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Wordplay Isn’t Limited to Native Speakers

One experience that has stuck with me was an evening when my wife and I were getting dinner with a couple of coworkers of hers who are from Israel. The conversation turned to halva, a dessert popular in many countries, including Israel, and my wife — a fond lover of puns — mentioned that they should have a brand of halva called “Halva Nagila,” after the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” They both briefly stopped and kind of stared into the middle distance before going “…OH, okay, now I get it.” Apparently, in Hebrew, the two words do not sound similar in the same way that they do in English.

At the same time, though, I’ve had plenty of experiences with this phenomenon in Japan, with English. Even back in 2005, during a study abroad program…

…the school festival that fall had the theme of “All You Need is Laugh,” which sounds obviously strange in English simply because the parts of speech don’t really work, but it’s less obviously so in Japanese, partially because the subtle distinction of why “laugh” sounds weird there isn’t intuitive (“laugh” can be a noun, but “laughter” would be more natural here), and also because the vowel sounds of “love” and “laugh” both reduce to the same equivalent sound in Japanese.

Here’s a product with a name I’m really fond of!

The Japanese word for mackerel is saba, and in Japanese, “v” sounds are generally reduced to “b” sounds because “v” isn’t a sound native to the language. The result: canned mackerel with the name “ça va?” (“how’s it going?” in Spanish).

Here’s a unique foodstuff with a unique name:

Unsurprisingly, “New Yolk” is meant as a play on “New York,” and I can’t really fault them for going with a name like that. Incidentally, I can’t let this go by without noting that the sign in the bottom right advertises “the world’s hardest-to-eat hot dog,” and the sign in the top right suggests that they may have a strong claim to the title.

This one takes advantage of different naming conventions in Japan:

In Japan, it’s very common for a business to put what kind of business it is at the beginning of the name, rather than optionally at the end, like in English (i.e. something like “Ramen Ichiro” is far more common in Japan, instead of something like “Ichiro’s Ramen” that would be more natural in English). In this case, it’s a bar with what appears to be a finance motif — a web search suggests that they have big-screen TVs inside over the bar showing some sort of data visualizations — and even though the logo is clearly a line chart, I couldn’t help but absolutely love the way the name works.

Sometimes, though, the wordplay can work just as well in both languages!

This restaurant is named for the fact that it’s run by the Iwai family, and because the restaurant specializes in hamburgers, steak, and other “American” foods, they wanted an “American-sounding” name, so they went with “E.Y.’s,” not because the letters stand for anything in particular, but because it sounds like “Iwai.”

Finally, we have one more that I’m honestly not sure about!

I love this name, but I don’t actually know if it’s meant to be a play on The Da Vinci Code or not! Is it a clever pun in English, or is it a play on the tendency of many Japanese speakers to de-voice voiced consonants at the end of some loanwords (i.e. “bed” becomes “bet,” or “bag” becomes “bak”)? Or maybe the owner just likes Leonardo da Vinci? It remains a mystery. The coats in the window looked quite nice, though.

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Take Me Out to the Japanese Ball Game

After many years living in Japan, I finally did something I’d been meaning to do for a very long time: see a baseball game at the legendary Koshien stadium. The Hanshin Tigers were playing the Chunichi Dragons, and while I once lived near Nagoya, I could not deny the incredible passion of the Hanshin Tigers’ fans.

It wasn’t until after we arrived at Koshien Station that it finally occurred to me that the Hanshin line, the railroad we took in, almost certainly owns the Hanshin Tigers, which would certainly explain the extra trains on the schedule for game days, as well as the unique exit-only ticket gates at Koshien station.


We’d arrived! Granted, the view from the train station wasn’t great, possibly because of the highway that was seemingly built after the stadium.

What a view!

Our friend took a picture of my wife and me outside the stadium, from a much better vantage point. The lighting on us wasn’t great, but, well, there was a highway casting a shadow.

I know I’m making kind of a weird face here

For some reason, as we entered the stadium, we noticed that they were handing out Tigers hats. On the upside: free hat! On the downside: 1990-style faded denim? My wife didn’t wear a hat that day, and it was very hot and sunny, so she took advantage of the free hat, even if it’s not usually her personal style.


The game itself was fun, if largely uneventful. One thing we noticed that was rather different from baseball games in the US is that after every time a ball went into the stands, they would make an announcement (“Foul balls are very dangerous!”) and even sent cheerleaders out with a banner to the same effect. Oh, also, there were cheerleaders, which aren’t really a thing at American baseball games — they’re more associated with football and basketball.

Cheerleaders teach the dangers of foul balls!

It’s hard to capture in a photo, but another thing about the atmosphere that’s quite different at Japanese baseball games is the music. In the US, baseball is generally associated with organ music (for reasons far too complex to go into here — there’s a great episode of the podcast Every Little Thing that delves into the topic in detail, if you’re interested!), but in Japan, the norm is constant music played from the stands by fans, generally on trumpets and other horns. Apparently, this used to be the norm in the US, too, but nobody really does it anymore.1

Another thing that happened that I was not used to was the fact that relief pitchers were brought onto the field in a Smart ForTwo.

Don’t call it a ‘smart car’!

However, it is my understanding that this is not a standard part of baseball in Japan.

One last ritual that we really enjoyed came during the seventh inning: the stadium sold special balloons with noise-making nozzles on them, and fans would buy them and blow them up in preparation for the middle or end of the seventh inning.

The little blue patch in the top left is the Chunichi Dragons' fan seating

The fans sing the team’s fight song, then release their balloons all together for a really unique experience. Unsurprisingly, it was a much more impressive show of fandom for the Tigers than for the Dragons, but it was still a lot of fun.

Overall, it was a great experience! We might have to find another chance to see another baseball game at Koshien, one day.

  1. Because of this, it’s easy to tell if old baseball video games, especially on the NES/Famicom, were made in Japan or the US, based on whether they had background music. 
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Even a Pen Can Speak with an Accent

As anyone who has tried to master a second language can tell you, one of the biggest challenges is to lose your accent and sound like a native speaker — arguably, native-like pronunciation does even more to provide a first impression of proficiency than fluency of expressing ideas, fairly or not. Indeed, the word “shibboleth” — meaning an explicit indicator of in-group status — comes from a Hebrew word used to identify belonging by simple virtue of being difficult to pronounce. Historically, these shibboleths and other demonstrations of in-group status have varied significantly in importance: the results can be anything from not being automatically offered the foreign-language menu at a restaurant to, in some cases, literal survival.

Obviously, in my lifestyle, the former is the much more common variety encountered, and much of it is more a matter of simply learning ways to sound less “foreign,” in order to reduce cognitive burden on others and to avoid simply sticking out as being “unusual,” even in subtle ways.

Interestingly, my first exposure to the idea of having an “accent” that would out one’s status as a non-native speaker of a language came at the age of thirteen or so, during a middle school German class. We learned that, if we were to write our ones and sevens the standard English way, they would look, at a bare minimum, “odd” to native speakers:

I think we can all agree that the difference between ‘one’ and ‘seven’ is overstated anyway.

While a German speaker seeing an English-style “1” might find it a little unusual-looking, but would probably figure out what was intended, the English-style “7” would almost certainly be misread in isolation as a “1” written hastily at a bit of an angle. You may think the German “1” here looks a bit exaggerated, but if anything, I’ve demonstrated restraint — I’ve seen cases where the diagonal bit extends basically all the way down to the baseline. It is presumably due to the influence of German (especially in the US, and especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, which is full of road signs with German and Dutch last names on them) that the German-style “7” is also used in English at least semi-commonly.

On the other hand, Japan has its own way of making sevens a bit more visually distinct: a long serif is ordinarily added, making it look a lot like how ク is ordinarily handwritten. In this case, there’s no real ambiguity being resolved; the English-style “7” would be readily understood, even if, in practice, virtually everybody in Japan writes it with that serif.

Interestingly, your pen can give you away as a non-native speaker in Japanese, even without writing a single word.

Even this example looks like the Arrested Development logo. Or maybe a coupon.

It’s subtle, yes, but somehow, the English-speaking world learns at some point that you circle things by starting at 12:00 or 1:00 and going around counter-clockwise (almost certainly because that’s how the letter “o” is written, at least prescriptively in things like Palmer Method cursive), whereas Japan learns that you circle things by starting at 4:00 or 5:00 and going around clockwise, possibly due to the cultural influence of the enso.

Once you’re aware of this, it’s hard to miss in popular culture: an entire generation of western gamers has no doubt grown up wondering why video games depict things circled in a “handwritten” manner look kind of like a 9. Or perhaps that was just me. On the other hand, you have stuff like the logo for the TV show Arrested Development, which is admittedly not particularly well known in Japan, possibly because any attempt to translate or localize a comedy so heavily dependent on multi-layered English wordplay would be so self-evidently hopeless as to inspire little more than a bleak, mirthless cackle.

Incidentally, at least as of some time ago, when I worked in a Japanese middle school, this “non-native writing” phenomenon worked both ways. Japanese students starting English are taught the alphabet, but presumably due to the influence of kanji and the fact that they each have a proper stroke order, as well as the fact that these strokes are, almost without exception, downward or to the right, students are often taught what would be, to many native English speakers, relatively “unnatural” looking ways to write certain letters.

Yes, I am aware that some native speakers write these letters differently. We’re talking about the big part of the bell curve, mainly.

The biggest and most obvious difference is the fact that, in English, there is more willingness to move the pen upward, either while writing (as in “A” and “N”) or as a general trending direction (as in “E” above). Obviously, the examples shown aren’t entirely universal, since there’s some variation in how English speakers write — the written language is, generally, not taught in as formally regimented a manner as Japanese traditionally is — but by no means do the “native” examples above look unusual or out of place.

Ultimately, these sorts of things aren’t too important in terms of everyday practicality, to be honest; in very few cases will you find yourself expressing yourself inaccurately or imprecisely because you circled something the wrong way. On the other hand, as with any other form of work to minimize your accent in a second language spoken or otherwise, there is a certain satisfaction that can come from attention to detail, adding a level of polish to go beyond merely “good enough” — even if the ultimate goal is to not be noticed.

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On Car Shopping in Japan

Given that my wife and I have no real intention of buying a house or having a kid, last weekend’s trip to the Honda dealership to buy a car is easily the most “adult” thing we’ve done in quite some time.

Perhaps I should start a little earlier in the story. Our previous1 car, a 2003 Fit Aria, was absolutely starting to get a bit long in the tooth — leaving aside its generally unfortunate-looking condition after a number of harsh Hokuriku winters, the radiator was cracked and in need of outright replacement, and between the price of that and the fact that we’d be looking at a substantial outlay this June for the shaken car inspection (easily ¥200,000 or more, because there is a minimum fee of something like ¥60,000 or ¥70,000 simply for the two years of compulsory insurance, plus a huge amount to get that car up to code), we figured, hey, it sounds like time to consider simply replacing our car.

It actually looked even worse on the inside.

The car-buying experience in Japan is, as has no doubt been written about countless times on the internet, rather alien to Americans.2 While there is certainly a degree of upselling of optional luxuries,3 there is a refreshing straightforwardness about a lot of the process: there are certain packages that include certain features, and you simply pick one of them as a baseline to work from.4

The interesting thing, from an American perspective, is how much paperwork there is involved: the dealership will generally require official proof of a parking space (to be obtained from one’s landlord), an officially registered seal and a certification of its validity from the local government office, etc. The payment, if going with a single lump-sum payment rather than credit, is also quintessentially Japanese: the buyer simply transfers the money from their own bank account to the bank account of the dealership, and the dealership looks at the name on the transfer to confirm who it came from.5

And then, if absolutely everything goes right, you may have your new car in as little as a week.

That’s right: unlike in the US, where it is largely safe to assume that you will drive your new car home that very same day, in Japan, your new car won’t be delivered to the dealer for you to drive home for a week or longer, depending on the configuration you’ve requested, because of the fact that they more or less build the car to order. If nothing else, hey, that’s actually pretty neat that the car companies still operate that way. It was certainly a novel surprise to us, at least.

Incidentally, for the curious, the car we went with is another Honda: the N-Box.6

Hot New Squareness

It falls into a legal category known as kei cars, a special type of small, light vehicles with restrictions on engine displacement and wheel size. The upsides include significant tax breaks, absurdly good gas mileage (the official mileage estimates are something like 28 km/l, or well over 68 MPG, which is good but by no means breathtaking among kei cars), and ready availability of some parts (given that the wheel size is standardized, everyone has the right tires available), but with minor downsides like being too narrow to seat five. To be perfectly honest, I’d love to see kei cars make it big overseas, but odds are that there’d be some pretty significant hurdles to that actually happening.7 Still, though, it’s not hard to imagine that there’d likely be a market for a small, efficient car that gets 60+ MPG, with a price tag in the mid $10,000s.

In the meanwhile, we’ll have to simply enjoy our new car here, in the market it was designed for. With any luck, this one will hopefully last another fifteen years, like the one it replaced.

  1. Or technically, at the time of this writing (but not posting), current. Feel free to allow this to recontextualize everything written above, as technically being in the future tense. Alternately, feel free to ignore this fact. 
  2. With the interesting exception of Saturn, a GM brand based on how car sales work in Japan. 
  3. Such as floor mats. 
  4. Though the initial price estimate included a whole bunch of optional features added in, which we then had to ask to remove, one by one. It says a lot about car sales, universally, that this came as a surprise to neither of us. 
  5. A fun thing I learned when trying to pay for our car: unless you tell the Japan Post bank folks otherwise, there is a limit of ¥500,000 per day that you can send as bank account transfers in a single day from an ATM, which is not enough to purchase a brand new car. Obviously, it makes sense that there are safeguards against transferring frankly enormous amounts of money without prior notice, but it’s still inconvenient when I know I’m good for it and that I’m doing it on purpose. 
  6. I don’t have anywhere else to add this, so I’ll just put it in here: when we later went to pick up the car, a week after purchasing it, the manager of the dealership came out to thank us personally, and gave us a little pot of flowers. It was a really nice little gesture, even if he does it for every customer. 
  7. For one, the mere fact that these are cars built specifically to meet guidelines for a single specific country, for reduced tax purposes, is a major benefit domestically that obviously wouldn’t apply overseas. On the other hand, given that they generally get mileage in the same realm as hybrids, perhaps a few countries would be willing to give them a chance. There’s also a major built-in first mover disadvantage — the standardized wheel size in Japan is great, because there’s a whole industry of vehicles that use the comparatively tiny tires that kei cars call for, but if you were to try to sell one overseas, the exact opposite would apply: you’d have a new model of car that would need a size of tire that would be small enough to be vanishingly rare in, say, the US. This is presumably part of why kei cars haven’t really made it overseas, though it feels like they have a lot of potential in urban markets, where being compact but with lots of interior space would be key. Incidentally, speaking of small cars meant for urban markets, only a single foreign-made car has ever achieved kei status in Japan, and not even fully across the board: certain versions of the Smart Fortwo happen to be meet these legal restrictions. 
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A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.