Friday, July 31, 2009
You've been in Japan too long when you see a road with two lanes going in the same direction and assume the one on the left is meant for parking. Since Japan is quite a small country, with half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area 1/25 the size, it's not possible to make the roads as wide as some of us would like, and in some cities (notably, old castle towns that didn't get bombed during World War II) there are roads so narrow a car and a bicycle couldn't fit side-by-side. Since buying land for parking spaces is expensive, it's common for some business to expect customers to park on the street in front, despite the fact that cars stopping along the road effectively closes off one of the the two lanes of traffic. Many convenience stores are like this -- you can see five or six cars idling in front of a Seven Eleven, often with with the keys in the ignition and the cars running, since no one would steal your car in Japan.
Beans and pickles aren't something you often associate with a country's national culture, but I've observed that you can learn quite a lot from these basic food items. The Japanese have a rich tradition of eating beans, from anko used in traditional sweets to the famous fermented soybeans called natto. While I like most foods in Japan, it took me a decade to learn to eat most Japanese beans, and I still don't do natto: they were all just too different from the beans I was used to back home, mostly of the Mexican refried and Boston baked variety. This beanocentric bias works the other way, too, and Japanese nearly always despise the beans Americans love. This tendency to prefer food from one's own culture works for pickles, too. To me, there's nothing better than a cold jar of Vlassic dills, perhaps cut up small and put on a tuna sandwich, but the Japanese aren't too keen on American pickles; they prefer their own culture of pickles, which include pickled eggplant, pickled radish (called takuwan, which smells horrible) and of course various local versions of Korean kimchee (which is glorious on white rice in the morning).
Today I'm continuing my series on how Japanese may experience anxiety when traveling to the U.S., feeling the need to become more assertive and speak their opinions more clearly than they do in Japan. Another big part of this phenomenon is forcing themselves to say yes and no directly, since these simple linguistic concepts which you and I take for granted aren't so simple in Japan. The word "yes" in Japanese is hai, and it's certainly used to indicate agreement to a question...but also as a general agreement word (called aizuchi) which is uttered every few seconds while someone else is talking, more or less to show that you're listening attentively, so it can have other meanings than what we expect in English. "No" in Japanese is iie (pronounced ee-EH), and it's not often used in normal speech as it's considered too abrupt and potentially rude. Instead, if you asked someone if they liked a certain food, they might reply with chotto... ("well...") which would clearly indicate their dislike. Another word the Japanese will use when they want to indicate a negative is muzukashii, which means "difficult" but is universally understood to be a softer-sounding stand-in for "no" in many situations. I've heard that Chinese, when they learn Japanese, overuse the black-and-white yes and no rather than more nuanced words for expressive agreement or disagreement -- if I had lots of free time, it'd be cool to study some Chinese and see if there's a linguistic reason why this might be so.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Last time I talked about how when coming to the U.S., Japanese people will actually prepare themselves mentally to be more aggressive and speak their opinions more clearly, "just like they do in America." Most Japanese know their own kokumin-sei (the "national personality" that I write about quite often) is vague, subtle and not taken to direct communication, especially with anyone not familiar with their culture. While being vague might sound like a bad thing to you or me, there are times when it's better for communication to be more nuanced and less precise, such as a friend who tries to get you to realize that it's time to go home by looking at his watch and saying "Oh, look how late it is" rather than directly asking you to leave his house already. The guidebooks that Japanese read before visiting the U.S. always bring this subject up, reminding readers that speaking up when you have an opinion or when you need something is important in American society.
There are those Japanese who are quite good at speaking their minds, however, voicing most any opinion without feeling the need to be overly polite or humble no matter who is listening. Like my wife, who after two years of living and studying in the U.S. is quite unique among other Japanese in the way she can openly state opinions or raise questions that 100% dyed-in-the-wool Nihonjin would pretend not to have noticed. (Sometimes this can cause, ahem, problems for me.) Her unique personality has an interesting side benefit when traveling: other Asians have trouble telling that she's Japanese, which means she can get better discounts in places like Hawaii from retailers who know that Japanese usually won't try to negotiate prices. Also, when she sees really silly Japanese tourists doing something embarrassing, she can pretend she comes from another country.
I'm having fun in Las Vegas, getting plenty of relaxing time in by the pool as I slowly recover from having three major conventions in one month. I just love being able to send out our little J-List updates no matter where I am in the world -- this Internet thing is great.
Is Japan an expensive country? It's a difficult question to answer. While Tokyo is famous for its $50 melons -- which are actually sold in gift boxes to give to others on special occasions, not just eaten by average families -- it's difficult to say whether or not the cost of living in Japan is high or not. When I first arrived in Japan I carefully checked the prices I was paying at supermarkets, making a concerted effort to catalogue the various stores around me so I could figure out the best places to shop. It wasn't always easy comparing Japan to my home country, however. Often I felt the prices I was paying to be high, like $15 for a bottle of shampoo, but then I realized that the bottle was much larger than the $6 bottles I had been buying back home. A loaf of bread or a container of milk costs about the same in Japan as in San Diego, but the unit sizes are smaller -- bread in Japan is sold in half-loaves, because a full loaf would go stale before it could be eaten. One interesting feature of Japan is the near total lack of inflation, and only a few products cost more now than they did when I arrived in Japan in 1991, such as when Coca-Cola went from 100 to 120 yen per can. This isn't true of the U.S., of course, and going back home once a year or so enables me to see how prices crawl upward, something that almost never happens in Japan.
Monday, July 27, 2009
I recently made a few posts about Japanese grammar, specifically the little "particles" that mark parts of a sentence. One of the more challenging things for students to get down are wa and ga, two particles which aim to point out the subject and topic of a sentence...which likely won't make much sense to you, we don't think of English sentences as having separate subjects and topics. I remember my teacher doing her best to explain the logical reasoning between the two, and how you could go about choosing which one you needed to use in a sentence. Trying to think about wa and ga analytically made my head hurt, and I never really learned that part of Japanese grammar like my Japanese professor wanted, instead being content to try using one or the other in my sentences and get feedback about whether I'd picked the wrong one. Which, it turns out, is a great way to learn, and is pretty much the way children acquire language, by trial and error. The point of learning any part of a language is to internalize it to the point where you don't think about it but can use it functionally, and I was lucky to hit on this better way of acquiring Japanese, essentially making mistakes with it until I got it right.
I remember back in college, I needed a new engine for a broken-down car I was driving. My mechanic sold me a "low mileage" replacement engine from Japan, which was very affordably priced yet had only something like 12,000 miles on it, making me wonder how such a thing was possible. I was living in San Diego, a place where you regularly put 150,000 or more miles on a car during its life, but Japan is very different from the U.S. Although it isn't exactly a small country, the kinds of driving one usually does there is quite different from the U.S., with city streets instead of speedy freeways, and plenty of stop lights, one-way streets, and of course fumikiri, or train crossings, which everyone is required to stop at. Comparing how much distance you can cover in an hour of driving in the U.S. vs. Japan can get quite ridiculous.
How is the driving in your country?
Well, the San Diego Comic-Con is over, and I'm tired but still exhilarated from all the fun. We learned many things at the show, including that it's a good idea to put one of those 3D anime oppai mouse pads on the table, since people can't resist coming over and touching it. Now it's off to Las Vegas with Mrs. J-List for a much-earned week of relaxation.
My wife and son arrived during the convention, and we've been having fun going to various places in San Diego after the show each day. We decided to take in the new Harry Potter movie last night, but were disappointed when the electronic sign at the theater declared the late-night showing we were planning on seeing to be sold out. I decided to ask if seats were available anyway, and it turned out that the sold out sign had been displaying in error -- there were still plenty of seats left. This tied nicely into a message I'm always trying to drill into my son's head, which is that America is a country where you have to be aggressive and speak up if you need something, rather than being silent and expecting others to notice you've got a problem, which is the norm in Japan. We'd learned this lesson before: when my son was five, we put him in a daytime activity program here in San Diego to interact with other kids and practice his English. When it came time for everyone to eat their lunches, he didn't know where his was, and didn't know to yell or ask for help from anyone. Since he was such a good quiet boy, none of the teachers noticed that he had no lunch, and the poor guy went hungry all day.