Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

#17 Japanese TV stars at my island’s elementary graduation

So, in the US we have the word “celebrity.”

It generally means an actor, actress, or singer/musician of some sort.  Of course sometimes there are just other people that are famous for other reasons, such as they’re super rich and/or they have their own reality TV show.  Also there are comedians and talk-show hosts that get some press too.

In Japan the situation is a little different.  Of course actors and singers are popular here.  But there’s two extra types of famous people that are admired, followed, and watched.

Type 1: Idols (アイドル)

Type 2: “Talent” (タレント) or (Gag-)Comedians (芸能人)

As for type 1, an idol is basically a pretty young girl who is a singer.  She may be a mediocre singer, but no one really cares as long as she is pretty and puts on a good performance.  Often they come in groups.  Idols not only sing, but dance and entertain when they’re in the spotlight.  Idols gain lots of fans, particularly among men, and even release calendars and special photo collection books of them posing in bikinis and other skimpy outfits.  Most idols have a short shelf life.

As for type 2, this is a situation that seems to be unique to Japan (or at least, not something present in the US), and that’s a genre of celebrities that are bred purely for peoples’ amusement.

They often appear on Japanese “variety shows” which often encompass a lot of celebrities chatting with each other about various topics, or something more along the line of an extreme challenge game show where these celebrities are forced into doing silly or ridiculous mini games for the amusement of the audience.  The long-time popular boy-band Arashi has a TV show every Thursday night (calles Vs. Arashi) for an hour where the members participate in these ridiculous mini games against other TV personalities or talent, amidst ridiculously colorful stage designs.

This second type of TV show personality usually has a “thing.”  That thing could be that they’re a transvestite, that they have a sparkling personality, or that they have some physical gag that they repeat over and over.  The people with physical gags usually last about a year or so, then are replaced by a new one.  They often have a particular outfit they wear, and/or a particular action they do along with a catch phrase.

Examples of previous gag-comedians:

1) Hard Gay:

Here’s a short clip where he just comes out on a variety show and does his thing.

This next one is about 5 minutes long.  Searching YouTube yields a ton more if you’re intersted.  This one (subtitled in English) that gives you a good feel of what Hard Gay’s gags are all about, in that he often took his extreme antics and tried to shake things up in every day life, such as here where he visits Yahoo Japan’s corporate offices.

2) Yoshio Kojima (popular while I studied abroad in 2007-2008):

Here is he on a classic variety show, doing his thing.  Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Kids around the country imitated this guy CONSTANTLY.  Would this kind of thing every fly in the US….?  Probably not.

Also in this second type is manzai teams, or 2-person stand up comedy groups.  This has a very set structure.  One guy is all tension and the more down-to-earth one, often getting frazzled with his partner who usually acts stupid like he doesn’t know what’s going on, and it’s this contrast which sets the theme.  There’s often hitting involved (the dumb one gets hit).

So last week was the graduation ceremony of the elementary school I work at.

Out of the blue (even unbeknownst to the teachers), two celebrities (I’ll use that word to basically mean the second type) randomly showed up to my island at the end of the ceremony.

I had never seen or heard of either of them, but then again I don’t want much Japanese TV, and when I do, I prefer to watch the news or human interest stories as opposed to the variety shows which often have people speaking at high speeds and cracking jokes that I don’t understand anyway.

After the two celebrities left I asked someone who they were, and apparently they were the “Talent” Suzanne スザンヌ:

I got to snicker at how out of place she looked, with her cute gestures and fashionable clothes.  It was a stark contrast to what I’m used to seeing on my island, as out here no one cares -that- much about appearances.

And one half of the manzai comedy team Garage Sale ガレッジセール:

The guy that came was the one on the right.  I have no idea why he didn’t come with his comedy partner, nor do I know why he was with that Suzanne girl.

All the kids and teachers were surprised and delighted to have them around.  There was a whole camera crew closely following them and everything.  I tried my best to stay out of the way because I, as the token foreigner, am likely to garner attention with this sort of thing and be included in the video if anyone had caught me on tape.  Fortunately the celebrities seemed more intent on interacting with the kids and left me well enough alone.  ::phew::  I’m not one to want to be in the limelight.

Happy Graduation 6th graders.

Leave a comment »

#16 My favorite Japanese Podcast – JapanesePod101.com


First off, I want to point out that JapanesePod101.com (which is the original site, and what I will focus on today) has a ton of sister sites that do lessons in the same way.

Most of them are located at <Language>Pod101.com, but some such as Korean and Chinese use a website address with the term “Class” instead of “Pod.”

They are provided by a company called Innovative Language Learning.  A full list of the languages available (and they have quite a selection!) can be found here:

Important things to note about this podcast provider:
-Some lessons are free, but most are not.
-They are thematic lessons, meaning each lesson is about a certain topic, and will introduce vocabulary and grammar as needed.  While they’re often organized into levels (absolute beginner, beginner, intermediate, etc), the lessons do not actually build that much on each other as far as I can tell.

You can usually download their free podcasts via iTunes.  The podcasts that are free are usually the first several lessons per level, as well as the latest lessons that they’ve released (available for free for a limited time).  To access the entirety of the lessons on the website, you will need a basic subscription (charged monthly).  If you want access to their review materials and other study tools, you’ll need to get a premium subscription (also charged monthly).

If you want to view the podcasts directly on their site, you need to sign in.  To sign in, you need to sign up first, which can be annoying.  BUT, listen up, because this is important.  When you sign up, you get a free 7 day trial of ALL the features on their site (as if it you had the high-class premium subscription).  This is a great opportunity not only to try out their site features and see if you want a subscription of your own; this is the time to MADLY SCRAMBLE to download as many lessons and lesson transcripts as you can while you have access to all their content for free.

My personal experience:
I loved JapanesePod101.com – I’d already taken many years of Japanese in college so I enjoyed having thematic lessons to learn new vocabulary and the occasional new grammatical structure.  I mainly used the Upper Intermediate lessons and the Advanced Audio Blog lessons.  I actually paid for a basic subscription for a few months when I was studying for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) Level 2.  I used to listen to podcasts every day during my lunch break from work.  I can’t vouch for any of their lower lessons since I never listened to them, but for their higher lessons, they have people doing quality voice acting for the dialogues, there are thoughtful and insightful teachers explaining the words and the grammar (mainly in Japanese), and they cover some interesting topics.  I found it worth my time and money, and thanks to the help of the site, I passed my proficiency test!

I briefly explored KoreanClass101.com and ChineseClass101.com.  I really enjoyed the culture lessons they had on these sites, since I knew basically nothing of these cultures, and every little thing they could tell me about was new and interesting to me.  However, being a beginner in both languages, I was often frustrated by their thematic approach.  I wanted basic grammar, basic expressions, basic vocabulary; I wanted to be able to build up my knowledge and learn how to string together a sentence, not just learn a handful of vocabulary each time.  So I gave up on these lessons and looked elsewhere for Chinese, and shelved my Korean learning for the foreseeable future.

Lucky for me though, there is a fantastic Chinese podcast site that I eventually found and am happy to share with you all, but that’s for another post!  Stay tuned.

Isn’t it wonderful the internet age we’re living in?

Leave a comment »

Omake #1: Japan doesn’t believe in central heating

First off, “Omake” (pronounced oh-ma-kay) means “Extra” in Japanese. 

I have decided to on occasion make an omake post if it is something on the more negative or frustrating side of life, as it’s a bit of a deviation from my standard style. 

I originally started this blog because I wanted to appreciate various aspects of my life in Japan and focus on the good while ignoring or shrugging off the bad, but I’ve often thought there’s so many more topics I could post about if I didn’t have such a limited scope.

While I still want my blog to remain positive, I think it’s also important to remember that life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies.

And besides, there can be humor to be found in suffering.  Or a silver lining in an unfortunate situation.  Or whatever sort of positive spin you want to put on something irksome.

My biggest complaint about Japan is and probably always will be the fact that their methods of heating/cooling buildings is insufficient at best, and non-existent at worst.

I’m a very sensitive person, and this bothers me tremendously.  I’m from the Chicago area in the US, which is just as humid as Japan in the summer and plenty colder than the area of Japan I live in (snow fall and even snow storms around Chicago are common in winter; snowfall, or rather a “snow sprinkling” is a rare sight where I currently live and lasts an hour at best and melts practically immediately).  Nevertheless, despite Chicago temperatures often getting below freezing in the winter, I only suffered a bit for it when I was a college student and had to walk out in the cold to get to classes or visit friends’ apartments.  What I took for granted though, was that once I arrived at my destination, I would be warm and toasty.

Whenever people ask me what has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to living in Japan, or in terms of my experience with “culture shock” I always reply with – the cold!  the heat!  And it isn’t the fault of the weather, but the Japanese themselves.

I actually recently wrote an article about this in Japanese for my town’s local monthly magazine.

Let me briefly sum up my points, and then link you an article which talks about this very issue in an eloquent way (and from the perspective of an Italian, not an American which I am, since we Americans are notorious for mis-using and over-using energy in the first place.)

1)  First of all Japanese houses are usually not insulated.  Buildings for work or school maybe are a little, or maybe not.

2) Even in the dead of winter Japanese like to keep a window, or several windows, open for air flow.  They see this as “common sense.”  I see it as stupidity.

3) Japanese only heat certain parts of a building or house, and not the entire thing.  For example, at schools, only the staff room is heated.  In a house, perhaps only the living room will be heated.  This means that hallways, classrooms, and other rooms are all the EXACT same (read: freezing) temperature as the outside.

4) When Japanese DO heat a room, they use a variety of sketchy and ineffective methods, such as giant clunky heaters that use gas (which technically you’re supposed to open a window for airflow for these but no one ever does in this case…), a heated carpet in a living room that is only effective if you’re sprawled out on it, or a rather weak electric guzzling device placed near the ceiling in homes that serves as both heater and air conditioner.  But you see, heat rises.  So, heating the ceiling area of a room?  Good one!

Basically, the Japanese are trying to be environmentally friendly, or cost conscious (electricity is expensive here), or maybe they’re just set in their old, traditional ways. 
But kids here catch colds ALL the time, there’s a big stink made about influenza every year as practically entire classes of kids all catch it.  (Besides the heating issue, girls are required to wear skirts as part of their school uniform and have their legs exposed even in the dead of winter…a topic for another time.)  Back in the US I used to get sick maybe once a year, and after staying home from school or work for about 2 days, I got over it.  Here in Japan I’ve gotten sick about 2-4 times each the winter, and the kind of sick that lasts several days to about a week, and even then my body doesn’t fully recover because it’s still having to battle the never-ending cold. 

And keep in mind that I’m not just talking about near freezing temperatures.  Even something as harmless as your house being 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit – doesn’t look so bad right?  You try living with that temperature around that clock, for days and days on end, and then get back to me, kay?

Also, last year, for the first time in my life I had nights where I literally could not sleep because I was too cold, despite the millions of layers of socks, shirts, pants, and even winter coat and hat I was wearing to bed.  I was only able to sleep again after buying myself a hot water bottle, something that seemed incredibly stone-aged and archaic to me previously.

Oh yeah, and at school?  I’m usually okay in the staff room but to brave teaching classes I’ve had to wear, each day, long johns under thick pants, two pairs of socks (one that comes up to my knees), a tank top undershirt, a long-sleeved undershirt, a sweater-like long-sleeved shirt, and a fleece jacket, and even then sometimes I’ve been so cold.  I’ve never had to wear so many clothes in my life.  Even still I got frost bite on my toes this year for the first time in my life.  Students regularly get frost bite on their hands.  And the poor students wear far few layers than I do.

Anyway, enough of my rant, because I could go on and on and on….

Enjoy this article (which is in English, don’t worry), from the Japan Times, a newspaper I often read online to pass the time at work and keep updated on Japan.

The article is titled:

A winter’s tale: cold homes, poor lives in wealthy Japan
The country is still rich, so why do the Japanese people live like they’re not?