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This Seems Like It Should Explain Something

JAPAN | Friday, 11 March 2016 | Views [351]

On Wednesday, I was exposed to several small but very odd things about Japanese culture.

First of all, we were practicing new kanji. One of those kanji was the character for rice, which, for whatever reason, is also the character for America. So if you want to talk about US-Japan relations you say 日米. If you want to talk about South America, you say 南アメリカ or 南米. If you want to talk about the United States, you say アメリカ or 北米, the latter literally meaning North America.

That's right. I'm Japanese, “North America” means “The United States of America.” If you want to refer to the other countries in the same geographic area, you say “North American continent.” And then really all you're doing is lumping Canada together with the US. From Yamaguchi-sensei’s description, it sounded like Mexico joined Cuba and Guatemala as countries that don't really get a continent other than “probably South America.” Turns out that Japan manages to be even more US-centric than the US.

And then we moved on to talking about instant ramen, and further discussion of why America was more than the United States had to be pushed to the side. Instead me moved on to other, way more important topics. Like what flavor foods had.

Dan and I had both given the same only arguably right answer to the prompt “name a bitter food.” We both said “coffee” which, although bitter, is not a food. So to try and come up with a better example, I decided to go with chocolate. To specify that it should be bitter, I needed to indicate not just any chocolate, but dark chocolate. Without thinking too hard about it, I called it “kuroi chokoretto,” literally, black chocolate. I think I was probably borrowing that from French, where it’s called chocolat noir.

This was wrong. The proper way to talk about dark chocolate is “da-ku chokoretto,” or possibly “buraku chokoretto.” Point is, you katakanacize everything. OK, fine.

Similarly, it’s not “kuroi ko-hi-,” it’s “buraku ko-hi-.” Again, that makes a reasonable amount of sense, at least as much as chocolate does.

So then if you want to say you like dark beers, you should say “da-ku bi-ru,” right? No. That one is “kuroi bi-ru.”

Chocolate. Coffee. Beer. All foreign words. All using katakana. So, since subtypes are still going to be foreign words, it makes sense if any modifying adjectives are also katakanacized. But that’s clearly not always the case, as the translation for dark beer shows. And if any of those three darker versions of a consumable item I enjoy should break that pattern, it shouldn’t be beer.

You can get black coffee at every other vending machine you find. There are several kinds of dark chocolate sold at any konbini you walk into. For those who missed it, vending machines and konbinis are everywhere in Japan. Dark beer is not. If you walk into a bar with the expectation “they’re a bar. They have to have dark beer. At least a Guinness or something” you are likely to leave very disappointed.

Yamaguchi-sensei was looking at me, clearly wondering what part of “kuroi bi-ru” I didn’t understand.

“Dark beer isn’t common in Japan.”

“You can get it.”

Yes. You can also get matcha-flavored things in the US. Mainly at Asian grocery stores and a few other places,but you can get it. That doesn’t make it common, and it doesn’t explain anything.

The next time someone asks me about how hard it is to study Japanese, I’m going to start to explain how it’s actually kind of straightforward, and then I’m going to trail off mid-sentence as I remember this. And then I’m going to say “Nevermind. Japanese is a complicated language deeply rooted in a culture that you can study for years without understanding.” And if they ask me what I mean, I’ll mutter something about honorific language and bushido code. But I’ll actually be thinking about dark chocolate, black coffee, and dark beer.

The last revelation of the day came during my culture and society class, when the teacher started talking about “June brides.” It is such a common notion that it gets katakanacized into Japanese. Here’s the thing: June is a terrible time for a wedding in Japan. The old name for June (that isn’t just “sixth month”) is “month full of water.” Because June is the rainy month. But, even though people don’t actually want to get married in June, the notion of “June bride” continues. Because, as with Valentine’s Day, it’s a part of American life that Japanese people see in movie and TVs.

One thing that an absurdly high number of Japanese couples do do for their wedding ceremonies is celebrate it in a church. This number is so absurd because for the most part, neither party is Christian. In well over 90% of weddings, no one is Christian. But they’ll celebrate it in a church and wear a puffy white dress and have a traditional American wedding. Or at least what they think a traditional American wedding looks like. And of course the wedding industry is encouraging this whenever they can.

There are a lot of strange experiences about being in a foreign country, adapting to a foreign culture. I think some of the most disconcerting come from seeing and coming to understand an outside perspective on the culture that you’ve lived in your entire life.

Growing up, I got to see not just the American movies and ads, but also the conversations that counterbalance them. On mother’s day, young children are taught to make crafts that their mothers will have to cherish because their own children made them instead of buying them flowers. Elaborate and public promposals may well be accompanied by a whispered conversation about how the only reason he’s asking so publicly is because he knows his would-be date will be too embarrassed to say no. By living in the United States, you get to see what happens after the wedding, however happy or unhappy that might be.

So it’s weird for me to hear about the Japanese interpretations of American traditions. The commercialization of love and romance is one of the things I dislike about American culture. But it’s spreading, and any meaning that could be taken from a religious ceremony is made negligible by not sharing the beliefs or traditions of the religion. And yet the number of Christian June Brides continues to grow.

If I could understand the reasoning behind everything I learned about Japan today, I feel like I’d be a lot closer to understanding Japanese culture and society.

Tags: beer, chocolate, coffee, commercialism, culture, wedding

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