Ebisu Giveth

   On Saturday I took my brood to the Tōka Ebisu Festival to pray to Ebisu, the god of wealth, fishermen, fortune, and merchants. (And if that isn't already large enough portfolio for one god, Ebisu is also said to be the guardian of the health of small children.)

   As I have written before, one of the highlights of the four-day-long festival is a lucky drawing (福引, fukubiki) for Ebisu goods--calendars, large paper fans, daruma dolls, lucky mallets, giant paper-maché fish, and so on. In past years, I've "won" all sorts of prizes, big and small, but last year elder son and I arrived too late and missed the drawing altogether. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I made sure we left home nice and early Saturday morning, the last day of the festival.

   My son wanders off alone in search of a Kyōryūja mask. (I'll write about that one of these days.)

   My son finds a lucky drawing stand, instead. There are all kinds of pellet guns on display.

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner. Lucky drawing!"

    "I want this one," he says to me.

   "This isn't a shop. You don't buy these. You have to buy a raffle ticket."

   "I want this one," he says again.

   My son has become rather persistent when he wants something. Usually it's junk, overpriced junk, but he wants it all the same, and wants it NOW.

   A few weeks back, the two of us popped into a convenience store. As I was withdrawing some money from the ATM, my son wandered about the aisles looking for candy and toys and found an Anpan Man Camera.

    “I want this,” he said, placing the toy on the check-out counter.

   "What is it?"

   "Anpan Man Camera."

   "I don't have any money," I said.

   "You have money."

   "Yes, but not for this," I said, picking the camera up. "How much is it, anyways? A thousand yen! No way!"

   "I want it . . ."

   A tantrum threatening to erupt, I scooped up the boy and headed straight for the door. We were going a German restaurant that was about a twenty-minutes' walk away and I'll be damned if my son did not keep saying, "I want Anpan Man Camera! I want Anpan Man Camera!" the entire distance.

   "You have a camera. I nice digital camera."

   "It's broken!"

   The battery had died, but I had since recharged it and emptied the storage. It was working nicely again.

   "It's not broken," I replied. "I fixed it the other day."

   "I don't want Daddy to fix it! I want Anpan Man camera." 

   He finally calmed down by the time we reached the German restaurant, but having carried the 20kg kicking and crying boy the entire distance, I was thoroughly exhausted.


   "You don't understand," I tell my son. "You have to buy one of these tickets first. If and ONLY if you're lucky will you win the gun." 

   The old woman running the stand says, "Everyone's a winner."

   "Yeah, right," I reply.

   "I want this one!"

   I ask the woman how much one of the raffle tickets cost.

   "Five hundred yen."

   "Five hundred yen! Auntie, I think the biggest winner at this stand is you!"


   Just then a middle-aged retarded (sorry, Sarah Palin) man walks up to the booth and says he wants a gun, too. His minder tries to hold him back, but the man tries to take one of the guns, saying in Japanese, "I want this one. I want this one." The minder relents and gives the retarded man a five-hundred-yen coin.

   I tell my son: "You watch! You'll see, he won't win anything."

   Well, as luck would have it, the retarded man ends up winning the very gun my son wants. A second man in his thirties with severe Down's syndrome comes up next and also wins a gun.

   "I want one, too!" my son says.

   Well now I have no choice but to also give my son a five-hundred-yen coin and let him have a go at the game.

   Maybe it is because it's the last day of the festival and the woman has nothing to gain by cheating us, or maybe it is simply because she doesn't want to make a little boy cry, either way, my son "wins" the gun he wanted.

   "What do you say?"

   My boy looks up to the woman and very bashfully says, "Thank you."

   I tell her thank you, too. "That was awfully decent of you."

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner. Lucky drawing."


Sansha Mairi

Dazaifu Tenmangu (太宰府天満宮) is Fukuoka's most famous shrine.   If you live in only one region of Japan for an extended time as I have, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that what is true in the town where you reside is also true in the rest of the country.

   I first recognized this many, many years ago when I kept getting tripped up by the local dialect, known as Hakata-ben (博多弁). I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what I’m getting at here here is not my failure to understand what someone is saying because he is speaking the local dialect, but rather people not understand what I am saying because I have unwittingly used the dialect thinking that what I said was standard Japanese.

Take the Japanese word koi (濃い), which can mean deep, heavy, dark or thick—such as in koi aka (濃い赤), “deep red”; koi sūpu (濃いスープ) “thick soup”; ~ wa ajitsuke ga koi (〜は味付けが濃い) “. . . is strongly seasoned”; or even chi-wa mizu-yorimo koi (血は水よりも濃い) “Blood is thicker than water.” For the first ten years of my life here in Japan, I thought koi was pronounced koyui. (Try looking it up in a Japanese-English dictionary.) If you go to Tõkyõ and ask a bartender to make you a stiff drink, saying “make it koyui”, he’ll probably give you a funny look.[1]

Traditional foods, too, can vary from region to region in Japan, so much so that a simple dish like o-zõni—a soup eaten during New Year’s—can contain radically different ingredients and yet still be called o-zõni. (You can find different regional recipes for o-zõni here.)

Customs, as I have mentioned before, also differ from prefecture to prefecture. The Bon Festival of the Dead, for example, can, depending on the region, be held as early as July 15th (around Tõkyõ) or in other parts on August 15th. Some regions, such as Okinawa, observe what is known as Kyū Bon (旧盆) which falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. In 2014, Kyū Bon will take place from the 8th to the 10th of August. Living all this time in Kyūshū, I used to assume that all Japanese celebrated the Bon in the middle of August and would ask everyone, “Why isn’t this a national holiday like New Year’s?”

And only yesterday it finally dawned on me that something I had taken for twenty-plus years to be a widely-observed custom was actually a very local tradition: sansha mairi (三社参り).

In Japan, many people (and I would venture most) visit a Shintõ shrine during the first few days of the new year, a custom known as hatsumõdé (初詣), to pray or make wishes. At the shrines, they buy good luck charms called o-mamori (お守り), drink a special kind of saké, and buy written oracles known as o-mikuji (おみくじ). It’s primarily in Fukuoka, I now understand, that people visit (o-mairi, お参り) three shrines (三社) rather than one.

Live and learn.


Do you hear me, God?


[1] On one of my more recent visits to Tõkyõ, a woman I was talking to said I spoke Japanese with a “charming southern accent”. Don’t know if she meant that as a compliment or not.



   The other day I overheard a student of mine mention that she was a manager at the McDonald’s where she was working.

   “A manager? Really?” I said. “But you’re only, what, eighteen?”

   “I just turned nineteen.”

   “How long have you been working there?”

   She replied that it was her fourth year at the hamburger joint, that she had started in her first year of high school when she was fifteen, something that also surprised me as very few high schools allow their students to work. I know what you’re thinking, whose business is it whether a student has a part-time job or not? In Japan, the teachers tend to make it their business. They want their charges focused on little else than their studies. (We can discuss the wisdom of such rules later.)

   “And how long have you been manager?” I asked.

   “Only a few months.”

   She went on to explain that of the sixty to seventy employees at her restaurant (if you can call a Mickey Dees one), there were fifteen managers, all of whom were “part-timers”. Part-timers in the Japanese sense of the word meaning that they are not full-fledged employees of the McDonald’s Japan Corporation with bennies rather than someone working less than thirty-two hours a week. This particular woman was currently working six days a week for a total of about thirty-four or so hours each week. During the summer break she put in over forty hours a week.

  “How many ‘full-fledged employees’ (正社員, seishain) are there at your branch?”

   “Just one, the store manager (店長, tenchō),” she answered.

   I once knew a twenty-something-year-old woman who was one of these tenchōs. The sweetest, most unassuming woman you could ever meet, she was managing what was one of Japan’s busiest branches. It wasn’t unusual for her to remain at work until four in the morning, go home, sleep a few hours, then return the next morning to do it all over again. Her dream was to work at Hamburger University, a training facility run by McDonald’s Corporation, and for all I know, she may be working there now.

   I continued to badger my student about the details of her work and learned that when she first started working she earned ¥700 ($6.70) an hour, but after a few months was bumped up to ¥720 ($6.90). As manager she now earns ¥750 ($7.19) an hour, considerably less than the $8-15 per hour an “hourly manager” can make in the States, but then she is able to keep 90% or more of her income due to the low level of taxation on part-time work here. Her counterpart in the U.S. might see some 30% of his income withheld in the form of payroll and other taxes.

   As manager, she is responsible for overseeing the shift, training new employees, managing the money, and dealing with customer complaints.

   “I like the job,” she told me, but admitted that the customers can be insufferably petty at times.


New Year's Revolutions

   A number of years ago, a student of mine once wrote that his “New Year’s Revolutions were . . .” I liked that. Resolutions ought to be a kind of coup d’état of the self, a violent overthrow of oppressively bad behavior.

   I’m not too happy—though not entirely displeased—with what I accomplished last year. (Raising a second child has been far more distracting than I expected.) I’m hoping for much, much, much more from 2014.


Off the top of my head, my “New Year's Revolutions” for this year are:

   1. Tame the body hairs. Get hair cut every five weeks. (Seriously)

   2. Finish A Woman’s Hand. (Almost there.) Start writing the third installment of the series.

   3. Rewrite Rokuban, and try, try, try to find another title or subtitle for the novel.

   4. Get more articles, both fiction and non-fiction, published in journals and magazines. (I’ve had fairly good luck so far without really trying. Now it’s time to actually put some effort into it.)

   5. Make some progress on the novel, Adam’s Quotient.

   6. Make progress on my non-fiction works—Kampai, Hōgen, Manholes, et cetera.

   7. Get a good working draft of the three textbooks I began last year done. Set up the publishing company and website and other incumbent nonsense by summer.


But wait! There's more! 


   8. Full press on teaching my older son (now three and a half) how to read English and Japanese before he starts kindergarten in April. Get my younger son (now one) to start speaking (Whether he likes it or not!).

   9. Take my older son skiing at least two times (and ice-skating four more times) this winter. Take boys hiking two or three times before April.


   10. Visit Tōkyō four or five times, Kansai three or four times (alone) in 2014. (Go to Okinawa with family?) Try to get magazines/websites to pay for travel.

   11. Visit my mother at least once this year. (Have her come to Japan or Hawaii?)

   12. Travel to Germany with family for Christmas (um alten Freunden zu sehen). Mend fences.


   13. Improve posture. (Candle wax may be needed.) Buy brace, go to seikotsu-in and stretching clinic regularly.

   14. Keep weight at current 70kg, but increase muscle. (See 15)

   15. Rejoin soccer team in winter. Run and exercise regularly. Join gym by spring, bouldering gym in winter. Stick to it.

   16. Drink less. No alcohol From Tuesday to Thursday.


   17. Start elder son up in soccer or karate by spring. Take him jogging with me.

   18. Hire a tutor to reinforce sons’ English from next summer.


   19. Start drawing/sketching again.

   20. Practice writing kanji again; study Japanese. Read more in Japanese.

   21. Take tests in December to force myself to review Japanese.


   22. Stay the course with regard to saving and investing.

   23. Start looking for a new place to move into or buy in the spring of 2015.


   24. Smile more.



   Knock on wood.


Why does Japanese use "Chinese" Characters?

Ema (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which prayers or wishes are written. Note how a variety of writing systems are used.

   One thing that comes up time and time again when otherwise bright people who are merely not familiar with Japan read my writing is the issue of why the Japanese language uses "Chinese characters". 
   "What?" they invariably comment. "I thought this was supposed to be Japanese . . . Is this Japanese or is this Chinese? I don't get it."
   Don't worry. I asked the same question twenty-two years ago. (For more on the Japanese writing system, scroll down.)
   I'm curious: were I to write "Yada yada yada was written in kanji", would readers have a better idea about what I was saying or would they be just as confused? I welcome your thoughts.




   Every day I hear Japanese complain, “Eigo-wa muzukashii.” (English is difficult.)

   I suppose for non-native speakers of the language, English can be hard to master. This blessed tongue of mine is a hodgepodge of languages—Germanic, Romance and Celtic—making the spelling and grammar a confused mess that is not only cumbersome for learners but for native speakers alike.

   BUT! The Japanese language is so much more muzukashii. Our list of irregular verbs and odd spelling rules cannot even begin to burden a student the way the Japanese writing system hinders foreigners who try to master it.

   Of the more than five thousand different languages out there in the world, the most difficult one to read is Japanese.

   It’s not unusual to find a single sentence chockablock with Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ), Kanji (漢字), Rômaji (also known as the alphabet), and even Arabic numerals. While hiraganakatana, and rômaji are straight-forward enough and can be mastered in less than a week, what really makes Japanese so hellish for learners is the fact that unlike the pictograms in Chinese, known as hànzi (漢字), where most characters have one basic reading, almost all Japanese kanji have several possible, often unrelated readings.

   Take the kanji for “I”. In Chinese 我 is pronounced wǒ. In Japanese, however, it can be pronounced: aaréga,wawaré, and waro. The character for “food/eat” 食 is read shí in Chinese, but can be read: ukaukekeshi,jikishokukukuisutaha and so on, depending on context. And while the kanji for “go”, 行 can be read in a number of similar ways in Chinese—xínghánghanghéng—in Japanese it can be read in the following ways: gyôokonayuyukiyukuian, and, who knows, possibly more. 

   Kids in Japan must master 1,006 of the 2,136 different characters, the so-called jôyô kanji,[1] by the end of elementary school and the remainder in junior high school.

   Think about that.

   It can take up to nine years of education for a Japanese child to become literate in his own language, far longer than it takes an American to learn how to read English. By comparison, hangul (한글) the Korean writing system can be mastered for the most part in a single day. If you’re determined enough, that is. I taught myself how to read (though not quite understand) hangul during a trip I took in the mid 90s. Riding on the high-speed train connecting Busan in the south of the country to Seoul in the north, I compared the Romanization of the station names and the Chinese characters with the hangul. By the time I reached Seoul a few hours later, I could read the Korean script. Piece of cake!

   No other language offers as overwhelming a barrier to entry as Japanese does when it comes to its writing system. As a result, students of the language are often forced to focus on speaking alone. They cannot reinforce what they learn by, say, reading books or magazine and newspaper articles the way you can with other languages.

   If they ever try to do so, however, as I did, they’ll find that written Japanese is a very different animal from the spoken language.

   Open up any book, even a collection of casual, humorous essays by Murakami Haruki for example, and you’ll bump up against “ーde-aru” (ーである). I hadn’t heard of this copula[2] until I started trying to read things other than textbooks and manga.

   De-aru, which is just another way of say desu (ーです) but in a more formal and rigid way that is suitable for reports or making conclusions, is only the beginning. (You can learn more about de-aru here.) While I can generally catch almost everything that is being said to me or what is said on TV even when I’m not really paying attention,[3] written Japanese takes concentrated effort to comprehend and sometimes up to three perusals[4] to get a firm grasp on what the writer is trying to convey.

   Even if you’re not interested in learning how to read Japanese, just trying to master the spoken language can provide you with years of headaches.

   Thinking I could master the language in my first three months or so in Japan, I dove headfirst into my studies almost as soon as I arrived, taking sometimes two to three private lessons a week.

   At the time, the selection of textbooks for learners of Japanese was extremely limited. While I had a good set of dictionaries called the Takahashi Romanized “Pocket” Dictionary—the only kind of pockets they would conceivably fit in were the pockets you might find on the baggy pants of a circus clown—the textbook I had to work with couldn’t have been more irrelevant.

   Written for engineers from developing countries invited by the government to study and train in Japan, it contained such everyday vocabulary as “welding flux”, “hydraulic jack” and “water-pressure gauge”. The phrases taught in the textbook were equally helpful:


Q: ラオさんは何を持っていますか。

            Rao-san-wa nani-o motteimasuka

                        What is Rao-san holding.

A: ラオさんはスパナを持っています。

            Rao-san-wa supana-o motteimasu

Rao-san is holding a spanner.


   In all of my twenty years in Japan, I have never once used this phrase. I haven’t used a spanner or a wrench for that matter, either. Nor have I met anyone named Rao.[5]

   But, the biggest shortcoming of the textbook was its desire to have learners of Japanese speak the languagepolitely.

   And so, the less casual -masu (−ます) and -desu (—です) form of verbs triumphed. If you wanted to ask someone what he was doing, the textbook taught you to say:



(Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?)


   I practiced this phrase over and over: Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?

   Armed with this new phrase, I accosted a group of children in a playground and asked, “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?


   A few months later I was diligently studying Japanese in that most effective of classrooms—a girlfriend’s bed—when I learned that people didn’t really say Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka, especially to children much younger than themselves. No, they said, “Nani, shiteru no?” or something like that, instead.

   After about a year of studying the language, I could manage. I certainly wasn’t what I would call fluent, but I was no longer threatened by death or starvation. When I moved to Fukuoka, however, I bumped up against a new and very unexpected wall: hôgen. The local patois, known as Hakata-ben, is one of the more well-known of Japan’s many bens, or dialects.

   When the people of Fukuoka wanted to know what you were doing, they didn’t say anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka or even nani, shiteru no. They said, “Nan shiyô to?” (なんしようと) or “Nan shon?” (なんしょん).

   Let me tell you, it took quite a few years to graduate from saying “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?” to “Nan shiyô to?” And that, of course, was only the beginning. It took me nearly a decade to figure out what 〜んめえ (~nmê) and ばってん (batten) meant.




    博多弁: 雨なら、行かんめーと思うとるっちゃばってん、こん様子なら降らんめーや。

    Hakata-ben: Ame-nara, ikanmê to omôtoruccha batten, kon yôsu nara, furanmê ya.

    標準語: 雨なら行くまいと思ってるのだが、この様子だと雨は降らないだろう。

    Standard: Ame nara, ikumai to omotteru-no daga, kono yôsu dato, ame wa furanai darô.

    English: I was thinking of not going if it rained[6], but it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain (after all).


   My Japanese grandmother would say something like, “Anta, ikanmê” (you aren’t going, are you) to which I’d grunt, “Un” (that’s right), when in fact I had every intention of going. The poor woman and I had conversations like that all the time.[7] When I finally figured that one out it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. Day-to-day life here has contained fewer misunderstandings ever since. ばってん (batten), by the way, means “but”.

   My experience with Hakata-ben has spawned a masochistic interest in Japanese dialects in general and I have been maintaining a blog on the topic for the past few years. Have a look-see!

   Anyways, the long and short of it is that while English is no cakewalk, it’s still much easier to learn than many other languages, such as Japanese. So, the next time you hear your students grumbling about how difficult English is, just tell them, “Oh, shuddup.”


   So, why "Chinese characters"?

   Mr. Wiki says: "The Japanese language had no written form at the time Chinese characters were introduced, and texts were written and read only in Chinese. Later, during the Heian period however, a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar."


[1] 常用漢字, jôyô kanji, are the Chinese characters designated by the Ministry of Education for use in everyday life.

[2] A copula is a word used to link a subject and predicate, as in “John is a teacher”, where “John” is the subject, “a teacher” (actually a predicative nominal), the predicate and “is”, the copula. (Don’t worry, I had know idea what a copula was either until I started studying Japanese.)

[3] Unless it’s a period piece and the actors are using Edo Period Japanese.

[4] I use the word “perusal” to imply thoroughness and care in reading. So many Americans today mistakenly assume the word means “to skim”. It does not, it does not, it does not. So, for the love of God, stop it! Same goes for the word “nonplussed”. If you’re not a hundred percent certain of the meaning—and even if you are (over confidence is America’s Achilles heel)—don’t use it. Chances are you’re probably mistaken.

[5] I eagerly await his arrival, though. For when I find him, I will surely ask, “ラオさん、何を持っていますか?”

[6] I have intentionally translated this in the manner that Japanese speak—namely “I was thinking about notdoing” rather than the more natural “I wasn’t thinking about doing”—to make the original sentences easier to understand.

[7] Incidentally, while in Tôkyô I chatted up a girl from Gifu who told me that they also used the same ~nmêverb ending. Her friend from Hokkaidô had never heard it before.


How Much is a Year's Worth?

   The Kyūshū Basho, Sumō’s sixth and final tournament of the year, was held last month in Fukuoka. 

   Although I rarely watch Sumō today, there was a time when I was very much into the sport. Until around the late nineties, I followed the sport closely, almost never missing an episode of “Ōzumō Digest”, a program which aired each night during the fifteen days of the tournaments and recapped the day’s highlights. Quite a few dates were cut short, I recall, so that I could hurry home and catch the results of the day’s bouts.

   I must admit, though, that sumō is a pretty boring, especially if you have to watch an entire day of salt-throwing and menacing poses. But back in the nineties, the rivalry between the crown princes of sumō--the Hanada brothers, Takanohana and Wakanohana--and three upstarts from Hawaiians--Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru--made the sport more dramatic than it ever has been. Since the retirement of those wrestlers the popularity of sumō has been pushed out of the TV ring, in a sense: “Ōzumō Digest” stopped being broadcast in 2003.

   Anyways, one of the things that I have always wondered about sumō was the prizes given to the winning rikishi (wrestler) on the final day of the tournament. 

   In addition to a nice stack of cash (no cheques in this country) and a huge trophy, the winner is often given a number of “supplementary prizes” from a variety of sponsors. Most of these prizes come in the form of a “year’s supply of this” or a “year’s supply of that”. For example, a year’s supply of rice, beer, saké, toiletpaper--yes, toiletpaper--miso paste, gasoline, and so on.

   According to the Japan Sumō Association (日本相撲協会), the amounts offered are defined by the sponsor. Ōzeki, maker of the poor-man’s saké, One Cup Ōzeki, provides the winning wrestler with 360x 180ml bottles of their fine saké.

   As for rice, Zennō (全国農民組合, National Union of Farmers) gives the winner thirty tawara (俵) of rice, where one tawara is equivalent to about 60kg of rice. The average Japanese, since you’re itching to know, consumes about 70kg of rice. It takes about 78kg of unpolished, brown rice (玄米, genmai) to produce 70kg of polished white rice, or the stuff you usually find in your rice bowl. A 10 “are” (1000m2) rice field, incidentally, produces about 500kg of genmai. To produce enough rice for the average Japanese consumer, you’d need to have a rice field that was 150m2 (or 45 tsubo), about half the size of a tennis court. (For more on this go here.) The winning sumō champ, of course, is not expected to eat all 1,800kg of rice; he shares it with his "stablemates".

   Miyazaki prefecture has also been known to award the champion rikishi with a year’s supply of beef. In actuality, this is amounts to one head of cattle (just the head, my rancher uncle often jokes) as well as a ton (1000kg) of veggies.

   Bon appétit!