Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | japan & asia
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Sakura in Tokyo byJames T. Kirk on Vimeo. No doubt about it, the springtime blooming of sakura, or cherry blossoms, in Japan is one reason the country is special. The Japanese treat the season with wonder, with weather forecasts about the optimal blooming days and following the cherry blossoms from the warmer southern climate all the way up to Hokkaido, the...

Google ran into trouble in japan over the use of historical maps of Tokyo that showed areas where burakumin, or the lowest caste, used to live. Poor Google. They're in a tough spot this time. The Internet giant has hit some cultural snags in Japan before, over how it rolled out its products in the Land of the Rising Sun. This time, they're in trouble because Google used publicly available historical maps of Tokyo and Osaka in an overlay for its popular (and amazing) Google Earth program. The problem is, the maps showed the locations of former villages where the "burakumin" used to live in feudal times. The locations have long since been developed with the concrete, steel and glass of modern Tokyo, but the antique map has dredged up centuries and shame, and a fresh spate of anger from the descendants of burakumin as well as government officials who'd just as soon forget that such prejudice ever existed -- and apparently still exists.

WendyWhile we're on the topic of pronunciation, I've been meaning to write this for a while, since Wendy's began airing TV commercials for their new Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich. The commercials seem to have stopped, but the sandwich is still available at select locations across the country. The commercial got Erin, our son Jared and me all riled up every time I saw it because it mispronounced "panko" whenever it was mentioned. Panko is the traditional Japanese breadcrumb coating for fried food, and it's become something of a hip ingredient in American restaurants and kitchens. So it's cool that Japanese food (starting with sushi a couple of decades ago) are catching on in the US and becoming mainstream. However, it irritates me that so many Americans, including the guy on the TV commercial, pronounce the word as "PAN-koe," like "pants." The Japanese pronunciation is "pahn-KOH," with the first part more like "pawn" -- almost like "punk" -- and the second like Homer Simpson's "DOH!" Here's a caveat about this rant of mine: Language evolves, and as cultures merge and are assimilated, words and pronunciation patterns change and are re-invented. I'm sure the British still think Americans are buffoons for mangling their language, mispronouncing words and using "incorrect" words like "trunk" for a car's "boot" or hood for a car's "bonnet." I'm the first to admit that I don't follow my own rules about Japanese words for other languages. I don't walk into a Taco Bell and order a "bu-RRRIT-toh." I don't order a "kwassahn" at the bakery when I want a croissant. I say "kraw-sahnt." Servers at Thai restaurants snicker when I ask if I pronounced "yum nue" (spicy cold beef salad, truly yummy) correctly. Vietnamese servers guffaw out loud when I ask if I've said "bun dac biet" (combination grilled meat over rice noodles) right. Amazingly, I always think I've nailed it, but the guffaws come anyway. And by the way, when you go to the Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of "pho" noodle, it's NOT pronounced "foe" or even "fuh." A server explained to us that you have to add a slight upward lilt to the end of the word, as if you're asking a question. So it's, "Hi, can I have a medium bowl of fuh?" Erin and I may not get it exactly right, but the point is, we're aware of our inadequacy at pronouncing other languages, and we always try to learn and say it correctly. On the other hand, let's face it, people in other countries aren't any better at pronouncing English, so turnabout is fair play, right?

Texas lawmaker Betty Brown suggested Asians should change their names so American could "deal with them" more easily.Oh, the wisdom of lawmakers. Especially in Texas. Texas state representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell, in North Texas) caused a ruckus on Tuesday by saying, during testimony about voter ID legislation, that Asians would have an easier time of getting along if they simply changed their names. "Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese -- I understand it's a rather difficult language -- do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?" She also told a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans who was there to testify, "Can't you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that's easier for Americans to deal with?" Now Texas Dems are demanding an apology for "her disrespectful remarks," and state Republicans are accusing the Democrats of making too much of the statements and using race to make voting IDs a partisan issue. I don't think Brown is a racist -- at least, I hope not. But I think that she spoke without thinking, and her true feelings about Asians' names came out.

Woodblock illustration of hara kiri, or the ritual suicide practiced in feudal Japan.The furor over bonuses given by AIG to employees after taking more than $170 billion in bailout money from the U.S. government is made all the more furious because of the sheer breathtaking scale of the cash flow. AIG paid 73 staffers more than $1 million, with one getting $6.4 and seven more getting $4. Those amounts seem so out of kilter with the state of the economy, and the fact that just months ago, the giant company was about to crash without a hand up from the government -- from us -- that it's not surprising that citizens as well as lawmakers are screaming bloody murder. But one lawmaker is screaming bloody suicide. The Washington Post (among other media) reported that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wanted AIG execs to commit hara kiri, or seppuku -- the traditional Japanese ritual suicide often depicted as an honorable course of action from samurai times.
Sen. Charles Grassley suggested in an Iowa City radio interview on Monday that AIG executives should take a Japanese approach toward accepting responsibility by resigning or killing themselves. "Obviously, maybe they ought to be removed," the Iowa Republican said. "But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they'd follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I'm sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide." Grassley spokesman Casey Mills said the senator wasn't calling for AIG executives to kill themselves, but said those who accept tax dollars and spend them on travel and bonuses do so irresponsibly.
When I first heard about this, my jaw clenched but I let it pass. Seppuku was a historical reality for centuries, after all, and it's depicted in lots of Japanese pop culture, including movies and books. It's been documented as a reflection of one of Japan's driving cultural values, shame.

I had an interesting thread of conversation the other day on Facebook, after someone sent me a friend request that ended with the person (he's Caucasian) calling me "Gil-san." He wrote this in good cheer and good faith, and as a sign of collegial respect. I know that. But it struck me odd somehow, that non-Japanese people (usually Caucasians) throughout my life have assumed that it's perfectly normal to call me "Gil-san," or to say "konnichiwa" ("hello") or "sayonara," as if I speak Japanese, or better yet, that I appreciate someoe else assuming that I speak Japanese. I do -- a little. But I'm not Japanese, and the only time I try to mumble and stumble my way through a conversation in Japanese is when I'm trying to speak to Japanese people... from Japan. So I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: "Is it culturally sensitive, condescending or just plain goofy for a Euro-American to call me 'Gil-san'? I'm Japanese American, not Japanese." As is often the case, I got a flurry of responses right away on Facebook. Interestingly, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as European Americans, had different perspectives on this topic.

Jero, the first African American Enka singer in Japan, learned the musical style from his Japanese grandmother.Enka music is often referred to as "Japanese blues." The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion). But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero's historic New Year's Eve performance) Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he's young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American. He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important -- and more unusual -- he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be "old-fashioned." Enka music isn't quite blues -- aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it's not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it's always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.

Don Wakamatsu, a yonsei, is the first Asian American manager in Major League Baseball. A New York Times profile of Don Wakamatsu (thanks to reader Juan Lozano for pointing it out), the Japanese American named by the Seattle Mariners to manage the struggling team, reminded me that I'd been meaning to write about him since Wakamatsu's hiring was announced in November. It's an historic signing because for the hype that Japanese (and other Asian) ball players have received from the media since Hideo Nomo arrived as a pitcher for the Dodgers in 1995, there have been few and mostly unheralded Japanese American players in MLB. (By the way, Nomo wasn't the first Japanese player -- Masanori Murakami pitched in 1964 and '65 for the San Francisco Giants.) And, there has never been an Asian American manager of a Major League team. It's nice to read stories about Wakamatsu, who acknowledges his role as a pioneering Asian American. He grew up with an awareness of his heritage -- his father is Sansei and his mother is Irish American, so he's a Yonsei, or fourth-generation, Hapa. He played in Japanese American sports leagues as a kid, and is a member of the Japanese American Citizens League. His grandparents were interned at Tule Lake during World War II, and his father was born in camp. His grandparents even bought pieces of their former barracks and used them to build their home in Hood River, Oregon after the war, and they still live in the house. Wakamatsu was born in Oregon but raised in the Bay Area suburb of Hayward. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1985 as a catcher, and also played for the Chicago White Sox. He's held various coaching positions for the Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and others. He was bench coach for the Oakland As last season when he was picked to helm the Mariners.