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Sunday, July 23, 2000


Baffling Japanese mysteries solved at last

There are many myths about Japan. Let's look at some of them and see whether they're true or false.

1. Chinese characters developed from the drawings of images. False. The roots of "kanji" are in "ayatori" -- that string game children play using string and their fingers.

Remember "cat's cradle"? You were creating kanji. If kanji developed from drawings, then the kanji for "tori" (bird) is the result of the original drawing of a bird which, through the years, changed into a mass of lines resembling a bird -- with four legs. But anyone who has ever seen a Japanese child play ayatori knows that all the elements of kanji are in that one long piece of string.

Kanji is really just a bunch of connected lines like ayatori is really just a bunch of string. Ayatori is kanji in cursive.

As any Japanese child knows, you can make a variety of images with ayatori, such as a plane, a rice field, a turtle, river, and a ladder. The possibilities are endless, especially if you were to spend a few hours a day practicing them and were tested on them.

It's a shame that ayatori never fully developed into the communication of choice in Japan. It would be more fun than writing kanji and would serve as a decorative form of sign language. We could change the lengths and the colors of the string to reflect our moods.

2. Origami is Japanese paper folding. True. But origami, like ayatori, is also a form of kanji -- but at a higher level. If you look at origami closely, you'll notice that the paper is usually folded over twice into four squares. It mirrors the way you write kanji -- an upper and lower left square for the radical and an upper and lower right square for the rest of the character. Origami is used for the spatial training necessary in writing kanji.

3. Japanese people are shy. False. They're just good listeners. Japanese people are such good listeners that they may not say anything for hours. They'll never interrupt you, they'll never cut off your conversation before you're finished, and they'll never talk your ear off. But the next time you see them they'll bring you a high-vision TV. If you say, "Why did you bring me a TV"? they'll say, "Last week you mentioned you wanted a new TV," To which you'll say, "I did?" Then you'll vaguely recall having mentioned, in passing, something about the new high-vision TVs.

See? They were listening.

4. Japanese people are so skinny, they don't need to diet. False. At least not according to the current fashion -- super slim.

Remember those stick figures you used to draw in kindergarten? You were really drawing Japanese people. Living in Japan is like living in a world of stick figures. The super slim fashion will only mean an increase in the stick people population, which means that the entire nation may soon be reduced to brush. If there's a brush fire, we're really in trouble.

Even with an estimated 20 percent of Japanese women underweight, (surely 80 percent according to American standards), Japanese women are still dieting.

If a woman weighs only 45 kg, she'll try to weigh either 43 kg or the weight at which she was born, whichever is less. She achieves this not by eating food low in calories, but by eating either no food at all, or through a steady diet of "keiki setto," coffee and cake sold as a set at restaurants.

I think the ultimate goal of "super slim" is weightlessness. Weight belts and bottles of gravity will be the next hot items in Japan. Girls will be required to buy helium insurance. Eventually, even weightlessness will not be slim enough and the next fashion will be negative kilos, after which Japanese women will become black holes.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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