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.
“Why do you think you ended up staying so long in Japan?” Azami asks.
I have my pet theories; the top contender being this: to discover, à la Breakfast of Champions, how much a man can take before he ends up hanging himself.
“I think the reason you came to Japan,” she says, “was to meet me. Don’t you think so, too?”
Who knows? Maybe she is right. Then again, maybe she is wrong. Even if she were right, what would my coming to Japan have meant to all the other women I met along the way? Did I come to Japan to meet them, as well?
I give Azami a noncommittal shrug.
“You came here to meet me,” she continues with such confidence it’s hard to disagree. “Waited ten years, teaching all that time, so that you could learn what you really wanted and find the person you really needed.”
Well, at least she is convinced and that has to count for something, I suppose.
I’ve long had the gut feeling that existence is basically meaningless. No rhyme or reason to it all. But, humans being human can’t help trying to assign meaning and order to their otherwise chaotic, random lives and interpret life’s happenings with some kind of bias, be it religious, mythical, or philosophical. There is nothing wrong with that if it brings you closer to your “bliss”. A decade, though, is an awfully long time to look for someone, even someone like Azami.
“Ten years,” I say with an exaggerated grimace. “Why’d you make me wait so goddamn long?”
“Yeah, you. If we were meant to be together, why then didn’t you come around sooner, say, when you were still a freshman in high school? I wasn’t getting any younger, you know.”
There really isn't a better time to visit Japan than the spring. During the first half of the year, a series of flowers bloom in a fashion as orderly as the Japanese themselves: narcissus and camellia in January; ume (plum) blossoms in February; peach blossoms and magnolias in March; sakura (cherry) blossoms in late March or early April, depending on the weather; wisteria, azaleas, and peonies around Golden Week (late April to early May); hydrangea from late May; irises in June, and so on.
Before coming to Japan I couldn't have identified a peony had my life depended upon it, but two decades on I'm practically a botanist. Much of my knowledge of the flora Japanica has come to me passively, through dating women who either taught, or were learning, ikebana (flower arrangement). The rest has been filled in by students, many of whom are invariably trotting off to, say, Mount Kuju to view the wild azaleas in June, foraging their local woods for horsetails and bamboo shoots in early spring, or joining tours to see a famous, centuries old sakura tree. (Seriously.)
I must be turning Japanese, because I too willingly (and gleefully) partake in these flower-viewing festivities. A few years ago I even traveled to the Daikôzen temple (大興善寺) in Kiyama, Saga prefecture just to see the azaleas (ツツジ, tsutsuji) there.
I need a life.
There’s 30 minutes left of class when nature calls. I consider holding it, but I know that if I do I’ll end up spending the last five minutes of the lesson squirming rather teaching. And besides the restrooms are only a few steps away. I could be there and back in less than 30 seconds.
So, I excuse myself . . .
Outside the restroom is a yellow slippery when wet sign and a cleaning lady’s cart. I pop in anyways only to find a youngish cleaning woman scrubbing down a urinal.
If it were an old lady, I probably wouldn’t have been so shy, but . . . Well, you know.
So, I backpedal out the restroom and run down a flight of stairs to the fourth floor where I find another slippery when wet sign and another cleaning lady going about her business.
Back out and down another flight of stairs and—dammit—another cleaning lady.
Second floor it's the same—This is getting fucking ridiculous—I jump in an elevator and go up to the sixth floor and, dammit, same deal. So, I hump up a flight of stairs to the seventh floor where—Praise the Lord!—there’s finally no cleaning lady and not a minute too soon.
The building at this uni is brand spanking new and spotless. After this morning’s game of cat and mouse, it’s no wonder why.
Keep up the good work, ladies, but please give me a heads up next time.
When I woke this morning, my bedroom was bathed in warm sunlight. It was not yet six in the morning and the sun was already peeking over the neighboring buildings and coming in through the windows.
“What a waste,” I thought as I crawled out of my futon.
Japan is not what I would call a morning country. Coffee shops and sports clubs don’t open until 7 or 8am at the earliest. Many of the better bakeries are still closed at 9:30am, and few restaurants bother to serve the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Contrast that with the US where you can work out at the gym from five in the morning and then promptly nullify the benefits of all that iron-pumping by gorging yourself on blueberry pancakes and bacon by six.
And yet, as the nation’s salarymen cover their heads with their pillows and try to sleep off their hangovers, the sun has been shining for two, three, and as many as four hours. This morning in Kyushu, for instance, the sun rose at 5:10am. In Tokyo, daybreak was at 4:27am. And, in Sapporo, dawn cracked at a remarkable 3:59am (around the summer solstice, sunrise comes as early as 3:30am): which begs the question: why doesn’t Japan have two time zones?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First thing’s first: Japan needs to re-adopt daylight-saving time (DST).
Re-adopt, you ask?
During the American occupation, Japan did observe DST for a spell, but abandoned it in 1951 when MacArthur left. For the average Japanese in those post-war years the extra hour of daylight in the evening equated to little more than an extra hour of labor.
But that was then and this is now.
With all fifty-four of the nation’s nuclear power plants idled indefinitely, Japan faces the daunting task of not only producing enough electricity, but also bringing consumption down during the summer months—precisely at the time when energy demand usually peaks. Failure to do so may lead to a repeat of the disruptive blackouts that plagued Japan last summer when the nation still had eleven nuclear reactors online. Daylight-saving time, specifically “double summer time,” may provide the answer.
While the energy-saving benefits of DST remain a contentious issue in the West, an interesting study conducted at the Toyohashi University of Technology by Wee-Kean Fong (Energy Savings Potential of the Summer Time Concept in Different Regions of Japan From the Perspective of Household Lighting; 2007) has shown that the implementation of a “split summer time”—whereby the southwestern half of the country moves its clocks an hour forward in April and the northeastern half of Japan, two—that is, double summer time—could provide considerable savings in energy consumption.
Were double summertime adopted, the Sapparo sun would rise at 5:59am and set at 9:05pm, providing plenty of sunlight when it is most needed. The benefits of DST, however, wouldn’t end there. According to the October 28, 2010 issue of The Economist, “adopting DST would mean a new dawn for the Japanese economy . . . boost[ing] domestic consumption, as people leave work for bars, restaurants, shopping and golf. Summer time is credited with reducing traffic accidents and crime; boosting energy efficiency as people use less lighting and heating; and even improving health as people are radiated with vitamin D.” The economic benefit, the article continues, could add as much as ¥1.2 trillion (USD $15 billion) to Japan’s GDP and generate 100,000 jobs.
Coming from America’s northwest where the sun sets as late as nine in the evening during the summer, I don’t need to be sold on the benefits of daylight-saving time. Summers, thanks to a simple biannual adjustment of the clock, have always been a time for late evening barbecues with family, twilight concerts in the parks, and relaxed meals at outdoor cafes with friends. The challenge, however, lies in convincing the average Japanese that, in addition to the conservation benefits of extra sunlight in the evening, DST could mean a better quality of life, not just more work.
Until then, all that beautiful sunlight will continue to go to be squandered. Mottai nai!
This was originally published in Metropolis, but the bastards removed my byline, so I have reclaimed it.
Ask a group of Japanese under the age of, say, thirty-five if they'd had lessons—what the Japanese call narai goto or o-keiko—when they were young, and you'll probably find most, if not all, did. Having been in the Eikaiwa (English conversation) trade for many years and having personally taught many preschool and elementary school aged children, I know from experience that Japanese children maintain schedules that would have American kids on their knees, crying, "Uncle!"
The whole business of training, cultivating, and educating children would be interesting to research some day. In the meantime, here are the results of a half-arsed survey I did the other day.
Of the twenty university sophomores (18♀/2♂) that I surveyed, 17 had had lessons of some kind before starting elementary school. By the time they had enrolled in elementary school, all of them were taking some kind of lesson. The most popular lessons were piano (15), swimming (13), calligraphy (11), and English and cram school, i.e. juku (10). Asked if they would also send their own children to these kinds of lessons, 19 said yes. The type and number of lessons they would like their children to take, however, changed.
I've long been interested in knowing not only what people studied and when, but also whether they feel they had benefitted from the lessons and whether they would do the same for their own children. Most, it appears, feel they did and would make their future children do likewise.
As a father myself the time will come soon enough when I will be forced to decide if I will make my own son take these kinds of lessons and what I will have him study. I am already leaning towards lessons in a third language, guitar, calligraphy, soccer, abacus, and swimming. The poor kid.
I originally wrote this blog post back in 2011 when my elder son was only a year old. Now that he is almost nine, I can say that the third language probably won’t happen until high school—getting the boys to be bilingual is hard work enough—musical lessons won’t happen unless they decide to pick something up themselves. Calligraphy? What was I thinking? That said, the older boy has nice handwriting thanks to his mother’s constant berating. The final three narai goto have worked out alright. The boys love soccer and have played on “teams” for several years now. Abacus, or soroban, can’t be more highly recommended. As for swimming, with their tight schedules it’s hard to put them in regular lessons, so we drop them off at intensive courses every long holiday. In addition to those, the boys have been doing karate two to four times a week. They also have English lessons with Daddy a few times a week.
As I watch my boys grow, one of the things I often hear them say is “Daddy, I can now do this or that!” It doesn’t matter if it’s their studies or sports, they are constantly developing, maturing, getting better, learning, playing, mastering new things.
As I age, I find the opposite is true. There are things I can no longer do or, worse, things I think I am no longer capable of doing. Negativity is part of aging and to fight it I need to be more positive. Not in a silly Pollyannic way, but in a way that is rooted in reality. The possibilities may not be unlimited, but they are still there if you have an open mind and are willing to push yourself to try new things. Visiting this shrine in Kyōto reminded me of that.
Fifty, shmifty. I can do it.
Went running around Fukuoka Castle to check on the cherry blossoms—not yet—and noticed that parts of the castle have been given a fresh coat of paint recently. Seems the city is finally putting some money into park maintenance. The arched bridge just below this yagura (turret) is also being rebuilt as is the iris garden.
I don’t think the city would have bothered if inbound tourism hadn’t exploded as it has these past few years.
Ask a simple question—i.e. “If you are a foreigner currently or formerly married to a Japanese citizen, did your spouse keep his/her Japanese family name after getting married to you?”)—and you will surely get an angry reply like this:
"I was married to a Japanese man, and yes - he kept his name. You seem to be assuming that the only people who marry foriengers are Japanese WOMEN. I happen to be a foreign woman who married a Japanese man. I kept my name because it's my name - why would I change it? Women don't "belong" to their husband; why should they change their name?"
Ugh. I wasn't assume anything. And why do you assume that as a man I was assuming something? Sheesh.
Statistically, Japanese men are far more likely to marry foreign women than Japanese women. This is something I have known for years. They tend, however, to marry other Asian women (Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai, etc.). Japanese women, on the other hand, marry in decreasing order Koreans, Americans, Chinese, British nationals, and so on.
What I am trying to look into—again, no assumptions; that’s why I’m asking—is what motivates people (particularly Japanese women) to either keep their Japanese maiden name or take their husband's upon marriage to a foreigner. Also, what motivates foreign men/women to adopt their Japanese spouse’s family name?
Ultimately, what I want to look at is what family name Western parents of half-Japanese children (i.e. children who are likely to look "half") are choosing for their kids and what motivates it. I also want to know what challenges, if any, they may have had if they had chosen the Western family name.
One of my friends is half Japanese/half American, but looks for the most part like a Japanese man. Since his wife is Japanese, their children look, as you would suspect, Japanese. But, they all have his American family name written in katakana on their name tags at school. Whenever they change schools/grades and are introduced to new classmates, everyone is surprised by how good their Japanese is. Seeing the American name, the other kids brains assume the kids are 100% American rather than 75% Japanese.
As for my own children, they look very . . . hard to say. They don't look Japanese at all, but they speak Hakata-ben and have my wife's family name. Wherever we go, people look at the boys and start speaking in broken English to them.
Here are some stats on "international marriage": http://www.lifeaaa.jp/27.html
If you are a foreign resident in Japan who is married to a Japanese national, please have a look at this short survey at Survey Monkey.
I wrote the following in 2012, a lifetime ago, when I was employed at a women’s college and enjoyed a generous “research budget” that allowed me to travel about once every two or three months. Early on, I spent a lot of time in Tokyo, so much so people there assumed I lived there.
Stumbling across a restaurant which served Uighur cuisine of all things, it occurred to me that Tōkyō might have just about everything a person could ever want. So, I googled "Lebanese restaurant Tokyo" and, lo and behold, discovered that there were two: Sindbad in Nishi Shinjuku and My Lebanon in Ebisu Nishi. (My Lebanon has since closed and Sindbad which had moved to Akasaka after some 17 years in Shinjuku and closed its doors around 2017, I think.)
As I was closer to Sindbad, I made my way to Shinjuku, guided mercifully by GoogleMap. The food was alright, but best of all was the Almaza beer which they served nice and cold and the arak.
Ice cold beer might be all the rage this summer in Japan—I've even got two new shops (Kirin's Frozen Garden and Asahi Extra Cold) just down the street from my apartment—but the Lebanese have been serving their Almaza that way for years. Sometimes the bottles will even come with chucks of ice still frozen to the outside of them. When the wind stops blowing in off of the Mediterranean and the sun burns down, nothing quite fights off the heat like an Almaza.
Drinking Lebanese beer and arak, I started itching to smoke a narghile. Although I have my own pipe at home, it's a hassle to assemble and clean it. (I also don't like to smoke in front of my son who has taken to imitating whatever Daddy does.)
So, I did another GoogleMap search of mizu tabako (水たばこ) and shisha (シーシャ) and found a promising shop in Shimo Kitazawa. When I told my friend later that day that I had spent the afternoon in that neighborhood of Setagaya Ward, she was impressed that I had come to know Tōkyō so well.
I didn't and don't. It was all GoogleMap.
There weren't any customers when I arrived at the “cafe”. But then, I hadn't been expecting the place to be packed.
I asked if it was okay to sit outside and was shown a icebox—yes, and icebox—to sit on. Not the most comfortable of seating arrangments, but since I had been walking for almost six hours that day it was nice to finally take a load off.
I ordered two-apples tobacco, possibly the most commonly smoked flavor in the Middle East, and a beer.
The cafe is located in one of the back streets of Shimo Kitazawa, a neighborhood which reminded me of my own neighborhood of Daimyō: lots of small shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes along narrow, meandering roads. It's an area I'd definitely like to return to and explore when I have more time.
Before long, my narghile came. The manager of the shop sat down beside me and had a smoke himself.
“Is it always this quiet,” I asked.
“Depends,” he replied.
He asked me where I was from. “The States,” I said, “but I've been living in Hakata for twenty years.”
One of the funny things about Fukuoka is that many people outside of, say, the western half of Japan don't quite know where it is. I suppose that's because there are a number of other prefectures and cities with similar names—Fukushima, Fukui, Fukuyama, to name a few. But tell someone you're from Hakata, the old name of the city, and they'll know right away. So much of what makes Fukuoka famous—the food, the dialect, the festivals, the souvenirs—have Hakata before them: Hakata motsunabe (a spicy dish of stewed pork or beef offal), Hakata-ben (the local dialect), Hakata Gion Yamakasa (our summer festival held in July) and Hakata Karashi Mentai (spicy cod roe, originally from Korea), and so on.
The other thing Hakata is famous for is the Hakata Bijin, or Hakata beauty. Women from Hakata (Fukuoka, and by extension Kyūshū) have a reputation for being good-looking. Having traveled all over this country, I can say from experience that the reputation is earned. The women are better-looking here than in any other parts of Japan. (I still haven't been to Tôhoku or Hokkaidô, though.)
The manager told me that his own girlfriend was from Fukuoka and he thought she was pretty darn cute the first time they met.
It's the mixing of blood, I explained. Fukuoka has long been a place where people from different parts of Asia, Kyūshū and other parts of Japan converged. All that comingling of DNA has been very good for the looks of the women. It might also be one reason why so many tarento (TV personalities and performers) hail from Fukuoka.
And speaking of beauties, two young women dropped into the shop as we were chatting. Not long after they arrived, the little cafe filled up rather quickly. Two Saudis, a father and a son, eventually took the seat besides me and we chatted for an hour. The father was a professor of engineering in Riyad, his son was studying at a university in Tōkyō. Both were very nice.
After they left, the two young women came out and sat besides me and struck up a conversation. The better looking of the two (seated on the right) came from Hokkaidō originally. If she is any indication of how the women look on that northern island, I can understand how the men are able to endure the cold winters.
After about two and a half hours, it was time for me to go meet a friend. I bid my farewell to the women and to the manager, promising to visit again when I was next in Tōkyō.
Of all the places I visited during my three-day stay 1 Bangai Cafe & Shisha was the friendliest and the easiest place to meet new people. I'll be back.
And back I did go. Whenever I visit Tōkyō, I spend at least one afternoon at 1 Bangai Cafe, smoking outside and watching the people go by. It’s my second
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 cumbersome for learners and native speakers alike.
BUT! The Japanese language is so much more muzukashii. Our list of irregular verbs and odd spelling rules can NOT even begin to burden a student the way the Japanese writing system hinders foreigners.
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, Katakana, Kanji, Rômaji, and even Arabic numerals. While hiragana, katana, and rômaji are straight-forward enough and can be memorized in less than a week, what really makes Japanese so hellish 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 it is pronounced wǒ. In Japanese, however, it can be pronounced a, aré, ga, wa, waré, and waro. The character for “food/eat” 食 is read shí in Chinese, but can be read uka, uke, ke, shi, jiki, shoku, ku, kui, su, ta, ha and so on, depending on context. And while the kanji for “go”, 行 can be read in a number of similar ways in Chinese—xíng, háng, hang, héng—in Japanese it can be read in all kinds of different ways: kô, gyô, okona, yu, yuki, yuku, i, an, and, who knows, possibly more.
Kids in Japan must master 1,006 of the 2,136 different characters, the so-called jôyô kanji, by the end of elementary school and the remainder in junior high school.
Now 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 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 come across this copula 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, written Japanese takes concentrated effort to comprehend and sometimes up to three perusals 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:
Rao-san-wa nani-o motteimasuka。
What is Rao-san holding?
Rao-san-wa supana-o motteimasu
Rao-san is holding a spanner.
In all of my twenty-plus 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.
But, the biggest shortcoming of the textbook was its desire to have learners of Japanese speak the language politely.
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 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.
Hakata-ben: Ame-nara, ikanmê to omôtoruccha batten, kon yôsu nara, furanmê ya.
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, 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. 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.” Or better yet, tell them “Shekarashika!”
 常用漢字, jôyô kanji, are the Chinese characters designated by the Ministry of Education for use in everyday life.
 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.)
 Unless it’s a period piece and the actors are using Edo Period Japanese.
 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.
 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？”
 I have intentionally translated this in the manner that Japanese speak—namely “I was thinking about not doing” rather than the more natural “I wasn’t thinking about doing”—to make the original sentences easier to understand.
 Incidentally, while in Tôkyô I chatted up a girl from Gifu who told me that they also used the same ~nmê verb ending. Her friend from Hokkaidô had never heard it before.
My wife made an interesting observation after spending the day with an old friend: "Ideas about the proper way to raise children are like a religion. It's like I belong to this sect. My friend belongs to another sect. And just like you shouldn't say 'My God is the One True God and yours is a blasphemy.' it's hard to tell someone that their way of raising a child may be wrong."
She was referring in particular to the Boob Tube and how some families have the TV on all day long like BGM in their homes. "How can you talk to your children or read to them if you've always got the TV on?"
As with religion—you won't really know if you were right or completely wrong until you die (even then you still may not have an answer)—when it comes to kids, you won't know if your policies worked until the kids grow up and go out into the world.
The other day, our sons (“Cain and Abel”) were at their grandparents. (Heaven on earth!) I plopped down on the sofa and looked at the black screen of my TV. I thought about turning it on to watch the news, but the effort to get off my arse and do so was too much. Inertia has a way of keeping you verring out of habit. It occurred to me that for many people the effort required to turn off the TV and open a book, instead, is often too much for many people, too.
It's February again which makes me wonder if there are any songs dedicated to the coldest month of the year. I can't think of any off the top of my head.
This time last year an honest to god blizzard hit Fukuoka which was a lot of fun. I cancelled my class at the uni and took my sons out to Dazaifu which tends to get two to four times as much snow as we do in the city. Keep it in mind, the next time the area is hit with a snow storm.
Anyways, February, like the other months is known by a number of names in Japanese. Nigatsu (二月, "Second Month") is the most common. Kisaragi, also pronounced Jōgetsu (如月, ") is the old name for the month according to the lunar calendar, or inreki (陰暦, literally "cloudy/shadow + calendar"). The second month was also called 如月 in China, but apparently there is no connection to the kisaragi of Japan.
There are some theories for the origin of the name. One is that in the old lunar calendar, kisaragiwas still cold--hey, it's still cold today--and people were encouraged to wear extra layers during the month. Kisaragi can also be written 衣更着, which means to put on (着) even more (更に) clothing (衣).
Another theory is that plants and trees (草木, kusagi) put forth new buds (芽が張り出す, mi-o haridasu) during the month, so the month may have been known as kusakihariduki, which when abreviated became kisaragi.
Reigetsu (麗月, "beautiful month") is another name for the second month because everything sparkles beautifully.
Umemizuki (梅見月, "plum blossom viewing month")
Hatsuhanatsuki (初花月, "first flower month")
Yukigeduki (雪消月, "snow disappears month")
Tangetsu (短月, "short month") due to the number of days in the month
I have been trying to put a piece together on extracurricular activities in Japan with comparison to the situation in the States. There are loads of stats on naraigoto (習い事, after school lessons) here, but much less information concerning extracurricular lessons and activities in America. The Census Bureau claimed that 6 out of 10 kids in the US participated in some kind of extracurricular activity, but didn’t give much detail as to what kind or how often. One interesting nugget in the report was that only 8% of children in America were taking part in all three activities (i.e. sports, clubs, and lessons) at the same time. Children referred to those in grades K-12.
As for our family, my second-grade son does karate 2-4 times a week, soccer 2-3 times, soroban (abacus) once a week, and English once a week with his friends from kindergarten. He has mini English lessons with me a few times a week in addition to the lesson with his friends. During school breaks, we enroll him in swim lessons. For half of last year, he was in a shōgi (Japanese chess) class a few times a month. His 6-year-old brother has a similar schedule, minus the shōgi, and soccer is only once a week. In the winter months, I take the boys ice skating every other week.
Living downtown as we do, almost all of the lessons are a short walk away.
When my elder son was in his infancy, I had ideas about what lessons I would have him take—English, of course, but also calligraphy, classic guitar, and so on. None of that happened, except for the English.
His first activity was Play School. A bit expensive, but highly recommended. Shortly after he entered elementary school, though, he grew tired of it. Karate became the focus. At first it was only 1-2 times a week, but after getting his arse whooped in a tournament, he told his mother that he wanted to become stronger, so she started taking him to the main dōjō. Soccer was started as a way to maintain the friendships with his kindergarten friends but last year he changed teams, again in order to be a better player. Soccer is his passion at the moment and he doesn’t mind going to every practice. He insists even though he is exhausted afterwards.
The other day, I was walking past the Eishinkan Juku (cram school) just as the kids were getting out. It was Saturday evening and they kids looked as if the life had been sucked right out of them.
Cram schools like Eishinkan offer tests free to the public as a way to, one, check the level of the eggheads who study at their school with that of non-juku kids, and, two, to scare parents whose kids don’t go into following the herd and sending their own children as well. It’s a funny business.
We had our boy take the test a few weeks ago are now waiting the results. Ideally we would like to avoid jukus as long as possible, but I wonder how feasible it is. At the moment only a handful of his second grade classmates go, but by fifth grade apparently it’s the reverse. Even kids who are not going to take a private junior high school’s entrance exam go to juku which always has me scratching my head.
The Keiko to Manabu report had some interesting stats on narai goto in Japan.
44% of kids surveyed engaged in one extracurricular activity. 34% two part in two. 16% had three. 5%, like our sons, had four.
40.8% of kids had swim lessons
27.7% had English lessons
13.5% Cram School
5.1% Other Sports
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 you reside in is also true throughout 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 was speaking 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 Fukuoka, 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.
Traditional foods, too, can vary from region to region in Japan, so much so that a simple dish like o-zōni—a soup eaten during New Year’s—can contain radically different ingredients and yet still be called o-zōni.
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 (in Shizuoka, for example) 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 2019, Kyū Bon and “regular Bon” will take place at the same time, namely from the 13th to the 15th 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 pester everyone with the question: “Why isn’t this a national holiday like New Year’s?”
Now only a few years ago, it finally dawned on me that something I had taken for two decades to be a widely-observed custom was actually a very local one: sansha mairi (三社参り).
In Japan, many people (and I would venture most) visit a Shintō shrine during the first few days of the new year, a custom known as hatsumōdé (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, though, that people visit (o-mairi, お参り) three shrines (三社) rather than one.
Live and learn.
This is a piece I wrote for GaijinPot last year.
My wife took down the shime kazari the other day.
Shime kazari are the decorations you find hanging on front doors and gates at o-Shōgatsu (お正月, or the Japanese New Year). Traditionally made with twisted rice straw, they are often festooned with a daidai (bitter orange), fern fronds and gohei or shide (zigzag strips of white paper), the ornaments serve to welcome Toshigami-sama, the Shintō deity who brings a bountiful harvest and blessings for the new year.
Modern designs, like ours (above and below), take great liberties with more traditional decorations, adding generous loops of red-and-white cords of twisted paper, known as mizuhiki, pine branches, colorful Japanese washi paper, auspicious doodads and occasionally fresh flowers.
I asked my wife what she was doing.
“Shōgatsu is over… ”
“My parents already took down their shime kazari.”
“So? I paid ¥4,000 for that. Put it back. Please!”
There’s quite a bit of debate about when you should take your New Year’s decorations down. Regional variations have something to do with it — why, even the design of the shime kazari themselves can vary greatly from region to region — but so do different interpretations of when o-Shōgatsu is officially concluded.
I guess you could say a similar discussion exists in the West concerning when Christmas trees should be tossed out. Is it the Feast of the Epiphany, which falls on Jan. 6 (hence the 12 Days of Christmas)? Or should the tree and other holiday decorations remain until Candlemas, which falls on Feb. 2, i.e. 40 days after the nativity of Jesus? Thanks to Christmas tree recycling drives hosted by the Boy Scouts in early January, in America at least, trees are now being ground up into mulch before they can become a fire hazard.
As for the last day of o-Shōgatsu, many assert that it is Jan. 7. This day is widely considered to be the final day of matsunouchi, the week-long period starting with New Year’s Day during which the kadomatsu (New Year’s “gate” pine) and other decorations are displayed. New Year’s greeting cards, called nengajō, should be received within the first week of the year. The seventh is also the day Japanese eat nanakusa gayu, a dishearteningly bland rice porridge dish made with seven different herbs. It was for these reasons, I suspect, that my wife’s mother and many others had already taken their own decorations down.
But, I still wasn’t sold on the idea.
During a quick walk around my neighborhood, I noticed several shops were still displaying their shime kazari. Perhaps because it was Seijin-no-hi, or Coming-of-Age Day, a national holiday that serves as a psychological bookend to New Year’s.
Whatever the shops’ motivations, some believe that it’s quite alright to keep the decorations up until Jan. 15, a date known as Ko-Shōgatsu (小正月, Little New Year), as was the custom up until the Edo period. The first week of the new year was called Ō-Shōgatsu (大正月, lit. “Big New Year,” in this instance) while the rest of the month was considered regular “Shōgatsu.”
Rice porridge with seven herbs and salt.
Ko-Shōgatsu is known by other names, too, such as Niban Shōgatsu (Second New Year’s), Onna Shōgatsu (女正月, Woman’s New Year) and so on. Before Japan adopted the Gregorian solar calendar, the 15th was the day on which the full moon appeared. As far back as the Heian period (794-1185), it was customary to eat rice porridge made with sweet, red azuki beans. A similar dish called o-shiruko (sweet red-bean soup), made with azuki beans and half-melted globs of mochi (sticky rice cake) is traditionally eaten around the 11th, the day kagami (mirror-shaped) mochi decorations are broken. Today, at shrines throughout Japan, you can find hi-matsuri (火祭り, fire festivals), known as sagicho or dondoyaki (burning of New Year’s gate and other decorations), held on the 15th when kadomatsu, shime kazari and the previous year’s talismans are burnt in a bonfire.
Despite that, others argue that it’s acceptable for New Year’s decorations to remain until Hatsuka (20th day of the month) Shōgatsu, which falls, not surprisingly, on the 20th of January. In the Kansai area, the head and bones of the buri (Japanese amberjack) are cooked with sake kasu (lees), vegetables and soy beans. Because of this, the day is also called Hone (bone) Shōgatsu.
My wife, following her mother’s example, had been deferring to tradition. I countered with the argument that if we were really going to stick to good ol’ “tradition,” we would have to keep the shime kazari up until March 2, which — in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar — is actually Jan. 15.
“Let’s keep it up until Hatsuka Shōgatsu then,” my wife suggested.
“The 15th will be fine,” I said. “We don’t want to get carried away.”
Kagami mochi (鏡餅, literally mirror rice cake) is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration, which consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a Japanese bitter orange, known as a daidai, with an attached leaf on top. It may also have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi.
It often sits on a stand called a sanpō (三宝, see photo below) over a sheet called a shihōbeni (四方紅), which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following year. Sheets of paper called gohei (御幣) or shidé folded into lightning bolt shapes are also sometimes attached.
Kagami mochi first appeared in the Muromachi period (14th-16th century), the name kagami ("mirror") having allegedly originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror which also had a religious significance.
The two mochi discs are also said to symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart, yin and yang, or the moon and the sun. The daidai (橙), whose name is synonymous with "generations" (代々), is said to symbolize the continuation of a family from generation to generation.
Traditionally, kagami mochi was placed in various locations throughout the house. Nowadays, however, it is usually placed in a household Shintô altar, called a kamidana or placed in a small decorated alcove, called a tokonoma, in the main room of the home.
Shiménawa (七五三縄, 注連縄 or 標縄, literally "enclosing rope") are another common decoration of the Japanese New Year. Rice straw is braided together to form a rope, that is then adorned with pine, fern fronds, more straw and mandarine oranges. They can represent a variety of auspicious items, such as the rising sun over Mt. Fuji or a crane. The shiménawa pictured above is the one that hung on my front door a few years ago.
Used mostly for ritual purification in the Shintô religion, shimenawa can vary in diameter from a few centimetres to several metres, and are often seen festooned with shidé paper. The space bound by shimenawa often indicates a sacred or pure space, such as that of a Shintō shrine.
Shiménawa are believed to act as a ward against evil spirits and are also set up at a ground-breaking ceremonies before construction begins on a new building. They are often found at Shintō shrines, torii gates, and other sacred landmarks.
They are also tied around objects capable of attracting spirits or inhabited by spirits, called yorishiro. These include trees, in which case the inhabiting spirits are called kodama, and cutting down these trees is thought to bring misfortune. In cases of stones, the stones are known as iwakura.
Most of the following photos were taken of shiménawa hanging at the entrance of restaurants and boutiques in my neighborhood.
Because my sons’ kindergarten is Buddhist, there are no Christmas decorations or Christmas-related events. None whatsoever.
(No worries there as we already do plenty at home.)
The kindergarten does, however, hold New Year’s related events, such as “mochi-tsuki”.
What’s “moji-zugi”, you ask?
Mochi-tsuki (moh-chee-tsoo-kee) is the making of mochi (rice cake) by pounding steamed sticky rice (もち米, mochi kome) with large wooden hammers for God knows how long. It is in the words of the esteemed Mr. Wiki very “labor intensive”. I think the only thing that we have remotely similar to mochi-tsuki in the US is handmade ice cream.
Now the thing with handmade ice cream is that your effort is rewarded with something that tastes pretty damn good. Mochi, on the other hand, is rather bland. Mixed with sweet beans or covered with syrup, it can be rather nice. But, again, alone it’s so hopelessly boring, it makes you wonder why people go to all the trouble.
My son has already left for school. He asked me to go, too, but as only the fathers of third-year students can attend—damn—I have been spared the forced labor demanded of tradition.
This evening I will be taking my boys to see the Christmas lights in Kego Park and ride the kiddie “Polar Express” train.
There are only five more days till Christmas. For some reason or another, this holiday season has just whizzed by. Last year, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This year, though, . . .
I think it’s the realization that Christmas with young boys who believe all the stories of Santa Claus, no matter how far-fetched or contradictory, won’t last forever. We’ve got perhaps five or six more years of the season’s magic. And then? Well, we will just have to find a new way to enjoy the holiday. Perhaps with a mochi-tsuki party.