Sento-kun and Town Mascots

I don’t know about America, but in Japan, towns have mascots. You know, to promote awareness of the existence of the town. Tajimi, my home and the hottest place in the world, has the mascot “Unagappa”, which is a cross between an eel (unagi) and a kappa (god only knows). The story behind the Unagappa is actually kind of a charming folk tale, in which the kappa, alleged servant of the Water God, goes wild after being disrespected by the people of Tajimi, but is put back in his place by the Dragon God (an eel, perhaps??), and forced to reside in Toki River (the river next to my apartment) and survive on a diet of local eels (which are abundant), to the point that he eventually becomes a sort of half-kappa, half-eel creature hellbent on telling people the temperature (see photo).

At first I was put off by the idea of having a crudely drawn river imp for a mascot, but I suppose the Unagappa has bored his way into my heart over time. One mascot that will never do so for me nor for the native citizens of the region he represents is “Sento-kun”. Sento-kun is a monstrosity of tourism marketing. He may as well be a giant yen symbol. If you know a little bit about Japan but don’t know who Sento-kun is, then perhaps you can guess where he’s from just by seeing his picture.


I’ll wait.

‘Kay, now that you’re back from barfing all over the place, I’ll clarify for the confused. Sento-kun is half-deer, half-Buddha statue, all grotesquerie. Why has this nasty mental flatulence made its way onto so many posters, into so many souvenirs, and yes, even into the food we eat? Clearly this was decided upon in a boardroom after precisely four seconds of intense brainstorming.

“Quick, Nara needs a mascot. What’s Nara got?”

“Uhh, wild deer and a giant Buddha statue.”

“Okay, we’ll take a Buddha, forcibly graft some antlers onto its skull and sell it in cookie form for fifteen bucks a box. Bing-bang-boom. Now let’s all go cheat on our wives at the usual establishment.”

Surely there’s some Buddhist teaching which decries exploiting the visage of the Buddha for financial gain, or at least one against grafting antlers to his skull. In 2008, Japan’s Yahoo News conducted a study revealing that the mascot had a 78% disapproval rate. Cited criticism included “Sento-kun is gross” and “He’s an insult to the Buddha”.

Not to mention an insult to the average citizen’s sensibilities. Imagine if every major city had such haphazardly designed mascots, where two things from that place are just grafted together like Frankenstein’s monster. What would New York’s be? The Pizza of Liberty? Would San Francisco get a gay sea lion? Detroit some kind of deranged thugmobile? Hell, I challenge you readers out there to invent your own Sento-kun-style mascots in the comments. Visual aids welcome!

Where is the Greenest Grass?

An American boy from a middle-class family met a poor boy from Zimbabwe at, let’s say, the transcontinental bus station. The American boy’s car that his parents bought him with the automatic transmission was in the shop getting some rims installed. Hence the bus. The poor Zimbabwean had just come from visiting his Uncle Zuka, who had a fruit stand on a particular continent. The poor Zimbabwean had no car and few other possessions, so he was taking the bus as well.

Due to unforeseen circumstances involving the bus’s flotation device, it was eventually reported to be making its way to the station dreadfully late. In the meantime, the American and Zimbabwean boys had struck up a conversation. The American, not realizing at first where the Zimbabwean was from, asked.

“I am from Zimbabwe,” answered the Zimbabwean. “And you are from America. Only Americans wear the baseball cap backwards.” Though this was an untrue stereotype, the Zimbabwean was right that the boy was American.

“Heh,” the American laughed, embarrassed to have his fashion secrets unraveled by a foreigner. “It was a gift.”

“I envy you,” said the Zimbabwean. “I often wish I was born in America. I love the Paula Abdul.”

“Is she. . . uh. . .yeah, she’s great.”

“I wanted to go to school in America but I don’t have the money.”

“Frankly, you’re better off. I envy you, man,” the American said, his envy a newfound source of confidence.

“You envy me? But why?”

“Man, Zimbabwe sounds so cool. I wish I was from a country that’s name started with a Z. There are tons of countries that start with an A.”

The Zimbabawean did not cry, but in that moment he learned disappointment as he had never known it before.

The Double Life of “Pretty”

I regale you now, with more tales from the Englishroom.

My assistant at work, who is insipid, will often interrupt the flow of class to correct my English, which is correct. Sometimes she will also drop in with unhelpful tips or rattle off entire explanations in Japanese so the kids don’t have to do any thinking. On Tuesday, my junior high kids and I came across the following dialogue:

A: Are you any good at swimming?
B: Yeah, I’m pretty good.

“Okay friends,” I started, “So what does ‘pretty good’ mea–”

“‘Pretty good’ is the same as ‘very good’,” my assistant promptly explained in Japanese. “If you say ‘I’m pretty good’, obviously you think an awful lot of yourself.”

“Obviously you think an awful fucking lot of yourself,” I said for this story. “Actually, pretty and very aren’t the same at all. In this context, I would say that if anything, pretty softens the meaning. The speaker is being slightly modest.”

“But,” which is my assistant’s favorite goddamn word, “the dictionary says” which is my assistant’s next three favorite goddamn words, “pretty is the same as かăȘり (kanari).

It’s shocking how a woman who has studied English for more than two decades, has lived and studied abroad, has dated native English speakers, and taught English in public schools can still expect a dictionary to translate things one for one. The first rule of Japanese-to-English-to-Japanese is that things are almost never one-for-one.

“Things aren’t always one-for-one, though,” I said, gritting my teeth. My students’ eyes darted back and forth between my assistant and me like watching two parents in the process of having a divorce. “It’s not the same as very.”

My assistant slunk back into the corner of her classroom and began fiddling with her electronic dictionary, groping for some shred of evidence that might prove me wrong. Her pride was at stake once again.

The point is that pretty is kind of an interesting word. Sometimes it is emphatic: “This raw cake batter is pretty damn good!” you might exclaim.

But sometimes the word indicates restraint: “That 3-D matinee was pretty good, I guess. If you like that Hollywood crap.”

But imagine your friend is a singer at the opera. After seeing her perform, you go up to congratulate her. “That was very good!” does not equal “That was pretty good!” One of these will not make your friend happy. Of course intonation also makes a big difference, but it’s important to understand that pretty is special in this way. It can mean the opposite of itself. Also, it annoyed me that my assistant interrupted my student, who appeared to understand how to use the word, to criticize him of bragging. “I’m pretty good” is the modest version of “I’m good”.

Now I’m curious to see what kind of reaction I’ll get if I tell my assistant she’s “pretty pretty”, or “pretty tolerable”. But I suppose I should ride out my last two months here without causing a scene.

Rodger Swan

An intellectual prodigy, age 28, invents a vaccine which effectually eradicates syphilis. An army of self-conscious sufferers the world over rejoice. The next morning, a rare but incidentally present breed of spider bites the prodigy’s toe. By noon, the prodigy is dead. His legacy will live on in the hearts and immune systems of those he affected. Sadly, his body, dreams, future, and genius, will not. They are gone forever. For all the grandness of one’s deeds, there’s no defying your own fate, and sometimes fate is a total asshole. But it doesn’t do any good to point out the obvious–that bad things happen to good people and it’s not fair–so I’ll leave it at that and those of you at home can try or not try to convince me that there’s some logical method to all this.

Instead, let’s talk about Rodger Swan. Do you know him? I didn’t know him personally, but since I feel devastated all the same, I don’t guess that really matters. He was an American English teacher living in Iwate, Japan. He kept a video blog of his life and his travels, and also had a separate video series of reviews of Japanese horror movies. I was a fan! He lacked the snideness of your average film critic and emanated a sort of goodness not common enough in people with video cameras. I’ve never been that into the video blog thing, but I was a subscriber to Swan’s channel because he just had a way of brightening a gloomy day, even when he was talking about a movie that might feature multiple evisceration scenes.

Well, Rodger’s gone now, taken at age twenty-three by an apparently sudden case of acute pancreatitis. For all the cheer and warmth he spread around the world to his friends and his fans, it was the rupturing of a small blob of flesh that would decide his fate. I’ve always said it takes a certain surplus of comfort and stability in one’s life to be able to enjoy something like horror movies. Without that sound state of mind, horror is either too upsetting or just boring in comparison to reality. If you don’t know what I mean, grab yourself a Stephen King book next time you’re dashing to the bathroom with diarrhea. Likewise, nothing in any of the movies Swan ever reviewed is anywhere near as horrifying as the reality of his death or the frailty of life.

Though I never knew Rodger personally, the loss I feel is personal as I ponder the departure not of a stranger, but of a comrade and member of the community I’ve somewhat reluctantly been a part of. Call it trite if you will, but don’t say anything until you’ve taken a look at his channel. We’ve lost another saint to Heaven. At least, I hope so.

Hamburger vs. Hamburg

It’s time to lay down the law. Hamburgers are named after the large German city of Hamburg, which was the hub by which they eventually made their way to America. Wikipedia’s got all the info you need. The story goes that they came to Germany from Russia, and to Russia from wherever the hell (I don’t remember).

When Japanese people and other people claim with gusto (the thing, not the place) that Americans eat hamburgers like Japanese eat rice, I wonder where they got their information. I’m American and I eat hamburgers like I eat grilled octopus arm, which is seldom and only in Japan, when it’s convenient. My brother hasn’t eaten a hamburger in at least thirteen years and my other brother probably about as long. I hear about people who eat McDonald’s and the like everyday, and I think 1) “These people are freaks of nature” and 2) “Where are these people?” Because I’ve never met them. I’ve met many Japanese people who eat rice everyday.

So that’s one grievance. Here’s another. In Japan, most restaurants and cafes offer either “hamburgers”, “hamburg”, or both. A “hamburg” is what English speakers might call a “hamburger patty” or if they’re feeling adventurous, a “sirloin steak”. It refers to a hamburger with no bun. In real-life English speech, you might even just say, “some hamburger”, as opposed to “a hamburger,” which would mean the sandwich.

Being a fan of food myself, I often talk about it in class. “What food do you like?” I’ll ask my students. Sometimes one of them answers, “I like hamburg.” It’s invariably someone rude.

“Oh, you like hamburger?” I’ll repeat for confirmation, since nobody says “hamburg” in real life unless they’re talking about a place.

“Hamburg,” the rude child will repeat rudely. “Shows what you know, Captain Bad-Ears.”

I’m tired of being mistaken for being mistaken about this. The next time some smart-aleck kid tries to give me the third degree about this, I’m gonna turn his ass into a sirloin steak. Then, let’s say his name is Ryota, because that’s the name of a kid I happen to hate. I’m gonna turn his ass into sirloin steak and call it “Ryot” and watch how people cringe. Cringe because of how awkward that sounds. “Ryot.” “Hamburg”. It’s the same thing. Both sound awkward, both involve murder.

I need a drink.

The Candy Lady

Today (actually a week ago) I was walking back to my apartment from Osaka, which is a really long walk so I was tired. Actually I took trains most of the way but the walking portion was still about twenty minutes of walking, and it was the last portion of the journey, making it feel like a lot more than twenty minutes.

Near my apartment but before arriving, I passed an old lady because she was hobbling along at an old lady’s pace and I was striding along like a bionic superman, which I am. But then I came to a red light at a crosswalk, and there’s no jaywalking in this part of Japan (though there was lots in Osaka!), so I was stuck for awhile. So long, in fact, that the old lady caught up to me. She pulled a piece of amber-colored candy out of her pocket. “Here, you should eat this. It’s good for you,” she offered with rock-solid assuredness as if she’d gone on living all these years just to give that piece of candy to me at that exact juncture.

Weirded out, I put a hand up and refused. “Oh, I’m okay. Thanks very much.”

“Oh, you don’t want it? Okay then.” She hobbled off in another direction, just as nonchalant as she’d arrived. I wondered if it was all a sign. Maybe she could read my aura. Maybe she saw that I needed healing. Had I made another wrong decision? Sometimes the help you need is the most unattractive option at first glance.

After safely crossing the road, I looked back briefly, but the old lady was nowhere to be found.