I wrote a couple weeks ago that taxi fares were going to be going up 7%, a rare instance of inflation in a country where prices generally stay the same for years. Unlike the U.S., Japan is a very centralized place where change always happens from the top down, and I found it interesting to note that the decision to allow the raise in rates for the whole country was handled by a single government ministry in Tokyo, not decided on a local level as you might expect. The higher rates are to give drivers a long-overdue raise, since most of them are earning what they made in the 1980s, and with no custom of tipping in Japan to help make up the difference. Not every taxi company is raising their rates, however — some are keeping them the same, which effectively introduces price competition in an industry where none existed before. While most of the world takes it for granted that taxi drivers will usually be from some often unpronounceable country, that’s not the case at all here, where virtually 100% of drivers are Japanese — after all, would you get into a cab driven by someone who couldn’t read kanji? Once, I did catch a TV show about an American who had decided to become a taxi driver and had passed all the required tests, but the fact that this was rare enough to make national TV shows how uncommon this is.
Near our house, the powers that be have decided we need a new road, which would run alongside a neighbor’s vegetable garden providing us with three routes out to the main street where we currently have two. They purchased the land, brought in machines to flatten the ground and laid gravel in preparation for the construction of the road. Next they did…nothing, allowing the half-built road to sit there for months. They’re waiting, I’m told, for the next budgetary cycle to roll around, at which time they’ll get more money from the central government to finish the project, and we’ll finally have three ways to get out to the street — yippie. The fiscal equivelent to unnecessary surgery, construction projects are often extremely wasteful in Japan, like a 500 meter ditch dug beside a road where a 20 meter one would have sufficed because budgetary aid is only available for projects of a certain size or larger, or a bridge and tunnel across Tokyo harbor that costs $40 to use yet takes slightly longer than just driving around on the normal roads. What’s amazing to me is how little anger there is on the part of taxpayers when waste like this occurs, which is related to the Japanese tradition of saying shikata ga nai (or more colloquially, sho ga nai), meaning “it can’t be helped,” at the drop of a hat. To paraphrase Bill Watterson, I know the government is inefficient, but why isn’t it ever inefficient in our favor?
The only constant is change, and Japan has had to deal with rather a lot of change over the past 150 years, essentially, going from a feudal country still in the Middle Ages to a modern, industrialized democracy in decades where other nations took centuries. This has brought about changes in the language, as Japan was forced to interface with the outside world more. Japanese is a linguistically impoverished language, with only 5 vowels usually paired into syllables with consonants (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, etc.), and due to a quirk of phonetics, the sounds “ti” and “di” sound could not be accurately written using the normal kana system. Without a way to express these sounds, foreign words like “Disneyland” and “party” could not be correctly represented, and would be converted to “Desneyland” and “parteh,” which sound strange to the ear. It seems a “patch” was introduced at some time in the last few decades, allowing the sounds to be expressed in katakana by combining two similar characters, but unfortunately there’s a whole generation of older Japanese who learned a slew of foreign loan words with the older, strange-sounding pronunciations. Now a common caricature of an old Japanese man is one who is sukebe (dirty-minded) and tries to catch a glimpse of a girl’s panteh while riding the train. Since the last thing in the world a Japanese person expects a foreigner to do is use these oddly-pronounced English words, I like to go out of my way to use them just for the shock value of it.
You should see the downstairs area of J-List: it’s filled with about 500 packages of every size and shape, great anime toys and calendars and DVDs and other items that we’re shipping out to customers around the world. J-List is primed and ready to serve you this Holiday season, so why not take this opportunity to browse the J-List site and see what cool new items we have for you?