uchuu-jin bag

(click the image to view close up)

i’ve been wanting a good size tote bag but i haven’t found one i like enough to buy. so when i went to the downtown public library the other day i didn’t have anything to carry my books home in. as usual, i got carried away and took out more books than i could carry in my hands. the library gave me some recycled plastic grocery bags, but they weren’t strong enough. the bags ripped and my books fell onto the street. so i decided i’d better design my own tote bag.

i bought a canvas tote bag at a craft shop yesterday and hand-painted 宇宙人 (“uchuu-jin”, meaning alien) on it in kanji. you might remember that “uchuu-jin” was lesson one in my quasi-calligraphy series. one good thing about writing in japanese in an english-speaking country is that not so many people understand what it actually says. they just see the kanji and think “ah, japanese — how beautiful”. or maybe they think it’s chinese — same thing, right? either way, it’s easy to have a secret meaning in public. this is the mystery of the orient.

i have another bag that says in kanji: 回収 (“kaisyuu”) and underneath it says “recycle” (in english). i bought it at an artsy gift shop in kingston. it’s kind of funny because kaisyu doesn’t mean “recycle”, it means “collection”. maybe there’s confusion because you can see signs saying “kaisyuu” at garbage collection areas or recycling collection areas in japan. there are several kanji that mean “recycling” in japanese, including 再利用 (the kanji mean “repeat use”) and 再資源化 (“re-resourced”, more or less), but the most common word is リサイクル which is written in the katakana alphabet, because it’s the english word “recycle”, borrowed into japanese (“risaikuru”).

it’s kind of funny to have 回収 “collection” written on a bag in a thick font. when i was travelling around japan with paul a couple of years ago, i carried this bag around with me. i remember seeing some japanese people looking perplexed and obviously thinking it weird to see that written in beautiful calligraphy. i enjoyed the reaction.

that gift shop in kingston (where i used to work, until i quit) sold “japanese” calligraphy greeting cards and framed calligraphy. but the calligraphy itself wasn’t very good. it looked like my ten-year-old nephew’s writing. some of the word choices were interesting, like one that said “horse, tiger, dog….” — the chinese zodiac animals. nothing amuses me more than seeing “dog” in calligraphy. imagine someone writing “dog” in english in beautiful gothic calligraphy — what’s the point?

i guess these things are the equivalent of the weird english you see in japan. when i was in elementary school, i had an “english newspaper print” shirt. it was a white button-up bowling shirt with fake newspaper printing and newspaper photos all over it (even on the collar). hey, it was the 80s. to me, any english writing seemed cool. i knew a few words of english, but not enough to read my shirt. later on, as my english improved, i started to notice mistakes in the english phrases you can see around japan. in college, my foreigner friends would point out “funny engrish” to me. they would have a good laugh about it.

i don’t mind people noticing mistakes and finding them funny. but when i find canadians making mistakes about japanese, it’s hard for me to point them out, especially when the mistake is impossible to correct. in kingston, i once saw a pretty girl at the gym who had a tattoo of the kanji 太 over her shoulder blade. i was speechless, because that kanji means “fat”. maybe it was a mistake, since 大 (without the little dot at the bottom) means “big” and 犬 (with the little dot in the top right) means “dog”. i don’t know why she would want a kanji tattoo saying “big” or “dog” either, but it actually said “fat”. she was working on her upper body in front of me. as the kanji for “fat” stretched across her shoulder, i decided not say anything. too painful.

quasi calligraphy, lesson three: “medium-strength flour”


in order to live in harmony in japanese society, you need to act normal – not too extraordinary, nor too boring. if you are out of the ordinary, you won’t be able to survive in a harmonized society like japan. you need to learn to stay in between the lines.

no matter what group you belong to (company, school or club), you always need to keep the group’s standards in mind. you don’t want to know too much, nor too little. you don’t want to be too fashionable, nor too out-of-date. you need to learn to be just right. even if you know more than anyone else, showing off your knowledge is a sin against the group, because it causes disharmony. if you stand out too much, you’ll be “murahachibu” (ostracized).

the trick is to disguise who you really are. you can be as weird and extraordinary as you like, just keep it inside. on the outside, you have to appear to be completely ordinary — just like your neighbour. sounds intimidating, doesn’t it?

now, come and take a look at this flour. can you tell if this is strong flour, weak flour or medium strength flour? i don’t think so. they all look just the same, don’t they? that’s exactly the characteristic you’re aiming for. but on the inside, you need to know how strong you really are.

most baking is done with weak flour, the all-purpose flour. that’s too boring. why do you want to try to get involved in so many things? you can’t really be useful for all purposes. meanwhile, most breads are made of strong flour. it can tend to overpower its surroundings. again, this should be avoided. just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you can push everyone out of the way.

instead, you want to be a person like medium-strength flour. what do you use medium strength flour for? nobody knows. that mystery is part of its appeal. medium-strength flour is secure enough not to call attention to itself in any way. even its name is obscure. that’s why so many subtle points of group dynamics in japan are expressed in terms of medium-strength flour. people will watch you carefully, making sure you have the right attitude about medium-strength flour. the question can come up suddenly, so you need to be prepared.

let’s begin.

lesson three: medium-strength flour

today’s calligraphy is medium-strength flour. in japanese, we say “chuu-riki-ko”. “chuu” means medium, “riki” means power, and “ko” means flour.

in japan, when people want to compliment you for being successfully invisible, they say:

“anata wa, chuu-riki-ko no yoh-na hito desune!” (“wow, you’re like medium-strength flour!”).

how can you reply to such honorable compliment? if your answer is “ah- arigato! (oh, thanks!)”, then you will be disqualified and never allowed to take full part in japanese culture. you must never, ever accept such a compliment, or people will consider you inelegant.

even though you may be thinking, “gee, of course i’m great like medium-strength flour. did you just notice that?”, you should never vocalize this sort of inner thought to others.

you are supposed to say:

“ah- tondemo nai desu yo! anata koso chuu-riki-ko no yoh-na hito desuyo!” (“oh, no way! you’re the one who’s like medium-strength flour.)

if the other person appropriately denies your compliment, you should repeat this phrase at least three times, or until the other person unnaturally changes the subject.

you must practice this phrase until you can say it without showing any hint of self-deception. if you can do that, as of today, you are the true chuu-riki-ko!

and i mean that, sincerely.

quasi-calligraphy, lesson two: wealthy farmer


forget about astronauts, forget about teachers — the dream occupation of the 21st century is “wealthy farmer”.

as shown in the documentary “seven samurai“, farmers have it all! does our consumption-obsessed society drag you down? do you feel empty even after you’ve satisfied your materialistic desires? well, you are a perfect candidate to become a “wealthy farmer”.

the word “farmer”, by itself, is not enough to capture how great farmers really are. that’s where “wealthy” comes in. alert readers (most of you, i expect) have already realized that the word “wealthy” here does not refer to material riches. for the rest of you, i’m not going to explain exactly what it does refer to. just trust me.

let’s begin.

lesson two: 豪農

the first character is pronounced “goh”, meaning “wealth”. the second letter “noh” means “farmer”. so “gohnoh” means “wealthy farmer”. isn’t that simple?

it’s probably too late in your life for you to successfully become a wealthy farmer, but it’s not too late for your kids. when people ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up, they need to have an answer prepared. this is no time for hesitation! you can help your kids rehearse. for best effect, you should ask them suddenly, using a different voice than usual. after all, most of these questions will come from strangers or distant relatives.

–you (imitating the voice of an aunt or uncle): “shourai, nani ni naritai?” (what do you want to be when you grow up?)
–your kid: “gohnoh” (a wealthy farmer). your kid should answer quickly, without pouting. any pouting? minus 5 points.

you also need to anticipate scenarios where relatives will be unhappy with this answer, pushing your kids toward a more acceptable career. for those occasions, here’s a possible dialogue.

–you (again, imitating the voice of an aunt or uncle): “sensei ni naritai n desho!” (you wanna be a teacher, don’t you?)

don’t let your kid be intimidated here. teach him/her to stand strong and say:

–your kid: “uun. gohnoh ni zettai ni naritai”. (nope. i definitely want to be a wealthy farmer)

now your kid is wholeheartedly prepared to become a wealthy farmer. your future is assured. good for you.

one more point: notice the amout of sumi ink that i used for this ‘wealthy farmer’. extra ink expresses ‘fullness’ and ‘richness’. so don’t be cheap, use plenty.

see you next week!

quasi calligraphy, lesson one: alien


‘love’, ‘peace’, ‘good fortune’ and ‘harmony’…

these are the famous kanji (chinese characters) here in canada. they show up on tattoos, postcards, greeting cards, and even on t-shirts. they’re usually written in beautiful calligraphy. i’ve been in canada for years now, and i see the same simple kanji again and again.

maybe that’s all that canadian people know about japan: beautiful calligraphy saying something “spiritual”. people in canada seem to think we japanese are very spiritual. those people usually love calligraphy. i studied calligraphy for years and i like it, but i got sick of having to practice the same, unnecessarily positive kanji over and over. how boring. why does calligraphy have to be so serious?

i’ve decided to make calligraphy more interesting. i want to introduce people in canada (and all over the world) to new kanji. also, i want to remind everyone that japanese people are not necessarily “spiritual”. i will be giving weekly lessons in “quasi calligraphy”: unusual kanji that might not be part of everyday life, but are more interesting than ‘love’, ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ again and again and again. some of these kanji (phrases) are new to me, too. (i’m reading the dictionary to prepare).

so, let’s begin…


‘u-chuu’ means “space”, and ‘jin’ means “person”, so ‘uchuu-jin’ = “alien”.

as technology improves, we must prepare for the future. soon we’ll be able to go to mars on summer vacation to hang out with the martians. no matter what country you’re from, on mars you’re the “uchuu-jin”. i’m not sure, but i don’t think english is the common language on mars (revolution!). so even english speakers might need to be prepared to introduce themselves in other languages (maybe for the first time!). japanese is one possible language on mars.

so: to say “i am an alien” in japanese, you say: “watashi wa uchuu-jin desu”.  and if you want to emphasize the fact that you are a good alien, you say, “watashi wa yoi uchuu-jin desu”.

you want them to know you’re on their side!

the martians will be relieved to find out that you’re a good “uchuu-jin”. they might want to know more about “uchuu-jin”. they might ask, “uchuu-jin wa sushi ga suki desuka?” (“do uchuu-jin like sushi?”).

you can say: “aho chau? sore wa nihon-jin desu yo. uchuu-jin wa me-puru shiroppu ga suki.” (“no, stupid! that’s japanese. uchuu-jin like maple syrup!”).

they might go on to ask: “uchuu-jin wa sumo ga tokui desuka? (“are uchuu-jin good at sumo?”)

you can quickily answer: “aho chau! sore wa nihon-jin desu yo! uchuu-jin wa ka-ringu ga tokui desu! (“no idiot! that’s japanese. uchuu-jin are good at curling!”).

there you go! you and the martian are best friends!

please practice the kanji you learned today. think carefully about every brushstroke, and imagine yourself as a true “uchuu-jin”. that way, you will capture the spirit of “uchuu-jin”.

see you next week.