Dec 31, 2004

Random pic #7: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Tokyo doesn't see snow often, especially not enough to accumulate. But we got a few centimeters on Wednesday that stuck around until the 31st, when a few more centimeters fell. The flakes were large and clumpy and nice to watch from the warm indoors until late afternoon, when all turned to sleet. Then the roads began to freeze over and sirens echoed in the distance.

Somewhere out there Rie is driving home from a New Years' network installation.

Kotowaza of the day: New Years edition


Asu wa asu no kaze ga fuku

Meaning of Japanese:
Tomorrow's wind will blow tomorrow

English equivalents:
Tomorrow is a new day

Dumb things overheard in a bar

Since we were both off on Wednesday, Rie and I paid a Tuesday evening visit to the Dubliner, one of our semi-regular haunts in Shinjuku. The next table over from ours was populated by three white male expat English teachers (middle-American, judging from their accents) - a dime a dozen in many parts of Japan.

Anyway, Guy1 disinterestedly to Guy2, "... So I hear you're going to Laos in a few weeks." Guy2 snickers and responds, "Yeah, but I don't think we'll be visiting any beaches."

I'm sure Guy2 was just trying to make light of the earthquake and tsunamis that hit countries ringing the Indian Ocean last Sunday morning, leaving over 100,000 dead, half a million injured and some three to five million people displaced from their devastated homes and towns. After all, on Tuesday the death count was still measurable in only a handful or two of 9/11s.
What I'm not so sure about is that Guy2 realizes Laos is landlocked.

The ensuing commentary on the tragedy didn't last 30 seconds, nor did Guy1's fascination with Guy2's vacation. Guy1 had more important beefs on his mind. Said he: "This place has the worst service in town, I tell ya. The one in Ikebukuro..." Five minutes later he produced a flask from his hip pocket and was pouring 15-year scotch into the three water glasses they had drained.

Guy1 is obviously the Alpha male of this bunch. As we were donning our coats to leave, he was leading his table in a spritited discussion on global domination by the Freemasons.

Dec 27, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Grow up!


Baka ni kurou nashi

Meaning of Japanese:
Fools suffer not
Fools have no worries

English equivalents:
Children and fools have merry lives
As happy as a cow chewing cud

Dec 26, 2004

Random pics #4~6: A small sampling of Christmas in a nation of heathens

So what if only one percent of Japanese identify themselves as Christian? As a commercial holiday Christmas is alive and well in this country, and marketing heavily targets young couples and families with small children. Below is a window display from a store in Ginza. Take a closer look and you may notice the "snow" whirling around in these globes. Each globe holds a different world landmark - the Empire State building, la Tour Eiffel - but Corcovado's Christ the Redeemer takes center stage.

Of course, concepts such as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree were also imported and adapted to a greater or lesser degree to mesh with Japanese sensibilities. Sometimes it can be confusing which customs are Western and which are Japanese inventions. The perennial favorite "Christmas cake," for example, is something I don't remember growing up with in the states. And a coworker of mine was surprised to learn that we find our presents under the tree. "Don't your parents set them by your pillow early in the morning?" she asked me incredulously.

The sparkling tree below was found wedged in a just-right space between two shops in Ginza. I watched a mother corral her three kids for a group photo (not pictured here) ...

... while across the sidewalk anybody and everybody with a camera phone stopped to snap a shot.

Light displays all over town are consumed in this fashion. Few linger to bask in the festive goodness; just take a quick pic, possibly sha-mail (photo mail) it to a friend, and move on. A tornado-shaped light display for a Japanese pop band (also not pictured here) mixed in with other holiday-themed light sculptures gets equal camera time. Borrow, assimilate, mutate, proceed.

Dec 23, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: What about my Beaujolais nouveau?


Soto boro no uchi nishiki

Meaning of Japanese:
Rags on the outside, brocade within
Poor in show, rich in substance

English equivalents:
The best wine comes out of an old vessel

Dec 21, 2004

Happy Winter Solstice!

The shortest day of the year has arrived once again, and we're "celebrating" in local style tonight by soaking in a tub-full of yuzu-yu (ゆず湯), or hot bathwater infused with Japanese yuzu citron.

Another 冬至 (touji, or winter solstice) tradition we are following this year is the inclusion of pumpkin in some part of our dinner. I've been given different explanations by different people for this particular culinary habit, but most of them center around either a power to ward off colds or special value as a high-nutrition vegetable that keeps through the winter.

Anybody else have plans for this pagan holiday?

Kotowaza of the day: Appreciating value


Neko ni koban

Meaning of Japanese:
To give a gold coin to a cat

English equivalents:
To cast pearls before swine
Caviar to the general

Dec 19, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Before I forget...


Toshiyori no mono wasure, wakai mono no mu-funbetsu

Meaning of Japanese:
The old often forget, and the young are often thoughtless/indiscreet

English equivalents:
Wisdom is wasted on the old, and youth on the young
A young trooper should have an old horse

Dec 16, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Silly goose


Oihagi hara e hotaru gari

Meaning of Japanese:
How ill-advised to chase fireflies in a field where highwaymen lurk

English equivalents:
It is a blind goose that cometh to the fox's sermon

Dec 15, 2004

Worth standing out in the cold?

You be the judge. Below is about the clearest shot I got (of me, on videotape at home) from last night's live American Morning broadcast at Roppongi Hills.

Can you find me? (Hint: I'm not one of the hatless people.)

And it was cold. Not unbearably cold - I grew up with Nebraska winters, after all - but cold enough that after 45 minutes standing in one spot I began questioning the sanity of waiting just for a few seconds of blurry exposure in the shadows behind Bill Hemmer.

But I stuck it out for an hour and a half, and as the mostly expat crowd thinned out after 11:00 I managed to scoot up toward the front. At some point, a CNNj staff member approached sheepishly and explained with great politeness that I should not be pushing the people in front of me, as this is "very dangerous" behavior. I didn't push anyone, I told him truthfully, and he reiterated, "yes, but you should not push people." Great, thanks for the widely applicable advice, I told him, but let me tell you again that I was not pushing anyone. Perhaps you've mistaken me for someone else. All I was doing was petting Pokey the dachsund (who even got interviewed by Bill at the end of the show).

This Japanese guy in Tokyo is telling me that pushing is very dangerous behavior??? Has he ever been on a rush hour subway in this town?

Aside from swiveling around now and then to ask his fan base how we were doing, Bill didn't interact with the crowd as much as I expected. He spent a lot of time fiddling with a laptop to his right or having the different cell phone models explained to him. Now and then the Japanese-looking guy next to me in the Jets cap and jacket would yell some random thing in Bill's direction, which Bill mostly ignored but occasionally would respond to. Stuff like "Where do you live, Bill?" "What part of Manhattan?" "Where are you staying in Tokyo?" "Have you eaten _____ yet?" "Hey, Bill! I saw your personal video last night." "Hey, Bill! Jack's doing the hawk report again!" Standing next to the socially awkward Jets guy provided a good exercise in patience, as he would not shut up about Pale Male and Lola, the pair of red-tail hawks in NYC that Jack Cafferty reports on every day.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the night was listening to the other expats talk about their lives in Japan. There were a number of students on one-year exchanges, but the most vocal were a group of middle-aged women in the front row. Most of them live "in the neighborhood," which means they have money. And since they apparently don't work, one could presume that they are wives of either business executives or members of the diplomatic corps. A number of them have been in Japan for anywhere from six to thirteen years. What baffled me was that they still acted completely American. I realize it's possible - especially if you're not interested in growing culturally - to live in Tokyo and never interact with the locals. Especially around the foreigner-laden Nishi Azabu and Roppongi areas. But thirteen years without learning more than how to say 'good morning' and 'good night'?

We've been here only four years, and I already feel like I've been redrawn with an indelible marker. Maybe that's my problem.

Anyway, here are some things I learned about Bill Hemmer last night:

  • He is graying in the back

  • He is not a huge fan of octopus

  • He doesn't like his glasses

  • He did like his hairdo and beard 10 years ago

  • He drinks from a Starbucks cup

  • He types expertly one-handed on his IBM Thinkpad

  • He is pretty good at sitting still for hours at a time

Kotowaza of the day: Wisdom misunderestimated


Ken wa gu ni kaeru

Meaning of Japanese:
Wisdom may masquerade as foolishness (stupidity, silliness...)

English equivalents:
A wise man may sometimes play the fool

Dec 13, 2004

American Morning and Roppongi Nights

As y'all are probably aware, CNN's American Morning is broadcasting live from Roppongi Hills in Tokyo from Monday to Wednesday this week. Tonight (Tuesday morning for you Americans) I plan to loiter around behind anchor Bill Hemmer in an attempt to get my mug, and possibly some signage, on the airwaves.

Any suggestions on how to optimize my 15 minutes?

Dec 12, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: What to wear?


Ukiyo wa ishou shichibu

Meaning of Japanese:
Seventy percent of life is a matter of appearances (clothing)

English equivalents:
Clothes make the man

Dec 10, 2004

Random pic #3: Glass blows

Unfortunate sign at one of the many glass craft shops in Otaru (link-dry English site, at posting), Hokkaido, Japan. The Japanese at the top translates to something like "try your hand at glass-blowing" or "experience glass-blowing."
Honest mistake or mischievous prank?

Kotowaza of the day: words, words, words


Hyakubun ikken ni shikazu

Meaning of Japanese:
Seeing once is better than hearing a hundred times

English equivalents:
Seeing is believing
A picture is worth a thousand words
Words are but wind

Dec 9, 2004

Random pic #2: Tang warrior

Divine warrior in three-color glaze
Tang dynasty, 8th century
Captured at the Tokyo National Museum.

Kotowaza of the day: Tight-fitting genes


Kaeru no ko wa kaeru

Meaning of Japanese:
A frog's child (tadpole) will grow to become a frog

English equivalents:
Like father, like son
Like breeds like
The apple never falls far from the tree

Dec 8, 2004

Random pic #1: Tokyo International Forum

The Tokyo International Forum end-on, at night.

Dec 7, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Encouraging conformity


Deru kui wa utareru

Meaning of Japanese:
Too tall a post (stake, pile) will be pounded down

English equivalents:
The highest brach is not the safest roost
Great winds blow on high hills

Another version - actually the one I've heard most often - is 出る釘は打たれる (deru kugi wa utareru), which translates to "the nail that protrudes will be hammered down." This kotowaza is used to teach Japanese children that conformity and modesty are the keys to getting along in the world.

In sharp contrast is the saying I heard regularly as a youngun - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Dec 6, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: stop. smell flowers. proceed.


Seite wa koto wo shison zuru

Meaning of Japanese:
Haste makes failure of the work

English equivalents:
Haste makes waste
He that will be rich before night may be hanged before noon
Slow but steady wins the race

SJF seeks partnership of mutual respect; traditional Japanese men need not apply.

The days of American soldiers bringing demure, obedient Japanese brides back stateside to cook and clean house may not be ancient history yet. But a new generation of Japanese women - career women - are agressively looking to the West for love.

According to the CSMonitor's What Japanese women want: a Western husband, as well as my own experience with a particular strong-willed dame, these women have all but given up on Japanese men and are seeking "qualities in a partner that seem rare at home... a man appreciative of a wife's career and more of a partner in daily tasks."
Indeed, some seem so enthralled with the idea that they are willing to spend thousands of dollars to inspect the wares personally. Of the more than 2,000 women on the books at one large matchmaking agency, about 200 travel to the US or Europe each month to meet prospects.
As the article points out, while the Japanese government may be troubled by this trend in light of the plummeting national fertility rate, their inaction is also partly to blame. Equal opportunity laws exist only in name and "family-friendly policies" are slow to see light.

The general Japanese tendency to move at a snail's pace on decisions sometimes seems wise to me, from a long-term perspective. Slow and steady, yadda yadda. But they're shooting themselves in the foot with the combination of low birthrate, rising social security burden, restrictive immigration policies, and sexist and ageist labor market.

Also from the article:

Mixed marriages in Japan
Japanese men marry:
Chinese 10,242
Filipinos 7,794
Koreans 2,235
Americans 156
British 65

Japanese women marry:
Koreans 5,318
Americans 1,529
Chinese 890
British 334
Filipinos 117

Dec 5, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Feeling successful?


Kouman wa shusse no yukidomari

Meaning of Japanese:
Pride is the dead end of success

English equivalents:
Pride goes before the fall

Dec 4, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Hawk kung fu


Nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu*

Meaning of Japanese:
The clever (adroit, savvy) hawk conceals its claws when they are unneeded

English equivalents:
Who knows most speaks least
Still waters run deep

*I will employ on this site a standard of romanizing Japanese that avoids "long vowel" diacriticals over what are essentially extended vowels. Aside from cases where a popular romanization already exists in exception - such as Tokyo instead of Toukyou - vowel extensions will be romanized according to the kana spelling. Thus "nou" above is simply pronounced as "no" with an extended "o" sound.

Update: On a related note, I just read that Rumsfeld has accepted a request to stay on as Secretary of Defense.

Dec 3, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: Confucianists freeze


Isha samukarazu jusha samushi

Meaning of Japanese:
Confucianists freeze while physicians escape the cold
Just as physicians prosper, Confucianists remain poor

English equivalents:
God heals and the doctor takes the fee
The love of money and the love of learning rarely meet

Dec 2, 2004

Kotowaza of the day: On devils and kindness


Wataru seken ni oni wa nai

Meaning of Japanese:
There is no true devil in this world

English equivalents:
The devil is not so black as he is painted
Kindness will creep where it may not go
There is kindness to be found everywhere

This one popped into mind because we've recently seen ads on TV for a drama called 渡る世間は鬼ばかり (Wataru seken wa oni bakari), or "The world is rife with devils."

Update: I tried using a table, but my limited HTML knowledge did not impress the Blogger gods, and they punished me with a large chunk of blank space. This definition list seems to serve my purpose well, however.

Dailysoy, redux?

Dailysoy appears to have withered lately under a local shortage of cybambition. I haven't posted in almost a month, and even then the most recent entries were tired stabs at rehashing the news and fits of whingeing about the disaster last month in the U.S.

But it's time to move on, and I'd like to get myself posting regularly (read: daily) again. Since dailysoy probably has no regular visitors anymore, I figured the best motivation would be to engage myself in a mini-project that will at least do me some good. If anyone else benefits from an intercultural understanding point of view, all the better.

Thus I tentatively unveil the Kotowaza of the day. Kotowaza (ことわざ, 諺) are Japanese maxims or proverbs. While many of them contain elements that are culturally unfamiliar to Western English-speakers, a surprising number of them correspond nicely to sayings we all know.
Beware, I plan to use Japanese character sets alongside their romanization for all of these.