Monday, April 27, 2015

If the Belt Fits...

In college I took a class in karate, Okinawan Kenpo to be exact, to fulfill part of the school's phys ed requirement. On the first day of class the sensei, an honest-to-God living legend in the world of martial arts (he was in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death for gosh sake - it said so on his business card), presented each and every one of us with a brand-spanking-new, starch-white, plastic-wrapped karate gi that he pulled from this ancient and mysterious-looking brown corrugated box. 

I can still sense the excitement that filled the air that afternoon. When the last kid in line got her hands on the last gi in the box, she begged our new martial arts master to ink her "Japanese name" on the accompanying white belt, the color belt worn by all karate greenhorns. 

He gladly obliged with a smile on his face and then with a twinkle in his eye proceeded to brand each and every one of the belts belonging to about fifty or so students with their own "Japanese name" to brandish about their waists. Penned with broad sweeping strokes, the indecipherable Japanese lettering transformed my most ordinary of names into a thing of beauty. It had to have been the pinnacle of my educational career up until that point. 

It was just sooo cool! I wore my karate gi like all the time, around the house mostly but on occasion outside the home. It was on one such occasion, a few months down the road, that I was informed by someone more erudite than myself that the inscrutable word penned so stylishly on my belt said "STUPID." While I was sure the master meant it as a compliment, I soon grew out of the belt anyway. Thanks largely to a steady intake of pizza along with barrels of beer, a common diet fad among my peers at the time, I was forced to eventually hang the belt up for good.

The funny thing though is that now, a lifetime later, I live in Japan, where people, more often than not, refer to me by my same old "Japanese name." I guess the belt still fits. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Minimal Pair

A minimal pair

English can be a tricky business for second language learners and a lot of it has to do with the "art of perception."  

I met a Japanese guy the other day who said he worked at an “ass fart” company. “You make ass farts for a living?!” I cried out in disbelief (it sounded like easy work for which I was well qualified). “For the street,” he said. Then it hit me. He worked for an asphalt company. He made asphalt!

Here in Temple Valley and across Japan the difference between an ass fart and asphalt is minimal at best. In the end, the thing that separates an "ass fart" from "asphalt" all boils down to a matter of perception. That is what Japanese second language learners make of the English "r" and "l" sounds and how native speakers perceive those folks when they hit the streets and it all gets mixed up. 

Related post: Watch Your A's

Friday, January 9, 2015

Imagination Building

[This compilation of Twitter tweets about a story appearing in the other Times comes via the Times Mistaken blog ]


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Looks a Little Like Xmas

[Editors note: This photo was taken well before Christmas. These little guys were all long gone by December 26th.]

Happy Little Christmas!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Let's All Get Along

 Among Japan's favorite New Year's Eve pastimes, including eating, overeating, drinking, drinking more, and praying, there is  something called Kohaku Uta Gassen ("The Red and White Song Battle"). The annually televised singing competition, featuring some of the country's top performers, has taken center stage at many a family's New Year's Eve celebration for the last sixty five years. 

This year viewers tuning into the NHK (that's Japanese for public television) special got a glimpse of something rare on a TV station believed by many to be in bed with the nation's current administration. They witnessed criticism of the government. 

In a pre-midnight attack, Southern All Stars singer/song writer, Keisuke Kuwata, took the battle to Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Microphone in hand, the group's front man belted out a dynamic rendition of his song dubbed "Peace and Hi-lite," a composition inspired by a Tokyo anti-hate group's fight against local ultranationalist xenophobes. It was a definite swipe at the conservative leader's attempt to shift the country further to the right and revive age old battles with its international neighbors. 

While the Red and White Song Battle has subsided, the echoes of dissidence continue to reverberate. It's a catchy tune. Let's hope Abe finds a new groove and hums along so we can all get along in perfect harmony.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Racism in Black and White

My letter to the editor of the Japan Times published in the paper on December 31, 2014 (misspellings corrected here):

In a recent Japan Times article entitled “Kick out the touts who rule Roppongi” (Foreign Agenda, Dec. 3), Gregory Clark pens a tale of his experience walking through Tokyo’s untamed Roppongi district. In the second paragraph Clark bemoans the fact that “little has been done about the blight of the mostly African touts that infest the area.” Now if that line alone doesn’t send up red flags signaling ethical problems ahead, just read on (and don’t miss the part about his disappointment over the fact that the police, “armed with pistols and handcuffs,” fail to heed his suggestion about checking the immigration status of these men of color committing no crime, just for good measure). 

The headline for this basically racist rant could have just as easily read “White man vexed Japanese cops won’t follow his orders to harass black man.” Then, of course, I might not have read it and discovered the lesson in civility these Japanese police officers could offer law enforcement in New York City and other places where a gun-toting constabulary might be all too willing to follow Clark’s charge against unarmed black men not doing anything illegal. 

While a number of readers have voiced their objections to Clark’s commentary on similar grounds, The Japan Times lacks any specific official channel for addressing their concerns. If anyone needs policing here, it’s the paper itself and there would be no one better to do that than a public editor armed with a pen, paper and the ability to make a sound ethical judgment.

In retrospect: I was beginning to think that The Japan Times was kind of a crappy paper. Now that the editor has printed my letter, I don't know what to think.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Shepherding in the New Year

I like this New Year's e-card (from my niece) heralding 2015, the year of the lamb. It's the perfect fusion of the Chinese zodiac symbol with Christian nativity set figures(mine)used to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

For the Birds

Ah, the smell of Christmas in Temple Valley! It's the smell of chicken, mostly fried, sometimes roasted. Cut up into eighths, quarters, or served nearly whole, the poultry is consumed wholeheartedly on this day by practically every living soul in this valley and the rest of the country beyond. 

Who do the poor birds have to thank for this "fowl" holiday? None other than their arch-nemesis, Colonel Sanders of Kentucky, a.k.a. "Sanders Claus." 

Wonder how "Colonel Sanders became Father Christmas in Japan"? Head on over to Talking Points Memo and have your fill of some food for thought. It's definitely not a story for the birds though.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Not Going Postal

The Japan Post's winter stamps make a perfect 
Christmas sweater design.

It's Christmas Eve and none of my Xmas greeting cards have made it to friends and family across the seas despite the fact that I mailed them nearly a month ago. I may be in part to blame though. What seemed like an ideal spot to affix the stamp may not have been so easy for the postal service to spot. Anyway they say "tis the season to be jolly" so how could I get mad at these couriers for failing to complete their appointed rounds. 

Season's greetings to everyone and remember the card is in the mail.

Related post: The Art of Bill Collecting

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Standing in the Twilight

Would make a nice new home for
Yokohama's Silk Museum
One of the first places in nineteenth century Japan opened to trade with the West, the port city of Yokohama has long been famed for its unique examples of Western architecture from that period and onward. 

Built in 1910 to serve as a silk warehouse this storied structure (pictured above) is one of a handful of such buildings to have survived a devastating earthquake that rocked the region in 1923 as well as the ravages of WWII. After withstanding the firestorms of Mother Nature and war, in the end it's perhaps no match for human greed. Unable to turn a profit from this touchstone with the past, the current owner plans to turn it into rubble very soon.  

As of yesterday the building was still
Nov. 15 - Scaffolding goes up for
slated pull down. The office building
to the right, owned by the same
realtor, dates to 1911.
standing and as of today a petition to save it is still up on Change(dot)org for anyone interested in taking their own stand for this historic landmark before it falls to the wrecking ball.

Visit the Save [the] Silk Warehouse site and The Japan Times  to read more about the building and the architect who has tried to save it from demolition.

Related stories: 

Building Character
Shock to the System