volunteer fire department. Congratulations, dude!

Update on the Japanese Jury System

Japan's judicial world is undergoing big changes as the country prepares to introduce a "citizen juror" system in which guilt and sentencing of certain serious crimes will be carried out with the assistance of a panel of six randomly-chosen citizens. This is a huge change because Japan hasn't had a tradition of juries since before World War II, and the only experience the average person has with this "lay judge" system is likely from popular American TV shows. While it certainly seems reasonable to have a person judged by a jury of his peers rather than the current system of three professional judges, who may cynically believe they've "heard it all before," I'm not sure if the Japanese are ready for this new system. While people here may be famous for their group-oriented thinking, raising the specter of a juror changing their decision to go along with others rather than because it reflects their own beliefs, a larger problem might be the tendency of some Japanese to be extremely stubborn, going against the group just to be contrarian, like that last farmer who still refuses to sell his land to the Narita Airport Authority after thirty years despite the fact that they've already built the airport. (This type of frustrating person is called amano-jaku. Maybe you have one of these people at work?) Still, changes to Japan's legal system are certainly called for, as illustrated by the recent release of a former bus driver who was imprisoned for 17 years for a murder which a recent DNA re-test proves he didn't commit.

Japan is introducing a trial by jury system, which will be a bit of a challenge for people.

Cute Car Culture from Japan

In Japan, there are two kinds of cars, normal-sized ones and the super-small kei cars, defined as vehicles with engines that are 660 cc in size or smaller, which always feature a yellow license plate so you can tell them apart. Although they aren't as powerful, these cars get better gas mileage and also enjoy various tax savings from the government. While one doesn't usually expect these smaller, more economical cars to also be kakko ii (cool, good style), more and more I'm seeing manufacturers add interesting features and tweak their designs so they appeal to hip young people, with boxy, wagon-style lines and sporty interiors. I've even seen some adventurous Japanese converting kei-style vans into a serviceable "camping car" (RV) for their family, which sounds like a lot of fun. Still, no matter how long I live in Japan, I can't get used to the sight of these tiny kei vehicles being used for police cars, which are called mini-pato, for miniature patrol cars. They look so much like children's toys, I have to have a giggle every time I see one driving around.

I am always amused when I see a mini-pato, or miniature police car.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kinben: the Hardworking Japanese

One of my favorite Japanese words is kinben (keen-ben), which means industrious, diligent, and studious. Just as America has always had the Protestant Work Ethic to serve as a model for what hardworking people should aspire to, Japan values diligence and hard work as excellent traits for a person to adopt. By and large, this diligence is usually measured in terms of time rather than raw effort. Doing an hour or two of overtime each day is probably the norm at most Japanese companies, where employees show their effort to their colleagues and boss in a unit that everyone can easily recognize, time. The pinnacle of the kinben concept of hard work is the tetsuya, which means working all night in order to get the important project finished. If an employee in Japan pulls an all-nighter to get his important work done, he'll probably gain a lot of respect from his boss and coworkers. This Japanese tradition of working and studying hard has rubbed off on my son, and I'm not surprised to see him cracking the books at his study desk until 11 pm or later, something that would have been unthinkable for me until I got to university

If you want to earn the respect of your co-workers, work all night long on a project.

Things To Do in Tokyo

Tokyo is the sprawling capital of Japan, so large that it's more like a prefecture than a unified entity, made up of 23 individual city-like wards which are similar to New York's burroughs. Just as the various regions of Japan work hard to associate themselves with something interesting so tourists will have an excuse to go there -- for example, there's a town in Shizuoka famous for wasabi flavored soft-serve ice cream -- different parts of Tokyo specialize in different kinds of products. Everyone knows that you can find anime goods and maid cafes in in Akihabara, as well as all the latest electronic goodies. The popularity of the rock band anime K-On! has brought a boom in musical instrument sales, with all the shops in Ochanomizu getting on the bandwagon. Looking for used books? Head to the Kanda area and you'll find dozens of shops that Read or Die bibliophile Yomiko Readman would love, some selling books that are hundreds of years old. If Japanese dolls is your thing then Asakusa-bashi is where you want to go, and to browse interesting cookware, including knives, bowls and wax sushi replicas , then take the train to Kappa Kitchen Town in the Kappabashi region of Tokyo. There is even a section famous for ramen fans (Ogikubo), with many famous shops for you to explore next time you're in Tokyo.

Find delicious-looking wax food replicas in Kappa Kitchen Town.

"Ranking" Mania in Japan

For some reason, the Japanese love rankingu (ranking), and there are TV shows that go out of their way to find interesting topics and organize them into ordered lists for you. For example, a variety show might sample all major brands of sausages sold in supermarkets then report on which were the most delicious, do a report on Haruki Murakami's runaway best-selling novel IQ94, and then rank the top brands of bottled green tea or the most popular pet names this year. There's even a show called "Father's Wideshow Study" that sums up the important news from the past week in order of how many hours each subject was reported on by the media, so that busy salarmen who don't have time to watch the news every night can keep up with current events. This love of ranking isn't new, and the Japanese have a long tradition of listing the "three best" of a given topic, such as the three most beautiful views in Japan (nihon sankei), which are the Japanese pines of Matsushima, the view from the top of Mt. Amanohashidate along the Sea of Japan, and the floating Japanese arch at Miyajima near Hiroshima. There's also an official ranking of the three most beautiful Japanese gardens, with the top spot going to Kenrokuen Park in Kanazawa Prefecture, an amazing place to visit.

Kenrokuen is ranked as the most beautiful garden in Japan.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Easy Kanji Anyone Can Read

Kanji are the mysterious Chinese pictographs used in China, Japan, and to a limited extent, in South Korea. While they can seem like meaningless chicken scratches at first, they're actually a well organized complex system for communicating meaning. There are several fundamental ways that kanji are constructed, the most common being organized by radical, where similar words are grouped according to their meaning. For example, the characters for "read" "speak" and "language" all have a left section that looks like a stack of books, and words related to the weather such as "snow" "lightning" and "cloud" all incorporate the character for "rain" into them. When you look up a word using a kanji dictionary, searching for the radical first is a quick way to find the character you need to look up. Despite the complex structure of kanji, there are some characters that are made in such a way that their meaning are immediately communicated, even to beginners. Words like the kanji for the numbers for 1, 2 and 3 are easy, as are some basic words like mountain (yama). The character for "old" (furui) looks like a little Western grave stone, while the kanji for "meat" (niku) is a little rib cage. One of the simplest characters is ki (tree), which can become hayashi (woods) if you draw it twice, or mori (forest) if you draw three of them. Easy as pie!

School Culture Festival

My son is in the second year of junior high, so it's time for us to start thinking about what high school he'll be attending. Unlike in the U.S., Japan's compulsory education ends with junior high, making high school an optional choice, not unlike university. Different high schools cater to different types of students -- for example, there are high schools that focus on sending students to top-ranked universities, commercial high schools that teach practical job skills, agricultural high schools for students who'll take over the family farm someday, and at least one school dedicated to teaching students to get jobs as commercial airline pilots later in life. Yesterday we attended the bunka-sai (culture festival) of a school my son is considering, the highest-ranked boy's high school in our prefecture. We roamed the halls, checking out the displays the various clubs had made for us, like the Math Club, which had prizes if you could solve problems they'd posted, or the Model Railroad Research Club, which had created a miniature Japanese city for trains to zoom around. (For some reason, really smart students in Japan always seem to be train otaku.) As I roamed, I went into stealth mode, pretending not to speak Japanese so I could judge the English ability of the students at the school, and most of them could at least talk to me when I asked them questions. The culture festival wasn't exactly moe moe kyun (to use my favorite phrase from K-On) due to the school being all-boy's, but it was fun to be able to experience an anime-style "school festival" episode in my own life just the same.

I got to experience a real-live "school festival" although it wasn't quite as cool as this.

Honorific "O" Revisited

I wrote last time about how some words related to Buddhism customarily receive the honorific o in front, for example otera (temple) or ohaka (grave). This prefix (which is sometimes used as go) is added to certain Japanese words to highlight their importance, which is done both in everyday life as well as more formal situations. Words like money (okane), relationships like mother or grandmother (okaasan, obaasan), and some everyday comforts (oyu boiling water, ofuro hot steaming bath, gohan rice), are usually included in this category. While words having to do with death or Buddhism tend to take the honorific prefix, Shinto terms usually don't, although this is one of those things that the Japanese would never notice about their own language. Adding the honorific o sort of "softens" the word to the ear -- for example, calling someone stupid (baka) or fat (debu) might be quite insulting, but a woman might use obaka or odebu as a cute-sounding term of endearment referring to her husband or child. Words related to children or babies nearly always take the prefix, a fact which confused me when my son was born and I suddenly had to learn to speak "baby talk" in Japanese.

Cool stuff like Buddhist temples get the honorific o added before their names.