The myth of Japanese uniqueness

A recent discussion on the Honyaku list about the reaction of Westerners to Japanese food led to some interesting observations that the trouble Westerners have with Japanese food is often just in the minds of Japanese, who accept as conventional wisdom that their cuisine is too unusual for outsiders to appreciate.

And it occurred to me: part of the “uniquely unique” self-image of Japan is alarmingly close to the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype outside of Japan. Some Japanese people just don’t realize how exposed Japan is to the rest of the world.

  • Every few years, a particularly tactless Japanese politicians will say something outrageous, and then be bewildered when it generates an international shitstorm.
  • In another life, when I was an English teacher in 長野県, I had adult students who were amazed to learn that Sony is known outside Japan, let alone being one of the best-known companies in the world.

Perhaps an aspect of being uniquely unique is being persistently provincial.


A pet peeve of mine is Chinese character tattoos. These are often translations of some sentiment the victim wishes to express in code, but have been translated in a way that probably won’t make sense to a native speaker of Chinese or Japanese. In other cases, they are unidiomatic or just plain wrong.

Take a gander at the two kanji above. The one on the left, å’Œ, is the character for “peace,” popular as a tattoo, on T-shirts, decorative rocks, etc. The one on the right looks exactly the same, but for one crucial stroke. In fact, it is not an actual character at all (near as I can tell), though my first guess was that it means “apricot” (I was close: 杏). It is the one on the right that I saw tattooed on the small of a woman’s back on Sunday.

What’s the correct etiquette in this situation? Should I tell her “Hey, I know you wanted the character for ‘peace’ tattooed on your back, but you wound up with something that sorta looks like ‘apricot'”? Or should I leave her in blissful ignorance, as an inside joke for those of us who know the code?

Later: Apparently other people are writing about this problem too.

Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash DX

Acting on a tip, I organized an expedition with Jenny, Drew, and Gwen to the new Alamo Drafthouse up in what I jokingly refer to as “Waco” to see Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash DX. This is one of those things that makes the Alamo great. A compilation running roughly 90 minutes of extremely strange snippets taped off of Japanese television. Before the show proper, they ran trailers of weird Japanese movies–mostly horror and ultraviolence movies–about one-third being made by Beat Takeshi (a one-man weirdness corps).

The weirdness came in three general flavors: tokusatsu (live-action superhero shows like Ultraman) and anime, advertising, and variety show sketches. Most of the clips were from the last category, and all (or nearly all) of them curiously featured the same actor (name unknown) unsuccessfully trying to avoid cracking up in every routine. These variety shows are, very approximately, on the order of the Carol Burnet Show, but in terms of scripts and execution, her show was like Masterpiece Theatre by comparison. This focus was a bit unfortunate–sure, the variety shows are fun, in an incredibly stupid and scatalogical way, but I love the five-second blipverts that are so weird they almost make your brain explode, and there weren’t many of these (I suppose it would be exhausting to sit through an hour of five-second ads). Tokusatsu shows would be worth more focus, because the villains are so incredibly bizarre. For that matter, they could have gotten pretty good mileage out of the many travel-and-eat shows that consist mostly of some pretty young thing oohing over the lapidarian culinary productions of some kitchen-sensei, and then, mouth full of said creation, grunting ああああっ!おいしいい〜!

Oh yes, Japan can be a strange place.

New Green Goddess coming

Kenkyusha is readying a new version (link in Japanese) of its New Japanese-English Dictionary. Despite its many faults, it is considered the standard J-E dictionary, and is referred to by Japanese translators as the Green Goddess, or GG for short. It is interesting that the product announcement explicitly refers to this. On the Honyaku mailing list, Tom Gally writes:

The chief in-house editor of the dictionary
at Kenkyusha first learned that the dictionary has this nickname from
Mayumi Nishioka, a long-time Honyaku contributor, when she contacted
him in 1995 about a term that had been discussed on Honyaku.

Purchasers of this dictionary may note other connections between
Honyaku and the new GG, including terms and translations that have
been discussed on this list in the past and several familiar names
among the contributors.

It is a minor sport among J-E translators to point out bizarre entries in this dictionary, many of which seem preserved from the first edition in 1918–it still contains entries like 鉄道馬車 tetsudo basha or horse-drawn railway car. The fourth edition was released in 1974, and one gets the impression that new glosses were tacked on to the end of existing ones, so one often must skip to the end of the entry to get the most helpful definition. The example sentences also have an antique quality, like “give a wrench at the doorknob.” Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see how new the fifth edition is.

Lego Vending Machine

Jeremy Hedley discovers this gem of automated commerce.

With all the weird and wonderful vending machines in Japan, its surprising how often, well, you can be surprised by them. You think you’ve seen them all, and then something like this pops up. Two stand out in my mind: A vending machine in an underpass, somewhere around Omotesando. It contained, among other things, a giant Pocky box. Jenny and I wondered “OK…is it a giant box of Pocky, or a box of giant Pocky?” We had to know. So we coughed up the ¥500 (or whatever) and found, to our delight, that it was indeed a box of giant Pocky, each one about 18″ long. The other was a Morinaga vending machine that had a 1920s design to it. I bought a box of caramels, and it played a creepily militaristic song.


Panderers in Japan

Japander:n.,& v.t. 1. a western star who uses his or her fame to make large sums of money in a short time by advertising products in Japan that they would probably never use.


If you have an interest in the Japanese language, Rikai.com is a startling, fascinating website. It takes other websites (or whatever plain text you feed it) and displays them with a translation layer, so that when you point at a word in Japanese, the translation appears.

Unfortunately it’s a bit buggy, and it seems to work better with Navigator than IE, but I’m still very impressed.