Tuesday, July 11, 2017

So Your Character is From Japan ... Featuring Mami Suzuki + Noriko @ Diary of a Bookfiend

It's time for this week's So Your Character is ... Post! This is a weekly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country or having a disability. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last week's  So Your Character is from South Korea ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!

I've been into Japan since I started watching anime as a teenager. Getting used to Eastern culture, took me a while, but now I love so many things Japanese, including the food, cultural traditions, J-pop, and I've even picked up some of the language from watching 200+ episodes of subbed anime. One of the countries that I really wanted to find this year was Japan, so I'm so happy to have found Mami and Noriko!

Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.

(None of the Images are Mine)

I’m Mami Suzuki. I was born in Osaka and grew up in the countryside of Nara. I also lived in Kyoto for about three years for my job. Afterwards, I moved to Ontario, Canada where I am currently working for Tofugu as a content researcher, blog writer, etc. Like a typical Japanese person, my hobby is my work…just because Tofugu is awesome and I love them so much. Aside from that, I like reading, drawing, and golfing (though I’m not very good at it). However, recently I have been so busy to do any of those since I am a working mother raising a little baby.
Website (Profile)//Twitter//Instagram

Hi, my name is Noriko and was born and raised in a small town in the countryside of Yamaguchi, Japan. The Westernmost prefecture of Honshu Island of Japan. 
I’m a book blogger, a full-time worker for a construction company and last but definitely not least, a voracious reader. 
Blog//Twitter//Instagram (norinbooks_76)//Goodreads

What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Mami: I feel my country is unique in so many ways, but if I had to choose, I’d go with its four seasons and its food. Recently, a comedian named Atsugiri Jason (@atsugirijason) made a point that Japan isn’t the only country with four seasons, but how we celebrate and enjoy each season may differ. We have party underneath cherry blossoms in the spring and eat rice cake while looking at beautiful full moons during fall. How romantic. I like how dramatically the appearance of towns can change from seasons to season. 

Noriko: Landmarks and traditions. I don’t want to be too religious here but one of Japan’s main religions is Shintoism which is an indigenous religion based on the worship of nature and we have an abundance of it especially in rural areas. We have a lot of traditions and rituals derived from Shintoism and some of them are still alive and well. While I don’t think the significance of those traditions among people is on the decline as people have become more Westernized and less claustrophobic, but I think such traditions are something to be passed down.

As for landmarks, they are absolutely different from what you might be familiar with (for instance, the architectural styles and the materials they were built with) and I think the history each landmark tells us is really enlightening to sink our teeth into.

As for the food, each region in Japan has their specialty and they are all unique. It’s really fun to travel around Japan trying different local foods. Many places have different specialties for each season and they use only the freshest ingredients. For example, in Nara where I grew up, spring is the season of Yamato tea, which has several times more vitamin C than matcha, and Ayu (sweet river fish). We have a lot of local veggies such as purple hot peppers during summer and golden gourds in the fall. In fall, the persimmons mature and you can enjoy sweet and sour strawberries in the winter.

Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favorite places?
Mami: Big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka are super developed. If you lived there, you’d soon hear people refer to the suburban areas of those cities as “countryside”. When I say I was raised in the countryside, I mean actual countryside. I like big cities because they have so many fun places to visit and an abundance of restaurants and bars, but I love the deep, serene comfort of the countryside. In the countryside, I love how an image of people working in step-like fields on a sloped hill with a mountainous backdrop changes day to day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my heart feels like it was cleansed whenever I go back there. 



Noriko: Big confession: I haven’t traveled much so I haven’t been to many places (I’m literally facepalming now), but I would say Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan is really an interesting place! I just visited Okinawa in mid-February and I fell in love with the beautiful ocean and nature. Although Okinawa has urbanized as most of the other places in Japan, the beauty of its nature is apparent to our eyes. I think our country is still blessed with a lot of nature especially in the rural areas and I hope we can keep it that way. 

Pollutions relating to urbanization are present for sure in big cities like Tokyo, but conservation efforts have been made to stop further damage. I love sakura cherry blossoms in spring, verdant greens in early summer, beautiful blue oceans in summer and the transition from fall to spring represented in fallen leaves. The nature and the four seasons are something we can boast of and I would like to have many of you visit Japan and behold them with your own two eyes.

Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?
Mami: There are so many different foods in Japan, so it’s hard to narrow things down to a few favorite dishes. Yet, just recently my Japanese friends and I discussed what would be our last meal if we could choose. The dishes were, Hakata’s tonkotsu ramen, Yobuko’s squid sashimi, and two of us surprisingly chose the simplest of foods – rice. 

Squid Sashimi

Mochi (Rice Cake)

Hankata Tokutsu Ramen

It’s difficult to find super delicious rice outside of Japan, but there are so many in Japan. The most famous is Koshihikari from Niigata prefecture. We classify rice as 1st, 2nd, 3rd class and nonstandard. 1st to 3rd each contain 15% water, but the better class grains are usually bigger and more uniform the size and shape. There is a deliciousness ranking, which goes Special A, A, A’, B, and B’. They are ranked by smell, appearance, taste, gluten amount and firmness.  A’ is of typical taste, so you can imagine that 1st class Special A rice is just so delicious. The water quality and how you cook the rice is also important. You may not believe it, but rice alone can be so good and that’s why we would choose it as our last meal – Special A rice, specifically. 

Noriko: I think Sushi and Tempura are already popular and most of you have already heard of it. But there are a lot of other delicious dishes like Niku-jaga,(potato with beef stew) ton-katsu, (pork cutlets), udon (wheat noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles)… I think one characteristic of Japanese cuisine is incorporating ingredients which are in season to appreciate the flow of the four seasons. That element of Japanese cuisine is the most prominent if you go to an haute cuisine restaurant. 

As for my favorite dish, I would say pork cutlet or tempura. They go really well with white rice!

Rice Types

Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?
Mami: We often omit subjects, so you have to guess what people are talking about. Guessing, or assumption comprises a big portion of Japanese communication. We call it 空気を読む (kuuki o yomu), which literally means “to read the air.” We also have a lot of Japanese English that doesn't actually make sense in English. For example, we call an apartment “a mansion.” So, don’t get jealous when a Japanese university student says he lives in a “mansion.” It probably just means he is living in an apartment that doesn’t even have a bedroom. (That’s where I lived…my bed was in my living room). Lastly, Japan isn’t a huge country, but there are so many different dialects.

Noriko: To be honest with you, I can’t come up with any good answers nor examples for this question because the Japanese language itself is quite different from English thus I have no idea! 

Can I pass this question? Sorry!

Describe briefly a regular day in your country.

Noriko: Japanese people are known to be workaholic and studious. I can only speak from a workpeople perspective, but I would say a regular day in our country would be getting up early in the morning, having breakfast (mostly a piece of toast and coffee), changing into work uniform or suits, hopping on the train to work (or driving to work), work from 9 to 5, maybe working a ferw hours overtime, going home, eating at home, taking a bath, and chilling out the rest of the day watching some TV shows or movies maybe with some drinks like wine. And then go to bed. 

How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Mami: This is a very vague and vast question. The first thing that comes to mind is that we usually have smaller kitchens than North American. When my mother came to visit me in Canada, she was surprised that four burners on the stove is the standard and she was jealous. I think she only has three. The other thing is that we close our bathroom doors when nobody is using it. It depends on the family I guess, but I see a lot of people in Canada leave them open. It is opposite in Japan and I’ve had a few embarrassing experiences here. If you want to know about the political differences between Japan and other countries, I’m not the right person for it. 

Noriko: I have never been to the United States so I have no frame of reference, but I think our countries are not too different in terms of environment; I think the environmental situations in our countries is much alike, with abundance of nature in the countryside while having throbbing urbanized cities near the capitals. 

Politically, I think Japan is greatly influenced by the United States. I am not so big in history, but I know Japan is a constitutional country. There was a time when Emperor was deemed as God especially during the wartime, but after WW2, Emperor abdicated his rights and was turned to be a mere symbol of sovereignty. 

Culturally, I think the Japanese are inherently conservative. That aspect is prominent especially among the elderly, they don’t like changes while the younger generation tend to be more open to new ideas and westernization. I hope that answers your question!

Japanese Prime Minister

Japanese Apartment

Briefly describe three of your country’s historical events that you feel are important.
Mami: - The Civil War:
Japan experienced a long period of instability and civil war from 1476 to 1603. Back then, samurai fought against each other for reign over the whole country. When they took over a region, they built a castle (or they seized a castle that was already built), which resulted in about 5,000 castles in Japan by the end of the period. Only some remain now, but it’s fun to travel around what still remains.

- The Meiji Restoration:
It ended feudalism, the Shogunate system and recovered Imperial prerogatives in the late 19th. This was a big turning point in Japan and helped lead the country towards modernization and industrialization.

- Great East Japan Earthquake:
I don't know if you can call it a historical event, but the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011 was a terrible disaster that I will never forget. People are still working on cooling down the nuclear power plant and apparently, this has to continue on for quite a while longer. That’s sad that the only country that has experienced atomic bombs accepted nuclear as a power source and it caused another tragedy.

Noriko: I can only come up with one… the end of WW2 and the subsequent occupation period led by General Douglas MacArthur. I think that is the watershed moment in the history of Japan and when the things drastically changed and the foundation of today’s Japan was established. 

The defeat in WW2 made Japan renunciate war and any form of armies so as not to repeat the disasters and catastrophes brought by war. I think this is truly the lesson we need to pass down from one generation to the next. 

What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you? What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Mami: I come across jokes or news about how all Japanese people eat dolphins, but they aren’t really common. In fact, I’ve never seen dolphin on a menu in any restaurant. Also, although there are sushi restaurants everywhere, it’s not a common home meal. I want people to stop thinking that all Japanese people can make sushi. I like eating sushi but I can’t make sushi. I’m sorry. Don’t expect a sushi party at my place.

Some stereotypes, such as that all Japanese people have a high aptitude for technology, they love manga and anime, or dress up crazily aren’t true, but it doesn’t bother me because it doesn't really affect me. I actually like the fact that Japanese can be unique.

Noriko: I don’t know much about such stereotypes, but every time I comes across Japanese people are portrayed as wearing kimonos all the time and speaking in an anachronistic way as seen in old Samurai movies, it makes me laugh, because it’s far from how things go in Japan now!

What media portrays your country well, be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Mami: I like Naomi Kawase’s movies that are set in Nara. I grew up in Nara and I don’t know a lot of other places in Japan, but it portrays Nara very well. Other than that, documentary films would do a good of it. The most famous modern Japanese writer is probably Haruki Murakami, but I’d say his novel doesn’t portray it very well. His is a bit unrealistic. There are a lot of his fans in Japan too, but it’s a bit too cheesy and too romantic for many. The fans who love “his world” are called Harukists.

Noriko: I would say movies?? Having chatted with a lot of other bloggers around the world especially in the United States, I was amazed by how many of them have watched Japanese TV shows and movies through NetFlix or Hulu or something. Modern Japanese movies and TV shows reflect what we Japanese are like well, so I think that’s the best way to get a glimpse of Japan. 

Who are your top three favorite characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?
  • Mario: I like Mario games. I also like the famous Mario joke – “Don’t be racist! Be like Mario. He’s an Italian plumber created by Japanese people, who speaks English and looks like a Mexican."
  • Doraemon: I’ve loved Doraemon since I was a little. I don’t read the manga or watch the anime anymore, but I’d still nominate him as my favorite character. Good old Doraemon. I want your special tools.
  • Sento-kun: He is Japaense yuru-kyara who looks cute and gross at the same time. I cheer for him because I’m from Nara. 
Noriko: It’s hard to name my top three fictional characters… I just want to say I love Japanese old folklores and fairytales. They represent the importance of integrity and humility, and they always – almost without fail – present rewards from being nice and honest to others AND negative outcomes from being evil and disingenuous. A perfect material to instill good moral sense into kids so that they grow up to be conscientious, companionate, good people. 

Thank you, Mami, for this very informative post! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it. Come back next week for So Your Character is from Taiwan ...!

Are you interested in participating in this project? Check out the tips archive to see which countries have been filled and if you're from a different country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com.

Do you have any characters from Japan? Did this inspire you to write a Japanese character or set a book in Japan? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Mami? Be sure to thank her!

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