Am I Otaku?

I’ll be honest. I dont identify as otaku and I dont want to be otaku.

But last night I sent a bunch of funny links to my friend from AKBingo, explained to him who Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko are, and then gave him the backstory on how Shinoda-san became an idol. Then I was humming “Oogoe Diamond” and the intro to “Sakura no Hanabiritachi”, after I went through most of their discography to find out where that intro came from (it’s catchy).

Unfortunately I guess that makes me otaku.

Why does that upset me?

Because I consider otaku somewhat unbalanced, tbh. One commenter to this very site told me he’d punch someone out if they dissed his favorite AKB48 member. And that is disturbing. Sure they’re cute and funny, but they’re just entertainers and I’m entertained. Sure, if I were escorting an idol down the street and someone threatened her I’d open a can of whoopass, but that’s because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re idols.

I dont want to be associated with that. But I guess by talking about it, I am.

So what to do?

Wait Just a Kanji-Pickin’ Minute

I realized something today that has been kind of simmering in my consciousness lately, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Many words in Japanese are actually compound words.  For example, 美味しい means “delicious”, but the words separately mean something like “beautiful taste”.  電車 means “train” (or that’s how it’s taught in Japanese Level Up), but the kanji separately mean “electric train”.  But 大丈夫 is not really a compound word, it means something entirely different than the three kanji separately would indicate.

So is it reasonable to teach “oishii” as “delicious”?  Is it reasonable to teach “densha” as “train”?  Or are we losing something in translation because we’re trying to force compound words with separate meanings into one English word, and losing something in context?

“Beautiful taste”, for example, is rather poetic, and is something I would expect from a society that has a very well refined and historic sense of beauty.  It says a lot about how they see food, and even so, the human experience.  But “delicious”, to us, just means something tastes good.  Or even very good.  There’s no poetry in it.  So it feels as if we’re forcing their poetry into our language, and losing a major sense of the Japanese culture while we’re at it.

This is becoming a major frustration in learning Japanese, and I’m starting to think that learning it by translating into English (even using words like “delicious” or “train” just doesn’t work.  I’m not advocating an approach like Rosetta Stone, don’t get me wrong, as their approach is frustrating and insufficient in its own way, but I am saying that I feel like I’m losing something from Japanese by trying to force kanji (and compound words) into an English mold.

Why do we have to learn it as “delicious”?  Why can’t we just use it as “beautiful taste”?  Does that somehow make Japanese easier for us to learn, while blunting the impact of the cultural difference?  Or are we trying to find areas of cultural similiarity to lessen the culture shock (such as “genki desu ka?”) and instead screwing the pooch in the process?  Or am I just overthinking it are these translations perfectly fair?

This would go the other way too, but I’m not sure quite as easily.  To a Japanese, they might have the concept of “delicious”, but the translation to English is one word.  Perhaps they are missing the nuance in our language, that we don’t have a sense of beauty in the sensual aspects of food that they do?  Or again, perhaps I’m overthinking that too.

I don’t know the answer.  This is an exploratory post  But the more I’m learning about Japanese, the more I see some very difficult cultural differences brewing just beneath the surface, and I feel as if those differences may be being deliberately glossed over in the name of learning quickly.  I’m not sure I like that, honestly.

Why Does One Study Japanese?

I’m sure there are many different motivations.

Some people study Japanese because they love anime and manga.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to go to Japan.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they love the culture.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to find a Japanese partner.  This is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because it’s difficult.  This is not why I study Japanese, though it’s getting closer.

Why do I study Japanese?

Because I’m bored.  Seriously.

I picked one of the most difficult languages in human history to study because I had nothing better to do.

That is me, in a nutshell.


The fundamental difference between English-like languages and Japanese-like languages is the word order.  The other differences are important, but I think it’s this difference that requires the most change in mindset.

English is a prepositional language.  This means that the particle-equivalents come before that which they are to modify.  For example,  “I am going to the store”.  “to”, in this case, is prepositioned – it is positioned before the part of speech that it is going to modify – namely, “the store”.

Japanese is a postpositional language.  The particles come after the part of speech they are intended to modify.  So, the same sentence in Japanese is 私は店に行ってます.  The particle “ni” (に), which means “to” or “towards” in this context, is after the word for store (店).

But it doesn’t end here – as anyone who has studied even a little bit of Japanese knows, even the verb comes at the end.   Note above that “ittemasu” is last in the sentence.

What this means for an English speaker, is that while in English the meaning develops naturally from the flow of the sentence, in Japanese that’s very much backwards – all the way through the sentence, you’re provided with the information you need, and only then are you told what to do with it.  In English, I would say “I am going -” and if it stopped there, then you would know most of the information you’d need.  I’m going, but you don’t know yet to where.  But in Japanese, the first thing you get is “this is about me.”  Essentially, the Japanese is structured like:  “We’re talking about me.  We’re also talking about the store.  This involves motion towards the store.  So, with all those things in mind, the verb is “to go”, and the form means something that is presently happening.”

There are a few consequences to this.  One is that Japanese has a very interesting cadence to it, and sometimes you can hear it when you listen to a native speaker talk.  Take a more complicated sentence, like one that has both “wa” and “ga” particles.  You’ll sometimes hear “something wa… pause… something ga… pause.. something ni… pause… verb”.  Not always, but it lends itself to that cadence, and one that I don’t think exists in English.  Another, I think, is that it makes it very hard to interrupt someone until the sentence is finished, because it’s a lot harder to figure out where they’re going with it until you have the verb.  The sentence doesn’t progress, it kind of simmers as you get more and more of the information that you need, and then it snaps together at the very end.

But, I think, once you can internalize this, the rest is, quite literally, just semantics.

Culture and Humanity

As a gaijin, which literally means “outsider” or “outside person”, our exposure to Japanese culture is almost always initially through their media in some way.  Either anima, manga, J-pop, or some other type of media that Japan has spread throughout the world.  And make no mistake, Japanese media and culture is amazing.

It seems, though, that people who stop there tend to have two generalized reactions.  One is to tend towards otaku or weeaboo – people who are obsessed with Japanese pop culture to the point of it being unhealthy.  The other are people who acknowledge the artistry of Japanese culture, but never really get into it, preferring to instead consider them to be strange or unique, and just kind of moving on.

This is because these kinds of people focus on the differences between the Japanese and us in the west.  And there are quite a few differences, yes.  Differences in language, differences in history, differences in worldview, differences in culture.  And they are important differences.  But in all of the talk about how different we are, we forget, sometimes, that we’re more the same than different.

Here in the west, we’ve been kind of forced into a conversation on how multiple cultures can integrate peacefully.  In the US, we’ve had an influx of people, primarily from Spanish-speaking countries, and we’ve had to open an intense national debate on how to move forward given this reality.  But the problem we’re dealing with is not how to integrate people with different color skin – that’s oversimplifying the problem we have to solve.  The problem is how to integrate people with very different cultures, while still keeping the national identity that’s made us so successful over the past couple of hundred years.  It’s a very hard problem to solve, and some people are more interested in solving it seriously than others (and I’ll let you decide for yourself who you think the people you think are more interested in solving it seriously are.  Please just assume I’m talking about whoever you think I am and move on).

Some people take the simple way out and blame genetics – which is what leads to dehumanization and other horribles.  But the force that’s far more powerful than genetics is culture.  It’s the culture which we import, the culture which we integrate, and the mixture of the cultures which ends up determining what kind of amalgam is created once all the dust settles.  Many in the west have this idea of “multiculturalism” – the idea that all different cultures can keep their own identity.  But that’s dumb in its own right – cultures form in relative isolation, they meet each other, and they immediately mix, sometimes leading to something better as the best things from both cultures are absorbed, and sometimes leading to something worse.

That process is happening right now, in slow motion, with Japan, as their culture mixes with the west and creates something entirely different.  The Japanese culture from a hundred or two hundred years ago would be utterly unrecognizable from now.

But what the otaku and weeaboos tend to forget is that it’s not just the differences that we should pay attention to, it’s the similarities.  The Japanese people are humans, just like we in the west are, with all of the frailties and strengths that entails.  They’ve evolved different ways of dealing with them culturally, some of which we might consider progressive, and some regressive, but ultimately, they want the same thing we do.  Love.  Meaning.  Abation of suffering.  And something that transcends this life that they, like us, understand instinctually is intrinsically meaningless.  Gods, or kami, do not evolve in a vacuum.

The miracle, after all, is not that Japanese is very different from English.  The miracle is that it can be translated at all.  They developed many of the same concepts independently.

I think this is why I generally have a difficult time with the idea of otaku.  I love Japanese culture.  I think we, in the west, have a great deal to learn from them.  They have created beautiful art and poetry over the centuries, their sense of beauty and ceremony is unmatched, and our religious traditions have things that we can learn from Shinto.  Their sense of wa is something sorely lacking from the west, where we seem to actively value disharmony.

But they have things to learn from us, too.  Their sense of wa, one of the very things that brings such beauty to their culture, also brings such ugliness and regression, as they find it difficult to be innovative and free-thinking.  The cultural factors that bring karoushi into being are very much Japanese, and are things that we should not strive to duplicate in ours.  They struggle so very hard to keep their national and cultural identity, and that is leading to the slow-motion destruction of the very thing they are trying so hard to keep.

The Japanese are not an escape from our culture, and fetishizing their culture with worship of the exotic, as we tend to do (and which is almost the very definition of weeaboo), does no one any good.  At the end of the day, we’re all people.  We want the same things in life.  Let’s work together and make that happen.

The Japanese Mind

I went to Kinokuniya yesterday here in Austin, and found several interesting books.  One is called “Japanese Respect Language”, which I intend to read at some point soon.  One is “Read Real Japanese”, which is a reader of six stories of increasing complexity, with notes as to things that may be challenging.  The third was “The Japanese Mind”, which I find to be the most interesting book of the three so far.

It is a series of about twenty essays, each of which discusses a different aspect of Japanese culture.  For example, on of the essays is on “Ganbare”, which is a topic of which I’ve previously wrote.  It turns out I picked up on something pretty accurately – it’s a word that is often translated as “try my best”, but in actuality, that’s not really all that accurate.  It has a connotation of persisting through adversity that doesn’t really come through in English translations.  It actually doesn’t have a good translation in English, and that kind of comes through in the context in which it’s used.

There is also a description of Honne and Tatemae, a topic which I find interesting, confusing, and not the least a bit annoying.  As a westerner, I’m a very direct person (in some ways) even for my culture, so trying to navigate the legendary indirectness of Japanese culture would be very difficult for me.  But in other ways, I am almost as indirect as a Japanese person, so in some ways, I think I would be right at home.  The point, though, is that there are very distinct cultural differences and traps, and trying to navigate those as a westerner are nearly impossible.

But I imagine they have the same issues with us.  Where we might find them indirect and inscrutable, they might find us brash, brazen, and incredibly rude.  I heard it described somewhere that gaijin are considered in some ways to be very high functioning children in their culture, and I guess I can kind of see that.

The language is a gateway into a very old and rich culture, but it’s only a gateway.  You can learn the grammar easily, and the constructs, and even the writing system and vocabulary, but that all falls apart the moment you meet a Japanese person, say everything right, and still manage to fall into a trap that you had no idea existed.

It’s not like my culture is much better, though, honestly.  It’s just a different set of traps.  Trying to navigate the whole culture of dating in this culture is so difficult, irrational, and utterly impossible that I frankly stopped trying about five years ago.

Am I discouraged?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  But I do know that no matter what, any contact I have with a real Japanese person is going to require forbearance on both sides.  I’m going to have to try to understand what they’re really saying.  And they’re going to have to understand that my directness is not rude, just different.

When Reality Attacks

I have always found idol culture in Japan interesting, but partly because I sought to understand it.  I found this video which helped a little.

These are several members of AKB48 who were in a contest with a bunch of Korean idols, and found themselves so lacking in comparison it seemed to completely wreck them.

I’ve often wondered how well the Japanese idol culture (in general) prepares the girls for a life in media.  They’re not great at dancing (better than me, for sure, but not great objectively), they’re not all that good at singing (if you disagree, hold that thought, and then find one where they’re singing solo without accompaniment.  They’re almost always way out of tune), they can kind of act but they’re not great at it.  And that’s because that’s not their job.  Their job is to be cute and funny, and incidentally, sell music.

And they’re really good at it.  Ishikawa Miori (Fresh Lemon) comes to mind.  I don’t know how you can get cuter than this:

But I have to wonder if they are well served by that.  As they grow older, it becomes harder to be cute and funny, and if they don’t have any real skills to fall back on, what good has it done them?  They’re kind of insulated from it because their fans love them for how cute and funny they are, until…  they get slapped in the face with the rather rude realization that that’s all they’ve been trained to be.

As in the above video.  It’s almost heartbreaking to watch them suddenly realize that when put in a competition with people who have been trained to sing, dance, etc., they don’t even come close to measuring up.

Japanese idols don’t really seem all that poorly treated (a little exploited, yes, but not in an abusive way), they look like they generally have fun, and even when it’s difficult they seem to have an attitude of “ganbatte” that helps them to be resilient.  But I wonder how those girls will react to the horrible dose of reality they just got.  Will they become depressed?  Will they “ganbatte” – try their best with what they have?  Or will they get themselves trainers and resolve that that will never happen again?

If I were in their shoes…. I don’t know which I’d choose, to be honest.  But I’m pretty sure I’d react like they did.  That’s not fun at all.