Mini Japanese Culture Lessons
In 500 words or less:
Bento – a single-portion take-out lunch box. Its perfectly arranged squares are packed with such goodies as seasoned rice, fried noodles, slabs of fish, pickled plums, octopus, fried chicken, eel, seaweed, boiled eggs, hot dogs, fried eggs, and other tasty treats.
Crying, pantomime – To mime crying, the Japanese flatten their hands horizontally and raise them to just below their eyes, fingertips pointed towards their nose, as though to catch falling tears. It’s partner manipulation at its stylized best.
Eeeeeeeehhhh?? – the Japanese version of “Whaaaa???” It is used in practically every sentence (usually by women) and in reaction to just about anything:
“I bought a new car.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from America.”
It is pronounced “eh” and its guttural intonation usually begins low and ends on a high note. It is absolutely inescapable.
Eto: The Japanese version of “um.” Like “eeeeehhh??” it is used compulsively.
Furoshiki – a large, square patterned piece of cloth used to wrap up one’s belongings. These are often seen at public bath houses to carry one’s bath kit or, these days, as decorative covers for household items.
Gaijin – the vernacular form of “Gaikokujin” which literally means “foreign person.” While it technically can be used to describe a foreigner of any sort, it usually is used to refer to a Caucasian person. Debate exists over whether or not it is a racial slur. Regardless, it is used heavily by Caucasians in Asia to refer to themselves or each other, much like the n-word is used in America between African-Americans. Taking the word and the power back, bitches.
Gaijin Card – an ID card foreign residents in Japan must carry at all times. There is an official Japanese name that is about 17 syllables long and unpronounceable.
Genki – healthy, happy, well. The Japanese usually ask each other, “o genki desu ka?” – which translates to “Are you happy/healthy/well?” – instead of “How are you?” There is a tremendous pressure to be “genki” in Japanese society, regardless of how one really feels.
Gentei – Monthly special. Britain isn’t the only nation to enjoy flavors of the month; Japanese chain restaurants, too, are extremely fond of offering “limited time only” or “gentei” menu selections in honor of the new month or the new season. Colorful posters bearing the images of the offering will be splashed across the restaurant’s windows from the first of the month, and as the month progresses, the pressure is on to sample KFC’s Yuzu Chicken, CocoIchibanya Curry’s Fried Oyster Curry, McD’s Royal Milk Tea McFlurry, or Beard Papa’s Pumpkin Cream Puff. It’s a clever marketing ploy to be sure, and some suspect it ties in with the Shinto compulsion for constant renewal. Most, however, when asked why Japanese chain restaurants continually offer “一月限定” menu selections, will simply reply, “Japanese like new things.” Other wealthier Japanese consumers note that these monthly offerings are limited to fast food restaurants – “for ordinary people who eat McDonald’s every day” – and as such will never enjoy the wonders of a July White Peach Beard Papa Cream Puff. This October, the McRib has come to Japan and woe to those who don’t experience its awesomeness.
Global TESOL – the college I went to in order to earn my TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) degree. Certification for life!
Golden Week – a week stretching from late April to early May where there are 3 national holidays. Many employers will simply give their employees the entire week off – happily, my employer was one of those. Golden Week is a time of high travel and grossly inflated travel prices.
Hanko – a tiny wooden stamp of one’s family name, although the word “hanko” extends to signify stamps used in business or for stamping a student’s homework. Family name hanko can be easily had (some stores sell them for quite cheap) and, yes, I want one but haven’t yet figured out how to write my name in Kanji 🙁
Honorifics – “The Karate Kid” helped make it cool in America to use the Japanese honorific “san,” but Mr. Miyagi was only telling part of the story. The Japanese will often use honorifics at the end of someone’s name to designate their relation to themselves; “san” is just one such term. “San” is used for someone you don’t know well, peers and always for people above your station. Call a young, beloved girl, “chan,” and call a young, beloved boy, “kun.”
- Calling your 50 year-old male boss, “Miyagi-kun”
- Referring to yourself as “Me-san/kun/chan.” Honorifics are only to be used in the 2nd or 3rd person. Young children will often make this mistake.
- Calling a little girl, “kun.”
- Calling a little boy, “chan.” It’s a little irregular but still considered okay. Famous example: Crayon Shin-chan.
- Calling a female co-worker who is older than you, for example, “Ribu-chan.” Apparently, it’s okay if said Ribu-chan is, I quote, “very cute.” At least they’re not calling her “Ribu-kun” … or late for dinner.
Hyaku en Store – a 100 Yen store; quite easily the world’s most perfect establishment. Unlike dollar stores in the US, 100 yen stores sell just about anything one could ever want, and the wares are of decent quality, too. I feel absolutely no shame in outfitting my home with 100 yen wares; not only do they keep my expenses and investments low (as I must keep my move home in mind) but the products sold are often quite adorable and work quite well. These stores are everywhere and the one nearby me sells a lot of groceries and beer as well. YOSHI!!!! (please see my entry for “Yoshi”)
Izakaya – a drinking establishment where small dishes of food are also served. The dishes of food can range from plates of sashimi to scallion pancakes to various fried goods. Going to an izakaya with the intention of having dinner can be an expensive endeavor as the little dishes rarely fill one up and more and more must be bought. Beware the pictures of fried foods – what looks like delicious chicken nuggets are often a part of the chicken Westerners don’t eat.
Kaiten zushi – Sushi establishments where the sushi is presented to customers on conveyor belts that revolve above the sushi bar. Customers may simply grab the sushi they like or, if they are feeling dubious about the quality of fish that has been spinning around on conveyor belts for who knows how long, they may ask the sushi chef to bring them something that is perhaps fresher. The pricing of sushi at such places is often determined by plate color – for example, red plates will cradle sushi that costs 250 yen whereas green plates mean the sushi costs 350 yen (the colors and prices vary per establishment). I favor a kaiten sushi place nearby me where all of the plates of sushi cost 120 yen.
Kana – the term used for the 2 syllabic scripts used to write Japanese; Hiragana and Katakana. Hiragana and Katakana are only 2 of the 3 systems used to write Japanese – Kanji, symbols borrowed from Chinese, is the third.
Hiragana – originally descended from Kanji symbols, it is the system of writing used for Japanese words. Traditionally, it was used by women because of its curvy, feminine quality.
Katakana – the system of writing used for foreign words, like “coffee” (“ko-hi,” in Katakana) or any non-Japanese person’s name. It was traditionally used by men because of its angular quality. It is also descended from Kanji symbols. Because Japanese is a syllabic language, many Japanese people pronounce non-Japanese words as though they were syllabic. “At” becomes “at-to,” “pretend” becomes “puritendo.” English words will be written in Katakana in that manner, which sometimes makes them hard to figure out even if one can read Katakana.
A typical Katakana reading experience at a restaurant:
Liv (or Ribu, in Katakana English): Hmm. What’ll I have? Well, here’s … er … Pa-su-ta Mi-tto so-su …. oh. Duh. Pasta with meat sauce.
Kanji – The third writing system used to write Japanese. There are about 50,000 kanji symbols and it is estimated that one must know about 2,000 to read a newspaper. Kanji symbols are often used for nouns or the base of a verb and are absolutely, absolutely everywhere. Unless one learns kanji, one has pretty much very little hope of being able to read things written in Japanese. To add to the madness, each kanji symbol can be pronounced (or “read”) in multiple ways depending on how it is used. For example, the character for “woman” can be read as “onna” or “jo.” Most Japanese names are written in Kanji as well.
In Japanese, the sentence “I watched television (watashi wa terebi o mita)” will be expressed like this: “I” will be written in kanji, the subject marker “wa” will be written in hiragana, the base of “watch” will be written in kanji (with the past tense-denoting part “ta” written in hiragana), the particle “o” will be written in hiragana and “television” will be written in katakana. This is why it is essential to learn all 3 systems of writing in order to read just about anything in Japanese.I can now read and write hiragana and katakana and recognize about 400 kanji (with at least one reading for most of them), but I still can’t read the directions on the back of my fried rice packet.
Kanji laziness – Proper stroke order is essential to achieve the correct balance when writing kanji. Nowadays, with the popularity of word processors, many Japanese claim to be forgetting how to write kanji properly. This is similar to how Westerners are forgetting to spell since the advent of Spell Check. Once again, the East and West unite; this time, in laziness.
Kancho – Ah, the dreaded kancho. More than enough has been written about kancho on www.gaijinsmash.net, but I will add my own two cents here. Kancho is the Japanese school children’s version of a wedgie. Make that, the “far more invasive version of the wedgie” – the goal of a kancho attack is to insert the attacker’s pointed index fingers into the victim’s anus.
When I first read about this, I didn’t believe it. Yet, as I have come to learn, it’s quite true – Carnitas (reluctantly) vouches for this. Usually, the victim realizes what is happening before said kancho occurs so penetration isn’t achieved but from what I understand, it isn’t so much the penetration that makes kancho so much fun; it’s the fear.
Kekkonshiki – Weddings. As in the West, weddings are a huge industry in Japan. Thanks to the importation of Hollywood movies, Japanese weddings have come to have a lot of other things in common with the West, such as brides wearing white dresses and carrying floral bouquets. It’s common for young Japanese brides to channel Cher and undergo several costume changes throughout the day; donning the white dress for the ceremony, slipping into a traditional Japanese wedding kimono for the reception and then wearing another dress to cut the cake. There are often ads in the English language magazines trolling for Western men to “play” the minister to add that special Hollywood touch.
Plenty of Japanese touches and adaptations of Western traditions fill the day, such as eschewing wedding gifts for cash (always given in odd, indivisible denominations like 30,000 yen for good luck) and inviting the friends and family of the couple to perform at the reception. The Japanese are a bit smarter about planning the wedding than we are: their barrage of wedding options tend to end at the selection of a hotel, whose staff presents them with a wedding “package” and takes care of all the arrangements once the package is chosen.
A student of mine is a musician who performs at one of those ritzy hotels and often works weddings. According to her, popular wedding songs include “I Will Always Love You,” “My Heart Will Go On,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Key Money – Renting an apartment anywhere can be expensive, what with deposits, agency fees and moving costs, but renting an apartment in Japan comes with an added expense: key money. Key money, or reikin, is an extra fee that is paid to the landlord on top of deposits, brokerage fees, maintenance fees, fire insurance, and moving costs. It is often referred to as a “gift” since you never get it back. Sort of a thank you since, apparently, in the world of Japanese real estate, words or jars of homemade plum wine aren’t enough. How much will this “thank you” cost? Key money can cost anywhere from 1 to 3 times the rent.
Unsurprisingly, many foreigners say “nani kuso!!!!” to key money and, when relocating, look for a real estate agency that caters to Westerners. “No key money” is plastered across the advertisement. Sometimes brokerage fee. Sometimes deposit. And somehow, we still manage to say “thank you.” There is a reason they have words for that in every language, you know. Thank you.
Kojima Yoshio – Japan’s current “it” boy. Described as a comedian, this smug, muscular idiot delights in parading around in only a Speedo as he raps a song and bounces around to techno music. The highlight of his act is, without a doubt, his signature move and catch phrase: “Sonna no kankei nee (“What does that matter?”)” growled while bending over and stamping one bent leg as he pumps his bent arm. The children adore him and imitate him at least 5 times per hour class. Sararimen on the train quote the “comedian” as well. In my opinion, someone ought to refer Kojima-san to a clothing store and VH-1 for a cozy intimate viewing of “One Hit Wonders.”
Kutsu Bako – the indentation in the floor of a house or room’s foyer where people leave their shoes when they take them off before entering.
Me, myself, and I – Ore? Boku? Atashi? Watashi? Watakushi? In many Western countries, when a person wants to signify themselves they point to their chest. In some cases, they point to their face, with their index finger held several inches away. The Japanese version of this self-signification? Touching their nose with their index finger. This is why every time I quiz my students on parts of the body, they respond, “Ribu!” when I point to my nose.
Momo – the Japanese word for “peach.” In olden times, before the Katakana word “pinku” became widely used, Japanese people used the word “momo” to describe the color pink. The Japanese love their Momo and so do I!!!!
Nama Biru – house draft beer.
O-Bon Festival – a Buddhist celebration in August where the Japanese honor their departed ancestors. Shrines and temples are involved, and, in my school’s case, a 2-week vacation from work. Hurrah!
Onigiri – Small, inexpensive rice balls wrapped in an intricate system of layered cellophane and sold at conbinis. They come in triangle or round shapes and the triangle-shaped ones are wrapped in salted seaweed and often have fillings. Common fillings include negitoro (raw tuna with scallions), ebi mayo (shrimp and mayo), tuna mayo, katsuo (fish flake and sesame seed paste), ume (pickled plum), konpu (shredded seaweed and soy sauce), natto (fermented soybeans), tarako (fish eggs) and yakitori-style meat. Buying onigiri can be perilous because the names of the fillings are always written in kanji, hiragana and katakana. Pictures accompany the onigiri at the 7 and Holdings conbini chain and people have been known to get by by simply identifying the filling by color of the sticker on the wrapping but I’ve found that the colors vary from conbini chain to conbini chain.
Round onigiri can come plain but are often scattered with bits of such assorted treats as octopus, kimchee, scallions, seaweed, sesame seeds, and fried egg.
The dog says: wanwan
The cat says: nyaonyao
The baby chick says: piyopiyo
The rooster says: kokekokko
The gleaming, sparkling object says: pikapika
The knock on the door says: tonton
The door bell says: pinpon!
The crunchy snack says: sakusaku
The empty stomach says: pekopeko
The contented snorer says: guuguu
The rapidly beating heart says: dokidoki
The knocking knees say: gakugaku
The sneezer says: hakushon!
In Japanese, onomatopoeias are written in katakana and there is no equivalent for “bless you” or “gesundheit.” Hakushon is only met with silence
Osechi – traditional New Year foods. The practice of eating osechi began in the Heian period, when someone decided to give Japanese women a break and make it taboo to cook meals for the first 3 daysof the year. Instead, Japanese women prepare the easily-preserved osechi foods in advance and enjoy 3 days of hassle-free feasting. Osechi treats include daidai (Japanese bitter orange), kamaboko(broiled fish paste), kazunoko (herring roe), zoni (mochi soup), and tai (seabream), among others. Each dish represents something positive due to the kanji used to write its name: for example, kazunoko is symbolic for couples wishing to conceive and kuro-mame (black soybeans) symbolizes health. There appears to be a definite split among the older generations and the younger when it comes to appreciating osechi; students my age and younger appear to despise it whereas students my parents’ age and older look forward to the delights each year.
Romaji – the Japanese name for the writing system used to write Western languages such as English, Spanish, German, etc. An absolute life saver in a train station or a restaurant.
Sarari Man – a businessman (Katakana for “salary man”). They range in age from about 22 to 50ish, and, in their uniform of a dark suit and tie paired with a light-colored shirt, are immediately recognizable wherever they appear. They often travel in packs and can usually be found quietly reading newspapers, manga or porn on commuter trains or gathering at izakayas. Beware the drunken ones.
Sayonara Sale – A rummage sale held by an ESL teacher who is leaving Japan to go back home. A most excellent source of useful junk for cheap.
Seiza – the traditional, painful, knee-bent Japanese way to sit “properly.” Sean has to sit this way for 2 hours every week for his calligraphy class. I find myself in this position quite often of late – feels comfortable for me – but I know he hates it and thus, I laugh.
Sumimasen – Japanese for “excuse me.” An essential phrase to learn when navigating the packed streets and train stations. The Japanese also use this phrase habitually in conversations with each other, even when they don’t need to.
Yakitori – Grilled skewers of soy-sauce glazed meat, usually chicken. The phrase “meat” includes any part of the chicken that can be considered edible. Try kokoro (heart) for a delicious treat.
Yen – Pronounced “en” in Japanese. There are roughly 100 yen to each American dollar. The yen comes in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen coins and 1000, 5000 and 10,000 yen bills. Thus, many things are payable in coins, which I love because paying for things in coins makes me feel like a pirate. Arrrr!!!!
Yosh– This word is used the way Americans use “YES!” when they have achieved some sort of victory or are greatly pleased. It was introduced to me by Bob, who returned from a subway station bathroom with a story of how an old man had settled at the urinal next to him and, as he whipped off his belt and unleashed his member, sighed “Yosh!!!” with great satisfaction. I have heard my young students say it when I take out the table, signaling “arts and crafts” time.
Yukata – A lightweight, informal type of kimono worn by both men and women during the hot summer months. Unlike kimonos, yukatas can range in price from slightly expensive (over 10,000 yen) to very cheap (at Uniqlo, one can pick up a yukata, clogs and obi (sash) set for about 2900 yen). They come in funkier prints than kimonos and are worn over one’s undergarments. In some cases, these undergarments are made specifically to be worn under the yukata.
Zed – what my misguided Kiwi, Aussie, Irish, English and Canadian fellow teachers will call the letter “z.” At times, students educated by this treacherous lot will actually refer to “Z” as “zed.” And then they get the lash.