What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start

In a couple weeks I am supposed to give a presentation (in Japanese) for my company’s family day. The topic is “common English mistakes by Japanese people.” I didn’t decide the theme, but I am hoping to use the opportunity to spread the message that speaking “wrong” English should be welcomed as long as you are at least communicating and using what you know.

And since I don’t think it’s fair to focus only on Japanese people’s English mistakes, to help make my point I am including the following anecdote about my own linguistic history:

About a month into my time as an exchange student in high school (my first-ever visit to Japan), I started staying with host parents who loved to feed me. Very, very nice and welcoming people. One time they served me hot cocoa, and I told them I liked it. Big mistake, because for the next two weeks they gave me the same hot cocoa with dinner every single night.

I was starting to get pretty sick of it, but I wanted to be polite and as such didn’t want to say no without doing so properly in Japanese. So I looked up how to say “I am getting tired of X” in the dictionary and went to my host mother and told her:

ココア、飽きたです (broken Japanese for, “I sick of cocoa”)

Her reaction? She looked shocked, started to cry, and asked why I would say such a thing. She then got her husband, and he demanded an explanation. I was starting to get nervous at this point, so I just repeated ココア、飽きたです thinking they’d get it this time. They didn’t and just seemed to get even angrier and more hurt…

Sweating now, I tried a few more times with different, untested sentence structures, mustering all my training from stateside Japanese classes. (ココアおいしいけど飽きたです?). With each utterance, they would look at me curiously and then start talking among themselves in words I couldn’t understand.

Finally, it dawned on me – ココア、飽きたです sounds a lot like ここは、飽きたです (I sick of this place). So I finally found the bag of cocoa and started pointing to it, saying  ココア ココア!!

Once they finally got it everything settled down. But for a moment I thought I might be in some serious trouble for making a cultural faux pas. I had heard how much Japanese value social protocol, so until I realized the mistake it seemed like saying no to cocoa was a really big deal. I still feel bad about making my host mother cry.

***

Have any of you had similar linguistic misadventures? Please let me know in the comments section. Note that if your story is really good I might have to steal it for my presentation!

Sustainable Sushi?

Are you concerned about the overfishing of the oceans, but still want to enjoy the delicious sweet raw flesh of fish? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has recently published a guide to what seafood you should and should not eat in specific areas of the United States. There is unfortunately no guide specific for Japan, but there is a US-centric sushi guide that may be of interest to some readers, and may encourage someone to create a version for Japan. (You’ll note that much of it is not useful because it depends on region—uni, for example, appears in all three categories, depending on its origin in the US).

You can download the pdf at the link.

Update on life in Tokyo

A lot has changed for me over the past year and a half. I won’t go into too much detail, but the biggest shift has been my new job. In September 2009 I started translating for an equity research team, which means I spend my days reading and translating reports on publicly listed Japanese companies and the stock market in general.

It’s a fun and deeply interesting job, but it’s had an impact on my commitment to blogging in a big way, for a few reasons. For one thing, I came into the job with a woeful lack of knowledge about stocks and finance. I’ve been spending many nights studying to try and fill in the gaps. Only recently have I felt ready to try and start broadcasting my thoughts again.

Also, all the background research about the Japanese corporate world has had an unexpected side-effect: it more or less satisfies my urge to do the same thing on MFT. I mean, why blog about how Saizeriya serves TV dinners as restaurant food, when I already spent the better part of a day writing the same thing in an analyst report? It feels redundant. Most times, I can’t even be bothered to post something on Twitter.

Recently, I have felt a little more confident in focusing on blogging again. But when I opened the WordPress site, I had a bit of writer’s block. My thinking and interests have changed since the time when I was blogging about pillow-girlfriends and the like. At this point, I don’t know what future posts will look like, but at the very least it now seems kind of pointless to snipe at foreign press coverage of Japan. Working in the investment world with a team of veteran translators has probably skewed my perspective.  I will probably spend more time talking about things like the Gyoza no Ohsho training scandal.

Life in Tokyo in 2011

It’s been almost four years since Mrs. Adamu and I moved to Tokyo, and this September will mark the 12th anniversary of my first landing in Japan at Kansai International Airport. The me of 12 years ago probably couldn’t imagine how I’d be living today. Of course my life has taken many unexpected twists and turns, but more generally, the life of a gaijin in Japan seems much more comfortable and less alienating than it used to be, at least from my perspective.

When I was a high school exchange student, my contacts with the home country were basically limited to monthly visits with other exchange students and the occasional rented movie or episode of Full House on Japanese TV. It didn’t matter much because I was concentrating on learning Japanese to fulfill my newfound dream of one day appearing on one of those shows where Japanese-speaking foreigners argue about politics.

But on the flight home something odd happened. Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers was showing on the in-flight entertainment, and for some reason I couldn’t stop laughing at all the cheesy jokes. I had been away from American humor for so long that even a little taste of it made me crack up. It happened again during my Kyoto study abroad days, when about six months in I watched Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

I don’t have those moments anymore.

I am typing this post on a laptop connected to my home WiFi connection, a few minutes after catching up with The Daily Show and Colbert Report. I can download/stream any movie or music I want using one of the world’s fastest Internet connections, while my cable TV opens up even more possibilities. The Net has all the world’s news. Skype lets me video-chat with my parents at holidays. There are two Costcos within a reasonable driving distance, and a decent amount of import stores that allow me to easily and cheaply cook American food if I so desire. I bought a queen-size bed at Ikea. Hyogo and Kyoto in 1999 and 2002 offered none of these, for both financial and technological reasons.

In so many ways, living in Tokyo in 2011 lets me keep my feet in both Japanese and American cultures. Obviously, I would not trade these comforts, but in a lot of ways it muddies the idea of assimilating into Japanese culture and fundamentally feeling like I live in a foreign country. If it mattered to me, I guess I could tilt the balance of my media/entertainment more toward the Japanese side, but it doesn’t. When I was younger I was all about learning to understand Japanese TV and movies and reading manga. But these days I know most Japanese TV is utterly stupid, and it’s rare for me to encounter a manga title that really grabs me (the last one was Ishi No Hana). Who knows, this might be another reason some of my old go-to blog topics seem less interesting now.

Why does Gyoza no Ohsho need to brainwash its employees?

Earlier this month, Nippon TV aired this segment about Kyoto-based ramen/Chinese food chain Gyoza no Ohsho’s somewhat, um, intense training program for new recruits. Take a look:

This is part 1. Watch parts 2 and 3 on Youtube.

As you can see in the video, the trainers act like drill sergeants, berating the new employees as they memorize and recite company rules, receive intensive training in Japanese-style customer service basics (scream a lot, always smile), and make sure their uniforms are on right. They even have a specially designed calisthenics routine, to “check whether they can do even simple work with their full effort.” At the end, each trainee must step forward to announce their “ambitions” i.e. what they hope to accomplish as Ohsho employees. If they pass, they all seem to break down crying, at which point the trainer comes up and embrace them.

The scene recalls either a Christian revival meeting, a self-help seminar, or perhaps a Marxist self-criticism session.

It’s kind of shocking to watch, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen this style of training on a Japanese documentary. About a year ago, NHK did a feature on the Tokyo University cheer squad where the senior members broke down the new recruits psychologically just like this.

Going viral

Since then, the segment has gone viral on the Japanese web, with the majority recoiling in horror. A minority (my estimate) took the stance that this sort of thing is normal in grown-up society, while others thought this might be the secret to the company’s recent success. (notably, one of the faces in the studio watching the segment was Miki Watanabe, CEO of Watami, an izakaya chain that’s been a similar success story to Ohsho. He said his company does not do that kind of training because that’s not Watami’s “corporate culture”)

One reason the video caught on may be because this is the time when many university students receive job offers after their year-long search for work post-graduation. Most big Japanese companies and many small ones hire groups of new college graduates all at once, with the intention of treating them as lifetime employees. Though Ohsho seems to hire many from the pool of non-college grads, the theme is no doubt resonant at this time.

It’s an enormously important time in a college student’s life, especially in the current bad job environment, because failure to land a decent job can doom one to a lifetime of “non-regular” employment with fewer pay/benefits and less security, or a full-time job at a “black” company with terrible labor practices.

The job market for students who did not finish a four-year university is even worse, but while beggars can’t be choosers, I am sure many would think twice about signing up with Ohsho after seeing this segment.

Ohsho’s response

Perhaps sensing some potential reputation damage, Ohsho has posted a response on its website. But instead of the usual corporate gobbledygook, someone put the time and thought behind an impassioned defense that starts with a challenging question – a career running a restaurant is not a popular choice among today’s youth, so why on earth would a restaurant chain choose to use such a strict training regime?

First and foremost, they explain, Ohsho’s mission is to open Chinese restaurants nationwide that can become deeply entrenched in the culture of each local area. To that end, they do things a little differently from most chains. As any regular Ohsho customer will know (Roy and I are fans), each store has a slightly different menu, and until a few years ago they even allowed some franchise owners to decorate the stores how they wanted.

So to fulfill that mission, they need employees and potential franchise owners that will hone their cooking skills, use their creativity, host events, and otherwise proactively promote their stores as local destinations. None of this is possible unless the employees “find satisfaction and their own reason for existence” in the job.

The thing is, today’s young people have grown up in an era of personal freedom, the letter says. They’ve never been scolded at school or at home. So the first thing Ohsho needs to teach new recruits is that to succeed at Ohsho, acting self-centered in the name of personal freedom just won’t be tolerated. In order to truly shine as an individual, first one must master the basic rules. The point of memorizing the company rules, they say, is to teach what it means to work as a member of society and the importance of rules, consideration, proper etiquette, and teamwork.

Essentially, they argue, Japanese young people today are missing three things: they don’t sweat, they don’t cry, and they don’t understand gratitude. The Ohsho training is intended to fix that, especially the last one. That’s why they do the boot camp.

Are you convinced?

(Hat-tip – J-Cast News)

Japan Times vs. Japan Times

February 4:

Men miss out on Valentine’s chocolate as women treat themselves

Japan’s unique Valentine’s Day tradition of women giving chocolate to men is melting away as more women show a preference for pampering each other instead of their boyfriends and spouses.

The practice of giving tomo choco (friendship chocolate) has been highlighted as a new trend in a recent survey that found 74 percent of women plan to give a Valentine’s gift to a female friend but only 32 percent intended to buy something for a boyfriend.

And the trend is well established. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they had received tomo choco from a friend last year. Just 11.2 percent said they plan to give chocolates to confess their love to someone, according to the survey by chocolate-maker Ezaki Glico, Ltd., which questioned 500 women aged between 10 and 30 over the Internet.

February 5:

Valentine’s chocolate defies recession
Cheap, expensive or made at home — Cupid says it’s all good

As many businesses continue to shake their heads over how tough it is to make sales in these financially difficult times, “cheaper is better” is the strategy of the day, with shops slicing prices for everything from “gyudon” (beef on rice) to jeans.

But one thing consumers — especially female ones — will loosen their purse strings for are those little drops of heaven that are sure to melt their darlings’ hearts come Feb. 14, say chocolate retailers, whose customer-oriented strategies have seen both luxury brands and affordable sweets fly off the shelves at equal speed.

...According to [an Isetan spokeswoman], the recession has done nothing to spoil consumers’ appetite for high-quality chocolate, with the buzz extending beyond hardcore fans this year. This follows the recent consumer trend where couples and families prefer to stay at home rather than go out, and so were interested in buying luxury chocolates to enjoy together, she said.

So is the Japanese race doomed to extinction, or isn’t it?!

Subway planning Japan surge

Great news, people. Subway will open 80 new Japanese locations in 2010 (sub req’d). Most new stores will be in highway service areas and shopping centers where other fast food restaurants have shut their doors. That means you could start seeing Subways where the now-defunct Wendy’s used to be.

That will bring the number of Subways in Japan to around 270. Say what you will about their quality, Subway is the one of the only easy places to get a real deli sandwich in Tokyo. Mrs. Adamu and I love it.

I will be watching developments on this front very closely as I am considering moving out of Ayase at some point in the next year or so. Being near a Subway will be a major plus.

One interesting fact about Subway Japan – about 90% of their locations are franchisee-owned. So that older gentleman watching over the teenage part-timers making your sandwich? He probably has a very direct stake in making sure you’re satisfied. The same goes for most of the 957 Baskin Robbins stores.

Wendy’s Japan to close by end of December!

Suddenly and unceremoniously, Zensho, the operator of Wendy’s Japan, has announced it will discontinue its licensing deal with the Wendy’s parent company and shut down all 71 restaurants under the hamburger chain’s brand by the end of this month.

There is a brief statement on the chain’s website announcing the decision (the URL oddly misspells “Wendies”) thanking everyone for their service and patronage and inviting everyone to visit a Wendy’s before it’s too late. But it doesn’t exactly tell us why this is happening. The Nikkei Shimbun and Wall Street Journal pass on statements from officials at Zensho stating that while Wendy’s had started to turn a profit, they wanted to focus management resources on their mainstay business, the Sukiya beef bowl chain.

The closure means 1900 part time workers will lose their jobs. According to the Nikkei, Zensho is offering to help them find work at neighboring stores, though in this tough environment I am sure many will have trouble finding new work immediately.

Although I rarely ate at Wendy’s, knowing it was there was comforting as an expat American. Also, at various points in my stay here Wendy’s has served as a meeting place and landmark. It will be very sad to see it go! One can only hope Burger King, which has made a recent return to Japan, will take over some of the former Wendy’s locations.

New and changing traditions – skillet apple pie

Mrs. Adamu and I are in Connecticut for Thanksgiving this year. It’s the first time we have been back at this time of the season for several years and I must say it’s been refreshing. New England is cold at this time of year but the air is crisp and the night sky very clear. I do not remember seeing this many stars for a very long time.

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR on this trip and was inspired by hearing this story on Morning Edition about popular Thanksgiving dishes that have come and gone. So inspired, in fact, that I tried to make one of the dishes, skillet apple pie. I highly recommend listening to the whole story as it gives you an interesting feel for how different Thanksgiving must have been in generations past. Anyway here is what the dish is supposed to do:

Apple pie is an essential dish for Thanksgiving, yet it’s perhaps the hardest dessert to master: making two layers of pie crust; getting flavor into the apples; making the filling sliceable but tasty; making the bottom crust crispy instead of soggy. Here’s our quick and easy answer to the Apple Pie Problem.

While this wasn’t a vintage dish (it was an invention of the person interviewed for the story), it sounded pretty damned good. I’ve never had apple pie with apple cider and maple syrup before. My own variation on the dish did nothing to solve the “apple pie problem” however. I transported the sauteed apples back into a traditional pie plate and used a top and bottom crust. I haven’t tried it yet so we shall see if it works out. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Interesting perspective…

From a half-Japanese consultant based in Kyrgyzstan:

「キルギス人と日本人は元々同じ民族であったが、魚が好きな人は東に行って日本人になり、肉の好きな人は西に言ってキルギス人になった。」と言う話をよく聞きます。

I often hear, “The Kyrgyz and Japanese were once the same people, but those who liked fish went east and those who liked meat went west.”

Mad cow protests in Taiwan get crazy

About two weeks ago I talked about how the protests in Taiwan over the importation of American beef are more about anxiety over a loss of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of  China than about any serious concerns over possible mad cow disease. Well, this has only become more obvious as the debates and protests continue. For example, DPP caucus whip Pan Meng-an says “The [lifting of restrictions] on US beef became effective spontaneously, without legislative approval, as did the financial MOU with China. Will [the government’s plan to sign an economic cooperative and framework agreement] be next?” And whether or not allegations that DPP Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen secretly met with American Institute in Taiwan (the unofficial embassy) director William Stanton to promise that the protests were purely an election ploy to discredit the ruling KMT and not a sign of anti-Americanism turn out to be true, that is also clearly a major impetus for the protests.

But what is a mass political protest without a little crazy? Well, some was provided by Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a PhD student at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, who posted a video of himself eating a “burger” made out of actual cow-shit to youtube as a symbol of…something I guess.

Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a graduate student at NTU’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, lay down outside the legislature’s front gate and covered himself with a straw mat — a gesture Chu said symbolized how the poor cover the body of a deceased person.

He said he would continue his hunger strike to protest a proposal by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus to amend the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法).

Chu was referring to a proposal the KMT put forward last Tuesday to authorize the government to “draw up measures to inspect beef products from areas where the risk of mad cow disease has been under control,” instead of two other prosoals for a ban on “risky” beef products from the US.

Chu began a “lie in” protest in a coffin in front of the legislature on Saturday and vowed to stage a hunger strike until today, but police fined him and forcibly removed the coffin on Sunday night, saying Chu had violated the Road Traffic Management and Punishment Act (道路交通管理處罰條例).

Huang Tai-shan (黃泰山), a doctoral student from National Tsing Hua University, who also covered himself with a grass mat next to Chu, said five more doctoral students would join the protest should police forcibly remove Chu and Huang.


But of course, you really want to see the video itself. Enjoy.

After the opening vignette of him tasting a cow patty is the opening title of:

I eat cow dung, I protest!

My rough translation of his monologue is as follows:

I have in front of me some delicious edible beef.
After the Ma adminstration opens the door to American Beef, it will turn into beef that one could fear is poisonous.
I am just an ordinary youth who decided to protest against the government.
I have no power to change things, I am only able to make my own body suffer.
This is the most serious kind of protest!
I am now going to take Taiwanese cow dung and prepare it.
Consuming American beef will absolutely be scarier than eating the dung of a Taiwanese cow!

Followed by another title reading:

Eating American beef is scarier than eating Taiwanese cow dung!

They then drive out to Qingtiangang (擎天崗), a ranch area created during Japanese occupation, now part of Yangmingshan National Park to collect the fresh cow dung as cloying music plays in the background. You finally see him sit in front of the presidential building, prepare the burger, and eat some of it while reciting more nonsense about how he can “absolutely guarantee that it is still safer than American beef” and that “the Ma Yingjiu administration is opening up to American beef and not protecting the safety, well-being, and health of the people.” He then pukes in the bushes.

Enjoy the e-coli, chu. E-coli, for those who forget, is a bacteria found mainly in the digestive tracts and feces of animals, which generally poisons humans when it is transmitted by accidental contamination of meat by feces from the same animal when it is slaughtered.  According to the CDC, e-coli poisoning kills at least 60 Americans and sickens 2000 every year. For comparison, take a look at the CDC’s own stats on mad cow disease-showing only 3 confirmed cases in the US to date. And note that these are the numbers of cases in COWS, to date there have been exactly zero cases of humans contracting the disease from cows raised in the US.