Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year

Well, just saw my family off. In a few hours I'll be heading off to Tokyo, so no new posts for a few days.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: Doing it right

There's a noteworthy article in the Japan Times Online right now about how learning to recognize and use the incorrect but widely-used elements of a language can be an important step on the way to fluency. The writer gives several examples, including the widespread use of the small tsu to abbreviate words. For example, おはよごうざいます (ohayō gozaimasu) is often shortened to っざいます (zzaimasu). Actually, I often hear it slurred to おす (osu). Speaking of which, here is a very interesting essay on the usage of "osu".

I've come across some individuals in the English-teaching biz who don't advocate for the teaching of incorrect words and grammar. While I agree with this on a basic level, I think once students of any language reach a certain point, they need to be aware of lingual aberrations and how they're used. Like it or not, languages are like living creatures - they change and evolve, and they can get messy sometimes. The example used right at the start of the article, "ain't," is a great example. As a teacher, I certainly wouldn't encourage a regular use of the word, but I would be remiss if I ignored its existence and even refused to ever teach it, despite a high chance of my students encountering it.

Sorry, I don't really have specific Japanese to teach this time around - just the exhortation to go learn some "bad" Japanese if you can. Of course that comes with a caveat - don't use it unless you're confident about how and when it should be used. Like, uh...don't go around jokingly calling people hentai. Apparently they don't take too kindly to that.

Just another picture of the day 12/24/09

Monday, December 21, 2009

T'is the season

My family is arriving in Japan today from America, and I feel under-prepared. There's still cleaning, shopping, and decorating to be done. After all, Christmas is only a few short days away.

I think it can be very difficult to get into the "Christmas spirit" over here. Sure, the decorations and Christmas consumer culture seem to be catching on here, but it's not quite the same. No one says "Merry Christmas" or "Happy holidays." There's really only a vague understanding of what Christmas is. Most people don't know about Santa's elves, or Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (they do have the song over here, but he's just called "the red-nosed reindeer" sans Rudolph). Forget about Frosty the snowman. And of course this isn't a Christian country, so the whole celebration of the birth of Christ thing is lost, as well.

If you're over here and you find yourself aching for that Christmas spirit, I have a few tips:

1. Spend time with friends or family. Hanging out alone can really be a drag during the holiday season, so either spend some time with ex-pat friends or invite some Japanese over and educate them on Christmas partying. Exchanging a few presents can be good fun.

2. Do some decorating. Find a little tree and some Christmas lights, maybe some cheap stockings; you can get most of this stuff at 100-yen shops like Daiso.

3. Procure some Christmas movies and music. Nothing like watching a Christmas Story or listening to some carols to get you into the mood. Personally, the "Carol of the Bells" always gets me pumped for Christmas.

4. Make some Christmasy food/drinks. You may have trouble getting something like a Christmas turkey over here, but you can certainly try your hand at the classic seasonal beverage, eggnog! I actually made some this past weekend and it turned out pretty well. There are tons of easy recipes to be found online.

5. If you're religious, attend a service. I skipped this last year and regretted it, so this year I'm going to go to Christmas mass.

That's about it for now. If you have any thoughts about Christmas in Japan or traditions/practices of your own, let me know!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just another random thought 12/20/09: A different kind of cold

Japanese winters are rough. So are summers, but that's a different rant. Whenever it gets cold here, people talk about it. 寒いね!(samui ne). It's cold, huh? Often when I mention this fact or politely agree with a coworker or Japanese friend, I'll get a something along the lines of 「でも、ポールはニューヨークからでしょう?」(But you're from New York, aren't you?). Everyone over here has this image of New York being a frozen iceland, apparently. First off, I always tell them I'm from Long Island. Pretty temperate. It gets cold and snowy, but usually nothing crazy. Second, hasn't anyone in Japan ever heard of insulation? I mean, when you're cold in America, it's a different kind of cold. You're mostly exposed to it when you go outside or drive somewhere. Here, it's near constant! I kid you not, I just went to the bathroom and saw steam rising from my, uh, stream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just another random thought 12/17/09: Bread

Notice anything odd about this picture? If you're not living in Japan, you might notice the fact that this ハーフサイズ (half size) loaf of bread only contains three slices. If you are, you may be jealous that I found some raisin bread. Yeah, bread is pretty dull around here and it can be hard to find anything other than plain white.

Me, I'm just wondering why they bother packaging and selling three slices of bread. I mean, who's gonna buy that? Someone who wants to eat precisely one sandwich and one piece of toast and doesn't want any bread left over - that's who. You may be tempted to point out that I bought it. Shut up - it's all they had!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

J-Word Play #5 (Answer)

So the riddle from Monday was:


And the answer is...


かめ (turtle)

First off, the meaning of the question. Read as it is, the riddle translates to:
"What creature is hidden inside cola?"

The solution to this one lies in the fact that コーラ, when katakana-ized like this, reads "cola." When written in hiragana, however, it is こうら(甲羅; shell). So what creatures hides inside a shell? And the answer is a turtle. I suppose anything along those lines, like hermit crabs or snails, would have been acceptable.

Unfortunately no winners this time, so no plugs.

Credit: This riddle was obtained from Nazo Nazo King.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: Sometime

Recently I've learned that the word "sometime" can have the same nuance in English and Japanese. You know the scene - you've met someone, maybe a friend of a friend, who you're talking to, and you're both doing your best to be nice. But who are you kidding? You haven't quite taken a shine to one another, have you? But you're trying to be nice. So you talk about how you should hang out sometime. Yeah, sometime. Or maybe you go out on a first date and you're not really feeling it. You close up with a "That was fun - we should do it again sometime." Sometime.

いつか (itsuka; sometime, some day) can have the same connotation in Japanese (social life can be quite educational). So be advised that if you really do want to hang out/ go out with someone, you might not be best serving your interests by saying something like:

(Let's do coffee sometime)


(Let's hang out sometime)

If you're serious about spending some quality time together, I might recommend substituting いつか with 近いうちに (chikai uchi ni), which means "sometime soon." So something like:

(Let's do lunch sometime soon)

So yeah, I really enjoyed this lesson. Let's do it again, uh...sometime...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

J-Word Play #5

As suggested, this time I'll be handing out a prize for anyone who can come up with the right answer. All winners will receive a hearty pat on the back. Get it? Handing out a prize? Pat on the back? Har har...

Anyway, the best I can do right now is this: if you'd like to submit an answer, please email me at Put something recognizable in the Subject field, please, like "riddle" or "なぞなぞ." And please don't send multiple answers. If you have a blog or website, please include it with your answer. When I post the solution, I'll also list the names and websites of anyone who got it right. So basically get the answer, get a free plug. And in the spirit of the How to Japonese puzzles, you can try to track me down and claim your pat on the back, as well.

So without further ado, J-Word Play #5:


Let's say I'll post the answer on Friday.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Just another picture of the day 12/4/09

Toilet technology

In honor of this month's Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Dumb Otaku, I've decided to revisit a topic that Shadow wrote a little bit about and that I explored back in my vlogging days: toilets.

Interestingly, Japan's toilet population is probably fairly representative of Japanese technology as a whole - they got it all, from cutting edge to simple Simon. I mean, the disparity can be pretty shocking.

First off, this is your basic hole in the ground. And trust me, it's exactly what it looks like. These babies are known here as 和式 (washiki; Japanese style). If the range of toilets in Japan were a Taco Bell (as apt an analogy as it is), this wouldn't even be a menu item. It would be one of those packets of free hot sauce.

When you have to go to the bathroom, these things are scary, especially your first time. I still remember mine vividly. Which way do you face? Is there going to be any...splashage? Is this possible while wearing these pants? When presented with a squatter toilet, these are all valid questions. In fact, your first time using one you may experience a degree of panic. I did. I mean, I had never had to aim to, uh, do that kind of business before. And there's not much time to plan your approach, either - if you didn't really have to go, you wouldn't be using one of these things. Don't even get me started on having to use one while wearing a suit. For now, let's go to the tape. Here's a scene from the 1992 movie Mr. Baseball, in which Tom Selleck demonstrates a perfectly understandable reaction to the squatter:

Once last year I had some students ask me what kind of things surprised me when I came to Japan. I told them that actually not too many things were that shocking to me, but that I couldn't understand why such an advanced country still has so many squatter toilets. One of the boys grinned and told me that these toilets are one reason why Japanese athletes have such strong knees. Kids do say the stupidest darndest things. I suspect they're still being made because of their cleanliness, but I think that's overrated. After all, I've never heard of anyone catching any toilet-borne diseases.

Anyway, I suppose we've dwelt long enough on the squatter. Next, you have your basic toilets as we in West would recognize them - 洋式 (yōshiki; Western style). Bowl, seat, lid, and tank. These are our basic menu items - tacos and burritos. They come in a variety of "flavors," but they do usually have one common water-saving feature. On these models, the pipe that refills the tank doesn't connect to the lower part of the tank, but rather releases water from above, into a little hole, that then flows inside the tank. The point of this is to allow you to rinse your hands with the water that's going to be dirtied anyway. I usually wash my hands afterwards at the sink with soap, anyway, but it's still a thoughtful feature. These models can be found in a variety of places. I have one in my apartment.

Last, we have the top tier; the Mexican Pizzas and Nachos Bell Grande. These bad boys come decked out with all sorts of dials and buttons. Common features include heated seats, sounds to drown out any noise you might make, and nozzles that will squirt you in all the right places. Sometimes you can find thrones with adjustable water pressure and temperature, too. These are usually found in places like hotels and celebrities' houses.

And there you have it. Not all toilets are created equal. It really is interesting, though. Thanks to the inexplicable fact that squatter toilets are still being made (dug?), it's quite easy to observe the evolution of toilet technology in Japan. What's next, you wonder? Crapping into waste cans, perhaps.

Do you have any stories about your own experiences with the thrones or run-ins with the squatters? If so, please share them in the comments section!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: Month mayhem

So how's the Japanese coming? Oh, you know how to say all 12 months, do you? Well how about their alternative names? Yes, you heard me.

I was talking to one of the Japanese teachers at my school the other day and she mentioned that each of the months has a kind of alternative name. A secret name, if you will. Some of them seem to be well-known, but some of them aren't very widely used and so some Japanese may not recognize them (according to her). Each of these names has some kind of meaning, which you may be able to garner from the kanji used. She didn't know the meanings behind some of them, so neither do I. Anyway, here's what we have:
For those of you who may not be familiar with kanji, the 月 character means month in this case.

January - 一月 - 睦月(むつき) - (睦 - peace or harmony + month)

February - 二月 - 如月(きさらぎ)- (如 - going forward or proceeding? + month)

March - 三月 - 弥生 (やよい) - (unclear on the meaning, but some names come from this one)

April - 四月 - 卯月 (うづき) - (卯 - to grow or bloom + month)

May - 五月 - 皐月(さつき) - (unsure of this one, as well)

June - 六月 - 水無月(みなづき) - (水 - water + 無 - without + month)

July - 七月 - 文月(ふみつき) - (文 means writings and apparently used to be used to mean letter (手紙), so I suppose this was a month filled with correspondence?)

August - 八月 - 葉月(はづき) - (葉 - leaf + month)

September - 九月 - 長月(ながつき) - (長 - long + month)

October - 十月 - 神無月(かんなづき) - (神 - gods + 無 - without + month)

November - 十一月 - 霜月(しもつき) - (霜 - frost + month)

December - 十二月 - 師走 (しわす) - (師 - master, teacher + 走 - run; this illustrates a busy time with people running around)

There you have it. Now get to it - you can be the first foreigner on your block to know two names for every month!.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

J-Word Play #4

Today's is a pretty easy one, and quite well-known, I believe.

(It's bread, but not bread you can eat).


フライパン (a frying pan)
There are also other acceptable answers, such as たんぱん (shorts).

This pun is based around the fact that the Japanese word for bread is パン (pan). Other words, such as フライパン(furaipan), which is clearily inedible, contain the word "pan."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just another random question 11/29/09: いうて

Edit 11/30/09: According to Bryce in the comments, it's actually ゆって.
Edit: 12/01/09: Asked one of the English teachers I work with today and she said that ゆう is Kansai-ben for 言う。

言う (iu; to say) is a word that you learn fairly early on in Japanese studies. Being an ~う verb, the ~て form (used for commands and a slew of other grammatical constructions) is, of course, 言って. However I've noticed that sometimes Japanese people will say いうて instead. I'm wondering if this is just a spoken variation or some special rule I haven't encountered in my studies.

Anyone know anything about this one?

Just another picture of the day 11/29/09

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Just another random thought 11/26/09: Buy American!

There comes a time in (almost) every young man or woman's life when he sets out on his own and assumes responsibility for himself: bills, food, housing - all of that good stuff. It was an interesting experience to jump to this stage of life and simultaneously into a foreign country. Although to be fair, I have had help with things like my apartment lease.

One characteristic of growing up and becoming responsible is learning how to manage your money. You start to notice things you never really gave much thought to in the past, like how much different brands of milk cost and which pack has more cherry tomatoes in it. As such, I've tended to inadvertently buy a lot of American produce. Often imported American (or Australian) meat is cheaper than domestic Japanese stock. The same is true of some fruits and vegetables. Today I bought a head of American broccoli for 68 yen. The Japanese ones were almost 100 yen more! Fine by me - I like buying stuff from home. Suckers...!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Japanese Men: Fueling societal problems...?

Edit: 草食系 is herbivore; 菜食系 is vegetarian.

...or a result of them, and a component of a vicious cycle? A recent NPR article, via Japan Probe:

"The sensitive New Age man has finally arrived in the land of the salaryman. But there is a catch — a particularly important one in Japan, where the declining birthrate has caused alarm: The new Japanese man doesn't appear to be interested in women or sex."

An interesting topic, to be sure. Is the (菜食系) 草食系(sōshokukei; herbivore) male the future of Japan, or a stumbling block to its future?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: It's not THAT difficult

If you've ever spent some time in Japan and picked up a chopstick or uttered a word of Japanese in the presence of a native, you've probably heard all about how skilled you are at either. For this entry I'm going to skip the debate over whether or not this is rude or condescending. Another one you'll hear, if you're studying Japanese is "日本語は難しいね" (Japanese is difficult, aye?). Some foreigners take offense at this, interpreting the comment to mean that our puny, foreign brains just can't grasp the language. I must admit that at times I've gotten annoyed when this little gem has been directed at me, but more often I just shrug and nod and mutter something about foreign languages being tough, but communication being important.

Well, thanks to a new grammar pattern I recently learned, I can now tell these folk that Japanese isn't that difficult. Here it is:


See how it works? If not, let's try another example:

A: このテレビゲームは高いね。
B: いや、高くはない。

A: This video game is expensive, huh?
B: Nah, it's not that expensive.

So here's the deal: for ~い adjectives, you take the adverb form (change い to く) and tack on はない (and of course the は is pronounced "wa").

For ~な adjectives, you take the root and add ではない. So for example, 好き (すき; to like) becomes 好きではない. As in:
A: 来週のライブに行く?
B: 行かないよ。そのバンドが好きではない。

A: Are you going to next week's concert?
B: No. I don't like that band that much.

As far as speaking, I believe with ~い adjectives, emphasis is placed on the は, and with ~な adjectives it is placed on で.

So I hope you enjoyed this lesson. But I don't hope that much.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Japanese Halls

This commercial, featured recently at Japan Probe, is a great example of typical Japanese advertising. Amusing and "wtf" inducing.

J-Word Play #3

After that last humdinger I know you must be aching for another one. Settle down, my babies - here you are:


(What animal is always complaining?)


牛 (うし; cow)
In English, cows say "Moo." In Japanese, cows say "も(Mo)," which is also the sound a person makes when he is complaining, like a groan.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bow

It seems that the last few days this picture has been plastered all over the internet. While I'm reluctant to delve into the murky political waters here at JADJ, I've been reading a lot of unfair comments from both sides of the "debate" and would just like to briefly weigh in.

AFP/ File

First off, as this Japan Times piece points out, this is not the first time that a US president has been blasted for a controversial greeting. G. W. Bush, Clinton, and Nixon all had their moments (as has Obama before this). I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who are ignoring that fact. When Bush held hands with Prince Abdullah, there was nothing wrong with it - it was just, you know, cultural sensitivity. Or conversely, when Clinton almost bowed to the emperor of Japan, it was a near calamity, but when Obama does a near-90°er, it's just deference and good manners - a new, humble, America. There's plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

I can understand both sides. On one hand, this isn't really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even if it was a mistake. So Obama gets points for his "humility and deference" with some, and in a 3-7 years we'll have a different president who can adopt an entirely new style of dealing with foreign leaders if he likes. On the other hand, it's true that American principles have always spurned the idea of the superiority of nobility (except in the cases of celebrities and political dynasties, it seems). Obama's bow was rather low and clumsy, and appeared to be the bow of one to his superior. I mean, that's the Japanese way - you bow low to your betters. Obama could use some better protocol advisors, but if he stuck with the same winners after giving Gordon Brown some DVDs in return for a pen carved from the timbers of an old ship that used to fight slavers, then I doubt he's going to fire them after this faux paux.

So in my opinion, it was a sloppy move. But the bottom line is that everyone makes mistakes, and this is going to have very little impact on anything. Now that I've offended people on all sides, let's move on.

Friday, November 13, 2009

School culture festivals

Edit: 11/18/09

A couple weeks ago, one of the high schools I teach at held its annual 文化祭 (bunkasai; culture festival). This event is something I never experienced in high school in America; to my knowledge, our high schools don't have anything quite like it. Students prepare for these festivals weeks in advance. Each homeroom class prepares something, be it an exhibit, a game, or a food stand of some kind. On the day of the event, the school is open to the public, so friends and family and alums (OB and OG, they call them here) come visit and partake in the festivities. Most of the students get really excited and are, of course, glad to have a couple days off from classes (usually takes at least a day beforehand to start setting stuff up). Here are some pictures:

The opening ceremony included local Hyogo celebrity, Habatan.

One homeroom made a cap art exhibit. I believe it's supposed to be Hideki Matsui of the Yankees, but I think they got his jersey number wrong.
Edit: As Shadow pointed out in the comments, it appears to be Mariners' player Suzuki Ichiro.

Here are some other things the students made.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: Using Japanese "appropriately"

Edit: 11/18/09

A pretty good word to be able to at least recognize over the course of your Japanese journey is the word 適当 (tekitou), sometimes appearing in it's adverb form, 適当に.

It has two distinct meanings. First off, it often means "appropriate," "suitable," or "proper."
Example: この仕事はあなたには適当じゃないよ。(This job isn't suitable for you)

A while ago I went to a little hole-in-the-wall yakitori restaurant with my friend Joe. We sat down and ordered a beer, and the old man behind the counter said something like

"適当にしましょうか?" (Roughly Sounds like "Shall we do it properly?")

I thought believe he was referring to the fact that his restaurant or that kind of place has a little set course kind of thing, although we didn't see it on the menu. Either that or he was offering to just let us buy whatever he felt like making. Sometimes the problem in these cases is that you really have no idea what "properly" or "appropriately" means. We shrugged and acquiesced, and the guy served us up some (very nearly) raw egg in what appeared to be some sort of soy sauce / vinegar mix. After that came some yakitori, which was a lot better than the egg. Be careful of the 適当 + typical Japanese vagueness combo.

The second meaning, which I haven't had a lot of experience with, is a more recent evolution of the word, if I understand correctly. This usage can be understood as "half-hearted," "random," or almost "sloppy."
Example: 彼は昨日の宿題を忘れてしまったから、適当にして出したばかりです。(Since he forgot yesterday's homework, he just sloppily half-assed it and handed it in)

適当(に) makes an excellent addition to anyone's Japanese word hoard. Let's enjoy!

Edit: Daniel at How to Japonese has some useful insights to add. The world of blogging is truly a boon to our Japanese studies!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Looking to the future

Man, things like this are what really make me take notice of our current rate of technological progression. Apparently the days are approaching when we can simply read from the air what those crazy foreigners are saying. I'm a little skeptical, granted the current inaccuracy of online translators, that something groundbreaking will be released within the next few years, but I'm sure this isn't too far away. And then...universal translators?

Full article here;

"Japan's high tech firm, NEC has introduced a new gadget, shaped like a pair of glasses, which is aimed at helping people sharpen their linguistic skills and break communication barriers by offering instant real-time language translation. Wearers of the device will be able to communicate with people of several different languages.[...]"

Just another picture of the day 11/10/09

(Not color swapped)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Japan's Population Problem

I may have mentioned in the past that Japan is facing a impending economic collapse in the next 50 years or so if it doesn't get its act together. This is due to its measly birth rate and aging population. In 50 years or so, there will be too few workers to support the amount of Japanese retirees. Government officials and think tanks have been tossing around policy ideas for years, and have implemented programs encouraging foreign workers to (temporarily) come to Japan. These programs have been criticized, however, for providing little support for these foreign workers and for eventually trying to turn them out of the country.

Really Japan has two options if it wants to survive as a nation and remain a world power. The Japanese people can either have more babies, or the government can ease regulations on immigration. Neither seems to be happening. I understand Japan's desire to retain its cultural identity, which is deeply tied to its homogeneity. But is it better to die out than dilute the purity of Japanese culture?

Debito Arudou, author of and periodic contributor to The Japan Times, recently penned an article to weigh in on the topic. A solution to Japan's problems does not seem within reach at the moment.

Check out the article full here.

[...]One panel was particularly odd. Panelists concluded, of course, that Japan must do something to stop this demographic juggernaut. A deputy director general at Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research even extrapolated that Japanese would be extinct by the year 3000! Yet the prospect of Japan's decimation was no match for the fear of the foreign element.

During the Q-and-A, I asked: "Sir, only briefly in your presentation do you mention letting foreigners into Japan as a possible solution. However, you depict the process not as 'immigration' (imin), but as the 'active use of the foreign working labor population' (gaikokujin rodoryoku jinko no katsuyo). Why this rhetoric?"

The speaker hedged a bit, suddenly asserting that Japan is now a crowded island society. To paraphrase, "Immigration is not an option for our country. Inflows must be strictly controlled for fear of overpopulation."

Afterward, one on one, I reconfirmed his intellectual disconnect. He further cited "a lack of national consensus" on the issue. When I asked if this was not a vicious circle (i.e. avoiding public discussion of the issue means no possible consensus), he gave a noncommittal answer. When I asked if "immigration" had become more of a political term than a scientific one, he begged off replying further.[...]

J-Word Play #2

This one is simple and easy to remember.


(What fruit does dad dislike?)


パパイヤ (papaya)

パパ = Papa
いや = dislike; an expression of dislike or unwillingness

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: The grass

In addition to puns and riddles, I find Japanese 諺‘(ことわざ;kotowaza; proverbs or sayings) to be interesting. It's quite fascinating to note that some of the sayings we have in English can be found, at times almost word for word, in Japanese. Of course this could be due to cultural diffusion; it can be difficult to pick apart Japanese culture and identify what is truly Japanese in origin.

Anyway, here's one example:


Translation: "The neighboring grass is green."

Interestingly, "青い" normally means "blue" in Japanese, but is sometimes used to mean green, as well. Traffic lights, for example, are "青い" in Japanese.

Regardless of the color of the grass, this proverb is like our "The grass is always greener on the other side."

The other part of Japan

During my stints here I've always lived in urban or suburban settings. Over the course of my travels, though, I have spent some time in the country, where the rice patties are bountiful and the air is...well, nicer than in the city. We call this mystical land "inaka" (田舎; rural countryside).

Here are a few pictures from a recent visit to a friend of mine who lives in a town near Nishi-waki (西脇).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Japan explores private school tuition funding...?

Via the Japan Times:

The education ministry has decided to pursue ways to make private high schools tuition-free for students from low-income households under the new government's key policy, government sources said.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will ask the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to use taxes allocated to local governments to help fund the tuition-free program, which would apply to households with an annual income of up to ¥3.5 million.

Education ministry data show that municipal governments spend roughly ¥32 billion in expenses related to public high school tuition fees, including those needed for tuition exemptions and for covering fees in arrears.

The ministry is seeking to use ¥24.9 billion out of the ¥32 billion after the aid package for high school students is put in place in the next fiscal year.

As an advocate of tuition vouchers in the States, I'm curious to see how this plan works out. The main challenge, it seems, will be to overcome the reduced portion of the budget allocated to public schools. But I'm not exactly clear on what money is being spent here - federal or municipal. If it's from the regular budget that each prefecture uses to fund its board of education, I foresee problems, as teachers are already underpaid and resources are stretched thin at some schools (in Hyogo, anyway).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Kansai Scene

If you're the kind of person who likes to cruise the local music scene, Kansai is a good place to live. Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara are jam-packed with small, homegrown bands and artists either just doing their own thing or trying to make it big. Having musical friends who fit either or both categories, I've been to a number of concerts at various venues over the past year.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to cover a show organized by my friends Dylan and Sammy of Ihou no Kyaku. There are myriad hidden bars, live houses, and basements scattered throughout the Kansai area, but luckily this show was held at a relatively easy-to-find venue at 元町(Motomachi) in Kobe. プラネトEarth (Planet Earth) is an interesting little joint - part art gallery, part bar, and part performance hall. It has a very bohemian atmosphere.

The show started off with Ihou no Kyaku (異邦の客). Second was a solo performance by guitarist Nara Hideki, followed by a traditional Japanese set by Gajin(雅人). Afterwards was a kind of half-time show by an amateur manzai duo going by the name of New River(ニューリバ). The one man show known as Qafu took the stage next, and the night was wrapped up by the lovely Chammy.

Band Name: Ihou no Kyaku (異邦の客)
Members: Dylan (Acoustic guitar/vocals) Sammy (Electric guitar)
Inspirations: Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews Band
Favorite Venues: Osaka, Kobe
Notes: Ihou no Kyaku ("Strangers in a Strange Land" in English) is an acoustic rock duo sometimes accompanied by a drummer or bassist. The influences of their inspirations, Mraz and DMB, are heavily recognizable in their music. Highly recommended if you're a fan of either. The Strangers count among their songs pieces in both Japanese and English. Feel free to check out their website for samples, or look them up on Facebook if you might be interested in attending a future show.

Band Name: Nara Hideki
Members: Nara Hideki (acoustic guitar/vocals)
Website: (mind your website's encoding)
Inspirations: Neil Young
Favorite Venues: All over Hyogo
Notes: Nara's like of American Southern rock was apparent in his songs. His sound struck me as a sort of J-rock meets Southern rock fusion. Other influences were also detectable - one of his songs sounded as if it incorporated elements of traditional Chinese music.

Band Name: Gajin
Members: JB (Janbe), Doug (Biwa)
Website: (that's 8 x's)
Inspirations: Sakato Yoshiko
Favorite Venues: Osaka, Kobe
Notes: Impressive performers, whether or not you are a big fan of traditional Japanese music. The rhythmic janbe beat and twang of the biwa are definitely something to check out if you've never seen them performed, and JB and Doug seemed quite up to the task of providing an enjoyable introduction to any newcomer to (or member of) the traditional Japanese musical scene.

Band Name: New River
Members: Musuda Naoyuki, Tatsumi Akinobu
Website: -
Inspirations: Downtown
Favorite Venues: Osaka University
Notes: At the moment, New River performs almost exclusively at Osaka University, but hopefully someday these two amateur manzai comedians will branch out. Their performance at the show was short but quite entertaining.

Band Name: Qafu
Members: Maeda Daisuke (Guitar/vocals/etc)
Inspirations: Bowie
Favorite Venues: Osaka
Notes: I'm not quite sure how to describe Qafu, but I will offer a few words: surprising, different, refreshing, kooky, and fun. His performance was evocative of a nightmarish circus scene from hell. Qafu throws everything he can at the audience by using recording and looping equipment on the spot with various guitar distortions and vocal sounds. It makes for quite a good show.

Band Name: Chammy
Members: Chammy (Vocals/violin)
Website: -
Inspirations: Mariah Carey
Favorite Venues: Osaka
Notes: Chammy is quite a talent, with abeautiful and impressive singing voice and quite a knack for the violin. Her portion of the show mixed Mariah Carey-esque pop music with classical (one of her transitions was from an upbeat vocal piece to a violin rendition of Cannon in D).

Let me finish up by saying that these kinds of shows are fairly frequent and can be a nice way to spend an evening every once in a while. Not only might you find a band that you like, but the venues are often cozy little places with laid back atmospheres, so it is usually a simple matter to meet the performers or chat with other members of the audience.

Monday, October 19, 2009

That autumn aroma

There's been a distinct fragrance permeating the air over the last couple of weeks. It's the smell of きんもくせい (kinmokusei), which is Japanese for Sweet Osmanthus, also known as Tea Olive, Sweet Olive, or Fragrant Olive (thank you, Wikipedia).

It has quite a pleasant smell, as its English name suggests. The Japanese, however, is a little odd. The kanji are: 金木犀. 金(kin) is gold and 木(moku) is tree. That's straightforward enough, as it doesn't take much imagination to connect "gold tree" with the orangey-yellow flowers. The last character, though, 犀 (sei), means "rhinoceros." The only possible relation I can see is that the flower clusters are somewhat horn-shaped. So "gold rhino tree" could be referring to the shape and color of the flowers it bears.

I do wonder about the etymology of the word and the origin of the tree in relation to the history of Japan. The fruit and leaves of the tree are used in parts of China to make tea and jam, so perhaps that is where it originated. If the tree were indigenous to Japan, I cannot imagine that the kanji for "rhino," which is not a Japanese animal, would be present in its name.

Regardless, its aromatic bloom is one of my favorite parts of autumn here.

Is anyone else familiar with this tree? Have you seen it in another country?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fun with Mary Jane

The other day I was teaching a lesson on illness and injury - how to say "I have a fever" and "My head hurts" and that sort of thing. On one of the worksheets I made, I presented three patients with their complaints, and the students had to write some advice, using the "(Person) should ..." format. One of them was Spiderman, saying that he had gotten into a fight with a thief who had punched him in the face, and now his tooth hurt (excuse the implausibility - I know Spiderman would never sustain an injury from such a lowly foe). After a few minutes, when we were checking the answers, some of the more vocal boys started giggling. I asked one of them for his answer, and he offered "Spiderman should go see MJ." It took me a second to process, and then I chuckled. "Mary Jane?" I asked. "Yes, MJ! Mary Jane-u!" the boys laughed.

Little things like that make me appreciate the innocence (in some regards, anyway) of many Japanese high students. Saying "Spiderman should go see Mary Jane" would no doubt evoke a completely different and substance-related image for an American high schooler. I'm sure if that kind of slang and drug culture were existent in Japan, the situation may have been different. But they're not. The boys just meant that Spiderman should go see his girlfriend. Of course, they probably did mean that Spidey should seek a different kind of action from his girlfriend. Hmmm...I guess they're not so innocent after all. Perverts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

J-Word Play #1

Edit: 11/04/09 - No one told me until recently, but apparently the grammar of the punchline I was using was a little off. See answer for explanation.

Recently I've begun to take an interest in Japanese riddles (なぞなぞ) and puns (だじゃれ). Although I sometimes need them explained to me, I've found that I enjoy learning and sharing them (I've even made a couple of my own). They are by no means pivotal resources, but they're a good way to remember some vocabulary.

Starting with this post, I intend to periodically share some that I've collected over the course of my time here. I apologize in advance to those of you who don't speak any Japanese - I'll explain them, but I'm afraid the novelty of the Japanese word play may be lost. Without further ado, the Word Play of the day (apologies if I messed up any grammar in this one - I had to have someone explain it to me, so I've reconstructed it to the best of my memory):

(Two guys are walking on the street, and one of them has a toupee. He trips and falls. What does the other one say?)



The joke in this one is that け (+ が as an assisting particle here) means hair, and けが means injury. So the solicitous friend could either be asking if his fallen comrade has his hair or if he has an injury. Edit: So it's more natural to use ない here. "You're not hurt?/You have no hair?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Creepy Juice!

Back when I was studying Japanese in college, there was a professor who would hold a semesterly presentation on Japanese music. He showed this music video one of the first times I went, and I still remember it to this day (which is why I looked it up so y'all could have a peek).
It's called "君にジュースを買ってあげる" (I'm gonna buy you some juice) and it's by Group Tamashii. Have a look/listen:

Now, does anything about that strike you as odd? I know that normal music videos are the exception rather than the rule, but I'm still a little surprised at the unabashed high school girl fixation. I mean, come on - how old is this guy who is trying to earn the affection (and indirect kiss) of the high school basketball girl? And man, that part where he goes for the boob grab. Dude. Were they trying to lessen the skeeziness by dressing him up like a dog? Because I gotta say, I don't think it worked. I do like the random part where the guy rolls up on the bicycle, though. He's all like "Hey, uh, I'll buy you a juice. Whichever you like. Oh, uh...I, uh...I'm 10 yen short. Oh well - next time!" and then rides off.

The song itself is catchy and innocent enough. The lyrics are about how the singer wants a give and take relationship. Aside from the chorus, "I'm gonna buy you some juice," he sings about how he will do stuff like waiting waiting at the (train) station and carrying your bag, and pushing the button on the elevator, but that you should do things like giving up your seat for him and paying the bills (Hmmm...).

That video, though, is just...well...

What do you think? Am I overreacting, or is the video indeed crossing the line into creepy?