Archive for August, 2011

Railway safety in Tokyo (a lesson for New York)

August 21, 2011

A great thing about living in Tokyo is that trains can take you anywhere, quickly and conveniently.

A bad thing about living in Tokyo is that if you fall off the station platform, a train can kill you.

Those two statements may sound like a pair of eternal truths, but the second one is gradually becoming less true as safety barriers are installed along platforms in more and more stations.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine was hit by a train in New York. Fortunately, he survived. When I went to visit him, I read in the New York Daily News that the Big Apple was considering installing its own safety barriers. But there was some resistance to the idea, not the least of which came from the Daily News itself.

Resistance to the idea of safety barriers seems unfounded. It reminds me of the resistance that once existed to the idea of wearing seatbelts in cars, and I’m sure that in the future people will look back on it as being just as silly.

I made the video at the top of this post in an effort to shed some light on the issue. I start by visiting the sites of a few notable accidents in Tokyo, and then demonstrate how the safety barriers operate.

Production note: A couple of scenes shot at train stations include background noise, so I added subtitles. In future efforts, I’ll either look for quieter spots or buy a quality microphone.

There must be a word for words like “darake”

August 17, 2011

In my Japanese lesson the other week, I learned a new word: “darake.”

It is used to describe situations in which there is an abundance of a bad thing. “Doro-darake” means covered in mud. “Kowaikoto-darake” means plagued by fears. “Misu-darake” means rife with errors. “Shakkin-darake” means mired in debt.

Thinking I saw the pattern, I tried to make a sentence using the expression “ase-darake” to mean drenched with sweat – a condition I’m all too familiar with in the midst of a Tokyo summer. But my teacher, and later another native Japanese speaker, told me that sweat doesn’t work with “darake.” Yet mud does. Go figure.

But just a day or two later, I was walking through Ginza when a movie poster caught my eye. The tagline for the film was “Sono umi, same-darake.” This means, “That sea is infested with sharks.”

The poster was for an Australian horror movie called “The Reef,” in which a group of attractive people in their 20s encounter a big, hungry shark after their pleasure boat capsizes. It’s being released in Japan as “Akai Sangoshou,” meaning “The Red Reef.” In light of the tagline and the poster image, the Japanese title seems like overkill.

I may not see this movie, but I was delighted to see the word “darake” on the poster. An infestation of sharks is definitely an abundance of a bad thing.

It was only a few days after that when I happened to tell someone I was allergic to shrimp. She sympathetically replied, “Nihon wa ebi-darake.” In other words, “Japan is crawling with shrimp.”

I have been living in Japan for many years, and until the other week I had never heard the word “darake.” But since learning it, I have come across it twice already.

This is an experience that I’m sure that everyone who has studied the language of the country they are living in can relate to. You learn a new word, a new phrase, a new written character, maybe even a new grammar pattern – and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere. No doubt it’s been there all along. But now, as if by magic, it’s no longer invisible.

This experience can be nearly as startling as the revelation Roddy Piper’s character has in the movie “They Live” – except that it feels a lot better.

There must be a word for this experience.

What is it?

Everyday artifact: Train delay certificate

August 2, 2011

“Sorry I’m late, boss. My train got stuck in a tunnel.”
“A likely story, Tanaka. Prove it.”
“Sure thing: Here’s my train delay certificate.”

Tokyo trains are so punctual that you can set your watch by them. Literally. On the infrequent occasions when they are not, the railroad will give you documentary proof to show anyone you’ve let down by turning up late.

The proof is called a chien shoumeisho (delay certificate). You can ask for one at the ticket gate at the station where you get off your delayed train.

I received the one in the photo after my subway train was delayed by 10 minutes on July 28. You can see where the man at the ticket gate punched “28” to indicate the date and “10” to indicate the length of the delay. The text in the center of the paper is headed “Chien Shoumeisho” in large print, followed by a message of apology from the Tokyo Metro company and the stationmaster of Kourakuen Station. Other rail lines may issue certificates with slightly different formats, but they all operate on the same basic concept.

Imagine how the above dialogue would play out in a country where everyone commuted by car.

“Sorry I’m late, boss. I hit every single red light on the way in.”
“Sure, Jack. Prove it.”
“Uhh…”