Friday, August 21, 2009

Nihongo ga Jozu! You speak Japanese very well!

You've been in Japan too long when you get a nihongo ga jozu ("you speak Japanese very well") and feel mildly insulted. This happened to me the other day: I was at one of the onsen hot springs around my house -- amazingly, there are three of them within a 5 km radius of J-List -- talking with the lady at the counter, when one of the other employees came up and praised my Japanese skills. It's an odd fact of life in Japan, but foreigners who are learning the language strive for that magic moment when Japanese people will finally stop telling them how good their Japanese is and just talk to them normally. After four years of study at SDSU and almost eighteen years living here, I am hopefully as bilingual as I'll ever need to be. Unless I venture outside my core areas of experience, like visiting a history museum or trying to engage my son in detailed discussions of Chiinese history and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I can get by pretty well.

My goal was to study enough that people stopped praising my Japanese abilities. Right, Patty?

Japanese Abbreviations

The Japanese love to abbreviate long, hard to pronounce words. Whether its lopping off some kanji to change Tokyo Daigaku (Tokyo University) into the more manageable "Todai" or coining shortened terms like konkatsu, the "wedding activities" that are so popular with single people too busy to find potential marriage partners, the Japanese are efficient speakers. It's also interesting to see how they create on-the-fly slang words for anything they like, shortening Starbucks to Sutaba or rendering the somewhat unwieldy title of Monster Hunter into the more concise Mon-han. They also use many of the abbreviations found in English, but find it easier to pronounce acronyms such as JAL (Japan Air Lines), ANA (All Nippon Airways), LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and even VIP as if they were normal words (e.g. "jal" "ana" "lax" and "vip") rather than saying the letters individually, as we do in English. On the famous Japanese 2chan BBS, the sub-group that roughly corresponds to the /b/ board on 4chan is known as VIP ("vip"), and the Japanese version of /b/-tards are known as "vippers."

Funny Starbucks's oaridt

I like this Starbuck's logo better than the normal one.

Yako-bus, the Overnight Busses of Japan

Right now my wife and daughter are down in Kyoto, visiting a friend on the Sea of Japan side the country. There are many choices for traveling around Japan -- by car, by speedy Shinkansen train, or even the cheap-but-slow "Youth 18" train tickets I mentioned a few weeks ago, which let you travel as far as you want on normal (slow) trains for around $20 per day. (Of course the best option for anyone visiting from outside the country is the all-you-can-ride Japan Rail Pass, which unfortunately isn't available to us poor gaijin who live here.) For this trip, my wife opted for one of the overnight busses that are a popular alternative to trains for getting from point A to point B. Basically they're extremely comfortable busses with fully reclinable seats so you can sleep while the driver gets you to your destination by morning. At around $90 to get from our prefecture of Gunma to Kyoto, the cost is significantly lower than a bullet train ticket would be, and best of all you save on hotel fees, since you're sleeping inside the bus.

Comfortable overnight busses are a popular way to travel in Japan, but less romantic than overnight trains.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Japanese Gestures

I read an article on BBC's news site about a study of facial expressions around the world, which essentially found that expressions aren't necessarily universal, and might be interpreted differently depending on a person's cultural background. While I don't remember having any confusion over reading facial expressions when I arrived in Japan, I do remember having difficulty with the various gestures the Japanese use in their daily lives, such as the famous Lucky Cat gesture for "come here," which looks to Westerners as if the person were shooing you away with their hand. Japan's body language does seem to be extremely rich and complex, perhaps because gestures allow for mugon ryokai or communicating without words, a specialty of the Japanesey. Some other common gestures used here include a raised pinky or thumb, which mean "girlfriend?" or "boyfriend?" respectively (i.e., do you have a hot date tonight?); cutting your cheek with your thumbnail, which means, "be careful of that person, he might be a yakuza"; covering your mouth with your hand as if whispering, which means, "I think that person might be gay"; and making devil's horns with your fingers, which is, "if I stay out late drinking, my wife will turn into a demon and punish me." If you'd like to learn more about Japan's gestures, we've gotten in a nice book for you in San Diego.

This might mean, "Is that a call from your girlfriend?"

Mr. James, the McDonald's Hawking Gaijin Parody

McDonald's Japan is currently running a bizarre promotion using a caricature of an American named Mr. James, who hails from Ohio and is living in Tokyo with his daughter Jennifer. The advertising campaign is promoting McDonald's All Stars, four premium hamburgers that will be available through November, starting with the current Tamago Double Mac. The fact that Mr. James speaks broken katakana Japanese and is called improperly ("Mr. James," just as I spent years being called "Mr. Peter" by my students) has some foreigners in Japan upset about the ads, even going so far as to make an anti-Mr. James group on Facebook. While I think the ads are silly, I'm not particularly offended by them or anything. I'm personally at peace with the fact that many Westerners often are walking parodies of themselves in Japan, bumbling around asking for directions and snapping pictures of public restrooms and vending machines because they look new and interesting to us, and we probably look even funnier than Mr. James to the Japanese. This is okay -- it's all part of the cultural communication process between East and West. I also know that the character of Mr. James is based on the overwhelmingly positive image that Japanese have of foreigners here, from that first overly exuberant eikaiwa (English conversation) teacher they had back in school. Japan making fun of gaijin is quite common, from anime series that feature oddly-accented foreigners in them to the bizarre OH! Mikey, a parody of Americans living in Japan made using fashion mannequins, and there's nothing vindictive about it at all.

Mr. James loves Japan and McDonald's hamburgers, but some foreigners hate him.

Cute Japanese Girls and the Third Person

One of the cuter -- or possibly creepier -- things that Japanese girls do is refer to themselves in the third person. A good example of this in anime is the character Fuko from Clannad After Story, who says "Fuko" in reference to herself despite disliking it when people treat her like a child, which is of course part of her moe charm. Usually, Japanese girls will use their own names in place of a first-person pronoun at a young age, then when they start school and begin interacting with other girls will switch to atashi, a feminine version of watashi, the most common word for "I" in Japanese, or possibly the slightly masculine-sounding boku if she's the tomboy type. Since my own daughter still calls herself by her own name despite being in junior high school, I thought I'd ask her about it. "Well, I can't go around calling myself atashi [I]," she told me. "It would sound too grown-up, and it wouldn't go with my personality at all. It sounds much cuter this way." It's really amazing how the Japanese have been able to make a simple concept like "I" so incredibly complex.

The character Fuko from Clannad refers to herself in the third person. Is that cute?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Then: Making an Otaku Pilgrimage

Since we were nearby, we stopped by Lake Kizaki, the area famous as the location of the Please Teacher and Please Twins anime series. Virtually every scene was based on a specific location in the town, or at various sites nearby, which had the effect of adding a layer of realism to the anime usually not present. It also transformed the rural town into hallowed ground for thousands of otaku, who regularly visit to see and touch and commune with their favorite anime. Judging from the number of fans I saw there, the town's anime-derived notoriety was bringing in plenty of money for the local economy, and there's even a day each year when fans will come from far and wide, forming groups that walk around the lake and pick up trash. Some other parts of Japan that have become popular pilgrimage sites for anime fans include Washinomiya Shrine, seen in Lucky Star; the town of Hama in Miyagi Prefecture, where you can visit an exact replica of the shrine from Kannagi; the Clannad town in Tokyo; and Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, which served as a model for the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni town. so you can act out all your favorite scenes from that happy series. To think that some people say that otaku only think in two dimensions...

It can be fun to visit sites from your favorite anime series in Japan.

Saabisu, saabisu!

Last time I talked about some phrases that are very concise in Japanese yet have many long and complex potential translations in English, depending on the situation. Another example of words not meshing up neatly across languages is the word okyaku-san (oh-kyak-sahn), which can be rendered in English as guest, customer or passenger depending on if the person is staying in a room, making a purchase or riding on something. In English we draw sharp distinctions between a car, a truck and a van depending on the vehicle's shape and purpose, yet in Japanese there'll naturally be different set of words that are arbitrarily differentiated -- for example, they use one word for the mathematics learned in elementary school (sansuu) and another for math learned at every other stage of education (suugaku), which always confuses me. If the owner of a restaurant came up and put a glass of iced coffee on the table for you, saying, "This is service," you might not understand that he'd just given you a drink for free; but in Japan, where the word saabisu has come to mean "something given for free to add extra value for the customer," you'd figure it out before too long. So now you know what Misato is talking about at the end of every Evangelion episode -- "Service, service!"

The English word "service" here usually means something you get for free, a kind of "plus alpha" if you will.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Pref.

Over the weekend I took my son to Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture, one of the most beautiful castles in this part of Japan. Built in 1590 at the tail end of Japan's "warring states" period, the castle is not only breathtaking to behold from the outside but fascinating to explore inside, with its many floors and rooms including a special space for viewing the moon at night. Fast forward to the Meiji Era, when Japan was busy modernizing in emulation of Great Britain and the United States: the castle was actually sold at auction and scheduled to be demolished so that its iron fittings could be melted down for the scrap value. Happily, a local resident named Ryozo Ichikawa lead the charge to save the castle and have it protected by the local government. Sadly, many of Japan's old castles were located in major cities and did not survive World War II, which gives us a reason to treasure the ones that are still standing all the more.

Matsumoto Castle is one of the best castles accessible from Tokyo, and I recommend you try to visit sometime.

My Trip to Matsumoto Casatle and Lake Kizaki

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This is Matsumoto Casatle, the castle we went to see today. One of the oldest and most beautiful castles in this part of Japan, because a) there was never as much culture over in Eastern Japan as in the Western and Southern areas and b) many castles were dismantled for scrap during the Meiji Period :(

By the way, these pictures are being posted via a new script I wrote which will hopefully make it easier to post pics in the future. And the pictures link to the original sizes on Flickr, so if you see anything you want to grab, click through and do so.

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Another view, with myself and my son in it. Zoom zoom.

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Lots of cool stuff to see inside. A local collector of old, old guns from Japan's past donated his collection to the city, so there were many amazing guns to see that were hundreds of years old.

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Another view of the castle, this time from the other side. One reason I picked today to go was, the weather was never, ever going to be as nice as this in August. It wasn't even really hot.

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We then went over to Lake Kizaki, which is about 35 km from Matsumoto. It's famous for being where Please Teacher and Please Twins were "filmed." This is the Lawson where Miina washes her feet in episode 1.

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Virtually everything that shows in the two anime series is based on an actual shot, making it fun to go see your favorite places.

If you're not familar with the place, watch the series opening credits here.

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Had to visit the Hekikawa Daily Store, which is really a Yamazaki Daily Story run by some nice older ladies. The place is naturally filled with otaku, eating noodles and buying souvinirs. I was dropping off something a J-List customer wanted me to deliver to the owners.

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Here they are. They of course get customers all the time who like the two anime series, and have had people from Europe drop by, even. By the way, they have an official blog up in Japanese, if you want to leave comments to say hello they'd get a kick out of it I'm sure.

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This is the train crossing from the opening credits. Note the four other cars filled with otaku pretending not to be there to geek out like I was doing.

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Next stop, Uminokuchi Station, where several scenes from the series (including the climax of Twins) take place.

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Inside is pretty cool. I could imagine sitting here for hours, soaking it all up. It's funny to have anime become so real. For example, on Friday Taiga's swimsuit from episode 7 of Toradora appeared on my desk, which doesn't happen everyday.

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The view of the lonely train line is pretty awesome. That alone would make this a nice station to explore.

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Note the unidentified otaku doing what I was doing.

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The name of the station is quite boldly shown in the series.

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We drove around and hit some other sights around the lake, like the campground from the bonus episode of Twins (ufufu), and the dock.

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Finally, of course, was The House. As in, the house that Twins is set in, which is occupied by some presumably non-otaku family, who wonder what the hell is up with people taking pictures of their home at all hours of the day. Anyone got enough courage to ring the doorbell and see if they'll tell us what it's like? I kind of wish the house were empty, I'd gladly pay a fee to go inside.