Friday, January 29, 2010

Confusing Japanese is Confusing

Words are complex things, and one of the challenges a person learning a language like Japanese faces is parsing everything properly. Most people know about the -san suffix that's placed at the end of a person's name for politeness, e.g. Yamada-san to mean Mr. Yamada. Another san that pops up quite often in normal use is written with the character for "production" meaning "...made in," so next time a character in an anime asks for Bulgaria-san no marmalade you can figure what she's saying. It's used in the kanji name for the Nissan auto company, which literally means "Made in Japan." Another word that causes confusion is kau, which usually means "to buy" but (when written with a different kanji) means "to keep a pet," and we poor gaijin always go through a period of confusion about why our Japanese friend is "buying" a dog before we figure it out. The word for "to cut" in Japanese is kiru, but when written with a different kanji character it assumes the more specialized meaning of "to kill with a sword," which is another concept that's easy to get wrong.

Tthe name Nissan literally means "made in Japan," in case you were wondering.

Korean Invasion!

We're having a bit of a "Korea Boom" in my house right now, courtesy of my wife. Like millions of other Japanese women, she's decided that Korean dramas are the neatest thing since sliced sashimi, and has been watching them on Japanese TV and rented DVD almost every night. (She even has a calendar of handsome actor Hyun Bin in her office.) When I ask her what's so interesting about the shows, she gets very animated. "Oh, they're nothing like Japanese dramas," she says. "They're more intense, and the characters are deeper and more interesting. I can always guess how Japanese dramas will end, so they're boring." I've often thought that her love of Korean dramas was a lot like my own feelings for Japanese animation -- she even complains when she has to watch them dubbed instead of with subtitles, just like me when watching anime. My theory is that the brain has a fundamental craving for the fresh and unique, and when something fills this need for an "other-ness" it's hard to resist embracing it. Supposedly Korean dramas remind Japanese of the good old days of the Showa Period, which may be why so many fans in Japan are in their 40s and older.

I decided to check out the anime version of the Korean drama Winter Sonata, which was interesting on several levels. It was a long time since I'd needed to pay attention to subtitles in anime, but since I was watching it in the Korean language, my eyes needed to stay glued to the TV if I was to understand the story. I found I'd been taking my knowledge of Japanese cultural iconery for granted, and parts of the anime were difficult for me to identify easily, since it was different from Japan. There were other cultural differences, too, like a scene in which a high school girl berates another for pretending to be a natural beauty even though she'd had plastic surgery, which would be unthinkable in Japan. As with watching the Korean-language scenes in Lost, it was fun to try to pick out the tiny smattering of words that are the same in Japanese, like yakusoku (promise), heikin (average) or kando (to be moved emotionally by something).

Korean anime presents new cultural learning experiences; my wife has also started serving kimchee with every meal.

Wacky Japanese T-shirts & Hoodies from J-List

Ever since J-List brought out our first "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirt more than a decade ago we've sold a huge number of wacky Japanese T-shirt and hoodies to customers all over the world. The "Girlfriend" shirt has been our top seller, closely followed by our wacky "Beware of Perverts" design and the always-fun shirt that says "In Emergency, Commit Seppuku Along This Dotted Line." J-List helped make Domo-kun the world-famous character he is today, and our Domo-kun line of shirts, hats and hoodies has always been popular with our customers. Recently we've been banging out some great new designs, like our K-On! "Afternoon Teatime" shirt or our tribute to tsundere anime girls. Our T-shirts are printed by our hardworking staff in San Diego (not mass-produced in Asia) and all sizes are full U.S. sizes (not tiny Japanese ones). Click here to browse all our products, or here to see the top 50 this week.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vagueness in Japan

I've written many times about how the Japanese language can be vague and imprecise, with chunks of meaning often left out. One example common in anime might be a boy who confesses his love for a girl by saying suki desu, literally "[I] love [it/you]" with both the subject and object omitted. Usually the meaning would be clear, but then the boy loses his nerve and adds the word "...ramen" to his statement, so that now he has just said that he likes noodles instead. Another example of Japanese being too vague for their own good is the use of pronouns to stand for words which aren't entirely clear. The location-based pronouns in Japanese are kore (koh-rey, "this one"), sore (soh-rey, "that one, near you") and are (ah-rey, meaning "that one over there, farther away"). Many Japanese will say something like, "What shall we do about 'that'?" using the word are, but it's quite easy for others to not understand and have to ask for clarification. The word for people who use these unclear pronouns too much is are-byo, literally meaning "That" Sickness.

If you haven't seen it, the independent film Fumiko's Confession is pure genius. Enjoy.

Your Japan "Shoe Strategy"

Going back to the U.S. is always a treat: I get to load up on foods that I can't get in Japan like Quaker Oatmeal, Pop Tarts and packets of Taco Bell hot sauce. It's also nice to hit the shopping malls and pick up shoes for the next year, since for most gaijin buying shoes in Japan can be a challenge. In one store I was in I found a pair of nice looking boots that I wanted to buy, but then I remembered that I lived in Japan, and reconsidered. The custom of removing shoes before entering any home and many businesses (including J-List) means you're likely to take your shoes off and put them on again many times during the day, so wearing shoes that are hard to get on and off easily like boots or high-top basketball shoes is a chore. Most foreigners living here develop a "shoe strategy," buying slip-ons or low sneakers which can be laced loosely so you can get them on and off easily. In the end I liked the boots so much I went ahead and picked them up anyway, knowing that I was going against the grain of things in Japan.

Living in Japan means developing a "shoe strategy."

Gaijin Indecision 2010

Besides making the freeways here actually "free" -- a policy that's received surprisingly little support once people realized the horrific traffic jams that would likely ensue -- Prime Minister Hatoyama's government appears to be moving ahead with a plan to give foreigners in Japan with permanent residence status the right to vote in local elections. The idea is to make foreigners who embrace living permanently in Japan feel more like a part of society as the country comes to grips with its new role in the 21st century. Much as I'd enjoy being able to vote for local politicians then blog about it, I don't think for a moment that this plan will actually go anywhere due to Constitutional and other concerns, and everyone from a group of prefectural governors to the Capcom game company (go figure) has come out against the idea. For the record, this proposal isn't really about gaijin like me at all, since 91% of the "foreigners" holding permanent residence status here are zainichi Koreans, descendents from the Koreans who lived and worked in Japan mostly from 1910 through the end of World War II. Nearly all of these people were born in Japan and often don't speak Korean, yet for historical and cultural reasons that are difficult for me to fathom go through life holding a passport from South or North Korea, despite the fact that they can become Japanese citizens very easily. It speaks volumes of Japan's society that they could have a national discussion about a topic like this without actually naming the group that the legislation is really about.

Should foreigners here have the right to vote? The DPJ says yes.

What Are J-List's Top Selling Products?

Ever wonder what the best-selling products at J-List are? Well, I'll tellyou. The iTunes prepaid cards that allow anyone to buy J-POP, anime and other cool songs for their iPod or iPhone are usually at the top of the list, as are the Japan Kit Kat treats, which our customers love to buy. The traditional candy from the Showa Period called dagashi are also quite popular, and products like Neri Ame which you knead with chopsticks or those delightful Sakuma Drops from Grave of the Fireflies are also top sellers. Since February 14 is fast approaching, our selection of chocolate has been selling briskly, like those wacky Unchikun poop-shaped chocolates that promises to bring you good luck. If you'd like to see the top 50 products at J-List over the past week, just click this link -- it's kind of interesting to see what other customers are buying.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Bilingual Brain: Me and my Daughter

I've written before about how people who are bilingual actually develop separate personalities for each language, and it's interesting to analyze how the connections between the two sides work. I'm a normal American from California who's somehow able to switch into Japanese mode, bowing and using polite language as needed -- I even bow while speaking Japanese on the phone. Since I learned the language in a normal classroom, the synaptic links between Japanese and English sides of my brain were built piece-by-piece, as eat new concept was internalized. My daughter's experience is somewhat different: she learned to be Japanese and write kanji normally here in Japan, but our frequent trips to the U.S. have also allowed the English side of her to develop into a Hannah Montana-loving American teenager. The interesting thing is that in her case, the two sides are hardly linked at all, and whenever I ask her to translate a certain word she fumbles, despite the fact that she can recite her favorite High School Musical quotes without pause. Recently she's been learning English using the "YouTube Method," watching all those Disney Channel shows, and it's fun to hear the English slang she pulls out.

Being bilingual is fun, but it can be a strange experience at times, too.

Have an Entrance Exam, Have a Kit Kat™

Right now it's juken (test) season in Japan, when hundreds of thousands of high school students take the university entrance exams they've prepared for over the past three years. The tests that each student must take differ depending on what school they're shooting for: students trying to get into a prestigious national university like Tokyo or Kyoto University must take both a standardized exam called the Center Test plus the individual test for that school. Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the industrialized world, and as the dearth of new children has started to filter up to the university system, more schools will be chasing fewer students, resulting in lower academic standards for all but the top institutions. Due to a happy linguistic accident, the name Kit Kat sounds similar to the Japanese phrase kitto katsu ("you will surely win"), which has made it the official snack mothers give to their kids to munch on while studying. To commemorate the season, Nestle has released a cool Kit Kat coffee mug + chocolate set to help anyone who is studying hard this winter. You will surely pass your test!

"Test season" is a stressful time for students hoping to pass their entrance exams.

Karaoke as a Japanese Learning Tool

The J-List crew had fun at our official company New Year's Party on Friday, consuming lots of good food and sake as we all officially promised to gambarimasu -- to do our best and work hard -- for our customers in the new year. Afterwards we went to belt out some songs at the "karaoke box" near the J-List office. I was amazed at the thickness of the karaoke song book on the table, which had grown over the past few years into a Shonen Ace-esque 800 pages featuring just about any song you could want to sing. Best of all for members of the otaku generation, the number of offerings from anime and video games at karaoke boxes these days is incredible, with every song from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Macross Frontier plus a heaping portion of Miku Hatsune tunes, too. I'd made use of karaoke ever since my early days of learning Japanese since it's fun, gives you positive social feedback and exposes you to lots of kanji words, but the number of anison (anime songs) to be found in a karaoke book in the 80s was nothing compared to the rich bounty available today. If you're interested in learning to sing some Japanese songs, we recommend the iTunes Japan prepaid cards that we sell -- most songs have karaoke versions available.

Karaoke can also be a fun study tool -- you can even remember better if you how the song goes.

Some Random Things from J-List

At J-List, we strive to surprise you with fun and interesting things from Japan that you never expected to see. Products like our "Dirty American Devil" T-shirt, which presents the derogatory word the Japanese were using for gaijin during World War II -- a direct translation would be something like "beastly American soldier" -- on a camouflage-themed T-shirts. Or our popular "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" line of T-shirts, hoodies and hats, which even occasionally work, we're told. We always have a large selection of fun and random J-snacks, from Takoyaki treats from FritoLay Japan to Kit Kat with chili powder in them. Finally, if we can't surprise you with the wacky Japanese kitchen items we carry, like the Hello Kitty ice cube trays, we'll eat our Domo-kun hats.