SELDOM ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT JAPAN
Q. Why does sushi always come in sets of two?
A. Nigiri sushi was first eaten in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867). At that time, it was the size of a modern onigiri (rice ball), making it impossible to eat in one bite. In order to make life easier for their clientele, chefs began cutting their sushi in half – a tradition that led to the modern custom of serving sushi in sets of two.
Q. Why is “Shinjuku” spelled with an “n”, but “Shimbashi” with an ‘m’? Aren’t they both using the same character, shin?
A. Both station names come from the same kanji, 新, meaning ‘new’, but they are pronounced slightly differently in Japanese. When saying “Shinjuku”, the lips are kept open, producing a sound similar to the English ‘n’. However, when saying “Shimbashi”, the lips close in preparation for the ‘b’ sound that follows, making a sound closer to an English ‘m’.
Under the original Hepburn system of romanization, used for transcribing Japanese into the roman alphabet, an ‘n’ (ん in hiragana) becomes an ‘m’ if followed by a ‘b’, ‘m’ or ‘p’; in all other cases, it remains an ‘n’. The Hepburn system has since been modified to remove this quirk, but many people still use the traditional method – hence the discrepancy.
Q. Why do they put a towel over your face when they wash your hair in beauty salons, but not in barber shops?
A. The towels are to protect women’s makeup from smearing if water accidentally gets splashed on their faces.
Q. Why is it that some convenience stores sell alcohol, while others don’t?
A. Just because there’s no alcohol available at your local Family Mart, that doesn’t mean the owner is a teetotaler trying to spoil your fun. Japan has a strict licensing system, and there are innumerable rules that regulate the number of vendors selling liquor. For example, there can only be one shop that sells alcohol within a hundred meter radius of any given point, and only one shop for every 750-1500 people in an area. Net result: even if a vendor wants to sell booze, if there’s another shop near him that already has a liquor license, he’s out of luck.
If you have a stupid, obscure, or difficult question that’s been bothering you, send it in to the Japanzine, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer it for you. If you would like to see more Seldom Asked Questions, visit my web site, The Quirky Japan Homepage, at: www.quirkyjapan.or.tv