Chopsticks and culture

I’ve learned some new things about Japan, so here goes 😉

On the topic of culture, I’ve had some interesting talks with people. Most were on the topic of integration and foreigners in Japan, obviously, and opinions differ. In any case, even after living for years in Japan, you’ll apparently stay a foreigner and you can encounter discrimination: There are establishments where they only allow Japanese people in, no gaijins (foreigners). That wouldn’t be possible in The Netherlands, it’d make the news. Also, someone said that he felt that more people should come to Japan, and that it would be good for Japan. I’m not sure I agree on that. Japan is the way it is, and having more foreigners would probably drastically change the country, maybe even make it less safe, less friendly and less.. Well, less Japan. For example, the fact that people don’t (want to) speak English is not a consequence of Japanese culture, it is Japanese culture, I think. Closely related is the example of their methods of teaching. My Hiragana/Katakana class consists mostly of repeating what the teacher says and memorizing short conversations. Sylvia and I agreed that we’re not trained to do that, she’s a mathematician and I’m a computer scientist; we derive things, instead of memorizing.

For those interested, I can tell you a little about Japanese writing. Japan basically has four ways of writing: Romanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
Romanji is the alphabet that we use as well. Hirgana is a phonetic writing of words that are native Japanese and Katakana is its phonetic counterpart; it’s for foreign words and has the same sounds but in different writing. Last but not least is Kanji, so-called logographic writing. Kanji originated from drawings, so they are kind of condensed versions of drawings. At some point in history, when the Japanese didn’t have any writing yet, they came in contact with the Chinese and started using the Chinese symbols for writing. To this day, a lot of these Kanji are the same as the Chinese symbols. Frank (that’s his western name, I can’t pronounce his Chinese name) indicated that Chinese and Japanese cannot talk to each other, but if they write it down they understand each other. In many occasions, he asked the teacher to write down the Kanji for words, and most of the time the symbol is the same as the Chinese one.

After having adopted Kanji, the Japanese started developing their own phonetic scripts, Hiragana and Katakana. How did they do this? They derived new symbols from the Kanji, by using the Chinese pronunciation of the Kanji. For those interested, see the Wikipedia page on Kanji. I’ll just copy-paste a little here:

Chinese characters also came to be used to write Japanese words, resulting in the modern kana syllabaries. A writing system called man’yōgana (used in the ancient poetry anthology Man’yōshū) evolved that used a number of Chinese characters for their sound, rather than for their meaning. Man’yōgana written in cursive style evolved into hiragana, a writing system that was accessible to women (who were denied higher education). Major works of Heian era literature by women were written in hiragana. Katakana emerged via a parallel path: monastery students simplified man’yōgana to a single constituent element. Thus the two other writing systems, hiragana and katakana, referred to collectively as kana, are actually descended from kanji.

Some other things:

  • Just about every big road is a toll road, apparently. Which is why a lot of people don’t have a car. So, it’s an environmentally-friendly country, I’d say.
  • Japan doesn’t cut down it’s forests. Instead it imports wood from other countries.
  • Once a week, the cleaning lady makes my bed and vacuums. I try to keep the room organized, but having someone clean a bit more is great. I wanna have that when I’m rich (not if, when 😉 )
  • Most stores are open 7 days a week, even in holidays. I just did shopping, even though today’s a national holiday. Also, there are a lot of 24/7 stores. I like it, but it has its effect on social life in Japan apparently; my internship supervisor told me that he doesn’t see his fiancee that often, because she often has to work when he has a day off.
  • I’ve heard one person complain that Japanese houses are not cool in summer and warm in winter, but the opposite. Not sure how true this is, but I do know that most houses/restaurants don’t have radiators like we do. Rather, they have devices hanging on the ceiling that are both air conditioner and heater in one.
  • In just about every establishment where you can eat (yes, even at bars with snacks) you’ll get a hot towel and a glass of water. And no, you don’t have to pay for that glass of water. The Dutch could learn from that. Edit: For non-Dutch people reading this: Don’t ever order a glass of water in a Dutch restaurant without asking if it’s free first. 99% of the time you’ll just have to pay for it.
  • Dad would be annoyed in no time: Most people don’t properly lift their feet when walking, you’ll hear the *swish swish* of people’s feet on the ground a lot.
  • I haven’t been to the Disaster Center yet. It’s a place where I can participate in an earthquake simulation, which can help in being prepared when something like that happens.

Last but not least, something on chopsticks: Don’t worry if you can’t eat with chopsticks in The Netherlands, it’s because our rice isn’t sticky enough =) Here, you just take a whole chunk of rice, that’s a lot easier than at home.