Friday, July 09, 2010

Godzilla Day is My Blogger Anniversary Day

This Sunday is my 12th anniversary as a J-blogger. J-List has been around since 1996, but I trace my beginning as a blogger to the Japanese release of that awful American Godzilla film. I went to see the film with my wife, and as we drove back to our house I was so full of comments I had to send a J-List email update at 3 am to get them all out. I wrote about how the Japanese films illustrated the concept of wabi and sabi, translated as "sober refinement and elegant simplicity," the esthetic idea that a single rose blooming is more beautiful than one hundred roses, or that a single monster battling all of Japan is more beautiful than a hundred baby Godzillas running around New York. I got an enormous amount of feedback from customers asking for more commentary like that, and I realized that J-List isn't in the business of selling anime figures and bento boxes and "Looking for a Japanese girlfriend" T-shirts, but is instead all about being a bridge of ideas to Japan for people around the world.
Strangely enough, I'm thankful to this guy for helping me become a better blogger.

Food is a Natural Cultural Bridge

San Diego has a vibrant Asian community, and driving down the Convoy Street will introduce you to a wealth of restaurants serving Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and other types of cuisine. Yesterday some friends invited me out to a place called Yakyudori for good ramen and Sapporo beer, and everything was delicious. While we were eating, I realized everyone in our group seemed to know all the Japanese words related to the food we were enjoying, from shoyu (soy sauce) ramen to katsu (fried pork cutlet) to edamame beans. It then occurred to me that food is a natural area that bridges Japanese and Western culture, providing an easy toehold for people to mingle language and ideas back and forth. There are many other "natural cultural bridges" that make it easy to share information between East and West, such as kaiju monster movies, martial arts, anything awesome related to samurai and ninja, and of course the ecchi stuff. Are there any other natural bridges between Japan and the rest of the world you can think of?
Food is an natural cultural bridge between East and West.

How 'Bout my Crooked Teeth?

One of the highlights of Anime Expo was the concert given by the two singers of Macross Frontier, the 25th anniversary sequel to the original Macross series. The concert featured May'n, who performs the singing voice of the sexy Sheryl Nome, and Megumi Nakashima, the voice of Ranka Lee, and it was a blast. Besides the live stage, the concert hall featured two giant TV screens which showed close-up video of the stars as they sang. This was great, but for one problem: seeing both singers close-up like that made me really want to take them to a good orthodontist. For someone reason, Japanese often have crooked teeth which look strange to Westerners, almost like they've got too many teeth for their mouth. These teeth are often fixed with braces as children, although just as often they're left the way they are since, well, they're considered to be very cute. Crooked teeth are called yaeba (yah-eh-ba) and as far as I can tell, they function in Japan the way a beauty mark works in the West: a tiny defect in a person that becomes their "charm point."
I'd have given my eye teeth to take these girls to a good orthodontist.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

In Japan, Yes Doesn't Mean Yes

Leave it to Japan to turn something as simple as "yes" and "no" into something more complex than it needs to be. But because of the differences in language and culture, sometimes even these simple concepts can cause confusion. "Yes" in Japanese is hai, and in addition to affirming a statement or question, it's also used to let the person whose talking to you know you're listening attentively. This is called aizuchi, words of agreement that a Japanese will say while listening to another person. It's not uncommon for gaijin to assume that a person saying hai...hai to us is actually agreeing with what we're saying, when in fact the opposite may well be true. "No" in Japanese is iie (EE-eh), but in a society with as many shades of grey as Japan, its actually quite rare to hear a statement or question answered with such a flatly negative word. It's more common to hear something like chotto (CHOE-toe, which literally means "a little") used to vaguely hint that the cookies you'd baked didn't taste very good ("well, they're a little..."), rather than a direct negative statement ("no, I don't like them"). One of the more common uses of iie is in response to someone thanking you for something, in which case it means something like "No, don't mention it."
Yes means yes, unless it doesn't. No means, "Don't mention it." .

Driving in the U.S. vs. Japan

Driving in the U.S. after living in Japan for so long presents certain challenges. Like the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, Japan drives on the left side of the street, which means you need to pay attention to what other cars are doing when switching from one country to the other to avoid any problems. Although it's not that difficult to make the switch -- just make sure you're closer to the center of the road than your passenger, whichever country you're in -- I find it's impossible to keep from accidentally trying to get into the wrong side of a car, no matter where I am. Similarly, although automobile controls are identical no matter what country you're in, the turn signal and windshield wiper controls are reversed between the U.S. and Japan. This increases the likelihood that I'll accidentally turn my wipers on when making a turn, usually when a group of attractive girls happens to be watching me. In Japan, there's a 5-second delay between when one traffic light turns red and the next changes to green, which means there's always a stream of cars running every red light since people know they have a few more seconds to make it across. This time delay doesn't exist in the U.S. however, which is a very important thing to keep in mind when driving.
Like the U.K., the Japanese drive on the left, which causes me to get in on the wrong side of the car sometimes.

$50 Hello Kitty Melons

The other day I saw a post about the newest in wacky fruit goodness from Japan, a high quality yubari melon with Hello Kitty's face embossed into the skin. For those not used to Japan's world of high-end fruit, the price of this rare treat -- a cool $55 -- might have seemed excessive, although it was pretty much what anyone would pay for a really delicious hand-grown melon shipped in a special gift box. Japan is really into gift giving, and there are two gift seasons called chugen (in the summer) and oseibo (in the winter) during which families give gifts to people who have helped them especially, like neighbors or teachers or anyone whose sesame seeds they want to grind up. (The way to express the idea of "brown nosing" someone in Japanese is goma o suru, lit. to grind sesame seeds for someone.) Popular gifts include delicious boxed fruit, gift boxes of beer or sake, useful household items lke detergent or soy sauce, rare steaks of Kobe beef, and other really awesome stuff. It's also common for employees to give gifts to their bosses, to butter them up before the summer and winter bonuses seasons. You can even find gift items on J-List's popular Anime and Gift Snacks page...
In Japan, giving $50 melons as gifts is an important part of the culture.

Monday, July 05, 2010

All About "Sumimasen"

You may know the Japanese word sumimasen, which generally corresponds to "excuse me" and is one of the more useful phrases to learn, but like most aspects of Japan there's a little more to it than appears on the surface. First and foremost, sumimasen (soo-mee-mah-SEN) is used in any situation where you need to apologize for something small, such as causing someone inconvenience by bumping into them in the street, calling the wrong number, or ordering curry with beef intestines accidentally because you couldn't read the kanji in the menu, then asking for something else instead. Many situations which would call for a "thank you" in English work better with sumimasen in Japanese, something I learned at a public bath a few weeks after first arriving here. We'd stayed a few minutes after closing time, causing minor inconvenience to the staff who no doubt wanted to get home, and as we left my Japanese coworker said sumimasen to them ("we're sorry for taking too long in the bath") rather than the phrase I would have used, arigato ("thank you for letting us stay a few minutes past closing time"). When I asked about this, I was told that "'Thank you' sounds cheap. 'Excuse me' is a better word for Japanese people." The sumimasen phrase is also used when asking for service in a restaurant, and one difference between Japan and the U.S. is that in Japan, it's okay to loudly use the phrase to indicate that you're ready to order, whereas in the States you usually close your menu and sit quietly to be noticed most of the time. Like many Japanese phrases, you can use the all-purpose word domo (which loosely means "very") to add a layer of politeness, e.g. domo sumimasen! ("I'm really sorry!").
Sumimasen is one of the most commonly used words in Japan.

Slurp Your Noodles in Japan

Japan is probably the only country where eating too quietly will get comments from people around you. The correct way of eating Japanese and Chinese noodles like ramen, udon and soba is to slurp them while holding your face near the bowl, sucking in the soup along with the noodles. There's no upper ceiling to how loud you're allowed to slurp, and making these noises is one way of letting whoever prepared the noodles for you know that you think they're delicious. When foreigners come to Japan, they usually eat their noodles without making these noises, prompting Japanese to say shizuka desu ne ("you eat very quietly"). There are other differences in eating etiquette. In Japan, it's perfectly okay to pick up your ramen bowl and drink the soup from it directly, although drinking out of a bowl might get a child smacked in the U.S. It's okay to slurp Asian-style noodles, but spaghetti is another matter, and the image of an old Japanese man loudly vacuuming his pasta off the plate is very unsophisticated. Some table manner no-no's are related to Buddhism, including the taboo against sticking chopsticks straight up in rice or handing food to someone else chopsticks-to-chopsticks (both of which are part of funeral ceremonies in Japan).
Eating some foods quietly is considered strange in Japan.

Japanese Girls Think Their Fathers Are Unclean

Well, we're done with Anime Expo, and what a fun time it was. Thanks to everyone who came by to say hello during the show!

In the last season of Lost, Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada -- quite well known outside Japan due to his being in Ring and The Last Samurai -- played the role of the mysterious priest Dogan, who keeps the smoke monster out of the temple or something. My wife has a been a fan of his since his Japan Action Club days, and was thrilled to be able to enjoy some lines of dialogue in her native language, rather than in the many difficult dialects of English that Lost is so good at. In his first scene, Dogan refers to an "infection" (kegare) that one character had been exposed to. It was a word I knew well, because it's what my Japanese daughter says if I try to kiss her good night. For some reason, Japanese girls have a major issue with their fathers once they reach a certain age, which seems to go beyond the general fear of "cooties" that all teenagers might feel. In Japan people take baths every day, and a family will use the bath water for several family members, since all washing is done outside the tub, but my daughter insists on taking her bath before me every night, so my fatherly bacteria won't infect her. It's not that she hates me or anything -- we get along great. She's just decided that, like all fathers, I am simply unclean.

So what do you think? If you're female, do you hug and kiss your father, or push him away because he smells bad and makes dumb jokes?

Japanese girls often view their fathers as "unclean."