Friday, August 13, 2010

Japan Organ Transplant Law Update

I saw a news report about a new Japanese law governing the harvesting of living organs from brain-dead donors which had just gone into effect. You might be thinking that I'd accidentally picked up a newspaper from 25 years ago, but no -- Japan is only just catching up to the rest of the world in this important area. Previously organs from individuals who had signed a donor card could be harvested for transplants, but there was a catch -- only persons aged 15 or older were eligible to sign the donor cards, which was essentially a death sentences to anyone under that age who needed a new heart or liver but lacked the resources to travel outside of Japan to obtain one. One of the themes of Japan as a nation is that it is "behind" the U.S. and Europe in terms of its social structures, who are generally seen as as more "advanced" by the Japanese in general. It's nice to see this aspect of Japanese society being updated.
Why am I not surprised that Japan's donor cards are kawaii??

Would You Like Some 'Nutsmeg' Spice?

You know you've been in Japan too long when your mother sends you a bottle of nutmeg spice for Christmas, and a Japanese person asks what it is, upon which you immediately answer, without having ever heard what the spice is called in Japanese, "This is nutsmeg, which is great in warm milk." For some inexplicable reason of phonetics, some English words are imported into Japanese in their plural forms. Words like shirt, suit, swimsuit, peanut, and sport always appear with the 's' sound on the end, even if you're discussing the word in its singular form. In Japanese, one refers to a suitcase as a suitscase, and it takes the brain a few months to get over the weirdness of this -- ditto for learning to ask for peanuts butter or watching the Fruits Basket anime. There seem to be three reasons for some English words being mapped to their plural versions in Japanese. First is the rather convenient lack of singular/plural in Japanese grammar -- saying hana ga kirei means either "the flower is pretty" or "the flowers are pretty" depending on how many flowers you happen to discussing. Also, the softer 'tsu' ending on the plural forms is easier for Japanese to pronounce than a hard 't' consonant sound. Finally, converting some words to their plural forms also avoids the dreaded L/R confusion that can be a problem in the language. Because "fruit" and "flute" would have the exact same pronunciation when rendered in katakana, the writing system used for expressing foreign loan words, the musical instrument became furu-to and the edible stuff became furu-tsu.
There's nothing like fresh nutsmeg in warm milk, mmm.

25 Years after JAL Flight 123

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the tragic crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which occurred in my home prefecture of Gunma, as fate would have it. I learned of the crash one day when I suddenly decided to ride my bicycle 40 km to check out some caverns I'd heard about. (I had lots of free time for random stuff before I started J-List.) My wife shuddered when I told her where I was headed, and she said, "I could never go out there, that's where that plane went down in 1985." JAL flight 123 took off from Haneda airport headed for Osaka, but suffered a massive failure of its hydraulic system, which made it impossible to control the plane. After an agonizing 32 minutes in the air, it crashed. Adding to the tragedy, an American military unit arrived on the scene to aid the survivors of the crash but was ordered to stand down by the Japanese military, who then didn't arrive until the next morning. The disaster was the largest loss of life in a single aircraft crash ever, and it's even more legendary because of one very famous passenger: Kyu Sakamoto, who sang the Sukiyaki Song, the first Japanese language song to hit #1 in the U.S. Here's a link with many different versions of this epic song: The man also sang another epic song from the 20th century, Ashita ga Aru (There Will Be a Tomorrow), the unofficial theme song of recession-ripped Japan.
Kyu Sakamoto was one of the victims of JAL Flight 123.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Filial Piety in Japan, and University

Last time I talked about the concept of filial piety, or oya koko, which is the respect you pay to your parents because without them you wouldn't be here. This formalized tradition of respecting your parents is part of Confucian teachings which exerted influence on Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). In the U.S. the top universities are private schools like Harvard, Princeton and MIT, while inexpensive state-funded schools (like mine, SDSU) are lower in the rankings, but in Japan this is reversed: the public universities are where everyone wants to go, in large part because they're much cheaper than their private counterparts like Waseda or Keio. One way kids show oya koko to their parents is by studying extra-hard so they can get a cheap education at Tokyo or Kyoto University, which are around $6000 per year. As a father with two kids who will be starting university in a few years, this is one kind of parental respect I am very much in favor of.
If you can pass the test to get into Tokyo University, your parents will be happy.

Advice for Finding Accommodations Inside Japan

One of my Twitter followers asked me if I had any recommendations for his upcoming trip to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. While I don't have any specific knowledge about the best places to stay up there, I do have some general advice for finding accommodations inside Japan. The first time I went to Kyoto I took my trusty Lonely Planet travel guide with me, which was loaded with information on places to stay. But one thing was odd: in every ryokan inn or youth hostel I stayed in, nearly all the guests were gaijin (foreigners) like me, with nary a nihonjin (Japanese) in sight. I eventually realized the other gusts were all using the same travel book I was, and since then I've made it a point to use Japanese-language travel information sources when I can. Another tip: considering exploring Japan through minshuku, which are awesome budget versions of Japanese inns, rather than full-service hotels. The down-to-earth feel of these family-owned lodgings is great, and the people you'll meet there are fascinating, too. For a slightly more Western feel, search out pension inns, a kind of Japanese/European bed & breakfast that's also fun to stay in.
Is summer vacation too long?; I've had some great times staying at inexpensive minshuku inns.

Is Summer Vacation Too Long?

I caught an article in Time the other day which presented the case against the long three-month summer vacation in the U.S., which (the article argued) was an unnecessary holdover from our agrarian past that harms America's competitiveness in the world today. While the question of whether summer vacation is too long or not may depend on how old you are -- a kid will say it's it's too short while a parent with four loud children might lean the other way -- I'm generally of the opinion that summer vacation in the U.S. is longer than necessary, allowing students to forget most of what they learned the previous year. In contrast to the U.S., Japan's summer break is much shorter, from mid-July through the end of August. Teachers work to ensure the nation's children won't become baka (stupid) by giving them homework to do, which helps them stay at least a little focused on school even while they get sand-between-the-toes at the beach. This summer homework is a common plot device in anime, including the infamous "Endless Eight" episodes of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which Haruhi (who is a God) wanted summer to go on forever, so it repeated 15,532 times, until Kyon finally made her finish her summer homework assignments.
Is summer vacation too long? Or is that the frazzled parent in me talking?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Filial Piety and the Japanese

When a person comes to live in a country as different from the U.S. as Japan is, it stands to reason that they'll be exposed to some new ways of thinking. One new paradigm I encountered was the idea of "filial piety" (in Japanese, oya koko, pronounced oh-yah koh-koh), or the respect and honor you pay your parents just because of who they are. I had a friend who'd just become a teacher, and like most Japanese young people she lived with her parents. "But I'm not making much money yet," my friend told me, "so I'm only able to give my parents $300 each month for the household." I don't know about you, but when I was 22 I was still figuring out what I was going to do with my life, not kicking money to my mother to help her with her household finances, and I was impressed that my friend was able to think so selflessly of her parents like that.
Sadly, my friend was not as hot as Yomako.

Taxis in Japan

I happened to see a news report that said that taxis in London had been ranked the world's best, with Tokyo's taxis coming in 5th overall. While I've not had the opportunity to ride in a taxi in London, I was surprised by Tokyo's low ranking, since I've always found taxi drivers in Japan to be the most polite and professional in the world. Not only are Japanese taxis spotless, with their drivers diligently polishing every surface whenever the driver waits for a fare, they make visitors feel welcome thanks to the passenger door that opens automatically for you. Of course not every taxi ride in Tokyo is going to be a smooth one for foreign visitors. There may be language problems since drivers' English skills may vary, or confusion about what is near what in sprawling Tokyo, which is not actually a city but a prefecture with 23 cities inside it. There are also plenty of potential problems due to the chaotic way Japanese city blocks are laid out, and unless you have a map to where you're trying to go, it's possible even your driver won't be able to find your destination.
I've always found taxi drivers in Japan to be outstanding.

My American Hamburg Steak

I'm having fun spending time in my American house with my Japanese daughter, although we both tend to get homesick for familiar foods from Japan. The other day she announced she was going to make "Hamburg" steak for me, which is a hugely popular dish from Japan, essentially a Salsbury steak made with ground beef and topped with various sauces. (To the Japanese, a "Hamburg" is a hamburger steak without bread, while a "hamburger" is the same thing with the bun part included; similarly, a "Frankfurt" is a frankfurter by itself, with no bun around it.) She got all the ingredients together -- ground beef, bread crumbs, browned onions and an egg -- and cooked me some good "Hamburg" steaks, complete with a demi-glace sauce made from that amazing Bull-Dog Sauce mixed with ketchup, and we ate it all over steamed white rice. It was delicious, though it wasn't quite the same as we'd had back in Japan so many times. Eventually we realized what was wrong: the ground beef in America is 100% beef, but most of the time when you buy it in Japan you're getting a 50% beef and 50% pork blend called aibiki, which is why the taste was slightly different.
"Hamburg steak" is one of the most popular dishes in Japan (partially because it's cheap).