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Archive for October, 2008

After being held a Sing Star* hostage for an hour by two of my rather drunk friends, I decided to escape and pack for Tokyo. I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon for a 5 day mini-break with 2 of my girlfriends over the University Festival weekend. Its going to be my first time on Shinkansen and in Tokyo so I am rather like a kid a Christmas, still wide awake at 3am, except with last minute homework, and revision for a test on causative-passive verb conjugation and transitive/intransitive verbs. Obviously writing my blog is preferable to that!

The only slight problem is that all of my shoes are broken! Well not ALL of them, but all my favourite everyday ones. A rather sorry state of affairs! One might call me thrifty, skint, creative or my new favourite word: a Recessionista, but whatever word you want to use, I just saved a lot of money by repairing not one, not two but FOUR pairs of shoes with a tube of superglue. Flats, heels, boots and flip-flops. One of my pairs of trainers is being held together with yellow electrical tape and one other pair of heels is beyond repair even by the most skilled cheap-skate. Its rather pitiful but it can’t be helped.

Shoes can be very cheap in Japan, but they are also made for the doll sized feet of wannabe geisha and barbie-like Harajuku princesses. As I have feet the size of Russia, I am yet to find anything other than 100yen (50p) beige plastic unisex “massager” slipper-shoes which are even worse than they sound, and more painful than you could ever expect; if by massage they mean “cause severe numbness and de-sensitization in feet” then objective achieved!

Enough about shoes anyway.

I will write about Tokyo when I get some free time, but until then I will leave you with my (slightly blurry) photo of the day:

Mmm… Platinum Aroma…

*Karaoke style game for the PlayStation.

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Article 9; A Call For Peace

Studying alongside Japanese students in my seminar class is a really unique experience of Japanese university life, not only because of the differences in the style of teaching, but because their opinions differ so much from the opinions of British students.

I’m not entirely sure if it is a London view or nationwide view, but it often seems that we have all become so cynical in the UK that war is an inevitable means of conflict resolution (apart from a few vegan alpaca farmers who have renounced the use of toilet paper and electricity). Just look at the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq; peace discussions quickly broke down and physical intervention ensued. Of course everyone wants world peace (especially Miss World 2008, 2007, 2006…) but in Japan, people genuinely believe it is possible. I find this kind of optimism for the future of the world very refreshing.

After the 2nd world war, the new constitution which was written for Japan included “Article 9” which translates into English as the following:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In class we were discussing whether it would be possible to export this article to other countries. Every single one of my Japanese classmates thought that it should and could be achieved. Every single one of the Americans thought that the US would never adopt such a policy.

With family and friends in the armed forces, I find it hard to be anything but supportive of the our troops, and however much I agree with Article 9 as a utopian ideal, I cannot imagine the UK ever renouncing war in a similar way to Japan for the simple reason that the UK is too deeply connected with international affairs.

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The strange thing about living in Japan is that you can simultaneously feel very at home but also like a fish out of water. I know the language (enough to get by comfortably!), how to get around Nagoya, all the do’s and dont’s of Japanese culture. I know a fair bit of Japanese history. I even know how to say “your pants are showing” in comical sign language. But I am still a foreigner. Now, this does have its advantages – if I make faux pas linguistically or otherwise, Japanese people very generously give me the benefit of doubt! However, I am getting slightly tired of always being treated as an outsider. (If I had 100 yen for every time someone asked me if I can eat raw fish…)

We were trying to get into a members club the other night and my half-Japanese friend George rang ahead to see if we could get without being members. The lady told him that it was no problem, that membership was not required. We then went up to the 9th floor and entered reception, where we were told that George could indeed get in without membership as he is fluent in Japanese and looks Japanese. The rest of us (foreigners) would not be able to enter, since we were not members. As it turned out, Japanese people do not have to be members but gaijin do. And to become a member you have to obtain three letters of recommendation from Japanese friends, proof of valid visa status, an Alien Registration Card, and a completed application form. I could of course join, but would I want to join a club which essentially resents my presence? I wouldn’t mind so much if everyone had to apply for membership but such blatant double standards are something I am not used to.

Anyway, it didn’t really matter. We still went on to have a hilarious evening out! It just goes to show that it is the company you hold and not the places you go which define an fun time.

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Halloween already?

This week we’ve been getting into the full swing of Halloween preparations, which I find slightly strange since it is only mid-October but mainly because Halloween has absolutely no relation to Japan in any way shape or form. What one observes here is a bastardised cutsie replica of American Halloween, which we all know is an over commercialised holiday that was in fact trans-mutated from Northern European roots which in turn were preceded by historic traditions that probably nobody actually knows or cares about .

At least some things are the similar between the UK and Japan. In the UK Halloween is only celebrated by children, and university students who should know better but want an excuse for a party during reading week. Similarly, Japan is all about orange black and luminous green iced fairy cakes; ridiculous fancy dress (I saw a lady making her 8 year old child try on a mobile phone suit costume. At least it wasn’t the one which makes your child look like an over-sized milk carton. I wish I had had my camera on me); and as with all proper festivals here, very heavy drinking.

We’ve done most of the preparations for the party on friday, the entrance to our dorm is plastered in bats hanging everywhere, the DJ station is set up and I’ve even got around to buying a sword for my pirate outfit. Tomorow I am on flyering duty…

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This is how sundays should be:

Wake up late. Go for ice cream at a place where they mash up fruit or chocolate with your favourite ice cream whilst singing you a song and clinking their metal spatulas. Enjoy a bit of window shopping. A quick visit to the pet shop where you can cuddle the puppies. A walk around Sakae waving at random people and making small talk with shop keepers. Finished with a drink or two at a nice tea room with a beautiful aquarium.

And back just in time to make the international food party* and make decorations for the halloween party.

* I may have slightly brought gastronomic shame on Great-Britain-land. My wonderful Scottish friend and I tried to make Toad in the Hole. But they dont have ovens in Japan. Or decent pork sausages. So we improvised using a frying pan. And frankfurters. It did not work. Luckily the Japanese and Americans didnt really know any better! It made me a bit homesick though, shopping and realising just how few home comforts we have here. I try to improvise as far as possible, but its almost impossible to make anything authentic. 😦

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Today I was volunteered into doing a presentation about my seminar class to 200 junior high school students. They came from one of the local school and it was a chance for them to see what university is like and what goes on. Essentially, seminar classes are very different to lecture classes not only in size but in the way they are conducted, so three of the Japanese girls did a fantastic presentation on the kind of topics we cover and the way in which we learn. Towards the end, another exchange student Alvin and I spoke for a couple of minutes about what we liked about the class etc. On hearing us speak Japanese there was a loud chorus of 「かわいい!」”So cute!” and girlish giggles which amused us both! It really makes you feel like you are famous or special. (Apparently life back home is very dry when you are brutally made to remember that in fact you are neither famous or special.)

It was slightly scary speaking Japanese in front of so many people – this was a far cry from our speeches and self-introductions in class! For one thing, there were about ten teachers at the back, three who were videoing the whole thing/taking pictures! We got asked questions at the end, and although the questions were fairly straightforward it felt really good that I could freestyle the answers without any preparation, in fact it was quite a rush!

Whilst we were waiting outside after it had finished, I overheard a couple of the girls ask their teacher if they were allowed to ask us for photographs on their mobile phones! I wouldn’t have minded at all but the teacher shooed them away saying something like, “lets not bother the nice foreigners now, shall we?”.

The great thing about Japan is that on the one hand you do get coerced into doing things like this (with the phrase “we would like it if you would….”) but you ALWAYS get rewarded with mugs, stationary, umbrellas or something else, and today was no exception. Not only did we get a goody bag of Nanzan Stationary, but our Professor Mr. Fujimoto took us out for a slap up lunch at a rather fancy Chinese restaurant!

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One of my favorite things about studying Japanese is the subtlety of this language. A lot is left unsaid, words ommitted or abbreviated, and so one has to rely on context to understand the overall meaning. There is also a lot of variety that we dont have in English, such the different first person pronouns you can use in Japanese. By choosing a particular first person pronoun you can instantly make yourself seem more masculine, feminine, humble, superior or a combination of the above. Choosing the most appropriate word out of a selection of five or six is slightly tricky. But what is more interesting is trying to understand what someone is saying when they use a particular word which has three or four different meanings!!  Japanese has so many homophones that misunderstandings easily occur. “Kami” can mean 紙 “paper” 髪 “hair” or 神 ”god”. Japanese people argue that the pronounciation is different, and whilst this may be the case I still have to rely on context to know which one they mean!

Luckily I am allowed to make mistakes as I am not a native speaker, and when I do it is cause for laughter rather than offence. Since the last few days have been peppered with examples, I want to share two which stood out.

On Saturday I went to Nagoya Port and to see the aquarium which was a lovely day out. As soon as we got there my Japanese friend said to me 「さかなみたい」. Now, depending on the context and how it is written or pronounced, this could either mean 「魚見たい」 ”I want to see the fish” or 「魚みたい」 ” (something) looks like a fish”, but the difference is very minimal to the untrained ear. Since we were at an aquarium, it really wasn’t very clear which she meant. To add to the confusion, another friend said 「魚食べてみたい」, which means “I want to taste the fish”. Whether they meant the ones swimming around in the tanks in front of us or ones fresh from the port was unclear, although I hope they meant the latter!

On Thursday evening I decided to get my hair coloured at a place nearby, and on my return to the dorms I met a couple of people I hadn’t seen in a few days. When they asked about my new look I replied “I just got back from the Beauty Parlour”. Unfortunately, the word for Beauty Parlour/Hairdressers is very very similar to the word for Hospital and my friend looked at me half shocked and worried until we both realised my mispronunciation, at which we burst out laughing!

So whilst learning a new language can be a minefield, it is also incredibly funny if you take a step back and laugh at your own mistakes.

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