Saturday, July 04, 2009

All About Natto

We're done with the first day of Anime Expo, and have spent the day meeting and greetings thousands of J-List fans, as well as giving our packed dating-sim game panel. We're tired, but it's a good kind of tired. If you'll be at the convention, we hope you'll swing by booth 825 and check out the awesome anime toys, bento boxes, T-shirts, manga and other products we've got for you. Just look for the really tall J-List flags in the room.

The fermented soybeans known as natto (NAT-toh) are one of the most famous foods in Japan, enjoyed throughout the country, although people from Osaka and most gaijin dislike it, including this one. Eaten by a wide swath of Japanese from children to the elderly and everyone in between, the sticky beans are usually mixed with yellow mustard and eaten over white rice. There are many legends about how natto was first discovered, but the most famous seems to be that in the year 1083 the general Yoshiie Minamoto was on campaign with 100,000 troops near a town called Mito, and stopped at an inn to rest. Some soybeans had been steamed and wrapped in straw for the horses to eat, and these fermented naturally while sitting on the floor of the stable. Some of the soldiers tried the beans and liked the taste, so they offered some to their lord, who loved it, which is where the name (which means "offered beans") comes from. If you're "natto curious" and would like to see what all the fuss is about, we've got an awesome item for you: authentic "drop" natto-flavored candies. Like the popular ramen, soba and and other traditional foods you can eat in candy form on J-List, these traditional Sakuma Drop-like candies taste just like the real thing.

Natto, one of the most enigmatic foods from Japan.

Lessons Learned on Trains in Japan

When I first got to Japan, I was determined to get out and see the country, but it was difficult since it can be costly to travel here and I was a "bimbo" ESL teacher. (Through a linguistic accident, binbo happens to mean "poor" or "penniless" in Japanese, making it mildly fun to start conversations with Japanese girls by asking, "Are you bimbo?" and watching them nod yes.) Then I found out about the Youth 18 Ticket, a special ticket JR sells that basically lets you go anywhere on a JR line for a day for $24, as long as you don't mind taking only the local, slow trains (i.e. no Shinkansen). It's an interesting way to travel since it's cheap, completely removed from the "touristy" side of the country, and you'll be guaranteed to see a side of the country you couldn't easily see otherwise. Of course, this method of traveling around Japan is only recommended to people who have lots of time but very little money, since it took me 14 hours to get to Osaka from Tokyo. The better way to get around is a JR Rail Pass that lets you use all the fast trains, which is unfortunately unavailable to anyone living inside Japan.
Taking my slow train trip to Osaka way I learned about the concept of hito to me, the social engine at work that makes Japanese society seem so uniform to outsiders. It works like this: basically, people usually avoid doing something that will stand out as strange. For my long train journey I'd brought a small folding chair with me, so I'd have a seat in case one of the trains I'd be taking was crowded. However, I soon learned that it was too embarrassing to be the only one sitting on a little folding chair, and I was unable to bring myself to cross that line. I'm a Mazda Miata fan, and have a car in San Diego and one in Japan. While I love driving my "open car" in San Diego even in February, it takes too much courage to be the only gaijin in my city driving with the top down in the winter.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Studying Japanese and What To Avoid

One of the first words anyone studying Japanese learns is honto, which means "really" or "truly," and whenever a gaijin uses this word I can get an idea of how they studied Japanese. The correct pronunciation is HONE-toh, which is not difficult to get down if you started studying Japanese using a course that forced you to read everything in hiragana from the beginning (like the Genki books or the excellent flashcards from White Rabbit that we sell); but if the person says it using the English rules of pronunciation, producing something like HAWN-toh, I can tell they either learned using a romaji (romanized Japanese) textbook or learned informally, picking up words and phrases here and there. The problem is that reading a Japanese word written in the English alphabet creates problems as the brain tries to apply rules like 'silent e' to what it's seeing, which ends up making your pronunciation less correct. Another word that foreigners often get slightly wrong is man, the unit for 10,000, which pronounced like mahn, and not like the opposite of woman. Bottom line, when learning Japanese, it's best to get started on the right foot.

Bowing Culture in Japan Revisited

Bowing is an important form of social communication in Japan. Whether it's a short sumimasen accompanied by a brief lowering of the head at someone for bringing you a cup of coffee (which essentially means "sorry for inconveniencing you" in this case, even though we'd just say "thank you" in English in the same situation), or a gomen nasai said with a deeper bow for communicating a more serious apology, Japan's culture of bowing is interesting to observe. The ultimate form of a bowing is the dogeza, when a person places their body on the lowest level possible, literally touching their face to the ground. This is done in many cases to ask for forgiveness for something, but also to make an important request of someone. In ToraDora, Ryuji is taken aback when Minori suddenly prostrates herself in front of him, asking that he take good care of her friend Taiga. She had gotten the mistaken idea that the two of them were dating, and she wanted to beg of Ryuji that he make Taiga happy.

Different Customs in Japan

The Japanese do some strange things, at least from the viewpoint of this particular foreigner. In the U.S. you'd never open someone's front door and walk in without being invited, but it's quite common in Japan for someone to open the door and walk in to the genkan (the low area where you leave your shoes) and ask in a loud voice if anyone is home -- no one thinks anything of it, since that part of the house is officially considered part of the outside. In the U.S. there are certain subjects you avoid out of politeness, such as religion, why a married couple doesn't have kids, or how much an expensive car or home cost. In Japan, however, some of these topics seem quite neutral and might come up during small talk. Then there's that odd custom of bringing up a person's weight gain as a part of casual conversation, which you never do in the U.S. I can't count the number of times I've met a business associate in Tokyo and have the conversation start out with, Peter-san, sukoshi futotta? (Peter, have you put on some weight?).

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Vagueness of Words

Hello from beautiful San Diego! I've made the hop from Japan to my hometown, a journey of about 24 hours door-to-door. As usual, it's great to be back home, where throwing back a Coors while eating Triscuit crackers feels downright exotic since it's new and fresh to me. Well, on with today's update...
I often write about how the Japanese language is "about," an English word the Japanese use as an adjective to mean vague or imprecise. For example, the subject is often left off of Japanese sentences when the meaning is clear from the context, which creates the potential for misunderstandings in a love comedy anime series when a character confesses his love for another character by saying suki (lit. [I] like [whatever]) but must then pretend he was really saying he liked something completely different, like the octopus-shaped sausages in his bento. In addition to this built-in linguistic vagueness, there's a whole class of complex Japanese words that seem to defy easy definition. Like the concept of wabi-sabi I wrote about recently, the "elegant refinement of simplicity" which is used to describe everything from the austere beauty of a tea garden to dilapidated buildings from the Showa Period. Or giri and ninjo, twin words that roughly describe the sense of duty a person has towards his group and the conflicting desire to treat others with kindness and humanity even if it goes against one's duty. These terms are bandied about quite a lot in Japan, yet most people probably couldn't define very well if asked to do so.

Brain Death Update in Japan

Japan has two health insurance systems: shakai hoken (best translatable as "society-person insurance") which covers employees in larger companies, and kokumin hoken or "citizen's insurance," available to employees of smaller companies as well as the self-employed. Each system requires monthly premiums based on income and covers 70% of health care costs, as well as 100% for certain groups such as children under 5. The other day I got a a new insurance card with an interesting feature: a place to sign on the back if I agree that my organs can be harvested if I'm ever declared to be brain dead. This is part of a new movement to update Japan's outdated definition of death, finally allowing for people to specify themselves as organ donors and providing guidelines for declaring when a person can be removed from life support in accordance with their wishes. Lawmakers recently revised an asinine law that prohibited anyone under the age of 13 from participating in any organ transplant operations, which required that all patients with these needs travel outside of Japan to seek care, or die.

Japan has been trying to revise its laws governing brain death.


On Food Culture and Slurping Sounds

Sometimes there are some interesting differences between East and West that can surprise you. I wrote recently that you're actually expected to make loud slurping noises when eating any kind of Japanese soba or udon noodles, and if you don't make these noises you might get amused comments about how quietly you eat. While slurping of Japanese noodles is okay, it's the height of bad form to eat spaghetti in this manner, as I've found out to my great embarrassment. Although the food itself is very similar, there's an invisible line divind the food culture of East and West that's quite invisible to foreign visitors. Another example: it's perfectly okay to pick up your bowl of miso soup and drink it as if drinking from a cup, again with the slurping noises, but a Western-style soup like ministrone should be eaten with neat Western manners.