Why do the girls wear such wide collared shirts with their recruit suits?

 I’ve written before about how ambitious British and American graduate recruits do their best to stand out from day one, while ambitious Japanese recruits try to blend in, with the “recruits suits” that are even more conservative and standardised than usual being part of that. Given the width of the blouse collars in April, however, I think there might be more to it than that.

It also occurs to me that they (subconsciously) want to point out to everyone in the company that they are new recruits. That could help them get a little patience and maybe even instruction when they are stuck in a department and expect to pick up a job through osmosis. More importantly, though, it could help them bond with the people who were recruited at the same time who will be their natural allies (along with people from the same school and university) through the rest of their careers.

Why is Japanese language education behind science and maths?

In Learning to Bow Bruce Feiler repeats the common argument that science and maths suits rote learning more than language, but actually discovering things for yourself and avoiding a lecture style are at least as important in maths and science as they are in language teaching. If maths and science programmes on NHK Education are anything to go by, there is no lack of knowledge in Japan of how make students work together to work things out for themselves in exactly the way we TEFL teachers are taught to make our English-language students do. This means that simply teaching English in the way maths and science is taught would be an improvement!

Where Bruce Feiler does have a point is in saying that English teaching has copied Japanese language (kokugo) lessons such as the methods for learning kanji, and these are indeed less suitable for a foreign language than copying almost any other subject in Japanese schools. The other negative impact of kokugo on English is that actual lessons are as much a lesson in nationalism as they are in language, and the same is often true of English.

Another factor is that the positive things I have said about maths and science education in Japan are mainly true for primary schools, and English has until recently started in Junior High School when the rote learning is properly in control.

Why aren’t the Taiwanese more bitter about Japanese colonialism?

Compared to the mainland Chinese and Koreans, but also to some South-East Asian countries who were only occupied for a few years.

I’d long thought it was because most Taiwanese came across the channel during the defeat of the Nationalists by the Communists in mainland China, and so they hadn’t had that experience of 40 years of Japanese colonialism, but the biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek that I’m reading at the moment says the population was about 6 million before the 2 million nationalist refugees turned up.

I guess one thing is that the Nationalist politicians didn’t need to play the anti-Japanese card to prop up their regime, what with having the boogie man of the Communists. It also seems that the Taiwanese weren’t treated as badly as the Koreans in some ways, although things like forced attendance at Shinto shrines and use of the Japanese language happened in both places. Perhaps more importantly, the Taiwanese apparently had terrible problems with the mainland Chinese when the Japanese were defeated, including massacres during protests aiming at independence from China, that might even have made them nostalgic for the Japanese occupation.

Why do the Japanese call it “honorable money”?

A lot of books on Japanese language and/ or culture comment on the fact that there are words which often or almost always take a honorofic prefix o- or go-, even when not speaking politely. They then often say that it is because those things are especially respected or culturally important, but when you look at examples like o-cha (tea) much more than o-shoyu (soy sauce) and o-kashi (sweets) much more than o-sembei (rice crackers), it soon becomes clear that even in the rare cases when that explanation could make sense, there are usually much more convincing candidates for the real reason.

One large group of words are ones where the usual use of the honorific helps make it easier to distinguish from other words which are pronounced basically the same, including o-kashi above. Other pairs include:

o-hashi (chopsticks) but usually hashi (bridge)

o-kane (money) but usually kane (bell)

o-hiya and hiya (cold water and cold sake, always forget which one is which)

This is similar to what I said in my post about the prefix you-.

Others seem to be avoiding one syllable words:

o-yu (hot water)

o-cha (tea – although this is also used to distinguish green tea from koucha, which is black tea)

go-han (cooked rice, or food more generally)

In fact, I can think of very few where it being a particularly respected thing is the best or only explanation. “O-tera” (Shinto shrine) is one example.

Why is it okay to use otoosan to describe your own father?

Generally, the Japanese avoid polite language when describing their own things, companies, relations etc, as in go-kazoku for someone else’s family and kazoku for my own, and not using -san to describe people who I am associated with, let alone myself. In the most common way to say “my/ our father” (“uchi no otoosan“), however, you use both -san (Mr/ Sir) and o- (honorific prefix), showing a shocking pride in your own flesh and blood! Indeed, until comparatively recently you could call him otoosan to his face but were supposed to refer to your own old man as chichi when speaking to others (and ditto for okaasan and haha for mothers). Somewhere along the way, though, that became rare, and a couple of years ago I saw on the news that whoever is in charge of such things had officially announced that it was okay to talk about “uchi no otoosan“, and nowadays “uchi no chichi” is super-polite, and possibly even a bit effeminate from a man.

The same thing is also true for humble ways of talking about your own wife, with “gusai” (smelly wife) unfortunately almost disappeared and “okusan” almost as acceptable as “tsuma” when talking about your better half.

Why youfuku and youshoku? 2nd attempt

I commented in an earlier post that it seemed strange to me that the Western origin of ordinary daily clothes (洋服 – ようふく – youfuku) and common home cooking like curry and pasta (洋食 – ようしょく – youshoku) should be so marked in everyday speech. It has since occurred to me that it could mainly be just that “fuku” and “shoku” are two of the two-syllable words in Japanese with the most meanings (and that’s saying something in this homophone-tastic tongue), and so it could just be useful to add any kind of prefix to make the meaning clearer.

That doesn’t explain “gaishi”, “gaisha” and “ryuugaku” though, so maybe the Japanese do still at some level think of these things as foreign??

Why do kids like Baikinman?

Baikinman is the main “bad guy” in the incredibly popular children’s cartoon (and merchandiser’s dream) Anpanman. I say “bad guy”, but in fact he’s more pitiable than evil in the series, even when trying to crush people with his spaceship’s many arms. More surprisingly, after Anpanman himself he is the most common character on those merchandising cups, tambourines, boil in the bag curries, etc, more even than Anpanman’s sidekick Melonpannachan.

When I was growing up I can’t remember a single lunch box or pencil case that had Lex Luther or the witch character from Power Rangers on them, and the closest equivalent I can think of is the bad guys from Batman such as Penguin. I guess some of the Mr Men with negative names like Mr Grumpy could be kind of similar too.

I once read a serious academic book on Pokemon (really!) that convincingly argued that the good guy/ bad guy (with their white hat/ black hat) is a specifically Western thing, and that most Japanese kids’ TV programmes have characters who are a bit bad and awkward without properly being a “bad guy”, i.e. have a sophistication on this point that would be remarked on as incredibly mature in the West. From what I’ve seen of Pokemon (as little as I possibly can), that does seem to be the case there too. As far as I’m aware, though, none of those characters are nearly as popular as Pikuchu.

So, what puts Baikinman right up there in the top ten (I guess) most beloved Japanese childen’s characters? This being Japan, it could just be a deliberate marketing policy that consumers couldn’t resist. Alternatively, maybe it could just be because its face has more character and is easier to draw than most of the others. Feel like I’m not really there with an explanation yet though…

Why do the Japanese judge by season, not by temperature?

I was in the park with my daughter the other day on a fairly chilly evening and noticed that she was the only one with long sleeves on. That shouldn’t have surprised me, what with salarymen changing to short sleeved shirts all on the same day (even before “cool biz” came along) and swimming in most of Japan stopping on 31 August whatever the weather on 1 September, but it did make me ponder the matter again.  

You hear a lot that the Japanese are obsessed with seasons and nature generally, and if you look at the street decorations, elementary school syllabuses, advertising, and changes in kimono during the year, that does seem to be true. Ditto for the big fuss about new rice and the best seasons for fish. Frankly, though, I think it is more to do with not wanting to stand out, and been put through the excessive reactions to stories of me swimming in September I can quite understand why anyone Japanese would want to avoid doing anything that causes comment…

Why do some UK imports also have the steering wheel on the wrong side?

Imported cars have traditionally been very expensive in Japan, but for some reason it is cheaper to have it imported for you than to buy it from a normal dealer. If you do it that way, however, the steering wheel of German and American cars is usually on the wrong side for Japan. Strangely, most older Jags and some other British imports do too.

The book Learning to Bow suggests that having a steering wheel on the other side is actually a further selling point as it emphasizes how exotic having an imported car is, but I’m not convinced that showing how much effort you went to to save a few pennies is something you necessarily want everyone to notice. Instead, I’ve always assumed that it is easier and cheaper to get old MGs and Jags from America, where they were briefly very trendy but soon went out of fashion. There’s also probably not enough demand for British cars to set up imports directly from the UK.

Why doesn’t real reform happen in Japan?

Historically, there are two main ways reform happens in Japan – reform that is forced from the top or outside, or reform that is copying a foreign model to try to catch up. The third possible way would be pressure from the public to reform that politicians and public servants had to respond to, but this is unlikely as the Japanese do not seem willing to go through any pain to get any possible benefits of reform.

The country that Japan has been trying to catch up with for about 100 years has been America. Even though there is little chance of the economy catching up in the way that some thought inevitable in the 80s, the Japanese looking at the present US and present Japan don’t really see a country that they want to be more like over there. The same thing is true looking across the shorter seas at the apparently more successful South Korea and China. If more Japanese knew about Scandinavia and Singapore, or weren’t so focused on the overall size of the economy, perhaps they’d have a model that they would think worth following??

So, the only real hope is an even more charismatic Koizumi-like politician to fool them into reform that they don’t really want, or outside pressure allowing the reformers in Japan to get their own way. If it did mean Japan copying the Anglo-Saxon model, though, perhaps this slow decline is better…

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