Cool Kanji – 堅

堅い (かたい) is a word I had a basic feel for long before I knew the actual English equivalent. I took an intensive summer class after my first year in university, and I have memories of the sensei using it all the time and me not exactly understanding what it meant when they used it to describe different words and phrases. I probably looked it up once and then just let it sink in. Unfortunately I can’t think up any specific examples of what was and wasn’t 堅い. It might have just been keigo variants.

Needless to say, having an understanding of 堅い is immensely important in Japan. The rigidity of your speech, your body language, your overall interactions with other people – these are all very important in Japan. Arguably more important than elsewhere. This isn’t to say that you should tense up like a plank when you talk with your 社長 (all 社長 should be lovingly referred to, behind their backs, as “the Shach” – let’s make it happen, y’all!). The most respected ability in Japan is being comfortable with your situation and knowing when and when not to dial up the intensity/formality/rigidity/堅さ.

Because this is such an important idea, it can be abused for humorous reasons, as I’ve mentioned a number of different times – most recently in my article in the Japan Times today about universal humor. Check it out!

My New Manga Reading Technique is Unstoppable

That YOINK sound you may have heard earlier this week was the sound of Junji Itō’s “Voices in the Dark” and Naoyuki Ochiai’s “Crime and Punishment: A Falsified Romance” being licensed, ending Daniel Lau’s scanlation series. This is too bad because Daniel gave me the first three volumes of the latter before I left Japan. I’ve started reading the first volume and was looking forward to checking out his translations when I finished.

Everytime I go to Japan, I end up flying back with a lot of books and manga, but I find it hard to dig up the necessary willpower to actually read them. I’ve got reading for classes (that I’m both taking and teaching), writing for classes, too many blogs that I’m trying to run, and it’s hard to find that energy when I’m finished with all of that and taking care of my semi-feral cats.

No longer! This time I felt a little obligated to read the manga (anything a friend presses on me, I try to actually get through), so I needed to find a way to motivate myself. I’ve combined two strategies into an unstoppable manga reading technique – AJATT’s do something easy + Penelope Trunk’s if…then thinking = toilet manga:

If I am sitting on the toilet, I am reading “Crime and Punishment: A Falsified Romance.” Usually I can get through a couple pages in any given sitting, which is progress! And it’s easy. I don’t have to commit a half hour or an hour, but all the sittings do add up: I’m about halfway through the first volume. I’m not sure if this will work for novels or short stories (this strategy seems especially suited for manga with pictures that enable quick review of the storyline), but I’ll give it a shot when I finish this.

The only problem is that I’m out of the house so often these days, and it’s weird to carry reading into a public restroom – too weird.

How to Fly First Class for Free

I have what my mother has described as “follow through issues.” No, this has nothing to do with my golf swing or the form of my jumpshot. I always find it easy to start big projects, but sometimes completing them can be an issue, and when something is a tedious task, I have trouble even getting started.

Schoolwork was never an issue, and real work hasn’t been either, but favors for friends and the little unimportant things like laundry, cleaning house, etc. always take me several tries. I’m almost never able to complete them in one go. I also find it hard to keep a budget and deal with number-based stuff. This includes joining an airline mileage program and racking up miles.

But I have seen the promised land, friends, and its name is first class on a transpacific flight. Yes, I was upgraded to first class on a LAX-NRT Delta flight when I flew in two months ago.

I’m not sure what your impression of the upgrade process is like, but I always imagined people in suits schmoozing their way from economy to business class or business to first. Well, this is a lie. The best way to get free upgrades to first class is to pick an airline, commit to it over the long term, and build up miles in the mileage plan. I wasted three years on JET by flirting with several different airlines (always the cheapest and most convenient), but not long after I moved to Tokyo, I committed to a long term relationship with Delta, and that’s been the secret. Delta has been a love-hate relationship, but she’s made up for her wrongs.

If you work long term in Japan, chances are you were like me and went home about once a year for a week or two. Tokyo to New Orleans is about 5000-6000 miles for each leg. That’s 10-12,000 miles per trip, and if you happen to take two trips in the same year, you can get close to the 25,000 miles required for Silver Medallion status.

I don’t care what Delta says, that Silver Medallion status is GOLD. Once you’re in to the medallion club, you get unlimited free upgrade requests. I’m not exactly sure if this is true for international flights, but when you purchase a domestic ticket, it will show you that your upgrade has been requested. I imagine that this enables the airline to sell more economy fares in the event that the first class fares don’t sell out; they simply bump a medallion member to first class and sell another (probably more expensive) ticket to Joe Schmoe (because he had to buy last minute).

Since last December, I’ve been upgraded to first class on four out of five domestic flights. For mathematically disadvantaged individuals, that’s 80%.

Most of these were short, one-hour flights, so the only real advantage was being first on and first off the plane. The MSY(New Orleans)-LAX flight was longer, so I got breakfast, which was great. The flight attendant came up to me and asked, “Will you be joining us for breakfast?” which absolutely killed me. Worth the price of admission to get Japanese-style attention in the U.S.

I don’t know how many of you have flown through LAX recently, but it’s a crap airport. Because of the construction and lack of speakers, I didn’t know I’d been upgraded to first class to Tokyo until shortly before I boarded. I got an email a few days before the MSY-LAX flight telling me I’d been upgraded, but the lady at the gate in LAX handed me my upgraded boarding pass a few minutes before I boarded. I didn’t have to ask for anything. It was automatic. Again, my guess is that this is because folks were flying standby and there were open seats in first class, and they start going down the list of people in the following order – medallion status, number of miles flown, price paid for ticket.

First class was great. I was used to economy where food isn’t served until an hour or two into the flight, so I had a meal at LAX before I left. Appropriately, my last American meal looked like a big, fat zit – clam chowder in a bread bowl:

In first class, they feed you immediately, and they take your order before take off. I only took pictures of the food, and this is what it looked like:

After we finished the meal, they brought out a dessert tray and started with the seats across from me. The desserts slowly started to disappear, so I resolved to go without the ice cream I wanted until another dessert tray appeared in my peripheral vision.

Cue tryptophan dream sequence. Wake up, breakfast like a boss:

The secret is, as mentioned before, committing to an airline, building up miles, and being a little lucky. I had a little luck myself. On my way home to Japan from the U.S. last year, my flight got canceled because the toilet was broken, so they put us all in a hotel for the night and gave us 25,000 miles on vouchers. Later they gave us an additional 10,000 miles just to apologize. I think these are what really helped bump me to medallion status, but flying a bunch of times didn’t hurt either.

A couple other notes:

– Book your ticket directly through Tickets booked via miles or a travel agent probably won’t be upgraded because they are special fares. Booking online probably won’t cost much more.

– Ask for the upgrade over the phone before the flight. I feel like this would probably improve your chances more than asking someone at the gate. Those gate people always seem to be incredibly stressed out. I’m not sure the people on the phone are any less stressed, so this might be the best idea.

– Enjoy the hell out of your first class experience! At first I was all self-concious, telling myself “Be cool, bitch!” but then I relaxed and said fuck it, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this. I pressed all the buttons on the seat (there are a ton) until I figured them all out, despite the fact that it made me look like an idiot. I took pictures of all the food. I watched movies. I cracked some beers.

– Don’t get drunk and be obnoxious like the lady in front of me. She had something like five or six glasses of wine and then went on a toilet rampage. I waited for one to open and went in to brush my teeth and relieve myself. I had taken a little time, so when I heard a knock on the door, I assumed it was the flight attendant. I quickly finished and apologized when I got out. The flight attendant said, “Don’t be sorry” and rolled his eyes at the lady who was wasted and pounding on the bathroom doors.

– Always wear a jacket or something you can check just in case you get upgraded. They hang it up in a closet for you!

– I’m flying home in a week. I’m not expecting to get upgraded (because the service in Japan is horrible, according to some terrible documentary film asshole), but it would be a nice surprise. I’ll keep everyone posted.

white ≠ ワイト

My first winter vacation living in Fukushima, I spent a week in Tokyo staying with my friend Thomas. He had come to Tokyo with his girlfriend shortly after graduating, and not long before I visited they split up, forcing him to move out into a guest house in Kanda. He was incredibly generous with his space (of which he had very little), and I spent the week shopping, drinking, and dancing.

When we were out one night, I helped a guy order a White Russian. When I walked up to the bar, I was standing behind the guy, and I noticed that he was having trouble communicating with the Japanese bartender. He kept on repeating “White Russian” over and over in a vaguely Japanese accent – ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン.

Having been in his position before, I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. I leaned over, offered to help, and had the bartender reaching for the Stoli and Kahlua with a single extra syllable – ホ. The guy clearly expected the Japanese pronunciation of “white” to be ワイト, when it is actually ホワイト.

There are a couple Yahoo Chiebukuro pages that try to answer the question, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer other than ホワイト more accurately captures the pronunciation, which suggests that it may be an English pronunciation error on my part – maybe I’m not pronouncing “white” snootily enough? What’s certain is that the ホ-spelling is so natural and widespread – used in everything from white collar and white chocolate to Pokemon White – that the locals don’t think twice about it. Which means you shouldn’t either. Get used to it and you’ll save yourself time next time you’re at the bar.

Sandra Japandra‘s recent encounter with vermouth and its unexpected (from an English point of view) pronunciation ベルモット reminded me of this ホワイト incident. These are two good examples of another way that foreign loan words can be tricky: even when the Japanese word does equate to the object in the foreign language and not some other thing entirely, the pronunciation is not always exactly the same as in the English (unless it is…in which case I’m just a linguistically evolved youth and have shed this silly ホ in English). You can try to use the trick that some of my middle school Spanish classmates used when they “need-o to use-o el bano” and Japanify all the words you don’t know, but this is not recommended. Pay attention to yer katakanas and read all those syllables.