Hot Peppers

There are two types of people in this world: those who can get used to it and those who can’t. Those who are flexible enough to go with the flow and learn from their surroundings, and those who struggle and fight, holding on to what they know and refusing to let go.

I was ordering Subway for lunch the other day and had a strange moment of realization: I was asking for jalapeños by saying ホットペッパーもお願いします. Whether or not this is a proper pattern of request aside, why ask for “hot peppers”? Why not ask for jalapeños? Japanese can approximate the pronunciation – ハラペーニョ.

I thought about it for a while and dug up some memories from when I was studying in Tokyo five (!) years ago. I vaguely remember asking for jalapeños at the Subway near the Waseda subway stop and being met with vacant stares or  えっ, the Japanese noise of disbelief or confusion. I’d point, and they realized what I was asking for. Eventually somebody must have responded with “ホットペッパー?” because to this day I still use that term at Subway. It works like a charm. Just say the magic word and your sandwich too can look like this:

I got curious, looked around a little and found that the term ホットペッパー is in fact Subway terminology:

If you want jalapeños on your metaphorical Japanese Subway sandwich, don’t fight it; make things easier on yourself and get used to the way they do things here.

号外 – Uncool Compound – 盗作

盗作 (とうさく) is a pretty straightforward compound; a literal reading provides “stolen-work”, and from there it’s easy to extrapolate to actual meaning – plagiarism.

Perhaps plagiarism is too harsh a charge, but however you measure it, the Japan Times seems to have poached research from a Néojaponisme article I worked on. Roger Pulvers uses Dimitry Kovelenin’s mistranslation of kumozaru in his Counterpoint column today. It’s awfully similar to the Néojaponisme piece, even down to the use of the monkey proverb:

Dmitry Kovalenin, the excellent Russian translator of the works of Haruki Murakami, once tripped over the translation of kumozaru, meaning the spider monkey that is native of Central and South America. Kovalenin assumed, it seems, that Murakami was referring to a mythical animal, so he used a bizarre made-up equivalent of "spider" and "monkey" in Russian. Another Japanese proverb tells us that "even monkeys fall from trees"; and Kovalenin was man enough to bring this particular fall to light himself by acknowledging it publicly.

The worst part is that Pulvers gets it wrong; as far as I know, as far as the transcript reads, Kovalenin did not in fact “man up.” He boasted about the clever translation and was then called out by other translators at the convention.

I guess there’s a chance that Pulvers came up with the research independently, but there are only three hits for "Dimitry Kovalenin" and "kumozaru" on the Internet (make that four) and judging from the rest of the article, he doesn’t seem that creative: the column is a mish-mash of anecdotes, held together by the general theme that “bad pronunciation can make you say funny/rude things”. He sprinkles this with two suggestions – face the speaker when interpreting and use common sense.

I wish the Japan Times would pay me to write stuff like that.

Cool Compound – 優柔不断

Here’s another extremely useful non-idiomatic four character compound. The pronunciation is ゆうじゅうふだん. It’s not as easy to break down as 疑心暗鬼 was, but here we go:

優 – gentle
柔 – soft/flexible
不 – non-
断 – decline

The first half of this compound is never used alone. The second half appears to mean “constant, habitual, unflagging.” Any idea what it means together? No, not “beer gut,” which would be unflagging softness of the abdominal variety – it means “indecisive.”

One of my roommates went back to her hometown in Akita over the recent holiday, but it took her long enough to decide! She didn’t leave until the 1st or the 2nd, and that was only after a lot of hemming and hawing. She was back two days later, too! I realized that I didn’t know how to say indecisive, so I told her the word in English and then tried to explain it and she taught me this compound. Hooray for Japanese roommates!

How to ドーナツ

As alluded to in this video, Krispy Kreme is not the best place to get foreign donuts in Japan. That honor goes to Doughnut Plant. One of their cream-filled gourmet doughnuts will carve nearly 500 yen out of your wallet, add several hundred calories to your waistline, and soak the inside of your arteries with fried sugary goodness.

Their current seasonal offering is 和ドーナツ, starring this 抹茶あんドーナツ:

It wasn’t as good as the Pumpkin Cream one I had last fall. I would go for the Vanilla and Green Tea Cream if I was going to order again. Fortunately there is a Doughnut Plant inside Shinagawa Station, which is dangerously close to where I live. These are only on sale until the 15th and can also be found at Dean and Deluca.

(I spent a few minutes wondering why どなつ only 変換s to 度夏. The moral of the story? Know your long vowel markings in katakana.)

Cool Word – 渋い

One winter tradition in Japan is 大掃除 (おおそうじ) – “big” year-end cleaning. Don’t ask me why they do it when it’s cold outside. Doing it in the spring is far more pleasant. My roommates and I cleaned up our place last month on the 23rd. We clean every couple of months or so to prevent the place from getting too dirty. We set バルサン, insect foggers, and go out for a big breakfast somewhere while the smoke dissipates.  This time we went to Coco’s, and for the first time ever I heard a conversation where both meanings of 渋い (しぶい) were used in natural conversation.

I hear it more frequently used to describe a person’s taste in food, music, movies, clothes, bars – anything really. Five of us ordered plain old breakfast sets with Western-style food, but the last roommate ordered a Japanese-style set meal, prompting another roommate to say 渋い!Shochu, bourbon and scotch, high quality enka music, pop from the 70s (especially this super funky version of 東京砂漠), Elvis, drinking tea instead of coffee, tweed – all of these things are 渋い.

A few minutes later another of my roommates was steeping tea. She poured a cup of deep brown tea, took a sip and grimaced a 渋い! The tea was too strong, too astringent. This is the meaning that there is hardly ever occasion to use. Japanese green tea is generally steeped very briefly, but even if it is steeped for a long time, it never produces that astringent flavor present in darjeelings and assams.

Keeping this fact in mind, now we have to figure out a way to use astringent to describe a person’s tastes. Maybe certain senses of the words “strong” or “extreme” would work. ALC provides “refined,” which also works but probably has a different range of connotations than 渋い. It does overlap at points, though. I guess the main difference is that refined in English is generally a positive term whereas 渋い can probably have some negative connotations. The committee of refined and cool works in most contexts, but there is definitely that sense of someone’s tastes being sort of acerbic, different from the mass populous that is hard to get at in English.