When too much language is not enough

One of my best friends from college is now working as a pharmacist in Florida (a hell of a job to end up with after so much time in school). She’s Japanese. When I met her, she didn’t speak much English at all; now that she has a difficult graduate degree under her belt, she knows a bit too much. She recently told me about one situation where she politely asked a patient about the “efficacy” of his medication. The patient had no clue what she was talking about. After a minute of miscommunication, someone else behind the counter suggested that she say “Does it work?” instead.

The story reminded me of one experience I had in high school in Osaka. I had an earache one day, and went to the local ENT clinic to have it checked. The doctor, a wizened-looking old lady, peered inside and told me, in English, “You have timpanitis.” “Timpanitis?” I asked. That certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. She repeated the word a few times until I eventually figured out it must be a fancy way to say “ear infection.”

There were many occasions when someone would ask me about a certain phrase in English, and I wanted to explain that the phrase was a metaphor for something else. In most dictionaries, the Japanese gloss of “metaphor” is in’yu. While I memorized that word, I never met a single Japanese person who understood what it meant, even when I wrote it out; after a few failed attempts to communicate, someone suggested that I use chokuyu (“figure of speech”) instead. That one actually works.

Anyway, knowing too much of a language can often have the same effect as knowing not enough. I suppose the moral, especially for those of us working in wordy fields like law and medicine, is to keep things as simplified as possible. Imagine how much easier things would be if we all followed that rule…

Afterthought: “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.” – Benjamin Cardozo, former Supreme Court justice (apparently lacking a sense of irony…)

Belgium Has The Smurf Bomb

While this story’s been making its way around the blogs for days now, I can’t help but propagate it a bit further. The opening says it all:

Unicef bombs the Smurfs in fund-raising campaign for ex-child soldiers

The people of Belgium have been left reeling by the first adult-only episode of the Smurfs, in which the blue-skinned cartoon characters’ village is annihilated by warplanes…

What could be crazier than this? As it turns out, the idea that was left on the cutting-room floor:

Julie Lamoureux, account director at Publicis for the campaign, said the agency’s original plans were toned down. “We wanted something that was real war—Smurfs losing arms, or a Smurf losing a head—but they said no.

Thankfully, the spot will only be shown late at night, when the kids are (hopefully) asleep, and when the only victims of this ad will be adults. Let’s see how much money it raises for the Smurf-killers at the UN…

What’s wrong with Climate-Controlled Biz?

As if Cool Biz weren’t aggravating enough, the Diet and administrative agencies are now getting ready for Stage 2: Warm Biz. Instead of turning down the air conditioning during the hottest months of summer, they want to turn down the heating during the coldest months of winter. So instead of seeing Diet speeches given in button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up, Sankei indicates we might see Diet speeches given in overcoats and mufflers.

The culprit appears to be Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, mistressmind behind the Cool Biz program, who apparently believes that air conditioning is going to lead to the end of the world as we know it. Compare Joi Ito’s comment on Cool Biz: “For some reason this kind of suffering feels very Japanese and annoying. There is something very ceremonial and inefficient about it.”

Maybe Warm Biz won’t be as bad, though. Wintertime street clothes would work just fine in a Warm Biz building: if you have to go into a heated building, just take your coat off. Still, it seems like a rather inadequate benefit for such a cost in discomfort.

Japan’s own FedEx, continuing the airspace oligarchy

Japan Post is starting an international air cargo company with ANA. That this can happen at all is pretty cool. Pre-Koizumi Japan Post couldn’t enter business deals like this one. For that matter, pre-1980’s ANA basically couldn’t do anything without a government green light (back in the day, JAL had a monopoly on international air travel, JAL and ANA split big-city domestic routes, and ANA and JAS split small-city routes). Now, the two are collaborating to make an East Asian FedEx.

One thing that bugs me, though, is that Japan basically has just two airlines, plus a tiny third guy named Skymark. Almost every commercial airline flight in Japan is ticketed by JAL or ANA, except for a couple of propeller plane flights to minor islands. You’d think that Japan could support some more companies in this area, given that it has a ton of money (recession be damned) and a population that loves to travel.
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Chinese IP law: it’s not the size of the book, but how you use it

I just got back from a talk given by Mark Cohen, an American intellectual property lawyer currently serving as U.S. Patent and Trademark Office attaché in the Beijing embassy. Very, very enlightening.

This guy literally wrote the book on Chinese IP law. One of his PowerPoint slides was a picture of the book from its side. The reason he put this on a slide: he was talking to an American businessman on a transpacific flight, and mentioned the book in conversation. The businessman said it must be one of the shortest books ever. It’s actually about 500 pages… as thick as many of the casebooks we get in American law schools.

Honestly, if I were sitting next to Mr. Cohen, I would have had the same reply. The impression most people get of intellectual property law in China is: “what intellectual property law in China?” What Cohen had to say was a paradigm shift for me: the problem is really that there’s too much IP law in China!
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Yasukuni revisited

We kind of knew it was coming: Koizumi went again. Protests broke out in Beijing and Hong Kong. Best dismissal EVER:

Koizumi told reporters in Tokyo that he made his visit as a private citizen and not in an official capacity, saying that “China and South Korea will eventually understand.”

The angry reactions in China and Korea are covered in more depth in AFP’s article.

UPDATE: Another great Koizumi jab: “In principle other people should not meddle with matters of the heart… much more, foreign governments should not say ‘you should not’ when the Japanese are offering sincere condolences to the war dead from Japan and other parts of the world.”

“My Japan”

A conversation with a friend last night reminded me of this incredible WWII propaganda film. It was made to sell U.S. war bonds in the final months of the war, and it features an American actor playing a Japanese narrator, explaining why the Americans will never win the war.

During the first couple of minutes, it’s abysmally stupid, as the narrator talks about flowers and bunnies and “Mount Fujama” (a mispronunciation of “Fujiyama,” itself a mistransliteration of “Mount Fuji”). By the middle, though, the film is brutally effective at its aim: terrifying the average American, who was almost sure that Japan had no chance of surviving, into thinking that Japan might pull through and deal incredible damage to America in the process. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the war era.

(There are a few nauseating racial stereotypes in the film, but not the kind you’re probably used to seeing in WWII propaganda. In fact, the film goes out of its way to debunk some of the classic images of short, bespectacled “Jap” soldiers, and that adds to its effectiveness.)

So there was this guy in my high school class…

(For those of you wondering who I am, hi! I’m Joe. You might know me from my blog. Mutantfrog invited me to come over, so you’ll see me blogging around here from time to time.)

Anyway, as I was saying, there was this guy in my high school class, back when I was on exchange at a shady municipal school in Osaka. His name was Taro (no, not really). He was an interesting fellow for a number of reasons, but the first thing that would probably strike you was his size. I was the tallest person in our school at around 185 cm (including the basketball shoes I wore around because stock school shoes wouldn’t fit me). Taro was very close to my height, but was solid muscle. He wore his uniform shirt open to drive this point home.

He was captain of the judo club and appeared in kendo club from time to time. In judo class, I was his partner. I was never sure why: maybe because we were about the same height, maybe because the teacher secretly hated me. Whenever Taro threw me into the mat, I suspected the latter.

Once you got to know him, you realized that Taro wasn’t just a brick. No, he was also certifiably insane. For one thing, he was the only person in the school who never spoke to me in Japanese: he would only speak guttural high school English. To humor him, I would speak English back.

We were standing in line one day with our shirts off, waiting for a doctor to give us a quick stethoscoping, and I couldn’t help but notice that Taro had a giant red swastika-shaped scar on his right bicep, with a solid red circle right above it. I realized that he must have dug these into his arm with a sharp object. He realized that I was looking at his body art, so I hazarded a question. “Um, do you like Hitler?”

“Yeees!” he answered, with a big smile. “I llllove Hit-la! And Yamamoto, do you know Yamamoto?”

He read books on Chinese close-combat tactics in class, and one time on a field trip, in between random sexual harrassment of our cute homeroom teacher, he turned to me and said: “I AM SAMURAI!”

To which I replied: “Samurai? So where are your swords?”

“I can’t carry!” Taro said. “There’s a law!”

Five years later, I went back to Osaka and met some of my classmates, as well as the aforementioned cute teacher. There were stories about kids who had become truck drivers and graduate students, and one five-foot-tall girl from the art club who had joined the Self-Defense Forces (!). But no mention of Taro. And I’m disappointed, because I want to know if he’s off driving a speaker truck somewhere.