Twitter weekly updates for 2014-12-10 – 2014-12-16

Twitter weekly updates for 2014-12-03 – 2014-12-09

Studying Japanese, and the N5 test

A page from my Japanese textbookA page from my Japanese textbook
A page from my Japanese textbook08-Dec-2014 20:05, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.6, 16.69mm, 0.025 sec, ISO 800
 

It was sometime in my late thirties – many years since I had finished school – that I finally stopped having those mild anxiety dreams where you suddenly realize you forgot to show up for a test, or somehow forgot to go to one of your classes all semester. Now I just might start having those dreams all over again. Yesterday I took level 5 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Level 5 (called the N5) is the easiest of the 5 test levels, and by that I mean it’s really, really hard. I’m quite confident I failed, probably spectacularly. My Japanese tutor recommends 8 months to a year of study before taking it. I gave it a try after 5 months of very part time study with her (and I’d previously taken a low-intensity class, but that was 7 years ago).

It’s a standardized test, like the SATs. I took it at Kyushu University yesterday, which was overrun with mostly young people who were there to take various levels of the test. My general sense is that most of them were Chinese and Nepalese. For many, passing the tests are a requirement for a job or an academic program, so there was definitely a certain level of tension in the air. I was taking it because the thought of “…and there will be a test at end” was something to help maintain my motivation to study.

But my main motivation was to simply get more out of my experience living here in Fukuoka. Living in a place for 6 months is a different experience from a vacation: there’s grocery shopping to do, meeting people in your neighborhood, interactions with deliverymen, etc. Not being able to read or engage in conversation makes for a very limited existence.

As you’d expect, Japanese is a difficult language for a Westerner to learn, but in some ways it’s easier than you might expect, and in other ways it’s even harder than you’d ever imagine.

The easier aspects:

  • Pronunciation: it’s actually easier for an English speaker to learn how to pronounce Japanese than it is for a Japanese speaker to pronounce English. Japanese only has a few sounds that don’t exist in English, and they’re not too hard to learn. But English has many sounds that don’t exist in Japanese. The biggest difference is that Japanese always has a vowel sound following a consonant (with one exception: “n,” like in “udon”). When the Japanese borrow words from other languages, they change the pronunciation to suit them. So when Maria asks me to buy plain yogurt at the grocery store, I look for ヨグルト プレーン タイプ on the label (yoguruto puren taipu – yogurt plain type). In practice, when people talk quickly, some vowel sounds are almost completely dropped, so it’s not quite as ridiculous-sounding as it may seem (but it’s still fairly ridiculous).
  • Basic grammar: Japanese particles tell you what role a word is playing in a sentence. If a word is followed by “wa” (は) it’s the subject, if it’s followed by “o” (を) it’s the object, etc. It’s brilliant, and it means word order is generally less important than in English. The most basic verb conjugations have a past tense and a combined present and future tense (whether it’s present or future is generally figured out by context). As you might expect, the grammar gets a lot more complicated as you learn how to make more complex statements, but you can learn how to talk like Tarzan remarkably quickly with Japanese.

The mind-bending aspects:

  • Reading and writing: Japanese has 3 writing systems (really 4, if you include English letters, which you’ll see a lot). Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic, and I’m comfortable reading and writing both of them at this point, albeit slowly (they have 46 basic characters each, plus variations that add up to a total of 104 different sounds). I’ve only just started with learning Kanji, which is the symbolic writing system. You need to know about 2,000 to read a newspaper. I know about 60 so far. So not only are there a lot of them, but they typically have at least 2 pronunciations (a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading) and sometimes as many as 6 or 7. Like English words, they can also have more than one meaning. It’s not unusual to see all the writing systems used in a single sentence. So when I try to read things, I can pick out the meaning of the kanji characters I know, but often I’m not sure how to pronounce them. And I can pronounce the Hiragana, but I often don’t know what it means! To make matters worse, there are no spaces between words, so (at least as a beginner) I have to scan back and forth to figure out where words begin and end.
  • Levels of formality, and in-groups and out-groups: I’ve only just started learning this aspect of the language. It’s fascinating how Japanese culture is reflected in the words and grammar of the language. The words you use for family members (brother, sister, etc) change depending on whether you’re talking about your own family or someone else’s family. The verb forms you use with friends are different than the verb forms you would use with your boss. Also at work, you would refer to your boss with a certain level of formality in person, another level of formality when speaking to others in your organization about her, and yet another level of formality if talking to people outside your organization about her.

Living here and being only semi-literate has been a humbling experience. Fortunately, the Japanese are almost always very polite and helpful. So when I’m in the grocery store staring at what seems like a dozen different kinds of milk, all labeled in Kanji, I’ve learned to not be shy asking which one is the soy milk. Of course, I at least need to know how to say what I’m looking for. Sometimes I can throw in some English and be understood, but not always. When all else fails, it’s amazing how much you can communicate with hand gestures. But it all depends on having a willing and patient person to communicate with, and I’m consistently impressed with how helpful people here are. On more than one occasion, when I’ve been dumbfounded by the multitude of train platforms at Hakata station, I’ve had attendants not just point out where I need to go, but walk me all the way there.

This is in stark contrast to the experiences of many foreigners when they visit the US. For example, when our friend Yuka came from Japan to visit us in Philadelphia, she got confused at 69th St station, and got yelled at by a SEPTA employee when he quickly got frustrated by her limited English. And there’s the famous Speak English! sign at Geno’s. Of course there are plenty of helpful people too, but from the perspective of a foreigner in the US, I imagine it’s usually a hit-or-miss experience. I’ll be coming back home to Philly next month, and there are many things I’m looking forward to (like being a fully functional member of society again!), but I will definitely miss the friendliness of the people here.

Twitter weekly updates for 2014-11-26 – 2014-12-02

Twitter weekly updates for 2014-11-19 – 2014-11-25

The Fukuoka mayoral election

A campaign van for one of the mayoral candidates, with a loud PA systemA campaign van for one of the mayoral candidates, with a loud PA system
A campaign van for one of the mayoral candidates, with a loud PA system13-Nov-2014 13:41, HTC EVO, 2.0, 3.63mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 100
 
A campaign board, featuring the Fukuoka mayoral candidates. The small posters on either side are using the Fukuoka Hawks baseball team to encourage people to voteA campaign board, featuring the Fukuoka mayoral candidates. The small posters on either side are using the Fukuoka Hawks baseball team to encourage people to vote
A campaign board, featuring the Fukuoka mayoral candidates. The small posters on either side are using the Fukuoka Hawks baseball team to encourage people to vote15-Nov-2014 11:50, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 
A candidate for mayor in Fukuoka, campaigning with a megaphone in front of the Apple storeA candidate for mayor in Fukuoka, campaigning with a megaphone in front of the Apple store
A candidate for mayor in Fukuoka, campaigning with a megaphone in front of the Apple store11-Nov-2014 11:20, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.9, 21.5mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
 

This past Sunday was election day in Fukuoka, for the Mayoral race. There were 6 candidates, and the popular incumbent mayor, Soichiro Takashima, won easily. He was only 36 when he was first elected, making him an unusually young politician by Japanese standards (he’s 40 now). There is an excellent article at TechInAsia.com that provides a good overview of Fukuoka’s favorable economic environment, and includes an interview with the Mayor (in English). Fukuoka has been designated by the central government as a “National Strategic Zone” for economic development, which means certain regulations are removed or lessened here. Takashima is using the designation as an opportunity to focus on making the city friendly to start-up businesses. Also, he was previously a TV personality, so he knows how to make good use of the media. For example, he made an appearance in Fukuoka’s “Happy” video (he’s the 3rd person they show).

The mayoral campaign went on for only two weeks, as the campaign seasons here are short, and have a legally specified start date. Vans with loud PA systems trolled the streets during that time, and I saw one of the candidates campaigning with a megaphone in front of the Apple store. To understand just how different the political campaigns here are from the US, I’ll quote myself from 7 years ago, when we were in Tokyo during the mayoral race there:

Japanese political campaigns are very different from the US’. On the face of it, the Japanese constitution’s guarantee of free speech is similar to the US’. I don’t know the legal history, but it seems that the definition of “speech” here is much more narrowly construed than it is in the US, at least as far as political campaigns are concerned. During campaign season here, politicians spend a lot of time making speeches near major train stations, and in that environment they can say just about anything they want, just like politicians in the US. The reason they spend so much time out on the street is that they can’t advertise on TV. Ads for political parties are allowed, but not for individual campaigns. Even the party ads are very limited in what they can say. They can’t attack their opponents, and they can’t say too much about all the great things they would do (as that’s just another way of making their opponents look bad). So the end result is typically short, banal ads showing one of the party leaders saying something like “Go Japan!”

The campaign season also has a defined starting date – candidates can’t campaign before that date… Campaign posters can go up on privately owned buildings as their owners sees fit, but posters in public spaces have to go on boards that are put up by the city specifically for that purpose…

Fukuoka Now translated the slogans of each of the 6 candidates. They are banal political slogans as you might expect, but they do provide an interesting window into the issues that are on the minds of politicians and voters here. The slogans bring up concerns over education, economic development, and Japan’s depopulation problem:

Tomoyuki Okawa (37): Changing Society through Education
“The problems facing society were made by humans. The only way to resolve them is with educational reforms.”

Soichiro Takashima (40): Fukuoka is Alive Again
“It is Fukuoka’s job to provide the rest of Japan with hopes and dreams. We will use the National Strategic Zone designation to become a town that supports people willing to take a chance.”

Yujiro Kitajima (65): Formulating a Roadmap to Combat Population Decline
“I firmly believe it my mission to ensure that Fukuoka takes the lead among Japan’s municipalities in formulating a road map for solving the crisis that is Japan’s dwindling population.”

Hiroshi Yoshida (58): Helping Citizens Forge Ahead
“Is our current leadership what we really need? The citizens need someone who can give them a helping hand. We need to cut waste and create policies that look to the future.”

Kumiko Takemura (64): The Happiness of Our Children is No. 1
“I will end City Hall’s unfriendly childrens’ policies … and increase the number of authorized child-care facilities.”

Kouko Kanaide (67): Improving Working Conditions for Women
“As society ages and the population declines, women will need to work while they care for their children.”

Twitter weekly updates for 2014-11-12 – 2014-11-18

Twitter weekly updates for 2014-11-05 – 2014-11-11

Japanese mansions

"Oh, you're looking for the Martians - they live next door""Oh, you're looking for the Martians - they live next door"
"Oh, you're looking for the Martians - they live next door"27-Sep-2014 20:03, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 4.0, 7.507mm, 0.067 sec, ISO 1600
 

The word “mansion” (マンション) in Japanese is borrowed from English, but its meaning is almost exactly the opposite. Instead of a vast ornate home made of marble, a mansion in Japan is roughly equivalent to an American condominium. A mansion building is usually 3 or more stories, has a central entrance, is made of steel and concrete, and the units have thick walls. The place we’re living in now is a mansion. Mansions are a step up from “apaato” (アパート)which are generally smaller, cheaper buildings that have units with thin walls.

The sale and rental listings for mansions use a concise set of acronyms. For example a 2LDK has 2 bedrooms, and a living, dining, and kitchen area (one bathroom is standard, so it’s not part of the acronym). Other possibilities are 3LDK, 1K, 2DK, etc. The exact meaning can be slippery sometimes though: our place in Fukuoka was listed as a 2LDK, but the “LDK” part is just one fairly small room with a kitchen counter, couch, small table, and TV stand jammed into it. It’s really a 2DK.

Our place also has a washing machine and a balcony, both of which are also standard with mansions. Like most mansions, ours doesn’t have a clothes dryer. So we do what the Japanese do, which is hang our clothes to dry on the balcony. Our washing machine has a hose which we can optionally put in the bath, to re-use bath water for the initial wash cycle (the Japanese always shower before getting in the soaking tub, so the water is fairly clean).

The listing for our mansion is still online, and has photos and the floor plan, if you want to see what it looks like.

It’s common to have a business on the first floor, and it’s usually something like a dry cleaners or a convenience store. In our case, it’s a mental clinic, and there’s a wedding planner on the second floor.

Our "mansion" building in FukuokaOur "mansion" building in Fukuoka
Our "mansion" building in Fukuoka11-Jul-2014 15:46, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 100
 
Re-using bath water in the washing machineRe-using bath water in the washing machine
Re-using bath water in the washing machine10-Jul-2014 08:31, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 800
 
The toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttonsThe toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttons
The toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttons07-Jun-2014 06:29, Sony C2004, 2.8, 3.49mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 440
 

The SoftBank Hawks and the Fukuoka Dome

The crowd getting ready for the balloon release at the end of the 7th inningThe crowd getting ready for the balloon release at the end of the 7th inning
The crowd getting ready for the balloon release at the end of the 7th inning02-Sep-2014 19:21, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 320
 
Eidan outside the Yahoo Dome, before the start of the Hawks gameEidan outside the Yahoo Dome, before the start of the Hawks game
Eidan outside the Yahoo Dome, before the start of the Hawks game02-Sep-2014 15:46, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 200
 

As an American used to going to baseball stadiums in the US, attending a professional Japanese baseball game is a surreal and amazing experience: the pristine cleanliness, the “beer girls” serving beer from pony kegs strapped to their backs, the food, the cheerleaders, the non-stop choreographed chanting and cheering from the crowd… In 2010 I wrote a post describing my amazement going to my first Japanese baseball game, seeing the Yomiuri Giants play at the Tokyo dome. If you haven’t read that post before, please do – it’s one of the best on my blog.

I went to my second game a couple months ago, with Maria and the boys. We saw Fukuoka’s SoftBank Hawks play at the Fukuoka Dome. We went with my Japanese tutor and her family. Overall, it was a more mellow experience than my previous one. The Fukuoka Dome is not as big as the Tokyo Dome, and the game we attended was not very crowded, so the constant chanting and cheering from crowd was not overwhelming like it was at the Giants’ game. But there are a couple things that make seeing a game at the Dome a special experience. In the US we have the 7th inning stretch, while in Fukuoka the 7th inning is when the crowd participates in a stadium wide, simultaneous release of thousands of phallic balloons. Watch the video:

The other special thing is that they partially open the dome and put on a small fireworks display if the Hawks win. The game we attended ended in a tie however, so there were no fireworks. This is one of the few ways Japan’s baseball rules differ from the US’ – if there is no winner by the 12th inning, the game is declared a draw.

If you’re wondering about the team’s name, SoftBank is a mobile phone company: most baseball teams here have corporate sponsors. This can result in some amusing names, like the Hokkaido “Nippon Ham” Fighters. The names can also change over time, as the fortunes of their sponsors rise and fall: the Hawks used to be the Daiei Hawks, until Daiei went into bankruptcy and was forced to sell the team in 2005.

On October 31, the Hawks won the Japan Series, which is Japan’s equivalent of the World Series. They beat the Hanshin Tigers (Hanshin is a railway company). Japan has leagues similar to the US: the Hawks beat the Hokkaido Fighters in the Pacific League “Climax series” before continuing to the Japan Series.

Local support for the Hawks is very strong in Fukuoka. All season long, on game days, all the bus and taxi drivers in town wear Hawks shirts. In the Tenjin Chikagai underground shopping area, they were playing the team’s theme song almost non-stop during the Climax Series and the Japan Series.

The Dome is sheathed in titanium and “…is so valuable that in 2004, Tom Barrack, a billionaire real-estate mogul, bought the dome simply because the roof alone was worth the purchase price.” At the time it was built in 1993, it was Japan’s first stadium with a retractable dome. It’s current official name is the “Yafuoku! Dome,” which is the name for Yahoo’s auctions web site in Japan. It’s changed names a couple times, but people generally refer to it is as the Yahoo Dome or the Fukuoka Dome.

The Yahoo Dome, viewed from the Hilton hotelThe Yahoo Dome, viewed from the Hilton hotel
The Yahoo Dome, viewed from the Hilton hotel21-Jul-2014 15:50, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 100
 
The Yahoo Dome, where Fukuoka's SoftBank Hawks playThe Yahoo Dome, where Fukuoka's SoftBank Hawks play
The Yahoo Dome, where Fukuoka's SoftBank Hawks play21-Jul-2014 15:37, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 8.0, 4.3mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 
The Japanese version of baseball stadium food: shrimp tempura udon (noodle soup) and takoyaki (diced octopus in a ball-shaped batter)The Japanese version of baseball stadium food: shrimp tempura udon (noodle soup) and takoyaki (diced octopus in a ball-shaped batter)
The Japanese version of baseball stadium food: shrimp tempura udon (noodle soup) and takoyaki (diced octopus in a ball-shaped batter)02-Sep-2014 16:24, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 3.2, 5.443mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 400
 
Getting beer from a beer girl - she has a pony keg strapped to her backGetting beer from a beer girl - she has a pony keg strapped to her back
Getting beer from a beer girl - she has a pony keg strapped to her back02-Sep-2014 17:17, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 640
 
The "Honeys" are the SoftBanks cheerleading squadThe "Honeys" are the SoftBanks cheerleading squad
The "Honeys" are the SoftBanks cheerleading squad02-Sep-2014 18:52, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.9, 21.5mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 800
 
Bicycle parking at the Yahoo Dome - neat rows! no locks!Bicycle parking at the Yahoo Dome - neat rows! no locks!
Bicycle parking at the Yahoo Dome - neat rows! no locks!02-Sep-2014 15:51, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 160
 
Fukuoka's Hard Rock Cafe, outside the Yahoo DomeFukuoka's Hard Rock Cafe, outside the Yahoo Dome
Fukuoka's Hard Rock Cafe, outside the Yahoo Dome02-Sep-2014 15:51, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 4.0, 7.507mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 200
 
A sign on the Shintencho shopping street, proclaiming the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Japan seriesA sign on the Shintencho shopping street, proclaiming the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Japan series
A sign on the Shintencho shopping street, proclaiming the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Japan series03-Nov-2014 13:41, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 160
 
A sign for the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Pacific League Climax series, which means they go the final Japan SeriesA sign for the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Pacific League Climax series, which means they go the final Japan Series
A sign for the SoftBank Hawks victory in the Pacific League Climax series, which means they go the final Japan Series21-Oct-2014 11:05, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 125
 
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