Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Japanese teachers: the revolving door

It's that time of year again, and I always find it a bit sad. The way schools (at least high schools) are administered in Japan, teachers are assigned to a school by the Board of Education for a usually undetermined length of time. Depending on a teacher's age, a guess can be made - for example new teachers generally stick around at their first school for 3-5 years, and teachers a few years away from retirement usually won't get moved around very much. Aside from that, though, it seems pretty arbitrary.

Teachers don't find out until mid to late March whether or not they're going to be transferred, and where they're going. So the teachers who are leaving have known for week or two now. Until right before they leave, it's supposed to be a secret - I guess so students and other teacher don't feel obligated to give gifts or throw parties or whatever, but all the teachers always seem to know who's outbound.

Last year we lost an English teacher I was really fond of - she was very mother-like and really pushed her students, in a good way. By some strange twist of fate (and this almost never happens), she's coming back this year. On the flip side of the coin, we're losing the vice-principal, who is a pretty nice guy. Last year he invited me and Joe and another ALT (who he happened to have worked with) to his house to make udon. I think I may have blogged about that occasion. While I was a bit turned off by the political discourse, it was really kind of him to invite us to his home, and he's always been very patient at work with my Japanese limitations.

As well, one of the history teachers who I've been friendly with since coming to work here is transferring. As he was in charge of the Judo club, I used to drop in to watch practice now and then and chat a little bit with him about this and that. He once lent me a video (a real, VHS video) of this movie he likes. I didn't understand most of it and actually fell asleep, but I appreciated the gesture. He also invited my family over to his house when they visited last year, and as my sister was sick and we had to decline, he dropped off some fruit at my house for her! Unfortunately I haven't talked to him that much recently, but I'm sad to see him go.

Also leaving is a member of the office staff (事務員), who is probably the sweetest woman I've known here.

Today is the day all the teachers clear out their desks, some of them for good. Those who are staying will relocate later today or tomorrow (except me - my real estate is permanent, it seems). Tomorrow it will be nice to see the new teachers, but for today it's sad to watch the out-going crew.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Harry Potter and associative learning

So I just finished reading the first of the Harry Potter books in Japanese. Took me a few months, but it wasn't until recently that I really started to buckle down and read that thing. I just wanted to share a few thoughts, for those of you studying Japanese (or perhaps any foreign language).

I feel like in the past few months I've really had a sort of breakthrough. It's not that my Japanese has drastically improved, but I feel like it's improving a lot more steadily now. And it's not because of some awesome new textbook or expensive software. It's because I started to follow a bit of generally known, practical advice that I had (perhaps unintentionally) neglected for quite some time. And that is: if you want to learn a language, use it as much as possible.

Of course since coming to Japan I've done my best to converse in Japanese - sometimes with coworkers and students, with Japanese friends, and when presented with the opportunity (or challenge) in everyday life. But I really had been approaching the written aspect of Japanese all wrong, and this in turn has affected the progress of my speaking and listening ability, too. It's all connected.

(As a side note, check out this entry at Tae Kim's Blog for an interesting discussion about learning spoken Japanese while ignoring the written part of the language].

Don't neglect your reading and writing! Books and (as much as I hate to admit it) manga are great resources for learning. So is the internet. There are a lot of Japanese blogs out there. And of course writing your own blog using (at least some) Japanese is a good exercise.

So, Harry Potter in Japanese. It took me a few months, but that's because I didn't just buckle down and read it every day until recently. "Oh great," you must be thinking. "Now you know the words for stuff like 'witch' and 'wand' and 'incantation.'" Damn right I do - 「魔女」, 「杖」, and 「呪文」, respectively. And BOOM - 「悪魔の罠」- that's "Devil's Snare," folks! But even in something like Harry Potter there is a lot of normal, perfectly usable everyday Japanese to be learned. Not only did I retain a good amount of "normal Japanese," (期待 - expectation, for example), but I came to recognize the meaning, if not always the reading, of many new kanji characters and combinations. There was also a fair bit of dialogue, which helps one get a sense for the flow of conversation, albeit in written form.

Next I have a couple manga that I'll be working on, called あたしンち and ダーリンは外国人. After that, perhaps I'll pick up the next Harry Potter, or one of the Murakami books that I've already read. That is another point I'd like to make, briefly. Reading something you've already read in your native language means you already know the story. While you may not be as excited about reading it, you'll also be a lot less confused. Knowing how the story goes may help to clarify some confusing words or grammar for you.

While I would and do recommend this to everyone who is pursuing a language, I also want to note that this is my style of learning. There may be other ways that work for you. I tend to think of myself as an associative learner (is that a real thing, or did I make that up?). I've tried flashcards, I've tried writing words and kanji over and over again...I may remember for a little while, but I'll lose it quickly. I need a context, an association for what I learn. Be it watching a movie, speaking to someone, or reading a book or sign - if I can associate a word or grammar pattern with a specific memory or instance, I'm a lot more likely to remember it. So do what works for you, but this is my recommended method - putting your Japanese into practice.




Sunday, March 28, 2010

How Romantic

Go ahead and see if you can guess what this commercial is advertising.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

J-Music and Me: Spitz

Although I like a wide variety of music, I'm really not very knowledgeable about pop, be it American or J. Being a foreigner, one of the questions I get asked every now and then is whether I like any Japanese bands or musicians. It's right there behind "Do you like Japanese food?" and "Do you like Japanese movies/cartoons?" Well, I do like a Japanese rock band or two, but they're not very mainstream. And as I said, I don't really know much about pop (and I think about 90% of popular Japanese music is J-Pop). Therefore my good old reliable, for quite some time, has been Spitz.


Spitz is this J-rock/pop band that formed back at the end of the 80's and have been pretty big since the 90's. Honestly I don't know a lot of their stuff, but they have one song in particular that I quite like. It's called 魔法の言葉 (Mahou no Kotoba), which means "Magic words." When I was studying Japanese back at Waseda University in Tokyo, one of my teachers gave us the lyrics and played this song for the class a few times.


Anyway, have a listen:

Here are the lyrics in Japanese, along with my best take on them in English:


I force myself to hide these overflowing feelings


And again all I did today was look off into the distance


All the trivial things we used to talk about


I hold them tightly and go on somehow


Magic words that only we two understand


These days I don't have time for stuff like dreaming


When I remember it's funny and makes me happy


We'll see each other again, no need for promises


I sleep like I've collapsed and wake up crying


Amid the crowds I silently sing


What are you doing? I want to see your smile


I hold up my selfishness and cast it away into the sky


Magic words, so short when spoken


But with such an amazing effect!


No one knows, but even if they find out it won't lessen


Until the day when we can share the rest of the story


Flowers are beautiful, and thorns are beautiful


So the roots must be beautiful, too, huh?


Magic words that only we two understand


These days I don't have time for stuff like dreaming


When I remember it's funny and makes me happy


We'll see each other again, no need for promises


We'll see each other again, we'll see each other again

Maybe the lyrics are a little sappy, but I'm kind of a sap for difficult romances. This was the first J-pop/rock song that I remember liking, so it'll always be somewhat special for me.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Do it up!

*Updated - apparently ~とく is equivalent to ~ておく。See below for further explanation.

This one is a little wobbly, so bear with me. Those of you with extensive Japanese experience please feel free to comment on this one.


So there's someone I've been talking to a lot recently who sometimes uses a grammar pattern I had never noticed before. It seems to add a degree of enthusiasm to a verb. I am referring to ~とく. To put this bad boy to use, you take the ~て form stem of a verb and add とく. And that seems to be it.

If I understand this correctly, しとく, therefore, would mean something along the lines of "Do it up." It seems difficult to translate into English with most verbs.

Example: わぁ、疲れた!今夜寝とくよ!
"Man, I'm beat! Tonight I'm gonna sleep like a champ!"



Anyway, I have never come across this grammar pattern in any textbooks or online resources, but I'm sure it must be somewhere. What little I do know I learned from a friend of mine who was kind enough to try and explain. So again, if anyone has any corrections or additional thoughts, please leave a comment. I'd be interested to learn more about this form.


*Update: A clarification from Bryce -

「〜とく」is just a shortened version of 「〜ておく」(to do something in advance or in anticipation of something).

(slang) 明後日はテストだから勉強しとこう。

(proper Japanese) 明後日はテストですので勉強しておきましょう。

"Just to let you know, I'm planning to call it a night after I have one drink."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kansai Airport War

For those of you who live in Kansai, an interesting struggle is afoot. From the Japan Times:

「OSAKA — With resolutions and sharp words between their governors, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures stepped up their battle over Itami airport this week.

As the central government prepares to decide the fate of Kansai's three airports over the next couple of months, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto is pushing for Itami, officially known as Osaka International Airport and the region's busiest and most-convenient hub, to be closed, while Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido wants it kept open...」

I usually use Itami airport when flying - have only used Kansai International (the other big airport in the region) once, and it took me almost two hours to travel between there and my apartment. So personally I'm hoping that Itami remains open for business.

Although if you skip ahead to the last sentence of the article, you'll see that this battle between the Osaka and Hyogo local governments is all but meaningless:

Neither the governors nor the assemblies have any authority over the operations of Itami, which is managed by the central government.」

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Japanese textbooks, the tiny towels of education

This world is full of things. Right now you're reading this on a thing. It's probably on top of another thing. You might even be wearing a thing on your eyes that lets you see every other thing. These are good examples of helpful things. Glasses, computers, desks, anti-bear spray: all very helpful things. Notice how most helpful things are well designed. So on one hand (leg?) you have pants: extremely helpful and well designed. On the other hand you have Japanese textbooks. In the past, pants were not the stain-proof, wrinkle-proof, cargo pocket having space-age wonders you know today. No, they had to evolve to that point from their humble beginnings as itchy wool leg warmers. Pants evolved into usefulness while Japanese textbooks remain stuck in perpetual awfulness. "WHAT?!" I hear you say. "But Joe! According to the your popular 'All About Joe' fansite, YOU use a Japanese textbook!" This is indeed true. I use the popular "Minna No Nihongo" series. Arguably the best Japanese textbook created so far. But as for being well designed, it ain't. Let's go back to pants. Let's say instead of pants all you have is a towel, and that towel is just a little too small. You wrap it around your waist, but now you have to hold it. Does it work? Well, yeah. I mean, no one can see your naughty bits any more, but because it's so poorly designed, to get it to do what you want it to do, you have to manually force it to do its job. This is my experience with every Japanese textbook I've seen. They're like tiny towels. let me explain:

You buy a Japanese textbook for two reasons: you want to learn the Japanese language and you want to learn how to speak it like a normal (Japanese) person. So you open your crisp new textbook and start your first lesson: "Watashi wa Joe desu." They tell you it means "I am Joe." Right off the bat we get LIES. The book is taking a sentence from English, translating the words, and putting them in order according to Japanese grammar rules. Sounds good right? Except nobody talks like this, and even if they did, this doesn't mean what they say it does. To begin, "watashi" is a polite, gender neutral "I". OK. "Wa" just shows you what the topic of the sentence is (which here would be "watashi"). But in Japan they just drop what's not necessary. If you're introducing yourself, we already know the topic, and that the topic is you. So we get rid of "watashi" and "wa". Now we just have "Joe desu". In real life, this is how I introduce myself. It works out well. You might be saying "Ah, I see. Now we just have 'Am Joe.' I guess that makes sense." No, no, no, no, no. This is not English you silly person. The book is just trying to trick you into thinking it is. There is no "am" in Japanese. "Desu" is usually translated as "am" because thinking of it that way makes people feel safe and happy. In reality linguists can't even agree on what "desu" is let alone give it a simple one word translation. In this example "desu" shows that you are politely stating something. And that's it. So when I meet someone I introduce myself by saying "Joe" and add "desu" so they don't think I'm a super-jerk. Wow! That's a lot different from what the book said! So out of your two goals: 1, Learning the Japanese language and 2, Learning how to speak it like a normal person; you have achieved zero. Congratulations! On to chapter 2!

I need to stress that this is true for all the most popular Japanese textbooks.

There is also another way they un-teach you: many don't even bother to have you use the written language. This way you can easily make the same mistake I did and end up buying two versions of the same textbook because the first one you bought was only in Roman (i.e. English) characters, which are never, ever used by Japanese people. So in addition to not teaching you how to actually speak and understand Japanese, textbook companies also conveniently give you the option to not learn how to read or write anything too! How thoughtful!

Why are the books like this? The answer is simple: I have no idea. If I had to guess, I would say the writers are trying to make it easy for someone to "learn" "Japanese". They think it's easier for you if they just hand you a phrase that mirrors English. Of course they won't start you off doing crazy things like dropping subjects like in my example up there. That's too foreign! Doing things their way, you can just plug in your own name in replacement of "Joe" and BAM! You're speaking Japanese! Well, at least a Japanese person will be able to understand your meaning. Of course their response will be incomprehensible to you.

I guess my explanation didn't really clarify the tiny towels simile. For me, the textbook worked, but I had to always give it a hand to make sure it was doing the job it was supposed to. For example "desu" is the polite form of "da". Of course normal people almost always use "da" when talking to each other. When did the book decide it was a good time to teach me "da"? Chapter EIGHTEEN. And it's not just "da". The book ONLY teaches the politely conjugated form of verbs. It's handy when you're talking to your boss, but not when you want to speak to all your new Japanese friends. Since I didn't start studying Japanese until after moving to Japan, and I didn't just study it to sweet-talk my boss, if I just went by the book I wouldn't be able to understand the people I want to talk to for 18 chapters. So like I said, I had to force the book to do what I want. Whenever I would start a new chapter I would de-conjugate all the verbs. This was pretty difficult since they don't even mention conjugation until chapter 14. Using my Japanese textbook to actually learn Japanese involved a lot of guessing and double checking every word in my dictionary. Also, the hilarious part, the un-conjugated form of Japanese verbs are often called the "dictionary" version. Why? Because that's how they're entered into a dictionary! So, by going by the book, I wouldn't have been able to even look up a word in a dictionary for 18 chapters. These ridiculous tiny towels!

So what can you do if you want to actually learn Japanese? There are books and other resources that actually exist that teach you what I can only call the correct way to learn Japanese. The best one I've seen so far is Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese. This blandly named website contains everything you need, in an order that makes sense, to learn Japanese. And it's FREE. I think the guy has a book too, but he still keeps the website updated.

Don't make the same mistakes I did. Never forget: study smart, and wear awesome pants.

Japanese beer: philosophical and cool

Ok, let's start off light:

I don't quite know what's going on, but for some reason there's something really awesome about this commercial, in my humble opinion. Maybe it's because the boss-looking guy is such a badass. I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with the beer, though.


Next, this one is a little more, uh...deep?

I'm not exactly sure, but I think this is supposed to be parodying Noh or something. And I'm not familiar with that last scriptural passage, either. Must be from a lost book.


Just another picture of the day 3/24/10

Uma! (うまっ!)

So if you're familiar with real Japanese cuisine, you probably know yaki-niku (焼肉). They bring out a bunch of raw meat and you grill it at the table and eat it. Yeah, that's not what this is.


This, my friends, is basashi (馬刺し), a specialty of Kumamoto-ken, one of Japan's southernmost provinces. I was in Kyushu this weekend visiting someone and we swung down to Kumamoto to sample this delicacy. Oh, in case you're wondering, basashi is horse. And it is eaten raw.


So yeah, that's not my tongue. 僕の舌じゃないよ。I was so hungry that I actually ate a horse (アメリカンジョーク). ばさしはうまっ(日本のジョーク - ありがとう、ディラン)!

I'm sure for a lot of people this kind of food is quite intimidating. Since I like my burgers rare or medium rare, though, this wasn't too scary for me. Even so, it was a little daunting at first. We had some of what I assume was flank meat and also some liver. It was actually pretty tasteless. You're supposed to eat it with sweet or salty sauce, mixed with ginger and scallions, or with oil and salt. Maybe I'll eat it again sometime. And with that, I've officially eaten all the special Japanese foods that I have sought to: whale, blowfish, and horse, along with a slew of special Japanese foods that I haven't sought: shirako, shrimp heads and tails, kelp...

What's next? Well, it isn't unique to Japan, but I hear you can get deer meat somewhere. And you know I have a score to settle with those bastards.

食べてよかったよ。多分たくさんのアメリカ人は、こんな食べ物が結構怖いやな。でもハンバーガーなら、僕はレアかミディアムレアで好きだから怖くはなかった。それでも、最初はちょっとてごわかった。脇腹肉か何かとレバーを食べた。実は無味だったんだ。だから甘口か辛口のソースと生姜とネギで、油と塩で食べるべきだ。まあ、また食べるかもしらへんよ。それで、特別な食べたい日本料理を食べてきたよ: 鯨や河豚や馬刺し。後別に食べたくなかった食べ物も: 白子や海老の頭としっぽや昆布。


*Thanks for the correction, Yoshie!

More bugs, and internationalization!

Not quite as cute as the caterpillar tea commercial, but still entertaining.

Oh, and a side note/announcement - although perhaps not very large, it's come to my attention that I do have a periodic Japanese reader or two now. In light of this, and as an excuse to get more Japanese practice in, I'm going to make an effort to insert more Japanese into my posts from now on. In the interests of internationalization (国際化).


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sometimes it's the little things

Living in a foreign country presents a variety of challenges, especially when you're not a native speaker of the whatever it is that they speak over there. Encountering these hurdles can be immensely stressful at times, and overcoming them can be equally rewarding. Although these episodes can sometimes set the tone of your stay, I find that it's the daily encounters, the little things, if you will, that really color your overall experience.

For me, I find normal, everyday communication to be one of the best parts of living in Japan. Even though it can be a headache at times, it has naturally gotten easier as my Japanese has improved. The limitations of my Japanese abilities, along with the random spatterings of English that every Japanese person seems to possess, lead to some interesting conversations.

Recently I received this big, blue, official-looking envelope in the mail, the words 「ねんきん定期便」printed, along with a small explanation underneath. Normally I get rid of this kind of stuff, but this one looked like it might be important. It was something to do with the "Pension Service."
So this morning I took it into the office and asked the 事務員 (office workers, akin to secretaries here) if this thing was important and if I should do anything with it. One of the ladies had a look and then took a moment to consider how to explain this thing. "It's important," she said. "You don't need this," she added, indicating the self-addressed return envelope that was included in the larger blue envelope. She pointed to one of the papers. "This has a record of your earnings on it. Hmmm...I'm not sure if you understand." She smiled, a little nervously. "Keep," she said in English. I smiled back. "Ok, I think I got it," I replied with a thumbs up.

Keep. Ok, I will. I walked back to the teachers room with a smile. This may be one of those "you had to be there" stories, but then again maybe it's one of those "you had to be me" stories. It's the little things like this that make living here so interesting, and at times amusing.

Just another picture of the day 3/17/10

It certainly is.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Denizens of Japan #7: Kappa (Water Imps)

From the time I was a child, as far back as I remember, I've had a fascination with myths and fables. My parents would read me stories from Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, and the like. In elementary school I read collections of Greek myths and the polychromatic Fairy Books (not as fruity as they sound). To my memory I didn't come across very many Japanese folk tales, although there are quite a few interesting creatures and myths to be found here. One of the most widely-recognized, I think, is the kappa.

Kappa (河童) are creatures that fall under the blanket term yokai (妖怪;ようかい), which means a ghost, demon, monster, or goblin. Kappa are sometimes categorized as fairies or sprites, but I think they can safely be called imps. Although their characteristics may vary, they are generally short, human or ape-like creatures with greenish, scaly skin and webbed feet and claws. They sometimes have duck or turtle-like beaks, as well, and wear lily-pad-like bowls on their head. Which is perfect camouflage, since they live in bodies of water.

Like many of the imp-like creatures found throughout the world, kappa are generally thought of as mischievous but not necessarily malevolent. I'm not exactly sure why this is, honestly. Although they do occasionally assist humans and are often only mild nuisances, they also have a reputation for drowning people. Apparently small children are their second favorite meal, behind cucumbers (Mmmmm, drowned child). Not only that, but apparently they suck their victims' entrails out through their rear ends. Oh those mischievous kappa!

As the stories go, the only sure-fire way to escape or conscript a kappa is to exploit its supernatural respect for etiquette by tricking it in to bowing to you. This can often be accomplished simply by bowing and then waiting for it to bow back before running away (sounds like this trick might work on a lot of Japanese people I know, too). Once the kappa bows, the water will spill out of the bowl-thing on its head, which as everyone knows, is the source of its strength. Once it's helpless, you can either beat a hasty retreat, or if you're feeling gutsy, refill its bowl-hat with water and hope that it will be honor-bound to become your life-long servant. I'd probably make it my butler (and we've got a sitcom).

In recent years, kappa have gotten some good PR. Today they are viewed more as friendly, often cute, turtle-like man-creatures rather than pranksters or murderers. They have appeared in various media sources throughout the years (I think I remember encountering one in the Harvest Moon video game series), and even have their own sushi chain! I'd say they've made a pretty good turn around. There are still some signs in Japan that caution against swimming in nearby water, however. You never know when a kappa might get you and suck your guts out your butt.

(Top Image Source: Wikipedia)

This edition of Denizens of Japan was written for and inspired by this month's Japan Blog Matsuri, graciously hosted this month by Mazikeen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

J-Word Play #8 (Answer)

Our last riddle was: 鈴木さんの好きなものは何でしょうか?(すずきさんのすきなものはなんでしょうか?)


And the answer is...酢(す)! Yes, vinegar!

So our riddle asks "What does Suzuki-san like?" The trick to this one is to think about Suzuki-san and disregard the kanji. In Japanese, すき(suki) can mean to like something. Additionally, if you plop ~ずき onto the end of X, the resulting word means a fan or enthusiast of X. Mmmm, I do like me some X. So therefore すずき can mean a fan of す, which is vinegar.

Humans: III Deer: 0

Via the Japan Times:

"NARA (Kyodo) One of Nara Park's famed deer, which are designated national natural treasures, has been shot by a crossbow.

A local conservation group removed a 52-cm steel bolt from the doe, which was found Saturday, after anesthetizing it. The animal was seriously wounded, group members said, and police are investigating the incident.

Nara Park is home to about 1,000 of the deer, which are designated by law as a protected species.

It's not the first time the deer have been targeted. In 2003 a deer was shot with an arrow. Another in 2008 was hit by a harpoon."

It wasn't me, I promise.

Soy sauce and me

Soy sauce is a staple cooking ingredient and seasoning used heavily throughout Asia. In Japan, it's known as 醤油(しょうゆ, shoyu). According to Wikipedia there are several different types. I must be frank - I had no idea.

Now as I've mentioned in the past, since moving out here on my own I've taken to cooking every now and then. It's a useful skill to have. And tell you what - I always have soy sauce on hand. When you're cooking up some meat, tofu, vegetables - what have you, a little soy sauce and wine or whiskey (depending on what you're making) can really add some flavor. And let's not forget that to make teriyaki sauce you need しょうゆ. So as an ingredient, I give soy sauce a big thumbs up.

As a seasoning, though...that's where I surprise some people. Of course there are many foods that people complement with soy sauce. What usually comes to mind, however, is sushi. Everyone uses soy sauce. Well, everyone except me. What can I say? I actually like the taste of raw fish, so why would I want to smother it with liquid salt? Each to his own, but I personally find it a little odd that it's the norm.

That's where I stand with soy sauce. As a bonus, I'd like to share with you how I used to remember the Japanese word for soy sauce. This is from a while back. Anyone familiar with Kikkoman?

First in Japanese; look below for the version with English subs. Interestingly, you'll note the English version cuts out the part where the cat hangs himself in shame. Hmmm.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Japanese puns

Also known as おやじギャグ(old man jokes), these things are gold. I try to churn them out whenever the inspiration strikes. They're a good way to prove to the natives how funny and hip you are.

Anyway, here are a couple that do me proud. おもろいなぁ!


Not too sure what the deal is with this Ken Tanaka guy, but he and Remi seem to have a posted a number of videos about Japanese. YouTube really is a great resource for language study.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Great Place to Visit #2

"Joe, what was it like to come to Japan for the first time?" Excellent question, Internet. There's hope for you yet. Let's take a trip back in time to the spring of my youth, 2003. My sister had flown west to work in the east. Well, 'work' is a strong word. She was also a part of the same shady Japanese government sponsored English teaching program that I am now. Coincidently so is the mysterious Paul, the man who hosts my blog ramblings. While I was in high school I took a little 11 hour flight to visit my sister over Christmas and spend two weeks in the mythical land of Japan. It's difficult to explain what it's like to go to a different country for the first time. I mean, an actual foreign country. I've been to Canada before, which was just a car ride away and everyone there speaks English. Also I've been to French-Canada, which was just a car ride away and everyone speaks French (and English). Now in Japan, no one speaks English. Well, some people do, but they are completely random. Head concierge at swanky international business hotel? No English. Drunk salaryman peeing in traffic? English whiz (ha!). Also this was the first time in my life I couldn't read any signs. The first time in my white, middle-class existence that I was not the target of every ad. Toothpaste or hemorrhoid cream? A mystery with a terrible ending.

I arrived in Tokyo and since it was only going to be for 2 nights my parents splurged and we stayed in the nicest hotel's cheapest rooms. The rooms themselves were great except it was like looking at a western hotel room through the wrong end of binoculars. The most interesting part to me was that the (tiny) beds didn't have the usual space between the side of the bed and the wall. Next to the bed was just wall. So a cross section would reveal bed, wall, then bathroom, which held the most confusing toilet I had seen so far in my 17 years. Every toilet in Japan is designed to government regulated standards which require everyone pass an IQ test before operating. No two flush the same way. Levers, buttons, switches, pulleys, infra-red motion sensors, voice activated command code required (one of those is a lie and it isn't the one you think). The flush is always in a different place as well, which tends to play out like Where's Waldo. Could it be attached to the toilet? Next to the toilet seat? Above the sink? Beside the red and white striped umbrella on the crowded beach?

After enjoying Tokyo and my first trip to a Japanese Denny's, which involved a lot of ordering by pointing to pictures in the menu and eating onion rings that were made of squid and not onion, we headed to my sister's town in inaka-land. Inaka is any place that you haven't heard of. So Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto: not inaka. Saijou, Takatsuki, Sasayama: inaka. Only mountains, rice fields, and vending machines as far as the eye can see, which is to the closest mountain. As flashy as Tokyo is (imagine New York's Times Square if it spread like electric cancer), the best part of the trip was my sister's little town on the island of Shikoku. Did you read my parenthesis about Times Square? This was the inverse of that. At night it was as black and as terrifying as a giant Japanese crow. Actually I found the lack of street lights charming in a way that could easily lead to you carelessly breaking your ankle. The ambient light level wasn't what put this town on the map, though. That would be its water. Apparently people come from miles and/or kilometers around just to fill up big plastic jugs with fresh inaka water from the fountains throughout the town. They say it works like the Fountain of Youth, whereby drinking it you will look and feel younger. I think it's more likely that it's popular because it works like a Fountain of Free Water, whereby drinking it your are out zero yen. So this town's thing was water, but every town in Japan has its on unique thing going for it. Compared to the others, the water thing is actually neat, in my humble and correct opinion. After all, if we took away your water (and your Coke Zero and your near-beer) you would most likely die an arid death. Though possibly less necessary to life, other towns' source of fame ranges from the substantially more impressive: lighting a mountain on fire; to the inarguably less so: one of the town's train conductors is a cat and he wears a hat. I'll give you 100(!) yen if you can guess which gets more media coverage.

To wrap up the last highlight of the trip, I hung out with some of my sister's students who were about my age. This led to a fun day of me embarrassing my countrymen by getting destroyed in a western sport (bowling), getting confused while they tried to poorly explain the concept of puri-kura to me by calling it "tiny pictures" when in reality they are "tiny photographs" (ha! silly Japanese students!), and me throughly enjoying them piecing together things I said in English to use as insults against each other. Such as the harsh, "your HEART is DIRTY." Lastly they introduced me to my now favorite store on earth, Daiso. There you can buy anything for less than the price of a candy bar (even candy bars!). I got a cool beanie I wore 6 years later when I went snowboarding in Nagano. See, it came full-circle, or something.

So that was my first trip to Japan in its entirety. Actually I'm leaving out the trip to Kyoto, the center of Japan's cultural and spiritual heritage, but whatever. Here is where I get to the point of this article: Japan is a Great Place to Visit. I guess it's the same point as my last article, but this one differs in that I'm not saying it cynically. Japan is a Great Place to Visit. It's so different, so inaccessible, so intriguing. When you look down from a tiny hotel room in Tokyo and see a place that does such a good job of dazzling your eyes, you have to wonder what's going on back where you can't see. The glitz and the rice fields, the crows and the drunken salarymen. All that's on top. Many Japanese people believe, especially the lingering elderly generation, that a foreigner could never understand the true Japan. But, hell, maybe they're right. I mean, is your home town famous for a train driving cat? Yes? How about free water?

That's all for this entry. So savor it! And continue enjoying Paul's near daily updates.

Ninu--hey, stop hitting yourself!

One of the great things about living near Osaka is the exposure to Kansai-ben. For any of you who don't know what that is, Kansai is the south central part of Japan that includes Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Hyogo, Wakayama, Mie, and Shiga. It's also known as the Kinki region. So anyway, Kansai-ben is the special dialect that is spoken in these parts.

Now, you don't have to live in Kansai to hear Kansai-ben. Since there are so many comedians from Kinki (yeah, the people here are that damn funny, I guess), whenever you watch a Japanese comedy or variety show, you will probably hear Kansai-ben. Ergo, the dialect is kind of associated with being funny. But it's also just fun to use - the way a lot of the words just kind of roll of your tongue. And it's awesome to be the cool/funny foreigner who can speak Kansai-ben.

Anyway, I've heard and learned enough of the dialect to know there's a lot more for me to learn. And some of it borders on inane. Here's an example from the vlog of thatjapanesegirl. Just to be clear, I'm not criticizing her - I think this is an awesome video and I lost it when she started to...well, you'll see. It's just, how often do you get the chance to use the Kansai-ben word for "boiled egg?" 見てごらん (Please watch):

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

MG: Solid 3 Commercial

I've never played any of the Metal Gear games myself, but I gather that in this one you eat snakes and wash them down with beer.

A Great Place to Visit #1

My good friend Paul has kindly offered me the position of Minority Opinion Writer under contract on his popular web-log, Just Another Day in Japan. As for the contract, he didn't know but I mumbled my terms while we shook hands, a legally binding oral-contract in any country. Sadly except Japan I learned later ("The Legal Consciousness of Contract in Japan" Kawashima – <-- actual source cited). So here I am, no richer, drinking coffee, writing an article on a napkin with a stolen acquired ballpoint pen, about Japan, in Japan.

I have spent a good amount of time with these people, not unlike Grizzly Man with the Alaskan murder-bears. I don't mean that in a demeaning way, and as obvious as it may seem that I'm comparing Japanese people to bears, my intention is quite different. My point is that no matter how much time Timothy Treadwell spent in Alaska he was never accepted by the bears. Actually, if you don't know who that guy is you should probably fire up your Google right now and read his wiki or something because I'm going to keep going with this. He spent years there living far away from his friends and family while slowly growing closer and closer to the bears. Closer and closer to joining the bear “in group”. He spent so much time there he began to feel like a part of their bear community and even a part of their bear families. Many foreigners who come to Japan feel the same way. Then they get mauled. The difference here is that foreigners in Japan don't get heart-wrenching documentaries made about them. Also, they aren't so much 'mauled', as they are told by a Japanese person that I can't appreciate good coffee because in Japan “Amerikan” coffee = mild blend, for some incomprehensible reason. God damn bears.

Now let's get into the head of the collective Japanese. First, imagine a world where everything is the opposite of Grizzly Man. Actually, imagine the world of Rupert Bear (Google that wiki, homes!). I imagined living in Japan would be like that. Here I am, an anthropomorphic bear living with my various anthropomorphic friends and I'm going to move to the world of people. In my Rupert Bear world, not only would I be completely accepted, nobody would even comment on how I'm a bear, that I can do things such as speak people language, eat people food and use proper utensils. Sadly real life is very un-Rupert Bear. Imagine Rupert Bear moved into your neighborhood. Would you stare at him? Hell yeah you would! Your new neighbor's a bear! Would you be surprised when he said hello in English? You kidding me? It'd blow your mind! How about when he eats beef stroganoff with a knife and fork? You'd be all like, “Holy crap! That bear is eating beef stroganoff AND can somehow work a knife and fork with his giant, meaty paws!” Welcome to Japan, gaijin. Where everything you do creates wonder.

“But Joe!” You say, “YOU live there! It can't be all bad!” First off, I was getting to that so don't interrupt. Second, yes, it's not all bad. In fact, it can be quite awesome (no open bottle law? Yes please). True, nobody wants to sit next to a bear on the train, but because of this, bears definitely can get away with some stuff. Not enough money for a train ticket? Walk on through! Guy won't stop a bear! If he does stop you, speak some bear language at him. How long do you think he'll try to communicate with a bear before he feels silly and let's you lumber away? Now, you may think that this would just help perpetuate the myth that bears can't speak and act like normal people. You are correct, my cub. Honestly, I try to act like a functioning member of society 24x7. If only for the dream that one day I'll be able to drink my coffee without criticism. Still, I won't blame you if you pull this stuff. The difference here is that I do live here. You don't (well, most likely). And if you are somewhere across the sea there is still hope for you. Here is where I get to the point of this article: Japan is a Great Place to Visit. The country is clean, beautiful, and the food is awesome. Most importantly the people are ridiculously nice to guests. It's when you make the transition from 'guest' to 'guest who stays too long' that life gets tricky. If you've toyed with the idea of moving to Japan and want to know what you should do, I'm not going to make that decision for you. What I will do is give you a sample of my adventures in Japan through metaphor and witty rhetoric. If you decided to join me on this rock island, at least let me prepare you for what you won't see on your animes and read in your mangas, you otaku. So keep coming back and reading Paul's excellent blog while I occasionally fill the spots between. I swear the next one will be mostly bear free.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Exciting as watching a...hole in the wall?

I just read a Japan Times article about how a certain show has taken off and caught the interest of foreign TV execs. You know, I've seen the show before, and I did find it pretty amusing. But you gotta ask yourself if this is a good idea. Compared to other Japanese TV shows, yeah, maybe this thing is gold. But compared to British or American programming? I'm not so sure.

The idea is novel, but I'm not sure - how long could a show like this really go on? Could something like this really run for more than a season? A show about guys in spandex trying to fit themselves into holes in a wall? But then maybe I'm giving the average TV junkie too much credit.

Let's enjoy Japanese: Hot and Cold

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.

J-Word Play #8

Learned this one a while back - think it may have been my first, actually:


As always, email me the answer at

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

At the station

Our friends drifted off to other side of the stairway, leaving her and I alone again to talk. I expected that now she would answer the question I had asked her two days ago. The question that had been eating at me since then. Instead she pointed at the small loaf of bread I was holding, a present from her excursion into the city. "Think of me when you eat it," she said with a smile. I wanted to tell her that I had been thinking of her almost nonstop for the past two weeks, so that would hardly be a problem. "Of course I will," I answered instead.
She was leaving the next morning, back to her home town in the sticks, back to nights at the club for high society where she worked as the piano player. I looked at her, unsure what to say next. We both looked across the stairs at our friends. "I'd still like to visit you sometime," I said. "If it's ok. If you have time."
"Ah, really?" she smiled. "Well, I'll be busy with work, but...I'll be back for a few days in May. We can see each other then," she added reassuringly. I nodded and smiled. That smile. Not a mask unique to this country, but this was where I had really learned to wear it. We lingered for a moment, and as our friends turned back towards us I struggled with how to say goodbye, unsure exactly where we were at. She leaned in closer to me and put her hand on my arm. I did the same. "Well then...have a safe trip." I said. "Goodbye!"


I used to enjoy writing short stories, but it's been a while since I had any inspiration or seriously tried my hand at one. This is, perhaps, a little short even for a short story, but we start with baby steps, don't we?

Anyway, I think we'll be back to our regular content this weekend. Until then!

But why is she so upset?

Devil May Cry is a game that came out for the PlayStation back in 2001. It was noted for its subpar and often absurd storyline and dialogue, as well as its intensely fun and fast-paced action. The ability to juggle enemies in the air, sometimes indefinitely, is probably its most recognizable feature.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Denizens of Japan #6: Nutoria (Beaver-rats)

It seems that at least half of the denizens I've written about have evoked my ire or repulsion in some way. But not all Japan-based creatures have forged antagonistic relationships with me. Take this thing:

How could I hate that? I didn't even know what the hell it was or that it even existed prior to a few days ago. Well, apparently it's a nutria, a.k.a a coypu. The natives call it ヌートリア. The Dutch call them beaver-rats, and I think I can guess why. Anyway, it seems a family just moved (or was moved...?) into a nearby park. They built these dirty-looking nests in a shallow pond. Hey, live and let live. The little ones are even kind of cute. But they'd better leave the sakura and ume trees alone, or they'll soon be on my $#%& list.