Friday, June 25, 2010

Three Words of Japanese For You

Life is a little more fun when you know some Japanese, whether it's to communicate with nihonjin who can't use English or to catch the attention of cute Japanese coeds on campus. One word you can get quite a lot of mileage from is sugoi (soo-GO-ee), which means "amazing" or "incredible" and which can be used just about any time you need to praise someone. See a Japanese man who's adept at playing the Super Mario theme on an accordion? Just tell him sugoi! and your meaning will be instantly communicated. Then there's daijobu (die-JOE-boo), which means "okay" or "alright" and is generally one of the first words a person learns after coming to Japan. Want to ask if someone is alright with your menu selection at a restaurant, or if they're okay after bumping into that drunk salaryman just now? Just say Daijobu? (Are you okay?) and they can reply, Daijobu (Sure, I'm fine). Finally, another fun short word you can find some interesting uses for is zan-nen (ZAHN-nen), which means "what a shame!" or "how unfortunate!" If someone misses the answer to a question or otherwise fails at something, you can pull this word out and get some laughs from them. It's used a lot by Japanese game show hosts when a guest makes a wrong answer and misses out on the big prize.
Daijobu! It's okay! 

Japanese Hate Speaking English

I see that some of Japan's manga publishers are finally taking action against websites that allow large-scale downloading of their copyrighted works. You could make arguments about the merits of scanlations, including reaching larger audiences, giving access to books that wouldn't be profitable to print and providing competition for licensors, but the question of why haven't Japanese companies done anything about these sites until now is an interesting one. While some might point to the slowness of Japanese companies in coming to grips with the many changes brought by the Internet, my own pet theory is that the individual executives working at these companies are personally terrified that if they took action against any group outside Japan they'd have to speak English at some point. Yes, there's an odd complex among some Japanese (principally males) that if they deal with foreigners in any way, they'll be called upon to speak English and will be embarrassed if they can't. Maybe they could, um, hire someone who speaks English to handle that part?
Some Japanese (usually males) have a complex about English.

Stuff I Buy in the USA

One of my Twitter followers asked me a question the other day. "What items do you take back to Japan with you when you visit the States?" Well, I flit between the U.S. and Japan more than most gaijin, so I've got a pretty good system in place. First, there are certain staples that I like having at home, including "Butter Lite" syrup for pancakes, since Japanese syrup tastes like overly sweet honey, and I always have to bring powdered packets of taco sauce mix, gravy and so on, since it's handy to have around. A bottle of vitamins costs about the same as it does in the U.S. but for 1/5 the contents, hence I always stock up on any health products I think I might need. There's nothing worse than being sick and not having access to the cold remedies you're most familiar with, so I always restock my medicine cabinet with everything from NyQuil to Alka-Seltzer Plus to Advil. The night before my flight back to Japan I go to a store and get Mexican tortillas and a block of really good cheese, since cheese in Japan is limited to "slice cheese" (which is yellow and tasteless) and "melty cheese" (which is white, and also tasteless).
Whenever I'm in the U.S. I stock up on things I can't buy in Japan.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Funny Products in the USA: Green Tea w/Lemon?

Whenever I'm back in the U.S., I like to go to the grocery store and compare the various products I see with stores back in Japan. American companies like using "brand extension" to create spin-off products tied to existing brands -- this is where such such wonderful ideas as Colgate frozen dinner entrees, Coors' bottled mineral water and FritoLay's brand lemonade came from -- and when I go into a store in the U.S. I'm never sure what wacky new crossover product I'll see. It's also fun to check out the local versions of familiar products in Japan, like the chicken flavored instant yakisoba noodles, or green tea flavored with lemon, mint, and passionfruit, which would freak out any Japanese who saw them. On the other hand, these products have a "strangeness" about them (from the Japanese point of view) which makes them fun to bring back to the J-List staff as souvenirs.
Green tea sold in the U.S. comes in flavors that would surprise Japanese if they knew about them.

Blade Runner is To Bubblegum Crisis as 2001 is to Planetes

I've always had an odd affinity for movies released in the year I was born, which was 1968. Three awesome movies happened to come out that year: the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the hardcore sci-fi films Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I especially love 2001, because of the huge scale of its story and unparalleled visual presentation, although you have to appreciate the movie for its wabi and sabi (sober refinement and austere serenity) as it's not an action film. If there's an anime version of 2001, it'd have to be Sunrise's cult series Planetes, an realistic hardcore sci-fi series about humans living in space whose job is to recover floating space debris in orbit around Earth. It's kind of like a super-realistic version of a Gundam series without the mobile suits.

In the show, the staff of the Space Debris Section has a certain keyword they use to indicate they've understood what they've just been told: aikopii, which seemed like a mysterious and oddly cute-sounding word of gibberish to me. It took me several episodes to realize that this mysterious word was actually the English phrase "I copy." This inability to recognize English words pronounced with a Japanese accent is something that happens from time to time, due to the unfamiliar phonetic system of the Japanese, but after studying the language and living here for so long, I was surprised it could still happen to me. Guess I better crack open some Japanese textbooks again...
Planetes is a hardcore SF anime I like a lot. You copy?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Life, the Universe and Birthdays

Sunday was my birthday, and while turning 42 certainly has its own nerdy charm -- although I still don't know the secret of Life, the Universe and Everything -- birthdays are not as welcome as they were when I was 12. I did manage to have a nice party with my family here in San Diego, though, which made it okay. Before the party, we all baked a birthday cake for me, and I realized that the time-honored American (Western?) tradition of licking the bowl after baking a cake was not one that the Japanese practiced. In fact, I was pretty sure my family back in Japan would stare in amazement if I explained the subtle hierarchy involved in determining while child would be able to lick the bowl or the beaters after a cake is baked.
The Meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything: 42

Interesting Bread From Japan

Although rice is the famous staple food of Japan, eaten with almost every meal, the Japanese are no slouches when it comes to bread. Called pan in Japanese, from the Portuguese who introduced it, there are dozens of varieties available to sample. While the word "bread" likely calls up visions of a loaf of sliced bread, there other types which would look more like a doughnut to most gaijin, like the famous famous Anpan, round bread with different types of Japanese sweet beans inside, or Melon Pan, essentially a large piece of sweetened bread that looks like a honeydew melon cut in half -- or like a brain, which is why Japanese say eating it will make you smart. One of my favorite types of Japanese pan is Curry Pan, fried bread with spicy curry inside, yum. Why can't someone make this outside of Japan?
"Curry pan" is bread with delicious curry inside.

My Son's Trip to Kyoto

If you watch any anime at all, you'll know the classic story archetype of the "school trip," when all the students go off to some interesting part of Japan together. Last week my son took his school trip to Kyoto and Nara, the ancient capitals of Japan. The timing was perfect: this year marks the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of Nara, and there are many celebrations to take part in. He visited all the famous places in the two cities, like Nijojo Castle, with "nightingale floors" that make sounds when you walk on them to keep ninjas from sneaking in, and the breathtaking Todaiji temple in Nara, which houses the largest statue of Buddha in Japan. My son and some of his friends also did like the Lucky Star girls in episode 21, making the trek to take their photo in front of the headquarters of Kyoto Animation, the studio that created Lucky Star, Haruhi and Clannad, which made me jealous as hell.
When otaku go to Kyoto, they visit KyoAni's headquarters.