Friday, October 02, 2009

Country Names in Kanji?

Another interesting aspect of Japanese is that there's not just one writing system, but four -- hiragana for fundamental grammar, katakana for expressing foreign loan words and place names, kanji for organizing information into efficient chunks, plus romaji or the Roman alphabet, which is used in various unofficial ways. While the "correct" way to write, say, Russia or Spain or Germany would be to use the katakana syllabery, it wasn't so long ago that each country had an excruciatingly complex name in kanji, written with characters that phonetically represented that country's name. Nowadays each of these archaic names still exist but have been reduced to a single character, which has the benefit of being able to express a concept like "three-way talks between the United States, England and Russia" with just five short characters, a common form of abbreviation used in newspaper headlines. Incidentally, we've gotten in some cool T-shirts featuring the USA and France written in their kanji names, if you like the way the characters look.

Uniqueness Features of the Japanese Language

Each language has various unique features. One of the interesting aspects of Japanese is that there are multiple first- and second-person pronouns that people can use, depending on their personality. For example, a man might use watakushi for a job interview, boku for casual speaking and the more "manly" ore (oh-reh) if he's talking with his male friends, while the average girl would use watashi in neutral settings, atashi if speaking to female friends or her boyfriend, or boku if she were a bit of a tomboy. In the dating-sim Love Plus (which I am still playing...just have one more girl to get...) one of the first choices you make in the game is whether to use the more polite but potentially weak-sounding boku or the rougher but potentially rude ore when referring to yourself, which subtly changes how the girls in the game respond to you. One of the three girls you can interact with is Rinka, a classic tsundere, a word which comes from tsun-tsun (angry, proud) and dere-dere (lovestruck). You can tell you're getting somewhere with the girl when she starts fumblingly referring to herself with the feminine word atashi. Isn't it fun to learn about Japan through its popular culture?

The pronouns a person uses can tell you lot about their character.

October in Japan

October is here, and that means a few things in Japan. First of all, it's the designated time for koromo-gae or "clothes-changing," when everyone in the country suddenly switches from summer to winter mode, including every student changing from summer to winter school uniform on the same day, from Okinawa to Hokkaido. As a gaijin -- which literally means "outsider" after all -- I could never get into this seasonal rhythm and would wear shorts and short-sleeved well into November (crazy rebel that I am) causing everyone around me to constantly ask me if I was cold no matter what the temperature actually was. October is the mirror of April, the season of beautiful cherry blossoms, and in this month you can enjoy koyo ("crimson leaves") as the trees gradually change color. It's also the month for tsukimi, or moon-viewing, which has been a good excuse to eat Chinese dumplings and drink sake while you take in the beauty of the full moon ever since the Heian Period (794-1185). October 3rd is the most popular time for moon-viewing, called juugo-ya, which is incidentally the night Princess Kaguya returned to her home in the Kingdom of the Moon in the classic Japanese fairy tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which served as the basis for the film E.T.

October 1st is the day to change from summer to winter clothes.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Japanese Pronunciation Guide 2009

It's time for another installment of Peter's Japanese Pronunciation Guide. First, understand that Japanese is a syllabic language, meaning that sounds always come in consonant + vowel syllable pairs (e.g. ka, ki, ku, ke, or ko, never just a "k" sound by itself), or as a single vowel syllable. The exception is the letter "n," the only consonant that can appear by itself, without which we wouldn't have the word "ramen" (and that would be a travesty). Vowels are easy as pie in Japanese -- there are only five, identical to the ones in Spanish. They are:

A - "ah" rhyming with "fall"
I - "ee" rhyming with "feel"
U - "oo" rhyming with "fool"
E - "eh" rhyming with "let"
O - "oh" rhyming with "go"

When you see a word like origami, just break it into syllable-sized chunks, pronouncing all the letters and squeezing it into the "Japanese phonetic grid": oh-ree-gah-mee. One reason why I always recommend people learn Japanese using hiragana as a base (as in the White Rabbit and Genki products) rather than learning with Romanized Japanese (written in the Roman alphabet) is that the rules of English pronunciation can get in your way, making you think that the third syllable of a name like Tomoe is a "silent e" when it should be in fact pronounced normally. Other things to keep in mind: a "g" sound is always hard (as in go), never soft (as in giraffe). Also, the "R" line of sounds (ra-ri-ru-re-ro) can be challenging at first, since they're closer to "L" or "D" than "R," so that the word ramen is about 80% of the way to "lamen," pronunciation-wise. Remember that J-List has many cool Japanese study products, if you want to give it a try.

The hiragana system is the basis of every sound made in Japanese.

Cultural Lessons from Anime, or, Would You Like Some French Fries?

It's always fun to observe the little bits of Japanese culture that are communicated through anime. I was re-watching the moe anime K-On! the other day, and I caught an interesting gesture that seemed to speak volumes about Japan's group-oriented society. Tsumugi had just joined the keion-bu (light music club) and was eating in a fast food restaurant with her new club members. As the other girls talked about how to find the fourth member they needed to keep their club from being closed, Mugi (who has some awesome eyebrows, let me tell you) picks up her "potato" (french fries) and adds them to the pile Mio and Ritsu are eating from. It's the ultimate gesture of group membership, mingling one's food with your new friends so you can all eat on equal terms, and it communicates a lot of information about what kind of girl Tsumugi is to viewers. I'd probably have hoarded all my fries, and when they were gone I'd steal from the others...

Mugi-chan shares her french fries with her friends as a gesture of group membership.

Home is Where Your Liquor Shop Is

I received a request to talk about my house in Japan by a Twitter reader, so I thought I'd oblige. It's common in space-challenged Japan for businesses to be incorporated into residences, and the front of my house is occupied by the small liquor shop that my wife's parents operate, which has its benefits, as you can imagine. While the idea of living with one's parents all your life isn't one everyone would be cool with, it's very common in Japan, where the oldest son or daughter (or in my wife's case, the only child) is expected to take over the family home, and by extension, the family grave. While many Japanese seem to enjoy tearing down their homes and re-building them from scratch every 20 years or so, we never did this, and as a result our house is an interesting hodge-podge of eras, originally built in the 1970s, with a second story added when my wife and I got married (plus flushing toilets, please don't forger those), with various changes made over the years as our family grew. In most countries, the value of the house generally goes up -- the current economic situation notwithstanding -- so when you make a change like redoing a bathroom, you take in account how it will affect the price of your home. In Japan, though, almost no one would deign to live in a "used" house, so the value of homes is essentially zero, which means you never need to stress out about your home's value when "reforming" your home.

(Note, this isn't my liquor shop. I couldn't take any pictures since it's dark here already when I wrote this, but I'll post some if there's interest)

Many shops in Japan have houses built into them.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Love Plus Pocky

I spent my weekend in a Japanese high school, dating three different girls in Love Plus, the awesome interactive dating-sim for the Nintendo DS that we sell. The game system is pretty innovative: each day, you decide what area of your character to improve, practicing sports, studying, working at a part-time job and so on, doing things that will make the girl you're pursuing like you more. Eventually you'll accumulate enough "boyfriend points" to make her confess her love for you. Once one of the girls becomes your girlfriend, you can interact with her throughout the year as if she were real, sending her emails and going through each season with her. Best of all, there are "touch events": while on a date, you can check to make sure no one is looking then touch her hair to make her smile, and maybe even earn a kiss. If you want to give the game a try, we've got it in stock, or if you prefer our traditional line of English-translated line of excellent dating-sims/H-games, we've got those too.

J-List is happy to announce the return of Pocky and Japan Kit Kat to our website! The summer in Japan so so hot that every year, we're forced to remove all chocolate snacks from the site to keep it from turning into so much Meltykiss, but now that it's started to cool off, we've brought all your favorite chocolate treats back. Why not browse them all now?

English as Torture for Japanese ESL Learners

The next time you utter the phrase "walk to work," you've just done something that's very difficult for Japanese ESL learners. English is an especially rich language with a bazillion sounds borrowed from many sources, and it can be really difficult for phonetically-challenged Japanese speakers to master these strange sounds. Words like "walk" and "work" may seem simple to you or me, but rendered into katakana they sound nearly the same, making it hard for the poor nihonjin to keep them straight. Japanese is famous for lacking separate concepts of "L" and "R," which creates a world of problems with words like right and light. If you were to purchase the awesome Japanese baggy Loose Socks that J-List sells, you'd see the mysterious phrase "Flesh Agers" written on the tag, which we're pretty sure describe girls who are enjoying their "fresh age" (which is only slightly more comprehensible). From the Japanese point of view, English just seems needlessly complex. For example, the first syllable of mashed potatoes, mushroom and marshmallow are all identical when reduced to the Japanese syllabery system, and if you tried to teach these differences to ESL students they'd probably run screaming from the room faster than you could say "crash, clash, crush." There are other phonetic land-mines built in Japanese: for example the syllable si (as in the word sit) is pronounced shi, creating a huge potential for problems when inviting someone to sit in your living room.

Are you a "Flesh Ager"? Good, if so.

Famous in Japan?

The other day I was watching a show about strange and unique world records people had achieved, and there was a segment featuring Takeru Kobayashi, the renowned competitive eater who won the World Hamburger Eating title over the weekend (congratulations!). It was cool to see him getting some love from Japanese television, since he's almost completely unknown here in Japan for some reason, although he has lots of fans outside of Japan. To many who grew up in the Nintendo era, Mario and Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto is a familiar icon, yet he's almost completely unknown over here, and even J-List's Yasu, a hardcore old-school gamer with a large collection of classic NES game cartridges, did not know his name or face since he's not part of the popular culture here. Some other examples of Japanese whose stature is larger outside of Japan than in include Takashi Murakami, the unique artist who has brought his colorful anime-influenced themes to the international design world; Heroes star and super-geek Masi Oka; artist Yoshitomo Nara; and the Japanese band Shonen Knife.

He created some of Japan's most famous cultural icons, but Miyamoto-san is unknown here.

Happy "Chicken Day" from Japan

Today is the 28th, which I happen to remember has been designated Chicken Day by the Japan Poultry Council since 1978, due to the fact that the Japanese word for chicken (niwatori) can be expressed phonetically using the number 28. KFC Japan has latched on to this idea and offers a discounted "Chicken Day Set" every month. There's a whole universe of these odd-but-fun unofficial days, like Railroad Day (Oct. 14), commemorating the opening of the first rail line in Japan, Bread Day (April 12) which marks the introduction of Western bread here, or Pocky Day, which the Glico Corporation has designated as November 11, since 11/11 looks like four Pocky sticks waiting to be munched on. My daughter, who amuses herself for hours on end looking at pictures of cats on the Internet, recently told me that February 22nd is "Cat Day" since the number 2 in Japanese is ni which stands for the nyan-nyan-nyan sound that cats make.

Happy Chicken Day from KFC Japan. "Donald McDonald" is not happy.