Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ways Japan Has Changed

I like to think back on what Japan was like when I first arrived, in 1991. Although the Tokyo land bubble had officially burst two years before, the halo of Japan's long period of rapid economic growth still pervaded the country. Employment was high, and everyone had plenty of money to buy silly things like toilets that wash and dry your butt, complete with remote controls -- why anyone would need a remote control for a toilet seat I can't say, but I've seen them with my own eyes. There was actually too much employment in Japan back in those days. On my first trip to Tokyo Disneyland I went into an ice cream shop and was surprised to see no less than eleven employees, wiping down counters while they waited to serve me, although I was the only customer in the store. It was a magical time, when companies could make profits without asking themselves hard questions about how they were serving their customers. The hard times that Japan faced throughout the "lost decade" that came after were difficult indeed but at least Japan emerged a leaner, more efficient place as a result.
Japan has changed a lot since I've been here.

English Education Reform in Japan

The Japanese Ministry of Education has announced a new initiative designed to improve English ability by requiring English lessons to start in the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school, instead of the first grade of junior high school, which is the current policy. You might think that the future might see an improvement in the language skills of the Japanese due to this bold new plan, but if you've taught ESL in Japan for as long as I did, you'd know that precious little will actually change. The program essentially calls for Japanese teachers who may or may not have any special language skill to add an hour of English instruction per week. Since many homeroom teachers don't know English at all, other than the dreary grammar they were forced to memorize for their university entrance exams, I'm afraid many students will have katakana-ified English ingrained on their brains and will have even more trouble learning any kind of natural, living English later. Even bringing in native English teachers doesn't solve the problem. An hour of English per week simply isn't enough to build a base of vocabulary and give students confidence at using the language. I don't mean to be pessismistic, but without Japan studying successful bilingualism programs in countries like Canada and the Netherlands and making touch choices, Japan will always be EFL (English as a Foreign Language), not ESL (English as a Second Language), and things will pretty much always be the same.
Japan is rolling out another English reform program.

Japan, the Most Pro-American Country In The World?

One of the better aspects about living in Japan, from the point of view as a Yankee expat, is the country's status as the most "pro-American" nation in the world. From James Dean to Marilyn Monroe to Hollywood and Hawaii, the average Japanese person tends to have a favorable image of the United States, despite a few minor problems like the current rise in tensions over the Futenma Marine Base on Okinawa. Two of the most popular icons in "Japanese" history are Admiral Matthew C. Perry, who forced Japan to trade with the U.S. at gunpoint in 1854 , and Douglas MacArthur, the victorious general who oversaw the occupation of Japan, credited by many (my mother-in-law included) for "saving" Japan from itself and helping to create the modern country we know today. Which is kind of odd, since Perry and MacArthur can were nothing if not enemies of Japan at the time, and yet today they're considered heroes. Carrying it a bit further, America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and yet the Japanese nearly always have a positive view of the U.S. If you figure Japan out, can you tell me?
Admiral Perry is often made into a cute mascot character.

Good News for Eroge Fans

If you're a fan of the PC dating-sim games J-List sells, then Christmas just came early. We've got not one, but two awesome games in stock for you today. First is the fabulous sequel to dungeon-crawling yuri-RPG Lightning Warrior Raidy. Raidy 2 is 3x as big as the original, with towns, items to buy and sell, multiple 3D dungeons to explore, and more saucy wandering monsters and bosses than you can shake a sword at. Then enjoy Moero Downhill Night 2, which combines fast-paced Initial "D" style downhill racing with beautiful girls who want you to take them to the finish line. A super sequel to the first game, with many great girls and cars to race. Both games are shipping now on CD-ROM, or wait to order the download in a week (to allow time for preorders to reach customers). Official website for Moero Downhill Night 2 is online, too!

Monday, June 28, 2010

How Kanji Input with Computer Works

I remember when I first started learning Japanese, I wondered how Japanese text entry could work on a computer. I pictured some horrible keyboard with hundreds of keys, but in reality, Japanese computers use the same QWERTY keyboards as everyone else (though often with cool katakana characters printed on the keys). Japanese input is accomplished through a front-end processor, basically a program that ships with Windows and Mac OS X (and iPhone/iPad) that handles converting your text into the correct mix of hiragana, katakana and kanji before it's pasted into your document or email. With Japanese text input selected, you type some text with the keyboard -- for example, aoi sora which means "blue sky." Hit the space bar, and the computer will convert the text you've just typed into the kanji/kana combination it thinks you want, although sometimes problems can occur here, as there are often alternate or archaic kanji in the computer's dictionaries, and it can be hard to know which to choose. When you get used to the system, you can enter Japanese text quite quickly, although there's a downside -- entering Japanese into a computer becomes so easy that it's easy to forget how to write kanji manually.
Dude, there's katakana on the computer keys.

Giving Speeches in Japanese

While the Japan Language Proficiency Test is the most recognized test of Japanese, and likely the best for anyone studying the language to focus on, there are other, more abstract tests of one's Japanese ability. Like ordering a pizza, and explaining to the person on the other end of the phone how to get to your house. Or ordering fast food at a drive-thru and trying to get one's Japanese accent so good that the person on the other end doesn't know you're a foreigner. Another test that "lifer" gaijin like me will eventually need to pass is giving a speech in Japanese, which I've done many times. In fact, because I run a company, whenever one of my Japanese employees get married I'm often the guest of honor, expected to give the longest speech. The other day the J-List crowd got together to say thanks and sayonara to Asami, the J-List employee who keeps us well stocked with bento, traditional and fashion products. I'm in San Diego with family now, but I wanted to write a little speech to let Asami know how much we'd appreciated her hard work over the last three years, which I had my wife read in my place. Thanks, Asami, and welcome to Ai-chan, her capable replacement.
Live in Japan long enough, and you'll have to give a speech in Japanese.

Living in Japan Changes You

First of all, the J-List and JBOX.com websites were down for a portion of Saturday due to a site issue (a random DDOS attack). Apologies if you were trying to use the site during that time -- everything is fixed now.

Living for many years away from your home country would change anyone, and being in Japan is no different. For those working as teachers of English as a second language (ESL), the long hours of interacting only with students can lead to embarrassing changes in your own language skills -- you can actually end up speaking English too clearly and carefully. In Japanese society, modesty is considered an important trait to have -- it's much better to be self-effacing than boastful -- and that can rub off on gaijin who have lived in Japan a long time. Japanese roads generally don't have names, which forces your brain to remember roads spatially, rather than memorize places locations by street names, and I fancied I could feel my brain stretching to adapt to my strange new environment. Also, since the Japanese language uses the katakana writing system to express foreign words, I sometimes found myself losing the connection with how words are spelled in English. For some reason I'd never encountered the famous Louis Vuitton brand before going to Japan, and I basically learned the name in katakana. It took me several years to learn how to spell it in English.
Teaching ESL can make you speak too slowly and clearly.