Friday, February 26, 2010

Gaijin with Accents

When a member of one language group learns to speak another language, the laws of phonetics decree that he or she will speak with an accent -- this is true of everyone, including myself. I'm told that English speakers generally sound more emotional than Japanese when we speak their language, often letting excitement about whatever we're talking about filter into our speech. In comparison, spoken Japanese is flat and generally lacking in intonation, which seems to fit with my theory that Japanese are really Vulcans. There are of course more accents than just English-to-Japanese, and encountering these can be a surprise, like the time I couldn't understand the girl at the KFC drive-thru because she was Chinese, and I'd never heard a Chinese-Japanese accent before. These days I'm fond of Korean-Japanese accents, and whenever the adorable actress Yoon Sona is on TV I stop to watch -- I just love the sing-song tones of her imperfectly pronounced Japanese.

If you're learning Japanese, there are some steps you can take to reduce any accent you have when speaking. First, do your best to avoid reading Romanized Japanese, that is Japanese written in the Roman alphabet, because of the way your brain will try to extend the grammar and pronunciation rules of English too far (there is no silent 'e' in the word moe). Instead, use Japanese study tools that force you to learn words in hiragana, katakana and kanji, such as the Genki textbook series or the excellent flashcards from White Rabbit. This is harder at first but will pay off immediately in better pronunciation, as you say words like onsen or ichi man (hot springs and the numeric unit 10,000) the correct way, e.g. OWN-sen and ichi MAHN, not as they'd be pronounced if they were English words. Using music to help accent reduction is another good idea -- I used to use the song Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega as a teaching tool with my Japanese students. So if you like karaoke, you've got a great tool right there!

When foreigners speak Japanese, we naturally have accents.

Today's Highlighted Product: Artbooks!

One of our favorite categories of product are the gorgeous artbooks in Japan, which are printed on high gloss paper that looks great. Recently popular artbooks collections like the 100 Masters of Bishojo Painting or the Pixiv Girls Collection 2010 have been popular, highlighting the works of many artists. Also, new artbooks by Tony Taka and Shirow Masamune have been very popular with our customers. Personally, I'd recommend that every active anime fan consider a subscription to Megami Magazine and Nyan Type -- the free art and posters they jam into each issue is just amazing to behold each month, and the few overflow issues we get in sell out rapidly. Finally, we love the Queen's Blade line of slightly ero artbooks like the just-released Kasumi, and recommend them all very highly. Click here to view all artbooks, or here to see the top 50 organized by popularity.

Anime Character Types: Kikoku Shijo

It's funny how anime characters tend to follow certain established patterns, like the classic dojikko clumsy girl, or the always-popular tsundere, who kicks your butt one moment then shyly hands you chocolate the next. Another common anime character meme is kikoku shijo, a word which means "returned child" refering to a Japanese who's spent several years living abroad. In the currently running anime Baka to Test to Shokanju ("Idiots, Tests, and Summoned Beasts"), the character of Minami Shimada plays this role -- although she's quite smart, she was put in class F with all the other stupid kids because growing up in Germany left her unable to read kanji properly. Although kikoku shijo might be a fun way to add a fresh dimension to a character, in reality life can be quite difficult for Japanese who spend several years overseas then return to Japan. Not only do they have trouble keeping up in Japanese schools, they may have difficulties fitting in with Japan's harmonious society, potentially rendering them "KY," a Japanese slang word which means kuuki yomenai or "can't read the air," e.g. they aren't in tune with various unspoken social signals all around them. On the other hand, there are some advantages to growing up outside Japan: they get to learn foreign languages perfectly, and when it comes to getting into university, there are special slots prepared for them.

There are quite a few "returned children" characters in anime.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Takoyaki and Chopstick Counters

There are several methods of learning a foreign language, including Grammar-Translation (learning grammar and example sentences), Total Physical Response ("Simon Says" type activities), the Natural Approach (mimicking how children learn), and so on. Added to this is the always-fun "do anything that gets you attention" approach, which I've named the Social Feedback Method since that sounds better. Looking back, I can see that I've enjoyed surprising my Japanese hosts by doing things they didn't expect a foreigner to do. Japanese are used to gaijin not being able to eat some of their more unique culinary dishes, but with very few exceptions -- natto and the pickled fish guts called shio-kara -- I have surprised them by eating everything, including the time I was served whole baby octopus. I also go out of my way to count pairs of chopsticks with the proper counter of zen (e.g. ichizen, nizen, sanzen for one, two, three pairs of chopsticks), rather than the more common counter for long objects hon (which would be ippon, nihon, sanbon). In my heyday I was even able to write a few esoteric kanji that my Japanese wife couldn't write, although use of computers has killed much of that.

I found I had no problem eating the stranger foods I encountered in Japan.

Japan's Focus on Education

Japan's transformation into one of the world's foremost industrial nations has been quite an achievement, especially when you consider the fact that unlike the United States, Japan is almost completely lacking in valuable natural resources. This has really been a blessing in disguise, though, as it's forced the country to embrace education. I've observed Japan's educational system for a long time, back when I was teaching English conversation and grammar and now as a parent of two teenagers, and education is definitely a higher priority here than it was for me growing up. One positive aspect of education here is the existence of competition to make students study harder, both to get a higher ranking in their class or to get into a better high school or university. There's a complex ecosystem of evening and weekend schools (juku) which help students keep up with their studies and prepare for upcoming examinations. Best of all, since young people are more engaged with school, they have less free time to get into trouble than I did while growing up.

So is America really not as focused on education as Japan? It struck me that my own high school days, essentially doing no studying or hard academic work to speak of until I got to college, might not be the case for everyone. How was is for you, and is Japan strange for expecting its students to attend evening schools until 10 pm then study even more when they get home?

Japan is extremely focused on education, at least compared to my own days growing up.

Japan's Influence on Star Wars and Other Science Fiction

From the Jedi Knights to the Kobayashi Maru to William Gibson's inclusion of Black Black caffeine gum in his cyberpunk novels, Japan provides an endless stream of ideas for science fiction books and movies. Many classic concepts found in SF were inspired by Japan, such as the warlike Klingons, and I'm pretty sure the caste system in Planet of the Apes is based on the division of Japanese society into farmers, artisans, merchants and warriors from the Edo Period. (The writer was a prisoner of the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII.) George Lucas elevated mining Japan for ideas to an art form with Star Wars. The Jedi? They're a stylized samurai who wield the Force instead of the life energy known as ki, and their name comes from jidai-geki, the period dramas that Lucas was a fan of. Vader gets his helmet and famous "Darth" prefix from feudal lord Date Masamune, and when Queen Amidala changes dresses in every scene of The Phantom Menace, she's doing oiro-naoshi, a ceremonial changing of kimonos done at a Japanese wedding. Don't even get me started on Kabuki. James Cameron isn't above looking to Japan to find something mysterious to put in his movies, and in Avatar, the Na'vi utter a prayer of thanks before they kill an animal for food. This is essentially the same as the phrase itadakimasu, said before every meal, which originated as a Buddhist tradition of thanking the animal you were about to eat for dying.

Many ideas in science fiction get their inspiration from Japan.

Cool Stuff from Japan: Elecom Computer Peripherals

Elecom is the famous computer peripheral company whose slogan is "Around the PC," and we've got many products by this famous company, from the smallest USB flash drive ever made to their line of USB keyboards with katakana on the keys. We also carry their popular Hello Kitty wireless USB mice as well as the outstanding SCOPE NODE laser mice, based on the legendary mouse by Shirow Masamune. We even have some, er, interesting mouse pads for you. Finally, J-List has been carrying some really awesome products for iPhone/iPod users, like the Evangelion iPhone cases or the new Rilakkuma iPhone cases we just posted today. You can browse all our computer and electronics products, or see the top 50 products on the site now!

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Gochiso-sama deshita" And Other Useful Polite Phrases of Japanese

In Japanese, there's a class of polite phrases that are useful to memorize since they're used quite almost daily. One of these is gochiso-sama deshita (go-chi-soh sah-mah desh-ta), which is said when you finish eating a meal, and it can be translated as "thank you for the feast." (Japanese children must say this phrase before they're allowed to leave the table, making it roughly the same as "May I be excused?" in English.) In work environments, it's common to say otsukare-sama deshita (oh-ts-kah-reh-sah-mah desh-ta) to your co-workers when they leave for the day, meaning something like "thank you for working hard today, you must be tired." Japan is quite a "vertical" society, with different language used depending on whether you're the senpai or the kohai -- the senior or junior member of an organization -- and there's a version of this phrase for when speaking to people lower in status than you, which is gokuro-sama deshita (goh-koo-roh sah-mah desh-ta). Because I'm the boss around here I could use this alternate phrase with my staff, however I purposely avoid it, preferring to use the normal otsukare-sama deshita farewell instead. This is no doubt in part because I come from the "horizontal" U.S., but also because my staff is working just as hard as I am, so why would I talk to them differently?

Japan All Stars: 100 Japanese Who Are Changing The World

One aspect of Japan I've written about many times is the way Japanese are tickled to death when any of their number receives recognition in the international stage, and many Japanese from novelist Yukio Mishima to Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo to Etsuro Sotoo, who was chosen as the lead sculptor at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, have been raised to near legendary status inside Japan because of their fame abroad. There's even a TV show built around this concept, called "Japan All Stars: 100 Japanese Who Are Changing the World!," which introduces Japanese who are doing or who have done amazing things, like Toraichi Kono, who was Charlie Chaplin's business manager for 18 years. In last week's episode, they did a special on nihon-tsuu, or foreigners who are aficionados of Japan. First there was a group of Japanese sword enthusiasts in Poland who collect beautiful swords and armor. They interviewed Luciano Parisi, who runs a dojo for karate and Japanese taiko drums in the mountains around Genoa, then reported on some other Italians trying to start a local sumo wrestling league. They also covered the huge boom in bento culture in France, a phenomenon J-List is no stranger to since we have so many customers from there. As usual, it's interesting to see how the Japanese react to, say, people in Sweden seriously studying to become ninja. Often, they don't quite know what to make of it, but are always happy to see their culture being embraced around the world.

Japan All Stars is a TV show that introduces Japanese who do amazing things around the world.

Japan's Economy: "Were #2!"

For me, one of the more interesting periods of Japan's history is the Meiji Era, when the country transformed itself from a Medieval feudal society into a modern, industrialized nation in the space of just a few decades. There was one other example of Japan marshalling its resources on a scale so massive it boggles the mind: the decade after World War II, when the country was faced with rebuilding an infrastructure that had been totally destroyed by war. Japan's recovery was such a success that it eventually became the world's second largest economy, an amazing achievement indeed. This year, however, it looks as if China is finally preparing to overtake Japan, as growth in China's consumer base combines with the sharp drop in Japan's export-dependent economy last year.

It looks like China will finally pass Japan economic size this year.

Some New Products at J-List

J-List has a lot of fun, finding new products from Japan to delight our customers. Like the amazing Samurai Sword Umbrellas we posted today, which have wood handles that look like katana, yet they'll keep you dry when it starts to rain out. Cospa has been pushing out a lot of outstanding T-shirts, hoodies and tote bags for fans of K-On!, One Piece and other popular anime, and if you check our Japan T-shirt & hoody page you'll see them all available for preorder. In addition to our popular line of traditional Food Drops candies, we recently started posting amazing furikake, powdered food you sprinkle over rice, which lets you enjoy tastes from all over Japan, like Takoyaki Furikake from Osaka. Finally, we always have fun electronic products from Japan, and the new Evangelion iPhone and iPod cases are really flying off the virtual shelves.