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Japan & America: Linguistic Differences, Cultural Differences, and Being a Foreigner in Japan

August 23, 2010 1 comment

Japan and America

I just finished reading a book called Japan & America, by Bernice Z. Goldstein and Kyoko Tamura. It examines certain differences between Japanese and American linguistics in the interest of using those differences as a base for analysis of cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Their specific interest is in who is talking, how that person talks to the listener, and how they talk about a third party, when mentioned. In their own words:

We assume that any language is a pattern through which a speaker learns how to conceive of himself in relation to others and learns to think of others in relation to himself and still others. Most particularly throughout the course of this book, we suggest that Americans and Japanese see these relationships of speaker to listener and to third parties in very different ways, and we believe that the differences between American English and Japanese melt into differences between culture and personality in our two societies. Fundamentally our problem concerns the question of who is related to whom and how. This question is pertinent to the study of any language, but our focus is “who is related to whom and how” as it applies to differences between American and Japan, first from the vantage point of language differences and later as it applies to differences in culture and personality.

They conclude that American English and the child-rearing practices of the American mother serve to create a person who relates to other people by linguistically minimizing differences in rank and status, for the most part, between himself and others. Self-identity is expressed through means such as personal comments tacked on to standard polite forms. An individual may be part of a group, but group associations are often fleeting and not usually considered part of the definition of his identity.

The Japanese language and the child-rearing practices of the Japanese mother, however, teach a child from early on to be keenly aware of differences in status between individuals and the groups they belong to. Part of one’s self-identity as expressed in conversation concerns the manipulation of polite and humble linguistic forms to indicate to which groups the speaker and listener belong and how they relate to each other.

The book is 35 years old, but based on things I’ve learned from other sources and my own experiences in Japan, the information contained therein remains relevant. Personally, I found it an enlightening read. As I read it, little memories popped into my head, providing illustrations from personal experience. Mistakes I made during my stay in Japan punched me in the mental nose. Jumbled information about Japan and the Japanese language clicked into their proper places. This one book solidified my understanding of aspects of the Japanese language and culture which I have studied for almost ten years with middling success. Now I’ll be armed with much better manners when I return to Japan.

I recommend Japan & America to any native speaker of English who is studying Japanese, of course, but it’s suitable for anyone with interest in the differences between the Japanese and western cultures. I am unfamiliar with differences between the United States and other English-speaking countries, but my limited understanding indicates that there are at least some parallels. And if not… who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something about the USA while you’re at it.

On Being a Foreigner in Japan

Party at My Place in Japan

Upon closing the book on the last page, my mind flitted back to a post on Gakuranman’s blog earlier this year about becoming Japanese. A bunch of J-vloggers (Japan-related video bloggers, for long) over on YouTube got into a lengthy and heated debate about the Japanese people’s acceptance of foreigners who have chosen to live in Japan.

Any foreigner who’s lived in Japan for longer than a week has experienced an array of special treatment in every range of the spectrum from good to bad. Sometimes you encounter someone who believes so strongly that foreigners can’t learn Japanese that he’ll refuse to listen to you long enough to realize that you’re not speaking English. Other times, people will buy you pricey gifts or food just for the chance to practice their English on you for half an hour. At all times, though, there is an invisible wall, of sorts, a distance between you and them. There are exceptions of course, usually among younger folk who have visited a foreign country before or would like to in the future, but for the most part, you’re never quite accepted.

Some foreigners (at least, among us English-speakers) are bothered by the fact that the Japanese refuse to adopt us. Others (myself included) are okay with it. If you visit that post of Gakuranman’s, above, and watch the videos, you’ll see an interesting array of perspectives on the topic from a variety of people whose experiences in Japan differ by length and type.

Now, while I don’t mind that I’ll always stick out a bit in Japan, it is nice to have a better understanding of why that’s so. This is where Japan & America connects to the issue.

If the authors, a linguist and an anthropologist, are correct about how the association of individuals to groups and of groups to other groups make up such an integral part of the Japanese collective psyche, then it may very well be impossible for them to forget that we are foreigners. Those of us who are non-Asian stick out like bright blue thumbs in such a homogeneous society that they can’t help but be constantly reminded that we’re in a separate group. The rules of Japanese society practically require them to treat us like members of an out-group at least part of the time.

To compound the problem, we’re part of an out-group about which everything they know is learned from movies and on TV and in other media. You all know how the media distorts things, right? Right. Well, the Japanese media does it, too. So they’re left to categorize us as a group by what they’ve learned through the media, giving them either an idealized or criminalized view of us, full of oversimplifications and rife with misinformation either way.

I think it’s unfortunate that so many people are bothered by how the Japanese treat foreigners. It makes me wonder if the people who are bothered have really tried to understand the Japanese people or if they’re just looking at it from a western perspective and expecting Japan to conform to western ideals. Our cultures are so different on so many basic levels that I believe trying to make the Japanese accept us using western ideals is uncool and a fruitless effort. If they’re unhappy with how the Japanese treat them when they live in Japan, then maybe they should consider returning to wherever they came from.

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Back to College

August 21, 2010 Leave a comment

My update count has fallen off a bit lately. This is mostly because I’m preparing to return to Fairbanks for college this semester. I’ll be leaving town on the 28th, and will probably take a day or two to settle in at the dorms once I get there; until then, expect few updates… though I’ll try to get at least one or two in.

I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been up to anything, after all. I made a bodacious hula hoop and took pictures of a bunch of flyers and stuff I brought back with me from Japan before throwing them away.

Categories: Site-Related

Bright Green Gaijin Pants, Post 3-11

August 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Bright Green Gaijin PantsMy first blog, titled Bright Green Gaijin Pants, was a chronicle of my time as an exchange student in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan. I’ve decided to repost its contents on this blog. For a full list of all these posts, click Bright Green Gaijin Pants on the menu, above.

The first blog post of any real worth that I published from Japan was far larger than it had any right to be. It was actually several posts combined and posted at the same time because I didn’t have internet access when I first got to Japan. I have reposted them separately, as they were meant to be.

Small Victories

Originally posted on October 16, 2005.

I have successfully explained binary and how to count in binary on your fingers to a Japanese person who has no computer programming experience using the Japanese language. You have no idea how awesome that felt. I can feel the power of the Japanese language growing within me daily. Soon, I shall conquer the universe.

I mean, be fluent.

Anyway. The other day, Sato introduced me to a large group of her fellow Okinawans, and we went to a robata. A robata is a restaurant where the table is a grill with boards around it on which you can set your plate. You pick a table, then go up and pay for the food you want (Actually, you paid at the register for vouchers that you could then take to the food counters to exchange for the tasties arranged before you, but whatever), then take it back to your table and cook it. They have small portions of some things on sticks, some whole fish, some whole shellfish, a few things that come in a tin so you can cook them together for flavor, some plain ol’ vegetables, squid — all kinds of stuff. So.

Okinawans at the Robata

This was taken with my cell phone at the robata. (Photo added to this post on August 17, 2010.)

Taste-O-Meter!

Ika (Squid): 3
It tastes fine, but the texture is a bit rubbery, making chewing and swallowing take a bit more time.

Tama, Sanma, and Hokke (each a kind of fish): 3
I’m not so fond of fish.

Hokke bones: 4
Once a fish had been divested of flesh, the Okinawans placed it back on the grill. Later, I saw Sato chowing down on Sanma skeleton, and went o_O . Then, one of the guys (I never found out his name, though I talked to him a bit) offered me the opportunity to try some of his Hokke skeleton. It’s tastier than the fish, and since it was well cooked, the bones were brittle and not dangerous.

Kaki (a shellfish): 3
I prefer oyster, but this is pretty good, too. Bigger than oysters are. The meat of the kaki is bigger than an oyster in its shell.

Aspara-Bacon (Pieces of asparagus wrapped in bacon): 5
Hot diggety-damn. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but it was a good one. This is some tasty, tasty stuff. (August 17, 2010 Edit: Since returning to the States, this has been a major hit every time I’ve shared it. You should try it — it’s easy and delicious!)

Hitsuji (Lamb) and Sprouts: 4
This actually came in a pan. When we told the person behind the counter that we’d have that, she added some sort of oriental-flavored sauce to it. It was good, but I still prefer my baby sheep meat on pita bread.

Toriniku (Chicken): 5
Chicken on a stick. Speaks for itself, I think.

Butaniku (Pork): 4
Three pieces of pork on a stick, with some kind of vegetable (from the onion family, maybe) in between the pieces. The vegetable is an excellent choice to go with the pork.

I didn’t try the chicken skins on a stick (though I will next time, I think). Between what I paid for and the massive amounts of food that got shared later I ended up trying almost everything the store had. At the end, everyone was full, so I ended up with the leftover vouchers. They had to be used by Saturday if they were gonna get used, but I forgot until it was raining pretty hard Saturday evening. The robata is in a nice spot on the riverfront, but it’s a 15-20 minute walk, and I didn’t want to go there in the rain with no umbrella.

I’ve never been much of an umbrella-user, but now that I’m walking everywhere I’m starting to see the appeal. It’s sunny today, so I’ll probably see if the nearby 100 yen store has any. I know that the first 100 yen store I went to had a bunch. If nothing else, I know they sell them at the Co-op, though it’s a bit more expensive there.

Old-Fashioned Kettle

Traditionally, the kettles are heated over coals in a pit set into the floor (with a trap tatami mat to cover it when not in use). The school washitsu had such a pit, but fire is dangerous and so we were required to use electric heating devices. (Photo added to this post on August 17, 2010.)

Friday, I got my own supplies for sadou club. ^^ It was a lot of fun; I got to run through the whole tea ceremony three times. There are multiple tea ceremony set-ups. I got to do the one with a good old-fashioned tea kettle twice, and the one with a kama (the kind you usually see in pictures; it’s an iron kettle with a small lid that you have to dip water out of with a scoop called hishaku) that is set into a table.

Taste-O-Meter!

Kusadango (a candy eaten with green tea): 5
They tasted a little weird at first, but I quickly fell in love with them.

After that, I headed home. Two of the other girls in sadoubu live in my apartment building, and one other lives up towards the buddhist tower just up the hill from me. Ryoko is one of the girls who lives in this building, and she invited the other three of us to her house for dinner. When we got into her apartment, I discovered that I really don’t have a lot of stuff. I’m pretty sure that if I were in America with all my stuff in an apartment this size, it’d look pretty similar to hers, but at the moment, I have like nothing. (On the plus side, when Conrad, Jordan, and their friends come to Japan, there’ll be room for them to sleep at my place when they come to Kushiro. [August 17, 2010 Edit: The bastards never came!])

Ryoko has a Gamecube. :D The first person I’ve socialized with in Japan to play video games is a girl with the exact same color Gamecube I’ve got back home. That was pretty awesome. It may not sound like much, but there are more Gamecube colors available in Japan, reducing the chances of the same color. While cooking was getting started, we talked about games in America and Japan. I ended up listing some game franchises in America; the only ones that got really spiffy reactions out of the other girls (all three of these knew something about games) were Mario (eternal), Suikoden, and Katamari Damacy. I also found out that Jak & Daxter have made it over here, but aren’t very popular. Didn’t surprise me at all.

Conversation moved on to other things, too, as conversations, do. The other long-standing conversations was how much pizza and beer North Americans down. One of the girls went to Canada on exchange, and her host mother wasn’t much of a cooker, so they had lots of ravioli and pizza. Then the food was done and ready to eat. There was kabocha (pumpkin), which was dished out in equal portions on small plates. In the center of everyone was a plate that had somen (a kind of noodle) and tuna.

Taste-O-Meter!

Somen with tuna: 4
Somen is a pretty tasty noodle. It’s got a milder flavor than ramen or pasta, but it went really well with the tuna. Originally, Ryoko was going to use pasta with the tuna, but she didn’t have any sauce. She had a zillion packages of udon, though, it turns out, but I guess udon doesn’t go well with tuna, ’cause as soon as she found the somen, everyone but me was like, “Aha!” (August 17, 2010 Edit: After this, somen with tuna became a common meal for me.)

I didn’t catch the other girls’ names, but next Friday we’re to have dinner together at the apartment of the other girl in my building, then mine. I’m planning to make grilled cheese sandwiches. Yum.

Realizations of the Period

1) Joining a club has proven the best way for me to immerse my ears in Japanese so that I can get my brain more used to processing it. There’s a lot of friendly conversation going on during and after sadoubu.
2) Sato and the other Okinawans all transferred here for this semester, so they know just as little of Kushiro as I do, though they’re obviously far better versed in the Japanese language and customs.
3) This stupid blog post is done. DONE! AHAHAHAHAHA!

August 17, 2010 Edit: Done, indeed. The next BGGP blog entry will be Post 4.

Bright Green Gaijin Pants, Post 3-10

August 10, 2010 2 comments

Bright Green Gaijin PantsMy first blog, titled Bright Green Gaijin Pants, was a chronicle of my time as an exchange student in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan. I’ve decided to repost its contents on this blog. For a full list of all these posts, click Bright Green Gaijin Pants on the menu, above.

The first blog post of any real worth that I published from Japan was far larger than it had any right to be. It was actually several posts combined and posted at the same time because I didn’t have internet access when I first got to Japan. I will be reposting them separately, as they were meant to be.

More News

Originally posted on October 16, 2005.

It’s been a week since I updated this… o.O Holy Hand Grenade, it HAS been a week. Well. Let’s start with…

Taste-O-Meter!

Natto

Natto up close. Fermented soy beans. Definitely an acquired taste. (Photo by Jasja Dekker.)

Natto: 3
Ever since I got to UAF, I’ve heard about natto. It’s slightly fermented soy beans. Generally, foreigners come to Japan can’t stand the stuff. I’ve heard horror stories about how the first thing people wanted to do after putting it in their mouths is to spit it out. I did not have that problem. Maybe it’s my faulty nose making my taste buds think the wrong thing, but I just found the taste to be… interesting. I don’t really want to eat more natto, but I’m sure that if I had to eat it every day it would quickly become palatable, then tasty. Foreigners who’ll eat natto are rare, so Sayaka wanted a picture.

Korokke: 4
I’m not sure what, exactly, korokke is, but I like it. I grabbed it ’cause I wasn’t paying attention and thought it was tonkatsu. (August 10, 2010 edit: It’s like a breaded potato fritter. Carbs, carbs, carbs. Delicious carbs, but carbs.)

Aka Ringo, Ao Ringo Apple Juice: 5
The Sunkist apple juice pales in comparison. This is more like the apple juice you get in America yet still more apple-y, in the Japanese Sunkist apple juice style. Aka means red, Ao means blue. Blue here means green; the Japanese word for green is a pretty new thing in their language, so they still use blue to mean green as often as not.

Other Apple Juice: 4
I forget the name of this one, but it comes in a black box. Better than Sunkist, not as good as Aka/Ao.

Bacon Mayo Roll: 5
I don’t really like mayonnaise, though I do like it cooked into things at times. Deviled eggs, potato salad, and the like are actually some of my favorite foods. The bacon mayo roll (which I have so far only found at 7-11 stores [which are kind of cool to see again after so many years, coincidentally]) has enough of a mayo taste to be noticeable, but the main flavor is still bread and bacon. I woke up this morning and wanted one, but I went to Sunkus (another convenience store) and discovered they don’t have it.

Pork Winter Roll: 5
This is a lot like the bacon mayo roll. It was, in fact, my breakfast today, since I couldn’t find a bacon mayo roll at Sunkus. It’s got the same kind of bread as the bacon mayo roll, but instead of bacon and mayo, it has a hot dog and some kind of cheese sauce. Yum!

Mister Donuts Donuts

I couldn't find a picture of a Mister Donut milkshake. Have some donuts instead. The third from the left is the brand's iconic donut shape, which looks kind of like a teething ring. (Photo by Yumi Kimura.)

Mister Donuts Vanilla Shake: 5
It’s a good shake. But it’s tiny compared to the servings you get of milkshakes in America. This thing was only about 8 ounces. For 200 yen… kind of expensive. The donuts at the shop were good, too. (They don’t get their own Taste-O-Meter entry because, as usual, I got glazed. A glazed doughnut is a glazed doughnut.)

Anko-Filled Rolls: 3
Anko is a sweet bean paste. Not generally something I look for inside a bread, but it doesn’t taste bad.

Japanese Nabisco Saltines: 5
These get their own Taste-O-Meter entry for two reasons: first, they’re less salty than their American counterparts (which is actually pretty nice); second, when I opened the box expecting two packages of crackers, I actually found nine. There were like 6 crackers to a package. It was convenient, but made the crackers even more expensive than they already were.

Random Blue Cup Noodle: 3
It had some kind of fish in it for meat. Didn’t taste bad, but wasn’t really good either. Noodles.

Random Green Cup Noodle: 4
Pork. Mmm.

Pork Ramen: 5
Real ramen is better than instant ramen, and the portions are big, too. Hallelujah. There’s also large chunks of pork and some vegetables in it. Woot! (I still think Harlan should do a ramen cook-off as a dorm program, btw.)

So there’s the Taste-O-Meter for the past week. Eating isn’t all I’ve done… in fact, I’m skimping on food a bit to save money. Not going hungry, but making damned sure not to overeat and eating cheaply. My morning bacon roll or whatever and a box of apple juice is about 200 yen. For the evening, I have spaghetti. It’s like 125 yen for a kg of spaghetti, and I only need about an eighth of that to make a meal. :D

I am indebted to Nacilik; he gave me 200 dollars before I left Japan so I could buy him some manga. Without it, I would be in trouble. m(_ _)m I find myself having to borrow from his cash, since it turns out that my scholarship gets disbursed at month’s end. That’s good to know. I found out because I was like, hey… I need to pay my rent somehow. Fortunately for me, my landlord is willing to take my rent at the end of the month, along with next month’s rent. >.> I’ll be poor again for another month, but then it’ll be smooth sailing.

Japanese Crossword Puzzles

This is three puzzles with a mixed set of clues. Harder than the ones I tackled, but gives you a look at the magazine. (Photo taken by Nemo's great uncle.)

I’ve bought myself a Japanese crossword magazine. I suck at Japanese crosswords. I need a kanji dictionary just to read the clues. Thankfully, all the answers are written in katakana. Not all of the puzzles in the book are traditional crosswords, though; some are the kind of puzzle where you have a word list and a blank grid and have to figure out how to place the words. Those I can do. I would like to get better at this for two reasons: one is mastery of the language. The only answer I’ve gotten so far (I haven’t bothered with the kanji dictionary ^^’) is Cairo, being the capital of Egypt. However, all throughout the magazine there is talk of “presents” which somehow relates to the completion of the puzzles. Among the presents are a DS and a PSP, as well as various spiffy-looking household goods, so… I need to get that translated as well.

I have done a lot more exploring. There are ramen shops all over the place. I’ve found or been shown a furniture store, two more karaoke places, two “recycle shops” (used stuff stores), a sushi bar, a big book store (which is likely where I’ll find the manga Nacilik wants, as well as the stuff I want), two kimono shops, a large clothing store, a couple of more places to buy food, several convenience stores (they’re more everywhere you want to be than Visa around here), and some other stuff I’ll probably remember next time I need to think about them. Woot! Good stuff.

茶道の道具 -- Japanese Tea Ceremony Tools

This picture was taken much later in my stay. This super-fancy equipment was used for more advanced tea ceremony forms. (Photo added to post on August 10, 2010.)

I’ve also joined the Sadou (Japanese tea ceremony) club. Sadou is awesome, on many levels. It’s very relaxing, for one. It’s all about hospitality and getting good at it. The constant presence of boiling water makes the place warm, too. It’s also interesting to watch (and perform — I’ve learned the basics) the exact movements required. It’s got an all-around meditative air to it. And I’ll tell you what: real, honest-to-goodness Japanese green tea is so much better than the kind of “green tea” that you can buy in American stores that I can’t believe I ever liked the latter. The foods that go with the tea ceremony are also traditional, and complement the taste of the tea so well I don’t think I can give it words. Glory! I wonder if I can get tea ceremony equipment in America. This is already something I’m interested in continuing after I go home.

Yeah. So.

Realizations of the Period

1) I don’t read kanji as well as I thought I did — though thankfully, part of that is rust.
2) Japanese sounds really cool with a heavy Russian accent, even if it is a bit more interesting to understand.
3) I can get to a lot of places when I walk for an hour. It’s an odd feeling.
4) I’ve been asked by multiple people what sort of sports I like. The only good answer I have for them? Curling. I really must take that up when I get back.
5) True green tea is the bomb-diggity.

August 10, 2010 Edit: I can get sadou equipment, even here in Alaska, thanks to web sites such as eBay. I still don’t read kanji as well as I’d like, though that’s improving as I read more Japanese so that they’re in context. I still haven’t taken up curling. :(

Getting to lots of places with an hour’s walk felt weird because everything’s so spread out in Alaska — right now I can walk for an hour and end up in a shopping district, but when I go back to Fairbanks, an hour’s walk from campus will get me a couple of restaurants and possibly some railroad tracks. In Kushiro, an hour’s walk was an adventure no matter which way I went.

Abandoned Mine

August 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Far Left Part's Far Left Wall

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the locals in Juneau directed me to a nearby abandoned mine a short walk away from downtown. The walk was uphill, but pleasantly so, and getting there was well worth the trek. The place is sweet. Daryl and Mike told me later on the ferry ride back to Haines that when this mine was closed down, it was bombarded by fire from battleships in the harbor. To this day, there’s a lot of crumbled concrete and piles of sheet metal and other scraps laying about.

Scraps and Some Trees

I had difficulty getting crisp shots in general, and of a giant cog in the ruins in particular. You can see it in the photo below (you may have to click to view the full size version), inside the structure on the right-hand side. I really wanted a good picture of that, but I was unwilling to scrabble up the scrap — especially in the rain — to do so.

Find the Cog!

This structure was a hop and a skip up the mountain from the main path. There was a branching path leading up to it, which had an interesting plant about halfway up. I say “interesting” because I realized, once my foot was hovering in the air above it, that it was not a plant. It appeared to be cut-off steel cables sticking out of the ground.

Ferrous Flora

The only picture of this plant that came out well enough to be worth keeping is this one. Seen from the side as you go up the path, it blends in well with that grass to look like some unfamiliar, grassy plant.

Farther up the main path was a rock slide, followed by another structure of grander scale.

Rock Slide

Larger Structure

Unfortunately, there was trash by both structures. Bums had left clothing, book bags, and other crap by the first structure, while the larger structure had some pretty intensive graffiti on parts of it. In front of the larger structure, pretty much right on the trail, was what looked to be a popular spot for bonfires and beer.

Party Place

Ruins, Nature, and Bum Leavings

And, as is becoming common here, more pictures are up on Flickr.

Downtown Juneau

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Shop Window

Downtown Juneau is tourist country. It’s as bad as Hawaii in that respect — you step off the cruise ship to face narrow streets overloaded with tiny shops catering to people with money to burn. It thins out a bit as you get away from the docks, but there’s still a tattoo parlor right around the corner from another tattoo parlor and two or three places serving gelato and coffee within five minutes of each other.

Mural

Covered Sidewalks

Don’t get me wrong; I love downtown Juneau. One of my favorite things about downtown Juneau was the coverings over the sidewalks. Color and care varied from building to building, but they all served to keep the tourists nice and dry.

A quick look up the mountain revealed clouds that looked like they were walking through the trees. They were never still.

Walking Clouds

The coolest part of downtown was the docks themselves. I didn’t go up to the rail and get any pictures of the water because there was a yellow line and a bunch of signs proclaiming that crossing it was a breach of security. Even though I was well away from the single cruise ship at port, there was someone patrolling, so I restrained myself.

The Medium-Thickness Yellow Line

DANGER: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY ON DOLPHIN

Barrelz

I liked the effect of the moss at the bottom of the barrels. It was clinging to the fixtures attaching the barrels to the dock. It balanced out the foliage on top. I wonder how long the barrels have been there.

More pictures of downtown Juneau can be found on Flickr. This is the same album linked in the post titled Juneau Proper.

Categories: Alaska, Juneau Tags: , ,