Monday, May 31, 2010

J-Word Play #11

This time your number's up!


A juicy one, indeed...

As usual, please email me with your answers. Winners will get a free website plug.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Getting a read

My inspiration for this post came from reading Daniel's entry about his self-study reading list. This isn't the first time I've written about reading and how important an element of study it is, but I just can't emphasize it enough. While I'm not (yet?) able to read as much or as well as Daniel, and I have been slacking with the second volume of Harry Potter, I do continue to read in Japanese, be it even just a little, just about every day.

If you can find the good ones, blogs are an excellent way to study a language. Depending on the theme of the blog and the author, they can provide opportunities to learn a wide variety of vocabulary and expressions, many of which you probably would never see in a textbook. The casual voice and format that have become the norm for blogs make them valuable resources for study.

The only caveat is that the freedom of the blog format can be a double-edged sword. You may experience words and phrases that are difficult to understand or may not be able to find in a dictionary. You also may come across a fair amount of blatantly incorrect words or grammar patterns. If you regularly read blogs in English, you know that even the best online writers make mistakes from time to time. Blogs in Japanese (or any other language) are no different. So while you don't have to be skeptical of everything you read, it may behoove you to proceed with caution.

Every now and then I'll do a search and find some interesting J-blogs, but here are three that I read either regularly or at least every now and then:

いちごいちえ - Yoshie's blog, from which I've learned (or at least been exposed to) a wide variety of words that I had never seen or heard before. I think this is partly due to the fact that her tone fluctuates between casual and polite, so there's a good bit of keigo in the mix.

なぞなぞKING - NazoNazo King. I occasionally borrow riddles from this website, as it has quite a bit. Sometimes I'll come across a joke I don't understand, but most of them are simple enough and at least a little amusing.

アメリカの猫ママ一家のブログ - 猫ママ's blog. This one belongs to a Japanese woman who is currently living in America and raising a family. Interesting to see the flip side - a Japanese expat living in America.

As you read and begin to comprehend more and more over time (without the use of Rikaichan), you'll become more and more comfortable with Japanese, and navigating Japanese websites will also become easier. I find this a quite rewarding and tangible way of getting a basic feel for one's progress.

Do you know of or follow any Japanese blogs? If so, please share them in the comments!




Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I plan to be making entries again soon, but for now I'm just trying to get back into the swing of things.

My trip back to the States was nice - it was good to see friends and family again and pick up some much-needed supplies (like shoes). However, my sleeping pattern has been erratic since last week. I'm not exactly sure how much I've been getting, as my nightly sleep has been restless, and my flights and car trips were punctuated with an hour or two of slumber here and there. I'm skeptical that such sleep can accurately be classified as "rest." Regardless, I have one class today (the JTE, Japanese Teacher of English, my partner, mercifully took over my preparation this time), but three tomorrow...hopefully I'll be able to perform.

This weekend I'll be visiting Yoshie in Saga, but I think we'll be taking it easy. I'll need the rest.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Being Caucasian there is half the fun

Well, it's been a long time, but while the brainchild of "Just Another Day in Japan," Mr. Blue Shoe, is taking time off in the motherland, ol' Shadow thought he'd slip in and put up a post. To those of you who have successfully torn my blog entries from your memories -- one year ago, in May, I was able to visit Japan for the first time, after spending my entire life living in the urban jungle of New York City. The "Half the Fun" segments focus on my pseudo-adventures, and overall culture shock, during my short stay.

Today's topic? Being a white guy. Or, more appropriately, being the white guy.

Since I'm from NYC, the world's melting pot, perhaps I assumed there'd be a healthy mix of races wherever I went. However, in the suburbs of Itami (at least, I'm pretty sure that's where I was), the only white dudes were the Blue Shoe and Tiembi, too. Venturing out to various tourist locations, our whiteness was still a rarity. During a tour of Himeji castle, I happened to cross paths with a white gal, and at that moment, I knew how a dog must feel when it sees another dog.

"Another white person! Hey, look, another white person! Hey! Hey white person! Arf, arf!"

While in reality, I did not bark nor wag my tail, I did smile and give a polite hello. Then we sniffed each others crotches and went our seperate ways.

Days later, I stumbled across an odd phenomenon in Japan. While walking the streets of Osaka, I saw another white person, a male, coming from the opposite direction. But this was no dog-to-dog encounter. Nay, this was more like a dog-to-saxophone encounter. I gave the same friendly "I am acknowledging you are white like me" greeting, but I was completely ignored (in my experiences, dogs tend to ignore saxophones). I was confused. Did I do something wrong?

A friend of Mr. Blue Shoe (and resident guest-poster Dylan) explained as simply as possible: "He's not a tourist. If you live here, it's more like, you avoid other white people."

Okay...perhaps that wasn't much of an explanation. I didn't understand. Not yet.

Then it happened. Towards the end of my trip, after spending a week touring Japan, Paul and I were visiting some temple grounds, and once again we were just two white fellas in a sea of Japanese. That's when I saw him. Oh, I have no idea who "him" was; all I knew was, "him" was white. And it angered me. How dare he be white! We're the token white guys in these here parts! Shoo! Go be white somewhere else!

Who knows? Maybe I misinterpreted Dylan's words. Maybe this entry isn't as insightful as I hoped. Yet, I like to feel that I gained a little insight at that moment. As a non-Asian living in Japan, considering how little race variation there is there, it must be pretty neat being unique. Perhaps there are feelings of alienation now and then. Perhaps it's tough finding people to relate to. Perhaps it gets a little depressing. But, perhaps there's a sense of pride in being able to strive in a place where you can't help but stand out from the crowd.

Or, perhaps I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to living in Japan. It's possible. Hey, I'm just some white dude from New York.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back home

I'll be returning to the States for a few days from tomorrow to attend my sister's college graduation. If I have time, energy, and internet access, I'll try to post an update or two before I get back. If not, I'll be back with you in about a week.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gomi Shu-Shu Blues

Apparently I'm not the only one frustrated with the garbage collection (ゴミ収集)here. Just about a block away from my apartment:

Why do people just dump their TVs? Because many items don't fall under the burnable (燃える)/ nonburnable (燃えない)garbage umbrella. Speaking of umbrellas, you can't throw those out, either. For all that stuff you have to call the town and have them haul your trash away for an additional fee. There was also a vacuum cleaner in the gutter, incidentally. Irony anyone?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Avoiding bad habits

When studying a foreign language, it is important to practice as much as possible. One of the best ways to practice, of course, is by speaking. Living in Japan, it's fairly easy to practice speaking Japanese - there are plenty of opportunities at work, with friends, with your native significant other, or just out and about. If you're living here, your excuse should never be a lack of opportunity. More often it's a lack of confidence, and I myself am guilty of this sometimes. For example, when buying shinkansen tickets I usually balk at going to the window when I can just buy them from an automatic vendor. If I went to the window I would be on the spot. What if I didn't understand some keigo (honorific language) or train vocabulary? I'd have to stop and figure it out with a line of people behind me.  Last week I was forced to buy my tickets at the window, however, as the ticket machine wouldn't sell me round-trip for some reason. You know what? It was completely fine.

Because I often feel more confident in my reading ability, I tend to prefer to use vending machines or the internet when doing business in Japan. Hotels are another example - I always book online because I prefer not to speak on the phone. This is a habit I need to break out of.

Shifting gears a little, but still remaining on the topic of "bad habits," I have recently noticed that I am starting to (I think) overuse certain words. Now this isn't necessarily all that bad - it's better to be speaking and sounding a little weird than to not be speaking at all, and I am a subscriber to the school of thought that mistakes are completely fine and a natural and even useful part of the learning process. We must be careful, however, not to make a mistake into a bad habit. For a non-native speaker, it's all too easy to pick up an incorrect grammatical device or improper word usage somewhere and file it away for use. It's also easy to become comfortable with a particular word or expression and to start using it willy-nilly. These are traps to be wary of. 

For me, I have noticed three words that I have recently begun to use extremely often. In my mind, probably too often. These are: なんか, かな, and まあ. Now these words are used quite frequently in Japanese, so that's not the problem. The problem is I want to sound somewhat natural and intelligent. 

When I am trying to think of a word or formulate a sentence, I often start with "なんか・・・" Sometimes I'll just say it when I don't know what to say. It's become my "Um" word. I keep, like, thinking of, like, English speakers who can't help but using "like" like 5 times in, like, every sentence. 

I also seem to be sticking かな onto the end of my utterances a lot more often. かな is used in this way to denote uncertainty or reflection. Sometimes it's used to ask questions a little more indirectly, and sometimes it's used rhetorically. For example, 「これは大丈夫かな」。If you're speaking to yourself, this could be "I wonder if this is okay..." Asking someone else, though, it could be "Is this all right?" This one is a little more difficult for me to judge. Am I overusing it, or am I just expressing myself differently in Japanese than I do in English? Because I know in English I have never been so uncertain as to wonder aloud all the time.

Lastly, there's まあ. This one has a variety of uses, such as "Oh well" or "Kind of" or "Maybe". It can also be kind of reflective. Actually, I think it's quite difficult to pin down the exact meaning in English. Example: 「ポール、明日何したいの?」「まあね。何でもいいよ。」 ("What do you want to do tomorrow, Paul?" "Ahh, well...anything's fine.")  Anyway, まあ is another one that I seem to be using quite liberally these days. 

I think it's important to keep in mind that if your goal is to become as close to fluent as possible, you need to not only assimilate as much grammar and vocabulary as possible, but be mindful of how you're using it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The ongoing military base debate

The question of whether or not Okinawa (or more broadly, Japan) should play host to a U.S. military presence is not a new one. In recent months, however, it has once again come to the forefront as Japan and the United States attempt to hammer out a solution to the Futemna base relocation issue. U.S. military bases are unpopular where they are currently situated in Okinawa, so Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama is having a great deal of difficulty resolving the matter. President Obama has said that in order for a plan to be accepted, Hatoyama must choose a new location with an acceptable degree of local support. But as no one seems to want a military base next door, Hatoyama has no such support for any of his prospective relocation sites.

I don't know how statistically representative the Japan Times surveys are, but Japanese citizens (on the mainland, anyway) seem split on the issue. Understandable, as it's not really an easy topic. I'm not sure how I'd feel about a foreign army occupying the U.S., even if it were for purely cooperative, defensive purposes.

That said, I do think the Japanese are better served by accepting a U.S. military presence. There are pro's and con's, of course, but it seems to me that the Japanese are getting the better deal here. The Japanese government must provide land and pay for some of the bases' expenses, but in exchange does not have to raise, train, or arm its own military. Japan does have a standing national guard of sorts - the Self Defense Force, but its functionality is limited by Japan's constitution. Although military bases do cause noise pollution and some soldiers have committed crimes (such cases should not be taken lightly), the bases also bolster the economies of their host communities. Not too long after Futenma is moved, the local community will become much more peaceful...and then the economy will sag and I'm sure some jobs will be lost when U.S. serviceman and woman are no longer patronizing local shops and restaurants.

Sure, the U.S. benefits from these bases by holding a strategic position in the Pacific. If we were to lose this one, though, we do have others. South Korea isn't too far.

If I were Japanese, I would probably want the world's most powerful military nearby, considering the proximity of the crazy Korea, which now has nukes and long-range rockets. Ultimately, though, the decision is Japan's.

What do you think? How do you feel about the U.S. military presence in Japan?

Just another random thought 5/11/10: Civ IV and Japan

These days I don't really play video games that much anymore, but recently I've been playing a little Civilization IV, a strategy game for the PC. It's a fun, involving game with a lot of detail. One thing that has been bothering me, though, is that Japan seems to have been neglected. With the expansions, there are 34 different civilizations you can play as, each with its own unique leader(s), unit, and building. Many civilizations have two or three leaders to choose from, each with characteristics, which confer different bonuses. Unfortunately, the Japanese have only one leader. Yup, Tokugawa. And his bonuses are quite disappointing (How can you be Aggressive and Protective at the same time? Then again, I guess Feudal Japan is a good answer to that question). Anyway, how is it that the creators of the game could muster up two leaders for the Celts and the Ottomans, yet left Japan with only one possible leader?

(Sorry, guy - you're just not that good)

この頃テレビゲームあまりやらないけど最近「Civilization IV」っていうゲームちょっとやっている。楽しいし興味を引き付けるパソコン・ゲームなんだ。まあ、でもちょっと困ったことあった。34別の文明としてやれて、それぞれはちょっと違う。特別な得意や欠点あるんです。で、たくさんの文明は二人、三人の有名なリーダーの中から一人が選んで使える。でも日本は一人だけいる。徳川家康です。このゲームで彼の特性はちょっと微妙やから・・・日本としてあまりやらない。それは何でやろう?ケルト文明とオスマン文明さえも二人のリーダーいるんだ。もう・・・

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Complete Partial Guide to Being Vegetarian in Japan

Hello readers and readresses. My name is Dylan Southard. I’m originally from Spokane, Washington (if you’ve never been there or even heard of it, feel confident that you are part of a vast majority of people, with the power to crush us Spokanites with but a wave of your collective hand) and originally moved to Japan in 2004 to teach English as part of the JET Program. I am currently a graduate student at Osaka University and vocalist for the band 異邦の客 [Ihounokyaku] or “Strangers in a Strange Land” (plug:

Adapting to daily life in a new country can be a trying process. Even the most trifling endeavor is potentially rife with slip-ups and misunderstandings, like a mini-car packed full of giant humiliation-inducing clowns. This is especially true if one has peculiar non-negotiable dietary restrictions, such as vegetarianism or space madness. Being subject to the former, I found that becoming acclimated to gastronomic life in Japan (a country that has fewer vegetarians than it has species of animal on an average restaurant menu) was a challenge, to say the least. Most of what I learned I discovered through trial (attempting to decipher lists of ingredients, explaining to people my situation, etc.) and error (the inevitable result of most of my early trials). Thus, I’ve decided to compile a not-nearly comprehensive guide for those herbivores who are currently struggling with this problem, or who have made plans to do so in the future.

As we all know, meat does not always make its presence known. Sure, often times it comes in the form of a 4lb T-bone steak or in a can labeled “SPAM”. However, it can just as easily be a silent enemy, lurking in the broth of your favorite restaurant’s veggie noodle soup or hiding behind monosythiumdioxatenfraven in an ingredient list the size of a novella. This little inconvenience is compounded by the fact that some 70% of Japanese food contains pork extract. Now, depending on how strict a vegetarian you are, this can pose quite a problem, especially if your speaking and reading abilities don’t quite measure up to your firm ethical resolve. Taking this into account, it is time to lay out one of the grim hard realities of living in a foreign country. You will probably eat meat. At one point or another you are going to unintentionally ingest something that once bore legs, eyes, wings and, quite likely, tentacles. In order to minimize this sort of unpleasant experience, here are some tips to keep you from going omnivore when the going gets rough.

1) Understand what the Japanese mean by the word “meat”.

Being the good vegetarian you are, I’m going to assume you have, regardless of your Japanese ability, probably learned the word for meat (niku). This word is quite useful when referring to slabs of mammal flesh, but notsomuch when it comes to our fine-feathered friends or those scaly sea goers. Often you must specify chickens and other birds (tori), fish (sakana), and shellfish (kai) as being apocryphal to the cannon of foods that make up your shopping list, as well. It is also important to keep in mind that these words often exclude certain meaty products based on how they were prepared. Upon arriving in Japan, my coworkers were shocked to discover that my being a vegetarian also meant that I also couldn’t eat foods containing meat extract. Just remember, Japan is a country with next to no vegetarians, so be specific. As a side note, be ready to explain your reasons for being vegetarian, as you will most likely be doing it a lot. Because there are so few veggies in Japan, people tend ask a lot of questions. This may seem like you’re being challenged at first, but I’ve found that most people are just curious or want to be accommodating.

2) Learn to ask.

If you are living in Japan and expect to enjoy the companionship and absence of crippling suicidal loneliness that come with having a social life, you will end up eating out A LOT. In almost any restaurant it is imperative that you ask before you order! Assumptions made in this department can lead to either and empty stomach or an empty wallet. I kid you not; you may order a single sprig of parsley, only to have it reach your table slathered in bacon grease and lodged into the center of a pork chop. I hyperbolate here only slightly, and only to make the point that no matter how vegetarian something may seem on the menu, ask anyways. In Japanese, it’s as simple as:
“(whatever food) wa niku ga haiteimasu ka?”
Remember; ask about meat extract, as well! Just replace the word niku with niku ekisu. (See section above for other things that are often not considered to be meat).

3) Learn some basic kanji

Grocery shopping in a foreign country (especially one with an unfamiliar writing system) can be a daunting task for anyone, let alone for someone with a specific diet. In regards to what you eat, learning a few important kanji can mean the difference between a crisp juicy apple and a bag full of pig anuses (kudos to anyone who catches the UCB reference). Here are a few of the most important ones:
原材料名 (genzairyoumei)—ingredients
(ushi/gyuu)— cow
(buta)— pig
(tori)—bird (note: usually any kanji that contains this radical [e.g. 鶏/鳩] is a type of bird.)
(sakana)—fish (see note about bird)
チキン (chikin)chicken
ビーフ (biifu)beef
エキス (ekisu)extract
豚の肛門 (buta no koumon)—pig anuses

There you have it. This is by no means the definitive guide to vegetarianism in the Land of the Rising Sun; but I hope, a good start. I’ve also included a couple other resources below. Gambatte!

Tengu Natural foods
What can I say? They’re awesome. Great service, excellent selection, and 100% vegetarian (a lot of vegan stuff as well).

A Guide to Being (and Remaining) Vegetarian in Japan

Available through Hyogo Ajet ( I got this book from a very dear friend as a Christmas present, and it’s been invaluable. Tips, Recipes, you name it. Good stuff.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kanji is a 4 letter word

"Kanji muzukashii ne?" translates to: "Kanji is difficult, huh?" and is referring to Japan's Chinese Character based writing system. You will hear this phrase every time someone in Japan sees you studying Kanji. Even when you're not studying, someone will most likely say this out of the blue. They might just call you up to mention this. Japan's literacy rate is, like my homeland's, at 99%. So obviously Kanji can't be difficult, right? Unless this is an entire nation of geniuses, but I doubt that. That life sized Gundam they made couldn't even fly . To me, every time a Japanese person mentioned the difficulty of Kanji to me I assumed they meant "-difficult for foreigners." I was always quick to dismiss their statement as some sort of underhanded boast while thinking to myself, "Why would it be difficult for us foreigners? Are we not all the same inside regardless of where we come from? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you give us sake do we not drink?" But, I was wrong. I made a mistake. The Japanese have something on us when it comes to Kanji, and that is a decade of schooling and a lifetime of experience. Grade school for them consists of studying Kanji. Me being able to read and write English feels more like a byproduct of going to school. I never had to write a word a hundred times to make sure I knew how to spell it. But that's how it works with Kanji, with classes dedicated to just that. I had been consistently denying the difficulty of Kanji for about a year. It wasn't until I seriously started studying that things changed.

I had been sitting next to a new Japanese co-worker for about two weeks; both of us barely saying more than "Good morning" and "Goodbye". During my break I was studying some Kanji in despair. She noticed, leaned over, and obligatorily said in stuttering English, "Kanji is difficult… for foreigners… isn't it?" Never having heard this said so blatantly I stopped, looked at my paper covered in my chicken scratch hieroglyphs, and finally admitted that "Yes, it is." This acceptance was long in coming, but it set me on the right path. A journey of discovery to find the best way to study and actually remember these crazy runes.

The main problem stems from how the most common way to study (i.e. the Japanese way) doesn't work. Maybe it works when you're a young Japanese boy or girl in your tiny shorts with an empty brain that is happy to be filled with anything; even Kanji. As for my full to the brim half-middle-aged mind, memorizing anywhere from 10 - 20 random lines for every new word is impossible. That space is already taken by all the lyrics to Skee Lo's "I wish (I was a lil' bit taller)". Let's take a simple word like "hot" for example: 熱. Holy crap! It looks like you just hit a bunch of keys on a typewriter at once. I had given this way of studying a shot more than once; writing each new Kanji 20 times or so but I always ended up forgetting them the next day. This way is too time-expensive. I needed a way to save some time-money. If I invest everything that I have from my Time and Effort bank into Kanji, I'm going to go time-broke. Which I guess equals death or hypothermia or something.

But, boy, do I have an investment opportunity for you. One day you'll realize, like I did, that studying Kanji stroke by stroke is a bad deal. Have you wasted time-money and real-money on expensive Kanji textbooks and study cards? Well, do so no longer! I'll let you in on a little secret. Your job is just to share it with your friends. This will all go down like a Kanji pyramid scheme.

Go here for salvation. I talked in another article about how Japanese textbooks fail. Learning stroke after senseless stroke only brings tears, yet it is how every Kanji textbook I've seen has been set up. What you have to do is break every Kanji down into its simpler parts. Let's go back to "hot": 熱. Break that down and you get: 土, 儿, 九, 丶, 灬. There, not so bad now is it? Just put them together like you would put together letters in a word, but kind of mixed all around.

But wait! There's more!

These little symbols are called "radicals". There's over 200 of them, but they're fairly simple to learn and a lot of them are whole Kanji in themselves, almost like how "A" is a letter and a word. You get twice the usefulness for half the studying time. Now you're buying in bulk! It's like 2 gallons of Kanji mayonnaise for the price of one.

My Kanji reading and writing has shot up since I started studying this way. I gave each of those 200 my own name: "丶" is "The Touché". "屮" is "zombie hand". So when I write a Kanji like "逆" I'm just thinking, "double touché-line-zombie hand on a water slide." Simple!

That website I linked up there explains everything more in detail. I'm just letting you know that it does indeed work. So call today!