Friday, September 10, 2010

Bilingual Switching

The other day I was sitting in a jacuzzi, pretending I was in a bubbling onsen hot springs bath back in Japan. (To an onsen otaku like myself, being away from home for so long has been really hard.) There was a girl of nine years old or so sitting in the water with me, and presently her mother came over and told her, in Spanish, that it was time to get out of the water. The girl replied in rapid Spanish back to her mother, but as I listened, she peppered her speech with English phrases like, "is that okay?" or "just a little more." (I got the impression that she switched to English when she was trying to get her mother to agree to something.) In linguistics this is known as code-switching, moving from one language to another when both parties understand both languages. I do the same thing in Japanese, speaking English to my kids or other gaijin friends who understand Japanese, but switching to Japanese at random times -- for example, when mentioning numbers in Japanese, or if I want to use a specific word.
Bilinguals often switch, say, zwischen Deutsch und Japanisch.  

The "Correct" Way of Doing Things in Japan

One aspect of Japan that appears odd to us free-thinking foreigners is how strict the educational system can be, especially elementary and junior high school, which is the extent of compulsory education. (High school is "optional" although nearly everyone goes.) It was quite interesting, witnessing the education of my half-Japanese, half-American children as they passed through the Japanese school system. I remember on one of the many parents' days that were held -- parents in Japan are a lot more involved with school than has been my experience in the U.S., at least in my own case -- I saw a poster on the wall that taught children "the correct way to sit in a chair while studying." I can't remember back far enough to recall if they had similar posters in my own elementary school, but I'm pretty sure they didn't. There can be drawbacks to trying to get every child to do things the same way. I don't think it's done any more, but in decades past left-handed children certainly felt subtle pressure to use their right hands, like everyone else in the class.
There's often a "correct" way of doing things in Japan.

The Anime "Year of Tears"

It was a year ago Saturday that Crayon Shin-chan creator Yoshito Usui died after falling 100 meters down a sheer cliff, oddly enough in J-List's home of Gunma and not Saitama, the Japanese prefecture he helped make famous all over the world. Although the masukomi (what the media is called in Japanese, from "mass communications") was happy to imply he slipped and fell to his death, it's likely he chose to take his own life, perhaps feeling trapped and depressed by his own success. Usui-sensei's death seemed to usher in a "Year of Tears" for anime fans all over the world, with many great names leaving us forever: Kazuhiko Kato, the composer of the epic Macross song "Do You Remember Love?"; visionary Voltron producer Peter Keefe; voice of Speed Racer Peter Hernandez; unparalleled animation director Satoshi Kon; someone very dear to our own J-List; and of course the "Gene Roddenberry" of anime himself, Carl Macek. Let's hope and pray that this period of sadness is over soon, and we can have happier times -- we need this to end, immediately.
Saturday is the meinichi or anniversary of Usui-sensei's death (T_T).

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Japan Population, +1

The subject of Japan's shrinking birth rate -- called shoshika in Japanese -- is something I write about a lot, since it's talked about often in Japan. While most modern democracies have low birth rates, Japan's is among the lowest with just 1.22 children per couple, which compares with 2.05, 1.66, and 1.89 for the U.S., U.K. and France. But why are so few babies being born in Japan? Well, there are many different trends at work, including the hyper-urbanized world where most Japanese live today, the changing roles of women in society, and the ongoing effects of Japan's long economic crisis. People definitely get married and start having children later than they used to, too -- back when I arrived in Japan in 1991, it was common for girls to worry about being "Christmas Cakes" if they didn't get married by the age of 25, since no one wants to buy a Christmas Cake after December 25th. With so many options available to Japanese people these days, this kind of thinking is unheard of now. Japan's stressed-out society doesn't help the situation either, and I know of several women who are undergoing fertility treatment to get pregnant.

But J-List's staff isn't taking the problem Japan's falling population lying down. No, we're doing our part to raise the population, and we've got good news: Tomo, the J-List employee who keeps our site stocked with interesting DVDs, Blu-Ray discs and other products, is the proud father of a new son, little Motoharu, who was born safely to his mother yesterday. Congratulations to the proud parents!
Japan is running out of children as its birth rate falls. But J-List isn't giving up!

Cheap Places to Stay in Tokyo

Japan is an expensive place, and travelling inside the country can be costly, although there are some good ways to keep travel costs affordable. I recently suggested that anyone traveling inside Japan consider minshuku, a kind of local version of a youth hostel or a bed-and-breakfast that might offer a more authentically Japanese experience than lodgings picked from a guidebook for foreigners. There are some other inexpensive ways to stay in Japanese cities, too. Like the 24-hour saunas found near the train stations of most major urban areas, where you can take a really excellent bath and get hot in the sauna, then pull up a corner of floor and sleep in the "relaxation room" with a hundred or so other yukata-clad men. (Hope you don't mind snoring.) Or try Japan's famous capsule hotels, which give you a cozy space with everything you need except room to stand up in. Each will set you back around $35 a night, unbelievably cheap considering you're in the middle of a big city like Tokyo. One note, the sauna establishments will be for men only, and 90% of the capsule hotels I've seen have also been male only, although a few do have a floor for women to stay on.
If you come to Japan, try staying in a "capsule hotel," they're fun!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Japanese and Omiyage (Souvenirs)

If you ever visit Japan, it's good manners to bring gifts called omiyage (oh-mee-YAH-gay) to Japanese you will be visiting or who you might encounter. Some items, like boxes of chocolates, beef jerky, and macadamia nuts from Hawaii are so famous that they're almost cliched, but will still be appreciated by anyone who receives them from you. Yasu recommends you bring some items that Americans take for granted but which Japanese might find quite unique, like A-1 Steak Sauce or rare flavors of bubble gum. I think anything from your part of the world would make a good gift, and if your city or state is famous for something, a gift representing that is a good idea. One word of warning: giving gifts can expose you to a "gift war" in which you end up getting many more gifts than you can use, as Japanese are very serious about o-kaeshi, or giving a return gift when they receive one. I'll be returning to Japan soon, so I'm on the lookout for interesting souvenirs for the J-List staff, who have worked so hard during my extended trip to the U.S. What cool American stuff you think I should bring them?
Which omiyage would you like?

Japanese and English Grammar

There are many approaches to studying a foreign language, including the Communicative Method, stressing verbal communication with other students, or the Natural Approach, which tries to imitate the way children acquire language. When the Japanese study English, they do it with lots of grammar and translation, attempting to understand the mechanics of the language analytically, with functional use being less important than passing the all-important University Entrance Exam. While no one can accuse the Japanese of being the best linguists in the world, my students were known to teach me a thing or two about English grammar back when I was a teacher. For example, they are consciously aware of when to use 'the' (rhyming with 'uh') and 'the' (rhyming with 'three'), and how words like record, present and suspect are always stressed on the first syllable if they're nouns, but on the second when used as verbs. And 'whom'? The Japanese have it down, even though I haven't used the word since the third grade. Since Japanese people always expect native speakers to know every vocabulary word and bit of grammar that exists, they're usually disappointed when we come up short.
The Japanese often know English grammar better than native speakers.

Virtual Girlfriend Tour in Atami

About 100 km south of Tokyo there's an interesting resort town called Atami, whose onsen (volcanic hot spring baths) have been famous for more than 1200 years. Ever since the Tokyo land bubble burst back in 1989, the area's hotels has been hard hit by the drop in tourist traffic, but this has changed recently thanks to the popular game Love Plus. In the new sequel to the game, you can take your virtual girlfriend -- the pure and lovely Manaka, tsundere Rinko and the grown-up Nene -- to a Japanese inn in Atami, and the city has embraced this, encouraging fans to come and take pictures in the places that appear in the game and of course, spend money on limited Love Plus bento lunches and such. Some establishments have reported that a quarter of their business is coming from this odd "otaku tourism," which has rejuvenated the local economy. While some may be surprised at the extent Japanese fans take their obsessions, I think it's a harmless way to have fun, and not really any different than a Beatles fan traveling to the UK to visit the famous Abbey Road crosswalk -- it's just a new medium for people to be obsessive about.
Take a trip with your virtual girlfriend, but not Nene -- she's mine.