Friday, October 09, 2009

Japanese Study Tools

Last time I came up with some examples of strange approaches to language learning the Japanese take. There's another interesting tool the Japanese use to master English: a subset of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a standard way of expressing sounds. In general, the "basic" level of Japanese are the two syllable systems hiragana and katakana, which can express, say, the sounds sa-shi-su-se-so but not the consonant "s" by itself, and no vowels in between the main five. Students will make katakana notes above English words to help themselves remember pronunciation, but this is catastrophic for them from the standpoint of ever learning to speak naturally. A better idea is to use special "pronunciation symbols" to help students wrestle with sounds that don't come naturally to them, like the above sentence. Can you read it?

More on Cute Japanese Poses

I wrote recently about the "peace" sign that the Japanese are fond of making whenever they see a camera, despite the fact that no one is consciously aware of where the gesture came from or what the "peace" in question might be referring to. The "V for Victory" sign is just one of a great many super-cute poses that women from Japan (and Korea, Taiwan etc.) are capable of. Some others include puffing up the face in a cute pout, looking sad while drawing invisible tear tracks with a finger, reenacting Sailor Moon's transformation pose while winking, and making several variations of nyan nyan (cat girl posing). Whenever I see one of these manga-like poses there's an almost feral reaction that takes place in my brain, causing me to think kawaii thoughts, but that might just be me. It's hard to know where this bizarre posing culture came from, but I believe it's tied to the rise of the Puri-Kura or "Print Club," those automated photo machines that took Asia by storm in the 1990s and which are still found in all the fashionable parts of Tokyo.

Japanese females have a huge arsenal of cute posing gestures.

"Eternal Questions" in Japan

Japan is a great country, and I like living here a lot. But no matter how long I stay here, it seems there'll always be some "eternal questions" that we foreigners will never figure out. Like, why is every mannequin in department stores a gaijin, and why does no one ever notice the total lack of mannequins with Asian features? Why would anyone need house-style curtains for your car? How can the Japanese have such a high standard of living that heated toilet seats wash your butt while talking to you in soothing tones, yet almost no one has central heating? How can the Japanese write irony-free haiku about the "vibrant nature" all around them when 97% of their rivers are dammed? The other day I was going for some sushi with my daughter when she turned to me and asked, "Why are the green traffic lights called 'blue'?" It's a big source of confusion to foreigners here, why green traffic lights are referred to with the word ao (ah-oh) meaning "blue" instead of midori meaning "green." (I know there's an answer, that the Japanese word ao has historically referred to both blue and green, but it's kind of fun keeping the question unanswered and mysterious.)

Just what the hell is this traffic signal supposed to mean, anyway?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

More Fun with Japanese Gestures

Because it's funny as hell, here's a "mocumentary" on the Asian peace sign and other cute gestures they do, which are totally and spookily accurate in Japan (and Taiwan, presumably).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Area 88: My First Manga

I've achieved a small milestone in my life, finally finishing the first manga I ever picked up. The series was Area 88 by Kaoru Shintani, the tale of a Japanese airline pilot shanghaied into joining a mercenary air force in the Middle East where he must fly combat missions for money if he's ever to return to Japan, and his fiancee Ryoko. Area 88 was one of the first Japanese manga comics brought out in English 22 years ago (ack!), and although the original English-language run didn't last long, it was the beginning of a big change for the U.S. in terms of accepting a new form of visual culture. Young people these days might not believe me, but there was a time when a person had to learn to read Japanese if he wanted to know how a particular manga story ended, which turned out to be a good thing for me since reading all the classic comics of the 80s and 90s exposed me to tons of useful kanji and vocabulary words, eventually finishing all 13 volumes of Area 88. If you'd like to try studying Japanese through its manga culture, J-List has some great tools to help you, from the Japanese in Mangaland series to many great manga volumes with furigana beside the kanji to make them easier to read.

I finally got around to finishing Area 88, the first manga I ever read, this time in Japanese.

English Grammar Hell

If you want to watch a Japanese person count mentally, ask them how many years they studied English. The answer will be "six" if they've graduated from high school, or "ten" if they've been to college. Although they do study English for many years, it's not uncommon for Japanese to not really master the language very well, in part due the dry, academic way English grammar is covered in school. Did you know there were five fundamental types of sentences in English? They're SV, SVC, SVO, SVOO, and SVOC, and although I studied linguistics in college I'm not sure what they mean, though ESL students here meticulously memorize them for the next test. The Japanese are also good at coming up with ways of remembering which verbs must be used in gerund form ("stop smoking" but not "stop to smoke") and which can take either gerund or infinitive verbs (both "I like to eat chocolate" and "I like eating chocolate" are okay). Seen from the viewpoint of a native speaker, it's quite unnatural to create a framework for comprehending English grammar that doesn't actually help you, you know, speak the language at all.

If English is your native language, go hug your parents right now.

Correct Way of Holding Chopsticks

One of the themes I cover a lot is how there always seems to be a "right" way of doing things in Japan, which feels odd when coming from the more diverse U.S. For example, every kanji character taught to children has a specific stroke order, and students who can write a character correctly but not in the proper order will still get it wrong on a test. The Japanese obsession with doing things the "right way" is so intense, their version of "chicken scratch" lines we use when counting in the U.S. is the character for "correct" (tadashii). There's one right way to hold chopsticks, too, although it's not uncommon for a person to develop their own style of chopstick-holding, and I remember having discussions with my ESL students about how this person or that held their chopsticks "funny" while eating. My son is one of those people who holds his chopsticks in a non-standard way, although I'll be darned if I can see any difference. Recently he got his first official girlfriend, and the two of them went into Tokyo to visit an amusement park and have dinner together. He was nervous enough about eating with chopsticks in front of his girlfriend that he went out of his way to order curry, so he could eat with a spoon.

As with most things in Japan, there one "correct" way to hold chopsticks.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Japan Suicide + 1

Sadly, Japan is a country with a high suicide rate, at around 30,000 annually, which is approximately the same number as in the U.S. despite Japan having less than half the population. The situation is getting worse with the bad domestic economy, and it's feared the number might be the highest ever this year. There's one more sad death to report: former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa was found dead, presumably due to an overdose of sleeping pills. He's the guy who gave a press conference at the February G7 summit in Rome while extremely inebriated, causing much embarrassment to Japan when videos of his slurred speech were broadcast all over the world. He'd supposedly been depressed after he lost his bid for reelection in the Japanese election in August.

My Favorite Thing About Japan: Trains

One of my favorite things about Japan are the trains. Perhaps it's because I'm from a country where "rail life" isn't that big a part of the culture, especially on the West Coast, but I've always been quite taken with the convenience and aesthetic beauty of Japan's trains. It's quite common for various train lines in Japan to become famous around the country, like the Yamanote Line that runs in a loop around Tokyo, or the Arashiyama Line that goes through some of the most beautiful parts of Kyoto. Currently I'm watching an anime called Aoi Hana (English title "Sweet Blue Flowers"), an amazing story about yuri -- beautifully expressed love between females -- and the 19th century novel Wuthering Heights, of all things. The show is set in the Kamakura area south of Yokohama, and prominently features the Enoshima Electric Railway, a quaint single-track train line that seems to transport you back in time to a simpler era. The already beautiful characters in the anime are made even more interesting thanks to the imagery of this iconic train.

If you want a really special Japanese train experience, ride the Enoden.

The Japanese Peace Sign

Over the weekend I went to my daughter's annual school bazaar, which means that my life became a "school festival" episode again. At these festivals, each class or school club puts on different events for visitors, like a haunted house or a maid cafe or a food stand selling yakisoba noodles. One group of girls had done an especially good job setting up a hot dog stand with a parody of the Subway logo that I thought looked cool, so I got out my camera out to take a picture. Almost immediately, the girls struck that most Japanese of poses, flashing the "peace" sign at me as they prepared to have their picture taken. While I'd always assumed the "V" for victory gesture had entered the Japanese popular culture as a result of the occupation of Japan by the Allied soldiers, perhaps as some sort of cultural exchange negotiated between the Sanrio company and Winston Churchill, it seems to be a more recent phenomenon. According to one theory, U.S. figure skater Janet Lynn came to skate in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics and fell on her butt, and when she got up, she made a cute "peace" sign to the Japanese cameras. This was supposedly the moment when the gesture entered the Japanese DNA, and why you can't take a picture of a Japanese person today without them making the "V" sign.

The "peace" sign is a very Japanese gesture to make.