Friday, June 18, 2010

Yoji Jukugo: Expressive Kanji Phrases in Japanese

One interesting aspect of learning Japanese is tackling the complex world of yomoji jukugo, a class of four-character compound words imported from Chinese which add flavor and elegance to Japanese speech and writing. Because the words use complex kanji characters to represent abstract meaning they can be hard for foreigners to learn, yet some of these phrases are used so often the context is not hard to pick up. Some common examples of these kanji-based expressions include jigo-jitoku (lit. "self executed, self benefit"), which is how the Japanese express the idea of "it serves you right"; or happo bijin (lit. "eight directions beautiful-person"), trying to present a positive face in all eight directions, meaning someone who is trying to be popular with everyone; or isshin doutai, (lit. "one heart, same body"), signifying two people who are so close their hearts are completely joined by love or friendship. If you're an anime fan, you may already know some of these four-kanji expressions: Tenjo Tenge literally means "the heaven and the earth," and Ikki Tousen is a phrase that means "the most powerful knight in the world."

My favorite of these four-character kanji phrases would have to be issho kenmei (ee-show ken-mei), which literally means "to try very hard, as hard as anything you've ever done in your life." Like the verb ganbarimasu (to do one's best, to work hard), this phrase represents a big part of the Japanese study/work ethic that really defines Japan as a nation. When I make up my mind to do something, I'm the kind of person who works very issho kenmei at it, whether it's climbing Mt. Fuji, learning Japanese or creating a company to sell Totoro bento boxes and Samurai Sword umbrellas to people all over the world. Perhaps the most famous symbol of being issho kenmei about something are those traditional Japanese hachimaki kanji headbands, which are worn by anyone who is fired up with passion for something, for example high school students studying for their university entrance exams, new employees in a company opening ceremony, volunteers at a political rally, or gaijin studying Japanese.
The kanji phrase isshin doutai means "one heart, same body".

My Egg McMuffin Reconsideration

Let us all pause a moment and reflect on how awesome Egg McMuffins are. When I was six years old, my mother announced that she'd gotten a computer job in Aukland, New Zealand, and the family moved there for a year. Being in a country that was quite different from the U.S. was my first taste of culture shock, and we combatted it by finding a familiar food to eat -- the Egg McMuffin from Aukland's lone McDonald's restaurant (this was back in 1976, so there are more of them now, I expect). When I came to Japan to live, I found myself experiencing the usual homesickness that anyone leaving their home country would, so once again I reached for my familiar friend, savoring the way the egg combines with the cheese and the Canadian Bacon just so. Someday I'll be sick in bed, and I hope I have loved ones around me who will bring me this wonderful food to eat and make me feel better.
Over the years I've been sustained by my old friend, the Egg McMuffin.

Moero Downhill Night 2 Shipping Soon!

Good news for fans of the PC dating-sim games we sell: the upcoming game Moero Downhill Night has been declared "golden master" and will be shipping soon. A game that combines the thrill of fast-paced thrill of downhill mountain racing, Japan style, with beautiful girls who want you to take them to the finish line, it's a really outstanding game. Visit the Moero Downhill Night 2 official site, or click here to preorder the game now.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Julius Scissors

One odd thing about learning a foreign language is that you observe things native speakers might not notice. For example, for some reason I was explaining the meaning of a Cesarean Section birth to my kids, which is called teioh sekkai or "Emperor-King Cutting Open" in Japanese, in case you ever wanted to know. My wife said, "I'll bet the word 'scissors' comes from the same root word as Ceaser," which was something that had never occurred to me, and may well be correct, for all I know. A common word for "boy" in Japanese is seinen, written with the characters for "blue" and "year," which seemed quite random to me. Then one day I remembered the odd blue spot that all Japanese children are born with on their buttocks called the Mongolian Spot, which fades away around the age of five. I was sure that the etymology of "blue-year" meaning "boy" had to be related to this blue spot, which (as the J-List staff told me) is something that no Japanese would ever have thought of (and which they thought sounded like an accurate idea).

Hmm, Julius Scissors...I can totally see a hairdresser using that name. I'd better trademark it just in case. 
Julius Caesar's famous name related to the word "scissors"?

Japanese Gestures in Anime

Anime is a useful bridge between East and West since it allows you to pick up on some of the minute details of human communication, which would never be discussed in a language textbook. In the West, when a person wants to indicate himself with a gesture he'll likely point at his chest with his forefinger or thumb. In Japan, however, a person will point to their nose if they want to communicate the idea of "Do you mean me?" which takes a little getting used to. Of course, I've lived in Japan long that I do these kinds of Japanese gestures while in the U.S., which can feel really strange. Once I went into a store and the employee there decided I must be from France for some reason, although I was as American as he was. I wasn't sure what he was basing his assumption on, so I just smiled without saying anything.
This Japanese gesture means "who, me?"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

San Diego, Beer & Carl Macek

I'm enjoying my time in San Diego, doing various family-related things right now. The other day a couple of friends took me out for some quality beers at a local micro-brew pub called Toronado -- if you're local to San Diego, I recommend it. As we drank, raising more than one glass to the memory of Carl Macek, I noticed how bright the sky was outside, despite it being past 8:00 or so. This, of course, is thanks to daylight savings time, the much-reviled system of setting clocks ahead or behind to take advantage of more daylight. They don't have this system in Japan, which is good for people who hate remembering to set your clock on a certain day, but bad for those of us who dislike having Mr. Sun peeking at you when you go to bed, as so often happens to me.
There's no daylight savings time in Japan, which is both good and bad.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rainy Season in Japan

Japan has entered its rainy season, a month-long period when it will rain most every day as the country does its best impersonation of Seattle. The word for rainy season is tsuyu, written with characters that mean "plum rain," and there are several theories about how this odd name came about, including that it comes from the fact that Japanese plums ripen around this time of year, or that the raindrops pelting you start to feel as large as plums. Although some might complain about the dreary weather, the rain is important to Japan's rice growing, and odd years when very little rain fell have been followed by bad rice harvests. Incidentally, if you ever want to know what the weather will be like tomorrow, do what Japanese kids do and throw your shoe as hard as you can. If the shoe lands upright, it will be a nice day tomorrow; if it lands on its side, look for clouds; and if it lands upside down, it will rain. Wherever you are in the world, you can keep rain at bay with J-List's awesome Samurai Sword Umbrellas, with beautifully detailed wooden handles that are a joy to trip.

Japan and Nostalgia

For some reason, gaijin always seem to remember the first words of Japanese we learn. In my case it was the word natsukashii (nahts-kah-SHEE), which translates as "nostalgic" or more accurately, "what you're saying makes me so nostalgic I look like one of those manga characters with a big tear rolling out of my eye." From appreciating the wabi and sabi (sober refinement and austere serenity) of old buildings from the Showa Period to maintaining a complex appreciation for the JPOP singers of past eras (iTunes Japan link, log out of your current account if link doesn't work), the Japanese are definitively a people in touch with the past. The other day I was walking down the street and decided to duck into a shop to ask directions. It was an old tabako-ya (tobacco shop) that looked like it'd been around for a hundred years or more, and the awesome feel of the old-style wood panes of the doors and the earth floor inside the shop really spoke to me the moment I walked in.
The Japanese are bit fans of nostalgia.

This Blog Post is Titled: "....................."

The rise of manga and anime has brought the West into contact with some interesting Japanese visual conventions. I remember reading the first Japanese comics ever translated into English, and wondering what characters meant when they said ".............." It was strange at the time, although by now most of us have figured out that this indicates a pause in which the character is thinking deeply about something. Sailor Moon introduced us all to the "sweat drop" that appears over a character's head when they're upset about something, which took people a while to get used to, I'm sure. The other day my wife was playing with a chalkboard program I had on the iPad, and she naturally (from a Japanese point of view) drew an umbrella with her name and mine underneath. This is called ai-ai-gasa or "love-love umbrella" and it's the staple of Japanese kids who want to imply a romantic relationship between two people in the class when the teacher isn't looking. In my day it was the "sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G" song...
"Love-love umbrella" and the anime sweat drop are odd concepts from anime.