Friday, July 10, 2009

Yippie Kay-Yay Mother Facker

When I was an ESL teacher, I worked hard to find innovative ways to teach my students, which was always a challenge. I had a small treasure trove of English textbooks and workbooks and games I'd play with my students. Occasionally I'd rent a movie and watch it with some more advanced students, coming up with some exercises to help them pick up vocabulary or useful phrases from the film. One day I rented the movie Die Hard, which they'd asked to see, and we watched it together with the Japanese subtitles. I hadn't realized the number of swear words that were present in the film, and before I knew it I was teaching a lesson on the various nuances of the "F" word to my students. And yet, it's funny how neutral such words can become when you're outside an English speaking country -- most Japanese know a few English swear words, but they have no teeth in Japan.

America, Japan and Breakfast

Whenever I come to the U.S., my mind becomes a flurry of activity as I notice things that are different between my home country and Japan and make mental notes for future J-List updates. It can get quite annoying for my family when I suddenly pull out my iPhone and start pecking away with no warning, wanting to capture some new observation. One thought that recently occurred to me was, Americans really know how to do breakfast well. From Denny's with their late-night Grand Slam menu to chains like the International House of Pancakes to The Pantry, the delightful Los Angeles diner we ate at during Anime Expo, which apparently hasn't closed since 1923, I've eaten a year's worth of satisfying breakfasts since I got here. Japan's idea of the first meal of the day usually consists of white rice, nori seaweed, fried salmon, miso soup and perhaps some natto to top it all off with. It's certainly certainly healthy, just not always as satisfying as what I've been sampling here in the U.S. (For the record, they do have Denny's in Japan, but there's nary a breakfast item on the menu.)

Understanding Japan Through First and Second Pronouns

In the book Startide Rising by David Brin, humans have bio-engineered dolphins to be intelligent, and modified their spaceships so dolphin crews can work alongside humans in space. In the book, one dolphin remarks how amusing it is that humans bother to hide their feelings from members of the opposite sex; the sonar capabilities of dolphins allow them to see the internal changes in other dolphins and tell if one is interested in them physically, so there are never any secrets about who likes who. It was an interesting concept, and one that I sometimes think about in the context of Japan. In Japanese, people use different first- and second-person pronouns depending on how they perceive themselves and others, which sometimes betrays their intentions and their insecurities. For the pronoun "I" you could choose from watashi (formal, used more often by women), boku (semi-polite, usually used by younger males), and ore (OH-reh, mainly used by "manly" men); words for "you" include anata (formal, used by women more often than men); kimi (familiar, used by guys to their girlfriends or by anyone talking to a younger person); and omae (oh-MAH-eh, again, a "macho" sounding word generally used by males). This last word is especially interesting since it basically asserts the superiority of the speaker over the person he's addressing, a concept that doesn't exist in English. When a man uses the word omae to a female he's in a relationship with, the implication is that the girl "belongs to" him in a romantic sense, but a male using the word in other situations might indicate wishful thinking about how he wants others to view him. By paying attention to what pronouns people use, you can catch which guys are trying to act tougher than they feel and which girls are pretending to be more feminine than they are.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Michael Jackson, Japan and "The Way We Pretend Things to Be"

One of the invisible pillars of Japanese society is tatemae (tah-tay-MAH-eh), literally meaning fa├žade but in actual use, "the way we pretend things are, even though we know they're not"; the word is usually paired with honne (HOHN-neh), which means the way things really are, or a person's real intentions. I learned about these concepts during my brief career as a city employee when I served as the Facilitator of Internationalization, doing things like translating documents for the mayor and helping out foreigners who couldn't speak Japanese. On the surface, I was in charge of coming up with new ways to serve the foreign community of our city, yet every suggestion I put forth to the bureaucracy was declined with a polite so desu ne, a phrase which literally means "yes, that's so" but which appears to carry the nuance of "forget it, silly gaijin," too. Of course, Japan isn't the only country to wear different faces for different situations. During the love-fest surrounding the death of King of Pop Michael Jackson by the media that did nothing but tear him down at every opportunity while he was alive, I'm reminded that America, too, has its tatemae and its honne at times. Anyway, Michael, thanks for all the fun memories over the years!

My First Dajare Joke

My first Japanese textbook was Foundations of Japanese Language by Soga, a book which I'm thankful for now but which was frustrating to use at the time, teaching us the term for the Chinese Zodiac before useful words like "man" or "woman." In one of the first chapters it explained how kanji characters often have hiragana written beside them to show how to pronounce them, which are known as furigana, lit. "attached kana." Since the prefix furi sounds like the English word "hurry," the textbook author went out of his way to describe how you could think of furigana as "hurry-gana" for people in too much of a hurry to look up the proper reading for the character in a dictionary. I didn't know at it at the time, but this was my first exposure to the silly category of joke known as dajare (dah-jah-reh), a bad kind of pun that middle-aged Japanese men are especially known to make. Now it's my turn to make bad jokes in Japanese, and I'm quite good at it (which is to say, my Japanese jokes are quite bad).

Japan's Most Loyal Dog: Hachiko!

Do you know the story of Japan's most famous dog? His name was Hachi, an Akita dog who was owned by a university professor in the 1920's in Tokyo. Every day, Hachi accompanied the professor to Shibuya Station, and in the evenings, the man would come back to find the dog waiting faithfully, a happy expression on his face. This continued for years, until one day, the man died suddenly while away from home. Loyal Hachi waited for his master to return for ten years, wagging his tail in front of the station every afternoon until he, too, eventually died. Tokyo residents erected a bronze statue in Hachi's memory, which would forever represent the loyalty of the dog in the minds of citizens, er, until it had to be melted down during World War II. But it was replaced after the war ended, and is now one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. Richard Gere is in Tokyo right now to promote the opening of his new film, Hachi: A Dog's Story, a full-blown Hollywood film about Japan's most famous dog. (Hachi is better known by the name of Hachiko, the koh suffix being used for people or animals who we're very close to.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Going from Japan to the U.S. and Back Again

Because I'm fortunate enough to flit back and forth between the U.S. and Japan several times a year, I get to enjoy the best of both sides of the Pacific. I've lived in Japan so long that there's always some reverse culture shock waiting for me when I go home again. For example, after getting used to the smaller but quite adequate portions served in Japan, some of the food amounts in America really floor me. In Japanese restaurants, you nearly always pay for your meal at the cash register as you leave, but in the U.S. you usually ask for the check and pay at your table -- I sometimes have to think deeply to figure how which to do. Although Japan has been getting rid of more places where smoking is permitted, it's still okay to smoke in most restaurants. Forgetting where I was, I once strode into a Denny's in San Diego and asked to be seated in the non-smoking section, receiving a funny look from the employee, since all the seats are non-smoking in California. Reorienting myself to driving on the right side of the street, instead of on the left as in Japan, is not as difficult as you might imagine, despite the fact that I am mildly dyslexic. The trick is, no matter what country you're driving, you should be closer to the center of the road than the passenger seat.

Japanese Girls and the Kawaii Things That They Do

I'm big fan of Japanese girls and the kawaii things they do, and when I was a teacher, I loved observing the never ending parade of attractive female students I had. In Japan it's supposedly bad manners for a girl to laugh while showing her teeth, and the way they cover their mouth when laughing really starts to look cute to a guy after a while. Then there's the two-handed "bye-bye" wave that girls will do amongst themselves when parting, which is fun to watch, if a little bizarre. But the cutest thing I've ever seen a girl do is get embarrassed about something, then try to pull her bangs forward as if she could hide her red face underneath her hair. While I think the unique mannerisms of Japanese girls are kind of cool, not everyone agrees, and the derogatory word for girls who act like super-cute children to push the emotional buttons of males is burikko (boo-REE-kko), lit. "pretending girl." The culture of acting to cute is raised to a science in magazines like Bomb or in Japan's idol world, and I'm quite powerless to resist their magic.

Japan has Overly Peaceful

Another year, another Anime Expo. As usual, this year was a blast, with a bazillion J-List fans and customers (and more than a few of my Twitter followers) coming by to say hi. We sold a ton of T-shirts, Totoro plush toys and H-games, and I scored the autographs of all the members of Morning Musume on our spiffy new J-List printed bags. See everyone next year!
Japan is a strange and wonderful place, and you never know what will become popular next, like the current boom in taiyaki, a fish-shaped snack loaded with sweet anko beans (or sometimes chocolate), or the traditional "Food Drop" candies we have on the site. Once I found a video that consisted of nothing but a pretty girl staring at the camera, looking out of your computer at you for long spans of time. I can't figure out what the point of having a girl stare intensely at you for many minutes on end is, but it was strangely compelling, and I guess it's a good way for hikikomori types (hardcore otaku who never leave their homes) to get used to interacting with others. Below the video, one of the comments by a Japanese viewer read, "Japan is really heiwa," meaning peaceful, and this is a concept you encounter quite a lot: Japan's awareness that their country is especially blessed with peace, a unique place where crime is low and there is no war or religious strife, and people have the freedom to make silly videos and post them on the Internet. A related concept is heiwa-boke (hei-WA boh-keh), literally meaning "numbed from too much peace," which describes the state of literally being made stupid by living in a country that's overly harmonious, like the Japanese who traveled to Iraq in 2004 to help rebuild the country only to be promptly kidnapped because, well, they were in friggin' Iraq.

We had fun at AX, and Morning Musume signed our spiffy new event bags; weird J-Girl stares at you.