When a person goes to live in a foreign country, it’s natural that he encounter some words and concepts that are strange to him, and I was certainly no exception. One of my first huh? moments upon arriving in Japan being taken to a snack, which is a small drinking establishment where you can get drinks poured for you by a pretty woman, belt out a few tunes at the karaoke machine, and get something to eat, which is where the snack part comes in, I guess. I learned something about Japan during my first visit to one of these places: there’s a lot more trust here than there is back home. Behind the bar at any snack you can see dozens of bottles of whisky with people’s names written on them. This is called “bottle keep,” where a customer will buy a bottle for his own personal use and drop by any time to drink from it, and it struck me as amazing that he need not fear that anyone would steal from his $100 bottle. There are other examples of trust in Japan’s society. For example, there are umbrellas at our local post office with a sign that says, “If anyone needs an umbrella, please use one of these and bring it back later.” Anyone can borrow $20 from a police box for train fare home if they lose their wallet, which should be repaid at the police box nearest your house. They’ll take down your information, but since you probably have no ID (having lost your wallet) in such a situation, it’s essentially done via the honor system. Finally, if you’re making a large purchase of lumber from Cainz Home, the local home center, they’ll be happy to loan you one of their small trucks to get it home, free of charge — even to a gaijin like me. I don’t know about you, but I find that being in a society where the trustworthiness of people is assumed naturally is just wonderful, and I’m always careful to make sure I don’t betray trust that anyone puts in me.
New Year’s Day is known as oshogatsu, written with the characters for “correct” and “moon,” no doubt a holdover from the days when Japan followed the Chinese lunar calendar. It’s the favorite day of kids throughout the country because of otoshidama, cash gifts that they receive from their relatives. The amount each child gets depends on the age of the child and of the relationship involved — kids get more from grandparents than from an uncle they rarely see, for example. My kids both made out like bandits this year, getting around $200 each, although my son got slightly more since he’s older, and the oldest son in our household, which carries special status. There are two benefits from this New Year’s money gift tradition that I can see. First, knowing that relatives will be handing out envelopes of cash makes kids complain a lot less than visiting family, and this brings everyone together just a little bit. Also, parents use this custom to teach the value of saving money, and the idea of a child blowing all his New Year’s money the next day at the toy store is almost unheard of. My son is especially good at saving, and has managed to get more than $1000 in the bank from hoarding his New Year’s money over the years. I don’t think I ever had that much in a bank account before the age of 25.
Back during my days as a teacher, one of my more advanced students turned to me and said, “Peter, do you have a tish?” I wasn’t sure what a “tish” was, but he made a nose-blowing gesture and I realized he was asking me for a tissue. Because Japanese is a syllable-based language in which you can express, say, the sounds ra, ri, ru, re and ro but not an “r” by itself, pronouncing English words properly can be a challenge. In addition to words like “flat” having three syllables instead of one, due to being forced through the strange filter of the katakana pronunciation system, many words end up with vowel sounds on the end, such as job (JO-bu), big (BI-gu) or end (EN-doh). My student was aware of this fact — kind of like-ah how Mario-ah speaks-ah — and tried to truncate any vowels at the ends of English words to make them sound more natural, which is where “tish” came from.
J-List is coming out swinging in the new year, ready to bring you thousands of great new products from Japan. From exciting toys and anime figures to fun J-Snacks to unique traditional or just plain “wacky” things you never thought you’d come across, J-List promises to make 2008 a great year for everyone with a fascination for Japan. Let us know what we can do for you this year!