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?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The changing of the seasons

Fall is finally noticeably here, marked by cooler weather and shortened days. Soon the leaves will be changing (and perhaps they have already begun in some locales). In Japan this is called 紅葉 (kōyō). I particularly like this kanji construction: 紅 (crimson) and 葉 (leaf).

For a while now I've enjoyed fall - especially in Japan. The oppressive summer heat yields to cool breezes and out comes the hoodie; autumn aromas replace the perspiration-accented smells of summer. But for me, autumn is always accompanied by a certain inexplicable sense of impending loss and isolation, perhaps because I dislike the winter. This is compounded by the fact that Japanese springs and autumns tend to seem extremely transitory, giving way to summer and winter with minimal resistance. I suppose there's nothing to be done, though, aside from enjoying the fall while it's here.

Although I don't look forward to winter, I will say this - some degree of consolation will be found in the withering, frosty death of the mosquito population.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Let's enjoy Japanese: No, I really do suck

Humility is regarded as an admirable quality by many cultures. If you know much about the Japanese language, no doubt you are aware at least of the existence of various patterns of speech that are used to convey different levels of politeness and formality. There are humble and honorific forms (which are a pain to learn) and all kinds of super-polite expressions and phrases. But that's not what this post is about.

No, I want to talk briefly about how to tell people that you're not very good at all at X.

As you might imagine, there are many ways to convey the fact that you're inept at something. Here are a few:

  • 下手(へた)です-"heta desu"- unskilled or poor at something.
Usage: X が下手です。

Example: "日本語がすごく下手です!" [ I'm really bad at Japanese!]

Notes: Easy to remember and use - not a bad choice. And if your Japanese fails you, you can just point at yourself and lamely repeat "heta heta" over and over. They'll get the idea.

  • とんでもない -"tondemo nai"- not at all; to the contrary; no way!
Usage: "日本語上手!" "いや、とんでもない!" [Your Japanese is great!] [Nah, not at all!]

Notes: I don't use this one very often, but it is more stylish than 下手, methinks. Note that とんでもない is the casual form of とんでもありません (tondemo arimasen).

  • 足りない(たりない)-"tari nai" - insufficient, lacking
Usage: "日本語ぺらぺらやん!" "いや、足りないよ." [Wow, your Japanese is fluent!] [Nah, I'm not good at all.]

Notes: This one is pretty good and not too difficult to remember. If you want to frill it up a bit, you can stick it in this construction: "足りないところばかりです."

That's it for now. Have fun telling people you're really not very good at stuff.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Just another random thought 10/8/09

One of the teachers sitting in the row in front of me is clipping his nails at his desk (and not over the trash can). I don't want to generalize, but I've seen a lot of tacky nail clipping here - at work and also on the train. The other day I was riding a morning train home and some woman was clipping her fingernails at her seat and just letting the clippings fall onto the floor. Not only gross, but annoying. That clipping sound grates!

I wonder if it's just individual people I've run into with a lack of manners or if it's less of a rudeness here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Typhoon Incoming

ETA: Tomorrow.
I hear that it's the biggest one to hit these parts in like 10 years. Probably going to have to go in to work anyway...heh.

Here it comes.

Monday, October 5, 2009

More on Mr. James

(Image from McDonald's website)
I may have mentioned the Mr. James ad campaign currently being run by McDonald's Japan. Debito Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen, wrote this recent article on the subject for the Japan Times. Some responses can be found here. Of course each individual is entitled to his own opinion, but it's a little off-putting that some people are essentially telling Debito to shut up and stop complaining. I mean, it's fine not to be offended by a questionable ad campaign. But what right do you have to tell other people how to feel about it?

Denizens of Japan #4: Kodomo (Children)

(Photo by Gobbler)

One indisputable fact about Japanese people is that they have cute kids (子供). They may have the same capacity for mischief as Western kids; they may have the same potential to be annoying at times and throw tantrums when it suits them. But it all falls to the roadside as quickly as a spent cigarette butt flicked out of a car window. Most of the time, especially when you're just an observer, they're friggin adorable.

One behavior I've noticed about Japanese children that enhances their cuteness is a byproduct of their culture. Bullying (いじめ) is another byproduct. In early school life (and perhaps with groups of children outside of school), teachers and other adults don't interfere much with the interaction of young children. There are classroom rules, of course, but it's up to the children to enforce them and bring each other to task. As a result, many young children appear relatively responsible, and you'll often see older children taking care of younger children.

My sister has vocalized her (wish?/prediction?) that I one day sire an Asian baby. While I'm not going to make that a priority in what I'm looking for in a woman ("Ability to produce Asian offspring? Check"), I wouldn't be opposed to the prospect. I mean...look at how precious that girl in the kimono is, for crying out loud. I've almost got it all worked out:

1. Father half-breed Asian baby.
3. Profit.