Among many English speakers, spoken Japanese is often said to be fairly easy to learn. This is probably because conversational Japanese in large part is a language of omission which doesn’t require one to know much about grammar or sentence structure when communicating with others orally.
Writing Japanese, on the other hand, is incomparably difficult not only for non-native speakers but for the Japanese as well.
Over the past few decades, computers and smartphones have become a major device for communication, depriving us of many opportunities we used to have to handwrite just about anything. But why is it a big deal? For some (myself included), writing by hand Japanese can be an extremely fearful experience because every time we look up a forgotten kanji on the web we are reminded of the painful fact that we are getting dumber and dumber each and every day. Not only does it greatly damage our self-esteem but the latest trends show that being able to write neatly by hand is a valued skill in itself — which is why a penmanship workbook can become a bestseller in this age of digital revolution.
This particular book, Penmanship Practice Book: Become Able to Write Beautifully by Hand in 30 Days by calligrapher Suitou Nakatsuka, promises readers that they will improve their handwriting in a month. They are advised to complete a certain amount of exercise daily, starting from the most basic hiragana.
On the web, there is also this app that helps people practice their handwriting directly with their mobile devices.
First you type to specify any letters or words you want to practice and simply trace them with your finger or a stylus pen. You can also choose between either script (on the left) or cursive (on the right) style.
We should note here, though, that the penmanship (shuji)) practiced in the above book and app is different to calligraphy (shodo), which is considered more of an artistic form of Japanese writing, so there is no cultural value attached to it. Some companies, however, still ask their prospective employees to handwrite their resumes and demand that they be mailed to the office, which creates yet another occasion to showcase one’s handwriting (and by extension, their aptitude) by writing the address on the envelope as well. The assumption here is that one’s personality is somehow reflected in their handwriting.
We know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but what about our handwriting? Does the same lesson apply here as well?
On June 24th, Ashley Madison, the world-famous online dating service for dissatisfied married people — or more bluntly, plain cheaters (wannabes included) — launched a Japanese version of the service, hoping to expand their pool of candidates looking for extramarital relationships on the web. The website already boasts over 19 million registered users, and so far Japan has proven to be a great addition to their list of target countries, with a record of 70,000 members added in just the first four days after the launch.
“Life is short. Have an affair.” So says their marketing slogan. The service itself is specifically targeted at unhappy wives, not husbands, who wish to have a secret affair in lieu of more ethically acceptable (at least traditional) options, such as seeking counseling or separation as a way to save their marriage.
Of course, the above excuse is much more commonly used in the USA and outside of Japan, where the relationship between husband and wife is valued more on the fact that they are attracted to each other as individuals, both emotionally and physically.
In Japan, however, one can easily tell just by hearing how a husband and a wife address each other that once a man and a woman get married and have children, their names automatically get replaced by parenting roles. And in most cases, the expected role of a parent is much more heavily imposed on mothers. Rarely do we hear wives calling their husbands by names when their kids are around. Instead, they would say “Papa” or “Dad” (Otousan) as if to emphasize that their marriage is just another branch of a family tree and not a product of romance. In a way, Ashley Madison seems to have found the right target — the traditionally oppressed wives and mothers who secretly hope to have an affair when divorce is definitely not an option for whatever the reason.
Here’s the app version.
Adultery in Japan, however, seems to be defined largely by whether or not the “affair” is a paid service. “Paid workers are looked down on more than those who give it for free.” I once heard this statement referring to the work of a prostitute, as opposed to someone who engages in sexual intercourse with random strangers without charging a fee. The sex industry in Japan, though, is also built on the balance of supply and demand in which the workers are treated simply as an outlet for sexual drives, which in some cases are deemed morally acceptable, compared to having an extramarital relationship, which is (often) based on emotional attachment — or, let’s call it love.
The most recent scandal in show biz today has revealed another side to adultery in Japan. Mari Yaguchi, a former member of Morning Musume, one of the biggest female idol groups in Japan’s music history, was reportedly caught in bed with another man when her husband, actor Masaya Nakamura, came home unexpectedly at the “wrong” time. The couple has already filed for divorce, yet the speculation over what really happened is still up in the air, as Yaguchi has not made any public appearance or comment since.
Cheating scandals are nothing new in Japan, but there always seems to be something taboo about married women cheating on their husbands. Yaguchi has already been branded with the label of sexually loose, which undeniably makes it more difficult for her to return to show biz even if she ever gets a chance. Women are always expected to take the passive role in almost any form of adultery, whether it be a paid service, a one-night stand or a more long-term relationship.
I can’t imagine an Ashley Madison commercial ever being run in Japan. The implication here is clear that it’s the wife who wants to have an affair, exactly as promoted and advertised by the company.
So the question is, will Ashley Madison be successful here? For men, it probably wouldn’t be as attractive as a more traditional, face-to-face, non-paid (at least there is no third person or matchmaker billing them) relationship. And for women, it would probably be the opposite — they would feel more guilty about the idea of paying (for membership credits on the service).
Let’s just hope that it won’t make headline news, at any rate; Japan has so much more to take care of first.
Raising kids is indeed one of the toughest jobs out there. While parenting entails balancing when to treat and when to reprimand your child (of which I’m sure the latter is much harder), Media Active is now offering a helping hand to parents who just can’t get their kids to behave.
The free smartphone app is called Oni kara denwa (literally, “the call from a demon” — though oni can also be translated as “troll” or “ogre”) and the name alone would surely scare your child enough! The idea is that you get the call and then pass the phone to them, making them listen and stop whining.
Simply choose one from the six most typical child discipline situations — not going to bed, not taking medicine, not tidying up etc — and you’ll then get a call from a variety of scary or authoritarian figures, the most popular of which will surely be the “red demon” (Akaoni).
The only “work” required on your side is to pretend that the call is real by responding. Here’s how the conversation might go.
“Hello? Yes. Oh, it’s the Akaoni. Yes, my child is being very naughty again. Here, you can speak to him.” Cue passing the phone to terrified child!
Actually, we think the visual effect of the Akaoni’s face appearing on the screen is probably more than sufficient to produce total obedience.
There are some other, more benign characters too, such as a doctor and even Santa Claus, though Akaoni will surely be the most popular with parents at a loss with rebellious brats.
The idea of using an ogre, according to the CEO, originated from the character of Namahage, where a man dressed up as an ogre walks into people’s houses on New Year’s Eve to see if there’s any naughty kid around, a traditional ritual in some parts of the Akita prefecture.
While the nature of this practice somewhat reminds me of Father Christmas checking his list every year to see who should get a present (or even European figures like Krampus), Namahage does not reward good kids: their job is simply to punish naughty kids by giving them what could be the most traumatic experience of their childhood. Here’s what namahage looks like in “real life”.
In addition to the red ogre, other scary figures are also on call. You can see the latest versions here.
While some people would definitely argue against the use of non-human beings or even the latest technology in parenting, sometimes one’s goodness comes from the fear of greater forces — after all, that’s how the world works, right?
The Japanese have one of these effortless and inimitable attitudes towards religion.
It is both part of their lives, sort of, in the form of Shinto customs, visiting shrines, animistic “power spots”, good luck charms on mobile phones and local matsuri festivals. But these are essentially communal customs or acts that border more on superstition than “belief”.
Of course there are genuine believers too, especially in Buddhism — and even people who follow cults that carry out sarin gas attacks.
But for the most part religion is there to be charmingly indulged in, rather than frightened of, like in so much of the Judaeo-Christian world.
Could you, say, ever imagine an American comic book writer coming up with Saint Young Men and getting away with it? For the uninitiated, it’s the story of the amusing adventures of the Buddha and Jesus in modern day Tokyo, irreverent but also respectful in a charming way. The very fact that the religious figures have been elevated to such entertaining characters is an act of esteem.
Such a comic (and now feature length anime) would be enough to get you killed in certain parts of the west.
Here’s another great example of what I mean.
The Buddha Hair Salon Flower Pot is a series of Buddha heads in a variety of poses and in which you can grow a plant.
There are three types of facial expressions (laughing, angry, meditating) and two colors (red or white), and after a little bit of watering, the result is visually striking “hair” that sprouts up straight.
Can you imagine selling a plant pot of Jesus or even a Hindu god — and not drawing the ire of an institution or the fire and brimstone of fanatics?
In Japan, whether you’re religious or not, you’re allowed to cultivate the Buddha’s locks in order to make your home greener.
Lanterns in Japan are called chochin and are featured on the front of most izakaya restaurants, as well as shrines. There is a famously huge one, for example, at Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”) in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Typically they are red and decorated with the name of the restaurant/temple, and sometimes the type of food being served.
You can also see white or other colored lanterns at shrines and temples, often decorated with the name of the local business that sponsored them.
Meanwhile, a great scheme to increase the consumption of Japan-grown ingredients has seen green lanterns (midori chochin) hanging from the entrance to some izakaya, with stars to indicate how much of their produce comes from local suppliers and farmers.
Well, here’s another smart way to use Japanese lanterns by GOES Inc, this time with traffic signals.
With the Japanese Lantern Signal, now pedestrians can cross the road with a bit of Edo chic.
The designers say that if you mistake the light for a regular izakaya chochin, then you’re already too drunk and it’s time to go home!
On another note, we’ve always loved how traffic signals in Japan feature men with hats. Even the symbol for a pedestrian is a salaryman!
As we see more and more young celebrities using informal speech (or tameguchi) on TV, some might question, “Is it acceptable not to use honorific language at all in our everyday life?”
Perhaps the most notable one is Rola, a fashion model who’s actually famous for her use of tameguchi.
As far as I remember, though, the person who started this “trend” in the show biz is Hikaru Utada who made her debut in Japan at the age of fifteen. Although there is no doubt that she got the fame she deserved thanks to her musical talent, her tameguchi and fluent English was part of what caught our attention about her in the first place.
We do have to keep in mind, though, that many of these celebrities grew up in mixed cultures, and usually Japanese is not their first language.
Keigo or honorific language, in its most simple term, is defined as a way to express one’s respect for the older, the elderly and people in higher positions. Age still plays a crucial role in Japanese society, and the very question “How old are you?” is often used as a casual ice-breaker. While most people think that it’s rude to ask a woman’s age, there are a number of stories — or rather myths associated with women’s ages in Japan. Unfortunately, most of them are simple statements on just how “outdated” women become at certain ages in their life — in the eyes of men.
The question “How old are you?” is asked not only for the purpose of getting to know someone, but their answer becomes a determiner in the use of language. For example, if your conversation partner turns out to be a year younger than you, you will automatically be granted a privilege of using ANY kind of language, including the most condescending tameguchi used among people of the same age.
Over the years, tameguchi has evolved into many different types of speech which shows one’s relationship to others in terms of age difference. Sometimes people use a mixture of keigo and tameguchi. One advantage of allowing people to use this semi-formal — and sometimes even more disrespectful — speech is that it would encourage them to express their feelings more freely, especially when they want to disagree or object to something proposed or imposed by those in higher positions. It would also encourage them to state “yes” or “no” more clearly in business scenes.
And most importantly, it would break the wall of age difference between those who would otherwise forever remain a senior and a junior in their relationship.
What do you think about keigo?
For the great majority of Japanese people, same-sex marriage is still a fantasy that – well, should only happen in a fantasy world. On March 1st, Tokyo Disneyland held its first same-sex wedding, which ironically seems to have caught more attention from outside the country than in.
Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko (whose last name has not been revealed) both dressed up as brides in white wedding gowns, swore eternal love in front of the most famous couple on earth, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Higashi is a former Takarazuka (all-female acting group) star, and once again she did not fail to entertain the crowd.
So far people have expressed mixed feelings about the news. Some are skeptical and say that the wedding was just for show; others are more optimistic and hopeful.
Aside from marriage, Japan still falls behind in promoting LGBT rights. Recently we see an increasing number of “gay” celebrities on TV, but in most cases, they are the target of jokes. The media continues to portray them as a species from outer space, resisting to give them a chance to speak and act as role models. The majority of people cannot even take the first step or come out, even to their closest family members or friends.
Disneyland is and perhaps forever will remain our ultimate haven, a dream land. On this particular occasion, we could say that Disney has proven itself right.
Japanese weddings. All the ladies in their finest, particularly the unmarried ones, desperate to prove that they haven’t been left on the shelf. All the guys in their pricy suits that will be shed as soon as the nomihoudai all-you-can-drink hits home.
From the special envelope in which you are supposed to hand over the “gift” (i.e. fee) to the series of bizarre photo opportunities of the couple (the grand entrance, the “kiss” and a million costume changes), Japanese wedding parties can seem like a sequence of curious rituals more eccentric than romantic.
One of these is the games. While bingo may be a pursuit mostly enjoyed by pensioners in my native land, in Japan young ‘uns at weddings compete to win expensive prizes provided by the bride and groom.
There are also sometimes quizzes where everyone has to answer questions about the happy couple.
And as technology evolve, so do weddings.
We recently stumbled upon this, the rather suitably named Party Quiz, which allows the guests to play multiple choice tests with questions set by the organizers.
All participants answer the group quiz on their phones, eliminating the need for time-consuming distribution (and collection) of paper and pens.
Plus you can add photos and other customized elements to the question slides, and the results are of course communicated to everyone’s handsets instantly, including ranking (so you can see who scored the lowest, natch).
It works with smartphones, tablets or regular Japanese mobiles (for those still in the “Stone Age”). All you then need is a screen and projector to display the questions for everyone.
The system is also rather nicely priced — just ¥500 (about $5) multipled by the number of participants.
While the tech might not exactly be cutting-edge, we like how this works smoothly and practically with local customs to create a better experience for participants.
Shinto, the native Japanese (quasi-?)religion, has never been averse to merchantile environs. Major corporations have their own shrines (jinja) and department stores may often have one on their roofs. No Jesus cleansing the traders out of the temple in this religion, that’s for sure.
Until Valentine’s Day, Tokyu Hands Hakata (Fukuoka) is also showing no qualms about bringing a jinja into the “den of thieves”.
In the store visitors will find a torii gate like the kind you pass through at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. The heart-themed design of the fake shrine is a copy of the actual Koinoki Jinja, the shrine for lovers located elsewhere in Fukuoka prefecture.
At the “shrine” you can buy a love fortune (omikuji) for ¥100, write a message and then post it on the heart-shaped board. At the end of the promotion, all the “offerings” will be collected and taken to the real Koinoki Jinja.
The same area of the store has also been holding chocolate-making workshops for those girls who want to give something unique on February 14th (in Japan, the women give the men something on Valentine’s Day, and then the men return the favor on March 14th).
Other than Koinoki Jinja, shrines famed as places to acquire fortune in romance include Kuzuryu Shrine, near Mt. Fuji, and Kasuga Taisha in Nara. Tokyoites can console their lonely hearts by heading to Imado Jinja in Asakusa or Tokyo Daijingu in Iidabashi.