Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's (non) State of the Union Address

It is customary for a president to be seated for a year before he gives a State of the Union Address, so Obama's speech last night was not really a State of the Union. Even though the talking heads on TV treated it as such--my poison is MSNBC--it wasn't. It was more like the Hopeful State of the Union, the way Obama envisions how his stimulus package will work out when implemented. There were a few promising moments, but he grabbed my attention when he got to education. This is the first time I can remember any president speak so publicly about the necessity of HIGHER education--education beyond high school--and how it will hold a place of prominence in his policy.

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.

But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

As a college professor, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I got misty eyed when I heard this.

Friday, February 13, 2009


J-Major Curry Party 2008

The Japanese dish, curry rice, is a common dish. Curry is most readily identified with India, but Japanese curry--if memory serves correctly--did not come from India but from England. The British colonized India, imported curry, altered the flavor and style to match there palette and made it their own dish. The Japanese in the Meiji period, importing many things from the West including cuisine, adopted curry from the British and adapted it to their own taste buds. Indeed, the popular dish "rice curry" ライスカレー--not to be mistaken with curry rice--is closer in to the British rendition of curry than with the original Indian curry, which seems to have dozens if not hundreds of different recipes.

The basic Japanese curry is a dark thick sauce made from a roux and includes onions, carrots, potatoes and meat, either beef, chicken or pork and is generally served with rice--karee nanban is curry served with udon and karee pan is a donut (usually) filled with curry. It is easy to make and even easier to eat--i.e it takes very little chewing to swallow, which is not exactly good for your digestive system.

This distinction between "curry rice" and "rice curry" is more than semantic in Japan. Curry rice カレーライス is served on top of the rice and is the typical serving style in homes and Japanese diners. But for the more sophisticate who eat curry in western-styled diners, hotels and high end department stores, the curry is called rice curry ライスカレー: served in a gravy boat separate from the rice. To me, the taste is virtually same but but the presentation requires a re-ordering of the name.

Further, it is (not so) important to note that curry in Japan is never served with gohan, the Japanese word for "rice," but rather with raisu, the Japanese pronunciation of "rice." This has nothing to do with the actual rice. Curry rice and rice curry are both served with cooked Japanese short grain rice, not the long grain rice of Thailand (Jasmine) or India (Basmati). So what is the difference? Beats me. No Japanese has ever convincingly explained this to me except to say that curry rice is considered a "Western" dish (go figure) and so it is natural to use the Western word to represent the rice as well. Of course, when I ask why they call a "cutlette bowl" katsudon instead of katsu-booru, I am met with consternation. This also works with curry noodles: Why karee nanbam カレー南蛮 (curry of the southern barbarians) instead of karee nuudoru. Yes, I can be such a provocateur.

Anyway, why am I talking about curry? Well, every year I have a curry party for Japanese majors--no I take that back. There was one year when I didn't. I was too busy--which is my usual explantion, and I'll leave it at that. This year, I'm on sabbatical and am unsure if I should have another one. These parties began when the school administration offered a modest sum of money to promote student-teacher interaction. This modest largesse dissipated in a couple of years, but the "demand" for the party never waned so I continued it--except for that one year--at my own expense. A couple of years ago, Hamano sensei began to provide funds to cover some of the cost which was very helpful. But I wonder if there is any demand or need for such a party when I am on sabbatical.

If you think we should hold our J-major Curry Party, leave me a comment. Since there are more than 20 majors, I hope to see a goodly number of responses. That would surely convince me.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Just want to note that one of our Japanese majors (2008) was recently accepted into the PhD program at UC Berkeley and Yale University for Japanese Literature. Marjorie Burge did excellent research at a level that rivals what I did as a graduate student in premodern Japanese Literature when she studied with me last year. She had spent a semester in Korea and a year in Japan and was researching classical documents that she believed provides linguistic clues to the close relationship between Paekche (Korea) and Japan. She maintained high standards throughout her academic career here that got her recognized by GW for Outstanding Achievement. She was nominated as a Distinguished Scholar (ESIA) and recognized as a member of what Vice President Lehman referred to as the "2% Club", the top two percent at GW. [photo]

Congratulations Margi.

One Day Fireman

Mere words cannot express how moved I am at how our J majors grow. Good job, Jacob Heller (2007), even if is was only for a day. :-P

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Speaking Japanese

When speaking Japanese, non-native speakers need to remember to be polite.

Most languages have at last two levels of speech. In general, they are formal and informal. In the US, this is especially true in business. You call people Mister, unless told otherwise. You speak and act politely, unless you become very familiar with your superior. Do you slap you boss's back and tell him "Good job, dude"?

In Japanese, the line is even more pronounced. Unfortunately for most Japanese learners, a Japanese speaker will not correct a non-native speaker when they speak informally. Many Americans will come back from Japan thinking their Japanese is all that. I certainly have many students like that as well. And for the most part, their confidence is well founded. Their Japanese is relatively fluent and unobstructed by the fear of using the wrong word.

However, if they are too informal with me, I will always correct them. I don't mean to be a hard-ass, but someone needs to correct them because if and when they return to Japan for work or graduate study, they cannot talk informally when talking to a business colleague or professor. They have to learn to turn the formality switch on and off in any given situation. And the level familiarity rarely has anything to do with it. I worked at a Research Center for two years in Japan and became very familiar with my bucho (division chief). We often drank together, and he is the one who dubbed me the "American who speaks English". But one night while drinking, I spoke to him a bit too familiarly. Now, in Japan, drinking often excuses an error in judgment, and most will laugh it off the next day. But my error in being too familiar with my bucho put me in his doghouse for two weeks. He literally did not speak to me during that time, relaying messages to me through others.

The bottom line is--been there, done that. So I tell my students to speak to me formally whenever they decide to speak to me in Japanese. If they think I am a hardcase, then so be it. I take it upon myself to be their practice partner, their opportunity to learn how to turn that formality switch on and off.