Archive for the ‘japan’ Category

Kanji processing in the brain

Saturday, January 1st, 2005

These days fMRI is used to figure out what parts of your brain light up when doing everything from meditating to taking a crap, so why not take a peek at the neurophysiology of reading Chinese characters? That’s what a group of Taiwanese researchers did in this study (warning, long, boring PDF). Strapped into the big fMRI machine, the hapless subjects peered through a mirror at pairs of huge Chinese characters projected at their feet, attempting to determine if they were homophones, a task requiring the so-called orthography-to-phonology mapping, or identical shapes, a purely geometric task. This paper comes complete with those de rigeur pictures of brains with their activated red and orange areas (the one here showing people at work on the homophone task).

The only problem is, I can’t figure out what their conclusions were:

While the left occipitotemporal region, left dorsal processing stream, and right middle frontal gyrus constitute a network for orthogrpahic processing, the regions of the left premotor gyrus, left middle/inferior frontal gyrus, medial frontal cortex, and the left temporopariental region work in concert for phonological processing of Chinese…The engagement of sets of regions for different levels of Chinese orthographic and phonological processing is consistent with the notion of distributed parallel processing. Our knowledge of characters arises from concurrent interaction between orthographic, phonological, and semantic processing.

Well, OK.

As an aside, I’m fascinated by this excerpt from the paper:

Engagement of the left post-central gyrus, medial superior frontal gyrus (SMA, spatially extended to cingulate cortex), thalamus, and cerebellum was mostly due to subjects’ voluntary movement of right index and middle fingers in response to the tasks.

Now tell me, what were those folks doing wiggling their fingers in that big old fMRI machine?

Overall, this is an intruiging topic, but I am dismayed by the scientific level of this paper. Whatever happened to the good old scientific method stuff—having a hypothesis, making predictions, and designing experiments to validate them?

Ajipon, famous ponzu brand

Sunday, July 4th, 2004

Imagine living in Japan for 15 years and never having heard of “Ajipon”, the ubiquitous ponzu sauce—although I’m sure we had some in our kitchen, and I must have walked by it on the grocery store shelves hundreds of times.

According to the Ajipon web site put up by its manufacturer, Mitsukan, Ajipon was developed in 1964, back when ponzu was not a common household item. The Mitsukan president was having some mizutaki in a restaurant and vowed to bring the fabulous taste of the dipping sauce into the Japanese home. Ajipon was the result of three years of experimentation with different types of citrus and degrees of saltiness.

Ponzu itself is created by boiling mirin with katsuo-bushi and konbu and vinegar, then adding citrus juice. If you then add soy sauce, it becomes “ponzu shouyu”, although this could also be called just ponzu. Ponzu or Ajipon would most commonly be used as a dipping sauce for nabe dishes; mixed with grated daikon for yakizakana; or as a dressing for tataki.

And in modern cuisine? In the recipe “Oyster-leek Gratine with ponzu” Ming Tsai deglazes the pan where he sauteed the leeks with ponzu. A San Diego restaurant serves up ahi with a ponzu glaze. Another restaurant dresses pan-fried Escolar with ponzu. Shiro in Pasadena serves catfish with ponzu and cilantro. A cruise ship’s menu tries a ginger ponzu sauce on its grilled ahi. Sushi Masu in Westwood serves up monkfish liver with mountain caviar in ponzu sauce. Add olive oil and you have a ponzu vinaigrette. Geisha uses ponzu as a marinade (with coconut!) for its fluke dish.

Ponzu is the perfect marriage of the flavors of the paddy and the sea and the orchard, of the salty and the sweet and the tart.

Stamping out the loan-word disease in Japanese

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

The “Foreign Loan-word Committee” has issued recommendations for replacing 33 common katakana-isms with “native” Japanese.

Thank God they backed off on some of their worst proposals, like replacing “online” with “kaisen-setsuzoku”.

Of their new proposals, I especially like “setsumei sekinin” for “accountability”. In other words, the Japanese view accountability as the question of who has to explain something.

A lot of the proposed replacements are to just use the obvious Japanese, such as “dougu” for “tool”. Ditto for replacing “stance” with “tachiba”, or “conference” with “kaigi”.

But that begs the question: why did people start using “tool” in the first place, when they already had “dougu”? That’s a critical question of linguistic philosophy which the grayhairs on the committee didn’t even try to answer. I know the answer. The centuries-old Chinese compounds have been rounded and smoothed like rocks in a river-bed by the forces of linguistic nature over time. The English words are young, agile, opinionated, angular, with a personality (make that PA-SONARITI). In that sense, they have a different semantic profile. Simply put, they mean something different. That’s why people started to use them and will continue to use them.

But what’s really weird is that what they’re proposing to replace the 30-year-old borrowings with are themselves borrowings into Japanese, just much older ones!

Distros and convos

Thursday, June 10th, 2004

The Japanese shorten long English loanwords by the simplest of expedients—simply chopping off the last half of the word. So “convenience” becomes “conveni”. That always seemed kind of crude to me, albeit cute in a way.

But now I’ve noticed a trend in English to do the same thing (instead of, or in addition to, the old acronym approach). Two recent examples are the teen-age “convo”, for “conversation”, and the geekian “distro”, for “distribution” as in a Linux distribution. And of course there’s the old stand-by “combo”, corresponding to the Japanese “kombi”.

Why is it that in English we tend to want to end these words with an “o” sound?

Any more examples out there?

How George Tenet should have resigned

Saturday, June 5th, 2004

Americans make fun of Japanese for the way their politicians and corporate executives resign to “take responsibility” at the slightest provocation, with all the grim faces and bowing at the inevitable press conference.

Then we have George Tenet, US Director of Central Intelligence, who resigned on Thursday; he and George Bush spent the entire day emphasizing that it wasn’t about taking responsibility.

Tenet is resigning for personal reasons; he wants to spend more time with his family, especially his high-school son (but did anyone ask the son if he wants to spend more time with his father?).

I don’t get this. Who is the President trying to protect with this charade? Didn’t George see the huge potential positive impact of just coming out and saying, “The CIA didn’t do its job. People need to be accountable. George Tenet was a fine public servant, and made great contributions to the CIA, but he led an agency which failed the nation at a critical time. We sat down and agreed it was time for a new start.”

That would have made the President appear decisive (not to mention honest), and Tenet responsible (and honorable).

These guys are so stupid they can’t even realize when taking responsibility would come out positive in the Rovian political calculus. They remain resolute in their refusal to ever take or assign blame about anything.

Isamu Noguchi, sculptor

Friday, March 12th, 2004

We visited an exhibition of the sculpture of Isamu Noguchi at the Japanese-American Museum.

These sculptures really spoke to me. Many of them dealt with the concepts of “space” and “container”. “Container” is something wired deep into our evolutionary minds. Thinking about containers is fun, and helps us understand the mind with which we go about everyday life. Noguchi’s sculptures help us think about containers, such as his simple brown container with holes poked into it and funny legs.

Noguchi was a “haafu”, who mainly worked in NY (where his atelier has been turned into a museum that I’d love to visit). In addition to sculptures, he designed public spaces, lamps, and stage sets. There’s a bit of a personal connection here: he was born in Los Angeles, and spent a year in Kita-Kamakura; he was also exhibited early in his career at the Kamakura Museum of Modern Art.

For more information on Noguchi, I recommend visiting the Noguchi page on, which provides visitors with Noguchi’s bio, over 70 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Noguchi exhibition listings.

Japanese-American National Museum

Saturday, March 6th, 2004

I visited the Japanese-American National Museum, in the middle of LA’s Little Tokyo, and was very impressed by their permanent exhibit focused on the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. We had walked by it dozens of time but never bothered to go inside.

I had never heard the sad fact that when the US let the detainees out in 1944 they then immediately proceeded to draft all of the eligible males.

Japanese for Nerds (I)

Friday, March 5th, 2004

My article Japanese for Nerds has posted to the front page of Kuro5hin, the second one to do so.

More choices make people more unhappy?

Thursday, January 22nd, 2004

The NYT editorial page today had an interesting article showing how having more choices could actually make people more unhappy. More choices mean you have to spend more time to collect information to hopefully make the right decision; and people with more choices spend more time looking back and regretting that they may have made the wrong decision.

Come to think of it, that’s one of the reasons I find Japan a congenial place in many ways—there are fewer choices in general. There’s usually only one choice as regards what kind of health insurance you’re going to get. There are many fewer choices, if any at all, as to how you’re going to invest your retirement money. You don’t have so many choices to make in how to run basic social aspects of your life. You spend less time worrying about choices in the job market since you change jobs less.

America seems to be going in the opposite direction. Now we even have too many choices of which anti-depressant to take to treat our unhappiness at having too many choices to deal with. So I have a modest proposal. People who don’t want to decide what stock to invest in can just put their money into index funds. We should apply the index fund concept to everything. For instance, it should be possible to go to an electronics site and just say you want the same digital camera in the $200-250 range that everyone else is getting. All stores would be required to report the information about what everyone is buying in a standardized form to a central location so all the people that didn’t want to spend all their time choosing among the 50 different models could just buy the most popular one.

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