Friday 30 June 2017

The Japanese Character: Courteous or Short-tempered?

One of the most common images of the Japanese, both inside and outside Japan, is that they are courteous (reigi-tadashii =礼儀正しい). For example, in the latest (2013) Institute of Statistical Mathematics regular survey on the Japanese self-image, "courteous" was joint top (together with"hard-working" or kinben =勤勉) as the word which best represented the characteristics of the Japanese. A 2012 global survey by Dentsu of foreign images of Japanese produced a similar result (see page 7). The perception of the Japanese as courteous grew stronger both after the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and also during the promotion of omotenashi Japanese hospitality in the campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Violence is a Crime"
Given the strength of the national character (kokuminsei =国民性) stereotype of the Japanese as super-polite, it is interesting to note the existence of a media discourse lamenting the increase in middle-aged and elderly (chūkōnen =中高年) people who snap and "lose it" (kireru the intransitive form of the verb kiru, to cut). This discourse was in fact prominent in the late 1990s when it mostly referred to kireru kodomo (kids who snap) against the context of heinous crimes by juveniles and the collapse (of discipline) in the classroom (gakkyūhōkai =学級崩壊). Today, it is chūkōnen who explode in anger at stations, hospitals, and stores (the poster on the right is the latest in a campaign which started in 2015 at stations to stamp out violence against station staff). Over-60s were the top demographic in 2015 in terms of those commiting such incidents.

Click to see on amazon
The problem of angry older people was epitomised in a May 14th letter from a young reader in the Yomiuri's problem page (jinsei-annai 人生案内) column (reprinted here in English) troubled about how to deal with with enraged chūkōnen customers. The letter prompted many readers to write in with similar experiences and led to a follow-up article trying to explain the phenomenon. Psychologist Hiroaki Enomoto, author of "The reason why chūkōnen lose it" (pictured left) put it down to stress stemming from frustration at and dissatisfaction with outspoken/overly-sensitive young co-workers in a system that is no longer based on seniority or effort but merit (seika-shugi =成果主義). Feelings of not being respected either at home or in the workplace are exacerbated following retirement when their sense of having no "place" (ibasho =居場所) is heightened as communication chances with others decrease. Interestingly, Enomoto focuses almost exclusively on men, even though such incidents are certainly not limited by gender.

 Whatever the reasons, this is no media exaggeration: the number of elderly criminals has skyrocketed in recent years, overtaking juveniles for the first time in 2015. Today, amid a rapidly ageing population (kōreika =高齢化) the ageing prison population (and prisoners with dementia) has become a key social issue: today more than 20% of inmates are over 60-years-old, and many of these deliberately re-offend, reflecting the fact that for many prison has become their ibasho.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Onigiri: Environmentally Friendly Rice-balls

Two shelves of rice-balls, both triangular and round, in a local 7-Eleven
Different flavours of onigiri lined up in a 7-Eleven
The word for rice-ball - onigiri (お握り) from the verb nigiru meaning to squeeze, grip, or mould - is not quite as ubiquitous as sushi yet but it is certainly one of the Japanese food words which is fairly well-known outside of Japan. Onigiri are typically triangular or round, wrapped in seaweed (nori), and contain something salty or sour like salmon, cod roe, or pickled plum - anything that can be a natural preservative. The top 20 fillings (with pictures) are listed here: the number one, tuna-mayonnaise, is definitely my favourite too! The rice used is usually simple white plain rice and different from the vinegared rice found in sushi and the mochi-gome described in an earlier post. For a peek inside an onigiri factory see here.

Beni-zake/shake (red salmon) onigiri
What is particularly interesting about the onigiri sold at convenience stores (kombini) across Japan is how technologically advanced - and environmentally sound - the wrapping has become. The seaweed and the rice are ingeniously separated with a thin film of plastic, thereby ensuring the seaweed remains crisp. Moreover, in the case of 7-Eleven onigiri at least, the packaging as a whole, including the film, is made from vegetable products with rice ink writing (see picture top right). When opening the onigiri, one must carefully pull tabs one, two, and three in order to ensure that the film is removed smoothly leaving the seaweed intact. Tab number one at the top of the onigiri (pictured) reads "pull down" (shita ni hiku = 下に引く) and the instructions stress that it is important to pull this tab all the way round to the back before tearing it off (tēpu o ura ni mawashite okiri kudasai =テープを裏に回してお切りください). For those having trouble opening their onigiri neatly, please check out the video below for a demonstration!

Monday 26 June 2017

How to Purify Yourself when Visiting a Shrine

A signboard detailing five steps on washing hands and rinsing your mouth expected of visitors before they pray at the altar
Instructions on how to wash your hands before praying at Yasukuni Shrine
A number of posts to date - such as those on shide paper, Japanese toilets, and torii gates - have highlighted the importance of the impure/pure division in Japanese society. A further example of the importance of purification (kiyome =浄め・清め) is washing when visiting a shrine. After passing through the torii and under the shide - which do themselves symbolise purification - and before praying at the altar itself, it is expected that visitors will "purify" their hands (te o kiyomeru =手を浄める) at the temizuya (手水屋), a small open pavilion with a trough of water.

The instructions - note how they are written from right to left like a Japanese book - are quite specific (pictured above). First, pick up a ladle (hishaku =柄杓) with your right hand, scoop up some water, and pour it over your left hand. Second, switch the ladle to your left hand and clean your right hand. Third, switch the ladle back to your right hand, scoop up some water, and pour this water into your left hand; then sup a little water from your left hand (don't swallow!), rinse your mouth, and spit out in the drain. Fourth, clean your left hand one last time. And fifth, return the scoop gently to the edge of the temizuya. The process may seem a little confusing (there is a short video below) but it is a lot easier than misogi which covers a number of exhausting whole-body purification activities, the best known of which is standing under an ice-cold waterfall in nothing but a loin cloth!

UPDATE: A friend pointed out that it is more common to use one ladle scoop for the whole process rather than to keep refilling the ladle. Check out the video here for this method.

Saturday 24 June 2017

Torii Gates - Big and Small

The 12th century stone torii in Yamagata city left with a more modern red torii right
Motoki no Ishi Torii (left) in Yamagata City
Everyone is familiar with the traditional Japanese gate or torii (鳥居) most commonly found at the entrance to a shrine (or sometimes temple). In a previous post, I talked about the boundary between the profane (impure) and the sacred (pure) which the gate typically marks. The oldest torii in Japan is a stone one in Yamagata that dates back to the 12th century (pictured right). One of the most well-known is the famous "floating" vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Hiroshima, historically listed as one of the three most scenic views in Japan (nihon sankei =日本三景). In terms of popularity though, the thousand torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto are unsurpassed. Torii are (usually) large enough to walk through, though one is apparently not supposed to walk dead centre (seichū =正中)through the gate as this is the path of the Gods. The images below show: from left to right, a gate leading up to a small neighbourhood shrine, three gates in the centre of a large shrine in a park (note the shide purifying paper), and a solitary gate in the middle of a field in front of a tiny shrine.

Three pictures of torii gates in different areas of the local neighbourhood
L to R, (1) torri in a small neighbourhood shrine, (2) three torii in a park shrine and (3) a solitary torii in a barren field
However, less well known are the tiny torii dotted around the neighbourhood in difficult to see places: by the side of a road, in the undergrowth next to a fence, or hidden away on a small path (pictured below - look carefully!). Why are they there? Believe it or not, the reason is apparently to deter passers-by (and/or their dogs) from urinating (shōben =小便) and dumping rubbish (fuhōtōki =不法投棄)! Because the torii signifies sacred ground (even though there is no actual shrine present), doing either of these actions would presumably consecrate the site, thereby angering the gods. I wonder how effective they are at subconsciously deterring these kind of actions?

Picture on the left showing a tiny red torii in a bamboo grove behind a fence and on the right the same kind of small torii again behind a fence inside a company parking lot
Two tiny torii on the road leading to the station, as a deterrent to passers-by not to urinate or throw rubbish!

Thursday 22 June 2017

The "Japanese is difficult" myth

Six Japanese textbooks, including those for kanji and katakana
A selection of Japanese language textbooks
There is a common perception, both inside and outside Japan, that the Japanese language is difficult. Part of the reason is the perceived linguistic/cultural gap with English: the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks Japanese as "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers" and puts it in the highest category V (with an asterisk pointing out that it is the most difficult in this category!). The FSI estimates it would take 88 weeks (2200 hours) for a native English speaker to attain proficiency in speaking and reading Japanese. This perception is reinforced by the discourse of Japanese identity known as Nihonjinron which stresses that the Japanese are a homogeneous people (tan'itsu minzoku) with a "uniquely unique" language and culture.

But is Japanese really that difficult? A couple of disclaimers before I answer. First, it is important to distinguish spoken and written language. Here, I'm going to focus on spoken Japanese, since learning thousands of characters is undeniably tough (even for Japanese children!). Second, while Japanese does have a complex system of honorifics or respectful language (keigo =敬語), even Japanese struggle with this (companies will generally teach this to new employees). So, putting kanji and keigo aside, how difficult is Japanese? First, pronunciation is simple: there are only 5 vowel sounds and no diphthongs and spelling is entirely regular (English has around 20 vowel sounds, including diphthongs, and spelling often doesn't correspond to pronunciation). See this post for a simple explanation of the sound system. Second, grammar is easy-peasy (and I say this as a struggling Spanish learner): there is no gender, no singular-plural, no subject-verb agreement, and no definite articles; subjects, objects, and grammatical particles (wa/ga/o) are often dropped; and there are only two tenses and two irregular verbs, suru and kuru (English, in comparison has around 200!). On top of that, Japanese is full of fixed-phrases that are easy to learn. For the sake of non-Japanese speakers, let's look at a quick example of everyday casual conversation (note that Japanese word order is object-verb rather than verb-object as in English):

ENGLISH  :    Q. Did you eat the apple?           A. Yeah, I ate the apple/it
JAPANESE :  Q. Ringo tabeta(ka)?                   A. Hai, tabeta
                             (Apple ate?)                                 (Yes, ate)

Compared to the English, the Japanese is super-simple: subjects (and the question marker ka) are unnecessary, one doesn't need to worry about articles or singular/plural, and the verb form doesn't change at all from question to answer. So there you have it - the biggest barrier to learning Japanese is often psychological: the stereotype that it is difficult. For those interested in learning, there are loads of good beginner textbooks. For intermediate, I highly recommend this one. Good luck!

Actually, even after years in Japan, there is still one thing I find particularly difficult (apart from colours): when to switch from "good morning" (ohayō) to hello/good afternoon (konnichiwa). My textbook gave 11:00am as the switch over time, but in practice it seems a bit earlier, perhaps depending on when the speaker woke up too! Nobody really seems to know. Interestingly, university students (as well as those in the entertainment industry apparently) will use ohayō when they meet their classmates for the first time that day - even if it is in the afternoon! Maybe the FSI was right after all...

Monday 19 June 2017

The New Sex-Crime Revisions and Chikan

A chikan poster at a local station with a picture of a woman and a slogan
A poster at station pointing out that "Chikan" is a crime
Friday saw ground-breaking revisions (kaisei =改正) to the penal code (keihō =刑法) relating to provisions for sex-crimes (sei-hanzai ni kan suru kitei =性犯罪に関する規定), the first since the code was established in 1907. The revisions include recognising male rape, longer prison sentences, and the ability to press charges even if the victim doesn't file a complaint. Critics point out though that violence/assault (bōkō =暴行) or intimidation (kyōhaku =脅迫) remain prerequisites to establish the crime of rape; on top of that, spousal rape is still unrecognised. Still, the revisions are a sign of changing attitudes in Japanese society towards sexual crimes and in past years the change has been dramatic. One of the clearest signs of change in everyday life is the campaign to eradicate gropers (chikan =痴漢) who commit sexual assault on (usually crowded) trains. Although it is important to note that this crime is by no means unique to Japan - Japanese exceptionalism merely perpetuates Orientalist stereotypes of Asians as weird or perverted - the existence of a special word does suggest a social problem. Indeed, the fact that the chi in chikan means stupid or foolish (oroka-na) reflects how such incidents tended to be treated less than seriously in the past. This is reflected in posters such as that below right which seem to put the onus on the victim rather than the perpetrator ("Be careful of Chikan! They are targetting you! (Don't) walk using your phone").

One very visible measure has been the introduction of women-only (josei-senyō =女性専用) train carriages during rush-hour (see pictures left). Moreover, posters like the one above are prominent at stations and on trains (the caption on the left of the poster says, "passing fancies/sudden impulses (dekigokoro) will not be excused"). Today, riding on the JR Chuo Line, I watched a video with a similar message. Actually, despite the poster declaring that chikan is a "crime", most incidents are punished not as criminal offences but as violations of the ANO or Anti-Nuisance Ordinance (meiwaku bōshi jōrei =迷惑防止条例), a local law to protect (only) women enacted by each individual prefecture. Punishment is typically a fine of ¥500,000. Only a few of the most serious incidents are treated under 176 of the Criminal (Penal) Code dealing with indecent assault (kyōsei waisetsu) which allows for a prison sentence of up to ten years. Data from the 2016 police white paper (p.106) for 2015 lists 3,206 arrests under the ANO (inside and outside trains) and 278 under the penal code (inside trains only).  However, this is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg: some surveys have suggested that as many as 90% of incidents are not reported.

Under-reporting is compounded by a dominant narrative in the media about "false accusations" known in Japanese as enzai (冤罪). For example, see here for a recent Asahi Television programme hosted by Beat Takeshi. Moreover, a case in early June in which a male passenger was accused but exonerated by fellow passengers received a lot of media attention. One of the most famous cases was Koji Yatabe who had his conviction over-turned after many months in custody and a two-year legal battle to prove his innocence. The 2006 film "I just Didn't Do it" (それでも僕はやっていない), pictured above right, is based on his case; he also wrote a book (bottom right) together with his wife. It is difficult to know how many enzai cases there actually are; perpetrators tend to be rather devious (there are even "how to" manuals)  and position their bodies so that they won't be suspected. Moreover, it is possible that a shocked victim in a crowded train could misidentify her attacker. As a man, I can testify that the fear of being falsely accused is very real and riding a crowded train demands one keep one's hands in full view all the time. Nevertheless, the dominance of this discourse - coupled with the lack of victim voices in the media and the failure to label it as sexual assault - disguises the fact that sexual violence remains a far too common occurrence in a rapidly changing, but still very patriarchal, society.

UPDATE: June 2023 saw further revisions to the penal code (see here and here). The foreign media paid most attention to raising the age of consent from 13 to 16, although in reality various other national laws and local ordinances already forbade sexual acts with children under 18. Much more significant in the new revisions were the clarification of rape prosecution requirements which for the first time define rape as “nonconsensual sexual intercourse” (同意のない性行為=dōi no nai seikōi) finally moving beyond the "violence and intimidation" (physical force) requirement.

Thursday 15 June 2017

Finding Karl, Japanese Snacks, and Protectionism

Click to see on amazon
My wife came back from the shops the other day and told me rather excitedly that she had found "Karl." Not quite understanding, I started looking around for a trailing non-Japanese guy, before she produced a pack of corn puffs from her bag with a flourish. The Karl in question is actually pronounced Kāru (カール) and is the name of Japan's oldest snack which went on sale in 1968. At a time when confectionery/candy (okashi =お菓子) meant only something sweet, it was a ground-breaking product that has been called the pioneer of Japan's massive savoury snack (snakku-gashi =スナック菓子) industry. (Another term for snack is oyatsu, but this refers to anything eaten between meals, whether for small children, pets, or adults!). The curly-shaped light corn puffs come in cheese (pictured right) and soup stock flavours and are extremely more-ish. Alas, the Japanese snack market has become so fiercely competitive that the company, Meiji, announced in May that they would stop selling the product in Eastern Japan in August, something that produced an outburst of nostalgia and panic-buying in Tokyo. Hence the excitement of my wife at finding "Karl."

Although Kāru are made from corn, the most popular snack products in Japan are made from potatoes. In a TV Asahi poll of the top 30 most popular snacks, almost half were potato-based, including the top two. It thus came of something of a shock to many Japanese snack fans when a potato shortage was announced in April due to typhoon damage to crops in Hokkaido last year. The result was that number one producer Calbee halted production of some of its most popular products, leaving spaces in convenience stores and supermarkets as people rushed to stock-up. Prices of some products, such as Calbee's pizza-flavoured crisps, reportedly went for six  or seven times the original price in online auctions. [UPDATE: These went back on sale on June 19th!]

This may all seem rather inconsequential, but as with the butter shortages in 2014 and 2015 (with signs in the supermarket asking customers to limit themselves to one pack), it points to a more important point: Japan is rather protectionist and foreign imports (whether potatoes or butter), though not banned outright, have to deal with a lot of red tape to reach the market. The intention, of course, is ultimately to protect domestic producers. Corn, however, is widely imported, though this doesn't help Tokyoites who will soon need to ask their Kansai friends if they want to "find Kārl"!

Monday 12 June 2017

Hydrangeas and Bathing Buddha

For the Japanese, the coming of the rainy season, detailed in the last post, means the flowering of beautiful hydrangeas. Hydrangeas are called ajisai in Japanese, written in katakana, hiragana, and sometimes kanji (紫陽花). The three kanji together (they are not divisable by sound) mean purple, sun, and flower, which is rather odd given there is not so much sun in the rainy season and also that they come in various colours! Hydrangeas are native to south and east Asia with Japan, China, and Korea boasting the greatest species diversity. It is said that soil acidity (aluminium ions) affects the colour of the flowers - here, blue, purple, and pink seem most common - but the fact that a single shrub can have various colours casts doubt on this theory. One of the most famous hydrangea festivals in Tokyo, boasting 150 varieties and 10,000 plants, is at Toshima Park, only 20 minutes from Shunjuku Station; other festivals are listed here. For more beautiful pictures of hydrangeas see here.

The leaves of mountain hydrangeas (yama-ajisai), which contain a natural sweetener, are used in Japan to make a sweet herbal tea called ama-cha (甘茶). Ama-cha is not widely drunk but has special meaning in Buddhism where it is poured over a statue of Buddha (and drunk by participants) to celebrate his birthday, thought to be April 8th (the 8th day of the fourth month in the old luni-solar calendar). This is known as kan-butsu-e (灌仏会) or the Buddha pouring/bathing ceremony. See here for a short video.

Saturday 10 June 2017

Rain, Snails, and Japanese Animal Names

On Wednesday, the rainy season was officially announced to have begun in Tokyo. The start of the rainy season is known as tsuyu-iri (梅雨入り)using the verb hairu (to enter), while the end of the season - usually 5 or 6 weeks later - is called tsuyu-ake (梅雨明け) . This latter phrase uses the verb akeru which means the end of a season or period and, by implication, the beginning of another. For example, the phrase yo(ru) ga akeru means the end of the night (and by implication day-break) while the end of one year (and therefore the start of a new one) is toshi ga akeru: the common greeting on New Year's Day is akemashite omedetō. The word tsuyu itself is made up of the characters for ume (plum=梅)and rain, the former because this is the season when Japanese plums ripen.

Four shots of a snail crawling on a tree trunk
A snail enjoying the start of the rainy season which began in Tokyo on Wednesday

Apart from umbrella manufacturers, the only creatures happy with the coming of the rainy season are probably snails, pictured above, which are out on force at this time of year. The name for snail in Japanese, katatsumuri (カタツムリ), is usually written in katakana but does have kanji (蝸牛, sometimes pronounced kagyū), the second character of which is cow/bull (ushi), reflecting the fact that snails, like bulls, have "horns" (tsuno =角). Children though have different names for snails based on their movement and actions, namely maimai and denden-mushi, the latter featuring in a well-known children's song:

でんでん虫々 (mushi-mushi)カタツムリ
お前(mae)の頭(atama)はどこにある (Where is your head?)
角だせ槍(やり)だせ 頭だせ (Stick out your horns, stick out your spear/s, stick out your head!)

The second verse is the same except atama (head) is replaced with medama (eyes). Actually, snails are not the only animals with special onomatopoeic names - dogs, cats, pigs, and a few other animals are commonly referred to by children (and adults talking to children) using the sound those animals are perceived to make. This is rather different to English in which animal names are made cuter for children (doggie, kitty cat, piggly wiggly) but rarely changed altogether to mirror the sound. For example, while it would be perfectly normal to say "wan-wan da" when pointing to dog in Japan, it would be very strange to say, "Look at that woof-woof over there" in English! The table below lists some common animal sounds in Japanese and compares them with their English equivalents, illustrating just how culturally specific such sounds are:

a table comparing English and Japanese animal sounds

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Fuka-Fuka Futons

Multiple futons hanging over the balcony to air in a large apartment block
Futons hanging over the balcony to air  in an apartment block
When the weather is nice most Japanese take the opportunity to air and sterilise their futons by hanging them on their apartment or house balcony, pictured right and below respectively. One survey found that three in four Japanese hang out their futon at least once a month, with most people airing it between one and three times a week. Many private apartments, however, including my own, now forbid this practice for aesthetic and/or safety reasons requiring one to buy a special stand (futon-hoshi). I have even seen futons placed on cars in the driveway to air! In order to prevent them falling or blowing off they are typically secured with clips (futon-basami) as visible below. Before being brought in they are typically hit with a futon-tataki  beater to remove dust, pollen, and dead house ticks, though some say this damages the futon. Undeniably, a futon that has been out in the sun all day is delightful to sleep on - the Japanese describe such as futon as fuka-fuka, onomatopoeia for soft and fluffy.

Two top and two bottom futons clipped firmly to the balcony on the second floor of a house
Futons clipped to the second floor balcony of a house
The word futon (布団) actually refers to two pieces: the bottom futon (shiki-buton or 敷布団 - the verb shiku means to spread or lay out) and the top futon or duvet (kake-buton or 掛け布団 - the verb kakeru has many meanings including "to cover"). It is usually more important to air the bottom futon, because this is the one touching the floor and more likely to get mouldy, especially in the humid summer months, though if there is space the duvet is often aired too. Apart from the health benefits of sleeping on a hard mattress - good for the back and spine - they also have the advantage of being easy to clear away in the morning. Thus, futons will usually be folded and put away in the closet, making space to use that room for other purposes during the day. On the other hand, older people can find it tough getting up off the floor, so many senior citizens in Japan switch to a bed later in life.

Sunday 4 June 2017

Sasamaki: sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves

Four packages of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves known as sasamaki in Japan
Sasamaki: Glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves

One traditional food which can only seen and eaten this time of year is called sasamaki (笹巻き) made up of the characters for bamboo grass and wrap/roll (as in maki-zushi or sushi roll). Although the name,  filling, and way of wrapping varies widely from region to region - this is a typical example of kyōdo ryōri (郷土料理) or regional cuisine - those pictured here are from Yamagata and contain sticky glutinous steamed rice (mochi-gome) wrapped in bamboo leaves and then tied with igusa or rushes (the same material from which tatami mats are made). In Yamagata, they are typically dipped in or sprinkled with sweetened soy-bean powder or kinako (きな粉).  They were hand-made by my mother-in-law and the bamboo leaves (although they can be bought in the supermarket) were collected from the mountains by my father-in-law.

In the past, they were made to celebrate Boy's Day (May 5th) in the old luni-solar calendar (kyūreki =旧暦): the new moon on May 26th marked the fifth month of the old year, known as satsuki  (五月). Eating them is said to ward off illness; the bamboo leaves naturally preserve the contents and prevent it going off quickly in the high humidity. Yamagata City has a recipe on its homepage. There is also a YouTube video here showing how to wrap and tie them Yamagata-style. The picture right shows how they look when untied and unwrapped - beware, they are very very sticky!

Friday 2 June 2017

50 Posts - Thank-you!

Since the first post on March 7th I have now reached 50 posts with almost 1800 views from over 20 countries worldwide. Thank-you everyone, especially my Japanese audience who, somewhat unexpectedly, make up the biggest group! I started off the blog for my self mainly, with a view to becoming more observant and learning about the everyday things around me which are very easy to miss and take for granted. In that sense it has been a success. But I never expected such a high number of views and such brilliant support and feedback and for that I am very grateful. The frequency of blog posts has slowed from one a day to one every two or three days now, but I have tried hard to maintain the quality (if you do like a post, please do consider sharing it on social media!). As for the future, I have a few ideas for new things - such as a glossary and reading recommendations - but would love to hear suggestions and requests from you folks out there too! Anyway, thank-you again for your support - as the Japanese say, korekara mo dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!