Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Help for quick English questions

So I'm learning Japanese, right? Right. And there are times, when I'm trying to read or write Japanese, when I have a quick question and I wish there were someone sitting right next to me who could answer that question right away.

I imagine that English language learners often have similar kinds of experiences and wishes.

So, in an effort to be of use and to give something back, I'm doing a little experiment.

I have set up an XMPP Instant Messaging (IM) account where English language learners can contact me to ask quick questions about the English language. This is my IM chat ID:

This ID can be added as a chat buddy by anyone who has an XMPP IM account. This includes Facebook and Google Talk IM accounts.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

PBS videos on Edo period Japan

The US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has a YouTube account. A while ago, I found a series of programs from 2009 that they produced about Japan's Edo period. If you're interested in Japan, I think these videos are a good general introduction to that time in Japan's history, a period covering over 200 years, when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled and Japan closed its doors shut to the rest of the world. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this series and gained interesting insights into this period in Japan's history.

If you're Japanese and trying to learn English, I also think that this is a good series to watch to practice your English listening comprehension ability. It's also a chance to see and analyze, and perhaps critique how Japan is portrayed in this particular production from a generally well-regarded US media network.

The series is titled, "Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire," and is mostly based on written accounts of European eyewitnesses in Japan during that period—Christian missionaries during the early part of the period, and then other Western foreigners who were able to stay in Japan during its self-imposed isolation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

News reports have it that sales of the Japanese manga Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン) have soared ever since the manga series that deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima floated to the top of Japanese news headlines this past August, buoyed by reports that Shimane Prefecture's Matsue City education board had requested elementary and junior high school libraries to restrict access to the manga, a request that is believed to have stemmed from the board's opinion that the manga series contains inappropriate images of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Besieged with criticism, the education board has since withdrawn its request; and plagued with curiosity, I have since bought the first couple of volumes of the English version of the ten-part series.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Great Kanto Earthquake and crayons from the USA

Having previously devoted some blog space to this topic and having developed an interest in it, I thought I'd make a quick survey of how Japan commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake (関東大震災), a catastrophic, magnitude 7.9 earthquake which struck the Kantō region of Japan just before noon on September 1, 1923.

It is not mere coincidence that Japan also observes its National Disaster Preparedness Day (防災の日) on the day of the year when one of its most fatal and destructive natural disasters happened, flattening Yokohama and a large part of Tokyo, and resulting in approximately 105,000 deaths. Established in 1960, Japan's National Disaster Preparedness Day was created with the tragic lessons of the Great Kantō Earthquake in mind, and as a way of leveraging those lessons for the purpose of executing a well-managed response and saving lives and property in the event of a similar calamity. This year, the national government carried out disaster response exercises assuming a worst-case scenario of an eruption of a large, M9.1 earthquake along the Nankai Trough, an underwater trough in the southern seas of Japan stretching from Shizuoka Prefecture in Honshu to the Hyūga-nada Sea off the eastern coast of Kyushu.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Japanese woodblock print markings

In two recent blog posts, I wrote about the topic of Japanese woodblock prints. One post was about Utagawa Hiroshige's bestselling ukiyo-e print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次), and the other post was about the woodblock prints in the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (大正震災画集), which is a collection of prints depicting scenes pertaining to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

In this post, I'd like to touch a little more on the markings that could be found on Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. Let me add in this preface that I am by no means an expert on woodblock prints. But I've been trying to learn about them, and I'm sharing here what I've learned and my own observations.

There are a few kinds of markings that could be found inscribed on woodblock prints: The artist's signature, the artist's seal, the print's title, the series title, the publisher's mark, and censor and date marks. Note that not all of these marks may be present on a woodblock print. Sometimes there is just the artist's signature.

Japanese woodblock print markings.
Figure 1: The markings on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

In Figure 1, I have annotated in red the different markings that are on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, which I will use here as an illustration. This print depicts Mishima-shuku (三島宿), the 11th post station from Edo along the Tōkaidō. The quiet scene shows a group of travellers at the Mishima Shrine on a misty morning [1]. Isn't it a wonderful scene? This is how a master paints fog and remoteness and invites reflection.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Hiroshima Global Peace Monitor Clock

Reading Japanese news—or trying to, I should say—is my main method of learning Japanese these days. As I watched the usual flurry of kanji in Japanese news feeds last week and many words whiz by without being recognized, one small news item that went under the radar caught my eye. The Mainichi news article itself was as short as a blip. The article's title is:

『原爆資料館:「平和監視時計」19回目のリセット 』

Translated to English, it reads:

"Atomic Bomb Museum: 'Peace Monitor Clock' reset for 19th time"

(Note that 原爆資料館 translates to Atomic Bomb Museum, but it is also called the Peace Memorial Museum. A Japanese vocabulary list is available at the end of this blog post. A similar article in English is available on the Hiroshima Peace Media Center website.)

The Global Peace Monitor Clock in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum consists of a large analog clock on top (Japan's own Seiko brand), and two digital counters below it. The first digital counter displays the number of days since the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Below it, the second digital counter indicates the number of days since the date of the last nuclear weapons test conducted in the world. Here are the Japanese inscriptions on the clock tower:

(Number of days since atomic bombing of Hiroshima
Since August 8, 1945)

(Number of days since last nuclear weapons test)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Utagawa Hiroshige and the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido

Figure 1: Nihonbashi, the terminus of the Tōkaidō road in Edo, as depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige in the Hōeidō edition of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

For a large part of the Edo period (江戸時代, 1603-1868), after the Battle of Osaka in 1615, it was a time of relative peace and stability for a unified Japan under the tight rule of the Tokugawa shoguns.

In 1635, as a means of keeping military lords (called daimyo, 大名) in check and assuring their loyalty, Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), the third Tokugawa shogun, formalized the already customary sankin-kotai (参勤交代) system, wherein daimyo were required to maintain alternate-year residency in Edo, the shogunate seat. These biennial trips to Edo and back, and maintaining a second residence in Edo, entailed a considerable amount of a daimyo's resources and manpower. Moreover, a daimyo's wife and heirs were required to stay in Edo, effectively serving as hostages of the shogun.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Visual impressions of the Great Kanto Earthquake

On September 1, 2013, Japan will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake. Many will perhaps look to images as a means of connecting to a past that they never experienced, images like the 4.6-meter-long panoramic photo of earthquake evacuees which will be on display next month in Tokyo. We turn to images because they are effective; they are a viable link which enables us to explore the past, those events we never experienced.

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about an article I had read in the Smithsonian Magazine about the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. That article's online version included several images—photographs and woodcut prints—which depicted the aftermath of the earthquake, and even the moment when the earthquake struck. I included one of those woodcut prints in my blog post, noting that I couldn't find any information about the Japanese artist who created it, cited as Unpō Takashima in the article (see Figure 1).

Woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpo depicting a scene from the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Figure 1: A woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpō depicting a scene from the Great Kantō Earthquake. Click on the image to enlarge.

I am writing this post because I was trying to find out if I could read the kanji which comprised the artist's signature on that image. My thought process was, if I could do a search using his kanji name instead of his romanized name, maybe I would be able to find information about him in Japanese. Well, the signature was in a cursive script, and the accompanying seal was in seal script, so I couldn't read any of it (see Figure 2). (Being able to read Japanese text written in cursive script is a skill that I would love to acquire someday.)

Signature and seal of Japanese artist Unpo.
Figure 2: The artist Unpō's signature and seal.

Having failed at the attempt to decipher the kanji in the signature, I did a little more research online about the artist using his romanized name. But this artist doesn't seem to have much information about him online, so he is still a mystery. However, I did come across some information about his woodcut print—and I also found his kanji name. More correctly, I should say that I found his studio name.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Japanese hiragana and katakana, part 2

As promised, here is the second and last part of an article about Japanese hiragana and katakana. In the first part of this article, I gave a brief introduction to Japanese kana, followed by a detailed description of the book Let's Learn Hiragana by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura. In this second installment, I will describe the companion book, Let's Learn Katakana, written by the same author. I will also give my recommendations at the end.

Here is a sumary of the table of contents of Let's Learn Katakana:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Japanese hiragana and katakana, part 1

The Japanese language makes use of three writing systems: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji are Chinese characters, while hiragana and katakana—collectively called kana—are symbols which were derived from kanji, and are original to the Japanese language. There are 46 basic hiragana symbols, and 46 basic katakana symbols. Besides these basic symbols, there are also the modifications and composites of these symbols, called dakuon, handakuon, and yoon.

Hiragana and katakana are the two syllabaries used in written Japanese. Each kana corresponds to a specific syllable, and the core of the two sets of syllabaries represent the same set of syllables. The katakana syllabary, however, has additional syllables which represent the pronounciation of syllables in foreign words that are not used in native Japanese words. Another difference between the two sets of syllabaries is their appearance—hiragana characters look rounded, while katakana characters generally appear angular. A third distinguishing characteristic is their use—hiragana are generally used to write native Japanese words, while katakana are used to write foreign loan words, names of plants and animals, and also onomatopoeic expressions, although they are not strictly restricted to these uses. In practice, a writer can sometimes choose to write a native Japanese word in katakana to add levity or emphasis to the writing, or to achieve a desired aesthetic form or balance in their sentence.

I learned the Japanese kana and how to write them using the following two books, written by the same author, Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura, and published by Kodansha International Ltd.:

I will describe each book in detail so that readers can make an informed decision as to whether or not these books might suit them. I will describe the first book, Let's Learn Hiragana, in this article, and I will give a description of the other book, Let's Learn Katakana, in my next blog post, along with my recommendations. By the way, Mitamura strongly recommends that a student learns hiragana before katakana.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Diamond Fuji

About a month ago, I saw a short article on the Asahi Shimbun about Diamond Fuji (ダイヤモンド富士). I had never heard of the term Diamond Fuji before. The article had a very pretty accompanying photo of the rising sun—a big orb of deep, radiant yellow and orange glowing in the early morning air—just cresting Mt. Fuji, whose peak was just about symmetrically silhouetted against the sun's disk from the camera's perspective. The photo was taken on the early morning of July 9, 2013. This scene, in which the rising or setting sun aligns with Mt. Fuji's peak, as seen from certain vantage points, is what is referred to as Diamond Fuji.

At first, I just stared at the photo, wondering what the significance was, and why the Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, was running an article on it. I was puzzled even after reading the Japanese article. Then, after a while thinking about it, I had my duh moment and realized that, from a certain vantage point around Mt. Fuji, which is located around 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Tokyo, such a scene, such a photo, was only possible on certain days of the year, at certain times of those days (around sunrise and sunset), and then again only if the weather allowed.

The photo in the article was taken by a Buddhist priest who was in Kawakami, Nara Prefecture, at an impressive distance of about 277 km (172 miles) southwest of Mt. Fuji, at an elevation of 1350 meters. He took the photo using a camera with a 300mm zoom lens.

Because the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the Earth's axis of rotation is tilted and not perpendicular to the orbital plane, the Sun's apparent path across the sky changes as the year progresses. The position where the Sun rises on the horizon, as observed from a certain location, moves predictably with the day of the year. Similarly, as seen from a certain vantage point around Mt. Fuji, the position where the Sun crosses behind Mt. Fuji on its way up or down marches with each day of the year. Since the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Diamond Fuji will occur sometime before sunset if you are located to the east of Mt. Fuji; if you are to the west, Diamond Fuji will occur sometime after sunrise. For these places, the window within which this special sight is visible opens twice a year. To get a glimpse of Diamond Fuji, one must be at the right place at the right time, with luck and the weather gods on one's side.