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Thoughts on the Design of eTexts

Chris Spackman

January 2015

Steve Katz, way back in 2011, wrote about what his students wanted from an eText. Their suggestions / requests included:

I considered this list in terms of what the author of a work can do (content, design, styles) and what is more dependent on the reader machine or software (that is, Nook, Kindle, PC, smart phone, etc.) supporting that feature. There is of course some overlap — videos and downloadable activities, for example, both require the author to include them and the machine or software to support them. However their relationship to the eText itself is different. The activities are a bonus, whereas the video is presumably meant to be watched directly in the eText, as part of the eText.

Anyhow, the point is just that some of these requirements can logically be considered in different ways. Because we are considering the author's contributions here, especially style and design, I am not going to worry too much about the other cases.

So, it seems that six of the elements are exclusively under the control of the author. They are:

Three are basically about the content (content) the author includes and the other three involve design choices (design), also made by the author.

I think these are the most important for us to focus on (at this point at least). Before doing so, however, I will briefly explain how I categorize the other elements.

A few other elements require both design or style considerations and support from the machine and software displaying the book. They are:

The last one, rollover of terms to see the definition is perhaps the clearest example of what I am talking about. Unless the reading software is already designed to automagically look up any word, the author must include some definition (or a link to the definition) for the words most likely to be looked up.

However, even if I provide definitions, if the software does not support popping up a small definition bubble on mouse hover or through a click event, then my work is wasted. Thus, both software and content support is required for this feature. The author only has direct control over one of these.

The same is true for the other three that require both machine / software support and the author's design or style support. Most ebooks formats that I am familiar with already allow various fonts and font sizes. However, as the author, if I set the defaults improperly, or assume a specific page width for things like pictures, charts, and the such, what the students get on the printed page may not be what they expected.

Below are six elements that are more dependent on the machine or the software displaying the eText.

These six I believe to be mostly dependent on factors external to the author. A question and answer section that allows students to post and respond sounds a lot like a social media site of some sort (once known as "message boards" or "forums"). Search is an awesome feature for a text, but realistically is best left to the device displaying the content. The same is true of voice control.

Back to the six most dependent on the author:

The first two are fairly obvious and important to include. Video may seem strange because I listed activities as an element that is also dependent on the machine or software. The difference is that the video is intended to be played while in the book whereas the activities were specifically mentioned as being for download. The important thing, I think, is that the work should include appropriate videos that help the learners master the content. We can create these and it shouldn't be too difficult to include them in an eText — web sites today routinely include (perhaps too many) videos. (However, to be safe, an author may also want to include a fallback for the event that the video is unavailable or unable to be displayed.)

The other three are design choices. When poorly done, in my limited experience, problems often come from people thinking of only one way of interacting with their text.

The table of contents does not have links to jump to each chapter?
The author probably expected students to print the book.
Are the links colorful and underlined?
The author probably did not expect students to print the book or did not think about how expensive color printing can be.
Images or other graphics that extend across several pages or that overflow for text?
The author may have written for one device without checking how it looked on other devices.

These sorts of design problems are exactly what website designers have been dealing with for many years. In fact, several popular ebook formats are basically just web pages. They use plain text with markup languages (such as XML), style sheets, and maybe some javascript, to handle the formatting and presentation of the content.

Below is part of my current print-oriented text for a Japanese Culture elective. It is currently in Scribus format for export to PDF, but in anticipation of converting it into an eText, I have redone part of it into this HTML file (aka web page). The sections "Introduction" and "The Japanese Language" Have content. The Table of Contents includes every section currently in the book. I tried to hit several of the elements discussed above, mostly using actual content (such as embedding videos) and styles, but time caught up with me, so there is not as much of either (yet) as I would like.

Some of the content is originally from Wikipedia and has been modified by me. The images of hiragana and katakana are also from Wikipedia. (Will update with links very soon.)

To see how the text can be presented in different ways, open this page in either Firefox or Opera. There are four extra styles in addition to the main (default) style. I threw them together pretty quickly and have not done all that is possible to complete them, much less perfect them. Hopefully, though, they highlight somewhat the possibilities and the points discussed above.

In Firefox, go to View → Style Sheet, and choose from the four listed below "Basic Page Style". If you reload the page, Firefox will default back to the basic page style.

In Opera, go to View → Style, and try the four way at the bottom.

Chrome does not seem to support changing style sheets, so it won't work with this example. I do not use MS IE and do not have it, so I cannot test this page in it. Same situation with Safari — I don't have it and don't use it, so I cannot say if it will work. If you do have Safari or MSIE, please try it and let me know. In the real world, you might be able to use javascript to have any browser load a different style.

The print style sheet is what modern browsers should use automagically when the user prints the page. This is where you take out unnecessary images and color. You also hide elements such as videos and replace them with (for example) a link, a thumbnail image, and a description. Funky fonts should also be replaced with ones good for reading on paper. Ideally, vocabulary popups could be replaced with [definitions in brackets after the word] or perhaps placed as endnotes.

The accessibility style sheet is similar — contrast is increased and fonts are slightly bigger. However, this is still intended for the screen, so video is not hidden and links are made more colorful, not less.

Mobile friendly tries to optimize the page for small screens. Among other things, use of 100% of the screen is allowed. Also, images should load at smaller sizes, but with Javascript, you could have the page load an image that is actually smaller, which would save bandwidth and memory, and allow the page to load more quickly.

Cool and Colorful is just playful but tries to show some of the things you can do with styling. (You might even see poorly done columns.) If Javascript were included, readers could change fonts and colors on the fly without having to reload different style sheets.

These are just examples, and not necessarily great ones. Modern browsers should present most web pages in pretty much the same way, but apps and mobile browsers may not. Devices may not support as many style options, and may not support javascript (or elements such as video) at all.

An Introduction to Japanese Culture

Chris Spackman

January 2015


We are going to talk about and experience various aspects of Japanese culture in this class. First though, here are a few things you should know as we get started.

Names and forms of address

Maybe you have heard that in Japanese, “san” gets put at the end of names and means something like “mister” or “misses”. This is true, but unlike mister and misses, “san” can be used with either your given (first) name or your family (last) name. So “Joe-san” and “Smith-san” are both okay.

We call medical doctors “Dr. Smith” in English, not “Mr. Smith”. The same is true in Japanese, except that the list of people you call “doctor” is longer. “Sensei” doesn't mean “doctor” exactly—in fact it means “teacher”—but you use “sensei” instead of “san” with doctors, lawyers, teachers, and several other highly skilled and respected professions.

When in doubt, “san” is probably a safe way to address someone, unless that person is a teacher or doctor, then you use “sensei”. In school, “san” is used by adults mostly toward other adults (who are not teachers) and toward female students. A teacher would call Akiko (a girl) “Akiko-san”. Teachers would also call adults (parents, visitors to the school, etc.) “san” also, whether male or female. Teachers have another way to refer to male students: “kun”. So teachers would call Akira (a boy) “Akira-kun” when talking to him or about him. Actually, many adults (not just teachers) would use “kun” with boys and young men.

placeholder png showing
  where the video should go

There would be a video here. In theory, when printed the video and this text should not print, instead an alternative paragraph, showing a link to the video and a short description would print. Currently, reality may not match theory.

There was a video here. To watch it, return to this page, or visit:
(video link here)

Other students would call Akira “Akira-san” if they were in the same grade. Friends and people much older (like grandparents) often use “chan”, to show affection. Boys would probably not call each other “Akira-chan” or “Taro-chan” but they might be called that by their girlfriends. Likewise, Akira might call his girlfriend “Akiko-chan”. In Japan, not using anything after a name is considered very rude. When you use someone's name, you always need to add “san”, “kun”, or “chan”, or “sensei” (teacher) after the name. Using the wrong one, however, can be almost as bad as not using anything. In Japan, age, occupation, and status level (rank) are very important. In fact, it is normal for people to call others by their job title or the person's situation (like “customer-san”, “foreigner-san”, or “patient-san”). This is true in school, too. Most students take part in school clubs and there is a strict hierarchy. Anyone who is ahead of you in school is called “sempai”. Students below you are called “kohai” if they are not called by their family name. Unless they hold a position above you (like captain of your team), students in the same grade can call each other by family name or a nickname, but they would still usually include “san”.

In Japan, names are Family Name first and then Given Name. So I am Spackman Chris in Japan. This is why I do not say “first name” or “last name” — it is very easy to get confused about which name you mean when dealing with Japanese names.

Japanese Culture

As you may have figured out from the discussion of names, Japanese culture is very different from “Western” culture. Different does not mean better or worse, though. Some things that the Japanese do will probably seem strange and even non-sensical to USA Americans; the reverse is certainly true. We must understand that judging another culture is a meaningless waste of our time (and insulting to the culture being “judged”). Every culture starts from different assumptions and different views of the world. No culture is logical or consistent.

What we must do is accept Japanese culture, learn about it, and by doing so, learn more about our own culture. For example, the fact that the Japanese language has words for relationships such as “sempai” and “kohai” tells us something about Japanese culture. Now that we know that, we can reflect on the fact that English-language USA culture does not use words like “sempai” and “kohai”. We will be doing a lot of this sort of comparison during this class.

Table of Contents

The Culture Iceberg

Table of Contents

Geography of Japan

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The Japanese Language

The Japanese language is very different from English, French, Spanish, or any other European language. Because Japan is very far from Europe, Japanese speakers did not have much interaction with speakers of European languages until just the last couple of hundred years. This means that the Japanese language shares very few words with other languages, aside from Chinese and Korean — her nearest neighbors, geographically and linguistically.

The English language, in contrast, has many words that came into English from French, German, Latin, Greek, and other European languages. This is one reason why there are so many cognates among European languages. (In the last hundred years, however, the situation has changed and today many words have entered Japanese from English. Many, however, are words for specific items that didn't exist in Japan 100 years ago — for example, ‘pasokon’ for personal computer, ‘isu kohi’ for iced coffee. There are many more, but the point is that these cognates are unlikely to help you learn the language, although they may help you order your breakfast at a donut shop.

Despite Japanese being very different from English, it is actually not a difficult language to pronounce. There are only five vowel sounds — English has more than 10! — and also unlike English, words are written almost exactly how they sound. Once you get used to the sounds, spelling words is easy!

Unlike English, Japanese has only two irregular verbs. How many does English have? Hundreds. Two examples: run → ran, throw → threw. Japanese has only two — the verbs “to do” (suru) and “to come” (kuru). These two verbs are used so much in Japanese, that you will probably get used to them very quickly and soon forget that they are technically “irregular”.

The Japanese alphabet is not difficult either. There are two systems of writing Japanese letters: hiragana and katakana. They are a bit different: hiragana is used more frequently and is more rounded, a bit like cursive in English; katakana is used only in certain situations and looks blockier, less rounded. Both hiragana and katakana have about 48 letters (the same 48 sounds in both, just like “e” “E” are the same sound in English). Learning both systems requires remembering about 96 letters.

Does that sound difficult? If so, stop and think about English for a moment. How many English letters can you read and write? Upper and lower case each have 26 letters — so 52 total. Can you also read cursive writing? That is another 52 letters — so to read upper and lower case in both print/block style and cursive style in English requires knowing 104 letters. When you think about it like that, 96 for Japanese is not quite as bad as it might sound at first. The bad news, of course, is that Japanese also has kanji, Chinese characters, and there are almost 2000 that everyone learns in school and must know be able to read a newspaper. We will not be learning all of them in this class.

Hiragana, with stroke order

Hiragana, with stroke order

The worse news is that each of those kanji can be combined with one or more other kanji to form a new word that may not have any connection to the meanings of the kanji that make it up. For example, the word for “newspaper” is “shimbun” 新聞 but 新 means “new” and 聞 means “hear”. Even if you know both of those kanji individually, you may not have any idea what they mean together. You need to know thousands of these combinations in order to graduate high school and be able to read a newspaper! It takes a long time to get to that point — Japanese students start learning kanji in first grade and learn a few each year through the end of high school. Also, they have the advantage of already knowing all the vocabulary as well — they already know the word “shimbun”, even if they cannot read the kanji. Native English speakers need to learn both the word “shimbun” and the individual kanji and then the combination.

Katakana, with stroke order

Katakana, with stroke order

All of the above is just the tip of the iceberg (not the culture iceberg, the proverbial iceberg) when it comes to the Japanese language. It is very different from English, so if English is your native language, you may find Japanese a lot difficult. To be fair, many Japanese students find English very difficult, and they are usually required to study it for close 8 to 10 years!

The two graphics show how to write hiragana and katakana. The numbers and arrows show the order and direction that you should write each line. Take a good look at the tables. What can you deduce about Japanese? Why are some squares blank? What sounds would the blank squares stand for, if there were letters for them?

Table of Contents

The Culture Iceberg

Table of Contents

Overview of Japanese Culture

Table of Contents

Daily Life

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High School Life in Japan

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Notes On What We Have Covered

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Overview of the History of Japan

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History of Japan: The Nara and Heian Periods

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History of Japan: The Kamakura Period

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Religion in Japan: Shinto

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Religion in Japan: Buddhism

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History of Japan: The Mongol Invasions

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History of Japan: The Warring States Period

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History of Japan: The Tokugawa Period

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History of Japan: The Meiji Period

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History of Japan: World War II

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Population Problems

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