Thursday, September 27, 2012

All About Names in Japan

Just as in the West, Japanese parents-to-be obsess over what name to give their new baby. In addition to reading books which give background on various trendy names, they will often consult a Buddhist priest who will advise them on what characters are lucky for that year. The number of strokes used to write the name are important, too, and my wife took great pains to ensure that our daughter's Japanese name would have the same number of lines as hers, "so she can enjoy the same strong good luck I've had in my life," according to my wife. Names can be written in hiragana, foregoing kanji altogether for aesthetic reasons, but most parents choose kanji characters for the names of their children, being sure to choose from the official list of approved name characters the government publishes. One big difference between the West and in Japan are the lack of Biblically-derived names here -- every country in Europe has a local version of "Peter" (Pedro, Pierre, Pietro), but these don't exist in Japanese. Certain Western names are associated with famous names from Hollywood. For example, you might know several people named Jason, but in Japan, there's only one: the famous killer from the Friday the 13th movies. There are many Michaels in the world, but in Japan Michael Jackson is the name that springs to everyone's mind when they hear the name, and if you name is Clara, Japanese of a certain generation will probably identify you with the girl in the wheelchair from the famous anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps.

If your name is Jason or Freddie, you might scare people in Japan.

Japanese Visual Memes

It's fun to study random bits of Japanese culture, like the way children who want the weather to be good tomorrow will make a little man called Teruteru Bozu out of tissue paper and hang him by the window sill as a prayer to make it stop raining. Another fun traditional meme you encounter Japan is a face made from hiragana characters, called heno heno moheji (which is what the characters say when pronounced out loud), which Japanese kids like to doodle in their school textbooks. It's totally meaningless, but a widely recognizable visual image of Japan, known to show up on bento boxes from time to time. One of my favorite visual memes is called aiai-gasa, which means "two people walking together under an umbrella," and if you've watched a few anime series, you've probably seen it drawn on a chalkboard once or twice. The Japanese believe that walking together in the rain is very romantic, and drawing an umbrella with the names Taro and Hanako underneath implies that they like each other.

It's fun to study Japanese visual culture.

The Zen of Japanese Money

The currency used in Japan is yen, called en in Japanese, a word which literally means "circle," which was probably why the yen rate was officially set at 360 yen to the dollar in the decades after World War II. Because yen prices involve numbers that are quite high, you quickly get used to paying 980 yen for lunch, or 8,000 yen to fill your gas tank, or 178,000 yen for a new computer. Like Europe and Canada, Japan uses coins for a lot of currency denominations, with the 100 and 500 yen notes (equivalent to $1 and $5 bills) having been replaced by coins many years ago. One of my favorite Japanese coins is the 5-yen coin, shown below, which always makes me think of the bamboo fountain at Ryoan-ji, one of my favorite Buddhist temples in Kyoto (it's the place with the "sea" of rocks that you can sit and contemplate for hours). The 5-yen coin is considered especially lucky because its name in Japanese (go-en) has the same pronunciation as a word roughly translatable as "a fortuitous encounter with someone who will be important to you for the rest of your life." Hence, a lot of Japanese omamori good luck charms contain 5-yen coins inside.

The 5-yen coin is my favorite type of Japanese money.

Go! Go! Nippon!

Remember: J-List is here to help you learn about Japan, and one fun way you can start is with Go! Go! Nippon!, a fun all-ages visual novel that simulates a visit to Japan. Developed for foreigners who are fascinated with Japan, this fun game lets you explore the Tokyo and Kyoto areas, accompanied by two cute girls, which you get to fall in love with. Which girl will you choose? Because the game displays both Japanese and English text, you can learn by playing the game. Order now!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The "Mystery of Translation"

One subject I write about a lot is the way learning a foreign language helps you to understand your own brain better. Currently we're working on the long-delayed Moero Downhill Night Blaze, the third and final eroge about Initial D-style mountain racing (the one with actual racing in it). This title was delayed because the company that made the game had the bad fortune to be based in Sendai, in northern Japan. which was heavily damaged in last year's earthquakes, forcing us to find a new programmer to port the game (happily no one at the company was hurt). As I go through the game files, finishing up the final few lines that need translating, I'm amazed at the way the actual act of translation doesn't seem to be managed by my conscious brain at all, but somewhere deeper. I mentally place a word or sentence that I want to translate into a special place in my mind and -- ding! -- a few seconds later I have the translation I need, just like cooking something in the microwave. Any translation from one language to another must match the feel of the original line, of course, and my brain seems quite adept at judging whether the "voice" (including formality or lack of it, feminine or masculine intonations etc) of the translated line matches the original, all without conscious thought by me. We plan on getting the third Moero game out soon, and we hope you'll consider preordering it, or perhaps picking up the specially-priced set of the first two games while we finish the third game.

I'm fascinated by "the mystery of translation" in my brain.

China Musume: The Invader Came from Beyond the Sea

The saber rattling between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands continues, with China officially canceling a planned event to commemorate 40 years of diplomatic relations and goodwill between the two countries. I've been watching various news programs on the crisis as seen from Japan, which have been interesting. One commentator pointed out that virtually every young person in Chinese urban areas is an only child thanks to the "One Child Policy" in place since 1978; with the Chinese preference for boy children over girls, this means a high number of alpha males with a lot of anger, which fundamentally changes the dynamics of the country's psychology. Of course, the Senkaku islands aren't the only potential trouble spot in the region: China has territorial disputes with nearly 20 countries, including the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam. Back in 1988 actual shooting broke out between China and Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of 70 soldiers on both sides.

There is, naturally, lots of fun "fanart" on Pixiv regarding the Senkaku Islands. This is "China Musume."

The "Tyranny of the Majority" in Japan

Japan is a great place, really, with clean streets that are always safe to walk down at night, an excellent public transport system, and toilets that wash your butt for you. The people are nearly always polite, unless you get between an obasan (middle-aged housewife) and a sale item she's got her eye on in the supermarket, and there are many amazing foods to discover, like "aspara-bacon" (asparagus wrapped in bacon), a favorite dish of mine at izakaya restaurants. But there is one problem, brought about by Japan's homogeneous society in which 98% of people believe themselves to come from exactly the same genetic stock, which can be thought of as "tyranny of the masses." The Japanese think bread should be white and fluffy, so don't expect to find a huge selection of cracked wheat, oat and other types of healthy bread in supermarkets here. They also tend to like thick, creamy milk with 4.2% milkfat or higher, and it's not uncommon to find no lowfat milk available in the store -- and just forget about ever finding skim milk. Most Japanese cities require trash be separated, with moeru gomi (burnables), plastics, aluminum and steel cans, PET bottles and so on all being put out on different days from 6-8 a.m., which is kind of hard on people like me who stay up late (since I have to overlap my day with the J-List San Diego office). Finally, the Japanese often don't "get" non-standard food lifestyles, and if you're a vegetarian or need to avoid rice or caffeine for health or religious reasons, it can be a bit of extra work.
Of course, can you imagine a bunch of self-entitled foreigners in America whining that Americans don't do things exactly as they would like? They wouldn't get very far.

Japanese love thick, creamy milk.

The Top Hello Kitty Products from Japan Today

You can always depend on J-List to carry fun and interesting Hello Kitty products from Japan. We've got fun Hello Kitty bento and onigiri items, a popular Hello Kitty ice cube maker, fun Hello Kitty muffin makers plus a kawaii way to store your glasses overnight. Click here to see the most popular Japan Hello Kitty products, as ranked by our customers!