Japanese swords are famous around the world, up there with ninjas and Hello Kitty as a symbol of the country. Like the kanji writing system and Buddhism, sword-making was imported from China, and was immediately embraced by Japanese craftsmen who sought to perfect the art. Most famously worn by the samurai warrior class between the 14th and 19th centuries, it was common to carry both a long katana sword and a shorter blade, called a wakizashi. The law that governs carrying of weapons in Japan is known as the Firearms and Swords Control Law, something I’ve always been amused by, since one doesn’t usually worry about something like the need for “sword control.” While samurai swords are quite common in Japan — my wife’s parents have a pair of swords on display in their bedroom — it’s rare for one to be used in a crime. But that’s just what happened in Tokushima Prefecture, where the president of a construction company who was known for his collection of ancient Japanese swords seems to have gotten into a heated argument with his son about something. Things got out of hand, a sword was drawn, one managed to kill the other before taking his own life. (Police are still investigating the details.)
There’s a new “horse idol” in Japan’s racing world that’s claiming the hearts of fans. Her name is Treasure Smile and she’s popular because she’s got a natural heart shape on her head, which has caused thousands of fans to flock to Iwate Prefecture in Northern Honshu to take pictures of the “horse with the heart mark.” The local track is milking Treasure Smile’s popularity for all its worth, advertising that anyone wearing a heart on their clothes can get into the races for free. Along with boat and bicycle racing, horse racing is popular in Japan, and there are thirty tracks in various places around the country. It’s also one of the many areas of society that the Japanese government is heavily involved in, much to the confusion of gaijin like me who wonder why the government needs to be operating race tracks at all. Unlike the U.S. with its tradition of individual sovereign states, Japan’s history since the Meiji Restoration has been one of modernization from the core outward, with the government taking an active role in a range of industries from the publically-run Japan Tobacco which once controlled the distribution of all cigarettes and salt in the country, to the sprawling Japan Post Office, which operated as the world’s largest savings bank and also sold life insurance on the side. One by one, these industries have been slowly privatized, with the old Japan National Railways becoming JR and the inefficient government-run phone company becoming the modern NTT. Presumably these moves have improved efficiency and competition, although the invisible bonds between these former public entities and government are still significant.
Suki desu ka? One of the first useful words a student of Japanese learns is how to say “like” (suki), which is pronounced quickly so that it sounds rather like the English word “ski,” leading all students to immediately make the joke Sukii ga suki desu ka? (Do you like to ski?), since the words sound similar. The word suki is often a student’s introduction to the concept that a word or idea in one language might have many possible meanings in another language, depending on the situation. Right off the bat, suki can mean “like” (in the context of your favorite food or hobby) or “love” (when said in reference to another person). Like all Japanese words there’s some ambiguity involved, which is the subject of more than a few melodramatic misunderstandings in anime or television dramas. For example, if a woman was looking at a cake and said suki desu, she could theoretically be expressing her love of cake, or else she could be confessing her feelings for a boy who was also in the room. A couple of years ago I saw a variety show in which former JAV actress slash novelist slash TV talent Ai Iijima walked around New York, asking Americans Kyonyu suki? which sounds like “Can you ski?” in English, but is really asking if they prefer women with, er, large oppai. It was funny to see the Americans on the show nodding their heads for the camera at her question. Try it on your friends!