Friday, April 30, 2010

Why Do Japanese Songs Contain English?

One subject that's always fascinated me has been the tendency of Japanese singers to mix English lyrics in with Japanese music, such as the OP (er, the opening theme) to "flying pantsu" anime Sora no Otoshimono (iTunes link here) in which the Japanese lyrics suddenly give way to English, "I can hear your heart bell, can you hear my heart bell?" This random use of "decoration English" for songs is by no means rare, and all manner of popular songs in Japan feature random phrases like "one more chance! never give up!" or "nice to meet you, good to see you!" or "un du trois!" (the latter is not even English, but no one here notices that). Supposedly this trend started with famous singer Yumi Matsutoya (iTunes link), who grew up near Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and was fluent in English since childhood. My own theory about why Japanese songs often feature English words and phrases in them is that the Japanese generally have a positive image of English, and it's possible to embed these "happy" emotions in songs in this way.
Japanese popular music often contains random bits of English for decoration.

Golden Week and Japan

Have you noticed more Japanese people around you over the past couple of days? If so, it may be due to this week being Golden Week, a semi-accidental grouping of holidays which gives everyone here a break from their normal school or work lives, as well as an excuse to travel outside Japan for sightseeing. The holidays are Showa Day on April 29, the birthday of Emperor Hirohito; Constitution Memorial Day, when Japan's postwar constitution went into effect; Greenery Day on May 4, an excuse to celebrate the "vibrant greenery" or something; and Children's Day on May 5th, for celebrating (boy) children by flying Koinobori kites proudly. The name Golden Week was coined in 1951 when an executive at the Daiei Movie Company noticed a spike in ticket sales around these holidays, so his company started a campaign advertise the holiday week as a great time to go see a movie. While Golden Week is a nice break from the daily grind, the entire population of Tokyo heading for the mountains at the same time isn't a lot of fun, and getting caught in those 50 km-long traffic jams really sucks.
Golden Week is a great time to sit in traffic for 12 hours.

Test Hell and English Grammar

My son is in juken jigoku or "test hell" this year, as he prepares for his high school entrance exam next February. He goes to a special night school for three hours four nights a week where he studies the subjects that will be on the test, including math, Japanese history and English. While I can't help him in the math department -- at 15, he's doing stuff that I can't even identify, let alone solve -- I am good at English, right? Well, maybe. I do my best, but the Japanese method of learning English for tests is so bizarre that I'm often not able to explain things to his satisfaction. For example, there might be a section asking the student to identify which of three infinitive verb constructions a group of sentences falls under, naturally with all grammar explanations done using complex terminology in Japanese, which he needs to master in order to pass, despite the fact that he can watch any mainstream Hollywood movie with 100% comprehension. As far as tests are concerned, English is treated more like a mathematical formula to solve rather than a living, breathing language for communication, and my attempts at explaining formal grammar to him often come up lacking.
I'm having difficulty teaching my son Japanese-style English grammar.

Random Fun Things at J-List!

At J-List we work pretty hard to find fun products to surprise and delight our customers. Like those Samurai Sword Umbrellas that came back in stock today, which are really well made, complete with wooden sword hilts that are satisfying to hold. Or those authentic school uniforms and school bags from the famous Matsukameya of Nagoya, whose products are so well made I can say we've never gotten negative feedback from a customer. We're also happy to have so many customers who love Studio Ghibli and Totoro, and have many fine products including those Totoro rubber message stamps. What can J-List do for you today?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

North Korean Schools in Japan

Currently the status of pro-North Korean schools in Japan is being debated. There are of course many "Koreans" living in Japan, although they were born and raised here and often don't speak the Korean language at all, yet for cultural reasons they keep their own national identity and refuse to take Japanese citizenship. There are two political groups who represent the rights of these zainichi ("residing in Japan") Koreans, the moderate Mindan for holders of South Korean passports and the pro-North Korean Chongryon. The latter organization operates 218 pro-Pyongyang schools in Japan which are used to maintain a North Korean cultural identity, including language and allegiance to the "Dear Leader." The government is hammering out the details of a plan to make public high schools free (they're not part of compulsory education and cost around $100 a month per student), and the question of whether or not to include the North Korean-affiliated schools in this program is being discussed. Back in my days as an English teacher, I visited the local North Korean high school once, teaching a sample English lesson to try to get some of the students to come study at our English school. It was definitely one of the stranger experiences I've had as a teacher... (Incidentally, I saw it reported that Japan doesn't fund these pro-North Korean schools at all, yet our own prefecture of Gunma, at least, does contribute $2800 per student per month to these schools. Perhaps this has something to do with our special status as the Pachinko capital of Japan.)
An assembly at a North Korean high Japan.

Fun Japanese Snacks That Go With Beer: "Otsumami"

There's a special category of snacks made to be consumed with alcohol called otsumami (oh-tsoo-MAH-mee), which encompasses everything from those persimmon seed-shaped spicy rice crackers with peanuts (Kakipea) to dried, shredded ika (squid) which tastes better the longer you live here. There's almost no end to the variety of these snacks, and every convenience store will sport a well-stocked selection near its beer, wine and sake. Some of these snacks are relatively well-known outside Japan, like the edamame soybeans that are great to pop into your mouth on summer nights at the beer garden, while others are more obscure, such as chi-kama sausage made of pressed fish and jalapeno cheese, Pretz-type stick snacks, and various types of canned fish. The other evening I was having a glass of wine with Mrs. J-List and she pulled out a bag of snacks she'd bought that day, offering some to me. Unfortunately it was one of my least favorite foods in the world: tiny dried anchovies, which she proceeded to eat eat like Cheetos, scooping up the little heads that had broken off and fallen to the bottom of the bag. *shudder*
Mozart and Beethoven love Kameda™ Brand rice crackers.

Interesting Japanese Phrases: "New Rice"

It's funny the way culture reflects language and vice-versa. One phrase you'll hear sometimes in Japanese is tenka no~, which literally means "having received the blessing of Heaven and the Emperor to rule Japan." During the sengoku or "Warring States" period of Japanese history, that's what the various warlords were trying to do: win enough power that they could go to the Emperor in Kyoto and receive his blessing to become the designated military ruler of the country (Shogun). In modern usage, tenka no~ is used to refer to companies that receive special status from the government, and someone might cynically complain about tenka no NTT ("NTT, Anointed by Heaven") when their phone service is bad. Another word I'm fond of is shinmai (SHEEN-mai), which means "new rice" that's just been harvested. A person who starts a new job will often be referred to with this term, e.g. shinmai salaryman for someone working their their first 9-5 job, or a shinmai idol singer who has just made her debut and is still "green."
Someone starting a new job is shinmai, or "new rice," a word I like for some reason.

Japanese Study Supplies @ J-List

Whether you want to master some situation-based Japanese phrases, teach yourself hiragana and katakana or undertake a formal study of the Japanese language, J-List has some great products to help you reach your goals. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test has been revamped for 2010, and we've got some great textbooks covering the new material which we've been adding to the site. You can enjoy the fastest and most efficient electronic dictionary with the DS Kanji Dictionary (which features just about everything you'll ever need to look up), a big selection of flashcards and other study tools, plus the excellent Zebra Check Set for hiding information you're trying to memorize on the page, making it easier to memorize anything. You can view all our Japanese study supplies, or just the top 50 Japanese study aids this week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Forgetting My Own Dialect of English

I've got an American friend who once asked me an odd question. "I forget, do Americans stand in a line, or in a queue?" Forgetting your own dialect of English might sound like a strange thing to have happen, but in a place like Japan where foreigners of all nationalities are grouped together into one big gaijin melting pot, little things like vocabulary and grammar can seem pretty unimportant. It's quite common for gaijin to hang out with foreigners from other parts of the world, and I've been known to throw back a beer or two with friends from other countries -- it's fun to debate American politics with Canadians or Australians or Brits, since they're emotionally divorced from the day-to-day political issues in the U.S. One word I accidentally picked up was "uni" (you-NEE), slang from Australia (I think) that means university, but none of my friends back home knew what I was talking about when I used it.
Living in Japan might make your dialect of English change.

Japan Can Make You Say "LOL WUT?"

I've lived in Japan nearly two decades and have seen some things that really confused me over the years. Like the odd statues of tanuki (Japanese badgers, like Totoro) displayed for good luck outside restaurants, which feature very detailed anatomical parts including huge balls and sometimes erect members, or a "graveyard of vending machines" I happened across once, with hundreds of defunct vending machines all lined up on a vacant lot. Currently there's a popular song in Japan called Toire no Kamisama, or "God of the Toilet," and when I heard the title of the song I had no idea what it could possibly be about. It turns out that grandmothers -- who often live in the same house their children and grandchildren -- tell their granddaughters that there's a "goddess of beauty" hiding in the bathroom of every family, and girls who clean the family toilets without complaint will become beautiful when they grow up. It's ultimately a song of thanks to the singer's grandmother, and when the song gets to the part where she dies after saying a final goodbye, it can really choke you up.
These anatomically correct statues are displayed outside many restaurants.


The History of Totoro

Once while my family was watching My Neighbor Totoro, the awesome animated film about a magical forest spirit that only children can see, my wife remarked to our kids, "But I think your dad can see Totoro, too." The fourth feature film by Studio Ghibli, it tells the story of a family that moves to rural Japan to be near the hospital where their mother is recuperating from tuberculoses, and the magical creatures Satsuki and Mei encounter. Totoro is a combination cat, owl and tanuki -- a kind of Japanese badger often thought to be magical -- who guards the forest and all who live there, not unlike a Japanese version of Dr. Seuss's Lorax. In the story it's indicated that Totoro gets his name from the Three Billy Goats Gruff, when Mei mispronounces the word "troll," although in reality Totoro's name came about when the daughter of a friend of Miyazaki mispronounced the city of Tokorozawa in Saitama Prefecture as "Totorozawa." Originally planned as a short film to be released as a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies since the producers were sure that no one would want to see a movie about two girls and a monster in rural Japan, Totoro went on to define Studio Ghibli more than any other work. True Totoro fans planning a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo should time their visit to coincide with the showing of Mei and the Kittenbus, the "sequel" to Totoro which gives additional insight into the world of Totoro and the Cat Bus. A brief check of the movie schedule for this year (which frustratingly is in Japanese only) indicates the short film can be seen from 5/22~5/31, 7/16~7/31, 9/16~9/30 and 11/1~11/8. If you're looking for awesome Totoro products, you can browse all of them here, or view the top 50 Totoro products by order of popularity.
Can you see Totoro? According to my wife, I can.

Bento Boxes @ J-List

J-List loves to find fun products from Japan for our customers, and I especially love the traditional bento box offerings from Hakoya. Whether you're looking for a very traditional bento with lacquered wood styling, a jubako "stacking" style bento that makes it fun to discover food each level is hiding, or bento boxes that are just fun, like the Henohenomoheji bento (this is a face drawn out of hiragana characters), we have cool products in stock. You can browse all our bento box offerings, or check out the top 50 bento boxes from Japan.