Friday, August 28, 2009

How the Confederate States of America Helped Japan

Quick: name one way that the Confederate States of America contributed to the creation of modern Japan? Well, I'll tell you. In 1864 the Confederate government commissioned the C.S.S. Stonewall, a state-of-the-art ironclad built in France to serve as a commercial raider against Union ships. After the war ended, the ship reverted to the U.S., and was eventually sold to the new Meiji government. During a conflict known as the Boshin War, in which forces loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate fought against the new government built around the Emperor of Japan (who they figuratively "restored" to power after centuries of being a political figurehead, an event known as the Meiji Restoration), the pro-Shogun forces fled to Hokkaido and declared the island to be the independent Republic of Ezo. After a failed attempt by the famous Shinsengumi samurai to steal control of the powerful ironclad (now renamed the Kotetsu), there was a big naval battle in which the ship acted as a veritable Death Star, laying waste to the opposing vessels while suffering no damage itself. As a result of the Naval Battle of Hakodate, the Meiji Government was victorious, and modernization of the country could continue.

The C.S.S. Stonewall played an important role in the formation of Japan as a modern nation.

Aomori and Hokkaido Update

My son and I are enjoying our trip to northern Japan. We had fun exploring Aomori, visiting the windswept beauty of the Tsugaru Peninsula on the western side of the prefecture, birthplace of enka singer Yoshi Ikuzo, who has belted out many songs about drinking sake while lamenting lost love, and one really famous song about how rural the village he came from is ("we have no traffic lights because...we have no electricity there"). Then we took in the city of Hirosaki, a beautiful castle town from the Edo Period, which was great fun to explore. While we were here, we got to experience one of the most unintelligle dialects of nihongo there is, Tsugaru-ben, which is said to be closer to French than Japanese, and I believe it. Then it was off to the ferry terminal to take a boat to Hokkaido...

Now we're in Hakodate (hah-ko-DAH-tay), a beautiful city on the southern tip of Hokkaido. While northern Honshu has been inhabited continuously since the stone age, Hokkaido itself was sparsely populated when the Meiji Era began. Japan's new government realized the island might be in danger of being seized by Russia, so in the 1870s they opened the land up to mass settlement. Perhaps as a result, many cities here such as Hakodate and Otaru have a San Francisco-esque feel to them, complete with pleasant streetcars that have been running for over a century by now. Hakodate was one of the cities visited by Admiral Perry and his famous "Black Ships" (this year is the 150th anniversary of the opening of the city's port), and the first American to be buried in Japan lies in the city's gaijin bochi (foreigners' grave yard). The city lies at the foot of Mt. Hakodate, and is famous for having one of the most beautiful night views of the world, up there with Hong Kong and Naples, according to a list someone made up. We'll be sure and check it out.

We took the ferry to Hokkaido, the home of diary products and potatoes in Japan.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Strange English Product Names

The other day I went into a store and saw an advertisement for a chair that used bags of compressed air to massage your body. What caught my eye wasn't the design of the chair, but the weird English name they'd given it: PLIM UP. It's a good example of how the Japanese love to get creative with English product names, giving birth to linguistic concepts that would never occur to native speakers since little things like grammar don't get in the way. Hence, you have a floor cleaner called Quickle Wiper, microwaved chicken with the name of Perky Bit, a map company called Mapple, a construction company that sold houses under the brand name of "Home, Homer, Homest," and the popular sports drink Pocari Sweat. It's funny how easily you can grow accustomed to some of these odd-sounding names, like the Sony Walkman, which must have sounded really weird to people when it first came out, or the Rebuild of Evangelion movies that are so awesome despite the strange name.

When you think about it, "Fate/stay night" is a pretty strange name to get used to, too.

My Trip to Aomori

Tomorrow I'm going on a bit of a vacation to northern Japan with my son, a fun trip that we're taking now since next summer he'll be a jukensei or test student, and will be doing little except for studying for his high school entrance exams. We'll be taking one of those overnight busses all the way up to Aomori Prefecture, at the top of the main Japanese island of Honshu, where we'll do some sightseeing in Hirosaki and (knowing me) find an onsen hot springs bath to take a dip in. After that we'll catch the ferry across to Hokkaido to visit one of my favorite cities, Hakodate (ha-ko-DAH-tay), checking out some cool historical sites as well as the most beautiful night view in Japan. Then we'll do something we've always wanted to do: take the train from Hokkaido back to Aomori, which goes through the Seikan Tunnel, the longest and deepest tunnel in the world. Our real goal is to visit the train station that exists under the sea, because damn, it's a train station under the sea! We just have to go there. (If you're a fan of Twitter and are so inclined, you can follow us on our journey.)

Aomori lies at the extreme end of the Tohoku (lit. "east-north") region of Japan, an area that's historically been so far from the cultural heart of the nation (Kyoto, then Edo/Tokyo) that it didn't develop at the same pace at the rest of the country. As you travel farther north, the place names start to sound funny, and the kanji characters used to write them get equally bizarre, so that a person from Tokyo will actually have to stop and ask locals how to read a certain kanji on his map. (Heh, give them a taste of what it's like to be a foreigner in Japan.) The reason for this, of course, is that northern Japan was settled by the Ainu, who were once everywhere in the region before they were pushed northward by the expanding Yamato Japanese. The Ainu possess a separate language and culture which among other things involves -- I am not making this up -- tattooing moustaches on the upper lips of their women. Which may or may not be one reason why they're not running the country these days.

Aomori Prefecture is famous for apples,Nebuta, and snow; Hirosaki is the "Kyoto of the North."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Japan [hearts] Mayonnaise

There are certain things the Japanese just seem to really like for reasons that are difficult for foreigners to understand. Like the Carpenters, whose music seems to be far more popular here than in the U.S. Or Colombo, whose crime-solving gruffness is popular enough that he can still be seen regularly on TV here. Or novels by Sydney Sheldon, who has large number of fans in Japan. Another thing the Japanese like a lot is...mayonnaise! It's true: the Japanese eat it all the time, putting it in salads, on traditional Japanese dishes like Okonomiyaki, and even on pizza. When you order french fries at a Denny's, they'll bring you two little dishes, one containing ketchup and the other mayonnaise, and you can dip the fries in whichever condiment you like, or go for both (which is my own preference).

A popular way to eat mayonnaise. Yech!

Japanese Election and Manifesto Update

The Japanese election season is in full swing, with the two major parties -- the currently ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the upstart Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) -- campaigning hard to try to win enough votes to form the next government. Unlike the U.S. with its two-party system, several of the smaller political parties enjoy quite a lot of influence for their size, and you see (and hear) candidates representing the Japan Communist Party and New Komeito (a party related to the Sokka Gakkai Buddhist religion which has nothing to do with any religious organization at all, nope) quite a lot. It's interesting to observe the election, as issues like the low birthrate and economic recession are fervently discussed. While I can't say that the LDP has impressed me with its leadership (far from it), I don't think that much good will come of the DPJ victory that everyone seems to be expecting. The party is only eleven years old, formed in 1998 by members of smaller parties, most of whom defected from the LDP at some point. The platform -- or "manifesto" -- of the DPJ was formed when the group was the minority party, and while it's easy for politicians to make statements about making all the freeways actually free, or about Japan's military relationship with the U.S., things change when you're suddenly in power. If the DPJ does win on August 30, I don't expect a lot to change, since the vast majority of Japan's bureaucracy remains in place even if the party in power changes.

Some Japanese politicians really like the word "manifesto."

Japan and France

This week J-List's own Tomo, the employee who keeps our site well stocked with interesting DVDs, Hello Kitty shoulder massagers and microwave potato chip makers, is taking a week off and heading to Paris, France. It's his honeymoon, and he wanted to take his new wife (who happens to be from near the now-famous Japanese city of Obama) someplace special. While the Japanese all study English and enjoy traveling to the U.S. and U.K., no place can match France for raw je ne sais quoi. Japan may be famous for its creative "Engrish" on T-shirts and shop signs, but French is also a popular language of decoration here, messed-up grammar and all. Japan's love affair with France can be seen in anime, starting with the famous Rose of Versailles which galvanized a generation of girls with the drama of Oscar François de Jarjayes and Marie Antoinette. There are several anime characters who have hilarious parodies of French names, too, like Louise Françoise De La Bamue Le Blanc De La Vallièr from Zero no Tsukaima. My theory is that the more distant a place is culturally and linguistically, the more exotic it will seem, and since many Japanese visit places like Hawaii or Los Angeles all the time, the U.S. doesn't have the same pure mystique as France, which seems "farther away." Anyway, if you've got a J-List T-shirt and live in Paris, why not wear it this week? I told Tomo to keep his eyes open and say hi to any customers he runs into.

This is the image that comes up when Japanese think of France.