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."