Soutaisei Riron

It seems I’m on a music kick lately.

I’d like to introduce you to HearJapan artist of the month, Soutaisei Riron (相対性理論). The band name translates into, “theory of relativity”. Read the HearJapan link for more information about the band than you’ll probably ever need.

Soutaisei Riron has that typical whispery female vocal sound so common in J-pop, but there’s something about them that feels different. Most of their lyrics seem to be about the kinds of things that an especially conscious and sensitive high school girl in Japan would think about. A lot of the comments on YouTube describe the vocalist and the lyrics as being “setsunai” (切ない), which is a kind of sad and wistful emotion. 切ない is one of those words that I’m glad never shows up in my translation work – very Japanese.

Good stuff. What do you think?

– Harvey

Free iPhone App from The JapanShop

I think this is “pointing-JapanNewbie-readers-to-free-stuff week”.

The JapanShop has come out with a free iPhone or iPod Touch application for Japanese learners.

You can upgrade from the free 400 phrases to the complete 800 phrases for $3.99. Also, if you upgrade you get a $5 coupon good for anything at TheJapanShop.com. Yes, the product costs less than the coupon is worth.

The application is pretty neat. The phrases are in neat categories, and every phrase is spoken at the touch of a button. It also has useful flashcard-based study methods and quizzes. This application is oriented to beginners, so there isn’t much here for an intermediate to advanced Japanese learner. Hopefully they’ll make some advanced stuff in the future! This kind of application is really handy. Here are some screen shots right from the application.

Why yes… I like you very much!

If you decide to upgrade and want to use the $5 coupon for something immediately, but don’t want to spend any more actual money, I would recommend giving their $5 download on 40 hand-related idioms a try.

This isn’t an iPhone application. The download has MP3s, PDFs, and a Flash file, example sentences, and the English translations of everything. Quality stuff, and it is highly unlikely that even an advanced learner would already know everything in the set.

Happy downloading!

– Harvey

Japanese Music Giveaway at HearJapan

HearJapan.com is having a limited time music giveaway in anticipation of Japan Nite 2009 which happens this March. Japan Nite is a music event where musicians from Japan come to the United States to perform. This will be the 13th annual Japan Nite.

I must admit, I’m hearing about Japan Nite for the first time. In my defense, I was in Japan for the past six years, and before that I was living in the corn belt. You’ll see on the tour schedule that places like Iowa and Indiana are not going to be seeing any action. For those of you reading from the corn belt, don’t worry, just download these free tracks and crank up your speakers! It’s the next best thing.

You can get the free music sampler at HearJapan (in case you haven’t clicked already). The tracks include a band I really enjoy, OMODAKA. The free music is only available until until March 29, so don’t procrastinate too long.

By the way, if have never heard anything from OMODAKA, here are some choice tracks to get you hooked.

I love this stuff. If you’re not into these videos, don’t worry, the other bands are nothing like OMODAKA… which means I’m sure there will be something you enjoy.

Asakusa Jinta are pretty intense as well.

Oh man. I need to get tickets.

– Harvey

Those Who Left Japan for North Korea


I’m taking a course on North Korean state and society this semester, and unable to suppress my tendency to link everything to Japan, I managed to stumble upon this fascinating video.

A North Korean Mystery

The lady in the video is Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a Japan scholar and the author of Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War. This book just came out in 2007 so it’s very recent. I want it.

I knew of the mass migration of some 90,000+ Koreans from Japan “back” to North Korea (most of the Koreans in Japan actually came from, or were taken from, the south) in the 1950s and 1960s, but I always thought that they returned to Korea for reasons of national pride, and because they were lured by North Korean propaganda. This book suggests that Japanese bureaucrats also encouraged the Koreans to leave Japan and return to Korea for reasons that were largely discriminatory. They felt that the Koreans in Japan would cause trouble as communist sympathizers, or would be a burden on the welfare system among other things. Japan and North Korea were then both able to make this mass “repatriation” seem like a humanitarian act on the surface. They were both cooperating to bring these individuals back to their home country. The Red Cross was even mixed up in this act and takes some of the blame in this book. Most of the Koreans who returned to North Korea in this way were made to perform hard labor, or worse, and were never heard from again. It is a very interesting yet tragic story.

I also came across an article in AsiaOne about a North Korean defector that shows how relevant this story remains today. A lady who was among those who went to North Korea from Japan during the migration period managed to escape North Korea (no easy task) and is now back in Japan attempting to sue the North Korean “embassy” in Tokyo for using false propaganda to trick her into going to North Korea and thus ruining her life.

I knew more than a couple Japanese friends of Korean heritage while I was in Japan and their parents were able to explain bits and pieces of this story from their perspective. If you’ve got some close Korean-Japanese friends you might want to ask them if the know anything about this incident. It could be a sensitive subject, but you never know what you might learn.

– Harvey

Don’t rush, you’ll just spin circles

急がば回れ (isogabamaware)

This is a Japanese expression that literally means, “if you hurry, you’ll go in circles”.

This expression warns us that rather than rushing and doing things in a way that might not be safe, it is best to take your time and do them carefully. In fact, if you slow down and take it easy, you will actually accomplish your task more quickly than you would have had you rushed.

Or put another way, rather than taking a dangerous shortcut to reach your destination, you could get there faster if you took the roundabout way.

What do you think? Is this a good expression to live by?

And, how do you like that giant attention getting image of the characters?

I think maybe it’s too big…

What’s ridiculous is that I actually already introduced this expression in another post a long time ago… I guess I should have taken my time and double checked before writing this.

– Harvey

TOKYO! – a film by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho



(higher quality version available here)

Those who have been to Tokyo will notice most of the landmarks in this trailer. Shibuya crossing, the retro-futuristic looking cube buildings, and that location in Shibuya I photographed a while ago. (I think that’s the same local anyway, what do you think?)

This movie looks fun. I’m not going to pretend to understand what it’s actually about… but regardless, I will be hunting this one down!

Shibuya Shot
A similar Shibuya Shot.

– Harvey

Drinking and Laughing


In my post about Japanese words to express laughter, reader “Taeko” asked how to say 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) in English. I just got around to taking a look – I had never heard that expression before.

This question led me down a fun rabbit hole of Japanese language excitement! So fun in fact, that I thought I’d share…

If you look up 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) in an online dictionary, you’ll get something like “laughing drunk”. I think most will agree that this expression has negative connotations in English.

The meaning of 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) is basically someone who seems to be smiling and laughing all the time. It’s not an inherently negative thing to call someone, in fact the vast majority of the time the phrase is used in a positive sense. Of course, if the person is so jolly that they are incapable of being serious even when the situation demands it, then it could be an insult, but this is type of usage would be a rare exception and not the norm.

If you check a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will see that there is one other definition of 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) as well.

「酒に酔うとやたらに笑う癖があること。また、その人。」
“To have a habit of laughing excessively when drunk. Or, someone who does so.”

So it seems that the online dictionary creators got caught up in the literal Japanese meaning when trying to find a good English translation.

We’re not done yet!

You may be wondering what the Kanji 上戸, which literally means “up” and “door” have to do with drinking or laughter.

上戸 (jyougo) refers to someone who drinks a lot of alcohol – someone who can hold their liquor if you will.

下戸 (geko) refers to someone who, well, doesn’t. Like the guy who turns bright red after their first few sips of sake. Second sip they’re likely flat out on the table.

I looked up 下戸 on this handy gogen website that explains the roots of Japanese phrases. It explains that there were actually four categories of 戸 in the Ritsuryo system of law in ancient Japan. 「大戸・上戸・中戸・下戸」 下戸 being the lowest class. These “classes” were categories used to classify families for things like tax purposes. Your “class” would be determined based on the value of your assets, and number of people in your family.

Wait. The alcohol connection is coming.

Now, when one gets married, depending on the “class”, they would bring a particular amount of sake to the wedding party. If your house was 上戸, you would bring 8 bottles of sake. If your house was 下戸 you would bring 2 bottles of sake to the party. So, it follows that people who could drink a lot of sake came to be known as 上戸, and those who couldn’t drink a lot were known as 下戸. Makes sense huh?

Learn how to hold your Sake.
flaming blowfish sake
<Flaming blowfish sake from an older JapanNewbie post>

– Harvey