One social engine at work in Japan is that of “obligation,” essentially the knowing of what’s expected of you and doing it, and whether it’s female employees giving “obligation chocolate” to their male co-workers or my wife returning to Japan when her parents called her back even though she might have preferred to stay permanently in the U.S., it’s one of the things that makes Japan such a unique place. In some specific situations this concept is known as giri (social obligation), but at other times it’s so ingrained into people’s lives that it goes unnamed. In many situations when something is asked of you, it can be hard to decline, especially if that person has done something for you in the past — the reason I’m destined to play Santa Claus at the local kindergarten every Christmas for all eternity is because the brother of the school headmaster is a city councilman who’s supported us in the past. Recently, a family friend of ours found himself without a job when the company he’d helped build went bankrupt suddenly, so he started a new company that would, among other things, sell insurance. Because of our friendship and a little invisible giri, my wife felt obligated to help him out by moving several of our policies over to him. Of course, people helping each other is what society is all about, and the kanji for “person” (hito) is written with two lines in the vague shape of a human body that prop each other up, and the Japanese say that each person needs others to stand up, or else both will fall down. Japan’s crisscrossing lines of you-scratch-my-back have proven to be a profitable for the Amway multi-level marketing system, which has enjoyed great success in Japan over the years.
Transliteration is the act of moving a word from one writing system to another, and with languages like Chinese and Japanese, there are always different approaches to this problem. This is why you get variations like Peking and Beijing for the capital of China and why there’s seemingly no “official” way to write Aoi Sora/Sola’s name properly. Japanese is structured as a syllable-based language: for example, you can express the sounds ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko in Japanese, but not “k” all by itself. Phonetically, there are three syllables that don’t quite fit the neat consonant + verb pattern, which are pronounced shi, tsu and chi. Should they be written as they’re pronounced (called the Hepburn method), or should the two-letter pattern (si, tu and ti) be preserved even it leads to terribly inaccurate pronunciation (called the Nihon method)? As with certain computer platforms I could name, students of Japanese are usually willing to fight to the death over the system of Romanization they think is best. For the record, I believe that the best writing system communicates proper pronunciation to the widest number of people, and we always use this here at J-List.
Recently I talked about how the Japanese word for name — namae (nah-mah-EH) — was spookily similar to what it is in English, an interesting coincidence that isn’t related to the importing of loan words, as far as I can determine. There are some other interesting coincidences hidden in the language that are fun to investigate. For whatever reason, the word so (as in, yes, that is as you say) is exactly the same in meaning in both languages, and So desu ka? means “Is that so?” A common word for “in” is the English word spelled backwards, ni. The Japanese word baibai means “buying and selling,” and happens to be very similar to “buy.” If you reverse the syllables in the word “road” you get dohro which means…road. A “honky” might be a rude word for white people from the 70s, but in Japanese it means “serious” (honki desu ka? = “Are you serious?”). A bimbo might be a dumb female, but in Japan the word means a poor person. And if you ever want to express frustration in Japanese, just shout out “Cheek show!” which happens to correspond to a curse roughly equal in nuance to “Damnit!” (Chikusho really means “beast” but the usage is the same.)
Mothers Day is coming. Have you gotten something special for her? Remember that J-List has thousands of wacky and fun products from Japan, from Hello Kitty items for her kitchen to high quality Kutani and Arita Ware glazed porcelain to a great traditional Japanese mimikaki ear cleaner (see below for a great one)? The special gift for Mom you’re looking for might just be found on our website…stranger things have happened.