Friday, July 16, 2010

Faux Pas in Japan

Before I came to Japan in 1991, I took four years of Japanese at my alma mater, SDSU, so compared to most first-time gaijin I spoke quite a lot of Japanese. I could do many useful things, like ask directions when I got lost (which was a frequent occurrence, as there are no street names in Japan), and I knew just enough Japanese for me to put my foot in my mouth really, really well. Yes, I've committed many faux pas during my time in Japan, such as trying to impress a pretty girl by speaking Japanese to her, but accidentally using onna kotoba, words that women use which are the bane of male students of Japanese, or committing a deadly slip when ordering mango juice, since "mango" is dangerously close to the worst word that exists in Japanese. (Manko is the word for the female reproductive area.) In Japanese hospitals, thermometers are always used in the armpit, but I put one in my mouth, causing much shock among the nurses, who had never seen anyone do such a barbaric thing. And then there was the time I bought my wife some pretty flowers, only to find out that I'd accidentally bought kiku no hana (chrysanthemums), which are only used as offerings to the dead on special Buddhist days -- that really got a laugh out of her.
Very pretty, but only for dead people.

Grind Up Those Sesame Seeds

In a recent update I mentioned that the way to express the idea of "brown-nosing" someone was goma o suru, literally meaning "to grind up someone's sesame seeds for them." If you want to try this word out on Japanese people you know, just say goma-suri! ("stop trying to flatter me!") when someone says something nice to you, then watch them jump out of their shoes in surprise that you know a word like that. This phrase is one idiom that's commonly used in Japanese, although it sounds strange to us since the cultural image of an underling winning points with his boss by grinding his sesame seeds is so different from what we're used to. Japanese spend many thousands of hours memorizing the strange idioms and turns of phrase we use in English, never quite sure why it could be possible to "rain cats and dogs," or why something simple is a "piece of cake" or "easy as pie" but not the other way around. As is usually the case with language, asking why something means what it means doesn't get you very far, so encapsulating what you're trying to learn as a defined unit and figuring what situations it works best in is usually a good approach.
If you want a raise, grind up your boss's sesame seeds.

Prime Minister KHAAAN! Suffers a Setback

The Japanese election was last Sunday, and as expected, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan lost ground, giving up a total of ten Upper House seats. It was a big setback for Prime Minister Kan (warning, sound will play), who took over after Yukio Hatoyama's fail whale inability to resolve the base-related issues on Okinawa, make all freeways free and magically put $250 per child into the bank accounts of every family in the country each month. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party picked up seats, despite having no viable plan to fix what's wrong with Japan and no stand-out leaders as far as I can tell. Another winner in Sunday's election was Your Party...no, I don't mean your party, but Your Party, also known as Minna no Toh (lit. "everyone's political party"), which combines some popular reform policies of the DPJ with the pro-business stance of the LDP, the better to form a coalition with either group. While I'm not against the new party's principles, any political party whose official English name is Your Party is just asking to be mocked by Stephen Colbert.
The Democratic Party of Japan faces a setback.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Japan's Foreign Population Dips

Like all countries, there are various foreigners living in Japan, and the "made in Japan" TV you bought last month was likely assembled in part by hands from Brazil, Peru, India, Korea, and so on. Last year the number of foreigners living in Japan declined for the first time since 1961, dropping by about 31,000 from the previous year to 2.2 million people, or 1.72% of Japan's population. The reason of course is the bad economy and accompanying slashing of jobs in factories in 2008 and 2009, although most of those jobs have happily recovered. Having the number of foreigners living in Japan drop is a bad situation in part because many see immigration as the last chance Japan has to turn its population decline around. Since Japanese are only having 1.3 babies per couple on average, it's up to immigration to help provide economic vitality as the country ages. Yet Japan has essentially zero people coming from the outside to settle permanently, compared with 1.2 million legal immigrants who enter the U.S. to live and work each year, contributing to the tax base and in many cases taking American citizenship and adding greatly to our country.
Japan's foreign population dropped for the first time since 1961.

Is Japan Strange?

If you read blogs about Japan at all, one question that gets asked a lot is, "Why is Japan so strange?" And looking at images of middle-aged salarymen wearing Lucky Star cosplay and kawaii gravure idol Aki Hoshino with nylon stockings over her head which are then pulled up, making her face look ridiculous, one might think that Japan is just a tad odd. But as I've written before, there's a tendency for only those aspects of Japan which look strange or ridiculous to our gaijin sensibilities to be reported on the Internet and by the masukomi (the news media, shortened from the English "mass communications"). When nothing bizarre happens in Japan, there's only silence from the country, but once a man tries to legally marry his favorite Love Plus video game character, people start wondering that they're putting in Japan's drinking water. I remember growing up in the 1970s watching the awesome Monty Python and Benny Hill on American TV, and I had a somewhat warped impression of the U.K. as a result. Yet nothing less bizarre and hilarious could have broken through the cultural wall, so that's what we got.
Then again, maybe Japan is a little strange.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Japan, a Land Without Lawyers?

What would you do in a world without lawyers? Well, for all intents and purposes that that's the reality of life in Japan, a country that has just one lawyer for every 7325 people, compared with one per 288 individuals in the United States. Lawyers are extremely rare in Japan, and I've only met one during my 19 years in the country, despite having several friends in the U.S. who hold law degrees. Since people obviously need to file various legal documents at different times in their lives, there's a lesser official called shiho shoshi (which Google tells me translates as "administrative scrivener") who can file papers related to starting businesses, buying land and so on. Like politicians, doctors and certified public accountants, lawyers in Japan belong to a class of occupations that have a special status, and they're called by the respectful title of sensei. And I'm pretty sure they don't have lawyer jokes in Japan.
If you want to live in a place with no lawyers, come to Japan.

My Route 66 Weekend Vacation

Over the weekend I came across a cool map of old Route 66 in my house in San Diego, and decided to take an impromptu road trip to the historic American highway -- like, leaving immediately after throwing some clothes in my mother's prized Mazda Miata. Road trips are always fun, but when you're coming from a cramped, urbanized country like Japan, which has around half the population of the U.S. crammed into 1/25 the land area, there's something special about getting out on the open road and driving for hundreds of miles. They have freeways in Japan, but for the most part you only use them when making a long-distance journey like going from my home prefecture of Gunma down to Tokyo, not for short hops around town. Instead, most driving in Japan is on normal roads, with traffic lights, road construction and pachinko parlors all around you, and you could easily drive for an hour and only have travelled 20 km or so.

At the Grand Canyon, I happened to drive past the Flintstone's Bedrock City Campground, an RV park designed to look like the world of Fred Flintstone, right down to the rock-wheel car he drove in the animated series. The first word out of my mouth when I saw the amazing place was dasa-kakko ii. This is a combination of the word dasai (da-sah-ee), which means uncool, out of fashion or cheesy, and kakko ii (kah-koh ee), which means cool or "good style." Put together, the two words describe something that's both campy yet awesome nevertheless, meaning something like "dorky-cool" in English.

I also stopped by the Grand Canyon, beautiful as always; this campground was dasa-kakko ii or "dorky-cool."