February 26, 2010

A rose by any other kanji

NHK carried the 24 February Toyota Congressional hearing live. Mr. Toyoda's deportment was pretty much boilerplate CEO behavior in Japan, where the groveling is even more ritualized (and naturally only coming after somebody gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar).

(The reason the consonant in the last syllable of the car name is not voiced is explained here.)

In this case, I have some sympathy for the no-win situation Toyota finds itself in, having to admit to doing something wrong without exactly knowing what. Several thousand reported cases and less than fifty possible deaths over a decade out of several million cars sold falls to the level of random chance.

By comparison, in a single year in the U.S., approximately 6.5 million accidents, 3 million injuries and 42,500 deaths are caused by automobiles.

I learned at Microsoft that when a bug is impossible to reproduce, it probably has a large "human interface factor." And of course, the smarter the human operator, the more loath he is to admit it (like a sysadmin leaving a floppy in the drive and then reporting that the system won't boot).

But what caught my linguistic eye was the name of the president of North American operations for Toyota, Yoshimi Inaba. Since I was watching NHK, the screen graphic for his name was in kanji. I'd never seen the second kanji in his first name (mi) before, though the radicals are quite basic.

Japan's post-war kanji reforms reduced the number of "official" characters and simplified how they are written. Not as drastically as China's, but more than Taiwan's, which probably stuck with the traditional forms as a political statement. Nobody does orthographic reform better than a dictatorship.

A big exception in the reforms was carved out for names. By 2004, the approved proper name list had reached almost a thousand (a few like "corpse" and "grudge" were removed to protect children from silly or spiteful parents). Incidentally, if you become a Japanese citizen, you must adopt a Japanese name.

First names especially are the bane of the student of Japanese. And a headache for native speakers as well. The power law distribution of names (pronunciation-wise) is not any different in Japan. But the huge number of homophones means that "Bob" can be spelled about a hundred different ways.

Yes, English has Robert, Rob, Robby, Bobby and Bob. But the comparison is more akin to Jeff and Geoff or Stephen and Steven. The WWJDIC name dictionary contains over 250 different character combinations for "Yoshimi."

Thankfully, most of them are way, way out on the long tail of the distribution. In this case, though, a statistical outlier turned up in the news.

The mi in "Yoshimi" wasn't recognized by my usually reliable JWPce radical lookup tool. The excellent Windows IME did have it. I googled around and found some articles with the kanji and others with only the phonetic kana. Several news services included the following parenthetical next to Mr. Inaba's name:

You don't need to read Japanese to get the "spelling" of this kanji:

In Japanese, a rose by any other kanji would nevertheless be pronounced the same. But some just look way cooler than others.

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February 18, 2010

The world ends (and I feel fine)

This year's NHK historical docudrama is about Ryouma Sakamoto, Japan's most brilliant and charismatic 19th century revolutionary (in the traditional sense of being open to new ideas and then seeking pragmatic ways of implementing them).

As the program vividly illustrates, the arrival of Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" was no less shocking to both the populace and the powers-that-be than an invasion from outer space.

Two centuries earlier, Japan could boast of having one of the most advanced societies in the world. But in 1853, Perry's steam-powered warships confronted the Japanese with technology beyond anything they could imagine.

A mere fifteen years later, after ruling uncontested for 250 years, the Tokugawa regime was crushed and swept from power in a civil war that lasted a matter of months.

Add to that regular earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons, the occasional suicidal end-time cult, two atomic bombs and losing a world war, and it's no surprise that the apocalypse has become part of the national consciousness.

Japanese F&SF writers love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic plots. And perhaps perversely, Japanese love being entertained by them. They come in all shades and varieties. To name a few of the sub-genres off the top of my head:

  • Japan sinks into the Pacific (Japan Sinks).
  • Japan (or parts thereof) is destroyed by rampaging monsters. Or robots. Or aliens. The Gozilla series covered all of these at some point.
  • A secret conspiracy destroys Japan (or parts thereof) to keep an even bigger conspiracy secret (Vexille). Attempts to explain said conspiracy usually result in much tangled logic and head scratching in the denouement (Evangelion).
  • More specifically, Tokyo gets destroyed. Repeatedly (Akira).
  • Instead of destroying Tokyo, aliens park the whole city in a different dimension (RahXephon).
  • The oceans rise, threatening to inundate most of metropolitan Japan (Patlabor). Toss in a mutant sea monster (Patlabor: W-13).
  • Earthquakes, with both natural and supernatural causes and effects, wreak havoc (Demon City Shinjuku).
  • The planet is rendered unlivable by external astronomical events, like the Moon exploding (Cowboy Bebop).

The apocalyptic event is often an excuse to wreck the current social order (Burst Angel). Japan is such an orderly society that if you want to inject a Mad Max element—or postulate that everybody's as well-armed as Americans—you need an upheaval first to make it believable.

The cheesy but fun (and even poignant at times) anime version of Witchblade combines a Tokyo-wrecking conspiracy with supernatural earthquakes, rising seas, and law & order so gone to hell that superhero gunfights (among barely-dressed babes) can break out at any moment.

The best defeat of extraterrestrial invaders occurs in Magic User's Club, wherein the heroine turns the alien spaceship into a giant flowering cherry tree.

My favorite post-apocalyptic series is the Yokohama Shopping Log (not available in English). A combination of natural disasters and rising oceans has destroyed most of the "post" in postmodern Japan. But all things considered, life didn't turn out half bad.

Think of Little House on the Prairie with modern plumbing and an android as the protagonist. Seriously, reading this manga is better than an antidepressant. Maybe the world ought to end on a more regular basis.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Apocalypse not now
Demon City libertarianism
Oh yeah, we're baaad

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February 15, 2010

Apocalypse not now

The world is always ending and never will.

That is, until the sun goes nova, a black hole swallows up the Earth, or a nearby star collapses in a gamma ray event that turns us all into irradiated food. Since we can't prevent any of those things from happening, there's no point worrying about them (asteroids we can actually do something about).

But we love imagining that "it's all over (almost)," largely because Sunday School is boring. Plus that "love your neighbor" stuff isn't as much fun as hoping the son of a bitch fries when the big one hits. Thus every screaming headline is treated as evidence that the big, bad Damoclean Sword is about to go into free-fall.

Yet as Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond have pointed out, during the 20th century, even including WWII, a member of the human species had a lower chance of suffering a violent death than at any time else during recorded history. We mistake news of bad things with the incidence of bad things happening.

What we're mostly witnessing presently is the inevitable shifting of the momentum of history from one part of the globe to another. Having previously identified and invested ourselves with the ascension of the West, this decline arouses much angst. But in the long view, it's another day at the office.

The "West" is aging so fast (along with China, Japan, and most of the developed world) that any call to arms in order to usher in Armageddon would first send us scurrying for our walkers.

Doomsayers used to warn us that when the nuclear apocalypse came (assuming, improbably, that all those long-dormant missiles would obediently fire when the button was pressed), only the cockroaches would survive. Human beings are more resilient than cockroaches and thrive in far more extreme environments.

It's unfortunate that Chinese history during the Three Kingdoms period and Japanese history during the Warring States period isn't a regular part of the high school curriculum. It would impress upon students how resilient the human animal is under extreme duress.

During the Three Kingdoms period, attrition rates in many areas exceeded 50 percent of the entire population. That'd be like the population of the U.S. dropping from 300 million to 150 million in a single generation. Now China is our principal loan officer.

True, it took a few centuries, but it wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't even the end of Chinese civilization. The history books simply marked the beginning of a new dynasty.

These same historical periods saw great social change and advances in technology and culture (ditto the aftermath of the Black Death). Give the human race a challenge and after a bit of Darwinist pruning it'll rise to it. This end-of-days stuff makes for entertaining movies. But in real life it's a cop-out.

It's hard to match the presumptuousness of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers selling the secret sauce to save our souls. Except that they're dim bulbs compared to to the blinding arrogance of the secular evangelists who claim they are going to save the whole bloody planet.

The new religion of catastrophic environmentalism has also embraced the apocalypse, along with the fundamentalist's fear of change. But just as much worse changes have happened to human civilization in the past, much worst changes have happened to the planet itself than we're capable of inflicting.

And will happen in the future, regardless of anything we do or don't do. Planetary catastrophic change—earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages, oceans rising and falling—is what the planet does normally. (The mean temperature of the North Slope of Alaska was once thirty degrees warmer than it is today.)

We've turned into roosters convinced the sun rises on our command. We're quite capable of fouling our own nests, but only in the sense that a horsefly fouls the windshield of a tractor-trailer cruising down the interstate. It's not like the tractor-trailer cares. A swish of the windshield wipers and its gone.

Let's keep in mind who's really in charge. There are more bacteria on earth—in mass and number—than all other living things combined. For that matter, there are more bacteria in the human gut than cells in the human body. The bacteria keep us around because we're convenient.

Our ultimate fate is to become compost. It is more comforting to believe that we're standing at the fulcrum of history, that like Archimedes we can move the Earth if given enough leverage (or "political activism"), rather than accommodating ourselves to whatever direction the Earth wishes to move in.

Except not that mundane, sausage-making politics. Or anything that requires any actual risk to life and limb. Just idealistically protest stuff and vilify those of different (political) faiths (the ones counting on you being "left behind"; it's apparently a very mutually-annihilating sentiment).

Merely declare your "awareness" of the situation and you are saved! (Wait, I forget, is that evangelicals or environmentalists?)

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world's problems can be solved through "awareness." Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it. This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.

Making every conflict, every frustrated objective, every twist and turn in the course of geological and human events, into a Manichean contest of wills buys into the same fanciful thinking as the conspiracy gnostics who insist they're the only ones who really know what's going on (and then can't shut up about it).

It's a trap that teenagers easily fall into, what with all their "goth" posturings and dour convictions that nobody (let alone their parents or teachers) has ever suffered as much as them in the whole history of the world.

But teenagers grow out of it. Adult, middle-class Americans indulging in non-fiction apocalyptic fantasies are like twelve-year-olds gathered around the campfire telling ghost stories and scaring themselves for the giggly thrill of it, knowing that in the morning they'll be driving home to the suburbs.

Related posts

The Second Coming went
Oh yeah, we're baaad
The world ends (and I feel fine)
Fukushima fallout

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February 11, 2010

Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration

Imagine Jim Steinman wrote the Declaration of Independence. As Moe Lane quips, if pop culture can produce this, "perhaps Western society is not totally doomed after all." The only question that remains is which aging members of which aging hair bands should play which Founding Fathers. Hey, what about Meat Loaf?

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February 08, 2010

Money for nothing

In light of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the kerfuffle over Justice Alito's understandable reaction to being wrongly taken to task because of it (acts of presidential lèse majesté now apparently extend to the reading of lips), here is my campaign finance rule:

Anybody can give any amount of money to anybody, as long as the donors (and secondary contributors) and recipients disclose on a timely basis (in spreadsheet form on an accessible website) who is giving what to whom. Jail for those who don't.

That's it. If a politician wants to risk his reputation taking a big chunk of change from the Saudis, the voters will decide. If the auto companies want to give a big chunk of change to John Dingell (or run ads on his behalf) and the voters in Michigan's 15th district don't mind, that's their business.

And if Chevron and Bank of America and Pacific Life want to give a big chunk of change to the PBS Newshour to burnish their public image with the liberal intelligentsia, they can do that too. Ditto all those feel-good corporate infomercials that pay for the Sunday morning news shows.

Oh, wait, they already do that.

I guess the influence buying at some corporations (starting with the New York Times Company and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) is more "equal" than others. So let's can the "heartfelt concern" that's an excuse to condescend toward anyone who doesn't share our aesthetic or political tastes.

The religious right can stop trying to "save" the proles from porn and video games. And the statist left can stop trying to "save" the proles from McDonalds and Walmart. And political ads. Speech is speech. It mostly goes in one ear and out the other. We can all quit pretending to be so terrified by it.

Anyway, reading National Geographic as a kid convinced me it's the pretentious rich who are the suckers for slick ads and status symbols and the latest New Age secular religion.

This being Super Bowl Monday, when's the last time an ad convinced you--from zero to conviction--of anything? Rather it tipped you toward a decision you were prepared to make or reinforced an opinion you already held. Used-car salesmen of all stripes are the ones to watch out for.

Speaking of which, buying the votes of crooked politicians with millions in bribes is far kinder to the public purse than crooked politicians buying the votes of their constituents with billions in pork. There's only so much corruption to go around. Let's spend wisely and outsource.

Because the only serious way to fix the problem at the federal level would be to triple the number of congressional seats, increase congressional terms to four years, and limit the occupancy of a single seat (including judgships) to twenty-four consecutive years. And that's never going to happen.


February 05, 2010

Fumiko's Confession

In Japan, a "confession" (告白) is what a girl does when she expresses her feelings to a boy she likes (usually but not always in that order). In Y/A romances, it is the subject of an unbelievable amount of angst. In Ranma 1/2, for example, it is treated the same as a marriage proposal.

My explanation for this is that, in terms of what's considered "normal" behavior in the U.S., introversion is the status quo in Japan. So making simple declarations like this are incredibly stressful. As my sister points out, this is an important clue to understanding Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

An unsuccessful confession (a very prototypical scene) begins Fumiko's Confession, igniting a very un-prototypical rollercoaster of a short film drawn by one very talented Hiroyasu Ishida (you may want to take a Dramamine first). Rarely are teenage emotions so vividly illustrated.

Here are the five lines of dialog, with the boy featuring typical junior high school male cluelessness.


Fumiko: Ah, um, please go out with with me!
Takashi: I'm sorry, but right now I'm concentrating on baseball.


Fumiko: [Just before running down the little old lady.] He's such an idiot!


Fumiko: I'll make miso soup for you every morning! [A colloquial expression that means the same as above.]
Takashi: I'm sorry, but I want to focus on baseball right now.

The hilly setting of Fumiko's Confession reminds me of Tama New Town in western Tokyo, where Whisper of the Heart (which also contains a misaligned "confession") and many other Studio Ghibli films take place.

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February 03, 2010

Marketing manga

Trying to come up with criteria that define the various manga genres and markets in Japan will produce squiggly Venn diagrams with an awful lot of overlap (perhaps with the exception of what are called "Ladies' comics"). At the end of the day, as Matt Thorn puts it,

Shoujo [Girl's] manga are manga published in shoujo magazines (as defined by their publishers), and shounen [Boy's] manga are manga published in shounen manga magazines (likewise defined by publishers).

As is true of genre fiction everywhere, girls will read more of what boys read, and so much visa-versa. The teen male audience also overlaps the adult male market, and not so much visa-versa (boys read Sports Illustrated, men don't read Boy's Life).

"Ladies' Comics" (what they're called in Japanese) tend to focus on hard-core, explicit soap opera stories, not the kind of material you'd find in Good Housekeeping. As a consequence, Many women will instead read "down" into the crossover "Girl's" genres.

For example, the "Girl's" series Kujira no Oyako ("Mother Whale and Child") features a twelve year old girl as the protagonist, but also includes cooking recipes and lots of between-the-lines child-rearing advice, appealing to the mothers of "tween" girls as well.

My Girl is also about a widower raising a daughter (a useful plot device, as the dad can be expected to seek out advice, thus producing opportunities to "show" rather than "tell"). But the protagonist is the single dad and the G-rated series runs in a "Men's" magazine.

On the other hand, older teen males tend to read "up," and for some totally mysterious reason really enjoy their stories being interrupted by gratuitous female nudity ("fan service"), so many age-unrestricted "Boy's" comics regularly push into R-rated territory.

Akita Shoten's Champion RED is classified "Boy's," meaning it's age unrestricted at retail outlets. Mangaka Yoshiyuki Kazumi recently commented that he was asked to "cut back on the erotic content of his manga." That means trimming the borderline NC-17 material.

Similarly, you are likely to find more explicit content in Cheese! than in Margaret, but they're both classified "Girl's" because the typical protagonist is a teenage girl, although an older teen (josei) in the former, and a younger tween (shoujo) in the latter.

Then there's the yuri genre, developed for "Girl's" magazines, but re-purposed for "Boy's" and "Men's" magazines, though not always in the way you'd think. The explicit Blue Drop runs in Champion RED, while the gentle (PG) Aoi Hana is carried by Erotics F.

As Erica Friedman observes, though the manga industry thrives on targeting genres to specific audiences like a laser beam, there are manga magazines aimed at "anyone who wants to read this publication," running stories that are "varied, kind of odd and offbeat."

Not to mention the dozens of specialty manga--cooking, sports, hobbies--that fall outside of simple age/sex categorizations.

Related posts

Buying Japanese manga
Manga economics
The manga development cycle
Manga circulation in Japan

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February 01, 2010

Manga circulation in Japan

When analyzing the social and literary importance of manga in Japan, the discussion must set aside the nerdy pop culture niche comics occupy in the U.S. (except when Hollywood turns a superhero comic into another blockbuster). Not even the term "graphic novel" elevates its image much beyond Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons.

In 2009, manga in Japan sold a little over five billion units (periodicals and compilations), coming to a quarter of the entire publishing business in gross sales, and constituting a third of all print runs. To make a rough analogy, manga is to publishing in Japan what romance is to publishing in the U.S. (the snob factor among critics is similar too).

The reason for the misalignment between gross sales and print runs is that the business is run on such tight margins. Manga compilations and anthologies sold in the most popular "perfect bound" format—"Ko B-ban"—retail for less than five dollars.

A better analogue is Hollywood television production, with hundreds of thousands of people generating thousands of hours of content 24/7 for the networks and cable channels. The economic models are similar too. Like the television studios, manga magazines loss lead on first serial rights and turn a profit on licensing and compilations.

Manga is basically in the same visual storytelling business on a tenth of the budget. But with Japan's population in decline, the aging of the tween/teen audience is weakening manga's hold on its customer base, leading to the problem of monetizing content in new media markets.

These declines, though, are more like glaciers melting. It's the slow, steady slide that worries the accountants, not the falling off of cliffs. Even so, the circulation numbers make clear how big a cultural influence manga remains in Japan. When it comes to periodicals focused almost entirely on narrative fiction, nothing in the U.S. compares.

I've sorted the top five in each category (entire list here). For comparison purposes, Japan's population is about a third that of the U.S.

Boy's Comics
Weekly Shonen Jump
Weekly Shonen Magazine
Coro Coro Comic
Monthly Shonen Magazine  
Weekly Shonen Sunday
      The next 111,526,337
Men's Comics
Young Magazine
Weekly Young Jump
Big Comic Original
Weekly Manga Goraku
Big Comic
Nihon Bungeisha  
      The next 305,307,910
Girl's Comics
Bessatsu Margaret
Hana to Yume
      The next 121,329,664
Ladies' Comics
      The next 10713,112

Related posts

Buying Japanese manga
Manga economics
The manga development cycle
Marketing manga

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