Friday, August 06, 2010

Tierrasanta, where Santa Claus wears a Tiara

It's funny how perceptions work differently in different languages. If you're below a certain age, the most famous Chinese name after Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-Tung if you're even older) is probably Chun Li, the cute fighting vixen from Street Fighter II who shouts "Yatta!" ("I did it!") after she wins a fight. While the brains of English speakers labor over properly memorizing a strange-sounding name like Chun Li, which has no mental hooks for us to attach it with, Japanese have the benefit of being able to internalize the name using kanji characters. Because kanji names have meaning, Japanese might get the impression that Chun Li was a beautiful baby born in the spring, since the characters mean "Spring Beauty." We have a house in the Tierrasanta area of San Diego, and just for fun I asked my Japanese daughter what she thought the name might mean. Her answer was really cute: "It means Santa Claus wearing a tiara crown."
"Tierrasanta" made my daughter think of Santa-san wearing a tiara.

Mid-Summer Greetings Cards

Hello again from Japan, where the zipper in your pants is known as the "window of society" (shakai no mado), one of my favorite random euphemisms.

This has been a difficult summer for Japan. First, the heat has been incredible, contributing to more than 100 deaths and sending thousands to the hospital, including comedian George Tokoro, who plays the voice of Ponyo's father. Japan has also started finding that some of its oldest citizens are in fact dead or missing. It all started when municipal authorities decided to check up on an 111 year old man, only to find a mummified corpse that had been there for thirty years. This may have been part of the man's personal choice to self-mumify himself in a Buddhist custom of purification, but his family is going to have some 'splaining to do about why they kept his pension money for themselves all these years. Another 50 centenarians are said to be missing, including a 113-year-old woman born in 1897, Tokyo's oldest citizen.

Yes, this summer has been a hot one, with temperatures as high as 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), of course with very high humidity. It's the perfect weather for enjoying some Japanese mugi cha or refreshing barley tea, which is the most popular drink in Japan when it's hot out. In Japan there's a nice custom called shochuu omimai or a mid-summer greeting card. Individuals and businesses exchange these cards in July and August, and the various companies J-List works with such as Soft on Demand and dating-sim game companies Will and Nitroplus send us these cards to see how we're handling the hot summer.
Midsummer greetings cards are a nice tradition in Japan.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Keeping Up with the Gaijins

History is in all of us, and each nation has its own unique quirks or features that come about as a result of its own past. For the Japanese, the arrival of Perry's black ships in 1853 brought them face-to-face with the fact that Japan couldn't stand against nations like the United States and Great Britain. After the "respect the Emperor and expel the foreign barbarians" revolution that ejected the last Tokugawa Shogun in favor of a government formed around the Emperor (which theoretically "restored" the Emperor to power, hence the term Meiji Restoration), the country underwent an unprecedented program of modernization, retiring the old system of feudal domains (han) for a modern prefectural system based on that of France and introducing education to the people. One of the forces driving this was Japan's desire to be seen in a positive light by foreigners from the powerful countries of the West, and today, the Japanese are still very concerned about how they appear to gaijin. Many large-scale public works, such as the first Shinkansen line launched in 1964, coincide with international events like the Olympics, when foreigners would visit Japan in large numbers and "oo and ah" over their technical achievements. It's like Japan is still trying to prove to the West that they've left the backwards feudal nation they were 150 years ago behind.

Japanese and Mexican Beans

Yesterday I took my wife out to my favorite Mexican restaurant in San Diego. While she scarfed down the refried beans she said, "This is delicious. I guess I'm not Japanese anymore." She was referring to the fact that virtually every Japanese detests Mexican style beans, and the mark of a Japanese person who's lived in the U.S. for some time is that they can eat all types of Mexican beans. I've got a theory that both beans and pickles are at the heart of each culture, and it always takes time to learn to appreciate the differences in one place if you come from another. And sure enough, I love nothing more than a crunchy Vlassic dill spear, while Japanese usually hate American pickles, much happier to eat traditional Japanese versions like pickled eggplant, daikon radish, or -- I swear I am not making this up -- fish intestines, all of which I can't stand. Incidentally, you can try Kyoto-style Japanese pickles with our popular Traditional Food Drops candies.
It's usual for Japanese people to hate Mexican style beans.

The Only Gaijin in the Room

Because I live in a smaller rural city in Japan, there are fewer foreigners around me, and it's not uncommon for me to find myself the only non-Japanese person around. When I take my family to the Shinto shrine to pray for good luck in the new year on January 1st, for example, I'm likely to find myself in a huge crowd of Japanese faces with nary a Westerner in sight. This is less due to the paltry number of foreigners in our part of the country and more to cultural differences, e.g. most of the Brazilians or Peruvians or Canadians living in Japan are at home doing their own thing rather than standing in the freezing cold trying to experience Japanese New Year's Day culture. Sometimes being the only foreigner around can take real courage. Once I went to a concert by a minor group called Personz, which wasn't the sort of band to attract gaijin fans. Not only was I the only non-Japanese in the entire concert hall, but most of the other attendees were short Japanese females, which meant I stood a head or more above everyone, the better for every pair of eyes in the room to lock onto the strange barbarian in row 23.
Being the only gaijin can be a challenge.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Random Japanese Concepts and the "Saemoe" Tournament

Each language is structured in different ways, and it's fun to learn a little bit about how they work. In English, we have four demonstrative pronouns -- this, that, these and those -- but in Japanese there are three, kore (koh-ray) meaning "this" associated with something close to me, the speaker, sore (soh-ray) or "that" for something near you, the person I'm speaking to, and are (ah-ray), "that over there" for something far from both of us. (You nearly always ignore plurals in Japanese.) Often meanings are imported wholesale from Chinese, like a group of kanji-based words that use the character sai, meaning "most," which is how you can express ideas like biggest (saidai ), smallest (saishou), highest (saikou, which also carries the slang meaning of "awesome" if you ever wanted to know how to say this in Japanese), or lowest (saitei, which is also a pretty potent insult). The Japanese interwebs are about to start buzzing with the new Saimoe ("most moe") Tournament, in which otaku vote on who the cutest anime characters are. Last year Taiga from Toradora! took the prize -- I wonder who will win this year?

"Beat" Takeshi and the Cycle of Death and Rebirth in Buddhism

Japan is a Buddhist country, and this manifests itself in some interesting ways. Several national holidays are Buddhist for example, such as Obon in August when the entire country shuts down for three days so everyone can return to their parents' homes to greet the spirits of dead family members who return home for a visit. One concept I've encountered quite often is rin-ne (REEN-neh), the endless cycle of death and rebirth, which basically says that a person's children will lead pretty much the same life as their parents, a pattern that can be hard to break out of. One good example of the cycle of rin-ne being broken is acclaimed comedian/director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. His father was Kikujiro, a poor house painter who drank all the time, and it was expected that Takeshi would follow in his father's footsteps. Takeshi's mother Saki, however, was adamant that her son would break away from their family's cycle of poverty, so she did part-time jobs secretly to save money to buy study books so her son could attend university one day. I'd say it worked out pretty well.
Takeshi Kitano's mother was determined to break the rin-ne cycle.

Japanese and Tipping

Over the weekend I took a day off to spend some quality time with Mrs. J-List, visiting a nice hotel in downtown San Diego where we could relax after this year's hard anime convention season. We had fun walking through the historical Gaslamp District, which is so hard to enjoy properly during the chaos that is the San Diego Comi-con, and had a nice dinner together. While we were there, my wife did what Japanese people always do when visiting the U.S., stressing out about every tip we paid to servers at restaurants, the hotel staff that brought our bags up, and so on. There is no tipping in Japan, of course, and so Japanese who go abroad read travel books about this exotic custom to make sure they're doing it just right. While I'm usually happy to toss a few bills on the table and leave it at that, my wife meticulously calculates the proper 15% tip amount each time, and always makes sure she has a pocketful of $1 bills ready in case we need to leave unexpected gratuities.
Japanese obsess about leaving tips in the U.S.