Just for Fun: Japanese Language Lesson


Just as there are some counter-intuitive expressions in English, such as a driveway being where you park and a parkway being a place to drive, some Japanese expressions don't make sense from their literal meanings alone.

How sharp are your linguistic instincts?
Can you guess what any of the following Japanese words and phrases are used to express?

(pronunciation hints: the vowels sound like Spanish vowels, every consonant is pronounced, and there are no strongly accented syllables)

1. ohayo
2. kudasai
3. hajimemashite
4. moshi-moshi
5. domo

(literal meanings: ohayo = honorably early; kudasai = please lower it down; hajimemashite = starting; moshi = says; domo = very much)

Click on comments to find the answers.



Milestones beyond Coming of Age Day

Other Big Birthdays

Coming of Age Day is the first big rite of passage in Japan, but 20 isn’t the last important birthday. Unlike in western countries where there is nothing to look forward to after sweet sixteen, getting the driver’s license, and being legally entitled to vote and drink, the older you get the more you have to celebrate.

A much-celebrated milestone is reaching age 60.

The importance of becoming 60 is not about retiring from the job. It has to do with the traditional calendar’s 12 year cycle. Each year has its iconic animal. For instance, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. Each year also has a ruling element. This year’s element is water. There are 12 animals and five elements. That means it takes 60 years to make a complete round (kan-reki) of every animal paired with every element. In other words, by the age of 60 you have seen it all and have the right to step back from the world.

The next auspicious birthday is the 77th one. This one is called ki-ju. The ki in ki-ju implies joy and luck. Age 88—known as bei-ju—is also special. Eight is a very lucky number, and a pair of eights is incredibly lucky. The luck is implied from the expansive way the character for eight is written--kind of like a narrow pathway widening into a broad boulevard of prosperous living.

Reaching the age of 97 is a major celebratory event in Okinawa. If you reach that age, you are starting a new 12-year cycle, and new beginnings are joyful events. A person with 97 years of health and good fortune is worth spending time with, so the 97th birthday becomes a kind of public celebration. Anyone and everyone entertains the hope that, by offering congratulations, the senior citizen’s good vibrations will spill over into one’s own life.

In Japan—and especially in Okinawa—getting older is not something to apologize for or shrink from. It is synonymous with getting better.


Okinawa Cuisine

What’s to eat in Okinawa?

My personal favorite is called yasai yakisoba, or vegetable and noodle stir fry.
The thick, curly noodles are boiled before they go into the wok with cabbage, bean sprouts, carrot slivers, and a green vegetable that comes from the sea (notice I don’t call it seaweed). There are also bits of sliced pork to give it flavor, and speaking of flavor, a soy-based sauce also goes into the wok.

Probably the most famous noodle dish is called soki soba. The soba part is (did you guess?) noodles again, this time slender brownish ones that get boiled before they go into the soup. Soki refers to a bone-in pork rib. It’s served as a hot soup.

For a snack—and don’t eat these more than once a week if you want to keep your slim, trim figure—there is a lump of fried dough called saataa-andaki. Well, that’s a little like calling toast a paste made of grass seed that has been baked and burned. It’s shaped like a beignet, but not sticky-sweet. It tastes like a donut, but it’s not a circle and it doesn’t have a hole through the middle. Try it, you’ll like it.

The signature Okinawa dish is goya champuru. Goya looks like an oversized cucumber with warts. I know, as descriptions go, that sounds unkind. To make matters worse, the goya is cursed with an extremely bitter taste. However, good cooks know how to scrape out the pith and use liberal doses of salt to kill off the worst of the bitter taste. The goya is sliced into half moon shapes and tossed into the wok with eggs, tofu, and maybe some carrot slivers and a few bean sprouts. Liberally seasoned, it comes out of the wok transformed into something not only incredibly healthy but also tasty.

Lots of vegetables, lots of soup, skimpy doses of oil and fat, and every taste from sweet to bitter in moderation—a minimum of 18 different foods per day is typical Okinawa cuisine. PS Don’t forget the fruit.


Bingata kimono

Here are some bingata kimono designs.

The hats are used in traditional Okinawa-style dances.

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day is a national holiday in Japan. It used to be on January 15, but the holiday gods recently decreed that it should fall on a Monday. Everyone loves a long weekend.

The holiday celebrates the start of social responsibility. Every young adult who turns 20 during the year is treated to a ceremony held at a public hall where speeches about the seriousness of voting (and also about being legally entitled to drink alcohol) and entertainment ensue.

It’s especially exciting for young women, because it is one of the few occasions on which they can dress up in a formal kimono, the kind with sleeves that dangle practically to their ankles. Gorgeous! The young men usually opt for suits, but there are always a few who rent kimono and hakama (like enormous pleated pants worn over the bottom half of the kimono) and show off.

Mainland kimonos are heavy, multi-layered, and held together with a stiff obi wrapped around the waist and tied in butterfly wings about shoulder height in back. Obi are beautiful, but not conducive to either eating or breathing. Okinawa, perhaps because of the climate, favors another style of kimono.

The most traditional of the Okinawa kimonos are made from banana leaf fiber (basho-fu) and are dyed in brilliant designs in a style known as bingata. The fiber is hand woven, and the designs are hand painted. Cords hold it in place, so there is no need for the stifling obi.

Whether celebrated in silk kimono, bingata kimono, hakama or dressy western-style suits, it is an important day that becomes a cherished memory. Congratulations to all of today’s celebrants!


On the Light Side: Fidgeting 101


Everyone knows how to twiddle their thumbs, but what about the other fingers? Can you twiddle your pinkies? How about your ring fingers? This kind of fidgeting is considered therapeutic exercise in Japan, as each finger is believed to have a relationship with the well-being of a specific internal organ. If you can twiddle each set of fingers successfully, you are in great shape. At least, that’s how the theory goes.

Another therapeutic fidget for the fingers goes like this. First use your right thumb and right forefinger to squeeze the tip of your left thumb. You squeeze from the sides at the base of the nail for five seconds. Do the fingers of your left hand one by one, then use your left thumb and forefinger to squeeze the fingertips of your right hand one by one. This exercise is believed to stimulate the immune system.

A favorite fidget in Okinawa that the elderly especially believe keeps their digestion on track is as follows. It starts with placing the thumb of the right hand on your left palm and resting your right forefinger on the back of your left hand. Then you slide your right forefinger down to the place where the base of the left thumb and forefinger come together. Are you with me so far? This is one of the “shiatsu” pressure points. To stimulate this pressure point, push against it with a moderate amount of force. (not enough to bruise, OK?)

There are no guarantees here, but who knows? It can’t hurt, and it might actually be a productive way to fidget away those idle minutes.



Okinawa Time

It’s January 1st, and we’re off for another trip around the sun. Do you hear anyone whining, “Are we there yet?” Is anyone fretting about finding a place to park and clean rest rooms along the way? There is no one demanding, “Hurry or we’ll miss the good part.” And no one is howling, “Slow down or we’ll all be killed!” We’re all along for the ride, and we leave the pace of travel up to the universe.

Okinawa time works like that. An event is set in motion and then left to unfold itself step by step, in its own good time.

Few events in Okinawa start, as the rest of the world is fond of saying, “on time”. It’s not about indifference to people’s busy schedules; it’s about sensitivity to life’s rhythms. No one expects every baby to take his or her first unaided step at precisely age one year, two weeks, three days, and six hours. Why insist that a wedding, graduation, store opening, or whatever begin at exactly 10 AM?

Time is thought of as just one of many natural cycles that occur without regard to human convenience: the rising and falling of tides, the crop cycle, the migrations of fish, the coming and going of a typhoon. A human lifetime does not unfold according to the clock, and—in Okinawan logic—neither do the events that make up our days.