Category Archives: Travelogue

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem—they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

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!

Grip and grin

USTR Ron Kirk with METI Minister Banri Kaieda

I met Kaieda once at a festival not long after he was elected and before he joined the cabinet. We shook hands just like this, and it lasted just long enough to get awkward. His English was pretty good.

Story: U.S. Trade Chief Wants Japan To Join Trans-Pacific FTA, Kyodo via Nikkei English (sub req’d)

Japanese expats

This chart on Japanese living abroad from Nikkei was too good not to share. When I was going to school in Washington and living in Bangkok, I had a fair amount of experience dealing with Japanese expats. I knew mostly students in DC, so these were by and large people who just wanted to learn enough English to either help them in their get a job after graduating from a Japanese university or earn some promotion points at their companies back home, if they were older.

Bangkok, however, was a different animal entirely. Perhaps because I was looking for work, I had the chance to speak with a lot of recruiters and translation agencies. Many of the Japanese people I met came to Bangkok with long-term plans to stay. For some of the younger people, working as a local employee of a Japanese company was a way around the shukatsu system, while some older men apparently just fell in love with the country (and probably its women as well), not so different from the throngs of British/European men with Thai wives that are common in the city.

There was another recent article in Asahi about how young Japanese are flocking to Shanghai for the job opportunities. I can certainly understand the draw. A big city in a fast-growing, developing country like Bangkok and Shanghai can be very exciting. Bangkok was bustling, full of interesting people from all walks of life, loud, had great food, and was just a treasure trove of new experiences, sights, and smells (some better than others). Add to that a well-paying job and for many it won’t compare to life back home. Compared to that, Tokyo can seem downright dull.

Chart source: Nikkei.com (sub req’d)

First impressions of Katsushika-ku

Gaudy bunnyman laundromat near my place

It’s been about two months since I moved from Ayase to Shibamata, an area of Katsushika-ku about a 20-minute drive away. My life since then has been a mix of busy and overwhelming, but as a way to ease myself back into blogging I’ll offer some first impressions of the new neighborhood.

Shibamata is well-known as the setting for the Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo film series. It’s about a guy named Tora-san who works as a traveling salesman whose cantankerous attitude and pratfalls cause mayhem and drama for his family in Tokyo who sells rice dumplings outside Taishakuten, a big temple in the area. He is considered something of a hero to Japanese men who grew up a generation or three ago.

My apartment is maybe 15 minutes on foot from Taishakuten. The main attractions are the exquisite temple and a run-up of shops selling souvenirs and dango rice dumplings. If you had no clue about the movies, the general atmosphere would seem like a scaled-back version of Asakusa except for all the trinkets featuring a guy in a cheap suit and fedora.

Away from the touristy spots, my new place is in many ways not that different from Ayase. Katsushika-ku and Adachi-ku are both considered “shitamachi” (lower-class outlying Tokyo neighborhoods), and my neighborhood does not disappoint on this front. In fact, I live amidst a surprisingly thriving shotengai business district which offers competitive and attractive alternative grocery options to the Ito Yokado by the station, provided you’re willing to visit multiple stores.

You can see the Sky Tree from my apartment. When completed it will be the world’s tallest… something

Another related similarity is the general slumminess (for Japanese standards). I feel bad saying that though because even though both places feel kind of run down, the people and atmosphere in my new neighborhood are much sunnier. The police say Katsushika-ku has less crime than Adachi-ku (PDF), but by population the smaller Katsushika is pulling its weight just fine (2/3 the population with 3/4 the number of crimes).  At the anecdotal level, I have witnessed:

  • A crippled old guy escaped from a nursing home, sitting on his butt and pushing himself along on his hands trying to get somewhere (long story short, he had his facility name on his slippers, so I called to make sure they got him).

  • Obvious yakuza held a boisterous mikoshi parade around my station.

  • Something (probably human) left an enormous crap on the sidewalk one night.

  • A local dentist I visited was like something out of the Addams Family or the Saw movies – it was just in this guy’s house, and the office was dank, dark, and cluttered with unused equipment. Half the counter space was taken up by a bonsai tree and a fountain that he must have set up in the 80s.

  • Some drunk guy puked in my building’s lobby (oh wait, that was one of my guests…)

To offer a positive spin, these elements add lots of character and should keep our lives interesting. For the most part, it’s a great place to live so far. It’s a quieter neighborhood, many of the local people are friendly, and there’s a really nice public pool and a state-of-the-art central library nearby. And the best part is I am living in a much bigger place, for about the same rent. Having room to swing your arms around is extremely comfortable!

Also, for some reason my new commute on the Keisei line is so much less crowded than most of the other routes into Tokyo. From where I ride it’s often possible to get a seat, and it’s just about never uncomfortably packed.

Anyway, I will keep my eyes open! I have been meaning to go around with my camera to capture some of the local color.

George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.

Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.

His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704  he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”

This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.

Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?

He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to”  the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:

The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.

[...]

The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.

[...]

TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.


Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe

thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion

as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada

daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant

our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.


(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.

Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.

The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.

The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoir go for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.

Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosa and his Memoirs (as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II

Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of  a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.

We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.

Notes from a week in the CNMI

That’s the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, easily the most-forgotten corner of the United States.

The CNMI is a chain of fifteen islands (only three of which—Saipan, Tinian and Rota—are significantly populated) stretching north of Guam toward Japan. These islands started out sovereign life as part of the Spanish empire along with Guam and the Philippines, but were sold to Germany at the end of the Spanish-American War, were ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Versailles, and were forcibly taken over by US forces in 1944.

After World War II, the Japanese mandates in Micronesia were placed under American trusteeship pending final resolution of their status. Unlike the other trust territory islands in Micronesia, such as Yap and Palau, the CNMI islands ultimately opted against independence and chose to stay in the United States, albeit in a quasi-independent state. The Northern Mariana Islanders are all US citizens, subject to US federal court jurisdiction, have a non-voting representative in the US Congress and receive a number of federal benefits, but pay no federal income taxes and have a separate customs zone (immigration control was also initially separate but is now integrated). American “expats” in the islands generally describe the local government as immensely corrupt, and there is a verbose website called Saipan Sucks which devotes itself to this topic.

Even to a casual visitor, the CNMI seems like a bizarro United States on many fronts:

  • There are no flights to the CNMI from anywhere in the United States except Guam, so getting there from the US mainland requires a stop in Japan or Korea, unless you want to backtrack through Honolulu and Guam on domestically-configured planes.

  • Television gets broadcast from Guam, which houses affiliates for the major US networks. American TV shows are shown in their normal mainland time slots, but since Guam and Saipan are on the other side of the International Date Line from the rest of the US, everything comes out a week late, including (to my surprise) network newscasts. The only way to get up-to-date TV news on the islands is to watch the extremely local news, where a shut-down stoplight is often the top story, or to watch cable or satellite.

  • Although the official language is English, many stores only have signs in Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Russian. Newspapers, TV and radio stations sometimes spontaneously switch over to Tagalog or the indigenous Chamorro language. (I was somewhat surprised to discover, while driving around, that there is a Tagalog cover of “Hotel California.”)

The most crippling oddity of the CNMI is probably its property law. Only ethnic islanders are allowed to own property on the islands; everyone else has to lease it, including other US citizens. Islanders can get a parcel of property apportioned from the government provided that they build something of minimal permanence on it. The result is that the three main islands are dotted with tiny homesteads, typically consisting of a hastily-constructed shanty, a parked car and a couple of livestock. There are some nicer homes around, as well as large resort hotels catering to mostly-Asian visitors, but most of the archipelago resembles a forgotten corner of Latin America. (In contrast, Guam resembles nothing so much as northern Florida, with its combination of high-rise hotels, big-box stores and military brats.)

For a while, the CNMI economy was boosted by sweatshops that could produce cheap goods “made in the USA,” as the CNMI was exempt from most federal labor laws. This trade has died down in recent years as federal regulation has become stronger in the islands and less-regulated foreign labor markets like China have become more accessible.

The remaining big business in the islands is tourism. Saipan, the largest island in the chain, has daily flights to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Seoul (all 3-4 hours away) as well as less regular flights to China, and is noted for its spectacular scuba diving locations, as well as cheap golf courses and some interesting World War II historical sites. The neighboring island of Tinian (where the Enola Gay was based for its A-bomb missions) has a casino intended to squeeze money out of Asian tourists.

But since the mid-90’s or so, the situation on these islands has been pretty pathetic: shops and even entire malls built in Saipan during the Japanese bubble now stand derelict and abandoned, and the Tinian casino (pretty much the only tax generator on the entire island) only manages to cover half of the island’s government budget. The CNMI government is constantly teetering on the brink of sovereign bankruptcy and has had to delay salary payments several times recently. Unlike Guam, which has functioned as a giant aircraft carrier for decades (and which has budgetary problems of its own), the CNMI has no US military presence other than a few National Guard members and three permanently-anchored civilian supply ships offshore, supposedly at the ready for future military actions in East Asia. And although the island of Tinian has been conceived (by certain Japanese lawmakers, at least) as a place to pick up some of the Marines to be relocated from Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, those plans are still nowhere near finalized.

・ ・ ・

So I supported the tourist economy by visiting Saipan for a week with Mrs. Jones. No diving and no golf; either sounded like too much effort to her.

Reason #1: She wanted to go to a tropical beach destination, and I had a pocketful of Delta SkyMiles which wouldn’t get us to anywhere more fitting of that description (except for the giant aircraft carrier of Guam, which is not quite as interesting).

Reason #2: I have a couple of law school friends who practice in Saipan. The CNMI seems to have an unusual number of lawyers per capita, even in comparison to other parts of the US, probably due to its high government:citizen ratio. Since there are no local law schools, pretty much all of the lawyers have to be “imported” from the mainland, and since the CNMI legal system is integrated with the rest of the United States, American lawyers can get locally licensed fairly easily, just by passing a standard multistate bar examination which includes a question on local law.

In fact, my first real intellectual contact with the CNMI came from law school: specifically Matthew Wilson, the former head of Temple University Japan’s law program. Wilson started his legal career in Saipan as a summer associate at a law firm there, and that experience jump-started his career as a civil litigator, in-house lawyer and law professor, as well as a standardized pep talk on “Distinguishing Yourself” which he gave at many American law schools as part of marketing the Temple study abroad program in Tokyo. Thanks largely to Wilson’s presence at TUJ, law students there had a good open door to the CNMI legal market.

Reason #3: The Sunday brunch at the Hyatt Regency, fabled among island travelers for its opulence: a huge buffet featuring caviar, sushi, oysters, roast beef and pork, breakfast food of various nationalities, practically every kind of dessert imaginable, and (most importantly) bottomless champagne. I enjoyed this once on a short visit to the island a couple of years ago and really wanted to have it again.

Reason #4: They recently got a Taco Bell franchise. As most Americans in Japan quickly figure out, there is no Taco Bell here unless you are on a US military base, so the prospect of enjoying the cheap crappy Mexican food that I regularly enjoyed in high school was pretty exciting.

Most of the tourists around us were either Japanese or Korean, in what seemed like roughly equal numbers. Chinese and Russian tourists also appeared from time to time, but mainland Americans were few and far between: as far as I could tell, the only other Americans in our hotel were either married to Asians or members of a Delta flight crew on layover.

There was a sizable influx of mainlanders toward the end of our stay, when a training ship from a maritime academy in California pulled into port and its cadets came out for shore leave. They quickly colonized a restaurant where we were having lunch, and we got to overhear them (a) learn what shochu is and (b) argue about whether US dollars are legal tender in Japan (apparently their next port of call).

Was the trip worth it? Totally. For someone based in urban East Asia, the CNMI is a very convenient place to visit for a few days of relaxation. One has to wonder, though, how long these islands will last as part of the US, and how they will build an economic and political future for themselves.

Coverage of Yoshida-ryo piece on CNNGo

Reaction to my recent CNNGo photo/article feature about Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida Dormitory has been very positive. I want to thank whoever it was that submitted it to Boingboing, who kindly linked to it as they have several Mutantfrog posts in past years. I also want to especially thank frequent MF commenter KokuRyu, who posted a link to the piece on MetaFilter, where there have been some pretty interesting comments from people who seem to have experience in other cooperative/squat type housing, making some comparisons between them and Yoshida-ryo.

I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the  “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!