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Air hockey robot

Researchers led by Professor Akio Namiki at Chiba University’s Namiki Lab have developed an air-hockey robot that can hold its own against human players. Although it’s not the first robot to play this game, it has the ability to change its strategy based on the playing style of its opponent.


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Translating names into Kanji

Cloak decorated with kanji characters (1973), designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour

Cloak decorated with kanji characters (1973), designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour (© The David Bowie Archive)

This summer’s David Bowie exhibition at the V&A museum apparently features several Japan-themed outfits designed by Kansai Yamamoto. The cloak shown here is decorated with the calligraphic characters 出火吐暴威, which represents the name “David Bowie” as follows:

Kanji Meaning
de exit; leave; emit
bi fire (usually hi)
to spit; vomit; belch
outburst; rave; fret; force; violence
i intimidate; dignity; majesty; menace

This translates roughly as “the one who spits fire with forceful menace” (or “one who spits out words in a fiery manner” according to the rest of the blogosphere). Regular visitors to this site are probably already aware that foreign names are normally written using the phonetic katakana syllabary, and not without good reason — kanji characters can usually be read in at least two different ways, so it’s almost impossible to achieve unambiguous results.

For example, film director Yoshikazu Katō and human rights activist Giichi Nomura both share the same given name (義一) but with completely different pronunciations (Yoshikazu and Giichi). At least with Japanese names it’s usually possible to make an educated guess of the most likely pronunciation. But with foreign names and words, it’s much harder. This is precisely the sort of ambiguity that katakana was designed to eliminate.

If you really do want to translate your name into kanji, there are a few things you need to bear in mind:

Linguist Jack Halpern writes his name as 春遍雀來 (Harupen Jakku), but with a furigana pronunciation guide (ハルペン ジャック) to avoid confusion. (From the Japanese title page of the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary)

Linguist Jack Halpern writes his name as 春遍雀來 (Harupen Jakku), but with a furigana pronunciation guide (ハルペン ジャック) to avoid confusion. (From the Japanese title page of the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, 1st edition)

  • Kanji characters are ideographs, so you have to consider the meaning as well as the pronunciation of each one. (Try to avoid characters like “vomit”!)
  • Katakana offers a better range of pronunciation. For example, デイヴィッド (deividdo) is much closer to the English pronunciation of “David” than debito.
  • Unless you’re already well known, you’ll still have to explain to Japanese people how your name should be pronounced.
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Space Invaders

Space Invaders — the original “shoot-em-up” video game — was released thirty five years ago this month.

The game was developed almost single-handedly by an engineer called Toshihiro Nishikado (西角友宏) at Taito Corporation in Japan. For the aliens in the game, he drew inspiration from the octopus-like creatures in the 1953 film The War Of The Worlds. This led on to various other sea creatures:

The octopus came first, so I thought, maybe I should try a squid and a crab. But then they didn’t look very threatening, so I kept trying to come up with something else.

Here are some of his original sketches:

If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, why not see how far you can get with this Flash version of the game. Use the left and right arrow buttons to move, and press the space bar to fire:

This version of Space Invaders is hosted by flashgames312.com

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False fingers for ex-Yakuza

Yubi-tsume (指詰め) — the practice of chopping off a little finger as an act of penitence — has been going on in the Japanese underworld for many years.

Recent anti-gang laws have persuaded many of Japan’s Yakuza that life would be easier on the straight and narrow. However, it can be difficult for them to find an honest job. Their trademark tattoos (irezumi; 入れ墨) are widely frowned upon, and many establishments will refuse to serve — let alone employ — anyone bearing them. But at least tattoos are easy to cover up. Missing fingers are more of a problem.

This has resulted in a flourishing prosthetics business.

Video by ABC News

Here’s another news item on the same subject by the Australian ABC. You’ll have to click through for the video as they don’t allow off-site embedding. But here’s a nice screenshot:

Prosthetic pinkies for digitally deficient delinquents

A selection of prosthetic pinkies

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Kim Jong-Il’s sushi chef

Kenji Fujimoto (藤本 健二) spent eleven years living in North Korea, eventually becoming Kim Jong-Il’s personal sushi chef and confidant. GQ magazine recently interviewed him back in Japan. Here’s his extraordinary story.

At a lavish Wonsan guesthouse, Fujimoto prepared sushi for a group of executives who would be arriving on a yacht. Executive is Fujimoto’s euphemism for generals, party officials, or high-level bureaucrats. In other words, Kim Jong-il’s personal entourage. And guesthouse is code for a series of palaces decorated with cold marble, silver-braided bedspreads, ice purple paintings of kimilsungia blossoms, and ceilings airbrushed with the cran-apple mist of sunset, as if Liberace’s jet had crashed into Lenin’s tomb.

At two in the morning, the boat finally docked. Fujimoto began serving sushi for men who obviously had been through a long party already. He would come to realize these parties tended to be stacked one atop another, sometimes four in a row, spreading out over days.

All the men wore military uniforms except for one imperious fellow in a casual sports tracksuit. This man was curious about the fish. He asked Fujimoto about the marbled, fleshy cuts he was preparing.

“That’s toro,” Fujimoto told him.

For the rest of the night, this man kept calling out, “Toro, one more!”

The next day, Fujimoto was talking to the mamasan of his hotel. She was holding a newspaper, the official Rodong Sinmun, and on the front page was a photo of the man in the tracksuit. Fujimoto told her this was the man he’d just served dinner.

“She started trembling,” Fujimoto said of the moment he realized the man’s true identity. “Then I started trembling.”

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Domain registration scam

I just received an email from someone called Winni Du at picweb.net regarding the registration of “japanesetranslator” as a brand name. This seemed a bit strange — why should it be any of my business if someone else wants to translate Japanese for a living? And what is this “Asian Domain Registration Service in China”? Isn’t that the responsibility of CNNIC?

A quick search for picweb.net confirmed  my suspicion that this is a scam of some sort. Presumably they want me to cough up “processing fees” to protect this web domain from some imaginary threat. Or perhaps they just want me to visit their website and get my computer infected with the latest virus.

If you receive any similar emails, you can delete them straight away. And don’t visit their website, just in case.

Sorry Winni, but you’re going into the spam filter. Here’s the message in full:

Spam from picweb.biz

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged | 1 Comment

Two years later

About 160,000 people were evacuated from the region surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the meltdown two years ago. There is still no clear indication of when it might be safe for them to move back home, and elderly evacuees are now having to face the possibility that they may never get the chance.

Meanwhile, it seems like the Japanese government will soon have to bow to economic necessity and restart the reactors that were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Engineers now have a much clearer idea of how to prepare for the next major earthquake. Hopefully this time they will get it right.

This TV news report from inside the Fukushima exclusion zone is interesting, but in some places it tends towards blatant scaremongering rather than balanced journalism.

In other news, The Atlantic has published a series of photos showing how Japanese towns and cities have recovered since the tsunami two years ago. It’s clear that there’s still an awful lot of rebuilding still to be done.

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Six months in Kyoto

Flickr user franksvalli has uploaded a lovely set of photos taken in Japan (mostly in and around Kyoto) over the last 6 months.

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2013: Year of the Snake

As you may know, 2013 is the Year of the Snake (hebi-doshi; 巳年). The Chinese new year isn’t until February, but the Japanese always celebrate the new year on January 1st. This year is also year 25 of the Heisei era (平成25年) in the older calendar system (still used today) where years are numbered from the accession of the current emperor

Someone has uploaded a video to YouTube showing how to draw a snake with a single brush stroke. It’s really quite impressive. Take a look at this:

And here’s a great video from last year where the same technique is used to draw a dragon’s tail:

Posted in Miscellaneous, Movies | Tagged | 1 Comment

Icon font


A Japanese designer called Yūgo Kajiwara (梶原勇吾) of Creative Studio Condense has just released an icon font called CONDENSEicon that looks like it would be quite useful for web application developers and web designers. The font is available in TrueType, OpenType, WOFF and EOT formats, so it can easily be embedded in web pages.

Best of all, it’s freeware. Here’s the licence text:


And here’s an English translation:

This font is free for personal and commercial use, but may not be redistributed. There is absolutely no warranty that use of this font will be error-free.

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Header image: Dusk falls over the harbour at Takamatsu (高松市), as seen from the top floor of the 30-storey Symbol Tower. Photo: Frank Gualtieri.

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