Category Archives: English

Pet Peeves


***Warning! Oncoming rant***

Things that drive me really, really crazy:

-People who don’t watch where they’re going because they’re too busy playing with their phones. Watch out! I’m winning the battle against smoking but losing the one against the urge to grab your phone and hurl it against a wall.

-People who slurp their spaghetti. Ramen, udon, soba: acceptable. Spaghetti: no. Stop it. RIGHT NOW!

-People who wear their keys on the outside of their pants. There’s enough superfluous noise in the world already. And you know you only do it because you can’t afford a red sports car.

-People who say “nucular”. Come on, y’all. It ain’t a word.

-People who pretend to be stupid to avoid responsibility. A woman I sometimes have to work with does this. She doesn’t listen when I talk so, of course, she doesn’t understand what I say, and I end up having to explain everything three times. Also, she doesn’t speak English and yet the company keeps putting her into jobs where she has to use English. I’ve known her for years now and she hasn’t gotten any better. I think I understand why. It’s a form of rebellion because she doesn’t want to speak English. She’s nice enough in other ways; I don’t dislike her, but I do resent having to work twice as hard to cover for her. I’m very curious about what her other colleagues think.

In another department there’s a guy who is both stupid and incompetent and everybody, including him, knows it. I’ve asked our colleagues why they put up with it and they say he’s a sweet person.

“But…I don’t CARE about that! I would much rather work with an intelligent asshole than have to clean up the messes of people who are not qualified to do their jobs!”

Honestly, they don’t pay me enough.

***End of rant. Thank you for listening.***

Clear as Mud

So “advise” is a verb and “advice” is a noun. I can advise you or give you advice, but I can’t advice you or give you advise.

Advise is spelled with an “s” but pronounced with a “z”. Advice is spelled with a “c” but pronounced with an “s”.

Then there’s “vice” and “vise” which have totally different meanings but are pronounced the same.

And we wonder why Japanese have trouble with English spelling.

Go figure.

Veggies in the Sky

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA There’s a 26 story building right over my station, a very convenient landmark. No matter where I wander in the ‘hood, if I look up long enough I’ll eventually spot it and be able to find my way home.

Remember that this is Setagaya-ku and its narrow streets were once rabbit paths and deer runs. They often go off in odd directions that would only make sense to a rabbit or a deer; people have a harder time getting oriented.

The building is called Carrot Tower, which is also odd. It isn’t shaped like a carrot. It isn’t orange. I would never attempt to grate it and put it in my jello salad. And you’d have to make an awfully big snowman to use it as his nose.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe name is hard to deal with, too. If I’m talking to an English speaker, fine, but if I’m talking to a Japanese person, I have to pronounce it Japanese style, which is kind of like kyarotto tawa, and that is decidedly harder to say.

So I have taken to calling it Ninjin Toh, which means the same thing, but for some reason, nobody seems to get the connection.

Why would anybody name a building after a vegetable anyway?

This could easily get out of hand. I mean, who wants to stay at the Yokohama Burdock Root Hotel or go watch a ballgame at Bamboo Shoot Stadium? Want to catch a flick at the new Shiitake Cinema Complex in Shibuya? Care to join me for a performance of Aida at the Eggplant Opera House?

Really, now. That’s just silly.

A Tale of Money (ATM)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI was at the ATM yesterday, about to beg my woebegone account to share its meager holdings with me, when the little old lady at the next machine tugged on my sleeve and said she couldn’t get the machine to take her money. Usually you just drop it in the slot and the little door closes automatically but it wasn’t working. So I reached over and jiggled the money, mumbling “Maybe you need to jiggle it” in English because I don’t know how to say “jiggle” in Japanese. That didn’t work so I tried flipping it over. That didn’t work either. So I jiggled it some more, all the while mumbling in English. Eventually the little light went on, the door closed and I went back to my business. I’m not sure the woman even said thanks, but it doesn’t matter. She was probably frustrated and a bit alarmed when the machine didn’t work–she had a whole stack of passbooks, probably a couple thousand yen each for a handful of grandchildren–and I was pleased to be able to help in my limited, low tech way.

I smile every time I think of that tug on my sleeve. So often, people hesitate to reach out to me because of my foreignness, but in this case, I think maybe she didn’t even notice it; she just needed help and tugged on the person at hand.

Sometimes the littlest things can be the most charming.

A Tale of Peace

Years ago, I went on a bus tour of Nagasaki with a group of Japanese friends. One of our stops was at the Atomic Bomb Museum and surrounding Peace Park. The museum was unexpectedly moving and I found myself rather shaken as we strolled around the park after our visit.

A couple of high school girls came up to me armed with pens and paper. They were on a school trip and had been instructed to find a foreigner and ask for a peace message. Considering where we were and where I’m from, I smiled and wrote a couple of words. Unfortunately, there were about six busloads of kids there that day, all armed with pens and paper, and I was the only foreigner in sight.

Word traveled fast.

In no time, hundreds of thundering feet were headed my direction, pens waving, paper flapping in the breeze. My friends made a human circle around me and whisked me, doubly shaken, back to our bus.

I am reminded of this because Kate Elwood writes a brilliant column for the Japan News called Cultural Conundrums. In it, she recently wrote about the term “gaijin” (literally, “outside person”) and how the Japanese “proclivity to cultural pigeonholing” (love that expression!) leads to expectations that we foreign types behave in a certain way, and there is discomfort when we don’t.

I understand this phenomenon. I can’t count the number of awkward times a Japanese person has tried to shake my hand when I’m trying to bow, or when I get a joke I was not expected to understand, or worse, make one myself.

Kate gave the example of some middle school students asking her, “How many days will you stay in Japan?” When she answered, “I live here,” the students understood her words but could not process that information.

And it can happen the other way around, too. Japan used to be much less foreigner-friendly that it is now.  There was a time when even at places where you’d expect English, there wasn’t any. This has changed. I was at Narita Airport not long ago, waiting in line to board a plane, when an official approached and asked for my passport, then in perfect English asked, “How long have you been in Japan this time?” It was so unexpected that I stammered, “Um…uh…twenty-six years.” We stared at each other for a moment, both flummoxed, then she walked away.

And once I was at Kaminarimon, a very touristy place, waiting for some people with my niece. A man in a suit approached and asked, “Do you mind if I speak to you?” I smiled politely and said, “Yes, I do,” and walked away. My niece was appalled, but I was annoyed. “There are a gazillion tourists around and I’m not one of them. I live here. Let him pester them and leave me the hell alone.”

How’s that for a peace message?

A Tale of the Hood

Its not like I don’t have enough sweatshirts, I just couldn’t resist. On the front it says:

Cross over Analysis

And on the back:

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThis reminds me of some of the re-writing jobs I’ve had. Sometimes the translation is so twisted that I have to play Sherlock Holmes. Maybe this is what they meant:

Realize how fortunate there is mystery if the cross over analysis of world cosmic rays origin is not beautifully elucidated. Enigmatize!

Yes, enigmatize is a word. Use it in a sentence? Sure! “The English on this sweatshirt has been enigmatized.”

So there.

A Dojo Tale

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday was the last day of classes at the dojo for this year. To celebrate, Sensei planned special classes. There was a 90 minute boxing class, which I didn’t do, followed by a 90 minute Fighting Exercise class, which I did. I was right up front because even in a room full of little Japanese people, I’m still smaller than almost everyone else. Being right up front means I have to try not to make any mistakes, but of course I did. Ninety minutes of punching and kicking is a long time.

Head spinning, I dashed home to take a shower and then we all met up at Jyuppo (Ten Steps).

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThere were over thirty of us and we managed to consume mass quantities of food and alcohol. Everyone got rather silly and had a lot of fun.

Dojo parties are interesting. The only thing we all have in common is that we’re strong. We all have different professions and come from different backgrounds, especially me. There have been other foreigners over the years, but this year I was the only one. I am perfectly comfortable with that, and I think most of the others are, too. But I do get the occasional dopey comment, like “Gee, you’re really good with chopsticks.” I just smile, but am tempted to say, “Yes, I’m glad I finally learned. I used to lap my food straight out of the dish like a dog. It was really embarrassing.”

There were some good conversations, though. I met a woman whose family name is Eda. I had heard that the name is fairly common but had never met one. I suggested that we get married so I could be Eda Eda. She didn’t realize right away that I was joking.

A Gift from the Universe: I think I worked out a deal with Shimizu-san, the best masseur I’ve ever come across, whereby I will teach his kids English and he will give me free massages. I don’t much enjoy teaching kids, mostly because I’m not very good at it, but still, think I got the sweeter end of that deal.

A Tale of Fukuoka

The Journey…

…didn’t start off well. It was cold and rainy in Tokyo. It took three crowded trains to get to the airport and when I tried to check in, there was no trace of my reservation. The coward in me thought, “All right then. You don’t have to go.” I mentally slapped her, hard, and asked if the flight was full. The nice ANA lady said there were two seats left. I bought one, thinking, “Yeah, I might end up losing money on this adventure, but if I don’t show up, I’ll lose a lot more than that.”

I boarded the plane along with 300 guys in suits. This was a first for me, but if you think about it, who else would be flying from Tokyo to Fukuoka mid-morning on a Thursday? I was sandwiched between two salarymen but at least it was only a two hour flight and only one of them was a mouth breather.

Upon arrival…

…things improved immensely. I had been instructed to take a taxi directly to the studio from the airport. The driver asked if I wanted to go over or under, and having no idea what that meant, I said, “Omakase” (‘Sup to you.) We went over, which turned out to be a fantastic ribbon of highway that sends you sailing over the city with views of Hakata Bay and the surrounding mountains, and plops you down practically at the front door of the studio, where the director and producer were waiting for me.

The recording wasn’t until Friday, but they had me go on Thursday so I could have a script check meeting with the director. She and I got along like an old pair of sneakers; instant best friends. While we were working, and laughing, the producer came in with a tidy pile of taxi coupons, each neatly labeled with a Postit: “Go to hotel”, “Go to studio”, “Go to airport”. So cute. So Japanese.


The studio building was right next to Fukuoka Tower, which was right next to a man-made beach. We finished much earlier than expected so the director and I went for a walk on the beach. Then they sent me to the hotel, saying they’d pick me up later for dinner.







The Hotel…

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA…was another first for me. I realized I had never checked into a hotel alone before, but that was smooth sailing, too. “So sorry, this is just a single room, but we’ve given you a free upgrade. There’s a calf and foot massage machine in your room.” Groovy.

Being the curious cat that I am, I went for a walk around the neighborhood, but it was all twee cafes and upscale stores, not my cup of tea, so I went back to the hotel and spent some quality time with the massage machine.


The next morning…

…I had a fabulous hotel breakfast. (Why is it that, while always delicious, scrambled eggs and toast taste so much better at hotels than at home?) It was still early, so I used my taxi ticket to go back to the studio. I took a picture of the Pepto Bismal Poodle…

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA…and another beach walk. The sun, the wind, the water all put me into a very good mood indeed for the recording, which went without a hitch. Much laughter was had by all, and that’s always a good thing.

At one point, I asked the tech guy to play back the bit we’d just recorded because I thought there was a noise. Nobody else had noticed it but they decided to indulge me, and there it was, plain as day, a slight “whoosh” as if the narrator had lightly brushed her lip against the microphone. A lot of things can be fixed with computer magic these days, but that kind of thing is a problem. Everyone looked at me with smiles and raised eyebrows. Even the tech guy glanced over his shoulder, and he didn’t look at anything but his buttons and switches the whole time. I looked down at my lap, very pleased but slightly embarrassed by all the praise.




Then it was back to the airport, more guys in suits—the one who sat next to me warrants a whole blog post of his own if I can summon the courage to write it—three trains and home.


The point of all this…

…is that I had total confidence in my ability to do the job, but it was my first time to do it outside of my Tokyo comfort zone. I work with the same production companies and voice people all the time, but in this case, it was total strangers in a city I’d never been to before.

Parts of it felt oddly disjointed. It struck me as strange that I could speak the same Japanese in Fukuoka that I speak in Tokyo. The neighborhood around the hotel looked much like Tokyo but not quite. The people in Fukuoka seemed to be much more attractive than Tokyo people, but maybe that was my semi-tourist rose colored glasses and the posh neighborhood.

All in all, it was an exhausting but wonderful experience. I’ve spent so many years working in this field and finally it all came together, my multitude of experiences and gradual gleanings all being put to the test and coming out all right. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Writing Right…or Left

There’s a woman I work with who holds her pen straight up and down when she writes. If she were writing with a calligraphy brush, that would be the correct position, but it just looks weird when she’s using a pen, and even weirder when she’s writing in English because the stroke order is different from what I was taught. For example, most Japanese cross the “t” before they make the down stroke, which is correct if you’re writing kanji, but I was taught that is WRONG.

Apparently, American schools don’t teach stroke order anymore; such training inhibits the child’s innate creativity or some such thing. Really, if you think about it, what does stroke order matter as long as you, and other people, can read what you write? Proper stroke order doesn’t always help with that anyway.

I had to go to a meeting on Sunday, the only time both of us were available, and it was strange but cool to be there then. The office is the size of a football field, with the yard lines being row after row of desks stretching into the distance. Only the bank of lights over this guy’s section was turned on. The rest of the usually brightly lit and rather loud room was murky and silent.

We sat at a table by the windows and when he wrote something down, I noticed that he was a lefty. Nothing unusual there, but then he put the pen down, picked it up again with his right hand, and wrote down something else, in English, complete with the odd stroke order.

I sputtered, “You…but…you, you…j-just…what?” I can be so eloquent.

I had heard of that, of course, but had never seen it before. He looked up innocently and said something like, “Is that so strange?”Perhaps Japan, with all its emphasis on conformity, had made him feel like an oddball.

So I said, “Well, yes, but only in a very cool way.” Then I taught him the word ambidextrous, which he thought was a pretty cool word.

And I said, “It is cool. Just like you.”

Up, down, side to side, right hand, left hand, both hands. I guess it’s all a matter of whatever gets the job done.