Thursday, September 01, 2011

After Three Months in Tokyo (Part I)

It's now been exactly three months since I came to Tokyo. Time to take stock. What's about to follow might seem disjointed but I think it's appropriate given the haphazard way my mind has been processing things. I'll just jump right into it.


Japan has more 7-Eleven stores than anywhere else in the world. They are everywhere. Within walking distance of virtually every train station you are bound to run into one of these. It turns out that 7-Eleven is now completely Japanese-owned, with the parent company 7 & I Holdings headquartered in Tokyo. Apparently when the chain first came to Japan from the US, it became hugely successful and popular, so much so that when the US company ran into financial trouble, it got bought out by the franchise in Japan.

In fact 7-Eleven isn't the only formerly-US-owned convenience store franchise in Japan. Almost equally ubiquitous are Lawson stores. These stores are used for many different things. Apart from buying food and groceries, you can use them to pay your utility bills, make photocopies, send faxes, buy tickets to concerts and plays, withdraw money from your bank account, transfer money to other people, etc. etc. In sum, they put the convenience in a convenience store. In Japanese they are known by their short form as konbini.


The above is a map of the Greater Tokyo train system. I think I read somewhere there are over 600 train stations in Tokyo. These are served by many different train lines criss-crossing the city, some state-owned and some private. On top of that, any one particular line can have as many as 5 or 6 different flavors of itself. A local train that hits all the stops, an express train that skips a few, a special express train that skips even more, etc. This detail is not reflected in the map above.

Trying to process all this information is daunting. There are a couple of websites, such as Hyperdia and Navitime, where if you enter in point A and point B they will give you route guidance. Though despite this, it took me around 2 weeks before I could get to work and back without getting lost on the subway.

The beauty of it all is of course how the system works like clockwork. You can without exaggeration set your watches by train schedules. Every platform has a display showing when the next train is arriving and there are rarely any delays. Coming from Boston, this was quite the contrast for me.

My only beef with the trains is that they shut down from around midnight till 5 am every day. Between those times you either walk or take a taxi. Or you can do like many Japanese which is pass out in front of the station and wait for the gates to open in the morning.

Japanese for Muppets

The biggest adjustment for me by far has been trying to learn the language. Initially, the difficulty of not being able to understand any of what was being spoken around me was compounded by the fact that I also couldn't read anything.

Now, you can Wikipedia all this to your heart's content, but very briefly, Japanese has three different writing systems. There's kanji, which is the character system borrowed from Chinese. If you want to be able to read a Japanese newspaper, you need to know at least 2,000 of these characters. Next comes hiragana, which is an alphabet system used to spell words for which there aren't any kanji characters. And finally there is katakana, which is another alphabet, used to spell loan words from other languages such as English (for example konbini above would be spelled using katakana).

When I first got here, I knew zero kanji, zero katakana, and about half of the 40 odd hiragana letters. So naturally I couldn't read to save my life. However, with some practice I was able to sort out the hiragana and katakana in about a month. That doesn't mean that I could read things easily, only that following a process much like that of the two-headed monster on Sesame Street, I could string words together.

To give an example of this process, a while ago I saw a sign that read:


Step 1 is recognizing which of the three writing systems this is in. In this case this is katakana. And the pronunciation key for this is sa-ma-a-gi-fu-to-se-n-ta-a, as in that is what the letters above spell out. So that's step 2, figuring out how to pronounce it. Step 3 is putting it together, so saying out loud "samaagifutosentaa". There are no spaces so you have to work those in yourself. Now, using the knowledge that since this is katakana it is probably something transliterated from English, I first am able to tell that the last part "sentaa" probably is "center". So it's some sort of a center. A "futo" center? Ah yes, a photo center! It's a sign for Samagi Photo Center!

But wait, what does Samagi mean? Sounds like a native Japanese word, so then it should have its own kanji character. Also, photo would be "foto" and not "futo". So that can't be right either. What is it then? At this point I try to sound it out in various different ways.

to-sentaa....    fu-to-sentaa....    gi-fu-to-sentaa....   

.... gifuto-sentaa.....

Ah. GIFT center! Samaa Gift Center. Summer Gift Center! Got it!

So the whole process of reading three words took about a minute and I was able to read something that ultimately was completely worthless. I had no need for a summer gift center. Anyway, those are the sorts of problems with reading that I encountered at the start. It is getting better now, but it still is a very slow process.

Spoken language on the other hand is relatively simpler. Pronunciation is almost exactly as it is in Urdu or Spanish so if you know either of those two the accent shouldn't be a problem. Grammar is much simpler than it is in English, so just by learning a few simple rules you can get by at a basic level.

What's helpful for me is that sentence structure is at times exactly like it is in Urdu. For instance, consider the phrase "chotto toi desu ne". This means the same thing as "thori duur hay na?" with the 4 words in the same order meaning the same thing in both languages. (In English, "it's a little far isn't it?")

I think I'll stop here and continue the rest in another post. If you've made it this far, thank you for reading. If you're still interested in more, check out my co-worker's blog. He's been pretty regular with the posting and has some really interesting stuff.

I'll leave you with this picture of a painting in Shibuya Station. This is a piece by Taro Okamoto called Asu no Shinwa (The Myth of Tomorrow). The whole thing is 30 meters long and depicts the moment the atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima.


ruairi said...


Ainul Momina said...

Very informative, you should consider writing a travelogue and get it published.

demoncrat said...

very nicely written! enjoyed it! ~Sasha