Don’t be wet

Happy 2011 from Japan!  For a country which loves fireworks – and if you haven’t been to a Japanese fireworks display, you can’t even begin to understand what this means – the changing of the date is a very low-key affair.  On New Year’s Eve, thousands of people cluster outside shrines, waiting.  At the stroke of 2011, no “Woo!”.  No kissing, awkwardly or otherwise.  No songs.  No fireworks.  People just get on with the business of paying their respects in an orderly fashion.  If the shrine has a bell, they might make some noise with that for a bit.

TV, however, is a different affair.  Most entertainers have a hectic night, with various family variety specials trotting out something everyone from toddlers to grandma can enjoy.  Perhaps no entertainers are busier than those from Johnny’s, aka The Boy Band Factory Dominating Japanese Pop Culture With Suspiciously Mafia-like Iron Fisted Power.  That might roll off the tongue better in Japanese.

Just about all of the biggest somewhat-androgynous boy bands from Johnny’s like SMAP, Arashi and one hundred others are slickly packaged products deployed in ads, movies, music videos and variety shows.  The Johnny’s web site doesn’t even contain pictures of their stars, such are the lengths they go to protect the valuable image of their commodities.

Want in to the Japanese music biz?  Let me give you slightly more than the no chance you have.

What you need to know about pop music in Japan that that English is the coolest language ever invented.  If you’re reading this, congratulations!  I guarantee you would be much cooler in Japan than wherever you are now.  Yes, you, even you.  So, songs often employ the use of some English to make them more sophisticated.  Like these guys:

Don’t be wet!  Get a grip (if you step)

(From today) We are Fighting Men

Don’t think. Feel! Bring it on (don’t think, let’s go)

Do you think you could do better (but not much better)?  Looking to add “Boy Band Lyricist (2011-2011)” to your resume?  Applications will be graded for curious grammar, awkward phrasing and improper Use of capitalisation.

Import cars

For English speakers learning Japanese, one of the few natural advantages we have is that many English words have been assimilated into Japanese.  Particularly in the business world, you can find transliterated words like chiimu (team), fookasu (focus) and taimingu (timing) everywhere. If you’re grasping for a Japanese word and want to have a punt, take the English word, switch the vowels around a bit, add an extra vowel sound on the end and you may have chanced upon a loan word with the same meaning.

Except when you haven’t.  Frequently, English words imported into Japanese take on subtly different shades of meaning, or are massaged into completely different words altogether.

Here’s an interesting series of reassigned English words I learned recently.  Can you guess their meanings in Japanese?  The words are:

  • baby car – (bebii kaa)
  • open car – (oopen kaa)
  • vacuum car – (bakyuumu kaa)
  • my car – (mai kaa)

<Thinking music…>

Okay, let’s see how you did:

  • baby car = stroller
    • I saw my neighbour walking her son in a baby car today.
  • open car = convertible car
    • I could tell he was having a mid-life crisis when he bought an open car.
  • vacuum car = septic tank pumping truck
    • Thank goodness we don’t have vacuum cars in big towns any more.
  • my car (noun) = privately owned car
    • Not, it’s not a rental, it’s a “my car“.

And there’s plenty more where that came from.  You certainly never run out of things to learn being a language student, even when facing things you thought you already knew inside and out.

The numbers racket

I’ve been hammering away at Japanese for just on three years now.  I studied German in high school, but the two learning experiences don’t really compare at all.  In high school, you learn the set of words your teacher tells you, in the constructs they tell you, remembering them for one semester until you’ve finished the exam.  In a foreign country, you learn because you actually want to express yourself.

That’s simply said, but the desire to communicate on a peer level with others is incredibly powerful.  Take away one’s ability to effectively communicate, and you take away a large amount of their influence, power and confidence.  To truly communicate on a peer level, you need to be able to not only think and dream in that language, but have an intimate feel for the culture it represents.

The road to thinking in another language is of course, paved with the rote memorisation of many, many new words.  I’ve noticed there are several stages of learning a word:

  1. A new word glides by you many times without you even catching it.
  2. You finally decide that the word is finally interesting enough to pay attention to, having learning all the more important surrounding words.
  3. After you’ve tried to learn it, you see it again later, but forgot that you’ve even learned it.
  4. You see the word again and don’t know what it means, but you suspect you’ve seen it before.
  5. You see the word, and are sure you learned it before, but can’t remember what it means now.
  6. You see the word, know that you know it, and have to consciously struggle to remember what it means. “Something to do with… fish?”  You’re exasperated when someone finally tells you the meaning.  “Oh, of course!  Octopus!  I knew that!”
  7. You see the word and know it well, but still have an intermediate processing step of translating into your native language (“Ringo is… apple!“) or using a simplified meaning in your second language (‘That’s right, an “automobile” is a “car”‘).
  8. You see the word and can instantly grasp the concept it represents with no internal monologue.   A ringo is a ringo. This is where you want to be.

Repeat these eight steps around five thousand times, and congratulations, you’re somewhat fluent in a foreign language!

The terrible twos, teens, twenties, thousands…

Well, that all sounds like a neat and tidy way to learn, doesn’t it?  However, there’s one class of words that for some reason, refuses to yield to my eight simple steps.

It’s numbers.

But numbers are easy, right?  Chances are, you can still remember how to count to ten in whatever you learned back in school.  Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs…

Of course, most people learning Japanese for more than a week can do this too.  Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku.  But unlike some of my most frequently-used Japanese words that are at that eighth, effortless level now, numbers are still refusing to co-operate.   I still see a number in a Japanese context, have to say it to myself in English, process it, then translate it.  My numbers in Japanese are stuck between steps 6 and 7.  It’s something that’s baffled me for a long time, but I have some theories…

People write in arabic numerals in Japan

Words in Japanese (English loanwords too) are represented using completely different symbols (hiragana, katakana and kanji), so it’s easy to look at a word written in Japanese and think in Japanese.  The visual cues of the characters help you switch into Japanese mode.  As a level 8 word, you see the Japanese symbol for “car”, but you don’t think of the English word “car”, you just think of the concept.

However, while Japanese has long used Chinese-derived pictograms for numbers, like a lot of other languages they’ve adopted the Arabic numerals.  Numbers, being something deeply ingrained in us all since early childhood, seem to be locked into my head, immutable.  I see something that looks like a 9, and I cannot help but hear “nine” in my head, not “kyuu”.  I then must think “Oh, that’s 9, which is kyuu.”

This is particularly tragic when I have to tell someone my phone number.  Having made a little memorisation jingle in English, I have to repeat the song over and over in my head as I painstakingly translate each digit.

Strangely, this is only true of numbers as abstract values (for example, large sums of money or mathematics).  I’ve talked about how crazy the numbering system is in Japanese is before, with different type of objects having completely different counting words.  The concept of one person, for instance, has its own special word: hitori.  Since “one person” is a concept that’s easier to grasp than the abstract, mathematical concept of “one”, it turns out to be a lot easier to memorise at that effortless level 8.

Numbers are grouped differently in Japanese

In English, we group our numbers in thousands once they start to get big.  I’m sure you’re familiar with this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions.

We even reflect that in how we write our numbers: 1,000,000.

In Japan, numbers are grouped in ten thousands.  It looks like this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousand, tens of ten thousands, hundreds of ten thousands, thousands of ten thousands, billions.

Today, I happened to be dealing with an issue that had a number in the millions.  I thought it was quite impressive that we’d reached this figure.  “Wow, we’ve hit a million!”.  Speaking to my co-worker though, in Japanese I had to say “Wow, we’ve hit one hundred ten thousands!”.  It somehow took the shine off it.

The word million, I think, has a very special meaning in English.  It’s a gateway to numbers which are really big and difficult to imagine.  It also confers magical status; millionaires for instance.  “One hundred ten thousands” really makes it lose its zing.  I wonder if this affects the arbitrary goals people make for themselves?  “Hurrah, I’m a hundreds of ten thousands-aire!”

Faced with this unaccustomed grouping system, I have to sit there in a meeting and convert 234 410 to “Uh, Two hundred ten thousands, um, sorry, drop a zero… twenty three ten thousands, forty-four, sorry (again), four thousand, four hundred and, uh, ten?”.  I’m ashamed to say that yes, I sometimes count off zeros on my fingers.

So, I try to shoot for projects involving smaller numbers to avoid embarrassment.  For example, “How many of you would like coffee?”.


The yen has no sub-denomination like our cents.  There’s only units of yen.  One hundred yen is worth roughly one Australian dollar.  Accordingly, ten thousand yen is worth about $100.

When I went to an ATM for oh, the first year, and wanted to withdraw $200, I’d type in: 20000.  I’d sit there, looking at the number on the screen, daring myself to push the confirm button.  “Wait, that can’t be right… can it?  Am I about to empty my account?”.  My brain, used to thinking that 10000 is a number representing what you pay for a small car, still sometimes refuses to accept that in Japan, it’s merely a number to represent a very nice night on the town.  It’s difficult to fight that hard-wired programming of how a number equates to concrete values.

South American field trip!

There was a story doing the rounds a while back about an Amazonian tribe whose language and perception of quantity only deals with values up to five.  Anything above that is just “bigger than five”.  The numbers below five blur together too.  Three and four are really almost the same, aren’t they?  We do it too, of course.  One billion?  Ten billion?  They’re both just big, right?  We both have similar perception problems, just on different scales.

It’s amazing stuff really, when you consider that some of the most central pillars of how we understand the world turn out to be made of modeling clay rather than stone.  Numbers just happen to be one of those apparently fundamental concepts that’s more flexible than it might seem at first glance.  Still, that’s the fun of travel and language learning – finding out that those truths you held to be self-evident are evidently not so truthful after all.

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.

Treasures in junk mail

In my junk mail, a pamphlet advertising a moving company:

The possible wordplay in the domain name,, that in Japanese doyou means “Saturday” and hikkoshi means “to move house”.  So, you can read the web address as both “Saturday house moving” or “Do you move house?”.   Clever!

Interesting side note – the yellow speech bubble above the driver’s head is advertising that this moving company “uses kind-to-the-planet natural gas trucks!”.  As in other places, advertising promoting “eko” environmentally-conscious features have become very prominent in Japan.

Movie posters done Japanese style

Going to the movies in Japan isn’t really the institution it is in overseas.  They’re popular enough, but the high price  – $22 full price and $12 on discount days, which seems to be the standard price at every single cinema – doesn’t guarantee that everybody has seen the latest hot new movie that everyone’s talking about (or not).

I mainly go to see Hollywood movies; most of the major releases tend to make it here to Japan.  Sometimes, you’re going to be waiting a while though – the Simpsons Movie came out about one year after it came out in the US, and had I paid my $22 to see it, I would have been a bit disappointed, considering the wait.

The other interesting thing about Western movies in Japan is that promotional materials are sometimes tweaked to more closely match the perceived tastes of Japanese consumers.  After just coming back from the cinema today, I grabbed a hold of a few pamphlets for upcoming titles:

This one is the Meryl Streep / Alec Baldwin / Steve Martin movie It’s Complicated, which is apparently about a love triangle involving divorcees or something.  The poster I saw in Australia had Ms. Streep and Mr. Baldwin awkwardly sharing a post-coital sheet, making the movie look comedically saucy.  The Japanese poster takes all the sauce out, and changes to title from It’s Complicated to Bakery Love or The Bakery I Love or… something.  The poster and new title make it sound much more whimsical and chick-flicky than the English version.  Poor old Steve Martin doesn’t get a look in in either language.

This comes out here on 19 February – you can see the Japanese “year-month-day” style date (2.19) on the poster.  We should all convert to this format!

Next we have Capitalism – A Love Story, which still hasn’t come out in Japan.  Only a couple more weeks!  The bold yellow test says “In 2010, the economy will recover”.  Given what I’ve been reading lately about the floundering-for-well-over-a-decade Japanese economy, this seems like more of a desperate affirmation than a prediction.

The other interesting thing is that the title has once again been modified.  In Japanese, it reads Capitalism – Money Dances, which actually paints a pretty good picture of all the shenanigans that went on.

The cat appearing in the middle of the “0” up the top is Michael Moore’s cartoon avatar, it seems.  The back of this pamphlet is filled with Michael Moore taking pictures with lots of Japanese stars at the premiere, with speech bubbles of him saying wacky things about Japan (like: “I (heart) Japan”).  I’m sure he’d be thrilled, could he read them.

This is the poster for Invictus (Japanese: “Inbikutasu“), which I just happened to see today.  Apparently, racism was completely eradicated in South Africa due to a rugby game played in 1995 – huzzah!  Joking aside, I thought it was a great movie with a unique and interesting story.

I guess that without much Latin influence in the Japanese language to give any clue as to what “Invictus” might mean, underneath is written “the invincibles” or “the people who could not be beaten” if you want a more quaint, direct translation.

Finally, we have the Sherlock Homes movie.  I guess he’s famous enough that it doesn’t need any title retouching – it’s just been transliterated as “Syaarokku Houmuzu”.  The tag line says “The mysteries of the world have been waiting for this guy”.  I’m pretty keen to see this too, and I only have to wait until March.

The other interesting thing about seeing English language movies with 300 Japanese people is that any humour quite often does not translate well into subtitles.  I’ve been in the situation more than once of guffawing at a particularly funny joke, only to lamely try to turn it into a cough as I realise that no-one else in the entire cinema is laughing.  Sigh.

Anyone want to Skype with me the next time I go to the movies?  You have to promise to laugh on cue with me.  I’ll buy the popcorn, which you can watch me eat over the Internet. What an age we live in.

It’s not all good at all

Quick, what’s the opposite of “OK”?

Uh…”not OK”?

That’s pretty lame.

Well, the Japanese have the answer to our linguistic problems, and you can see it on this electronic card reader:

NG. Can you guess what it means?

“No good”.  The opposite of “OK”.

Furthermore, if you were to, say, suggest that it might lighten the mood in the office if you ironically hum “Whistle while you work”  for the duration of the working day, the answer you get might look like this:

(Source: the Internet)

This is a common gesture to indicate that something is forbidden or that you’re doing something wrong, often used with a spoken “NG” or “No goodo”.  I have to admit, I’m on the end of more than my fair share of these.

Do you see what’s happening?  A new strain of English has emerged, and we’re falling behind.  While we’re snoozing on the pool deck of the good ship Native English, everyone else is zipping past us in their robot speed boats, the wind flicking their hair in an alluring way as they invent and extend English as they please.

Come on team, let’s get with the program.  I want to new word (or acronym using re-purposed words) from each of you on my desk by 9am tomorrow.