Sunday, April 28, 2013

One last attempt to learn proper Japanese
 I have always thought that learning a language is a natural thing. Babies soon learn to babble the language they hear around them, without a minute of formal instruction. They learn Finnish, a very complicated language. They learn Czech. Learning a language is a God-given ability, surely. I learned to speak reasonable Dutch while living for two years in Amsterdam. In Holland, there are no schools that teach Dutch to foreigners. There's no call for them. 

My dear wife, whose native language is Japanese, just naturally learned to speak English during the ten years we lived in Connecticut. Never a thought about attending a language school. Much too busy bringing up a family.

 And so I learned to speak Japanese in this natural, bang-around way during the forty years I have lived in Tokyo. I am sure the Japanese I speak is not always formally correct, but it seems to get the job done. I make my way around and I more or less understand what's going on. I can even sometimes read advertisements.

 But then I see other foreigners on TV being interviewed in Japanese and joyfully engaging in intricate exchanges. And then the other day my friend Adam Wynn from Australia told me about the language school he is attending where he learns four new kanji a day and I think, OK, why not? Why not go to a language school and learn how to speak proper Japanese - and perhaps even read? 

So I make an appointment with the ARC language school in Yokohama, telling them I'd like to learn how to speak properly, and on the appointed day I present myself. A sweet young lady ushers me into a private room and gives me three sheets of paper, a test. The first page tests my knowledge of katakana and hiragana. I am asked to write down the lot. I can't really. I recognize the kana and so can read them, but I can't write them. I discover I don't really know the difference between hiragana and katakana beyond recognizing that one is rounder than the other. They are all more or less the same thing to me.

 The second page is a dozen or so sentences written in hiragana, with a key word left out and a choice among four words in hiragana offered. Once I decipher the hiragana, a slow process, the choice is easy enough, but it takes too much time. So OK, OK, I am illiterate. And I haven't even been tested on my knowledge of kanji. (I have in fact managed to pick up some few kanji along the way - Free!, Prohibited, station, Tokyo, river, automobile, up, down, and a few more.) So after I have struggled with this test for about an hour, the young lady comes in to ask me how I've done and I tell her that I've learned I am illiterate. She nods, unsurprised.

 But then we settle down to a relaxed conversation in Japanese about language learning and teaching, about foreigners in Japan, about Japanese politics, about Japanese TV. Very pleasant. 

"Where and how did you learn to speak Japanese, Mr. Kennedy?" she asks.

 "Oh around, you know. Maybe mostly in Nombei-yokocho. That was my school." say I. (Nombei-yokocho is the little alley of tiny drinking places across the street from Shibuya Station, a national treasure as far as I'm concerned.)

 "Mr. Kennedy, I don't know how we can help you. You speak but don't read. Here we teach both together. I think it would not be worth your while to come to school to learn the kana and the 300 or so kanji we would teach you. You had better do this on your own. I think your best school, Mr. Kennedy, is Nombei-yokocho." 

"Ah, I understand," I said. "Thank you for helping me understand what I have to do. The problem is, the people I meet in Nombei-yokocho are amused by my rickety Japanese and would never think of correcting me. So I never really learn. I guess I will just have to live with it. Domo, arigato gozaimasu.

- Rick Kennedy

Friday, April 26, 2013

Putting the finishing touches on a work mounted at
BankArt, an old warehouse in Yokohama

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sexist vending machines

Tokyo lives easily with its thousands of vending machines. Commuters scurrying through Shinjuku Station know they can pick up a cheap, healthy breakfast from a vending machine dispensing fresh bananas or sliced apples.

On a gloomy day there might be a choice of six kinds of hot soup. If you're caught in an unexpected shower, a vending machine will sell you a cheap umbrella in your choice of color. Or a necktie for an unscheduled meeting. Or a bouquet of flowers to present as a gift.

            One of the new vending machines. The machine displays pictures of products it calculates are most likely to appeal to the person trying to decide what to buy.
But now a whole new kind of vending machines has begun to appear in large Tokyo stations. These new machines are equipped with a camera and are programed to determine whether the person standing before them wondering whether or not to insert a coin is male or female, young or old, and to use this information together with knowledge of the season of the year, the time of day, and the temperature to present the potential customer with a range of choices which it has calculated they are most likely to respond to. A man, for instance, might be offered a cup of black coffee, if it's late perhaps laced with brandy; a woman might be offered a flute of Champagne with four minutes of Chopin as background music.

The next level in vending machines, it would seem, would be to offer ninety seconds of psychological counseling, depending on how fast the customer has approached the machine, how confidently he or she has grasped the vending machine's proffered hand, and the tenor of their voice when instructed to read one of the phrases they choose from a list the vending machine offers…

- Erika 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cafe/bookshop on wheels

Monday, April 15, 2013

Our evolving garden

Yamada-san is our gardener. In fact, he is the gardener of every garden in our neighborhood. Here, in a Tokyo suburb, most people have what we call a garden, even if it is only as large as the top of a card table. People living in Tokyo proper don't have a garden, just as people in living in Manhattan. It is impossible.

Yamada-san visits our garden once or twice a year to spend a day trimming and tidying up. He advises us on how things are coming along.

When he first visited us five years ago, just after we had moved into our new house, he spent several days planting bushes and trees and vines that would eventually climb up the back wall. He was looking ahead to what he wants our garden to look like in twenty years.

"It's coming along nicely," he told us on his last visit. "Just make sure the pines have plenty of water, particularly in the summer."

We know we've edged into a new season of the year when Yamada-san comes by to spend the day clipping outgrowths, raking up pine needles, and massaging the moss.

- Rudolpho

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kabuki actor

Monday, April 8, 2013

SALUS, the magazine

SALUS is a free magazine put out at the end of each month in racks in stations along the Toyoko Line, the Den-en-toshi Line, and the Oimachi Line. SALUS is something like a relaxed neighborhood news sheet, except it is produced with considerable flair and well printed on good paper by the Tokyu Corporation. Some people collect SALUS.

Each month a particular station is featured, with a map for strollers and news about new construction and up-coming festivals and other events. There may be a feature about an interesting person who lives along the line - an opera singer, say, or a world traveller, or a collector of vintage sports cars.

There will be a loving look at new restaurants which have opened up along the lines (it seems with a focus on Italian and French places and new cafes) and maybe one or two of their recipes, and a look at the architecture of some new homes. Stores along the lines will advertise new offerings and museums will give tantalizing glimpses of new exhibitions - Vermeer, say, or Paris in the 20s. There will be ads showing what is on the stage in theaters in Shibuya, the end of the Toyoko Line in Tokyo. There may be a one-page short story.

Each month, tens of thousands of copies of SALUS are distributed free. What's in this for the Tokyu Corporation Line, you ask? Well, the Tokyu Corporation is concerned to present the lines it operates as first-class railroad lines well worth living along. The Tokyu Corporation owns a lot of real estate along these lines, as well as  supermarkets, department stores, and apartment buildings and a chain of posh movie theaters which shows the latest films from around the world as well as high-definition presentations of the current offerings of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The value of this real estate is enhanced to the extent the these lines are seen to be classy lines, and it is true that Den-en-chofu on the Toyoko Line is recognized as one of Tokyo's most desirable (and expensive) areas to live in and Jiyugaoka is a young person's fashion showcase.

Other railway lines are hard at work trying to compete with the Toyoko Line, the Den-en-toshi Line, and the Oimachi Line.

- Patricia Avocado

Friday, April 5, 2013

New Tokyo architecture 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Yakuza, Japanese gangsters 

Before I got married I lived for a while in a Japanese inn in a wonderfully rowdy Tokyo neighborhood called Ueno, an area of the city known to be favored by people from the north of Japan and by yakuza. In Ueno, yakuza were not shy to let everyone know who they were. One yakuza used to wear a plaid double-breasted suit every day. It must have been his only suit. Everyone knew him and knew he was a yakuza and that was the way he liked it. His racket was something to do with the race track, I seem to recall.

In Japan, everyone has a job and is proud to do it well. There is a guy at our station whose job it is to keep the station clean and the station is immaculate. He's always running a cloth over something or a mop around the platform and he's proud that the station is so clean. Similarly, the plaid double-breasted yakuza had a scam and he was proud to do it well, whatever it was, and so proud to be a yakuza.

I gather that as long as he didn't hurt anybody except by parting them from their extra cash in some flimflam, the police let the yakuza do their job. The only disadvantage to being a yakuza, as far as I could see, was that most public baths did not accept as customers anybody who has a tattoo, and most if not all yakuza have tattoos. But then, there are yakuza public baths, just as there are yakuza bars.

I guess that somehow people secretly have a sentimental affection for their neighborhood yakuza, who are inclined to help old ladies cross the street by holding up the traffic. Yakuza have beaten the system, you see. But not, really.

--Perry Arguable