Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kansai-ben (Crystal)

Living right in the middle between Osaka and Kyoto, I have plenty of exposure to Kansai-ben, the Western dialect of Japanese. Although Kansai-ben is not uniform across the region – Osaka-ben, for example, is specific to the city of Osaka, though it is also considered to be a part of the broader Kansai-ben. There are of course several other dialects, but the main contrasting one is the Eastern dialect: Kanto-ben, which is considered Standard Japanese.

Unfortunately, my Japanese is not at a level where I can really pick up its usage in everyday life unless I’ve been taught to look for it. All too often I get asked, “Have you heard this word?” and the answer is always no. I mean, I’ve probably heard it in the background, but it has just remained part of the vast abyss of sentences I couldn’t even begin to understand unless they were slowed way down and preferably written.

However, I have picked up some pieces here and there. The professor of my Spoken Japanese class is a big fan of Kansai-ben (even though he’s from Hokkaido), and really enjoys teaching it to us, along with slang. Recently we had a day in class where all we did was study Kansai-ben.

Part of what distinguishes Kansai-ben is its vocabulary. One that’s pretty recognizable even to foreigners is aho, which means “idiot, fool.” In the east, baka is used instead, but in the west, baka is a much more severe insult.

There are many different Japanese dialects (source: www.sakura-house.com)

There are other substitutions: akan for dame (forbidden), okan for okaasan (mother), kyousan for takusan (a lot), ookini for arigatou (thank you), and lots of others. The one I hear all the time is meccha, which means “very.” At Kansai Gaidai’s Halloween Costume Contest yesterday, I was constantly surrounded by cries of “Meccha kawaii!” (too cute!) “Meccha kakkoii!” (so cool!). Along with the different vocabulary, there are also different stress patterns.

But there are also differences in grammar. One of the easiest is that the negative verb ending –nai become –hen in Kansai-ben. In most verbs, it’s a pretty straightforward substitution, but shinai (doesn’t do) becomes seehen or shiihin, and konai (doesn’t come) becomes keehen or koohen or kiihin. Some other word endings that are a little more difficult to explain include ten, non, and yano.

I asked a few people some quick questions about the usage of the dialect. The two native speakers of Kansai-ben both immediately told me they were very proud to speak to Kansai-ben. There doesn’t seem to be as much pressure for speakers to change their accents; it’s not eradicated in schools or anything like that, though Standard Japanese must be used for written assignments, and some more casual/slangy Kansai-ben would still be considered casual/slangy, and therefore inappropriate. But it’s used all the time in advertisements, speeches by politicians, etc.

However, Kansai-ben does entail some stereotypes when heard by outsiders. Osaka-ben especially is associated with comedians and entertainers. For some Tokyoites, the accent can be grating, though this view seems to be fading away. A girl not from Kansai who I asked about it told me that since coming to the area for school, she has come to really love the accent and think it’s cute.

This makes an appropriate final blog post for me, as I’ll be conducting my research this semester on attitudes toward Kansai-ben and its usage. I’m particularly interested in the pride that speakers feel toward it, and whether they ever feel pressure to hide it when visiting elsewhere. I look forward to conducting interviews and doing research about this during the second half of my semester here in Japan.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Understanding Japanese (Chris)

Being in Japan in two months has taught me that Japanese is difficult to learn. There are many things that could be a part of that issue, but the main thing is that there are people who speak in a different dialect then the dialect that I learn in the classroom. The dialect that people speak in my area is referred to as “kansai-ben” while the dialect that I learn is not just the generic Japanese, but the dialect that is most commonly used in Tokyo. 
Cartoonish statue of Hideyoshi and Onene at Kodaiji
This would seem to be a problem, but most of the time I do not notice the subtleties of kansai-ben. There is one phrase and one grammar point of kansai-ben that I have learned while here. The phrase is “めちゃ” or “mecha.” This word is just a way of saying “very” or “really” in English.  The grammar point that I learned is ~hen. It is as far as I know just the short-form negative (for those studying Japanese language) it replaces the conjugation ~ない in use.  I hear these phrased used every once in a while, but not often. I have heard from my friends that there are professors that will accidentally start speaking in kansai-ben and have to apologize, because most students do not know how to speak the dialect.

Dialect is used everywhere that I have experienced in the Kansai region. But, most of the time I hear the standard dialect when someone is talking to me. I have heard from my friends that there are professors that will accidentally start speaking in kansai-ben and have to apologize, because most students do not know how to speak the dialect. So, someone is speaking it. I have also heard it in passing sometimes. This could be a form of code speak, and kansai-ben is mostly used within the populace, and standard is used with foreigners. It is a possibility.

Cherry tree at Kodaiji
The week before this past week, my Japanese professor came to Japan during fall break to visit, so her, another student from Beloit, and me went to Kyoto and visited Kodaiji Temple and Sanjusangendo. Kodaiji is heavily attributed with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife. And, Sanjusangendo is famous for the 1001 Buddha statues that fill it. This temple was quite a site to take in. It will be hard to display the temple as no pictures were allowed in the temple, but pictures could not do justice to the grandeur of the temple. This week was midterm testing, and I spent all week studying for all of my tests. I am currently ready for a day off, but that is not going to happen. Saturday is the Nukiho Matsuri (or Rice Harvest Festival) at Fushimi Inari Taisha so I will be there experiencing this festival. So, until next time, sayonara.
Statues at Sanjusangendo (stock image)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pop Japan (ポーラ)

Because Akita is an international university with a high number of Western – and particularly American – exchange students, I am simultaneously exposed to Western and Japanese styles of interest in Japanese culture and pop culture (Western culture too.  We’ll come back to that).  With the significant exception of Studio Ghibli – there is a general lack of interest on the part of the Japanese people at AIU in Japanese pop culture as a whole.  My feelings on Japanese interaction with pop culture are that they are similar to America with a different skin applied.  As is true in America, everyone knows larger pop stars (ex Lady Gaga; Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), generally watches poor television shows (read some dramas and anime) despite the existence of good ones, and pays much more attention to youth fiction (light novels) than to literature.

I had the good fortune this month to go to a free music festival in Tokyo in which Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performed.  For those who are not familiar with Kyary, please see the attached video.

Pretty remarkable, isn’t she?

Even in Japan, Kyary has created quite a stir.  By remaining very respectful and maintaining traditional Japanese values in interviews and public appearances, she has managed to create an interesting balance of critiquing current Japanese pop music and social tropes, while also being mainstream.

For instance, here is a video of her performance of “Pinpon Nannai” – a song I propose critiques fat-shaming in Japanese society as well as general feelings of unhappiness in every-day life.

Despite the stated intention of augmenting tourism within Japan for the foreigners staying here, the only reason I can see to provide free tickets and food (score) to a music festival in Tokyo featuring your most popular (and most internationally known) popstar is because the music business has globalized.

With the advent of K-pop in PSY(of the incredibly popular Gangnam style and Gentleman), Girl’s Generation (single “The Boys” entering top 100 on iTunes), and other similarly popular other groups, Japan has watched one of its literal and in many ways cultural neighbors rise to mild international pop culture stardom.  I suspect that this event hoped to popularize J-pop overseas.

Although I think that Japan certainly has the marketing ability to make its pop music sell well overseas considering the luck it has had with many of its pop characters, and even Vocaloid, I think it says something about the industry that even my friends at AIU rarely are interested in J-pop or J-rock above their European, American, and Korean counterparts.  This is true despite an obvious (although potentially less potent at AIU) language difference.  Please put your thoughts on this issue in the comments!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Re-remembering Japan (ポーラ)

Along with our professor, Dylan, Janae and I went to the town of Kakunodate on the 14th of October.  The new phenomena of the October typhoon had just swept through Akita the night before leaving the streets a dangerous glistening mess of black pavement, oil, water, and leaves.  Although early for the changing of the leaves – a sight deemed especially beautiful in Akita prefecture – the edges of the still green sakura trees hinted at what was to come.

Kakunodate is a preserved samurai town.  It has many different small museums of sorts all stationed within old samurai homes.  During our visit, we traveled to two such homes.  The first we visited was the Ishiguro house.  It was the home of the highest ranking family in this district and was very large.  The part of the house accessible to visitors about 4-5 rooms all of about 6-8 tatami mats.
The second home was that of the Aoyagi clan.  This manner was significantly more museum-like.  It was also considerably more difficult to distinguish what parts of the manner were historic and which parts were added during later builds.  Admittedly it is probably easier to determine if you can speak Japanese.

Although another of my classmates has already written his thoughts on the association of Kakunodate and Edo-fying the past, I would like to respectfully disagree with his perceived lack of connection between Gluck’s work and the preserved samurai village.  I think that the way that information was presented in these houses for the most part ignored history prior to the Edo period.  The history presented in these preserved homes began with the rise of the samurai and particularly in the case of the Aoyagi manor, carried a relatively singular thought path all the way to the current day.  As someone who is not terribly interested in history (sorry Rob), and as someone who has not intensively studied the ways in which museums present their information I am not qualified to give anything other than my own personal perspective on this.  I would guess museums across the world have similar difficulties integrating history into a larger timeline.  That said, from what I have read about in regards to painting history for the use of propaganda etc, manipulation of the timeline is common.  Therefore, I think the emphasis on this particular time period within these museums and their preservation as Akita’s history is potentially revealing to someone who knows more than I.  If you get the chance, do go.  Many places in the area are relatively understanding towards English speakers, and even if not, the large amount of artifacts and their display should be revealing to people who are familiar with this time period.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Becoming Japanese (Paula)

One thing that might surprise a foreigner (or at least an American) traveling in Japan are the hours. Even in Beloit, small town Wisconsin, stores are commonly open until 7pm and some stores will be open until 9pm or as late as 12am. In Akita (Akita City, not just tiny AIU), shops start shutting down at 5pm, and all typical stores are closed by 9pm. This can be a problem in a prefecture famous for its sake and a strong drinking culture (much like beer-drinking in Wisconsin). After-hours you have three main options:

 As is typical in Japan, AIU provides vending machines as a consolation prize. Our single snack machine in located in Komachi lounge. They fill said snack machine at least three times a week. It is nevertheless empty about half the time.

 The bar serves food. Although nothing in the bar (with the exception of shots) costs less than 500Y, the prices are very reasonable and all of the food is surprisingly delicious and varied considering they make it all in a kitchen the size of my dorm room.

 And most gloriously of all - the surrounding Akita citizens have compensated for the lack of sustenance availability with the introduction of the Ramen truck. Insert first photo here please. Yes, the Ramen truck. This is not a drill.

 This lovely older Japanese couple sells a marvelously delicious soy sauce based ramen complete with pork, bamboo, scallions, etc, for 650 yen. Less if you bring your own bowl. The ramen truck arriving in Akita affects students like a piece of discarded food dropped in an ant hill. As word spreads throughout campus, more and more people rush to the back, consistently unoccupied road that connects Akita to the surrounding community. Even after just a few visits, I as a newcomer can easily tell by the way people move when the Ramen truck has arrived. 

The most common places to eat are outside the bar (weather permitting – I hear we’re up for some serious snow in winter), privately in rooms, and in Komachi lounge. Technically speaking, you can eat at the Ramen truck, but as the owners are Japanese, I would feel too intimidated to engage in conversation with them for as long as it takes me to eat their delicious food.

The Ramen itself is cooked to order. Noodles are rolled ahead of time, and dunked in some kind of water or broth to cook. Although commercial Ramen shops often offer a variety of options (esp salt, soy sauce, and miso) most smaller shops and the truck develop one recipe, and only serve that. At this particular truck, they make a soy sauce Ramen. I highly recommend it. Although other people will say to go to the more famous Ramen place in town, I think that our little truck is worth the trek to AIU!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop Culture (Dylan)

With the next blog topic including the phrase “become a fan of something,” I guess it was kind of doomed that I would write about science fiction anime.  And of course the logical choice was to pick the anime franchise that was described to me as Japan’s cultural counterpart to Star Trek, Mobile Suit Gundam.
These are a few of the series. No, really, only a few of them.
Mobile Suit Gundam is a massive science fiction anime franchise responsible for creating the “real robot” genre, taking the already-popular trope of giant robots and applying a dose of realism to the concept, moving away from the superhero-style origins of the concept.  The first series, just titled Mobile Suit Gundam, was released in 1979.  Much like the Star Trek original series it’s often compared to, it was a failure in its first run but became a huge hit in syndication, gaining a tremendously successful follow-up in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam eight years later which spawned a massive and ongoing franchise of anime about giant, human-piloted and humanoid robots being used as war machines… and how that’s a bad thing, we swear, stop looking at the cool robot fights.
And once in awhile, you get free stuff, too.
Now, at Beloit College, there’s enough dedicated nerd groups that finding fellow fans of anything nerdy and activities dedicated to them is really quite easy.  At AIU, however, there aren’t any such groups (well, until about a week ago, but it’s very much dominated by international students), and what more informal social gatherings there are amongst students tend not to be the most open to people with low Japanese proficiency, such as myself.  So that made accessing Japanese nerddom something of a challenge, at first, especially since the one class which actually advertised being about this sort of thing not fitting into my schedule.

I can offer what I observed about the Gundam – and more broadly sci-fi anime – fandom in Japan in my first month and a half hear, and then comment on the last couple of weeks, which have been a bit different.

On the surface, there really isn’t much of a difference between the more dedicated aspects of Japanese nerddom and American nerddom.  Japanese nerddom is something that’s pretty visible, but a bit cut off socially, and kind of impenetrable to outsiders, especially with a language barrier.  With the immediate setup video games are the most common outward expression, and while many students here play video games there’s a difference both in choice of games (“casual” party games versus role-playing games and shooters) and in frequency and duration of play.  But if this sounds more like a description of American nerddom five years ago than today, well, that is where things seem to be here, and I get the impression that in very recent years American nerddom has been somewhat more normalized and become much more mainstream than here in Japan.

But I also think that it’s easy to overstate this because there are, as in the U.S. and probably elsewhere, quite a few people who are part of a nerddom somewhere or another who just aren’t as obvious about it.  In the past couple weeks I’ve found that there are a larger number of students who do have nerdier interests but just don’t incorporate this into their primary, outward identity.  However, this remains more common amongst the international students (where it’s proven almost universally true) than the Japanese students (although the language barrier may be influencing this).

The other thing that’s happened in the past couple weeks is that I’ve met and gone on the tours led by the school’s resident nerd professor.  He serves both as something of a welcome committee for international students and as the current incarnation of the nerd gods.  He certainly provides an avenue for encountering more of the material side of Japanese nerddom, if not the personal side.
In the case of the Gundam fandom, the key material are the models and toys produced as tie-ins for the franchise.  Actually, they are both the primary source of income and the primary reason for existing for the franchise.  There’s a large number and great variety in them; ranging from children’s toys to models for dedicated builders.  The one pictured above is one of the antagonist robots (called Mobile Suits), the Hygogg, which is probably my favorite of the villain suits in the franchise, from Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket.  Unlike some other anime fandoms, where cosplay or just t-shirts are popular, these models provide much of the franchise’s material focal point and may be part of why there’s a notable lack of obvious fans for such a successful franchise.

No, really, there's an entire series dedicated to that point.
As a final note, I should explain why I did not use the word “otaku” in this post, even though that is a commonly-used phrase for the anime fandom as a whole.  In Japan, otaku implies an extreme form of nerddom which fits stereotypes of Dungeons and Dragons players in the U.S. as they were 15 years ago, and even has the same connotations of moral panic; it doesn’t seem to quite apply to Japanese nerddom as a whole and since I am still working out the nuances of the term I felt it better to not use it here.

I guess ultimately I’m still cut out of the actual circles of Japanese nerddom, including the Gundam fandom, and so stuck writing about this from an outsider’s perspective.  But we’re two weeks away from a Halloween cosplay parade, we’ll see what comes out of that.