水曜日, 3月 30, 2005

Linguistic Musings

    A couple days ago, I read this excellent article on why people learn languages or fail to do so. I didn't blog about it right away because I figured that it had probably been on the Internet a long time and other people have read it. However, it touches on a lot of issues I often think about, both as an EFL teacher and as a person who wants to be fluent in a second language (Japanese), and perhaps a third (Mandarin). This article explains both why I never get around to learning a fourth or fifth language (I'm interested in learning Thai, Cantonese or Vietnamese but can't seem to spare the time), and why not all of my students are as motivated to learn English as I might hope.
    I tend to naively assume that all non-Japanese living in Japan are as motivated to learn Japanese as I am (not true) and that all people studying English are similarly highly motivated. Some facts support that hypothesis (people who rabidly put themselves and their children in my path to practice English with me) other facts do not (people who go just as far to avoid me). This article was helpful in reminding me that learning a language is a lot of work. More interestingly, it proposes that it's just as much work for native speakers of the language as it is for second language learners. The native speakers just don't remember how much work it was. Because we think in language, we don't remember how hard it was to learn it in the first place.
    (Also, from the same site, this is the funniest thing I've read for awhile; actual search strings people used that led them to his site about linguistics and culture).
    Having an accent when you speak Japanese, or any other language you learn as an adult, is not inevitable. It is hard to learn perfect pronunciation, because it's hard to see what's going on in someone else's mouth. However, native speakers ALL faced the exact same thing as children, and eventually they all learned to do it. We think that children don't have problems mastering the pronunciation of their own language, but you've probably known children who had trouble saying certain words, and every day many children in the U.S. are taken out of class to work with therapists on their "speech impediments". Which leads me to think that perhaps children's mispronounced words and speech impediments are not so different from the mistakes we make when learning to pronounce a new language. That means that we too can overcome all of those problems if we believe that we must.
    With that idea to inspire me, I'm doing some pronunciation exercises with this book, 日本語の発声レッスン. It's a great find because it packages a lot of difficult pronunciation drills conveniently into one volume. Japanese, with its small and predictable number of syllables, isn't terribly hard to pronounce anyway, but how well can you say long strings of meaningless syllables, or pages and pages of tongue-twisters? My Chinese friend U., who has excellent pronunciation in English, told me once that she used to practice English pronunciation drills every day until her throat hurt. Until yesterday I'd never practiced Japanese pronunciation to the point of physical pain, but the exercises in the book made my throat hurt in no time at all. I planned to practice for two hours yesterday, and could only do about twenty minutes. I like the fact that it made me more attentive to variations in Japanese pronunciation around me.
    While I'm on the topic of language, I really benefitted from Language Two, a treatise on language learning I read before coming to Japan. The main point is that people learn a language better if they receive instruction in the language (on another topic they need to understand) rather than about the language (explicitly teaching grammar, for instance). I've used that idea to the extent I could in my own language teaching, structuring communicative lessons wherever possible, but half an hour a week is not enough to give the students the feeling that they NEED to learn to understand spoken English. So in a way this idea combines nicely with the point of Zordist's article, that people won't learn a language unless it's absolutely necessary for them. What makes something "absolutely necessary" differs from person to person though, and the reasons I found it "absolutely necessary" from the age of thirteen to learn Japanese when no one in my family or immediate surroundings spoke it, remains incomprehensible to everyone but me. Still, I believe that psychologically in some strange way it was "absolutely necessary" to me.
    Another interesting thing: I've heard on the news recently that Japan is planning to revise the immigration laws to make it easier for unskilled foreigners and ones with skills besides teaching English to live and work in Japan. For example, the new laws will encourage doctors and nurses from outside Japan to practice in Japan, along with people in the threatened industries of agriculture and forestry. Due to the aging population and declining birth rate, the measure makes a lot of sense. I'm interested to see the future effects. Will it help weaken the perceived wall between "Japanese" and "gaijin" in Japan? I have a personal interest in wanting that wall to come down. My heart gladdens every time people don't assume I only speak English because of my blonde hair. The more foreigners in Japan, the less often we will be automatically stereotyped. I don't want Japan's "cultural uniqueness" to be "subsumed", but I don't think that will happen, as amorphous and illogical as "cultural uniqueness" is. Unless "cultural uniqueness" really is just another word for the wall, in which case it should give way to a more sensible pride in Japan's considerable cultural assets.

金曜日, 3月 25, 2005

Memorization Tools

Check Set
Originally uploaded by moglet.
    This red transparent sheet is quickly supplanting the ring of flashcards as the memorization device of choice among students in Japan. When I first started seeing students using them on the subway during exam time, I guessed that certain books have the answers written in red, rendering them invisible under the sheet. It's true that there are books like this: test prep books designed for a target audience known to be hardcore memorizers. But you can also use any book for your memorization needs with this "Check Set". Just highlight the information you want to memorize with the green pen. When you cover it with the red sheet, it will appear black. Once you've successfully memorized the item, you can go over it again with the white pen. It will erase the green pen mark, leaving barely a trace.
    Years ago when they first came out, I used to like the ring of flashcards, also a Japanese invention. They were an improvement on the separate flashcards used until then. However, after a certain point their usefulness decreases. A person who needs to learn the very basics of a language should use flashcards. But later, when things have started to make sense on their own, you're better off questioning and applying what you know, not just learning to passively recognize vast quantities of information.
    This "Check Set" seems to promote slightly more active learning, depending on how you use it. You could, for instance, use it to study grammar by turning any paragraph into a cloze exercise for yourself, blacking out particles and verb endings. Or just use it to review your wrong answers in a textbook until you feel like you know them well enough. I want to do this starting from the second book in the U-Can Kanji Kentei course. I will finish the assignment at the end of the first book today.
    I would be interested to know if the red transparency is used in other countries, or if other countries have other memory aids.

火曜日, 3月 22, 2005

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle
Originally uploaded by moglet.

    This is Nagoya Castle, where I went on Sunday with my friend Sophia. It had been awhile - gasp, a decade - since I'd toured the inside of a Japanese castle, so I was long overdue.
    My favorite parts were the gold fusuma screens on the third floor and the simulation of the castle town on the second floor, which darkened and lightened again to simulate night and morning. Though I liked it, it was a bit disorienting to simulate the area OUTSIDE the castle INSIDE the castle.
    If I'd visited Nagoya next weekend instead of this one, I could have gone to the the World Expo, where they will have excavated remains of a mammoth and various robots. It will be going on for quite awhile (March 25 - Sept. 25; click here for the English site) so I plan to go at another time. I tell myself this was just a rehearsal to see exactly how troublesome it is to go to Nagoya from Kobe on the weekend. It is troublesome, but not unfeasible. A JTE told me that people in Kobe and Osaka make fun of the way people talk in Nagoya, because they think Nagoya dialect sounds like the meowing of a cat.

Nagoya Drum

Nagoya Drum
Originally uploaded by moglet.
    I took this picture with my new mobile phone. Look how well it turned out...I mean, much better than my old phone camera.
    This is a large taiko drum that was in front of Nagoya castle on Sunday. They were selling ceremonial arrows along with a chance to pound the drum yourself and make a wish for 1000 yen. No, you don't pound the drum with the arrow. It was not a hard decision to pass on this offer.

金曜日, 3月 18, 2005

Food Review: Soy Milk Yogurt

    Toraku is a Kobe company that makes Kobe Pudding, Raku Raku Whip and other dessert treats. They also have a health food branch called Soyafarm for soy products. I wasn't expecting much when I decided to try their Soy Milk Yogurt (豆乳で作ったヨーグルト) at lunch today, but it was really good...easily the best soy milk yogurt out of the two I've tried. With a hint of lemon juice, the plain variety is a light, sweet confection of soy milk yumminess. In addition to plain, there's also a fruit flavor (the "fruit" is aloe and lychee). Soy milk yogurt has the health benefits of regular yogurt (it contains active yogurt cultures), but without the cholesterol, fat and other possibly harmful things contained in cow's milk. It's also rich in soy protein. One container is only 100 yen/110 grams/76 calories.

    To see the commercial for this product that aired in the Kansai region, click on the box marked 新CMはこちら in red letters at the bottom of the Soyafarm page. It shows a man with an oversized yogurt container affixed to his head being mauled by an overzealous woman shopper. Doubtless you are now wondering, "How did they ever achieve such amazing special effects? How did they find a man with a tub of yogurt on his head?" so you can also click CMメイキング to see the "Making of" the commercial.

Quote from the blurb on the commercial page:


It would have been difficult enough just wearing something on his head, but since the actor also had to sit upright for a long time in a narrow refrigerated area surrounded by merchandise, it seems that the filming was extremely difficult.

木曜日, 3月 17, 2005

Japanese Name Trivia

    Today I think I'll share with you some fun facts from a children's book on names I got at the library yesterday.

Why are Japanese names so difficult?

    I don't know about you, but I feel stupid when I can't read a Japanese name. The truth is, though, that the same kanji name can often be read different ways, so there's no way to be sure unless you ask the person.

木下 is usually "Kinoshita" but it can also be "Kishita"
古谷 can be "Furutani" or "Furuya"
熊谷 can be "Kumagaya," "Kumagai," "Kumatani," or "Kumaya"
...and the list goes on.

    I used to think that there was a limited number of surnames in Japan so I would learn the tricky readings eventually. But it would be better to think of the number of surnames as unlimited. Unlike other countries that have a small number of surnames, Japan has too many to be learned by the average person. In fact, Japan has more different surnames than any other country in the world.

    Compare these numbers: China only has about 500 surnames. Korea only has 249. Japan has about 120,000.
    That's insane. That explains why when I see an unfamiliar name on my student list and I ask my JTE for the pronunciation, she usually doesn't know what it is either.

    Another reason Japan has more names than China and Korea has to do with Confucian thought, which seemed to have made narrower inroads in Japan. In China and Korea, it was believed to be disrespectful to your ancestors to change your surname, but premodern Japan had no such compunction. People were expected to change their names many times as they grew older. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, for example, had four different names at different stages of his life. An Edo-period politician named Saigoh Takamori changed his name 9 times.

"Common" names

   There are no really common names in Japan, compared with the commonness of certain names in other countries. In Western Japan, "Tanaka" is very common, and I must admit I've known many Tanakas. However, in all of Japan, "Satoh" and "Suzuki" are supposed to be the most common. I've never known a Satoh or a Suzuki. Go figure.

Weird Names

Here are some unusual but real Japanese surnames and their readings:

子子子 is pronounced "Nejiko"
子鳥遊 (the characters mean "small birds play") is pronounced "Takanashi" (no eagles)
煙草 is pronounced "Tabako" (cigarette)
障子 Shoji, sliding door
醤油 Shoyu, soy sauce
犬飼 "Inukai," dogkeeper
林林 is pronounced "Rinbayashi". This is just crazy. You will notice they are the same character.
谷谷 is "Tanigaya". Again, they combined two readings for the same character.
九九 is "Tsukumo"
一尺八寸 is "Kamatsuka"
四月一日 (the first day of the fourth month) is pronounced "Watanuki"
More like that-
八月一日 is "Hozumi"
八月十五日 is "Nakaaki"
十二月一日 is "Shiwasuda"
三十日 is "Misoka"
The last one, I can understand because New Year's Eve is "Oomisoka". I assume the other days are old words for dates in the lunar calendar. But can you imagine if your last name was "Fifteenth of August?"

Is it true that most people didn't have surnames until 1875?

Yes, that's true. Farmers and merchants weren't allowed to have surnames. In 1875, the eighth year of the Meiji period, there was an edict suddenly requiring everyone to have surnames. Some people at that time must have thought "soy sauce" and "tabacco" made good names, I guess. Others went to the village chief or someone else they trusted and got themselves a name based usually on where they lived (in a rice field, in a forest, by the well...) or what they did for a living ("Watanabe" means "ferryman"; "Kodama" means "jeweller"). Suzuki doesn't have anything to do with bells. It's the name of a stick used for Shinto rituals; in Kumano dialect, 聖なる木 (sacred tree) is "suzuki". The kanji for "bell tree" 鈴木 is an ateji.

梅田, which is a place in Osaka as well as a surname, doesn't really mean "field of plums," as the kanji suggest. It really comes from 埋め田, buried rice field, which sounds equally strange but means that the field is dug out of wet swampland.

Names from the past

"Hiko" and "Hime" as name suffixes you often see in fairy tales and legends are often translated into English as "Prince" and "Princess". Therefore, Kaguya-hime is "Shining Princess," to give a well-known example. I never gave them much more thought than that. Actually, the origin of "hiko" is 日の子 (hi no ko), child of the sun, and "hime" is 日の女 (hi no me) daughter of the sun. This fact is obscured because now they each have different kanji (彦 and 姫).

Scatalogical Names

Yes, in the Heian period and after, it was common to use "Kuso" in names, which means just what you think it means. The famous poet "Kinotsurayuki," who wrote the Tosa Diaries, is a notable example. His birth name was "Ako Kuso," which means "my child...shit." Amazing that a man with this kind of name grew up to be successful in life. Nor is he an isolated case. Names like "Kusoko" and "Oguso" were in vogue among the nobility. The book explains that this has to do with the belief in the god of the toilet. Since the toilet god keeps you healthy, it stands to reason he would be helpful in rearing a healthy child. This seems very out of place in the Japan of today, but it persists in a small way in the superstition that a pregnant woman should keep her bathroom clean if she wants to have a beautiful baby.

Source: 人名のひみつ  Jinmei no Himitsu, 1999 Toshihide Kunimatsu and Satoshi Kumagai
Published by Iwasaki Shoten

月曜日, 3月 14, 2005

My Weekend

    I'm in a good mood now, since I managed to have a fairly social and active weekend. On Thursday I met Homodachi for Scrabble, on Friday I met N. for dinner in Osaka, on Saturday I met Malifact and we hung around Sannomiya (afterwards I went to a boxercise class), and tonight I went to a Japanese friend's house, where his mom cooked us dinner. Takashi went too and afterwards we went to Sannomiya to return my videos. I rented "House of Sand and Fog" and "Dot the I". I loved "Dot the I," it was so sexy and thrilling with a good surprise ending, therefore more my kind of movie than the other. I know "House of Sand and Fog" is good in its way too, both the novel and the film have been hyped a lot, but I didn't personally relate to the characters. I even thought it was rather exploitative. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I guess I'd prefer to see the minority family survive and the spoiled white people die for once, and needless to say it didn't happen that way. Also I'm not the kind of person to get all emotional about a house. I've moved so many times in my life I don't relate well to the kind of character who is willing to risk everything for the place they were brought up. It's only a house. No house is worth dying or going to jail for, and if you think it is, it's past time to get a life. Before she had to give up her house, the woman in the movie was apparently doing nothing - not working, not checking her mail, not smoking or drinking, not telling the truth to her family, living in a vacuum as it were. I found that hard to accept. She relied too much on the house to give her an identity, and I thought that was pretty messed up.

月曜日, 3月 07, 2005

Food/Drink: Stay Away!

1)     The Starbucks Coffee Jelly Frappuccino.
    This is a seasonally limited variety of frappucino with small cubes of coffee jelly at the bottom. In my opinion, it is inferior both to the regular Coffee Frappuccino and a similar product at Wendy's you eat with a spoon, the Coffee Jelly Frostie. I feel that the Coffee Jelly Frostie, made with chocolate ice cream, is a superior coffee jelly dessert. Firstly, chocolate and coffee make a more complementary flavor combination than coffee and coffee. Even more significantly, the cubes of coffee jelly in the Wendy's dessert are larger, so you can savor them at your leisure. The most enjoyable feature of coffee jelly is the unique texture, but you don't have time to enjoy it with the Starbucks product. That is because the pieces are so small and numerous that they fly up your straw at an alarming speed. The effect is similar to the feeling you get from sucking up balls of tapioca when drinking bubble tea, but in that case you have a chance to savor the texture of the tapioca because it stays in your mouth much longer than the coffee jelly. The small bits of coffee jelly merely get swallowed almost as soon as they enter your mouth, adding scant benefit to the frappucino except perhaps for excess caffeine. I recommend the Wendy's Coffee Jelly Frostie over this product.

2)     Peanut Whip. It's not peanut butter. It's like marshmallow cream fluff with a hint of peanut butter. Maybe it would be good for a dessert ingredient, but I have at least ten healthier things I prefer to spread on my toast.

3)     Tomato Amatare. I like Spinach Amatare, so I tried the tomato one last night. The experiment failed. Maybe I added too much of the stuff; it just made the cooked tomatoes soggy and ultra-sweet. Tomatoes are one vegetable that don't really need a sweet sauce, even if you decide for some reason (influenced by East Asian cooking styles, perhaps?) to cook them rather than eat them raw.

Amatare means sweet sauce. In Japanese, Western sauces are called sauce, while Japanese sauces are called "tare". Because it seemed interesting, I translated some of the Wikipedia article on tare:

"Tare" is used as a general term for a seasoning liquid typified by the tare for yakitori, the tare for yakiniku, and the tare for grilled eel. The word is used mostly for Japanese cooking, and the equivalent word "sauce" is used for Western cooking. Tare originally referred to "taremiso," the prevalent sauce in Japan until soy sauce became widespread. From the Meiji Period on, the fluid used for grilling eel and other foods also can be called "tare".

To make "taremiso," add miso to three times its amount of water and mix well. Boil it down and strain it. You could carve some dried bonito flakes with a knife (until the end of the Meiji period, there were no machines to carve bonito flakes, and it was usually carved by hand with a small knife) and add it to the boiled-down sauce, but because bonito flakes were expensive, it is thought that taremiso usually consisted only of miso. Tare that was not boiled down first, which used less water, was called "Namadare" ("raw" tare).

   Isn't that something like pouring straight miso soup on your food? Without cooking it first?
   The article continues with the history of tare, quoting a cookbook from 1643 and concluding with the intriguing headings, "the Disappearance of Tare" and "the Resurgence of Tare." Basically, soy sauce, invented in the 13th century, eventually gained nationwide acceptance, spelling a decline in the consumption of tare. The "revival" of tare happened in 1955, when Korean-style restaurants achieved popularity in Japan. The invention of shabushabu in 1952 (it's a wonder they can pinpoint these modern discoveries so exactly, but I'm still not clear about what happened to soy sauce between the 13th century and the 18th) brought tare into the public consciousness, and thereafter tare came to be used widely for many kinds of sauces. In 2004, some people began, for the first time, to call the soup for soba noodles "tare". This historic moment was also documented for posterity in the Wikipedia article on "soba tsuyu."

木曜日, 3月 03, 2005

That's Cunning!

Japanese Comedy Review #2: "That's Cunning! Shijo saidai no sakusen?"
"That's カンニング! 史上最大の作戦?"
Director: Hiroshi Sugawara

    "Cunning" means "cheating" in Japanese. Therefore, the title means something like "That's Cheating! The Greatest Scheme in History?"

    The opening sequence, which shows a lecture hall full of college students using very creative means to cheat on their exam, is hilarious. So is the climactic scene when they execute their "greatest scheme in history". However, the plot and dialogue are weak and cliche. For the most part this movie is not that good, with the exception of an appealing performance by the lovely pop star Amuro Namie.

    The plot, such as it is, involves a group of chemistry students (all of whom live in a notorious dorm called "White Bear") whose only hope of passing organic chemistry is by cheating. Their professor is a manaically strict man who hates cheating. Ironically, he is also a cheater - it comes out later that he is plagiarizing another professor's work. Anyway, the maniac professor hates cheaters and the students of the White Bear dorm, who happen to be one and the same. He hatches an anime-villain-worthy plan to tear down their dorm and build a hotel on that spot --UNLESS the group gets good grades on their finals, WITHOUT cheating.

    The White Bear is a boy's dorm originally, but Yumi (Amuro Namie) decides to move in and, predictably, fight with the boys to preserve the dorm.

    After a brave effort, the group realizes they don't have a hope of doing well on the final without cheating, so they create a new original cheating scheme that their professor will not be able to detect. This turns out to be really funny, and it provides the second highlight of the film, after the first sequence.

    There are a few laughs here, but not much substance. No matter what, don't show it to your students.

The Inventor of Information

    The English-version Wikipedia article on Mori Ogai contains an interesting antecdote, if true:

As a physician, Mori specialized in beriberi, an ailment caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1. His questionable decisions involving the contents of soldiers' rations during the Russo-Japanese War might have cost the lives of thousands of Japanese soldiers (ironically, to the beriberi disease that Mori specialized in).

    Curious, I went to the Japanese Mori Ogai page. I didn't find the story repeated there, but the Japanese page did credit Mori with the invention of the word 情報, "information". It explains that the word is a combination of "passion" 情熱 and "report" 報告. The word currently enjoys the same status in modern life as the English word "information," which we think of as consisting of objective facts; yet perhaps there is a bit of "passion" in it too, for us nerds at least.

    In my personal life, some problems with my apartment have been solved, but others remain. A synopsis.

SOLVED: I had a problem with tiny gnats in my apartment. I found where they were hiding out and got rid of them. Once destroying their hidden lair, the best way to kill them is simply to vacuum them up.

SOLVED: I didn't have a computer or Internet in my apartment for a year and a half. This caused me to spend an alarming amount of time at a certain Internet cafe. However, my friend Sophia kindly gave me a computer (Mac i-Book), and yesterday I took the day off work in order to have the Internet connected (Yahoo BB).

NEW PROBLEM: My bathtub's gas-powered hot-water heater, which has always been a pain anyway, completely gave up the ghost the other day. I had a repairman to my house (since I was already home yesterday waiting for the Yahoo BB people), and he said he couldn't take off the cover to fix it because it's rusted shut. He pointed out that it's twenty years old. My apartment is truly ancient and decrepit. Let me also point out that the kitchen hot water heater has never worked since I moved in. What scared me most was that my neighbor-across-the-way had the same problem last summer, and he couldn't take a hot bath or shower for a month! Which he said was still tolerable in the summer, but it's chilly now, and I don't think I could face cold showers - for a month, or ever.

    My neighbor eventually had his whole bathtub replaced, which is probably what I'll have to do. The company that owns my apartment is sending someone to take a look at it today (I told them to come sometime after 5), so I'm going to hurry home from school.

    I had to make do with a shower at the gym last night. In a way it's almost okay, because I've been going to Step Aerobics and other classes at the gym almost every day anyway, and I don't even mind getting in the public bath with the other women, but I still hope I can bathe in my own bathtub soon. I was looking forward to using my citron-flavored bath salts. More importantly, what will I do if there's a string of holidays and the gym is closed...?

    I'll leave you with this. The other day when I bought tofu okonomiyaki at a tofu shop near my house, the tofu vendor gave me a big smile and asked if I wanted "ohashi stick". I must have looked confused, because he said, "Aren't ohashi called ohashi stick in English?"
   No, but it's a cute guess.
    I told him "chopsticks." My English teacher instinct kicked in, and I repeated it again a couple times until his pronunciation improved marginally. Meanwhile his coworker could hardly control her giggling.
   By the way, tofu okonomiyaki is kind of gross.