Ow gov’nor, me words!

Let’s talk spelling.  It’s tough being an English English speaker in Japan.  Thanks to America’s supreme cultural dominance, the default form of English words in Japan are the American spellings. The wrong spellings.

America’s continual angsty, adolescent attempts to proclaim its rebellious streak against England via spelling are bad news waiting to happen.  Japan is like the kid who only half-willingly agrees to go and smoke cigarettes and read the dictionary with America behind the international bike sheds.  How is it to know any better that ‘defence’ should really have a ‘c’, not an ‘s’?  America swaggers around spelling ‘centre’ as ‘center’ in a less French-looking, more incorrect way, devil-may-care.   Japan’s obviously been led on to the wrong side of the tracks, but it’s a good kid, deep down.  It’s the Ponyboy of  the international schoolyard.

I want to help.

Although I work in a Japanese office, I often write reports and presentations for international audiences.  I’m one of the only native English speakers in the office, and I often need to get a Japanese coworker to proof my work for technical accuracy and silly typing mistakes.  It saddens me that conversations like this need to occur:

“I think you spelled this word wrong.”, says my sincerely helpful co-worker.
“Oh, which word?”
“It’s not a big mistake, but it looks like you made a typo in color.”
“No… that spelling is correct.  I’m pretty sure I know how to spell colour.”
“Then what is this extra ‘u’ doing in here?”
“Ah, that’s the Queen’s English”, I say, smiling.
“The Queen?”
“Of England.”
“Is that how she spells color?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.  America is wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“But why would you want to type an extra letter when you don’t have to?”
“Well, that’s just correct, you see.  You can’t just drop the ‘k’ out of ‘kick’ because it’s seemingly unnecessary.”
“But all the programming languages I know use ‘color’.  Lots of international specifications use ‘color’ too.”
“Well, they’re wrong too, but it’s too late now.  Anyway, the important thing is that I’m right.”
“Okay.  You’re the native speaker.”

More reading.

“Oh, but you’ve made another mistake.  I think ‘visualise’ is spelled with a ‘z’.”

This has happened many times.  The saddest thing is that to avoid problems such as this, I’ve given up on all that is right and pure.  I’m beyond helping anyone.  I just automatically Americanise Americanize my spelling.  I run a US English spell checker. Each time my fingers automatically adorn my words with Anglo-friendly ‘u’s and ‘s’es, the tell-tale red underline comes up.

I don’t know what I’ve become.  I tried to cross to the other side of the tracks to bring them back to the light, but I only got stuck there myself.

If you need me, I’ll be behind the bike sheds, sitting on my motorcycle.  Of shame.


Lose weight, eat with your eyes

If you’re a fan of Asian food, perhaps you’ll agree with me that one of the biggest differences between Japanese and Chinese food is one of presentation.  If you go to some Chinese restaurants here, the food will be lovely, but decor often seems like an afterthought.  You’re seated on a folding chair underneath a naked fluorescent tube buzzing like a mosquito, your delicious Szechuan meal served on a card table on the verge of collapse.  A lady, who you hadn’t even realised worked there until just now, screams across the room that table 4 needs more rice gruel NOW.

If you go to a Japanese restaurant, on other hand, presentation is more often than not taken very seriously.  “You eat with your eyes” is the motto here.  Subtle, atmospheric lighting.  Tables and chairs build from classic, dark hardwoods.  Attentive wait staff who unobtrusively glide around the room like the soles of their shoes are coated in satin.  Dishes arranged just so to bring out the colour and shape of each of the individual ingredients.

This philosophy is extended to the supermarket too: perfectly uniform produce with nary a bruise or imperfection among them.  Strawberries that seem to be identical in colour and shape, lined in perfect little rows in their tray:

Or maybe cherry tomatoes just as meticulously sorted, but with the addition of a single yellow highlight in each cup for dramatic effect:

I didn’t have to go out of my way to find these, either.  Almost all the supermarkets I go to present their fruit and veg like this.  No big bins of bulk Brussel sprouts here for you to stuff into a bag.  Why, how perfectly crude that would be!

Apparently disharmonious produce is against the law here.  That, and paying a reasonable amount for a mango.

A most orderly bedlam

Everything they say about Tokyo is true.  Well, true in terms of the rail system being brilliant, at least.  During peak hour, trains arrive every two minutes.  The longest time I can remember waiting for a train Tokyo is about seven minutes.  After about three minutes, I was tapping my foot with impatience.

As well as being frequent, the trains run with military precision.  In peak hour, you walk up to the platform, and the electronic signboard announces that the next train will arrive at 8:27am.  Precisely as the clock ticks over to the appointed minute, the train appears from around the bend without fail, as if it had just materialized, summoned by the signboard itself.

Except for that one time in one hundred when it doesn’t.  I commute on one of the bigger train lines in Tokyo, and any fault on the line creates absolute commuter havoc.

There are a few different causes for this, usually.  Strong winds.  A freakishly large amount of snow.  Someone deciding to avail themselves of the rail system to end their life: interestingly, while the status message in Japanese flashing on the station screens shows it was due to a suicide, the English version shows something nice and euphemistic, like “personal injury”.

You know there’s been a problem on the line when you get to the station and there are about one thousand people anxiously mingling in front of it.

Because the trains are so freakishly precise and everyone is expected to be in the office at 9am on the dot, everyone immediately whips out their mobile phones and start calling and emailing bosses and co-workers that it’s terribly unfortunate and unforgivable, but they could possibly be up to TEN minutes late.

Actually, on the morning of this particular incident, the trains turned out to more like two HOURS late.  People who were desperate to get to work took the scenic route on buses.  With no buses to fall back on (that I knew of), I went home to monitor the situation on the Internet.

One thing doesn’t vary, though, whether the train is on time or late: prepare for some train moshing on your daily commute.

A quantitative three year blog anniversary bonanza

Today marks three years since my first, minimalistic post on this blog.  I was in Australia at the time, finalising my packing and visas, taking a photo of the guide book to Tokyo I’d be taking with me.  150-odd posts later, I thought I’d celebrate like it’s 1999 and  I was a statistician, sitting at home alone, wearing a pair of “2000” sunglasses, blowing a noisemaker and quietly crying to myself.

This blog has always been mainly intended for friends and family back home.  I’ve never really promoted it, so it’s been interesting to see who’s stumbled across it over the last few years and why.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to celebrate with a series of lists, sentimentally, quantitatively compiled.

What people seem to be looking for

I’ve listed the top ten searches further down but it boils down to two things really: learning about the Japanese language and Giga Pudding.

If you’re looking to get started with Japanese, there are much better resources available.

If you’re looking for Giga Pudding: no I don’t have any, and no, I don’t know how you can order it from the US.  But I can embed this zany Giga Pudding video!  You’re welcome.

Lessons learned about blogging

I like getting comments – it’s good to know that someone is actually reading what you write.  Each post has received an average of three comments, but those are distributed quite unevenly among the posts.   I regard number of comments as a much better sense of popularity than page views.  A few observations on that basis:

  • People tend to love “quirky” things, like Foot Pee or transparent umbrellas.
  • Posts that take me a long time to write, like The man who (really) liked trains, tend to get not so much feedback.  It may be because it’s not any good but really, that’s a possibility I’d prefer not to consider.
  • Posts with a picture and not much text get more comments on average.

Executive summary of bullet points:

  • Pictures good!
  • Words bad.

The only conclusion I can come to: people have the attention spans of gophers and want quirk and amusement, not insight or depth.

Except for YOU, of course.  You appreciate those things and I respect you for that.  I was talking about all the other people who read this blog.

Sentimental favourites

I don’t really want to rank these, but for sentimental value I like Dare you enter the dungeons of Kenkou Shindan, Two years underwater – experiences with Japanese immersion and Mt Fuji – an adventure in volcanic ash.  Yes, and the Navitime guy, if only because my message of envy and hate need to be propagated further.

I’ll note that these are all long-ish posts, and so my selections seem more related to “it took me bloody ages to write this, so you’d better like it.”

Bicycle follow up

My bicycle, which I wrote about with much pride way back in May 2007, was stolen a few months back.  I arrived back from Christmas vacation in Australia in January 2010, set out to go shopping to replenish my empty fridge, and noticed my bike wasn’t in its usual spot.

My landlord came out and said “Did a friend of yours borrow your bike?”
“Was it locked?”
“Well… that sucks.”

He was certainly right on that score.  Millions of bikes in Tokyo, a city renowned for having a low crime rate, and mine got pinched.

I’ll miss you, dusty bike I never gave a name to.

Lists of things

Top search keywords

Here’s how people stumbled on the site using search engines… okay, using Google.

10. Yamato Museum
9. Japanese characters
8.  kanji meanings
7. wakaranakatta
6. apple japanese keyboard
5. japanese characters and meanings
4. kanji fire
3. japanese words and meanings
2.  kanji alphabet

and by a huge margin:

1. giga pudding

People seem to want Giga Pudding more than anything else in the whole world.

Outside the top ten but notable: people searching for “Navitime Guy”, after Japan Times mentions the post in an article about the actor who plays the role, but fails to link to it.  Keep it up “old media”, I’m sure not linking outside will save your dead tree world.

Top hits

Okay, so this is a top twelve based on page views, since I couldn’t bear to leave out the Navitime guy.

12. Why I hate the Navitime guy (the collected stories 1998-2030)
11. Robots are awesome part seven and the Ghibli Museum
10. Just like a chocolate milkshake, only I can’t read it
9. Two years underwater – experiences with Japanese immersion
8. Hiroshima
7. What do Japanese people think of Japanese tattoos?
6. The second circle of conjugation hell
5. The Yamato
4. Mt Fuji – an adventure in volcanic ash
3. Typing Japanese
2. I am Giga Pudding, Destroyer of Worlds

Number one is once again by an overwhelming margin (four times more hits than #2):

1. Sprechen the Japanese?

Right, enough statistical introspection!  Back to your regularly scheduled programming soon.

Besocked and confused

In Japan, as you might know, it’s customary to remove your shoes when entering a house, including your own. Actually, customary is the wrong word: “an immutable law” or “one of the worst customs you could possibly break” would be much more accurate.

An “outside shoe” airlock called a genkan is provided for this very purpose.   It kind of makes sense actually – why track in all the stuff you’ve been walking through outside?  Now I positively cringe when walking in houses wearing shoes, such has the custom been ingrained into me.

Being small, Tokyo apartments are not often used for parties but when they are, you can bet it’s going to noisy and crowded.  At least you can survey the number of de-shoed people already inside from the genkan:

Tips for Japan: make sure you buy a somewhat unique pair of shoes and make sure your socks are always in good repair.  The owners of these shoes were in a single room the size of a moderately sized bedroom – there wasn’t even enough room for everyone to sit on the floor.

Bonus question: which shoes are mine?  Fifty Internet Points for a correct guess!

They pulsed with the might of the almost psychic

In Akihabara (a.k.a. electronic geek heaven) last weekend, the following interesting assembly could be spied in front of Yodobashi Camera’s flagship store: about 30 people standing in a loose mob playing their Nintendo DSes.

I wish I had brought my DS with me to see what they were doing.  I tried to surreptitiously look over the shoulder of multiple players, but the glare off the screen defeated me each time.  There were no signs advertising what they were up to, or even if they were playing the same game.

There’s something intriguing about seeing such a large number of people wordlessly sharing the same experience.  Once we can embed something like a DS in our brains, enabling us to communicate thoughts instantly over wireless protocols, the creation of a psychic class of humans will be complete.  Likewise, a non-psychic class will also be instantly, unwillingly created.  Those who don’t have a DS-like implanted chip will be forever on the outside, knowing that whatever we can’t join in with must be totally, life-changingly amazing.

For now, our crude psychers have to stand around on the street, leaning against trees and trying to look nonchalant, manipulating their thoughts over the air with cheap plastics, electronics and manual dexterity.   It will have to do for now.  Sigh.