Friday, July 17, 2009
Bad news for anyone in Japan who likes sleeping late in the mornings: election season will be starting at the end of August, which means lots of politicians riding around in speaker cars shouting things like, "My name is Tanaka! I will work hard for you! Thank you for your vote!" Japan has a British-style parliamentary democracy with two houses and several political parties, which compete for enough seats to be able to form a government and elect a Prime Minister. The major parties are the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power very nearly without interruption since the end of World War II; the upstart Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), hoping to win the upcoming election; the New Clean Government Party (Komeito), which is the political arm of an evangelical Buddhist sect called Sokka Gakkai, although you're not allowed to say that on TV; and the Japan Communist Party, with 400,000 members, one of the largest in the world. Japan's elections are tightly structured, and there is a long list of things candidates are not allowed to do, such as give or receive many kinds of gifts or make personal attacks against competing candidates, although for some reason attacking the Prime Minister the minute he assumes office a national pastime. The stakes are high in this election, as Prime Minister Aso (famous for being an anime otaku) and his LDP may bear the brunt of electorate's anger over the state of the economy. If the DPJ wins, it might mean some pretty disruptive times for Japan.
A poster invoking Gundam to get young people to vote.
The Japanese language is, of course, very different from English -- about as different as you can get, as languages go. Instead of a subject/verb/object word order, it's subject/object/verb, although the subject is frequently left off if it's clear from the context to make things extra-challenging for foreigners -- or so it seems at times. Japanese is an agglutinating language, which means more information like past tense or passive voice is stored in the verb form, but the upside is no helping verbs like "he would have been able to go" to memorize. One of the first things any student of the language has to get used to is grammatical particles, short "markers" which indicate parts of the sentence, such as wa and ga (the nuance-filled "topic" and "subject" markers), o (the object marker), and so on, which are not particularly difficult, just new. Then there's the question particle ka, which goes on the end of sentences and indicates that the statement just made is a question, e.g. Bento o tabemasu ka? "Will you eat your bento?" I found breaking sentences down into almost mathematical formulas that I could memorize then switch words in and out of helped me get past the different-ness relatively easily.
Japanese grammar is very different from English. Not really harder, just different.
Unlike other nations in Asia, the Japanese have no custom of tipping for good service, and no matter how good a particular customer experience was (or wasn't), you're never expected to leave a tip. In fact, doing so would probably result in the server in question chasing after you to return the cash you accidentally left on the table. Still, Japanese know that tipping exists in the rest of the world, and part of preparing for a journey abroad involves studying up on how and when to leave a gratuity. When an American eats at a restaurant, he'll probably toss a couple dollars onto the table when he leaves, perhaps rounding up if the service was especially good. But Japanese are likely to meticulously calculate the correct 15% tip for the meal they just ate, counting out the coins on the table. I've lived in Japan long enough that some of this nervousness about tipping has spilled over to me, and I found myself putting a few $1 bills in my pocket so I could hand it to people who helped me with my bags at the airport, etc.
Living in Japan will make you worry about tipping like the Japanese do.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
For whatever reason, one of the themes of Japanese society is that its citizens don't show much in the way of patriotism. Loving one's country is something that most Americans take for granted, and I found it puzzling when I went to Japan and found it populated with people who were pretty ho-hum on the subject of their own country, despite its many impressive achievements in the world today. This is understandable to a certain extent, since it was an abundance of nationalistic fervor that caused so much pain and suffering in the last century, and many Japanese wouldn't feel comfortable expressing too much love for their country in any visible form. This means that the only active "patriots" in Japan are, sadly, those annoying right-wingers who drive around in loudspeaker trucks blasting revisionist speeches about World War II and singer Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi's famous song "Japan! Where are you going? Japan! What are you doing?" (oddly, sung in English). It's embarrassing, but to wear a Japanese flag on your clothing essentially identifies you as someone who shares the views of these extreme groups. Personally I'd like to see normal Japanese start some kind of "take back the Japanese flag from nationalist crazies" campaign, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.
Are Japan's nutty right-wingers the only patriots in the country?