Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Do I Do Hatsumode?

I was in Japan last year for New Year's, and was able to do hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year) at a few different shrines, both local and not so local. I was hoping to be able to do it again this year but it's looking pretty difficult.

You'd think, what with all of the people of Japanese ancestry in California, that there would be a shinto shrine here. And if this was 10 years ago, you'd be right. But in 2001, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, the first shinto shrine erected in North America, was moved from Stockton to its present home in Granite Falls, Washington, outside of Seattle. Although I briefly considered making the trek, it really is too far. You can order omamori (amulets) through the website, so maybe I'll do that instead.

But that still doesn't help me come the new year. According to Wikipedia there are also shrines in Hawaii, Colorado and New York, and as much as I'd like a trip to Hawaii that's just not going to happen.

I guess instead of hatsumode I'll just go to Japantown and do hatsukaimono, that being the first shopping trip of the year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Fluency

Having just graduated with a B.A. in Japanese, the question is, am I now fluent in the language? People often ask me this. They assume that since I've spent four years studying the language I should have some high level of proficiency in it. This is sadly not the case. I do OK—I have all the basics down and can understand most of what someone says to me—but what I understand still outpaces what I can say, and what I say often comes out haltingly. I remember reading somewhere that getting a degree in Japanese is "a good start." So when will I be fluent?

Perhaps first we should define exactly what fluency is. Is it being able to communicate day to day, bar some extraordinary circumstances like ones that require medical jargon? Or is it being comfortable in any situation, no matter how rare?

Let's ask Oxford. "Able to speak, read or write a language, especially a foreign language, easily and well." Pretty vague, this definition. Let's say I can hold court at my neighborhood bar "easily and well," but a conversation with a doctor or the stone-faced man at the immigration office finds me lacking. Am I fluent? Perhaps my fluency is situation-dependent.

Let's look at the Japanese word for fluent, "pera pera." This is an interesting word because it means fluent, eloquent, glib, etc. but also to blab or go on and on. Where we say "blah blah blah," the Japanese say "pera pera." So in this case, to speak fluently is to have the ability to babble on in a language.

If the latter is my yardstick (and since I'm talking about Japanese it may as well be) I am not fluent. I cannot babble on in Japanese. Not yet. After a year or two living there I am fully confident that I will have reached babble stage. Whether I can babble on with doctors and lawyers and IT specialists is another thing.

How do other foreign language learners define fluency? Or if not fluency, than being comfortable with how much you know of a language? Comments, please.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Decade In Me

All of the usual media outlets are doing their decade in review pieces these days so I thought I'd do one too, although one of a more personal nature. Instead of talking about technology or music or movies, I'm going to talk about me. Hey, it's my blog.

Ten years ago I was facing the new millennium as an editor at IGN. I had helped launch the site a few years before, had maneuvered myself into lifestyles content (music, movies, gear) and was making more money than ever before (or since). It was the high-flying days of the internet boom and we were all told (repeatedly) that we were going to be rich. Like the Y2K bug, it was all hype, and soon, with the market crashing, things started to fall apart for the internet.

As for myself, I realized that I had sold my soul for the promise of riches. I was moved away from music and onto IGN For Men, a Maxim-like site where I wrote about the "Babe of the Day" in the most salacious prose imaginable. I was routinely called a sexist and a pig, and although it stung I rationalized it as being a "persona," not really me. But real or not, it was eating away at my insides, and after the crash I had a sort of revelation about what I had done. So I took off for Los Angeles.

A change of scenery would do me good, I thought, and for 6 months it did. I was still working for IGN, albeit from home in L.A., and I was off the babes and onto music technology. A significant improvement. It was not to last, though, and I soon joined the growing ranks of the unemployed. I went on unemployment, cashed out my 401k, and drank beer with my other unemployed friends.

With lots of free time I decided to devote myself to making music and soon was releasing breaks records as Kemek the Dope Computer. I got DJ gigs, did some traveling, did some remixes, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills so I went back to work, this time as a copy-editor (and later managing editor) on a pair of automotive magazines in Anaheim.

Looking over this now, I can see how I got more and more off-track from what I wanted. I dropped out of college at 23, my rave lifestyle having taken precedence over scholastic pursuits. Because of an innate ability to write (and with the help of a friend) I ended up at IGN. But the days of finding a job with no college degree were disappearing. With so many people looking for a job, getting through that HR filter was harder and harder without a diploma. So I took a job writing about something I had no interest in (cars) in North Orange County, an average 2-hour crawl of a commute away from my home in Hollywood.

By spring 2004 I had had enough. I quit, sold my car, and went to Japan. At age 32 I was finally being spontaneous. It was a tremendous gamble, as any hope of a visa sponsorship hinged on finding a job at an English-language publication willing to overlook my lack of a college degree. Teaching English, the usual route for Japan transplants, was out of reach for those without a diploma. With no degree, and no real editorial jobs available, I had no choice but to go back home to the Bay Area, my tail between my legs, and start over.

But the seeds were planted. I fell in love with Japan and decided that no matter what, I was going to get back there to live, work, and do whatever else it is people do. And so, in the summer of 2005, I started back to school to get a B.A. in Japanese, first at a local community college and then, in January 2007, at San Francisco State University. I also spent 2008 in Japan as an exchange student. And now, knocking on the door of a new decade, with almost a full 37 years behind me, I am finally a college graduate.

The next step is to go back to Japan. I've already applied to the JET Program, to teach English in rural Japan. If that doesn't pan out, however, there are all kinds of other English teaching jobs. Now that I finally have that degree, nothing is going to stop me from living in the place that I love. And, this time 10 years from now, I hopefully can look back on a decade of living in Japan and tell you all about it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Walking With Alan Booth

Back in 2003, when I first decided to up and move to Japan, I hit the libraries to read up on the country that I hoped would soon be my home. Those hopes didn't quite come true but those first trips to the library yielded some pretty good results. One of those, The Roads To Sata, by Alan Booth, has become a favorite.

Alan Booth, a Brit, went to Japan in 1970 to teach English and never left. In the late '70s he embarked on a trip to walk the length of Japan, a 2000-mile excursion from the northern point of Hokkaido down to Cape Sata, at the southern end of Kyushu. Along the way he refused a lot of offers for rides, stayed in a lot of ryokans, and drank a lot of beer. I loved it.

I recently picked up the book again, eager to once again travel along with Booth. I was surprised at how much I remembered, and at how much my thoughts on Japan were colored by his book. Historical anecdotes, observations about the people, cultural differences—I saw so much of myself and my own interests in Booth's writing it was surprising. Did reading his words shape the way I think about Japan, or did they stay with me because they so mirror my own experiences?

A decade later Booth took three more walking trips, shorter this time, and again wrote about them. He walked around Aomori, at the northern point of Honshu; he followed Saigo Takamori's retreat through Miyazaki and Kagoshima; and he walked north from Nagoya into the backwoods. I also read this book in 2003, and again I was surprised at how much seemed familiar, even down to coincidentally having visited some of the same places. I certainly didn't get the idea from the reading the book. Or did I? Well, no matter. Let's just put it down to kindred spirits.

Unfortunately, Alan Booth died in 1993 of cancer. His two excellent books are still in print and are highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Japan, travel writing, or of course drinking beer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Big In the West

An article up now on Metropolis lists the all-time best Japanese songs, as chosen by a variety of editors living in Japan. The one that really caught my attention was Frank Chickens' "We Are Ninja," a throwaway '80s dance track with a very silly video. What grabbed my attention wasn't so much the makeup, or the fake Godzilla, or even the awesomely '80s video effects, but the fact that it was obviously made with the foreign market in mind (the English-language lyrics are a big clue). And suddenly I remembered how '80s Japan was.

In the '80s, Japan had unparalleled visibility in Western media and fashion. Now, I don't mean that Japanese fashion designers like Issey Miyaki were on the lips of the kids at the mall (although he was pretty famous at the time) but I mean that imagery that recalled Japan was all the rage. Take, for example, the Rising Sun. The symbol for wartime Imperial Japan suddenly appeared on muscle shirts, on shoes, even on those ubiquitous painter caps with desert flaps that have thankfully not had a comeback.

So how did it come to this? How did Japan go from being the butt of jokes about poorly made electronics ("Made In Japan" is the old "Made In China") to being the height of urban fashion? I'm not an expert (although I act like it sometimes) but if I was going to trace a time line, it would start with the Germans.

Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World changed the game for electronic music. It was incredibly influential amongst the burgeoning inner city hip-hop scenes, particularly with the track "Numbers," which actually broke through into the R&B charts for a brief period. This is amazing in and of itself, that a minimal track comprised of little more than a beat and robot voices counting to four in different languages shoud be a hit with anyone, let alone inner city breakdancers. But hit it was, and it was likely the first time for many Americans to hear Japanese spoken. I know it was for me. I remember in 7th grade, thinking, "Now I know how to count to four in Japanese."

It didn't stop there. Afrika Bambaataa took Kraftwerk's blueprint and tweaked it for US clubs. The result was "Planet Rock," a massive hit that still gets regular play to this day. In amongst his free-form rapping, Bambaataa hypes the crowd by encouraging: "Everyone say ichi, ni, san, shi!" It was the Japanese numbers he latched on to, and not the Italian or French, perhaps because they were the most exotic sounding. But whatever the reason, what started as a fluke had now become a trope. Everyone did indeed say "ichi, ni, san, shi" and breakdancers were now aware of Japan. Rising Sun logo shirts would soon follow.

White kids were learning about Japan too. Now you can't throw a rock without breaking the front window of a bad sushi restaurant but there was a time not so long ago when sushi was completely unknown outside of Japanese expatriate enclaves. I distinctly remember the scene in the movie Valley Girl when Nicolas Cage crashes a party in the San Fernando Valley and balks that they're serving sushi. It was the first time I had ever heard of it and wondered why anyone would want to eat raw fish. Before the early '80s, sushi was a specialty item only, but by the mid '80s it would be everywhere. To take a phrase back, it was a sushi boom.

Also experiencing something of a boom in the West during the '80s was Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto. More than any other Japanese musician, Sakamoto broke through into international stardom and was accepted as a kind of Japanese David Bowie, with whom he appeared on screen in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also a sign of expanding Japanese visibility). The makeup and international fashion sense fit right in with the way the West wanted to experience Japan—that is, as an exotic and slightly feminine other—and collaborations with David Sylvian, another androgynous performer, followed.

Being big in Japan became a "thing" in the '80s as well. Although it started in the '70s with Cheap Trick and its runaway success Live at the Budokan album, things really peaked in the '80s. Western bands could become bona fide superstars in Japan when they couldn't even get run over in the West. Although already popular outside Japan, INXS experienced a different kind of popularity in Japan when its nerdy, bespectacled sax player became the band's sex symbol there, not Michael Hutchence.

Of course, no article on Japan in the '80s would be complete without a mention of anime. Although the popularity of Japanese cartoons then was nothing like it is now, it was still popular among a certain group of pre-teen and teenage boys, albeit in dubbed, TV broadcast form. I remember rushing home from middle school to watch Robotech, actually three different shows crammed into one, and of course Voltron. It wasn't until the theatrical release of Akira in the early '90s that anime would really get going over here, but back in those '80s days there was nothing else like it.

The same thing that contributed to Japan's international visibility in the '80s, mainly its economic miracle, eventually led to a backlash in America. The feminized other, bolstered by a strong yen and unprecedented economic growth, suddenly became the aggressor (in the eyes of many Americans) with its buying up of American properties. No matter that European companies owned more property in the US at the time than did Japan, our pride was wounded beyond rational reasoning, and pop culture followed suit into Japan-bashing territory. Movies like Gung Ho were indicative of the time, as were—inexplicably—ninja movies starring white actors. Perhaps seeing one of our own claiming the title of "ninja" made the humiliation of losing (pieces of) our homeland to our former defeated foes a little easier to bear.