Thursday, September 27, 2007

Barefoot Gen – A MUST READ!

The above picture is reproduced from Keiji Nakazawa’s self-described “cartoon story of Hiroshima,” Barefoot Gen. I just recently finished the series and the work left such an impression on me that I simply must recommend these books to everyone I know.

Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen / はだしのゲン in Japanese) is a four-part series of graphic novels that tell the autobiographical story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of the author as a young boy.

Like Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust narrative Maus, Barefoot Gen is one of the few works in the comics medium that succeeds in honestly and humanely bearing witness to and depicting one of the signature horrors of our modern age.

To discuss the twists and turns of the plot would be a great disservice to potential readers. Suffice it to say, Barefoot Gen manages to run the gamut of emotions, often legitimately evoking laughter or tears depending on the section.

Despite the unimaginable horrors depicted in the frames on the page, the underlying message of Barefoot Gen is one of hope, peace, and optimism. However, through his prose, Nakazawa openly and honestly criticizes both the Japanese and American wartime administrations for their shared responsibility in the bombings.

Nakazawa, who has dedicated his adult life to passing on the story of A-Bomb survivors to subsequent generations, continues to write literature and movie screenplays about Hiroshima to this day. As written in an essay that follows the work, his hope is that Barefoot Gen will in some small way lead to the complete abolition of nuclear weapons in this new century.

Four separate volumes make up the complete story of Barefoot Gen. While the volumes may be a quick read, the images and characters will remain etched into your mind long after finishing. An excellent new English translation was completed just a few years ago in San Francisco. The series is readily available on Also, check your local library (mine had all four volumes in circulation).

It is my personal belief that not nearly enough is done to teach and discuss the personal and global / historical ramifications of the atomic bombings of Japan in the American education system (or in America in general). As is the case with the Nazi Holocaust, there will come a time in the very near future when no living survivors of the atomic bombings remain. It is my opinion that we must keep the testimonies and experiences of survivors alive for generations to come. Barefoot Gen provides both an easily accessible and surprisingly effective entry point through which to learn more and enter into a discussion about this very important event.

Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen is completely recommended. Please read this series! If I had my way, it would already be standard reading in every 9th grade U.S. history class across America.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Zurashi Zubon (ずらしズボン)*

One nice thing about the Japanese major at Stanford is that it is small. Scratch that – it’s “intimate.” The word small conjures up images of a student huddled underneath a desk lamp, reading an ancient Japanese text in preparation for a one-on-one meeting with their professor. Come to think of it, this is a pretty accurate description of the life of a Japanese major…but I digress. I mean to emphasize that the group of professors and students in the Asian Languages Department are a close-knit bunch. We all know each other and we are all friends. I have been in Japanese class with the same group of friends throughout my four years at Stanford. This story takes place during 3rd Year Japanese class sophomore year.

The assignment from Tomiyama Sensei was to read a short article in a series about Japanese educational philosophy from our textbook and prepare an overhead transparency. We would then each use said transparency in our short individual presentations, summarizing the article’s main points for our classmates.

After two thought provoking student presentations, one on bullying in grade school and one on English language education in Japan, a third student got up to present. He placed his transparency on the overhead projector. The title was written in blue vis-à-vis pen and read “zurashi zubon.” Zurashi zubon roughly translates into “loose pants.” More specifically, pants that are so loose that they slide down past the buttocks, leaving the wearer’s underwear exposed. This is apparently a growing fad with young people in Japan, much to the chagrin of parents.

The student got only a few minutes into his introduction of zurashi zubon before he realized that he had selected his article from the wrong section of the book. I had been chuckling throughout the beginning of the presentation, but I couldn’t hold it in anymore; I burst out laughing. Something about the absurdity of two incredibly serious topics about education and one about pants finally hit me. My laughter got louder and louder, spiraling out of control.

The student giving the presentation crossed out his previous title with the same blue vis-à-vis pen and flipped to the correct section of the book, trying admirably to deliver an off-the-cuff presentation on an article he had never set eyes on before. I couldn’t do this in English, let alone in Japanese.

By this point I had removed my glasses, which were damming up the tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t stop laughing – I mean I really couldn’t stop. I hid my face as best I could behind my textbook, but somehow, like a moth to a flame, my eyes kept being drawn to the projection of the now crossed out title zurashi zubon. Every time I saw the title I re-erupted with tears of laughter.

At this point in the class, everyone had become well aware of my hysterics. I hadn’t stopped laughing for the past five minutes, and had now taken to banging on the table while gasping for air. Consequently, other students in the class started laughing at my ridiculous display. Eventually even Tomiyama Sensei started laughing, as did the student presenter. There we were, all of us, laughing like fools at something as silly as zurashi zubon. It would be a long while before our laughter would die down. I honestly don’t even remember what else was covered that day in class.

Over my years working as an office assistant and studying as a student in the Asian Languages Department, I have had many such hilarious, touching, and memorable experiences with friends and faculty. However, something about this particular memory sticks with me. I think it must be the feeling of friendship and support that can only come from a small…I mean…“intimate” major.

If you are reading this, then Ben Whaley has successfully received his B.A. with honors in Japanese. Next year Ben hopes to be living and working in Japan. He plans to wear zurashi zubon on the plane flight over.

*The preceding short story originally appeared in the 2007 DLCL commencement bulletin.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Graduation! (卒業式)

Well, I finally made it! I am now officially a college graduate. Here is a picture of me receiving my diploma from Asian Languages department chair, Professor Steven Carter.

Thank you to all the people that have encouraged and supported me throughout my college education.

This is only the beginning...

Stay Tuned!


This is just to prove that I DID actually graduate! Here is my BAH in Japanese from Stanford University. It was conferred with departmental honors and distinction on Sunday June 17th, 2007.

I won the Kung-Yi Kao Prize for outstanding progress in the study of Japanese. Here is my award. I was a little surprised that my department cut me a check and sent me on my way. Don't these things usually come with a plaque?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Honors Thesis DONE! (卒論)

My senior honors thesis entitled: Why is Curly a Woman? Presentationality and American Nostalgia in the Takarazuka Revue 「どうしてカーリーは女か?宝塚歌劇におけるアメリカンノスタルジアのイメージ」is finally complete! After close to a year of hard work, the paper is printed and submitted to my department advisers.

Just for clarification, the paper was written entirely in English, though due to the subject matter, many Japanese vocabulary words, phrases, and concepts were utilized.

In a nutshell, my thesis looks at the Takarazuka adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic American musical Oklahoma!. More specifically, I examine how the all-female Japanese production simultaneously evokes nostalgia for images of American culture but also maintains a distinctly “presentational” (over-the-top) Japanese theatrical style.

If any readers are heading to Japan in the near future, do not miss the opportunity to see Takarazuka. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!


P.S. - In recent news, my honors thesis has been nominated for university-wide awards. Maybe I'll take home academia's equivalent of the Oscar!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Language Anniversary! (日本語記念日)

In light of my recent 5000th hit, I have decided to write a post about language learning.

By the time I graduate from Stanford this spring, I will have been studying Japanese for ten consecutive years. I have certainly come a long way since my first Japanese class with Ms. Morse at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, however, every week as I meet with my current teacher Nakamura-Sensei and pour over sample test questions from the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam, I realize how far there is still to go!

My ultimate goal is to be bilingual, or as close to that as a non-native speaker can get. The Japanese have several phrases that speak to language fluency, such as the onomatopoeic word “pera pera,” or the formal word “ryūchō.” Throughout my time in Japan, I found myself telling countless people about my love of the Japanese language and my desire to speak it at a near-native level.

Half of the Japanese people I spoke to, using the word “fluency” to articulate my ultimate goal, would respond that I was already fluent in Japanese and didn’t need to study anymore. While some were undoubtedly being polite, others were genuinely serious. They really couldn’t see why I would want to continue studying Japanese; to them, as a foreigner, I was as good as it gets.

I am always dubious when I hear that so-and-so is “fluent” in Japanese, especially if they are a westerner. Call me jealous if you must, but these aforementioned responses illustrate a common problem with labeling someone as “fluent” in a given foreign language. Namely, what does the word fluent even mean? It means different things to different people. For me, true fluency in Japanese (or any language for that matter) is the ability to freely switch between reading, writing, or speaking different languages, and have there be a relatively small gap in the quality of personal expression.

That is to say, if I were to suddenly switch and continue this post entirely in Japanese, my word choice, humor, and for a lack of a better word, personality, would be largely unaffected. To me, this is the true sign of a fluent individual and the thing to strive for in foreign language study. できるかな?

If you were sat down in front of a camera or tape recorder and interviewed in a foreign language without the ability to speak English (as I have been), what would the quality of your answers be? Would they be radically different from what you intended? Or, would you find that you could freely articulate all the points and emotions you wanted to? Could you make the interviewer laugh and cry at the appropriate moments during your story? These are the questions that plague those in search of language “fluency.”

I would find myself thinking about these questions from time to time when I was in Japan, usually when I was particularly horny and fantasized about kissing and taking a Japanese woman as my future wife. I began to contemplate, if my wife spoke little or no English, would I be able to articulate my “true self” to the woman I loved? Would I appear as a complete person or just half of the funny, charming, and loveable person I could be were I wooing someone in my native tongue? What about my parents? Could they talk to my wife? Would they be upset if they couldn’t?

It all sounds like a reality show waiting to be pitched. A white guy who speaks no Japanese dates a Japanese woman. Taking a cue from a classic episode of I Love Lucy, he wears a wireless earpiece and is constantly being fed what to say in Japanese to impress her throughout the date. At the end of the show it is revealed that the white guy can’t actually speak any Japanese without the help of the bilingual translator and the girl has to choose whether she still likes him or not.

Allow me to shift gears for a moment and reflect on learning Japanese. People often comment that Japanese must be very hard to learn. It is! Well, parts of it are anyways. I don’t know how hard or easy Japanese ranks in the grand scheme of foreign languages, but I would say to speak Japanese naturally is difficult. I have certainly been kept busy over the past 10 years. I love learning foreign languages because there is always the possibility for improvement – there are always natives to speak to, books to read, and things to write. In this sense the sky’s the limit in terms of language growth if one is committed.

People also ask me why I began studying in the first place. I don’t know exactly why I started studying Japanese but I know why I continue: studying and getting better in the language makes me happy. As a kid, I always liked sushi and videogames, but I don’t think either of those products of Japan particularly spurred my interest in the country. More than anything, I started studying Japanese in middle school because it was radically different from English and because I thought (rightfully so) that it would be fun.

It can sometimes be difficult to be a language major at Stanford – a penguin in a flock of seagulls. A friend once asked me what my major was and I said “Japanese.” She responded, “and what else?” When I said that was it, she immediately started backpedaling and telling me how “cool" Japanese was. I laughed…it was fine. Most people at Stanford view language majors as a light snack before dinner, a fun romp when compared to more rigorous engineering or scientific majors. People often pick up a minor or double-major in Spanish / Portuguese, but will rarely devote their entire course of study to the language. The same can be said in my department where only one other guy besides myself is a “true” Japanese-only major. The rest are double-majors or minors.

I hope there is something to be said for those that dedicate themselves to the study of a different language and culture. I am happy that I have made this a priority during my time at Stanford. I very much believe in learning languages and expanding your cultural horizons. I think that is something that the world needs more of.

Japanese is a wonderful language to study…so is any other! What are you waiting for? Get out there and start learning one!


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Too Late!

While I was searching around the web I found this advertisement for McGriddles. The Japanese reads, 「だれも知らない朝ごはん、はじまる。」 or "The breakfast nobody knows is coming!" When I was in Japan, my beloved McGriddles were nowhere to be found. It seems like they are finally making their way to the land of the rising sun!

About time!


The King of Beers!

Happy 20th Anniversary Asahi Super Dry!!!



Speaking of Japanese beer, if you ever find a store that sells Hitachino Nest Beer (常陸野ネストビール), DO NOT miss the opportunity to sample a truly wonderful and unique beer unlike any other - guaranteed! The Hitachino beer brand is actually produced by a sake brewery named Kiuchi. They make a series of ales brewed with rice – the result is a crisp, refreshing beer that tastes like sake.

Nest Beer (named so because of the cute owl mascot) comes in two varieties, white rice (白米) and red rice (赤米). Both are incredibly complex and flavorful. I was completely unfamiliar with this brand until I happened to come across it at a beer and wine store specializing in imports. If you happen to find a bottle, don’t miss the opportunity to snag a real drinking jewel!


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Get a Job, Ya’ Bum! (就職活動)

Nowadays every time my cell rings I wonder if it’s the real world calling. I am fast coming to grips with the realization that in a short period of time I will be fresh out of the ‘Stanford bubble’ and charged with the task of finding something to do with my life. This is terrifying to say the least, the stuff of nightmares.

Maybe the guy pictured in the red cap and overalls will be my future employer. Nintendo of Japan slipped five golden tickets into their first one million Wii systems. The lucky soles who find them get to compose videogame music at the Kyoto based headquarters and meet Willy Wonka himself, Super Mario and Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Composing game music for Nintendo would be a dream, especially considering my interest in music and entertainment. Is it possible? I don’t know. Is it worth a shot? You bet!

Applying to Japanese companies is a daunting process for a foreigner, made worse by the fact that you begin to doubt if said company is even willing to hire non-Japanese employees to begin with. Most global companies such as Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Google, and all have headquarters in Japan that operate autonomously from the American branch. Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America are completely different companies and understandably have different job opportunities and management staffs. A typical high school kid who wants to make videogames some day won’t be doing that in Redmond,
Washington, but they might be doing it in Kyoto.

I have the PDF application to be a composer at Nintendo on my computer, but I had to falsely enter personal information into their online database to even get the application. There were no options to receive employment materials if you didn’t have a permanent residence in Japan. Does Nintendo or any Japanese company for that matter want foreigners? I think they do, but one’s way might only come from a Japanese contact within the company or a headhunting firm.

Perhaps I’ll be back at Columbia Music Entertainment in Roppongi. Hey, at least I have friends there already. I have been debating asking my internship coordinator for a job. He also happens to be the director of Human Resources. But would I enjoy my job?

The choice ultimately comes down to what I value more, location or job. If living and working in Japan is my first and most important requirement, then I have to settle for what might not be my dream job. There is a plethora of English teaching and private tutoring jobs available in Tokyo. Other easy-to-enter employment opportunities in Japan include kebab stand operator, tissue packet distributor, and 100 Yen shop manager. At this point I don’t know which I’m leaning towards.

There are plenty of neat companies in Japan such as Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and Nana-on-Sha (the makers of the Parappa videogame series) that are just dying to be infiltrated by westerners. But then there’s rock steady U.S.A. Wouldn’t I be crazy not to seek employment in America first? I met the American ex-head of Tower Records Japan while I was working at Columbia. He worked for Tower in California first before they shipped him off to Japan. He rose up the ranks in the Japanese company, ultimately landing at the top, and managed to make the record store chain the most popular in Japan. The same cannot be said for Tower in America which filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

One thing is for certain, however, I miss Japan! With my roommate spending the quarter in Berlin and friends popping off to Australia and South America in the middle of the school year for week long excursions, I really do miss living abroad and I would like to return as soon as possible!

I’ll keep you all posted.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Happy New Year!


Welcome to 2007 everyone! Best wishes for a healthy and happy new year. 2007 is the year of the boar or "inoshishi" (猪) in Japanese.



Monday, January 08, 2007

Here is a picture of the Fujiya department store. I happen to think the rainbow coloring and reflective exterior make the building look really neat.

Here is the Pallete Town section of Odaiba island. Is it just me or does Palette Town sound like the central hub in a videogame?

A giant Hello Kitty bounce house in Palette Town.

My mom walking down a typical narrow Tokyo street.

A picture of a similar Tokyo street at night.

Me in a rickshaw at the Edo Tokyo Museum.