Tag Archives: United States

Explaining Japan’s disaster to kids and Russian beer to Americans

Japan has a whole lexicon of earthquake and tsunami-related phrases, many of which are collected in the Japan Times by cultural commentator Kaori Shoji.  There is  bōsai zukin (防災頭巾), meaning the protective safety hood that Tokyo children carry with them to school. There are hinanjo (避難所), evacuation facilities that are housing tens of thousands of people made homeless. And most poignantly, there is buji (無事), meaning safe.  That word is made up of the kanji characters mu (無, nothing) and koto (事, incident). As Shoji puts it, “without incident” is “a state we’re all praying for.”

The severity of the quake, and now the radiation threat, are challenging just about every facet of life in the affected areas.  Here’s one challenge: how do you explain the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station to children?

Video artist Kazuko Hachiya has made an anime about this. His solution is to use the universal kid language of…bodily emissions.  So in his anime, Nuclear Reactor Boy is unwell and flatulent. But he’s not — like his colleague in Chernobyl — actually pooping. Doctors/nuclear scientists give him medicine (boron and seawater) to cool him down and keep him from pooping. But in case he does poop, we can rest assured: he’s wearing a diaper.  See the video here. Or a nice Scottish English version of it here.

This reminds me of one of my daughter’s favorite books, also out of Japan: Everyone Poops . It’s written by one of the country’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators, Taro Gomi. There’s no plot, just a broad range of pooping practises. Endlessly entertaining.

In France, the government is battling newspapers and online outlets over probes into the practices of some politicians. OK, so that happens everywhere to a certain degree. But France, unlike many other Western democracies doesn’t have much of a tradition of investigative or muckracking journalism. The news media is, in the words of one journalist, too deferential to French politicians.  But now, there are new online investigative players, led by Rue89, which has in turn enboldened some of the older news organizations. Investigative probes have uncovered corruption and embarrassed the Sarkozy government

The politicians are pushing back. The government was recently charged with using the French Secret Service against the venerable daily,  Le Monde. And Rue89 is currently the target of five separate lawsuits.

Last thing in the pod: American brewers are reviving a centuries-old type of beer, Russian Imperial Stout. Despite the name, this was originally an 18th century British-brewed beer, which was then exported to Russia. American brewers are  borrowing some of the the notorious figures from Russian history to name their new brews:  The Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH once a year offers Kate the Great. The North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif. has been brewing  Old Rasputin stout for 15 years. See a video and a slide show here.

Or, listen to the podcast here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Portsmouth Brewery.

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Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


(Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

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Political language before and after Tucson

After the Tucson shootings, we hear from Dutch and German journalists about political discourse and violence in their countries.

Like many Europeans, the Dutch used to think of their country as less violent than the United States, in both word and deed. That’s no longer the case, after the street assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn and film director Theo van Gogh. After Fortuyn’s murder in 2002,  the political left came under fire for the tone of their verbal attacks on Fortuyn, who was a populist right-winger — something of a foreshadowing of the Tucson shootings, albeit with the politics of the accused and accusers switched.

In Germany, political discourse is far more subdued. There is, of course, a historical reason for that:  hate-mongering speech during  1920s and 1930s that led to political assassinations, firebombings and the rise of the Nazis. Moreover, there are certain things in Germany that you cannot say;  most famouly, you cannot by law deny the Holocaust. Also, libel law is more stringent than in the United States. Josef Joffe, the German journalist we talk to,  says that as a result, German political rhetoric today is “almost boring.”

Sarah Palin’s equivalent in Germany — should such a person ever exist — almost definitely would not have used the term blood libel. With its Jewish associations it would have been beyond the pale. It was strange enough to hear it in the United States. Defending herself against charges that her own harsh language contributed to the Tucson shootings, Palin said journalists and pundits were “manufactur[ing] a blood libel.” See her video message here.

Historically, as my colleague Alex Gallafent reports, blood libel is a “false accusation that Jews murder others in order to use their blood in ceremonies.”  This form of anti-Semitism goes back centuries. After the false accusation was made, more extreme rhetoric followed, often ending in ethnic violence.  Sarah Palin’s use of the term seems misplaced, insofar as she is neither Jewish nor is she accused of orchestrating or relishing the death of anyone. Still, it did draw attention to Sarah Palin, which may have been the point.  It meant that Barack Obama’s oratory at a memorial ceremony inTucson later that day, while receiving high marks, did not get the banner headline coverage than it might otherwise have done.

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The English-only movement in America

A conversation about making English the only official language in the United States. Tim Schultz, lobbyist with Washington-based US English makes the case for this, ahead of an English-only vote in Oklahoma.

This is not the usual fare on The World in Words: we don’t often offer the microphone to people who discourage the use of other languages. But Schultz argues that English is what keeps America — a land of immigrants and therefore of many languages — intact. He believes that Spanish in particular is fast becoming an unofficial official language here (if that makes sense). He says government agencies use Spanish and other languages without thinking about the message they are sending. What they should be doing, he says, is using English so that non-English speakers are encouraged to learn the language, and succeed in their adopted homeland. Finally, he acknowledges that bigots and racists may be among the supporters of English Only. But as far as he’s concerned, they do not form the mainstream, nor does he share their views.

Also, an election ad in Chinese, aimed at Americans who don’t speak Chinese. This comes courtesy of conservative think tank/advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, which clearly doesn’t think this glossy ad in a foreign language is a waste of money.

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Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.

I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).

Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys.  Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.

Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class,  chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.

Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.

Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.

Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt.  Just remember:  it’s a compliment!  Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.



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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Deciphering ancient script and contemporary politicos

In this week’s podcast, another  five language stories that didn’t make headlines. Well, aside from the Sarah Palin one.  Discussing these stories with me are Rhitu Chatterjee, host of The World’s Science podcast, Clark Boyd, host of The World’s Technology podcast and Kevin II. Yup, that’s a picture of Kevin II, in The World’s broadcast studio.

5. An Israeli-British study shows bilinguals may respond differently depending on the language of the questions. According to the study, Arab Israelis are more likely to respond warmly to certain Jewish names if they are asked about them in Hewbrew, as compared to Arabic. Does this mean we think differently in different languages? No, but it might help explain why someone who is bilingual (or trilingual in Rhitu’s case) is “more polite” in one language.

4. New research points to a possible breakthrough in deciphering ancient scripts.

3. Sarah Palin compares her coinage of new English words to Shakespeare’s. Her most recent coinage, of course, was refudiate, which she said on Fox News and then tweeted a few days later. (She somewhat refudiated her own invention by zapping the tweet, before acknowledging it and making the Shakespeare comparison in a subsequent post.)  For his part, Shakespeare came up with gnarled, premediated, fitful, and hundreds more, none of them via Twitter. Maybe in time we’ll prize refudiate as highly. My guess though, is that like wee-wee’d up, an Obamaism, refudiate ain’t gonna make it. Let’s face it: most of Shakespeare’s coinages appear to have been based not on ignorance but inventiveness.

2. A science writer argues in a Discover magazine blog post that language diversity condemns a society to poverty. I don’t fully understand the argument, but it made for a lively conversation.

1. Clark’s adventures in linguistically confused Belgium. Yes, The World’s tech man about town has just moved to the land of beer, waffles and linguistic discontent. So which of the country’s two main languages should Clark learn, Dutch or French? And in choosing one, has he upset speakers of the other?  Mr Boyd reveals all, including the surprising nationality of the podcaster/language teacher he’s following.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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