Archive for Learning Japanese

The Toilet Goddess song


The song, Toire no Kamisama (The Toilet God or more accurately, The Toilet Goddess トイレの神様) sung by Uemura Kana (植村花奈) is back at No. 1 on the music charts in Japan (as of Jan. 2011). This song debuted in spring 2010, and no doubt, Uemura’s appearance in the NHK Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest Festival) on Dec. 31, 2010 reboosted the song to the top. Not only that, a special 2-hour TV program dramatizing the song aired on January 5, 2011 (sponsored by toilet makers).

I’m not a music critic, but I can tell you, this song is destined to become one of Japan’s all-time classics, to be remembered for generations to come. It’s one of 2010’s defining songs of Japan. Twenty, thirty, or more years from now, people recalling the events of 2010 will bring up this song. Singer Uemura Kana is now inducted in the annals of Japanese music history.

It is a megahit, but it has gone beyond where most megahits can go. This song hits the hearts and souls of many of us in Japan. I haven’t heard such a poignant and tear-jerking song in a long, long time. The folksy melody is simple, and the story-telling lyrics is instantly-striking and easy to understand in Japanese. When you first hear it, your ears become magnetized to the song and you cannot help but listen to the story and get emotional. Many people in the audience (including the judges) were crying as Uemura performed the song at the Kohaku Utagassen.

The song really blows a fresh wind into the Japanese music scene dominated by ubiquitous bubble-gum songs by large, all-girl groups of marginal talent. It has also restored my faith in the Japanese music market which can apparently still recognize and love real songs amid so many artificial, prepackaged, and prefabricated ones. It also goes to show that down-to-earth songs like Toilet no Kamisama can and will always outclass bubble-gum (what I call junk-food) songs.

It’s rare when a hit song appeals to multiple generations. It has struck a deep chord among not only the younger generation, but also among the elderly (especially grandparents). It’s a song coming at a time when family ties are not as close as before in Japan. It has made grandparents in Japan wonder whether they will be remembered as fondly by their grandchildren. And wonder what they should do to leave such lasting impressions on their grandkids. The song also makes the younger folk wonder if we are being (or were) kind enough or worthy enough to our beloved grandparents. The song really spotlights back-to-basics family values, something which we are prone to forget or neglect while we are caught up with the realities and stresses of daily life. That the family is really the nitty-gritty of what’s important in life. The song is really an anthem for family ties.

Needless to say, if you don’t understand Japanese (especially the Kansai dialect), you won’t be able to appreciate the song. It’s definitely a love song (actually a love story), but not a typical one. It’s about the love between a granddaughter and her grandmother sung from the viewpoint of the granddaughter who is the singer Uemura Kana.

The song starts with Kana in the 3rd grade when she began living with her grandmother in a house next door to her parent’s house in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture in 1990. Kana helped out with household chores, but was not good at cleaning the toilet. So her grandmother (obaachan) told her that the toilet actually had a beautiful goddess (megami). If she cleaned the toilet, she would grow up to become as beautiful as the goddess. From that day on, Kana cleaned the toilet spic-and-span (pika-pika) every day, wishing to become a beautiful woman (beppin).

The song then mentions a few family trials and tribulations. Once Kana went with her obaachan to go shopping and eat out, but obaachan had forgotten to videotape a Yoshimoto comedy TV program which Kana wanted to watch after getting back home. Kana got very upset and chided obaachan. Later when Kana was a teenager, she started having arguments with obaachan and couldn’t get along with her own family (mom and three siblings). She didn’t feel at home anywhere so she hung out with her boyfriend and didn’t come home during holidays. She stopped going out to eat and playing board games with her obaachan and they drifted apart. Kana asks herself why people hurt each other like that and keep losing things precious to them.

Kana eventually leaves obaachan and moves to Tokyo to try and make it as a singer. Two years later, obaachan is hospitalized and Kana comes homes to visit and sees her thin and frail. Kana greets her with, “Tadaima!” (I’m home!) as she did in the good old days, but before they hardly talked, obaachan just scolds her to go back to Tokyo and kicks her out of the hospital room. (Obaachan wanted Kana to concentrate on her singing and didn’t want her to return until she succeeded as a singer.) The next morning, obaachan passed away quietly. Obaachan apparently waited for Kana to return before passing away.

Kana then grieves to herself that although obaachan raised her well, she regrets not being able to pay her back as a filial granddaughter. And even though she was not a good grandchild, obaachan still waited for her to return before passing away.

Toward the end of the song, Kana wonders if she really did become a beppin (yes she did), and she pledges to continue cleaning the toilet spic-and-span. At the end of the song, she thanks her grandmother in the Kansai dialect.

I know that just reading this English summary does not make this song sound as impressive as it really is. The story and emotions can only be conveyed by the singer and the song itself to people who can understand Japanese. The Kansai dialect makes the song sound so homely and earthly, the singer’s voice is sweet and easy to listen to, and the melody is simple and infectious. Right on the button. I just wanted to write about it because I haven’t seen any English articles about this song which does it justice. You might ask how or why would there be a goddess in the toilet of all places? Well, in the Shinto religion, a god (kami or kamisama) can be almost anywhere. A toilet is something essential for all of us, aiding our health and well-being, so why not have a god there too?

Also, for people like me who have had Japanese grandmothers fondly remembered, this song can really bring tears. When I moved to Japan, both my Japanese grandmothers (in the Kansai area) were alive and well. They have since passed away well into their 90s and I have many fond memories of them. I wonder too if I did enough for them before they passed on. All I can say is, Obaachan, obaachan, honmani arigato-o.

ATM scam prevention poster

This is a poster near a bank’s ATM near Yokosuka. It has Yokozuna Hakuho saying, “Do not transfer money” or “Furikomanaide” in reference to the so-called “furikome sagi” (振り込め詐欺) or bank transfer fraud which has been rampant for years.

A mother or grandmother receives a call from someone disguised as a son or other close relative saying that he was involved in an accident, etc., and needs a large amount of money right away. He gives his bank account info and the mom would rush to the bank and transfer the money.

Incredible how gullible people can be. But social scientists have identified the human psychological factors which the fraudsters successfully play on victims to send money.

Writing about Japan

If you want to write about Japan to any degree beyond the superficial, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. The amount of information about Japan available in Japanese is a mountain compared to an ant hill in other languages.

Foreign correspondents working in Japan often use English sources of information. Or they use a translator. Such people will never be able to get the true or whole story. If you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who need a correspondent in Japan, make sure he/she can read Japanese. And if you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who has a correspondent in Japan who cannot read Japanese, be aware that you are missing out on a lot of information.

I remember Mike Wallace of the 60 Minutes TV program once came to Tokyo to exclaim that a melon costs $100. He did not point out (or did not know) that melons we normally buy cost much less, and that premium-grade fruits like $100 melons are not the norm. It’s like going to Italy and seeing the price of a Lamborghini and reporting that cars in Italy cost $300,000.

A person who cannot read Japanese and has not lived in Japan for at least five years is really not qualified to write/report about Japan. I’m reminded of this each time I update my Web site with new pictures and articles about Japan.

There’s just no way I could build this site I’m building without being able to read Japanese. Most of the information I feed to my site is based on Japanese sources. It might be a pamphlet distributed at a festival explaining about all the people appearing in the parade, a brochure given by a temple, a book about local Japanese history, an explanatory sign at a shrine, or an official Web site explaining the significance of a lakeside monument. All in Japanese, and hardly found in English. If there’s information in English, it is most often very superficial or a poor translation.

I’m a pack rat and collect a lot of paper things. I keep all the tickets and brochures I receive or obtain whenever and wherever I travel in the world. I also go to the local tourist offices of all the prefectures, cities, and towns I visit in Japan to pick up pamphlets. It’s usually the first thing I do before exploring that place. Tokyo also has prefectural tourist offices clustered in one building (in Yurakucho) where you can pick up brochures and see samples of local souvenirs and delicacies from all over Japan.

I have all my Japan travel pamphlets organized in folders on a large bookshelf. I have one folder for each prefecture (47 of them) and separate folders for the larger cities and favorite subjects such as sumo and geisha. Whenever I need to write a photo caption or article about Japan, I can quickly find the respective brochure in my files. Of course, I also check appropriate Web sites as well. But all the information is in Japanese. Fortunately, I can read Japanese. (I will never get tired of bragging about my ability to read Japanese.)

I also have a bookshelf of maps of all the prefectures and major cities. As well as books about specific regions and places in Japan. Again all in Japanese. The information presented here at PHOTOGUIDE.JP is backed up by the best sources of information you can find in Japan.

I read in Japanese and then I write in native English. I don’t have a Japanese wife or employee who reads and translates the Japanese text for me. I read the information directly. If I don’t understand something, I try to look it up directly. This is how it works at PHOTOGUIDE.JP. It is really a project for me to learn more about Japan. And it gives me great pleasure to share what I’ve learned with others, and to offer information and pictures found nowhere else online. In effect, to go beyond the superficial level.

Of course I do have sources in English about Japan, but they are very secondary. There was one book called “Japan: The New Official Guide” edited by the Japan National Tourist Organization. It’s in English and during my first years in Japan when I was still allergic to Japanese newspapers, this book was my travel bible. It’s quite comprehensive, but when I look at it now, it really looks like a bare-bones guide compared to the wealth of information available in Japanese. But certainly the book (not revised since 1991) can satisfy the passing tourist who just needs to know the basics during a short whirlwind trip.

My big dilemma now is sifting through all my Japanese information and picking out the most essential and most interesting information to be presented in English, focusing on information not widely available in English. You know, there are still many interesting things and places in Japan left undiscovered by all the English guide books and Web sites out there. I want to concentrate on those off-the-beaten-path places. I really wish I could translate everything into English. But this is simply impossible. I will try to go as far as I can for as long as I can. Wish me luck.

NHK Taiga Drama

I’m currently watching and enjoying NHK’s Taiga Drama called “Komyo ga Tsuji,” (功名が辻) a year-long period drama set during the turn of the 17th century. It features a footsoldier samurai named Yamauchi Kazutoyo and his wife Chiyo. Both are historical figures who actually existed. Kazutoyo served under Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These three men happens to be Japan’s most famous trio for unifying the warring states of Japan by the early 17th century. For his meritorious service in battle, Kazutoyo is awarded the lordship of a few castles in succession, eventually ending up as the lord of Kochi Castle in Shikoku.

Chiyo is played by Nakama Yukie, a good-looking actress from Okinawa who long graduated from her bikini idol days. Kazutoyo is played by Kamikawa Takaya. They work well together. I don’t think they will win any acting awards, but they do well enough.

The reason why I’m watching this is because one of the main settings of the story is Omi Province, which today is Shiga Prefecture where I have relatives and where I have visited many of the places where the drama takes place. One is Odani Castle, the stronghold of Lord Azai Nagamasa who married Nobunaga’s younger sister Oichi and is later defeated by Nobunaga.

I’m also very interested in this time period when the transition of power went from Nobunaga to Hideyoshi and finally to Ieyasu. Another element is the Japanese castle, one of my favorite photo subjects. The background scene in the show is often a castle.

Being a student of Japanese history, I’m finding it interesting to watch a show like this. Seeing the costumes, background sets, etc., enhances your imagination of that time in history. It’s a great supplement to reading any book on the subject. It’s also a great Japanese lesson. My Japanese is still not good enough to understand everything they say (a lot of historical terms still stump me), so it forces me to look up some words. Those of you outside Japan are lucky to have English subtitles.

During the show, a narrator always explains what’s going on historically. And after each episode, there’s a short introduction to one of the places featured in the show. It introduces the castle, gravesite, battlefield, etc., and how to get there by train.

So this whole NHK Taiga Drama thing is really about promoting the areas of Japan where the story’s background is set. This translates into more tourists and all the cities and towns featured in the drama execute a major tourist campaign during the airing of the TV series. Back in Shiga, there are special exhibitions related to Kazutoyo and Chiyo and tourist offices and travel agencies are promoting special tours to the places featured in the drama.

I know that Kakegawa in Shizuoka is also happy about the TV series. Kakegawa is home to Kakegawa Castle where Kazutoyo once lived. It has a nice castle tower and lord’s residence.

In Japan, the show airs on Sundays at 8 pm on NHK’s Sogo Channel (channel 1 in Tokyo) and again at 10 pm the same evening on NHK BS Channel 2. A rerun is shown on Sat. at 1:05 pm on the NHK Sogo Channel.

Photos:
Statue of Kazutoyo and Chiyo in Maibara, Shiga :
Odani Castle ruins
Azuchi Castle
Nagahama Castle
Kakegawa Castle