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Archive for January, 2008

Recently on the news, there have been reports about requiring Japanese ability for certain visas. I just read today that the law could be passed pretty soon. As I am an avid fan of Japanese, I have no problems with this new law, in fact, I welcome it wholeheartedly. The reason I do, is simply because it’ll push a lot of foreigners to study the language more. I’ve heard of so many foreigners who are hard up because they can’t speak the language or understand it, but when asked why they don’t try, they often use the excuse that it’s too hard or that they’re lazy. A high level isn’t needed I think, just basic conversation or something close to basic.

But talking about Japanese competence, the other day at work, I was trading stories with a Japanese co-worker about traditions and beliefs in my country. And when I couldn’t think of a word to explain something, I took out my dictionary and read out the translation… only to shock everyone in the office! It seems the word I used was horribly offensive and pertained to things totally beyond polite and proper. So I found myself in a truly embarrassing situation where in addition to giving everyone a nasty thing to remember me by, I also felt my Japanese was still far from perfect.

It’s probably going to take decades before I even get close to knowing enough about Japanese and Japan, but using this last episode with Japanese as my motivation, I want to try to at least get to a level where I don’t embarrass myself. For those who are really interested in Japanese, I recently discovered this site for beginners: Learn Simple Japanese. I hoped to make my site something like it in the beginning but I haven’t had the chance to put things together just yet. The lessons in this site though are basic and are really simple to learn. It has audio files for pronunciation practice, too. Check it out!

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One fact I have never been able to confirm about Japanese history, particularly about the Edo Period, was the prohibition of the use of wheels. In the book Gaijin, James Clavell writes about policies enacted by either Toyotomi Hideyoshi or Tokugawa Ieyasu. Included in the ban of guns and gunpowder, was a ban on people other than samurai from owning swords. What really interested me though was that to stunt progress, one of them (it isn’t clear who because it was a historical fiction novel and the characters were merged) prohibited the use of wheels. It would be really ironic, if it were true, seeing as Japan is now one of the leading automobile manufacturers in the world. Wheels are so important in Japan, from the carts the old ladies push to bicycles people take everywhere. Clavell writes that if any of the country folk wished to travel, they walked.

The walking part is totally true, however, as everyone I’ve asked has agreed, without contest. One of my history buff friends told me about how in the Edo Period, there was a domestic travel boom. Town people all contributed money to a town travel fund. They all paid the same amount of money, and every year 10 or 15 people were chosen to go on the trip. The delegation actually walked to that year’s travel destination. They then noted differences and stuff, reported what they saw to the other town peoples. Japanese people walked all over Japan. They made it from Kanto all the way to Kansai, and back, all on foot.

Even in a popular anime I watched, the Meiji Period characters walked the Tokaido. In those days, it must’ve taken days or even weeks – a trip that now takes a little over 3 hours by Shinkansen (新幹線, the high speed railways). But it really amazes me how, despite the abundance of escalators, elevators, walking escalators, bicycles, and other wheels, Japanese people still walk. Where I come from, people don’t really walk up escalators, we just stand on them.

My boss told me he walked his dogs an average of three hours a day. He walks through the city park, to another park, then half across town then back again. He said he loved walking because it was more beneficial to his health than any other sport. I have to admit that since I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been walking a lot more. Mostly out of necessity, though, since taxi fare is crazy expensive, and buses are hard to catch. I’ve walked through rainstorms and windstorms. I’ve walked all over Tokyo, and sometimes through little towns in the outskirts of Tokyo. Long distance walking is just so much a part of Japanese culture that anyone who lives in or visits Japan has to experience it.

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Sukiyaki

When I started studying Japanese when I was back home, my textbook had an activity involving Sukiyaki. We had to put the recipe instructions in order, then narrate to the class how we made the Sukiyaki. Our teacher at that time told us that all Japanese people knew how to make Sukiyaki and that the order was extremely important. The flavor changes dramatically when something is done before another, or something like that.

Years later, fast forward to the present time, I couldn’t believe how correct my Japanese teacher was. I did the activity with a bunch of friends as a sort of game, and they really knew their stuff. Funny thing was, they came up with totally different recipes, notable to mention was that people from the Kansai region had a different sauce style from the Kanto people. I can’t decide which one I prefer, though, as both are really quite good.

I read a story a long time ago about how Japanese people only started eating meat a hundred years ago or so, and their main protein source was tofu. So I was wondering when and where Sukiyaki originated. After asking a few people and getting a few vague answers, someone told me it was possible fish was used. I checked a few sources online, but wasn’t able to find what kind of fish was used, though I found a recipe using salmon with the beef.

Sukiyaki is a really good dish to serve when you’re having friends over. You can set up your nabe (鍋, a cooking pot) on your table, put out your ingredients and have your guests cook their own food. If you have a small group, there are actually small nabe, too.

Here’s a really good recipe for Sukiyaki (courtesy of a very good friend of mine):

 

Ingredients for Sukiyaki: (good for 2-3 people)

600g paper-thin slices of beef, 30g beef suet (beef fat), 5 stalks leeks, 200g shirataki (noodle-like jelly made from a Japanese yam), 1 block yaki-dofu (broiled or grilled tofu), 1 bunch shungiku (Chrysanthemum leaves), 1 pack Japanese mushrooms, 1/4 of a Chinese cabbage, 100 g soy sauce, 100 g mirin (sweet Japanese cooking sake), 3 tbsp brown sugar, a raw egg per person, whisked lightly in a dipping bowl (for serving)

 

Procedure:

  • Cut the leeks diagonally into thin slices.
  • Clean and break off the stems of the mushrooms.
  • Cut the yaki-dofu into little blocks.
  • Wash the shungiku, discard the hard stalks.
  • Boil the shirataki for about a minute. Drain then soak in cold water. Squeeze out excess water, then cut in half.
  • Cut the Chinese cabbage into bite-size squares.
  • Arrange the meat and other ingredients in a large serving platter.
  • Mix soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar in a sauce pan. Boil. Turn off the heat then set aside.
  • Heat the sukiyaki skillet on the stove. Add the beef suet and melt it over a low flame.
  • Pour the broth on the skillet. Put the ingredients into the pan little by little, starting with the leeks, vegetables, tofu, shirataki then the beef. Don’t overcook the beef.
  • To serve, each person should have a dipping bowl of egg and another bowl of warm rice. If you are worried about having raw egg, you can nuke the whisked egg in the microwave for about 5-7 seconds. You can also skip the raw egg if you’re not sure about its freshness.

    Enjoy!

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    Who doesn’t have a story about visiting a doctor in Japan and feeling a little bit more worried than when you scheduled an appointment? What with all those blue tablets for the swelling to go down to the pink capsules that counteract the side effects of the orange pill, and the attendant who didn’t wear proper surgical gloves, there is really a lot to be desired from the medical services here in Japan.

    Unfortunately, visiting the doctor is a necessity and we can’t do much about it except complain or make fun of the whole setup. We have to understand though that modern medicine only appeared in Japan a hundred years ago. Before that, the entire nation relied on medical journals smuggled out of Dejima. The details are hazy in my mind, but it seemed these journals were translated and studied but I don’t know about actual schooling in the science of medicine. Of course, during the Meiji Restoration, things changed. But considering that things haven’t really changed, like how people would like to think, there may be a few tricks left over from the years of isolation.

    What a lot of us forget though is that this is Japan, so naturally, Western medicine should not be their forte here. What they are really good at, I suppose, is mainly their own healing mechanisms, things like Shiatsu massage, alternative medicine to most of us, but it is a way of life here. Herbal medicines, healing tea and alternative methods of healing are quite the thing here in Asia. Most martial arts and Shiatsu masters are able to tell by pressing down on nerves what is really causing you discomfort, and then they massage these imbalances out. Shiatsu is only one of many massage therapies offered here. Japan also has an abundance of Chiropractors, Reflexologists, and Accupressure Practitioners.

    One of my superiors is a Reflexologist, and we have orders to consult her when we feel a cold or some other bout of something coming on. She gives us a really tear-jerking back rub, followed by a hot patch (called a hokkairo, ホッカイロ) placed somewhere in the lower back. You get really drowsy after, but after a really fitful sleep that night, you awake refreshed and full of energy. She’s done this for me more than a couple of times, all with the same result: my cold getting arrested and me getting a second (or third or fourth…) chance at life. As a bonus, I also save on that trip to that doctor which worries me so much…

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    Gaijin Treatment

    I received a very perplexing question today: How is one treated as a gaijin?

    While a jumble of examples filled my brain, like this one time or that other time or a few days ago, none of them felt like I could use them to generalize and so I concluded that I had no idea how to answer this question…

    From various stories I’ve heard, there seems to be a multitude of ways one can be treated as a gaijin in Japan, but I cannot begin to enumerate the ways one is treated as a gaijin. I’ve known of exclusionism, alienation, and even plain rudeness, but I cannot say those are the only ways foreigners are treated here. I’m sure a lot of foreigners in Japan have sob stories to share, but I’m also pretty sure there are several who will say they’ve received nothing but hospitality and kindness from Japanese people.

    When I worked in a rural town somewhere north of Tokyo as a Foreign Language Teacher, I was expecting to feel lonely, probably from being ignored by the entire population, due to stories of past teachers. Whilst during the day, the teachers were busy and didn’t pay much attention to me, the office staff always invited me over for coffee and gossip. I was getting better at Japanese then, but I still often didn’t follow some of stuff going on. When they saw I was a bit lost, though, they slowed down and tried to explain in simpler Japanese. After a few stories, they’d ask me about my country and how we thought of this or that. They always made a point to make sure I was included in the conversation. I felt quite important at that time, sharing all I could. I felt at that time that I was the only one who could shed light on some of the mysteries about my country. They almost always seemed to be interested in things foreign to them.

    At school, Language Teachers usually have some designated place to have lunch, like in a classroom, or in the teacher’s room, or with the special education class, but the office staff insisted I stay with them because they had a heater in the winter and a cooler in the summer. If I’d stay in the teacher’s room, they said, I’d just feel left out. Of course, there were other foreign teachers in the place where I worked, but they said they were not given the same treatment. In fact, they felt left out and most of them left the job after a year or even less in some cases.

    While I was thinking about this whole Gaijin Treatment thing I remembered that I had read this article from Ampotan a few months ago. It was quite insightful, and it has become a discussion of sorts a couple of times at work with my co-workers. We usually end up with a conclusion that you are treated how you are asking to be treated…

    I’m still a bit at a loss, but is there anyone out there who might have a clearer understanding of how it is to be treated as a gaijin?

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    A bit off the beaten path, Southern Chiba is a great place for an afternoon drive in winter. If you’d like to get away from the traffic and the pedestrians and the shops of Tokyo, Southern Chiba makes for a great day trip. If you don’t own a car or you can’t trick any of your Japanese friends into driving you there, there are local trains that take routes with rice fields on one side and the ocean on the other. Last weekend, my friends and I drove to Shirahama, Chikura, then Onjuku.

    Shirahama, Chikura and Onjuku have a combined population of about 26,000. All relatively small but all of them have something that many towns don’t: warmish weather in the winter and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.

    Flower fields in Chikura were what we were there for, as flowers there bloom a lot earlier than the rest of Japan. For about ¥500, you get a pair of shears and you can cut as many flowers as you wish. The flower fields are located next to the stony shore, so before or after your flower cutting excursion, you can take a stroll. There was a farmer’s market there, too.

    Southern Chiba boasts of its fresh fish, and as we were there, of course we had to have fresh sashimi! There are several notable places in Shirahama, and I’m sure it would have been difficult to tell which was the best. There were several fresh fish markets and my friends stocked up on several kinds of fish.

    Before home, we passed by Onjuku. Onjuku is a popular surfing destination. It is also known for a folk song called “Tsuki no Sabaku” (月の砂漠, A Desert in Moonlight). There was a museum about the folk song, which has a verse that goes:

    The prince and princess on camels are traveling in the desert in the moonlight.

    They are traveling far over the sand dune.

    They are traveling silently on a moonlit night.

    Where are they going?

    It is a song Japanese students all learn in Music class. It seems the song has very romantic overtones and is liked by many. The melody and the Japanese lyrics can be found on this page.

    To wrap up our little tour, we visited the camels by the desert shore. Thinking of the song, I did wonder where the prince and princess were headed…

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    Yesterday was Seijin Shiki (成人式), the Coming of Age Day Ceremony. All over the city, in the stations and in the streets, kimono(着物)-clad ladies and a few men in hakama(袴) were about. Seijin no Hi (成人の日, Coming of Age Day) is a day many Japanese really look forward to. It is the day they are finally welcomed into society as adults. A lot of restrictions are lifted when one becomes 20 in Japan. For example, adults can finally smoke and drink… but wait, weren’t these kids already doing that before they even turned 15?

    On Seijin no Hi, the city government, usually represented by the Board of Education, sponsors a big ceremony for the 20 year-olds. They invite the students’ elementary and junior high teachers, and they raffle off some prizes. When I attended one ceremony a few years ago (not as a participant but as a mere spectator), I witnessed first hand that it was a dress up ceremony. While the participants were posing for pictures and congratulating each other, a co-teacher pointed out several of her bad students to me, saying at least they bothered to wear something nice as they never did as junior high kids, adding they often snuck into school after hours to smoke. Then she pointed out a couple of pretty girls holding their toddlers, saying they already enjoyed adult status, really. And so it went, she pointing out her students who just became adults but who were already doing all you could at 20, legally, save for maybe voting?

    As this teacher pointed each of the students out and listed reasons they were violating the ceremony code, I wondered why they even bothered to dress up then. But then it was that really, I later realized. For many Japanese people, especially the ladies, it is one of the rare occasions when they can actually wear a Kimono, a Furisode and have themselves fixed up. It is the one day in their lives when they can meet up with their peers and let loose, enjoying the day nicely dressed and finely groomed. As foreigners, we have an image that all Japanese people are born wearing kimonos, but according to many of my friends, they rarely, if ever, get to dress up in their national dress. So adulthood aside, the ceremony is really about getting the chance to feel free for a day, dress up in the finest kimono and drink, smoke and be merry!

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