Saturday, January 19, 2008

Japanese Lends Itself to Colorful Expressions... and Tests!

Sorry I haven't written in this blog for a while. There's not a whole lot going on in my life here in Japan worth writing about these days. Just smooth sailin'. Things are going quite well but the flipside of that shiny coin is things have become very boring. I'm thinking about having another Tokyo junket to shake things up, maybe over my next 3-day weekend or during Golden Week. There may be romance blossoming but that's all anyone needs to know for now.

In the meantime, the Japan Times Online has taken up some of the content slack. One of my favorite aspects of learning Japanese is the way native speakers come up with so many creative usages. While we Americans refer to a vain balding man as having a "comb-over," which is too on the nose and not so interesting, in Japan a similar hairstyle is refered to as "barcode hair," which is funnier and creates a vivid mental image. It does look like a barcode!

Japan Times has an article on the "secret" language used by Japan's working women. If you don't want to read the entire article, here's the main list:

* Tabitomo (traveling companion) — an illicit lover, used in reference to extramarital affairs.
* Yuryo bukken (excellent property) — a real-estate term used here to mean a male colleague considered a possible romantic interest.
* Kakurenbo oji (hide-and-seek prince) — a man who ignores his female colleague until just before it's time to knock off for the day.
* Katorina — a man who wreaks havoc on the office environment. So named for the hurricane that devastated New Orleans.
* Ichigo (strawberry) — used figuratively to describe a pimply complexion.
* Ganburon — an unsightly male who grows his hair long. Formed by stringing together gan (face), busaiku (unappealing) and ronge (long hair).

My favorites are yuryo bukken, katorina and ichigo. Ichigo is brilliantly visual. And many people I've met here are still fascinated by Hurrican Katrina, so I'm not surprised it's entered the slang vernacular here in such an appropriate way.

And in news that hits closer to home (several people I know had to change travel plans this weekend because the shinkansen were almost all booked up), the yearly university-entrance exam rite has begun.

I don't know how it is in Europe, but this is very different from the American way of getting a higher education. Each year, graduating Japanese high schoolers have to make the journey to testing centers for rigorous university entrance exams. Failure means a year of further cram school and status as a "ronin," an old school samurai term for a "masterless warrior." Kurosawa Akira made some great movies about these samurai and their adventures, but for the exam flopper it's a time of uncertainty, anxiety and hard work.

Whereas we Americans take the SAT, fill out a form, pay a truckload of money and off we go.

For those who pass, life begins to arrange itself into a familiar, timeless pattern; it must be something of a relief after all the pressures heaped on them in high school. Their parents did it, their aunts and uncles did it, their older siblings did it. School, a degree, a job, marriage and a child. They're all set. However stultifying that may seem, once in college Japanese students tend to indulge in that universal ingredient of matriculated life: beer, beer and more beer. And also, they drink beer.

I do know of one lucky young man locally. He's so brilliant he gets to skip his senior year of high school and go straight into Chiba University where he'll study physics and go on to contribute mightily to humanity's accumulated scientific know-how.

Maybe he'll even successfully blow up the planet!


Audiovore said...

Its a funny East meets West alcohol mentality with Japan and the US, both have the two highest drinking ages in the first world(although Japan has a more logical reason for now), and apparently illegal college binge drinking.

Have you noticed how strict they are about carding over there? I assume they would probably not bother with foreigners, but do you ever see the 18-19 getting carded?

Joel Bryan said...

Audiovore- I think the carding strictness is roughly the same as it is in the U.S., but there are beer vending machines all around... so I'm guessing that's an outlet frequently exploited by underage drinkers.

Weird coincidence, but this came up recently in some conversation and apparently, high school kids here rely on the older buddy to buy for them. That was surprising and strangely comforting. Teenagers are a universal tribe, it seems, despite differing in certain specifics.