Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Few Observations and A Couple of Translation Notes

I'm still doing some "summarizing" of the things that I have seen, heard, learned, etc., over the last month, and there are a few more things I find humorous and a couple of extra-linguistic culture notes that helped me to better understand the translation of the books I've read in Japanese.

Again, the observations are in no particular order.

Sunglasses are extremely rare here, and when you see darkened glasses, they are never very dark : usually nothing more than a light yellow or very light brown. I asked a friend why this was true, and he said that Japanese don't generally like darkness. I doubt that is the true answer - I mean, what culture does like darkness? - but I let it slide.

When cars stop at a light, they'll often turn off their lights. I haven't asked why they do this, but it is very common. I think it is either to save a miniscule amount of gas, or else to avoid bothering the person across the intersection, much as Americans will turn down their brights when another car comes from the other direction.

Japanese people place great value on community and discussion. I heard this before I came, but I didn't really realize how prevalent it was. One place this is particularly noticeable is on television. Nearly every program, it seems, has a panel of celebrities commenting on it. There are, of course, the Hollywood Squares-style programs that you often see from Japanese television broadcast in San Francisco, but it goes further than this. Documentaries, like those shown on Discovery channel, are commented on by a panel of celebrities (celebrities, mind you, not experts in the slightest, just entertainers). Another show chooses a celebrity, showcases their diet, then, while the group of celebrities around the celebrity in the bad diet spotlight make comments, a panel of actual experts (I don't know their qualifications, but they aren't funny and they wear white frocks, so I assume they are experts) - and notice it is a group of experts, not just one - make predictions about how the diet will affect their health in the future. These are examples, but it really is astonishing when you watch much Japanese television to see how important group discussion is to television culture.

Okay, that's it for the "quirkiness" observations.

I also was pretty happy to come across a couple of things on my trip that have helped me understand books I've been reading Japanese better - because, heck, if it weren't for the fact I want to be a translator of Japanese, I might not be here.

Beyond a general feel for the culture and a chance to put images to the names of Japanese places that come up in Japanese literature, there are a couple of specific things I was happy to come across that made a big difference in my understanding of, in this case, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Sea.

First is from Kafka by the Sea, and while it is simple and really not a big deal, if I had not come here I would have had to spend a great deal of research on it: the word ローソン. If you can't read Japanese or that is just a bunch of gobbledy-gook, the word was Rohson. I came across it as I was reading the other day and, as I often have to with words transliterated into Japanese, I had to sound it out to myself, but finally after a few seconds it was obvious, from the context and from the experience I've had here, what the word meant. If anyone can is studying Japanese, can you guess what the word is?

The word is Lawson, and it is the name of a famous convenience store here in Japan. There are four main "conbinis" that I have seen: 7-11 (yes, that's right, and the 7-11 company even has a bank now), ampm, Family Somethingorother (can't remember the full name), and Lawson. There are others, but those are the most common. Convenience stores are where you go to buy fairly good prepared food, beer, cables for your electronic devices, where you pick up packages, and a great many other things. They are not (usually - there are exceptions) the dirty and often unsafe places that they can be in San Francisco.

Anyway, I know it is a small deal, but the fact that this so quickly came to me was a real validation of the belief that coming here is essential to continue learning the language.

The second occurred to me when wandering home today after getting lost for the billionth time. The streets, other than the main streets that cut across the entire metropolis, are usually very short and small and follow no particular pattern in Tokyo. Instead of groups of parallel streets, the streets here often cut across each other, end after a few meters, and/or are about an arms' length across.

Houses are found not by walking down a street until you find the right number, but by a slow narrowing of areas until you have narrowed the possibilites down to a very small number. In the US we would first find the city, then the street. It helps to have some idea of the area the house is in, but if you use the brute force method, you can usually start at 1 and walk to the address if you know the street, and if you see the address of houses in a particular area of that street you can guess how far you are from your destination. This is not the case in Tokyo. For example, the place I am staying now is in a numbered area 15 of a subsection called Sakae town of the Kita ward of Tokyo. This means first you have to find Tokyo, then the Kita ward. Once you have found Kita, you have to figure out where Sakae town is. The only way to do this is to have a map with a good index or ask a local. I had both Japanese google's maps and a paper map, so I didn't bother to ask a local. But even when you have found the town, you still have to find the section, called a Chome, then find the numbered part of that chome that corresponds to your address. It took me about two hours, I think, to find this place the first time, and now I've managed to lower that to, on average, about 15-20 minutes, depending on where I am coming from. But it can be a crap shoot.

There is a point (sort of) to all of this, if you've managed to make it this far.

There is a part of Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle where he describes an alley the main character enters while trying to find his lost cat. When I read this both in English translation and in Japanese, I was imagining to myself the wide alleys we have in the US - even the narrow alleys can usually acommodate a Hummer. Not in Japan. As I said before, many of the alleys are only a meters wide, if that, and only very small cars (there are many small cars here) can get through.

In Murakami's story, this alley has been blocked off by construction over the years. In the US, while plausible, this would be a real oddity, and thinking of the alley the way I had been thinking makes the whole scenario much more surreal than it really is. In fact, you run into deadends all the time here, without any explanation, and as walls go up to protect the miniscule gardens of the tenants within, it is very likely that one of these tiny alleys might get blocked off.

It is an important point, because the alley helps to create the atmosphere of isolation that is a trademark of Murakami's style and, I think, one of the reasons he is so popular. The main character, stranded in the alley - almost a sacred space because it is cut off from the normal thoroughfares of human life - pauses for a moment to consider what connection there is between the lost cat and his ailing marriage, beginning a subtle undertone of jealousy and misplaced trust that come to a climax only hundreds of pages later. The alley, once useful to connect houses, people, places together, now only serves as a barrier between them. It is a potent symbol that only grows in relevance the more I focus on it.

Knowing that this closing off of an alley is very plausible in Tokyo takes away some the of the absurdity that I originally read into the alley, but it doesn't take away strength of the symbol itself.

I'm sure no one is reading anymore, and I'm tired, so I'll end it here.

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