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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Japanese has made me write dumb.

I was really interested in this interview I read with Jay Rubin, who handles a lot of the Murakami-to-English translation. Particularly this excerpt:

Q: Murakami sometimes directly incorporates English phrases into his novel. Does that fit well in your translation? For example, in “Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru” (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), he used the phrase, “Kojinteki ni toranaide kure,” which is obviously from “Don’t take it personally.”
A: The problem is to translate it “back” into English that is as unusual as the Japanese, but often I lazily go for the “original” English expression. This way, the batakusasa (Western air) of Murakami’s style is lost. Sorry.
Having had to deal with the whole "just because you can say it in Japanese doesn't make it something that a Japanese person would say" thing on a daily basis for years... I thought it was pretty cool to see someone articulate it with such a great example. A literary one, no less.

So let's get this out of the way: I am not Japanese. Most of what I have to say in this post could be explained away by saying "You just don't understand how to make a sentence like a real Japanese person does."

Fair enough.

Right then.

The number one problem I have in co-authoring an all Japanese blog with my Japanese wife is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the exact same problem I had co-teaching English with Japanese teachers. They spend all their time addressing the slowest person in the room.

I have an easier time accepting this in the classroom (especially the public one). Sure it ensures that your smart kids only learn as much as the dumb ones, and often turns them off of school altogether. But yeah, everyone has the right to be in school, and 子供1人も置いて行かれないように, and all that.

But when I'm writing my blog, for my imagined audience, who are all as smart as, if not smarter than you, dear reader, I like to think that I'm allowed to set the bar.

Most of the time, when Yuri reads a blog post I've published, and suggests a change here or there, I capitulate. She is the Japanese person, after all.

But a handful of times, I've raised objections. Often I don't want to change something that I wrote deliberately for effect (humorous or otherwise)... and yesterday's blog was just a train-wreck of differing opinions. Here are some examples:

In a post all about going to see what is billed as THE WORLD'S GREATEST sun set ("evening sun" is in the title, and mentioned once again before the sentence in question), I wrote 「落ちる前に 奇麗なレストランを探し、そこでゆっくり見よう。」 "Before it goes down, let's find a nice restaurant and watch it at our leisure."

Now you see why I stopped posting English translations with every post. It sounds pretty vapid in English.

But the point here was, Yuri thought the sentence would be easier to understand if I said explicitly, "Before the SUN goes down." Okay... fair enough. But is it really necessary?

When I wrote about buying two Heinekens, ハイネケン2本、I was advised to say Heineken beers, because some people might not know about Heineken. I think it's safe to assume most of my audience knowns beer. Or that the Japanese audience for a world travel blog knows about Heineken. And even if they don't, they know we bought two bottles of something with dinner, and they won't really be missing out on that much information if that's as far as they get.

The Heineken info was part of an explanation that, as we awaited this beautiful sunset and had dinner, we started to feel less enthused about it. I wrote "As we ate, though, our tension started to drop."

My editor said: "Why?"

For me, when I want to find out the reason behind something written on the page... I keep reading. But, and this isn't just Yuri's opinion, Japanese writing doesn't really make you look that far ahead to get answers. Some might argue it's built into the sentence structure. Get the Where-What-How-Why-Who out in front, before you even get to your verb.

And then finally, I compared this top ranking sunset, which we didn't even end up staying for, with another one that we had watched from a beach days before. The latter was much more... us. It was quiet, we didn't have to put up with an enormous crowd, we didn't have to pay anything to sit on the sand. I wrote "I bet (The beach we watched from) isn't listed anywhere on any kind of ranking. But it was nice (literally: good)."

I'm not winning any awards for prose anytime soon, but sometimes I like saying "It was nice." I like the understatement, the smallness of it... because it matches the mood, the calm, and the much smaller scale (in terms of world-fame, not sun-size) of the viewing experience that we preferred.

But a Japanese person would understand it better if it said "But it was amazingly, superlatively, lovely."

Fine... but that's not HOW I wanted to say it.

This post is hard for me to make, cause it feels a little like a laundry list of complaints about my wife's writing style. But it's not. I've had corrections from professional editors, teachers, translating clients that all speak to the same three issues:

1) Japanese prefers all the information as soon as possible, and outside of a mystery novel, it's wise not to expect people to just keep reading to get the answers.

2) Very little is made of the idea of understanding by context, or looking up stuff you don't know. Someone out there is gonna go "Before it goes down? Wait, before WHAT goes down?" Someone won't like that they had to open a new tab and google Heineken.

3) And last but not last... the same need to declare everything the BEST, the MOST... the squealing "Oishii" and "Kawaii"until we all die phenomenon applies to writing too.

Maybe it's really just a cultural difference. But to me, it feels like dumbing down my writing at best... churning out something generic at worst. "We went. It was really beautiful. We ate. It was really delicious."

I find it harder to take pride in my ability to write and to speak in English these days. I used to consider it my strong suit.

I wouldn't trade in my Japanese to go back, of course, but... man. Man.

Friday, July 13, 2012

That Is Not What Dreams Are Like, You Guys.

Not really Yo-Ji material, but I wasn't sure where else to put it.

I've started a Tumblr in case I have this problem again. If you follow it, you might get more stuff like this. Or other stuff. No promises.

How Dreams SHOULD Work in Fiction:

If you like it, please share it, re-blog it, or read it to people over the phone.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

One month left...

Got some really supportive comments on the last post, so I thought I'd give you the latest news, most of it good:

The Saga TV show I work with has put up some money and some equipment so that Yuri and I can do some filming ourselves, and I can turn my "Bobby's Kitchen" cooking segment into a "Bobby's WORLD Kitchen" cooking segment.

It'll air once monthly, and we'll be sending in weekly updates with pictures of where we are and what were working on, and I'll do my best to be available for phone commentary when the show is on. It's gonna be a little bit of work to do all the filming and setting up on our own, but it's nice to have a little bit of money coming in, and to be able to keep doing TV stuff. Makes me feel better about my chances of continuing down this road when we get back.

Also, there's a magazine called "Be-Pal" that's running one of my recipes this month. They've agreed to let us write a VERY small monthly column with pictures and stories about outdoor activities or outdoor cooking in other countries.

So that's all very encouraging.

And I've become more convinced that the timing for the trip is as good as it could be.

By which I mean, I'm about ready for a break from Japan.

There's going to be something really relaxing about still being able to do TV, but having full control over what footage gets used.

I know that I'm only on TV in the first place because I'm a foreigner, but I get really tired of having it reinforced regularly by the directors and other personalities. In the time that I've been working as a reporter, I've gained confidence and gotten better at it. There are a lot more funny conversations or interesting parts that the directors could choose to use in the final cut... but more often than not, they get chopped in favor of parts where I made a mistake in Japanese, or had to ask what something meant.

Then, on one of the live shows, I usually come out and say a quick greeting in English ("Good morning! How's it going? I'm Bobby Judo!") before jumping into the cooking stuff. The other day, to switch things up, the director said, "Just do it all in Japanese today." So I did. And the other reporters said "When Bobby says it, it sounds like English, but that was actually all Japanese!" WTF people.

And on a personal note, I'm exhausted with an excess of Japanese friends... if you're a foreigner here, you probably have experience with this, but you get a lot of people who think that you're friends based solely on the fact that they LIKE you. It doesn't require that they know anything about you, or care about you, or what you want, like, or are interested in. As long as they like you, you're pals.

There's one guy in particular who I was really trying to get along with. He's nice most of the time, and he goes out of his way to invite me to things, or takes us out, comes by the restaurant regularly. But in the end, he's had lots of time to get past the whole "Yay, I've got a foreign friend!" thing and just... be normal, but he can't.

Yuri and I went out to eat with him and his friends the other day and we were talking about something completely benign. An employee who got in an argument with another employee, then walked out and never came back. And he said "Bobby, as an American, what do you think?"

And I was like "What? What does that have to do with being an American? Why can't you just ask me what I think?"

It doesn't seem like a big deal, yeah, but I've already told him a number of times "I really don't like feeling like my value to you is as your gaijin friend." He doesn't care that it bothers me, nor make any effort to either understand why or stop doing it, and that tells me that he's not really a friend.

Plus, last night, he came to the bar for his birthday, and insisted that I drink and eat with him, even though I didn't really want to. I tried to politely refuse, but after a certain point, it becomes rude, so I had a couple of beers and some cake.

And then he started going on about how I was getting fat, and grabbing my stomach, and talking about how he was in better shape when he was my age, and how I was definitely going to be a fat old man.

It was clear I was annoyed, so I excused myself to do some work, and then later he started hassling me for not finishing my beer or cake. So on top of the "Japan/Gaijin" dichotomy, he can also just be a straight up douche.

Unfortunately, I have way too many "friends" like him.

On the plus side, they've made me feel a lot better about getting away for a while.

Before I go, I'm gonna do my best to upload a handful more YouTube videos.

Yesterday I posted a behind the scenes look into making one of the Bobby's Kitchen segments. Check it out if you have the time:

Monday, February 6, 2012

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

It occurs to me now that I may not have yet mentioned on this blog that my wife and I are planning to take an extended vacation.

I've brought it up on YouTube, mentioned it casually on TV in Saga, and actually gone ahead and launched another website (running total : 4!) at 国際結婚旅, which is a succinct, apt, and catchy name in Japanese. In English (maybe "Mixed Race Marriage Trip?"), it sounds terrible.

But for readers who follow The Yo-ji exclusively, I'll bring you up to speed: My wife has long dreamed of going on a 世界一周旅(sekai isshuu tabi; round-the-world-trip) and before we start thinking about family and kids, we're gonna go ahead and do it. We've been planning and saving for about a year and a half, and we leave on April 4th.

Less than two months from now.

You can follow along with us on the blog mentioned above and on YouTube, and I'm sure I'll have occasional things to say that would fit best here as well, so don't go deleting your bookmarks just yet.

Today, for instance, I want to talk about what this trip means for me in terms of work.

As of now I'm still doing "Bobby's Kitchen" on Saga TV, which is every other week, plus occasional guest spots on other corners. Still on the roster for TNC's Gee Bee, and Mezase Golden. And the cooking show on KBC, which I talked about last October, has become a regular thing. It's 4 days a week, 2-3 weeks a month, and it's equal parts awesome and taxing.

The producers and directors are extremely kind, and I hear nothing but good things from everyone about how I seem to be so "used to being in front of the camera." Plus, apparently they see a ratings spike every time I'm on, which is fantastic. Today after we finished a segment on making chocolate mousse, one of the producers said "It's really such a shame you're leaving so soon. We'd been hoping to do something more regular with you."

I wrote about this on the travel blog if you'd like to check it out, but there's something really difficult about having made it to EXACTLY this point, and then walking away for a year.

Breaking into Fukuoka, being able to actively contribute to a show, feeling like I've finally started to get good at what I do. I feel like I've built up a lot of momentum... and am now letting that go to waste.

But those feelings are tempered by a couple of things.

First, the more I develop the ability to work on larger and larger platforms, the more limited I'm becoming in how I can move. Over the last three weeks, I've spent most of my time in either TV studios, on location, or at home in my kitchen building recipes to introduce on the shows. Add part time job and commute to that, and that's my life.

I would love to become a regular on some show somewhere, but that comes with contracts, appearances, and other obligations that I wouldn't be able to set aside to take a trip with my wife. It would be cool to have that level of exposure at some point, but if I'm going to pursue that, taking this kind of trip will only work... now.

Then, there's the fact that the trip doesn't mean I have to stop what I'm doing completely. Not only can I keep doing my internet stuff, which is how I got into all of this in the first place, but I'm hoping that there are TV shows and magazines that would be interested in showcasing food, photos, and stories from our travels. Saga TV is trying to work something out, and I'm headed to Tokyo next week to test the waters with an outdoor magazine that I've been working with recently.

So there is hope for the future.

The problem, in the interim, is keeping my motivation up.

I go through regular cycles of ups and downs triggered by... well, pretty much anything.

If I have a great show, that can make my week. If I have a subpar show, however, that can ruin my month.

Today, the chocolate mousse went really well, the on-air interactions were crisp, fast, funny, and I felt great about it.

Then I was hanging around Fukuoka with Micaela, and we were approached by a crew filming on-the-street interviews for TNC. This isn't uncommon; there are 5 or 6 TV stations based in Fuk, and there are always crews filming around Tenjin and Daimyo. But I work with TNC. As they approached, one of the crew members was like... "Oh that's that guy," and I said "Yeah, hi, I'm actually お世話になっている (currently involved with) two of your shows, so..." and they were like "Oh, yeah! But that's cool, if you don't mind being on, we don't care."

So they interviewed us anyway, which was fine. Except that at no point during the interview did they say "Oh, hey it's Bobby! He's totally on our network!"

I felt kind of insulted. Like... it didn't matter that being on TV was my job... that they as a TV station are currently paying me for. Whatever I am to them, it's not enough that it's worth mentioning. I can also be used as just a man on the street.

I know, I know... there's nothing wrong with being just a guy on the street in an interview, but as a person who craves recognition, it blew. Especially because I felt like I'd gotten to a place where I ought to be able to expect it.

Part of it is me being overly-sensitive, another part is ego. But things like this tend to happen, and sometimes they make me feel like I haven't really accomplished anything at all.

When those co-workers go "We can't believe how used to the camera you are!" in praise, a part of me goes "Why the hell not? It's been my job for over a year!"

But as others are quick to point out, some people try to do the same thing here for years and years and never make it this far.

I'd like to take it further... but I don't really know what I'm trying to prove. And sometimes I don't know if I really believe it would be worth it.

In any case, starting in April, I should have about a year to figure it out. Hope you guys will still be around if I ever do.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The American in Japan:

This is a conversation from facebook that I got caught up in and decided to bring over here:

It started because last week I had an idea for a comedy routine that I thought would work in Japanese.

I was finishing up a shift at a yakitori restaurant where I work part time, a place where it's customary for the owner and staff to eat and drink while we wait tables and cook. When things start to wind down, the owner will often invite me to sit at the counter and share some drinks or snacks with him.

On this particular night, he offered me some Japanese sake and some french fries. As I was eating and drinking, I looked over at him and said "Drinking sake and snacking on french fries. I don't think I've ever felt MORE like an American in Japan."

And he laughed for something like 5 minutes straight.

The thing about Japan is, they LOVE to laugh about things foreign. There are stand-up comedy duo routines like "欧米化; oubeika" where one Japanese man berates another Japanese man for becoming too westernized, or performers like Dylan and Catherine, two Japanese people pretending to be American, mostly by means of speaking Japanese with an affected accent.  There are characters in advertisements like "Mr. James," the dorky white foreigner who loves Japan, or characters on TV like Bobby Ologun who make their living by playing into Japanese stereotypes.

Without getting into issues of racism, I think it's safe to say that the roles for foreigners on TV and in media are somewhat limited. Even the few foreigners who've gone from comedian/entertainer to roles with higher levels of respect and acclaim, people like Dave Spector or Makkun, are still largely defined by the Gaikokujin label.

I saw a telephone interview with Dave Spector in which he explained that Former Prime Minister Hatoyama's wife was seen by Americans as the "Lady Gaga" of Japan, a line I'm sure his producers and directors insisted on because... it's blatantly untrue. They just wanted a foreigner to confirm something they made up about Americans.

And I watched Makkun miss a kanji question on a quiz show, which prompted the comment "I think we hear that he was Harvard-educated and forget that in the end, he's still a foreigner, and Japanese is hard for foreigners."

As someone who feels strongly and negatively about the boxes that foreigners get placed in, not only on TV but in personal interactions, I was kind of surprised to find myself thinking so seriously about creating an American comedic character.

The unpolished idea was to be "THE American in Japan," and make jokes accordingly. The jokes came really easily.

Some were based on truth, little things that I really do or feel. For example, a lot of times, a Japanese person I meet for the first time extends their hand for a handshake, when I've already started to bow, which results in a bowing handshake that is hilarious. And it only happens because I'm a foreigner, and I'm trying to act accordingly to Japanese culture, while they're trying to act according to mine. 「握手しながら、お辞儀。ザ・日本にいるアメリカ人。」

Other jokes were silly stuff like "I'll only ride in a rickshaw if the driver agrees to run in the right hand lane." or "For breakfast, I eat Miso SHIRIARU (a cross between Miso Soup and the Japanese for Cereal). The latter, I felt ashamed for even thinking of, not just because they're groaners, but because they're blatant pandering to Japanese stereotypes. "What's your favorite nabe? HAMBURGER NABE! OH, AMERICA."

And then there were others. Jokes I felt like I could make without feeling like I was selling out. Something that was simultaneously self-parody, and a parody of Japanese attitudes towards foreigners like: 「要らないのに、道でビラを渡されないと寂しい。。。;   Even though I don't want them, I still feel kind of rejected when  people in the street don't try to hand me fliers. 」Equally targeting how silly it is for me to react negatively for being treated differently in a way that ultimately benefits me, AND the Japanese people who don't think a foreign face can be a customer.

And just as the "Oubeika" routine eventually started to incorporate "Nanbeika; you've been South-Americanized!" jokes, I could branch out and make other points.

"I get upset when people ask me about the US," says the Canadian in Japan." Punchline being, to Japan a foreign face equals American.

"I get really upset when people ask if there are chopsticks in other countries." Says the CHINESE PERSON in Japan! Hahaha. Cause... Japanese people forget that other Asians count as gaijin too. And they forget that chopsticks aren't unique to Japan.

Over the past few months, I've been trying my jokes out here and there, in my personal life, and through outlets like facebook and twitter. They're not all tagged with "American in Japan." Some are just jokes about language gaffs.

And the responses from Japanese people... have not been good.

I made the following joke on Twitter: "Hey Japanese-language enthusiasts, learn from my mistake! Hieshou (suffering from low body temperature) means sensitivity to the cold. Jiheishou (autism) is a different thing altogether!"

The majority of the responses from Japanese people were explanations of the difference between the two words, of even corrections of the way I had defined "hieshou." They totally missed the fact that I was consciously making a joke.

And when I explained my "American in Japan" concept to some friends, and added in the part about the Canadian who's tired of hearing "Tell me all about the States," they blanked. They said "We don't get it? Why would that bother them?" You can't expect parody to work when the target has zero self-awareness re: the shortcomings being parodied.

Which made me realize... the material doesn't matter as much as how the audience takes it. And right now, there is no place in Japanese comedy for a foreigner who isn't a stereotypical foreigner.

When I first conceived of the idea, I kind of thought that if I worked it the right way, it might have the power to change that, to change something about the way we're perceived in Japan. In practice, I realized I may have been hoping for the impossible. So I'm giving up.

Hello. I'm Bobby Judo. I am THE American in Japan.