Journal

 

Wednesday
Jun182014

Nakagin Capsule Tower

   Completed in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza is one of the few remaining examples of Japanese Metabolism, "an architectural movement emblematic of Japan's postwar cultural resurgence". It was designed by Kisho Kurokawa, the architect who also designed The National Art Center in Roppongi, Tōkyō.

   For an interesting interview with the architect Kisho Kurokawa, click here.

 

Tuesday
Jun172014

Some Advice on Father's Day

Taken in Lebanon before kids threw our lives in happy disarray.

Sons,

Marry someone beautiful, so your old man can enjoy looking at her.

Marry someone smart and funny, so he can enjoy talking to her. 

Marry someone nice, so he can enjoy spending time with her.

In short, marry someone like the woman your old man was lucky enough to find.

Love,

Dad

Tuesday
Jun102014

My Car . . . My Gawd!

   I don’t even have a driver’s license so this is all academic for me, but even if I did have a license, I probably wouldn’t own a car. 
   For starters, really like to drink. The real reason, though, is that I live right smack in the heart of the city and most of the places I want to go to—department stores, restaurants, bars, boutiques, parks--are within walking distance. When I do want to go someplace further, I use public transportation which is often much faster and less nerve-wracking than driving. And, several times a month, for convenience sake I hail a cab.
   When people hear about this, they often say something to the effect of, “A taxi? Wow! You must be rolling in the dough!” Mind you, these are often people who own cars. 
   What I tell them, time and time again, is that for someone like me who lives in the city and works six days a week, taking a taxi every now and then is small change compared to the high cost of buying and maintaining a car. I never had proof to support this assertion until this morning when I read an article in Nikkan Gendai which claims that owning a car is “the ultimate waste of money”.
   The article says that while having a car enables the owners to go wherever and whenever they like, in reality most “salarymen” are only weekend drivers.
   When you think about it, nothing eats through money quite like an automobile. In spite of their claims that cars give them freedom and convenience, most drivers do little more with their cars than go shopping at big box retailers on the weekends. A few may take day trips, but for the most part, their cars just sit in the garage, guzzling resources.
   For someone living in the suburbs of Tōkyō, the cost of maintaining a car comes to about ¥30,160 ($295) a month, or ¥380,000 ($3,712) a year. Keep in mind that this does not include the price of the car itself.
 
   Parking: ¥15,000/month (in my neighborhood, parking is about ¥30,000/month)
   Gasoline: ¥5,0000/month
   Insurance: ¥50,000/year
   Car tax: about ¥40,000/year
   Vehicle inspection: about ¥100,000 every two years
   If the owner of a car were to only drive five times a month, he would be spending the equivalent of ¥6,000 per use. Keiichi Kaya, author of the “The Rich Man’s Textbook” blog, writes, “Owners of cars shouldn’t expect to become even moderately wealthy.” The article goes on to say that even if a person were to use taxis and rental cars frequently, it would still be much cheaper than owning a car.
   I agree. 
   Still, I wouldn’t mind owning a Mini.

 

Wednesday
May282014

Too Clean and Far Too Common

The last public execution in France.   I have been meaning to write about this, but haven't had the time.

   Those of you who are familiar with me and my politics will know I am against the death penalty.1 So, it might seem contradictory for me to argue today that as long as the United States wants to continue killing its deathrow inmates, it ought to do so in a very public and violent way: beheadings.

   Sticking needles into the arms of the condemned and putting them to sleep as we have been doing since 1982 has made capital punishment too antiseptic, too "humane", and far, far too common. Were it messy and cruel, the good Christians of America might lose their stomach for executing her prisoners.

 

 

1 . . . except in very limited political situations where executions would lead to stability. The execution of Nazi leaders and Osama bin Laden would fall into that narrow scope.

Thursday
May222014

The MET's Online Photo Collection

  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has released some 400,000 photographic images for non-commercial use. Among the these are some excellent photos from the late Edo and early Meiji Periods. It's definitely worth perusing.

Date: 1870s 

   Olga de Meyer Sitting on the Porch of a Japanese House
   Date: 1900s–1910s

    Photographer: Adolf de Meyer (American (born France), Paris 1868–1949 Los Angeles, California)

 

   Shrine with Monumental Statue of Buddah
   Date: 1890s
   Photographer: Adolf de Meyer (American (born France), Paris 1868–1949 Los Angeles, California)

 

 

   Japanese Woman in Traditional Dress Posing Outdoors
   Date: 1870s
   Photographer: Shinichi Suzuki (Japanese, 1835–1919)

 

   Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841–1934)
   Date: 1860s–90s
   Photographer: Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841–1934)
   Artists: K Tamamura (Japanese), Raimund von Stillfried (Austrian, 1839–1911), and Felice Beato (British (born Italy), Venice 1832–1909 Luxor, Egypt)
 

 

   A Japanese Woman and a Japanese Boy in Traditional Dress
   Photographer: Shinichi Suzuki (Japanese, 1835–1919)
   Date: 1870s  

 

   Street Minstrel
   Photographer: Shinichi Suzuki
   Date: 1870s 

 

   La Toilette
   Photographer: Shinichi Suzuki (Japanese, 1835–1919)
   Date: 1870s

   

   Mutsuhito, The Emperor Meiji
   Photographer: Kyuichi Uchida (Japanese, 1846–1875)
   Date: 1872

   Tea House waitress
   Shinichi Suzuki (Japanese, 1835–1919)
   Date: 1870s

 

   Geisha Girls
   Photographer: Unknown
   Date: ca. 1880

 

Wednesday
May212014

Shinsekai

   Shinsekai Ōsaka: where old men's dreams go to die a long, slow death in the trash-filled gutter.

Thursday
May082014

Children's Day, 2014

   Monday, May fifth was Children’s Day, or Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日), here in Japan, one of the four national holidays that form Golden Week

   Originally called Tango no Sekku (端午の節句),1 Children’s Day used to be celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th moon in the old lunisolar, or Chinese, calendar, but was switched to May fifth after Japan's adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873The festival is still celebrated in the east Asian countries of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, where it is called the Duanwu (or Drangon Boat) Festival (Tuen Ng in Cantonese); Korea (Dano Festival) and Vietnam (Tết Đoan Ngọ).
   According to the Chinese calendar, the fifth day of the fifth month usually falls near the summer solstice, when the sun, which represents masculine energy, is considered to be at its strongest, and it was for this reason that Tango no Sekku was also known as Boys' Day. (March 3rd, Hina Matsuri, was and still is called Girls' Day) In 1948, the Japanese government renamed the holiday Kodomo no Hi, decreeing the day to one to celebrate the happiness of all children, not just that of boys.
   
   Well, speaking of children, according to a report released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on Children’s Day, the population of children (aged 0 to 14) in Japan was 16,330,000 as of April 1, 2014, or 160,000 less than last year. This marked the 33rd year in a row that the number of children in Japan has fallen. The last time the population of children increased was in 1977. As a proportion of the total population, children now account for only 12.97%, the lowest figure on record.


   Taking a closer look at the number of children by age group, we see that if nothing changes in the next few years to increase birthrate then the proportion of children to the total population will continue to drop dramatically.


   This graph (pictured above) shows the population of three demographics: blue for those 0-14 years of age; brown for those between the ages of 15 and 64; and green for those 65 and older. As you can see, while the number of those in the middle hasn’t changed very much--indeed, they are at levels today (62.1% of the population) that they were at in 1955 (61.3%)—the number of children has steadily decreased, while the number of elderly has increased. Today, 25.1% of the population is 65 years old or older.


   For more on this, go here (Japanese only).

   In somewhat related news, the number of stalking cases involving suspects over the age of sixty has continued to rise in recent years. While cases involving suspects between the ages of 20 and 59 have risen 1.5 to 2.0 times over the past ten years, those involving these “silver stalkers” has almost quadrupled.
   Although only accounting for a small minority of all stalking cases (less than 10%), the number of incidents committed by stalkers in their sixties is up 3.4 times since 2003, while those perpretrated by stalkers in their 70s have increased 5.6 times.
   One man in his eighties, who was arrested for “gatecrashing” into the home of a woman who was in her seventies, confessed to the police that he had been lonely since the death of his wife. After she passed away, the man asked the younger woman, with whom he had once had an affair, to get back together with him, begging her to “die with him”.
   I almost feel sorry for the randy old sod.

1 From Wikipedia: "Tan means ‘beginning' and go means ‘horse', referring to the Chinese zodiac name for the fifth lunar month. Sekku means a seasonal festival. There are five sekku, including O-Shogatsu (January 1st), Hina Matsuri (March 3rd), Tanabata (July 7th) and Kiku Matsuri (September 9th) along with Tango. Tango no Sekku marks the beginning of summer or the rainy season." 

 

Wednesday
Apr232014

The Sewol Tragedy

   A little reported footnote (in the English language media, at least) to the Sewol ferry tragedy, which claimed as many as 300 lives, is the origin of the ship.

   The Sewol, which sank on the morning of April 16th off of the southwestern coast of Korea, was built by Hayashi Kane Senkyo (林兼船渠), a shipbuilder located in Nagasaki, in 1994. From June of that year until September 2012, Maru A Ferry used the ferry, then called Ferry Nami no Ue to service its Kagoshima - Amami Ōshima - Okinawa route.

   During the 18 years that the ship was owned by Maru A, the only trouble she experienced was an oil leak. There were no reports of collisions with reefs or quays. 

   In October of 2012, the ship was sold off to a Korean shipping company named the Cheonghaejin Marine Company and refurbished.1 Originally, a five-storey ship, the lowest floor was used for cargo, the second floor for cars. It had a capacity of 200 vehicles. The third floor contained restaurants and shops, and passenger rooms were located on the third to fifth floors. Modifications, however, included the addition of extra passenger cabins on the third, fourth and fifth decks, raising the passenger capacity by 156, and increasing the weight of the ship by 239 tons.

   It has been argued that the addition of extra passenger cabins on the third, fourth and fifth decks was the main cause behind the accident. The additions caused the center of the ships gravity to shift 51 centimetres (1.67 ft) higher. (To read about other possible causes, go here.)

   A crew member, however, has attempted to shift the blame for the accident on to the Japanese shipbuilder, claiming yesterday that the ship hadn't been strong enough to withstand the additions. If such is the case, it begs the question: why did they go ahead with the renovation?

Maru A Ferry

 

The Sewol 

Notes

1 According to Maru A Ferry, it is common for passenger ships in Japan to be replaced every fifteen to twenty years, with the older ships being sold mainly to companies in Southeast Asia.

Wednesday
Apr232014

Five-yenned and Ten-yenned

 

   Ever since the consumption tax was raised from 5% to 8% at the start of April, I've noticed that my wallet empties faster than it used to. I have to charge the IC card I use for my commute more often than before, too. 

  A three-point increase in the sales tax really doesn't amount to much, when you think about it. Something that used to cost ¥105, now costs ¥3 more. Dinner and drinks at a nice restaurant which set you back ¥10,500 in March is today only ¥300 more expensive. Big deal, right?

  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be working out quite that way. 

  As I have written before, the Oronamin C I buy at the station in the morning is now 9% more expensive than it was only three weeks ago. Where it used to cost ¥110, I now have to pay ¥120. The commute, too, is more expensive than before: I am now paying about ¥50~¥60 more every day to get to work every day.

   I can't help but feel like I'm being nickel and dimed, or rather five-yenned and ten-yenned, now. Those less fortunate than myself must surely be feeling the pinch. 

Wednesday
Apr162014

Small Change Adds Up

   I've been noticing small changes in the prices of everything lately. The prices of drinks sold from vending machines also went up yesterday.

   A bottle of Oronamin C (bottom row, second from the right) cost ¥110 in the morning. By the afternoon, it was selling for ¥120. The price of a bottle of Ribobitan D (blue and white bottle at the bottom right) shot up, from ¥150 to ¥160.

   As I put in an extra ten yen into the machine, I couldn't help feeling that the numbers weren't adding up.   

   If the price of a bottle of Oronamin C, excluding tax is roughly ¥105, the new price including 8% sales tax should be about ¥113 rather than ¥120.

   Perhaps, the drink makers were taking into account that the consumption tax is going to be raised to 10% next year. Well, even with a 10% consumption tax, a bottle of Oronamin C would still cost only ¥115. What this means, of course, is that the vendors of Oronamin C are pocketing an extra seven yen in revenue for each bottle they sell through their machines. 

   The same is true for Ribobitan D. Before the consumption tax increase, a bottle cost ¥150. Today, ¥160.
The actual price of a bottle of the drink, excluding sales tax, comes to ¥143. With a sales tax of 8% a bottle should cost ¥154, not ¥160. Even with the sales tax doubled to 10% a bottle would sell for ¥157. So, with each bottle of Ribobitan D or similarly priced item, the distributor is making an extra six yen in revenue. 

   It seems that while many companies have balked at the idea of increasing the consumption tax, many of them are using this as an opportunity to bolster the bottom line. 


   Later . . . 

   A friend took issue with my claim that Japanese companies were using the tax hike to increase profits (I wrote "revenue", but profit was what I was really getting at), arguing that the vendors have been operating on "wafer thin margins" for years.

   That got me thinking. Were these vending machine operators really just scraping by? If they were, I doubt for one that there would be so goddamn many vending machines out there. Anyone who visits Japan will be surprised by not only how ubiquitous drinks machines are, but by how well maintained, new, and increasingly high-tech the vending machines are. The companies are clearly earning enough money to put some of it back into developing or purchasing new "hardware" on a regular basis. 

   And what, I wondered, did a bottle of Oronamin C actually cost the distributor. Although O.C. now sells for ¥120 at most vending machines, I discovered that at one of the universities where I teach, O.C. was still selling for only ¥100. The local supermarket down the street sells bottles of the energy drink for as little as ¥84. At ¥84, the cost of a bottle of O.C. minus consumption tax is ¥77.3. Assuming that O.C. is not a loss leader and the supermarket has a flat profit margin of, say, 2-3% on all of its products like Costco, then a bottle of Oronamin C really costs about ¥74. Or possibly even less than that. (A can of Dr. Pepper at Costco, for instance, only costs about ¥60 per can if you buy a case of 24.)

   I also looked into Otsuka, the maker of Oronamin C, to see how many bottles of the energy drink it produces every year. Would you believe that 25 BILLION bottles of the stuff was consumed in 2000 (the latest year for which I could find reliable stats)? With production levels so high, I doubt the pharmaceutical company and the distributors who sell its products are hurting all that much. A company that big and profitable probably knows what it's doing. 



Monday
Jan132014

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!"

   "Yep."

   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!"

Friday
Jan032014

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:

 

あなたは、なにをしていますか?

(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?

   Crickets.

   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.

 

   Example:

 

    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.

Tuesday
Dec032013

What was God Thinking?

   Although I was born and raised Catholic, having graduated from no less than four Catholic institutions of education, attended more classes on Theology and catechism than I care to admit, and celebrated four (and a half) of seven sacraments[1], today I am hesitant to call myself a Catholic.[2]

   That said, the Judeo-Christian concept of an anthropomorphic, paternal God has always appealed to me on a gut level. How many of us can’t relate to a father who meddles in our lives only to go and neglect us in times of need. You can find a better father figure in a trailer park, passed out on shabby sofa, empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at his feet.

   And it’s only this kind of bumbling God that you can curse or blame for your quotidian woes. Buddhism, for example, doesn’t quite work when you miss your bus: “Damn, my desires!” Shintōism with its “eight million” kami makes a curse awfully difficult to direct.

   The Judeo-Christian idea of God also makes it easier for humans to see the man as a prankster with an odd sense of humor.

   Take human sexuality. Who else but a practical joker would have created man with a sex drive that peaks in his late teens, precisely at a period in his life when most of us couldn’t laid if our lives depended upon it. At eighteen most of us are uncouth and uneducated, covered with zits and penniless, and yet are blessed with boners we could crack walnuts with. And it’s hardly better for the women: they peak sexually in their mid to late thirties, at the tail end of their reproductive years and when gravity has already done quite a bit of damage and their looks are fading.

   Wouldn’t it have made a hell of a lot more sense for men to peak much later and women earlier? That way, men would have the financial and (hopefully) emotional stability to support children by the time they are ready to father children, and women would have much healthier eggs.

   Really, what was God thinking?

 


[1] I was married by a Protestant the second time around.

[2] According to the Belief-O-Matic, 100% of my beliefs are Unitarian Universalism beliefs; 94% are Liberal Quaker; 85%, Taoism; and 77% are Mayhayana Buddhism. The religion that I am least aligned to is, Thank God, Jehovah’s Witness (10%) and—surprise, surprise—Roman Catholic (10%). I do like the new Pope, though.

Friday
Nov222013

Spoilt for Choice

   So, . . . 
   Hanako says she isn't ready to make her presentation. There's really no excuse for not being prepared: I told the students at the beginning of the semester when they would be doing their presentations (they have to do four each) and what the topics would be. I even printed out a schedule for them so that they wouldn't come up later and say, "When am I supposed to do my presentation?" Or, "What's the topic?" Doesn't stop them from doing just that, though.
   "Just give an impromptu speech, then."
   Hanako shakes her head "No".
   "C'mon, it's an easy topic: sightseeing and traveling. Outta be a piece of cake for you."
Hanako lived abroad most of her childhood. If anyone has something to say about traveling, it's her. She shakes her head again. I can't.
   "Okay, Hanako. I'll tell ye what. I'll give you a choice. You can either do the short presentation today on travel, or you can give a longer presentation next week."
   The girl brightens.
   "There's a catch, though," I say.
   "Oh?"
   "The topic will be the Pros and Cons of Japan's Joining the Trans Pacific Partnership . . . What's that, Hanako? You'd rather give your presentation today? Atta, girl."

 

Tuesday
Nov122013

Fieldmarshal Crowe

   A few months ago, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire and discovered, much to my surprise, that I had the same personality type as, among others, Maggie Thatcher and JP Morgan. If the results of the assessment test were to be believed, then the Iron Lady and business mogul and I were ENTJs (where ENTJ stands for extraversion, intuition, thinking, judgment). ENTJs are action-oriented extroverts who make decisions according to intuition and logic rather than feeling.

   I didn't give the assessment much thought after that until I came across this graphic on The Washington Post's Wonkblog. I promptly retook the test, and, confirming the previous result, threw my hands up in triumph.

   "I guess, I'm not hopeless after all."

   ENTJs, I would go on to learn, belong to the subgroup known as the "Rationalist Temperament". Rationalists, according to the Keirsey Temperament sorter, "are the problem solving temperament . . . Rationals might tackle problems in organic systems such as plants and animals, or in mechanical systems such as railroads and computers, or in social systems such as families and companies and governments. But whatever systems fire their curiosity, Rationals will analyze them to understand how they work, so they can figure out how to make them work better." If you like, you can read more about the personality type here and here

   The ENTJ variety of Rationalist, also known as the Fieldmarshal Role Variant, is rare: only 2% of the population is said to have this personality type. Isabel Briggs Myers, co-creator of a personality inventory named after her, called ENTJs "leaders of leaders". Other ENTJs include Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Hillary Clinton. Interesting company to be in, to say the least.

   According to the Washington Post graph which shows average household earning for each personality type, ENTJs earn much more than the other sixteen personality types.

   This got me thinking about a lot of things. For one, I wondered if I was living up to my earning potential, and, if not, who I might be able to screw over. Perhaps a coup d'etat is in order?

  On a more serious note, though, having a better understanding what my personality type is has gone a long way in helping me explain why I am the way I am--why, for instance, I am not comfortable in subordinate roles, why I am constantly making lists of To Dos not just for myself, but for those around me (much to the chagrin of my poor wife); why, when helping with, say, an event, I get easily irritated when things are run in a half-arsed manner and am quick take over; why I am obsessed with order and a systematic way of executing tasks; and why I'm am constantly trying to find practical solutions to problems, not only in my life, but in the workplace, neighborhood, city, nation, and world. It may also help explain my penchant for war and mafia movies, the colors khaki and olive drab, and the choice of a confirmation name, based initially not on a saint, but rather an emperor. (Sorry, God.) I am Napoleon I on the island of Elba, scheming for a way off.

   I suspect that my father also had the same personality type, or one similar. He was much more of an extrovert than myself, though. 

 

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