Bilingual Problems – Friday Afternoons & Monday Mornings

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It’s Friday (yay!) and for me, that means the start to a weekend of speaking 99% Japanese. My first language is English, I was born in the US, and I live in the US, but I have studied Japanese since high school so I can have everyday conversations without too much trouble.

My husband is Japanese, and he can speak conversational English, but when we met he spoke literally zero English and so our conversations from day one were in Japanese. Since we spoke Japanese from the time we met, it’s difficult to change our habits at this point in time. (I’ve since noticed that whenever I meet someone, whichever language we start speaking first is the one we usually speak in at least 75% of the time from that point on).

English on the Weekdays, Japanese on the Weekend

So that means that I spend the week speaking English at my job and speaking Japanese at night, but when I come home on Friday I start a weekend of pretty much only speaking and listening to Japanese. We mostly only watch Japanese TV and movies (mostly because I like to watch Japanese news and TV shows). The friends I’ve made in my new city are also mostly Japanese speakers, so when I go out on the weekends I speak more Japanese. The only times I really speak English for any length of time on the weekends are when I talk to my parents on the phone or Skype.

Then Comes Monday Morning…

So what does that mean on Monday morning? You might have guessed that my English is pretty lousy by the time Monday morning comes around. I have an early morning meeting every Monday, and while my sleep-deprived brain is already fumbling to make coherent sentences, Japanese words come to my mind rather than English words. My English sounds like an English language learner, or my grammar switches order as I try to directly translate the Japanese that comes to mind. It can be frustrating, but also maybe more than a little entertaining to my co-workers.

Conversely, when I go on business trips and come back home (usually Fridays), my Japanese is lousy when I go back to talking to my husband. I’m tired from travelling on airplanes, getting up super early, time changes, and sleeping in hotels. I go from discussing technical data in English to blanking out on answering simple questions in Japanese. It usually takes me a while to get back to where I can have coherent conversations in Japanese again.

Does Every Bilingual Person Experience This?

I imagine this is something a lot of bilingual people experience. A few other American friends of mine who have studied Japanese and used it on a regular basis, then had to switch back to English after long periods of time, have told me that they also noticed that their English (native language!) got worse. Of course, either language improves with use, but that initial transition can be tricky.

When I had to interpret for my parents and my in-laws earlier this year when they finally met, I was mentally thoroughly drained thanks to having to constantly switch back and forth between the two. I really admire interpreters, as it takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep up that kind of transition!

Are you bilingual? Have you ever experienced this kind of thing? Have you ever tried interpreting between two languages? Any advice that could make this transition between languages easier? Let me know in the comments!

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Summer Means… Ghosts?

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Summer means sun, vacations, the beach… and ghosts?

In Japan, ghosts or yuurei 幽霊 appear more often than usual during the summer, including family ancestors. The appearance of ancestors coincides with the Obon お盆 festival, a Buddhist festival where Japanese families return to ancestral family homes and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. The festivals held across Japan are accompanied by Bon odori 盆踊り, which are large dances meant to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors.

Hasedera in Kamakura

Hasedera in Kamakura – photo by kei

While in the US we associate ghosts and zombies mingling amongst the living with October and Halloween, Japanese ghosts tend to show up in July and August. In the run-up to the Obon season, there are a variety of obake yashiki お化け屋敷 or haunted houses to visit. This year there was even a haunted train, complete with zombies. And of course, the hospital-themed haunted house at Fuji-Q Highland is exceptionally popular during the Obon season. 

During Obon, lanterns are traditionally hung outside of homes to help light the way for the ancestors to return. At the end of Obon, floating lanterns are set adrift in rivers, lakes, and the ocean to help guide the ancestors away again.

 

The holiday this year started off on Friday, with the newly-created Mountain Day or Yama no Hi 山の日 (which just started in 2016). The Obon festival lasts for three days in the middle of August (although the dates vary somewhat in different parts of Japan), and this year’s festivities are just winding down this weekend – accompanied by the usual traffic jam as people return to the large cities from the countryside.

What kind of holidays do you celebrate in the summer? What kind of holidays do you celebrate with your ancestors, ghosts, or other spooky things? Let me know in the comments!

5 Favorite Things About Japan

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It’s no secret that Japan is one of my favorite places. Even though I’ve only lived there for a short time as a student and visited for a week or a month at a time since that, every time I plan a trip I end up visiting Japan for the umpteenth time rather than visiting a country I’ve never been to before (although there are a lot of countries I haven’t visited yet).

So what is so great about Japan? I’ve met many people who have visited Japan, and when I ask them what their favorite thing about Japan is, I get just as many different answers. Here I’ve compiled a list of favorites, including both my experiences and those of people I know.

  1. Public Transportation
Train doors

Riding on the train – photo by kei

In the US you can’t get anywhere easily without a car. And streets, residences, and markets are laid out such that it’s not often feasible to just walk to the super market – it’s too far or too perilous to reach on foot. When you do use public transportation it can be grimy (think NY subways) or costly (taxi fares to downtown), or just really slow (how long do I have to wait for a bus?).

In Japan, public transportation is efficient, frequent, and clean. You can be sure that the train will be on time down to the minute – yes, 14:17 means that it will arrive at 2:17 PM on the dot – barring a disaster or accident, of course. If your apartment is far from the train station or eki 駅 you can ride your bike or take the bus to the station, then take the train to your destination. Taxis can be expensive, but the bus is often an inexpensive option, and you can look up bus or train schedules on your smart phone. No wifi? Find a 7/11 convenience store and you can connect to their 7-SPOT wifi. You can use the same ID and password for the Tokyo Metro wifi as well.

2. Public Toilets

Separate toilet rooms keep things clean – photo by kei

Toilets in Japan are something you need to experience yourself to truly understand and appreciate. Before I went to Japan, I wondered what the big deal about oto-hime and bidet was, but once I spent some time there I understood why people write articles about Japanese toilets. Japanese toilets have lots of bells and whistles, including seat warmers, buttons that emit flushing sounds, and a variety of bidet settings. At first the array of buttons is intimidating, but once you figure out what each button does, you will wonder how you ever lived without the button that plays a charming little tune.

Public toilets in Japan often contain these high-tech toilets. Some even have lids that open automatically when you approach. You often find the high-tech Western-style toilets in shopping centers and super markets. However, there are still Japanese-style toilets interspersed with the high-tech toilets in stores and train stations. Many parks have both low-tech Western-style toilets and Japanese-style toilets, or just Japanese toilets. These are the hole-in-the-ground type, which can be an adjustment for many Westerners, but when you need to go they are just as welcome as the Western-style toilets.

The abundance of public toilets available in Japan is quite helpful when you are exploring a new place, as you are usually not far from a public toilet. Even when I climbed Mt. Fuji there were public toilets available! (Due to the difficulty of accessing and cleaning the loo at 3000+ meters altitude, they request a small donation, and although this is honor-based, I am sure most visitors pay the small donation.) Public toilets in Japan are also incredibly clean. A public toilet in a park in the US can be pretty disgusting, but I’ve never been to a public toilet in Japan that I literally couldn’t use because someone mucked it up.

3. Fast Food

The number one thing that people comment on about their trip to Japan is the food. Even people who don’t eat sushi find the food to be delicious. Japan indeed does dining well, from traditional favorites to international cuisine, the food is always well made but at reasonable prices. The same is true for fast food in Japan. Whether it’s the internationally famous McDonald’s or Japan-based Mos Burger, fast food just seems better in Japan. Aside from Western hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japanese udon and beef bowls count among the ranks of fast foods. The food choices are more varied and some of the places seem healthier than your typical fast food joints. Some of the fast food restaurants in Japan don’t even seem like fast food, and so sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you’re eating healthier (although I haven’t checked the nutrition values).

You can even pick up frozen or refrigerated meals at the convenience store that taste almost fresh after you heat them up in the microwave. I’ve had 7/11 fish heated up in a microwave that tastes like it was freshly cooked. It’s hard to go back to US frozen food after that experience…

4. Mascot Characters

Japan essentially has the market cornered on cute. Cute accessories, cute characters, even cute food (like kyara-ben キャラ弁). That’s why Hello Kitty has endured worldwide for over 40 years and why I always stop at the capsule vending machines to get a new character key chain in game centers. One of my favorite Japanese things is mascot characters.

Japan has a mascot for everything – TV stations, stores, even every prefecture and city has its own mascot character. You may be familiar with the TV station NHK’s Domo-kun (どーもくん), the brown furry square monster, or Kumamon (くまモン), the black bear that is the representative of Kumamoto Prefecture. The mascot characters are my favorite cute characters, and I wouldn’t mind having a mascot for everything in my life. You can even meet the mascot characters if you get lucky. City mascots appear at festivals and other events, and store mascots sometimes wander about while you shop.

5. Sakura

Sakura

Sakura blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen – photo by kei

Spring is my favorite season, next to summer, and with spring comes cherry blossoms or sakura 桜, which bloom for a very short time across Japan. When it just begins to warm up, but before the rain falls, cherry blossoms bloom for a couple of weeks. The light pink blossoms all bloom at the same time, and then begin to fall or are washed away by the rain. The ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms is very poetic, and has begun a primary symbol in Japanese culture.

When the cherry blossoms bloom, people come out for dates or in groups to view the cherry blossoms, taste sakura-inspired snacks and drinks, and consume alcohol in the parks. The warmer weather that accompanies the blooms and the short viewing period inspire crowds to congregate outdoors. Celebrating the coming spring and viewing the beautiful blossoms (hanami 花見) creates an atmosphere that is unique to these blooms.

Other seasonal events that bring out the crowds in Japan are the changing leaves in the fall, and the illuminations (seasonal lights) in the winter. The beach is a cool relief from the humidity of summer. Any season that you visit Japan offers specialty events and delicacies, and each offers a unique experience!

What are your favorite things about Japan? Do you agree with my list? What about your home country? Let me know in the comments!

The Japanese Emperor – and the end of the Heisei?

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The Japanese emperor (tennou 天皇) is said to be descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and today represents the Japanese constitutional monarchy. With such a long lineage filled with time-honored customs, and tied to modern Japan through the constitution, there seems to be little room for grand changes.

Yet at the end of 2018 a major change may occur in the imperial system.

Customarily, the Japanese emperor serves as the imperial head of Japan for the duration of his natural life. Succession occurs with his death, and the title of emperor is passed on to his first-born son. However, at the end of 2018, Emperor Akihito may step down and pass on his title. This would be the first time that the title would be passed on while the present emperor, or kinjyoutennou 今上天皇, was still living.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why pass on the title?

There are a number of reasons why passing on the title, or abdicating, during his lifetime would serve both the emperor and the country as a whole. In the present day where health care is better than it’s ever been and people are living many years longer than their ancestors, the emperor may indeed live for many more years. As the emperor, at the age of 83, he must work 25 days out of the month (I work 21-22 days out of the month). I imagine that this is quite tiring!

Also, as Japan is preparing for the 2020 Olympic games, the emperor will be expected to serve as a symbol for the country. He will need to make public appearances, and if he unexpectedly falls ill during the games, this might dampen the spirits of the host country.

These are some reasons which may be behind the decision for early abdication by the emperor.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial residence buildings in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why is this decision so monumental?

The early abdication of an emperor is an event that has never occurred since the institution of Japan’s national constitution in 1947. In fact, as I understand it, the language even prevents the early abdication (likely as a safeguard against the emperor’s title being removed). Thus, to allow for this unprecedented circumstance, the Japanese constitution itself must be amended.

A committee took an initial vote on whether the emperor should be allowed to abdicate, and while the decision has not been finalized, it seems that the committee was favorable to allowing the emperor to go through with this. The change might not be permanent, though, as the government seems to favor only allowing the abdication for Emperor Akihito, rather than applying it to all succeeding emperors.

Still, Emperor Akihito may step down at the end of 2018, and pass down his title to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito (who is 56), on the first of January 2019. This would bring the Heisei 平成 era to an end at 30 years, and begin the new era – which may be named as early as this year.

How do you think the Japanese government should handle this decision? Allow him to abdicate? Make it a permanent rule? Do you think this is a good decision for Japan? Let me know in the comments!

Coming of Age Day in Japan 成人の日

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In Japan, the second Monday of January marks the Coming of Age Day or Seijin no Hi 成人の日. On this day, anyone who turns 20 between April 1st of the previous year (2016) and April 1st of the current year (2017) officially becomes an adult in the eyes of Japanese society.

In addition to the new adults being able to vote, smoke, and drink in Japan, each ward holds a ceremony called seijin-shiki 成人式 to officially introduce the newly minted adults. Women wear special kimono with long sleeves, called furisode, and often with fur trim since it’s still winter. These are usually rented because they are quite expensive. Men can wear hakata, or traditional baggy pants, but most often they wear suits with ties.

Usually friends gather after the ceremony and celebrate at an izakaya or Japanese pub, at karaoke, or even in parks (but usually it’s pretty cold for this). Even if they haven’t officially reached 20 on the day of the ceremony, Japanese izakaya won’t card on this day.

Many new adults go to the shrine after the ceremony, to offer prayers for their future. Since the Coming of Age Day is close to the New Year, many people are still making their first trips to the shrines and it can be quite crowded!

Hasedera Temple, Kamakura

In recent years, participation in the Coming of Age Day ceremonies has declined. Some people say that not as many people are participating as they used to, and some people say that there just aren’t as many young people are there used to be (the aging society problem of Japan). While I don’t know the reason why participation is down, I know that my friends – in past years as well as this year – are very eager to participate!

What kind of celebrations does your country have for coming of age? Let me know in the comments!

New Year in Japan

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The  New Year in Japan is probably the most important holiday of the year. Schools and businesses close for the year-end holiday 年末年始 nen matsu nen sho and many people return to their hometowns to visit family.

New Year's kadomatsu 門松

In Japan, the New Year holiday is the time for family, while Christmas in Japan is a time for couples. This is the opposite in the US, as Christmas is the time when people gather with their extended families and usually is the most important holiday. New Years for Americans is instead a time for partying as a couple or with groups of friends.

The result of the New Year’s holiday being such an important, family-oriented holiday is that shops and tourist attractions close early, often for several days before and after the New Year. If you are an employee this is great, but if you’re a tourist, you might be frustrated. With restaurants, souvenir shops, and museums closing, you might not be able to cross some things off your bucket list. Banks and ATMs also close, so be prepared with plenty of cash before the New Year’s holidays begin. You also might find more crowds when traveling to and from big cities during this time.

Even if normal shops and activities shut down for a few days, there are still plenty of things to do during this time of year!

Sensouji (shrine) at Asakusa

New Year’s Shrine Visit – Hatsumode 初詣

On New Year’s morning, often just after midnight, millions of Japanese people flock to shrines (jinja 神社) or temples (otera お寺) to perform their first visit or hatsumoude 初詣. If you are in Japan over the New Year, this is an event that I would recommend trying at least once. Unless you hate long lines and crowds. If you are willing to suffer a little bit queuing up in the cold winter air for a truly Japanese experience, then I would make sure to try a New Year’s shrine visit.

The festivities begin on January 1st as the year turns, where the temple bells are rung 108 times (to chase away bad fortune). At the larger shrines and temples there are food stands. You can also buy lucky charms, or get your fortune (omikuji おみくじ) in kanji characters.

Shrine wishes at Fuji Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi

You can expect to line up for over an hour at the most popular shrines and temples, and at the end of the waiting you reach the main offering hall where you can offer a prayer for the New Year. Major train lines run overnight as the year turns to accommodate the huge crowds of people, but be prepared to be packed into the trains like sushi!

If the biggest crowds and longest lines scare you off, you can perform your hatsumode after January 1st, for at least a week at the major shrines.

Waiting for hatsumode at Meiji Jingu

Waiting for hatsumode 初詣 at Meiji Jingu – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sumo Entry Ceremony

In 2015, I went to the Meiji Jingu Shrine 明治神宮 with my then-fiance for our hatsumode. I was surprised to find out that we were there on the same day as the Yokozuna Deizuri 横綱手数入り, or the sumo ring-entering ritual. I’m not particularly a sumo fan, but it’s pretty impressive to see these athletes in person!

Emperor’s New Year Greeting

On January 2nd, the Emperor of Japan makes a public appearance at the Tokyo Imperial Palace or Koukyo 皇居. The only other public appearance the Emperor makes is on his birthday, December 23rd. On the 2nd, the inner palace grounds are open to the public and the Emperor and his family appear on a protected balcony to wave and give short speeches.

 

 

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居 – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sales

Once the New Year’s family gatherings are over, the stores open back up and greet the new year with huge sales! Stores want to move their stock to make room for new product, and therefore they offer great discounts on many items. This is probably one of my favorite parts of the New Year!

In addition to deep discounts on electronics and clothing, you can buy fukubukuro 福袋 or lucky bags. These range from small, inexpensive bags to large boxes with household goods, depending on the store. People will line up for the best fukubukuro, so get there early if you’re interested in the high-end hauls!

New Year's Sales Haul

New Year’s Traffic Congestion

Since many people get the same New Year’s holidays off, travel becomes very congested during the end of the year. From December 29-31, the mass migration begins and many people leave Tokyo and other big cities to return to their hometowns.

Once the New Year celebrations are over, on January 2-4, these same people return to the big cities, creating travel congestion on the roads, on trains, and at airports. If you plan to travel between Japanese cities or out of the country during these times, be prepared for lots of crowds!

Is New Year’s a big holiday in your country? What would you recommend if I visited your hometown for the New Year? Let me know in the comments!

 

Photo Friday: It’s Not This Time of Year Without… Illumination

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Landmark Tower Yokohama Illumination

Photo Friday Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without… 

This week’s Photo Friday Challenge is perfect for the season – It’s not this time of year without… Illumination! Yesterday I talked about my Christmas wish list of things that remind me of winter in Japan, and today I have narrowed it down to the one thing that I miss most about Christmas in Japan. Illumination イルミネーション consists of Christmas light displays that range from local characters to famous Disney princesses.

Venetian Glass Museum

Santa’s escapades at the Venetian Glass Museum, Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture
– photo by kei

Crowds of people mill around the light displays, taking photos and enjoying the spectacle. Couples on a date, families with children, and spectators of all ages can enjoy the illumination. Despite the cold everyone enjoys the atmosphere of the season. While there are Christmas displays in major American cities too, Japan’s illuminations are a completely different event.

Tokyo Skytree Illumination

Tokyo Skytree Town Illumination – photo by kei

Visiting different illuminations in different cities gives you a small taste of the local culture, show off amazing creativity, and I love to try to visit as many as possible. For example, the Disney princesses are located throughout Tokyo in major shopping centers, etc. So if you visit each of the areas where the princesses are, you can take photos of all of them. I suppose it’s like collecting trading cards or Pokemon!

What completes your holiday season? What about holiday traditions from other countries that you enjoy? Let me know in the comments!