Friday, August 20, 2010

Japan's Pension Reforms In Trouble: KHAAAANNN!!!

Japan is trying to reform its national pension system, but recent political turmoil -- the fall of Yukio Hatoyama's government over his wishy-washiness on U.S. base issues and subsequent poor showing in Prime Minister Naoto Kan's first election -- has made that a difficult goal to achieve. In Japan there are two different Social Security-like systems, Employees Pension Insurance for anyone working for a large company with 20 or more employees, and National Pension Insurance for workers in smaller companies and anyone who is self-employed. Like Social Security in the U.S., enrollment in a pension system is mandatory, but there's no mechanism to force people to make their payments into the National system, making it easy for younger Japanese to essentially opt out entirely. (Several politicians including the current Prime Minister got in trouble for not making their payments a few years ago.) Considering the challenges Japan faces, they really need strong leaders who will work together to find the best answers for the country.

Every year J-List brings a huge number of awesome Japanese calendars to our customers, which feature the best anime, JPOP, traditional photography and other themes. We're happy to report that 2011 Calendar Season is officially started! While it'll be another couple weeks before we get the bulk of this year's calendars in (still waiting for the big list to be released), you can start browsing now.
Japan's pension system is so complex, they have to make horrible graphics like this to understand it.

Onigiri Color Codes

If you were to plan a picnic, you might pack a basket containing things like sandwiches, potato salad or maybe some pickles, but a Japanese person would almost certainly bring along onigiri, those delicious rice balls. Formed using the honorific "o" prefix that can be seen on many Japanese words and nigiri, meaning "to squeeze," onigiri are a popular way to grab a quick snack on the go. Although they can be as simple as a hunk of salted rice pressed into a triangle shape, there's usually a bit of fish, konbu seaweed or ume plum inside, and nori covering the outside. Onigiri are a major product category for convenience stores in Japan, and even before a new gaijin learns to start reading the language around him he often memorizes the all-important onigiri color code at Seven Eleven -- red for salmon, blue for "sea chicken" and so on. Onigiri are a staple of bento culture, and Japanese housewives get up extra early to press rice balls to include in lunches for their kids or husbands, just as my own mother made peanut butter and honey sandwiches for me all those years. Along with popular bento items, J-List sells many onigiri related products on the site -- click and browse some of them now.
A gaijin needs to learn the onigiri color codes to survive in Japan.

The "Japanese Girlfriend" Method of Studying

There are many ways of approaching the study of Japanese. You can follow the traditional approach, studying with Japanese textbooks like the Genki series. Or try learning through popular culture, like manga and JPOP songs or even dating-sim games. Another study method I've employed at various times is the "Find a Japanese Girlfriend" approach, wherein you find an attractive Japanese girl to date and share language with. While softer and more huggable than even the best kanji wall poster, there are some drawbacks to choosing this path to mastering nihongo. The biggest is that the language used by women and men is quite different, with the best example being the first and second person pronouns used by each group. For example, males will usually use the neural boku or the more manly-sounding ore (oh-reh) to refer to themselves, while females use the more formal watashi or cute-sounding atashi, and if you pick up too much Japanese from your significant other, you might sound more effeminate than you'd like. Incidentally, we have a fun line of T-shirts, hats and hoodies for anyone interested in finding their own Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend -- click and browse our fun products!
One way of studying Japanese is the "Japanese girlfriend" method.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Only 109 Days Til the Japanese Language Proficiency Test

If you're studying Japanese or plan to, there's a good chance you'll need to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the primary test for students of Japanese. Taken by 500,000 applicants each year, the test was begun in 1984 in response the increase in interest in Japan by people all over the world, and is held each December all over the world (and in East Asian countries, again in July). This year some changes are being introduced into the test, essentially bringing it from four levels of difficulty to five, to make it easier for students to rise one level each year. The new system starts at level N5 (the easiest) and goes all the way to N1 (the hardest, needed for entrance into a Japanese university), with level N3 essentially falling in between the old levels 3 and 2, to make it easier on students. I have fond memories of my own JLPT study days, of stressing out over kanji pronunciations or how to use a certain bit of Japanese grammar, and I find myself envious of anyone studying for the test this year. The sign-up deadline is this September, so if you're interested in taking the test, register right away to avoid the agony of missing your registration. There are just 109 days before this year's test -- if you need study supplies, textbooks or other products to help you learn, J-List has you covered!
If you need to prepare for the JLPT, J-List can help.

Yo Dawg, I heard you like sulfur...

I remember when I first learned the Japanese word for "name" -- which is namae, pronounced nah-mah-eh -- I noticed the similarity between the two words and wondered if the Japanese could have borrowed theirs from some Western language. It turns out that this isn't the case, and the parallel between the two is purely accidental, a surprisingly common occurrence known as a "false cognitive" in linguistics. In Japanese you thank someone by saying arigato, which is very similar to the Portuguese word obrigado, but this is another example of unrelated words accidentally having similar pronunciations. Or the word so, which by an amazing coincidence corresponds perfectly with the word "so" in English as in so desu ka? "is that so?" Or the way the Japanese word for "road" is doro, essentially the same word with the syllables reversed. Another minor coincidence I found: the word for sulfur in Japanese is iwo, yes as in the famous World War II battleground Iwo Jima, which literally means "Sulfur Island." Guess which body in the solar system is famous for its sulfur volcanoes? Jupiter's moon Io, pronounced in Japanese (and Greek) exactly like the word for sulfur.

For perfectionists: I know that "Iwo" is meaningless rendered in proper Romanized Japanese. It's an old construct from a previous age that's been trapped in its current form due to the famous name of Iwo Jima. The word for sulfur is 硫黄 (いおう), which would be iou if Romanized correctly. Which is funny since the name for the moon of Jupiter is the same.
"Yo Dawg, I heard you like sulfur, so I put some 硫黄 in your Io and now you have sulfur volcanoes."

Geek Culture has Become Very Cool Lately

I'm grateful for many aspects of the modern world we live in. Like the high-speed Internet connection that enables me to work alongside my staff in Japan despite the fact that I'm currently 5620 miles (9044 km) away from them. Or being able to read reviews of restaurants on my smart phone while wandering around looking for a place to eat. I'm also very pleased with the way "nerd culture" has become so accepted by the world at large. This wasn't always the case, and I'm sure a generation ago a professional man who kept a huge collection of Star Wars figures in his office, as I do, would be viewed in a strange light by his coworkers. Of course, not everyone is as plugged into this fun nerdy culture as you or I. Once during a previous San Diego Comicon I saw an SDSU student who had GREEK WEEK printed on his T-shirt. I misread his shirt, and said, "I thought your shirt said 'geek week,'" which made the man visibly upset. I was surprised at his reaction -- what could possibly be wrong with someone thinking your shirt had "geek" written on it? Then it dawned on me that he probably wasn't as tuned in to geek-driven pop culture as I was, and thought I was insulting him.
Nerd culture has become very cool in recent years. Which is a good thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

One interesting aspect of the Japanese is how superstitious they can be, at least as seen from my contemporary American point of view. Whether it's getting one's future told through tarot cards or a palm reading or the famous beliefs about people's personalities being determined by their blood type, most Japanese have some ways of thinking that might be thought of as unique. There's a complex system of old wives' tales that people follow -- don't cut your fingernails at night or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die, don't ever write a person's name in red ink or they'll die, don't whistle at night or snakes will come and bite you, don't sleep with your head pointing to the north -- which I've learned to respect, or at least work around in my daily life.

Ghosts are another popular area of Japanese supernatural culture, so much that there are TV variety shows made on the subject quite often. Some people are said to be reikan no aru hito, that is, people who have a greater than average sense of ghosts and apparitions, and my Japanese wife and daughter are definitely in this group. Once after my father passed away, my daughter (who was about five at the time) turned to empty air and shouted, "Stop watching me!" My wife thought I'd gotten out of bed and was standing there looking at my daughter eating her breakfast, but I was still asleep, and the general consensus was that she was "sensing" the spirit of my father who had come to visit us. Recently my wife and daughter were having a fight, and they both thought they saw my mother's face reflected in the window at the same moment (she also passed away recently). That stopped their fight in a hurry, I can tell you.
Ghosts are a popular Japanese superstition, er, belief.

Learning Japanese in Japanese

When I started my third year of Japanese at SDSU, there was a new book we were required to buy: a Japanese dictionary, the same type used by Japanese junior high school kids to look up words in their own language. From that point on, rather than spit out the meanings of vocabulary words in English, we were required to learn the Japanese explanation for words. So for a word like gambaru (in English, to work hard, to do one's best) we had to memorize a long sentence explaining what it meant in nihongo. Although we all grumbled a lot, it was really good for us, since it exposed us to more ways to express ideas in our new language. While I've been on my extended trip to the U.S., my daughter has been learning English from a tutor to help bring her English reading level up. She learned all about Benjamin Franklin in English, for example, with no opportunity to cross-reference the new words she was learning with Japanese, which helps her gain confidence when speaking even though it's hard for her at first. (Incidentally, we recommend the Kanji DS Dictionary for the Nintendo DS, since it contains many useful dictionaries including J-E, E-J, kanji and a straight Japanese-language dictionary for looking up words natively.)
My daughter learned about Benjamin Franklin in English.