Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A place is only a place

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is probably my favorite book of all time. I read it twice in college (once on my own, and then once as assigned reading for a sociology class). That's right - we read Dune in a social science class because of the the story's richly developed religion, social structures, classes, etc. I've read it a couple more times since then, as well. It's a story with many themes; many facets to think about and digest.

One particular bit of dialogue that has stuck with me, and that I think about quite often, comes in a scene before the Atreides family has left their homeworld, the blue planet Caladan. The household is preparing to relocate to Dune, the rich but deadly desert world so unlike their Caladan. The novel's protagonist, Paul, asks his tutor (the Atreides Master of Assassins), Thufir Hawat, if he is going to miss their present home. To this Hawat replies "Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place."

When my family moved from New York to Maryland, and while I was living in Japan, I mostly agreed with that sentiment. Sometimes I still do. I don't miss living in New York, but I do miss friends that remain there. I miss friends and people who were special to me in Japan. And if I were to leave the Maryland/DC area, I probably wouldn't miss it so much, though I would miss some people here.

There definitely are things I miss about life in Japan, though. Shops and places, smells, sensations. Of course the mind revises and romanticizes memories so that we don't place as much weight on the things we don't miss.

I think one of the things I miss the most often is the sight of hills or mountains in the distance. In many of the places I lived or visited in Japan, there were rolling forms off on the horizon. As Bilbo Baggins says, "I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains[...]"

I suppose the question isn't black and white, as is the case with so many things. How about you, dear readers? Are you the type to miss places? People?

Friday, March 14, 2014

From the Archives: Warm and Cold

I don't usually repost old material, but lately the weather has really been making me think of this Japanese expression that I introduced a few years ago. Although perhaps now I'd translate it as "three cold four warm," as this time of year it doesn't really get "hot." Anyway, if you're living in a temperate clime and just biding your time until spring arrives, here's some Japanese for you, originally posted in March 2010:

The last couple weeks have been pretty mild. There was even a day or two that got up to around 18 C (about 64 F). And then it got cold again. And rainy and miserable. Towards the end of the week, though, things may heat up again. This kind of weather isn't unusual for the end of winter in temperate climes.

The other day I learned that there is a Japanese expression for this type of weather behavior. It's even a yo-ji (word or phrase made up of a 4-kanji chain)! Ready? Here it is:


It's pronounced 「さんかんしおん」(sankan-shion). Literally, the kanji mean "three cold four hot." When put into its proper context, it refers to the weather cycle that follows the rough pattern of three cold days and then four warm days.

I think it's a pretty cool phrase to know, but just be warned that it's not exactly mainstream. I learned it from a teacher that I work with, and although I tried to sneak it into conversations with some of my Japanese coworkers and friends, only about half of them knew what I was talking about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

J-Word Play: Coffee of the Dead

It's been a while, but I wanted to share a new riddle that I came up with (I don't know how original it is; could be that this already exists in some other wording). I've decided to do away with the dual posts and just include the question and answer in one. This way those of you who just want to know don't have to wait a week. Here we go:


Thursday, March 6, 2014

J-Music and Me: BABYMETAL

Rocketnews recently posted about the new album release of a band called BABYMETAL (all in caps, yes). This is a band I was unfamiliar with. Some might call the marriage of raging guitars and hoarse screamer metal with cutesy girl pop an abomination. I am not such a one. Or maybe I should say that even if it is an abomination, there's something to it. I'm not sure what that something is, but it definitely exists.

To co-opt a thought from one of the top commenters to the above video:

"I didn't want to like this, but it consumed my soul and now I do. Pretty f[#^$ing] metal."

Are there other bands like this? And what other insane musical combinations are out there? Only time will tell, but I will report back with any extraordinary findings.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friendship Friday: What Japan

Wow, I haven't done one of these in a while. Time to remedy that, I suppose.

Today I'd like to introduce a Facebook page that was recently started by a friend and former student of mine. Actually she was one of my best students and was already pretty fluent in English when I met her. Now she's working to further her career as a translator, and she created this page, WHAT JAPAN, to inform about Japan (and to keep up her English, I wager).

Despite being relatively new, WJ already has a good variety of posts and some very interesting links, including a story about a "sake arcade" in Nigata and a list of kanji that Japanese elementary school students learn.

She also posts some amusing anecdotes and cute pictures.

Another attractive element is that she will reply to comments in Japanese if you'd like to give it a go - a great opportunity if you don't have any chances to use your nihongo and would like to practice.

On a personal note, although I can't really claim any part in how good her English is or how she's improved over the years, it's always deeply satisfying to see a (former) student grow and succeed.

In conclusion, if you're rocking them facebooks, definitely check it out. If not...well. 残念, I guess.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

10 Colors

Although they may not come up super frequently, Japanese expressions and sayings can be fun to learn. One of the first ones I remember learning is 一石二鳥 (いっせきにちょう) - "two birds with one stone." That's also a good example of 四字(熟語)- an expression made up of four kanji. There are tons of these yoji.

If you're familiar with the expression それぞれ, which can be used to mean "to each his own," then here's another yoji for you:


1, 2, 3...close enough.
If you've studied some basic kanji, you should be able to recognize these ones and maybe glean the meaning to be found here. 十人十色 (じゅうにんといろ)is made up of:

十 - 10
人 - people
十 - 10 (again)
色 - color

So 10 people, 10 colors. 10 people each have their own color. Each individual has his own likes and preferences. To each his own.

Alc: 十人十色

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Winds of Change

I mentioned in my New Years update that I had applied once again to JET for a CIR position. Well, I found out recently that I didn't move on in the process. Some information came to me from friends on the review staff that my application was disqualified for a very iffy, red-tapey reason that made those in charge feel bad. I won't go into detail; it's certainly disappointing, but that was just one possible avenue. We'll see what's to come!

Although I don't write much (or at all) about my work here, it's been an interesting past half-year in telecom. I suppose there's always something going on, but last summer heralded the acquisition of wireless carrier Sprint by Japanese mover and shaker Softbank. This was exciting on more than one level ("Yay M&A!" and "Yay J-company!").

First (I don't want to assume you're familiar with the US wireless scene), know that there are 4 major American carriers. Two Goliaths - AT&T and Verizon Wireless, and two Davids - T-Mobile and Sprint. AT&T tried to buy up T-Mobile in 2011, but US regulators nixed the deal over concerns that it was anti-competitive. Since then, T-Mobile has become a scrappy thorn in its rivals' sides, branding itself as "the Un-Carrier" and promoting unlimited data plans and unsubsidized phones - basically swimming against the current and actually making headway.

Sprint, on the other hand, has been kind of barely treading water. About a decade ago it merged with Nextel - a deal that is seen now as a waste of resources. Its network is lacking and under-built. What it has got going for it is a lot of good spectrum (airwaves that are used to build cellular networks). Enter Softbank.

Softbank is one of the Big 3 carriers in Japan (Softbank, NTT Docomo, and KDDI au), and right now is the most dynamic and exciting of the bunch. It was the first to bring the iPhone to Japan, and its daring leader is now trying to shake things up in the US with newly acquired Sprint. Whether or not he'll be able to do so remains to be seen.

The latest news is that Softbank-Sprint is exploring the possibility of gobbling up T-Mobile. I'm not sure how realistic this is. US regulators at both the Department of Justice (DoF) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have indicated that they like the recent spurt of competition brought on by T-Mobile's feistiness and are happy with their decision to its 2011 merger with AT&T. In terms of major carriers, 4 could be the magic number.

It's a shame that there aren't many other telecom moguls out there as daring as Softbank's Masayoshi Son. With regulators leery of allowing further consolidation among the major carriers, there's a rare opportunity here for entry into the US market. But alas, German Deutsche Telekom is T-Mobile's majority shareholder, and they want out. NTT Docomo once tried to get into the US market and failed, but right now they're the slowest of the J carriers to change and I doubt they'd be interested in such an adventure. 

Will T-Mobile and Sprint continue to fight uphill as separate entities, then? Probably, I think. T-Mobile may be snapped up eventually by Dish or someone else. Sprint definitely has the means to make an impact on the market, but that will take a lot of creativity and capital investment. We'll see if Son is up to the task.

Monday, January 27, 2014


It's cool/frustrating that you can believe yourself to be so familiar with Japan and yet be unaware of some pretty basic terminology. Of course these gaps are frustrating, but I say this is "cool" because on the upside there are always these little tidbits to learn.

One term that I only just learned relatively recently is 都道府県 (とどうふけん), which sounds like a Street Fighter move but refers to Japan's 47 prefectures. I guess when I was actually in Japan I didn't really watch much TV and newspapers were a little too intimidating, so I didn't often encounter words like this.

But at any rate, why is there a special word for the prefectures collectively? Why not just 47県? Well, because they don't all share the same governmental status or structure. Wikipedia breaks it down pretty well:

"The prefectures of Japan are the country's 47 first-order subnational jurisdictions on a state or provincial level: one "metropolis" (都 to?), Tokyo; one "circuit"/territory (道 dō?), Hokkaido; two urban prefectures (府 fu?), Osaka and Kyoto; and 43 other prefectures (県 ken?). Prefectures are governmental bodies larger than cities, towns, and villages."

So while we just call them all prefectures in English, I think in Japanese there is some distinction.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

J Comedy and Shimura Ken

Foreign humor can be difficult to understand and process. I mean, physical comedy can have universal appeal if that's your thing, as there isn't really much of a language barrier there, but otherwise there can be huge lingual and cultural hurdles to overcome.

J comedy has been a challenge for me for a while, but in recent years I've made progress. For starters, I'm a fan of よゐこ (Yowiko)'s Arino Shinya, the star of Game Center CX. Highly recommended if you like video games!

There's also an older comedian named Shimura Ken who has done some pretty funny stuff throughout his career, and much of it can be found on YouTube. Although some of it may be a bit challenging depending on your level of Japanese, I think some of his skits are simple enough to be enjoyed regardless. 

I know YouTube videos are often here today and gone tomorrow, but for now here are some examples of his stuff.

First, this is the first Shimura Ken skit that I saw, and as a former ALT it really hit home. I've since shown this to several Japanese people who attested to its accuracy. A good entry point!

Next, here's a series of skits (there are two videos on YouTube), where he plays a salaryman coming home and being greeted by his wife, who is played by a different woman (mostly) in each one:

Here's one where he plays an incompetent ninja:

He also has a number of routines where he plays a pervy guy trying to cop a feel. Here's one such:

I think Shimura Ken is a great introduction to J comedy, though he may not be reflective of what's popular at the moment. Any comedians that you'd recommend?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A new counter!

Japanese has a number of tricky elements that are overcome with time. One of which is the use of many different "counter" words. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it means that there are different words used for counting different types of objects. 

For example if we're counting people, we can say 1人(ひとり)、2人(ふたり)、3人(さんにん)、etc...

If we want to count cars or pieces of large equipment, we use 1台(いちだい)、2台(にだい)、3台(さんだい), etc...

And then if we're counting long, thin objects, we go with 1本(いっぽん)、2本(にほん)、3本(さんぼん), etc...

There are counters for all sorts of categories - small animals, large animals, birds, small objects, countries, bowls, flat objects, floors, etc. You just kind of pick them up as you go along. There are workarounds, kind of. Some people overapply a couple of more "general" counters to simplify conversation (and maybe a little out of laziness).

Anyhow, I was reading an interesting article yesterday about the trend of convenience stores selling "premium" products. It was educational in several ways, but right now I just want to document the sighting of a counter that I was previously unfamiliar with: 斤. I imagine I must have seen this in the past and just not picked up on its meaning, but here we are. It's 「きん」- the counter for loaves!

In context, the article said: 


"Golden bread" is being sold for 250 yen per loaf. 


I wonder if that can stretch to apply to non-bread loaves...