Friday, August 27, 2010

Skunks and Hummingbirds in Japan

I continue to enjoy my time in the U.S., zooming around San Diego in my Mazda Miata, my favorite car in the world. One drawback of a convertible like the Miata is that you're generally more acquainted with the smells around you as you drive, which in the U.S. often means passing a dead skunk and having to endure its unique aroma. This isn't a problem in Japan, as there are happily no skunks in the country -- that's a nice thing not to have. Hummingbirds, which often flit around my head when I work in the backyard in my house in San Diego, are another bit of fauna that's not found in Japan, and Japanese know of the unique creatures only through picture books. It makes me wonder what Japanese people think of when they imagine skunks or hummingbirds -- I'll bet it's very different from people who live alongside them.
Most Japanese think the smell of a skunk comes from flatulance.

The Japanese Love to Buy American

Japan is absolutely one of the most pro-American countries in the world, with most people possessing a positive view of the U.S., a trait that's used by advertisers to sell various products. Japanese generally have the impression that America is kakko ii -- meaning "good style" or cool -- and are often open to owning items like Zippo lighters, a set of Coleman outdoor cooking gear and clothes from L.L. Bean. Branding your product as American can often bring a boost in sales, which is why companies like Jack Daniels or KFC wrap themselves in images of old Tennessee or Kentucky. Levi Strauss struggled to build a name for themselves in Japan during the 1970s, until they hit on the idea of using iconic Hollywood stars like James Dean, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe to advertise their jeans (they came cheap, since they were dead), which has to have been one of the most successful advertising decisions ever. And of course Harley Davidson sells a huge number of bikes in Japan, and has many dedicated fans.
American imagery is powerful to the Japanese.

The Japanese and Simplified English

Whether you're talking about Singapore or South Africa, Jamaica or Japan, every country is going to adapt the English language to their own local needs. In Japan, people generally learn six years of English in junior high and high school, yet because no one really needs it once they've taken their college entrance exams, it often becomes more of a decoration for society. One pattern I've noticed is that English gets shortened or simplified in ways that might seem strange to us. For example, a student of mine wanted to tell me that she'd found out she was pregnant but didn't know how to say it in English, so she pointed at her abdomen and exclaimed, "Baby in!" Hair conditioner in Japanese is called "rinse" (shortened from "cream rinse"), so it makes perfect sense to Japanese people that "rinse in shampoo" would be what conditioning shampoo would be called. In Japanese a convertible like my Miata is known as an "open car," a name which gets the job done without adding any unnecessary complexity, while an RV your family can sleep in is referred to as a "camp car." One of my favorite Japanese word simplifications are Phillips and regular screwdrivers -- the Japanese just call them "plus" and "minus."
Would you like to wash your hair with "rinse in shampoo"?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By the Light of the Fireflies

It's funny how different inputs -- such as a simple song -- can push different emotional buttons depending on what culture you hail from. When most North Americans hear the Scottish folk song Auld Lang Syne we probably immediately think of New Year's Eve, of saying goodbye to the old year with a large beer in our hands. Hotaru no Hikari, or Light of the Fireflies, is the title of the Japanese version of this song, and in Japan it's sung at graduations. The chorus tells the story of hard-working students who wanted to study so much that they read books by the light of fireflies they'd captured in a jar, or the moonlight reflected off snow. It can bring a tear to the eyes of Japanese who hear it sung, and a totally different image from one we might conjure up in the same situation. Incidentally, the song is also played by stores as they're about to close, and if you've ever visited Japan and wondered why they were playing Auld Lang Syne over the store speakers, it was a polite request that you complete your purchase and leave.
In Japan, Auld Lang Syne is played at graduations and shops when its closing time.

Repeating Words Are Cute-Cute

One fun group of Japanese words consists of a single word repeated twice, which makes the words more charming and fun to use. For example, the word moe can be said to describe the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when contemplating your favorite anime character, but repeating the word -- e.g. moe moe-- adds an extra ingredient that makes the new word more playful and expressive. Likely based on the way Chinese kanji are sometimes repeated to create a plural or add additional meaning, the grammatical construction isn't limited to Japanese words. For example, a couple that shows affection for each other is called love-love in Japanese, and there's that ice cream with the cute name of Hello Hello. Some other repeating words include moshi moshi, how Japanese people answer the phone; tsubu tsubu, any candy or food with bits of fruit inside; pika pika, meaning brand sparkling new or in the case of Pikachu, crackling with energy; and my favorite caffeine gum, Black Black.
When two people are very close they are love-love.

A Bagful of Coins

Today I was doing some cleaning in my home in the San Diego when I came across a large bag of change containing U.S. coins. "Alright!" I exclaimed, then I sat down to count the money I'd discovered, but to my chagrin it came to less than $10. In Japan when you have a large bag of coins, you have some real money, thanks to the 100 and 500 yen coins (roughly corresponding to $1 and $5), which enable someone with a pocketful of change to buy pretty much anything they might need. Although the idea is not a popular one, I hope that America can start taking its iconic $1 bill out of circulation in favor of those awesome dollar coins they have these days, which make you want to start storing your money in treasure chests. Coins can be used for thirty years or more, compared to less than two for paper bills, and making the switch to $1 coins would save the U.S. government half a billion dollars a year. And after the conversion is done, having some coins in your pocket will mean you'll be able to buy lunch.
If you have a pocketful of yen, you have a lot of money.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Let's Analyze Fuzzy Japanese Grammar

A language reflects the character of the people who use it, and vice-versa. One interesting bit of Japanese grammar students learn early on is the verb ending masho, which corresponds to "let's..." as in "let's eat" (tabemasho), "let's go" (ikimasho) or "let's not smoke" (tabako wo yamemasho). In situations where verbal or written warnings would be worded in a command form in English (e.g. do not smoke, do not ride on the escalator backwards), it's common for Japanese to express the same message with this softer "let's..." verb form, essentially making statements like "let's put our telephones into vibration mode" (maanaa modo ni shimasho) or "when a pregnant woman or elderly person gets on the train, let's give our seat to them" (seki wo yuzurimasho). These statements subtly create a warm and fuzzy atmosphere of cooperation that make people want to do their part for the good of everyone, an important pillar of Japanese polite society. Every year, the Japanese tax office sponsors commercials featuring famous TV personalities walking to their post office to mail their income tax forms -- "Let's fill out our tax forms accurately and honestly," is the message. I wonder which approach is more effective?
The Japanese government is always saying things like, "Let's pay our taxes correctly!"

Hikikomori is Listed in the Oxford Dictionary of English

I saw in a news article that the word hikikomori (pronounced "hee-kee koh-moh-ree") had officially found its way into the Oxford Dictionary of English, Third Edition, which was published last week. Translatable as shut-ins, stay-at-homes, agoraphobes or -- as my daughter delicately suggested, "indoor people" -- hikikomori are individuals who have pulled back from society, shunning human contact often in favor of online interaction. Although there are reclusive types in every society, the large numbers of Japanese NEETs -- meaning "Not involved in Education, Employment or Training" -- has the government worried, since 1.2 million citizens not working or paying taxes can't be good for the bean counters. The phenomenon of hikikomori is often taken up in popular manga and anime culture, including such works as Welcome to the N.H.K. and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei / Goodbye Mr. Despair, and is often romanticized as the ultimate expression of otaku spirit. Incidentally, J-List has great T-shirts for aspiring hikikomoris and otaku, so check them out.
Hikikomori is now an English word.

Of San Diego, And Reverse Culture Shock

My daughter has returned home to Japan after staying a month with me here in the States. During her time here we did a lot of fun "San Diego-ey" things like taking a bicycle ride from the top of beautiful Mt. Soledad down to the seaside and exploring the La Jolla coves in a kayak, and I think she had as much fun as a thirteen-year-old teenager can admit to. She also got to improve her English skills quite a bit. Right about now she'll be arriving back in Japan and, besides being exasperated at how hot and humid it is there, she'll start the several day process of "reverse culture shock." After a month of being surprised that a "small" drink in the U.S. is so much larger than anything seen in Japan, now the reverse will happen, and she'll be unable to accept that the largest size drink the restaurant offers is just 12 oz. Of course I'm ready to go back to Japan too -- I need to eat onigiri!
We've had lots of fun doing San Diego-ey things this summer.