Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Life in Japan #5: Japanese Writing 101

I don’t know if you knew this, but in addition to speaking a different language, the Japanese writing system is also, like, totally different than ours. Dang.

Luckily for me, English abounds here, from the signs on the bathroom doors, to the “PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE” warning on the train, to the high school kid wearing the “Make it a night I want forget” shirt. There are restaurant menus, tourist pamphlets, and department store sale announcements in English; though more useful things like ATM instructions are conspicuously absent here in Kofu. At the very least, however, Japanese place names are usually spelled out in the Roman alphabet (romaji); making it a simple matter for a lost gaijin to at the very least get from Shinjuku to Jinbocho (if he doesn’t horribly butcher the pronunciation first).

That’s where the easy part ends. The most common (and most confusing) writing system in Japan is the kanji, characters taken from China during ancient Japan’s long history of borrowing from the mainland. Each of these characters represents a different word, and in different contexts will be pronounced totally differently. The meaning of the kanji remains the same in both Chinese and Japanese,* but the pronunciation was changed sometime around the sixth century to fit the existing Japanese word. This means that a person who can read Chinese should be able to grasp the meaning of a Japanese sentence without having any idea how to speak it. Of course, this doesn’t help me any.

Kanji are freakin’ difficult to learn and require a more skillful hand than mine to write, but the studious gaijin should be able to master the Japanese alphabet (the kana) with some hard work and a good study guide. The kana actually contains two alphabets, each with forty-six syllables (A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Na, Ha, Ma, Ya, and so on) plus some other symbols that change the sound of each syllable. The more graceful hiragana is used for Japanese words like sushi, gaijin, and chikan, and comes in handy when reading the station names on the train platform. More recently, hiragana has been my best friend when ordering at small noodle houses with traditional Japanese menus lacking pictures. Even if I can’t read the kanji names for the flavors, I can at least be sure whether I’m ordering udon (a delicious thick white noodle) or inari (rice rolled in tofu and lightly fried).

The Japanese use their second alphabet—the blocky, bold-faced katakana—for the thousands of loan words they’ve borrowed from other languages (mostly English). This is the one that all the gaijin learn because the practical payoff is far quicker than for kanji or hiragana since the word’s meaning is usually apparent after you’ve taken the time to sound it out. Words like basu (bus), erebeta (elevator), sarariman (salaryman), bi—ru (beer), and sarada (salad) are everywhere, making it a cinch to order at Starbucks and read the foreign movie listings (as when I saw Hari— Pota [indecipherable kanji] Purinsu in English with Japanese subtitles telling what was surely a truncated version of the story in a silver gothic font). Katakana makes finding your way around a lot easier—unless of course you’re like me and can’t figure out the English word from the garbled mass of syllables.

Fun Quiz: Can you translate the Romanized katakana into regular English? (To make it harder I’ve left out the spaces, just like the Japanese do.)

1. ro—son
2. nekkuresu
3. rojiyazuianemu
4. sanfuranshishuko
5. buru—manguru—pu
6. zakurashurondonkaringu
7. nuterahe—zarunattu & chocoretosupureddo

*There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. According to Mr. Chen, the Chinese character for “husband” is read as “owner” in Japanese. Likewise, for their word “husband,” the Japanese borrowed the character for “strong man.” (This pretty much sums up the traditional Japanese view on relationships, which is a subject for another day.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kyoto > BBQ >Tokyo

Lots of maps. Train schedules, tour books, and hand-scribbled recommendations. Slight panic attack. Rainy Yamanashi towns turning into rising mist over lush Nagano hills. Endless sprawling plain of southern Gifu. Cubist station art. Japanese pizza. Temple moat aquatic life. Endless walking. Scattered French. Friendly Japanese hostel owner with a baby. Sandals on the tatami mat—oops. Team kanji and kana decryption. Slight earthquake. Temple hopping: Oldest guns in Japan! Zen rock garden! Byobu galore! Quiet walkways. Bamboo forest. Water pails for monks in training. Historic Japan, here, alive and with that wondrous mystery the past always has for the compulsively nostalgic. Golden temple, crowded but with green tea-flavored shaved ice. Ryoanji: overrated. Repetition. Long bus rides. Touristy Arashiyama and undisturbed Tenryuji. Katsura River and the smell of freshwater spray that reminds me of home. Long conversation with an Iraq vet turned English teacher disillusioned with America and the war, good to be out. Europeans, travel stories, and free toast. More temple-hopping, nice views and massive crowds. Aquaducts. Man fishing in reservoir—how do you say "Any luck?" in Japanese? More walking, endless walking. Sketchy hostel with reluctant English-speaker and overcrowded rooms. Panda-bear sorbet. Children splashing in the river. Misheard directions. Meiji steam-engines. Endless waiting and poorly-timed connections. Mountain town with dusty wares for sale. Bottle rockets fired into the neon night. New-smelling suburban homes drooled over by curious apartment-dwellers. River-fish served on sticks with crab legs and rich sauce with sushi for dessert. That rare confession that they didn't want to go back to work either. More train rides. Ueno street musicians. Jomon pottery. Okinawan toiletries. Ukiyoe of towns and snow and hunched-over workers with the bowed heads and wide-brimmed hats. Ume wrapped in gooey candy served on a stick. Bag of chocolate: 1000 yen. Katakana Harry Potter. 2-D love. More creamy breakfast pastries. Mounting excitement. Roger's the musician, Mimi's the whore. No day but today. Jinbocho book town stacked with browned art and cloth-bound Japanese books, best head to Ginza for Western fare. Best just to wander and poke through open bins. Best just to talk. Best just to rest.

Today I signed the contract that will keep me in Japan for one more year.

Where we're going we don't need roads.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Atomic Age

Today, August 6th, marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of the American atomic attack on Hiroshima, which lead to the Japanese surrender nine days later and ushered in the nuclear age. The blast instantly killed a staggering 70,000 people, injured that same number, lead to countless deaths by leukemia and other cancers, and destroyed 69% of the city's buildings. Heavy shit.

I crawled out of bed at 8 AM to watch the yearly Hiroshima memorial service on the national broadcasting network, which culminated in the ringing of a bell and a minute of silence at 8:15. Someone who may have been Prime Minister Aso made a speech that, strikingly, ended with a hearty English shout-out for the world to remember the bombing, hasten nuclear disarmament, and Obamafy the nation. I am not making this last part up. As well-intentioned as this evocation of our president may have been, I found the obfuscated verb form shameless and slightly demeaning, and went back to sleep.

Take time out to remember the day. A hell of a lot more people died in this attack than on September 11th.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Thought

I am blessed with ninety minute lunch-breaks on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons, and though I made the hike to Maizuru Castle park as I usually do, today I chose a spot under a grove of trees on the upper level. The shade was cool, and I ate my tuna and rice looking out at the northern mountains that rise up from the city without a single smear of human habitation. I was reading an old copy of Steinbeck's The Red Pony; and the mid-afternoon heat, natural isolation, and graceful prose style reminded me of a time when I was paid to sit in the shade with a camping chair and a novel. (That is, until I let people's judgments get to me.) I wondered what lay beyond the mountains, and took off my floppy dress shoes as a cool breeze blew through the crown of the castle. In that moment, all the official meeting etiquette, corporate hierarchy, phony friendliness, and renewal percentages of my routine melted away, and I was a Lake Host again.