Sunday, September 24, 2006

Deciphering Japanese Goo

It's 2:57 a.m. here in Tokyo, and I'm jet-lagged and can't sleep--despite having had just five hours of shut-eye in my last 32. This is a hastily-arranged trip with one of my book-author clients to do some research on a project that is nearing completion. It's also my first visit to Japan, the land of (some of) my ancestors.

I am sitting near the window of my 23rd floor hotel room with its panoramic view of downtown Tokyo. Most of the giant multicolored neon signs bearing company logos that were lighting up the night when I got into bed a few hours ago have now been dimmed. Some of the names are familiar--Toshiba, Kirin, Canon, Sapporo--but many are not: Maquia, Fujiya, and something called Goo. An Internet search tells me that Maquia makes traditional Japanese beauty products and that Fujiya is a hotel chain, but I'll be darned if I can figure out what Goo is.*

*On further analysis: Google locates a Japanese page for Goo, which turns out to be some kind of Internet portal owned by NTT, the Japanese telecom company. On request, the Google software manfully tries to translate the Goo website into English, coming up with a page full of baffling pseudo-English: New! The imported living thing brings, adverse effect outside supposition . . . Healthy mah-jongg. Rental older sister drama. Transparent mouthpiece . . . Sport: (While promptly reporting) As for the result of 1st at bat of (Ichiro)?

Actually, I bet I understand the last item. It should probably read: Sports News Up to the Minute: Ichiro's First At-Bat of Tonight's Game.

During my six days here I will try to grab opportunities to post when I can. A few quick impressions to start with:
  • Narita Airport is very quiet, even when jammed with travelers. (I was there for two hours yesterday afternoon, waiting for my author's flight from Boston to arrive.) I think the effect is created by thoughtful architecture and design (plenty of sound-muffling fabrics on walls and floors) as well as by the quiet demeanors of the Japanese people. I watched one smiling young Japanese woman marching around the baggage claim area holding up a sign bearing the name of a Thai traveler she had been dispatched to meet. The first several times she passed me by, I thought she was completely silent. Finally I noticed that she was actually calling out the name of the person she was looking for--but so quietly that it would almost pass as a whisper among Americans.
  • I had my first "real" Japanese meal last night (as opposed to the American versions I've eaten in New York and elsewhere)--a simple bento box dinner in my room at the hotel before I crashed for the night. It was remarkably delicious for some reason I can't explain. Of course it could just be that I was tired and quite hungry, which always makes food taste better. But over the next few days I will try to figure out what is different about Japanese food in Tokyo as compared to the US and if I can define it I will.
  • English language is everywhere here (though not on the Goo website, obviously). Many billboards and signs are in English, and lots of television broadcasting is in English--and not just on the networks (like CNN) provided in the hotel for the benefit of business travelers. Flipping around the stations I came across the Discovery Channel and watched a little of a show about Leonardo da Vinci. It was in English with no subtitles. But the ads and promos during the commercial breaks were all in Japanese, which shows that the network is broadcasting for local viewers.
  • One of the promos on the Discovery Channel (I saw it three times in just half an hour) was for an upcoming documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Shots of devastated landscapes in Louisiana and Mississippi, crowds of Black people languishing amid garbage on New Orleans sidewalks and begging for water, food, and medicine. We hear a voice-over by an American rescue worker (in English of course): "As soon as we arrived we realized it was like coming into a Third World country . . . " followed by the Japanese announcer pitching the documentary (accompanied by Japanese characters on the screen giving the time and date of the broadcast). How depressing to glimpse a bit of the image of Bush's America as the outside world is seeing it.

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