Japanese is not English

Shocker, right?

I think Japanese students have some stages that they go through when learning Japanese, especially from a language such as English, and especially if it’s their first second language. The first stage is a kind of one-to-one correspondence between concepts. “How do you say ‘is’ in Japanese?” The answer, of course, is desu. Until it isn’t. Then you get into conjugated verb endings, etc., and you enter the second stage when you realize that there really isn’t a one to one correspondence between words.

But for a while, you’ still be trying to translate concepts from one to another – and you enter the third stage when you realize there isn’t necessarily a one to one correspondence between concepts.

You can’t learn Japanese in a vacuum. I tried, it’s hard to fit through the hose, and the motor is really noisy and makes it hard to concentrate. What I mean, though, is that the concepts of Japanese are inextricably tied to the culture, and the way that Japanese people think. And it’s not the same way as western people think. You don’t really bust through that conceptual wall until you can essentially toss western culture and see the language for exactly what it is.

And that’s really hard to do!

I have been studying, to varying degrees of success, for nearly three years now. I know some who have been studying for longer than me, and they can’t quite make that conceptual leap yet. I find it really easy to express a complex thought in one word, but many English speakers don’t. I don’t find it so easy to use particles as modifiers, like ne, no, yo, etc. I think my tendency to say as little as necessary to express a concept delights and frustrates my sensei, at the same time. She wants complete sentences, but also realizes that I’m speaking Japanese in a perfectly acceptable way that has little to do with English. She’s stopped correcting me.

Here’s a little tip for language learners: If you want to understand how people actually use language, and even better, where it’s going to go in five years, pay attention to how teenage girls use it. For some reason, they seem to be the incubators from which language innovation comes. First it seems kind of trite, and then it becomes mainstream, and even as it does, the girls have moved on tho the next thing. This is true in English, this is true in Japanese, and I think it’s true in pretty much every language where teenage girls are free to be teenage girls. It’s also true in Japanese, which is why keeping tabs on idol groups and the way they sing and talk is really important for understanding how to speak decent colloquial Japanese. Not everything takes hold, but when it does, it spreads like wildfire. I think this may be because teenage girls are significant cultural drivers – they tend to have disposable money and like to do things as a group. Language and cultural innovation will, by necessity, come from that kind of environment.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that textbooks, while useful, aren’t really a good resource for learning to speak as real native speakers do. They’ll get you far enough to understand and be understood – and don’t get me wrong, that’s a significant portion of the battle, as that’s what language is for – but it’s not going to teach you those things that will take you to the next level.

And if you look closely, the textbooks will tell you this pretty clearly themselves. For example, yookoso will not teach you two things: when to use a ‘n’ versus ‘m’ sound for ん (they’ll tell you the rules in passing and pay it no more mind), and it will not teach you pitch accent. It tells you very clearly that these are things, and it will not teach them. There are a few other things as well, such as the rules for rendaku and other consonant modification. But they’re important, and you have to know them if you want to speak well.

Teachers also will not teach you everything you need to know. I know my sensei, while a native speaker and a competent teacher with degrees in Japanese pedagogy, also will tell me on quite a few topics that she doesn’t know. I’ve actually taught her a few things, because she just takes them for granted, and I had to look them up. I’m not upset about that, because I understand her limitations, but I cannot rely upon her to teach me everything I need or want to know about Japanese. That doesn’t take away from her knowledge or competency, but it’s a big topic and just being a native speaker and knowing how to teach it doesn’t immediately grant knowledge on every topic.

I think whether or not I want to continue Japanese, I have to change my approach to the learning process, because it’s pretty clear that whatever I’m doing now isn’t really working. And that might be because I’m not really taking my own advice. It’s clear I have a pretty good idea what needs to be done, I just don’t know how to go about it.

Just a Random Post

I don’t know what to post about tonight. I’ll probably post about theoretical physics, Japanese, and maybe something about a duck.

So I was thinking about the Planck Time. It turns out that at least as far as we know, when it gets down to infinitesimal scales – I mean *very* small – there is a resolution limit to the Universe. There is what is called the “Planck volume”, which is the smallest space possible in the Universe. I guess it could be thought of as a “universe pixel”. But there’s an analogue in the timelike dimension as well – it’s a Planck time. It’s the smallest discrete amount of time possible. It’s extremely quick, but it’s there.

This leads me to a whole bunch of questions that I’ve never heard asked before. If the Universe has a minimum time length, does that mean it also has a maximum frequency? It also means that at that frequency, it must be a binary stream, because any actual changes in the amplitude of that frequency would imply multiple frequencies overlaid on it. It would seem that the new-agers might be right – everything’s based on frequency, but not how they thought.. Nothing’s ever quite how they thought. Lots of interesting thoughts come from those basic questions.

I’m seriously questioning now whether I want to continue with Japanese. The simple question is this: if Japanese is a language, and the purpose of learning it is to be able to communicate with Japanese, and Japanese don’t like communicating with me, then what’s the frigging point? Seems like a huge waste of time and money to be rejected by a whole different culture. And it’s even worse that I’m actually becoming somewhat competent in it. I don’t mean I’m anywhere near fluent, but I can at least come up with coherent thoughts if I know the words. The question still stands. Is it worth continuing? I don’t know. I have a feeling I’ll know soon.

Oh, yeah. Something about a duck. Dangit. It’s 11:30 PM and I’m quacking up.

The Kawaii Metal Phenomenon

I was first introduced to “Kawaii Metal” a couple of years ago, when a coworker showed me “Gimme Chocolate” by Babymetal. My first thought was “What did I just watch?” And then I fell just a little bit down the foxhole. I don’t like all their music, but I like a significant amount of it.

Babymetal is somehow special. It’s not that they’re a metal band, because I don’t like metal all that much (though it’s growing on me a bit). It’s not that they’re cute, because on the cuteness scale I’d say they’re kind of middle of the road (they were cuter when they were younger, if I’m to be honest – but most people are). It’s not that their lyrics are meaningful – some are, but some are just silly and even, dare I say, vacuous.

But I have a search set on YouTube, “Babymetal reactions”, and every day or two I call it up to see what’s going on in that realm. I’ve found that probably the quickest way to grow a channel (though I wouldn’t do this myself) is to react to Babymetal, as hordes of people have the same search that I do and give people more information than they could possibly need or want. I’ve seen at least two grown men – one a tattooed rocker who’s probably had more women in a month than I have in my entire life – going back in time to when the girls were very young and pretty much cooing at how cute they were. Grown men, metal fans, who pretty much build their reputation on how tough and hardcore they are, felled completely by three girls who would as easily sing about gaining weight from chocolate and papaya fruit as about bullying and love. They make it badass to be cute.

I think that’s what’s special about Babymetal, and maybe kawaii metal in general. They worm their way into a metal subculture that’s built itself up on being rough and ready, and then spray sunshine, rainbows, and skittles all over it, and all the rockers can do is gush about how cute and badass they are.

Maybe the reason Babymetal, and kawaii metal, is so popular is that those girls give metal its heart back.

Torn

Sometimes it’s really hard to write for this blog. I’ve written, and discarded, two posts already, and who the hell knows if this one will ever make it to the light of day. But I guess, let’s try anyway.

I can’t think of any topic in life that I’m not torn about in one way or other. Some say I take life too seriously, and maybe they’re right. Life is too ephemeral to take seriously – no matter what you do in this life, we all end up in the same place within generally the same timeframe, and nothing we do ultimately has any impact on anything at all. On the other hand, is not life too improbable to be flippant about? It is perhaps the greatest contradiction in life – perhaps the fundamental one – that we do not want to waste what is already wasted.

I feel much the same way about Japan, if I am to be honest. Learning Japanese is an interesting intellectual exercise, but at the end of the day, it’s essentially a useless one. I don’t think I will ever go to Japan – I just don’t see the point in doing so, if I’m to be honest. I mean, it’s an interesting place, and there are some interesting things to see, but ultimately it’s just like where I live, just with different people, and all that entails. It seems a lot of time and money wasted. I have found talking to Japanese people to be an exercise in futility – they don’t seem to like me for some reason. Perhaps I am too direct. Perhaps they rightly sense my latent misanthropy. Why spend all the time and money to try to get to know a people who like me just about as much as everyone else does? I can be rejected a half mile away from home, after all.

And yet, for some reason, I still do it. Perhaps I am driven by something I don’t understand. Perhaps I just don’t like to give up on something I’ve invested so much into (the “sunk cost” fallacy in action). Perhaps learning things is the only reason I’ve ever had for living, and if I can’t learn something new, I may as well just hang it up here – and perhaps Japanese has become familiar enough that I’m starting to itch for the next adventure.

I’ve been feeling lately that I need to pull back on pretty much everything and seek the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. I won’t be at all happy until I find it. And maybe I never will.

Ancient

My first exposure to Japanese was watching idol group variety shows, so I guess it’s somewhat forgivable that that is generally the lens through which I see Japanese culture. Their culture, as it currently is, is defined by a mishmash of their own culture and language and some very powerful foreign influences that have completely reshaped their culture over the past hundred years or so.

But I was reminded that theirs is a much more ancient culture than ours, and to define their culture by how it currently appears is dangerous, as you start to see their culture through a western window. It is currently extremely heavily western influenced, but that’s by no means the whole story, and we ignore that at our peril.

There are several things that brought me to this realization. Perhaps the biggest is the discovery of a storytelling form called “rakugo”. I knew nothing about this, and I’d bet that anyone reading this probably hasn’t, either. Basically, a comedian comes out, sits on a pillow, and tells a story with minimal props, and without moving from the pillow. The stories are engaging and funny, and a good storyteller can keep people enraptured until the very end, which is a kind of very Japanese punchline.

If you look at Japanese culture through the lens of its modern productions, eventually you will be disappointed. The Japanese are very prolific at manga, anime, and other “otaku”-type productions, but at the end of the day, it’s shallow. It may tell you something about Japanese culture – and what it does tell you is valuable, especially for someone unfamiliar with the culture – but at the end of the day, it’s not really useful for those who want to understand what actually makes the Japanese people tick. Eventually you discover there’s much more below the surface – some very amusing and entertaining, some very dark, some beautiful, some ugly, but all of it completely Japanese.

The hard part is knowing where to look. It an take years before you even start to see the glimmers of what lies underneath the current media-driven culture.

I suspect the same it true for other cultures too. Chinese immediately comes to mind (even though they are currently a hot mess and pretty much everything after their cultural revolution is really not worth much, in my opinion), but even the more familiar Eastern European type cultures have their own histories that we in the west can kind of steamroll over, as our culture is incredibly powerful at the moment. I don’t mean to imply that our culture is inferior – there is a reason that it is so incredibly influential all over the world. But at the end of the day, its very influence does run the risk of causing every other culture to be seen through the lens of ours, and when that happens, something valuable is lost. I am not a fan of “multiculturalism” – some parts of cultures are objectively superior over parts of others – but that doesn’t mean that all parts of one culture are superior over all parts of another. I, for one, was very happy about the fact that masks have become popular around the world where they were culturally accepted in Japan and China, for example. If only because it lets me hide my face.

If you’re truly serious about learning Japanese, find the things that aren’t commonly known – that’s where the true gems are. And the true stinkers too, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

The most difficult things about Japanese

I’ve been studying Japanese (to varying degrees of success) for close to three years now (I think).  It’s most certainly been a while.  Over this time I’ve grown to understand where Japanese is simple and straightforward – and where it’s not.  Here are what, in my opinion, are the most difficult things about Japanese.

Understanding Spoken Japanese

It is very difficult for me to understand spoken Japanese.  It may be because there are many different dialects than Tokyo standard that are just different enough to throw me for a loop.  It may be that Japanese people just rattle things off rapid fire and it’s hard to tell where the words stop or begin.  It may be that sometimes they seem to take verbal shortcuts that I haven’t learned yet.  I’m slowly getting an ear for it, but it really takes time.

“R” vs. “D”

The Japanese sounds for “R” and “D” sound very similar – to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart.  I think the D is a little more consonant, but that’s one of my biggest frustrations with trying to understand spoken Japanese.

What’s the Deal with all the Hononyms?

There are so many different things one word can mean.  “Hashi” has two that I know of, “Kami” has three, and who knows how many “Hi” has.  The only way you can tell the difference is in context.  This is made even more troublesome because of the reverse problem – one kanji can have multiple meanings and readings, and you can only tell the difference by context.  It’s actually not quite as hard as I’m making it out, but it’s still troublesome.

The Unwritten Rules

This is perhaps the hardest part of the language – the often stifling rules of the culture are built into language.  You can say something grammatically correct and still be rude just because you chose the wrong way of saying it.  Like there are six different ways of saying “you” and each of them is rude except in a very specific context.  There are at least three different levels of politeness, casual, polite, and obsequious, and many, many different levels of rudeness.  One of the hardest parts of the language isn’t learning how to speak it, but what the correct way of speaking it at any given time is. Because in order to do that, language lessons aren’t enough.  You have to understand the culture well enough to know what’s expected.

That’s not to say that learning Japanese isn’t rewarding.  I think it is, and I don’t really regret the time I’ve spent studying it.  And it’s, all told, not as hard as it has the reputation of being, as long as you keep your wits about you and choose a way of learning that works for you.  But it’s also not an easy thing to learn, and I continually find myself pivoting to try to find a way to learn it that works better for me.  At the moment, the things that are giving me trouble are just the things that come with experience and the right kinds of lessons.

What’s the most difficult thing about Japanese for you?  What about the easiest?  I’ll do a separate post on my answer to the latter question.

My Favorite Japanese Words

And now for something completely different: A post about Japanese!

I love the way some Japanese words sound. I will confess something: The long “I” sound is one of my favorite sounds. I’m not sure why – perhaps it’s because the abbreviation for the word “Interstate” in the US is a long I, and when I was a child, any long trip we took would always be along an interstate. I-75, I-70, I-80, I-90.. For this reason, I also like city names like “Rock Island”, “Moline”, or “Salina”.

Japanese doesn’t have this sound, but it does have something that sounds similar. The two sounds “a” and “i” together. It’s technically pronounced “ahh-eee”, but when spoken fast, it’s almost indistinguishable from a long I.

So let me tell you the criteria I will use for these words: There will be two classes. One is based on how they sound. I don’t are so much about the meaning, but just the sound. Some will be because of how the kanji are structured, etc. So, with that said, here are my favorite Japanese words.

兄弟

Pronounced “kyoudai”. It means siblings. This word just sounds nice. As I mentioned, I think I like any word with a long I sound, but this one just feels… fresh, somehow.

ほとんど

This word means “nearly all”, and is pronounced “hotondo”. I just like how it rolls off the tongue.

Pronounced “mori”, this word means “forest”. It has a very dark and foreboding feeling to it, kind of like you’d imagine a dark forest.

This is the first word that I include not so much because of the sound, but more because of how the kanji is structured, etc. It is “sakura”, and means cherry tree. The three components of the kanji make up a woman sitting under a tree with light rays shining on her. It’s very poetic. And on that note…

This word means umbrella, and is pronounced “kasa”. If you look at it closely, you’ll see four people sitting underneath a roof, and on the ground. It’s very easy to figure out what this kanji means just by looking at it.

です

I’ll wrap up with a surprising one. I love this word. Not because of what it means, or even specifically how it sounds, but there’s a way cute way many women say it that I really like. Some women also say “ka” cutely, it sounds like “kaw”. But I’ll leave that for an honorable mention.

What are your favorite Japanese words?

Why I am Christian

I’m not really going to talk bout Japanese today. Something has been on my mind lately, and I feel like I need to write about it. If the topic turns you off, feel free to skip the post, or even unsubscribe if it turns you off that much. Or you could, I don’t know, read it, maybe? I promise it won’t be just disgorging dogma. I can’t stand dogma. Maybe it’ll even be interesting.

I have a particular curse in my life that many people don’t seem to share, and whenever I talk about it, it’s very difficult to explain, and seemingly even more difficult for other people to understand. For that reason, I don’t really want to explain it right now, but I’m going to, because as I said earlier, one of the most important things for one to do right now is to speak. And I guess now is as good a time as any.

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. It is not my favorite because it’s encouraging – it isn’t. It isn’t my favorite because it’s hopeful – it isn’t. It is, in fact, one of the most depressing books of the Bible. And that’s because it’s real. If you’re not familiar, this is a book that spends twenty-one chapters methodically going over everything that one can get from life, and discarding it, in the end, as meaningless. King of everything, with all of the earthly pleasures possible? Meaningless, like chasing after the wind. All wisdom and knowledge? Meaningless, like chasing after the wind. At the very end the author basically admits defeat, and says, essentially, “I don’t know why we’re here. Just work hard and trust God with the rest”.

But this isn’t… abstract, for me. There is a particular curse that comes with being intelligent – you kind of see too far. You see to the end of life, then you see to the end of all life, and you eventually see the heat death of the Universe, where there’s everything that ever was and ever will be is utterly destroyed, and that which, by some miracle, might persist, will have its meaning stripped away because there’s nothing to give it meaning anymore. Essentially, we either transcend the Universe, or we forfeit it.

The thing is, this can’t really be argued. It can’t be argued by science, as there is nothing in science that does anything but prove this, over and over again. It’s as close to a fact of life as one can possibly get. If you take life exactly as it is, experientially, one second is as meaningless as a million years.

So I’m not a Christian because of any kind of dogma. I’m not a Christian because someone told me about Jesus and I said “Yeah, I want me some of that”, and then started going to Church and everything got better. Frankly, I can’t stand church, it gives me an anxiety attack. I’m a Christian because without a transcendent Christ, there’s nothing at all to live for. He and I have our problems, but he’s all I got. He’s all any of us have.

I post this here because it weighs heavy on my heart, especially with all of the horribleness going on in the world right now. We’re a bunch of ants scurrying around, trying to make our nests and feed our young, while the dirt itself is disappearing around us. I can’t really focus on much else right now, because this is the preeminent existential question I’m grappling with right now. Why are we even here? What’s the point of existing in a world from which we will all disappear, and so will all of the works of our hand? Why even study Japanese when even that vanishes eventually? Why do anything, why accomplish anything? Why rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic while it’s sinking around us?

It’s the most important question, and I can’t really focus on anything else until it’s answered to my satisfaction. Not even Japanese.

But, now that I’ve got this off my chest, I think that willl be the last post on this topic. This is not a blog about Christianity, and I intend on mostly keeping it that way. But it’s what’s on my mind.

Lamentations

It has been amonth since I’ve posted. I should post something.

I have been putting little effort into Japanese lately, if I’m to be honest. I’ve been mostly, when I do study Japanese, just looking at Japanese media and looking up things that might interest me. It is nice to have a sensei at these times, because she can help me learn things I don’t know, but I find that half the time, she doesn’t know either. In some ways I’m truly on my own, and in some ways I’m not, as is the case with most things in life.

It seems my life, as of late, has been nothing but finding the most effective distractions I can, and when those run out, moving on to something else. And I’ll say this about Japanese media, it does make a very good distraction. One person on YouTube commented that Japanese media tends to skew very deliberately towards positivity, and while I’m sure there’s a cultural reason for that, it’s a welcome change at the moment, and something I’m wholeheartedly in favor of. When your world seems to be collapsing around you, cute cats, or even cat-girls, aren’t an unwelcome thing.

And maybe that is the cultural reason after all. After all, Japan went through some very dark times before their current culture emerged. Maybe they’re just culturally sick of darkness.

I think I understand. A little, anyway. There’s only so much darkness that you can be assaulted with before you start to seek out a respite. Any respite.

But, paradoxically, I find my Japanese getting a lot better the less I study. Don’t get me wrong, studying is important, and I should do more of it. But I seem to have hit on an underestimated recipe for success – familiarity is just as, or more, important, than studying. I find as I consume media, I start to understand things I didn’t before, and with a surprisingly little amount of effort. It’s just about massive exposure much more than grammar and vocabulary study. It’s a bit like riding a bike – at some point, after falling off a hundred times, it just kind of clicks, and with little conscious effort. Your brain just kind of rewires, and there it is. It’s almost as important to spend an hour a day consuming the Japanese language, as it is learning it.

Japanese is a good distraction for me. But I always keep in the back of my mind that it’s life for Japanese people. It’s like the fish that says to the other, “how’s the water”, and the other responds, “what is water?” I guess in the same way I find Japanese people trying to speak English both cute, and a bit cringey. There was this one Japanese girl telling a story about how she had to write an English phrase on her hand in katakana using a pen so she’d be able to use it. I think she was ordering coffee. She told it in Japanese. I understood it. She had to think very hard what the word for “pen” is. I think it’s the same in Japanese (unless it’s a fountain pen…).

Anyway, this is a rambly post. I won’t lie and say my mental state has been the greatest as of late. But it is what it is. I don’t have any really useful Japanese tips, no really interesting Japanese observations… except for one. If tonkotsu is pork broth, and tonkatsu is a breded pork cutlet, is tonkutsu pigs feet?

Probably not. But it’s fun to think about.

It is Labor Day weekend in the USA. It is also my birthday. I am, unfortunately, in my mid forties. I hope next year is better than this one.

Burning

I don’t really feel much like writing on this blog anymore.  That’s not to say I won’t, but I just don’t feel like it.

The past few months have been terrible.  I have a hard time describing exactly how bad they’ve been.  I am lucky because I still have a job and I haven’t yet been negatively impacted financially.  But the world around me seems to be burning.  First we start with a deadly virus that doesn’t seem to be going away.  Then, the large cities in my country start burning because idiots are rioting.  Y’know, if you want to call burning buildings down, pointing lasers, throwing frozen water bottles, etc., at cops and other folks “peaceful protesting” then just go the hell away.  Seriously.  I don’t want you here.  There are peaceful protestors, but there are rioters too, and I’m sick and tired of the rioting and other stupid behavior.

I have been continuing to do Japanese lessons, but I just don’t feel it anymore.  It feels like I’m fiddling while Rome burns.  What’s the point when the world is falling down around me?

But you know what the most important thing to do right now, is, and why I am forcing this post out?  The most important thing to do is speak.  I’m just not sure that Japanese is the right topic to speak about right now.  There are far too many other, more important things to address in the world right now.  The coronavirus.  Rioting.  Persecution of Christians, right here in the States.  An election in a few months between a mentally compromised nearly octogenarian and probably our last best hope for keeping our country.  And to be clear, when I say “mentally compromised nearly octogenarian”, I’m not talking about Trump.

I have to speak.  I must speak.  It is vitally important that I speak.  But not here.  Not those topics.  This place is for Japanese.  And who cares about Japanese anymore?

If you don’t like this post, unsubscribe.  I won’t make a habit of posts like this here.  When I have something to say about Japanese, it goes here.  But I am just having a hard time staying silent anymore.  There’s too much going on and I can’t cope otherwise.