Road of Resistance

I have recently stumbled upon this particular song by Babymetal, which may have become one of my all time favorite songs and/or pieces of all time.  And that’s saying something considering I have a classical background and also rank Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 as one of my favorite pieces of all time.

 

The Japanese are in a very real way not very innovative.  There is little that has come out of their country or culture that they can truly say originated there.  True, there are a few things, and they are wonderful things indeed, but until now I thought that the Japanese strength was taking things from other cultures and making them their own.

After listening to this, I came to realize that I have it entirely backwards.

I had thought that this was a western metal song with a Japanese twist, but it is not.  It is a Japanese song, I mean truly and completely Japanese, which borrows heavily from western genres.  That’s a subtle distinction, but extremely important.

We in the west tend to think that Japan appropriates Western culture as its own, improves upon it, and returns it back in better shape than they found it.  But the Japanese don’t assimilate.  They never have and I don’t think they ever will.  What they do instead is use modes of expression that they borrow from other cultures to express something that is completely Japanese and very difficult to quantify.

They took a genre, deconstructed it, put it back together in a completely unique way, and then made a production out of it in a way that I don’t think would ever occur to a western music producer.  I mean, who in the west would have possibly thought to put a heavy metal band together with three cute teenage girls and have it actually work?

The answer is simple.  In the west, it wouldn’t have worked.  We aren’t Japanese.  The energy would have been different.  We couldn’t find a way to harmonize those disparate things because we could never get past seeing them as separate.  But for them – why not?  It just makes a whole that is far more interesting than the parts.  And that is what makes the Japanese, well, Japanese.

I read that many metal fans think it’s kind of a watered-down metal that only hipsters would like, but that’s missing the whole point.  It’s not metal.  It’s not pop, either.  It’s kawaii metal.  It’s Japanese.  It’s what they do.

Verb endings

One of the things that confused me the most about Japanese when I first started to learn was the difference between “desu” and “masu”.

On first teaching a student Japanese, the teachers have to make a tradeoff at the very beginning.  Do they want to teach how the language works?  Or do they want to teach in such a way that the student can use what they know immediately without pissing people off with rookie mistakes in politeness level, etc.?  Most teachers seem to do the latter, but after starting to learn dictionary (plain) form and how kanji words are formed, I’m starting to wonder if this really does a huge disservice to the learner.

Here’s why.

At their core, Japanese verbs are essentially a kanji with an ending.  The ending varies depending on whether or not the verb is a godan, ichidan, or suru verb, but this is the structure of almost all of the verbs out there.  The verb ending is essentially the ofurigana at the end of the word.

So “masu” is then simply the conjugated ending of the verb in the polite form.

Simple, right?  Actually, it kind of is.

But if you teach in the style of, say, Rosetta Stone (ptooey) you’ll never understand that distinction, because you start off just thinking “oh, sometimes I stick masu on the end, and sometimes desu, but it’s not really clear which go where and when”.  Because you don’t really understand how it all works.

I’m not being too critical of teachers, though.  One of the major problems with learning Japanese is that the bootstrapping is the hardest part.  How do you even begin?  Maybe the way they approach it is the best way of a bunch of bad ways.  I don’t know.  I do know that I’m at the point now where everything I learn just explains the stuff that they taught by rote several months ago, and honestly, I don’t really like that feeling.  It’s kind of a “Why didn’t you just tell me?  This could have been so much easier!” experience.  It’s very discouraging because it feels a bit like I wasted a lot of time.

But alas.  Still moving forward.

Japan’s Checkered Past

Many years ago, I was taking piano lessons as a late teen.  My teacher was an older Filipino woman who was a child (or a teenager, perhaps) during the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines.

She hated the Japanese.  Or at least she struggled to not hate the Japanese.  She told me horrible stories, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for how she felt.  Obviously, that was not my experience, but there are many people and countries out there who remember a Japan that was not an exporter of cool media and well-built cars, but a warlike country that left many scars that have lasted a very long time, and with good reason.

On my feedly feed, I have a keyword search set up for “Japanese”, and to be frank, much of the things that come through are not complimentary to them.  There appears to be an ongoing dispute about the wartime Japanese practice of “comfort women”, which many countries still haven’t forgiven or forgotten.  Of course it would be easy for me to say “It’s been eighty years, maybe time to let it go”, but old scars run deep, and the Japanese history of war and conquering still holds repercussions today.  The Chinese, for example, have not forgotten the Nanjing massacre, and while that, too, was around eighty years ago, I don’t know if my country would forget the murder of three hundred thousand people either, no matter how long in the past.

The Japanese of today are an amazing people, contributing much to the world in the way of culture, of media, of philosophy and religion.  Obviously I admire and respect them enough to make a significant effort to learn about their language and culture.  But a part of me still has to wonder:  it’s only been eighty years.  We took Japan out of war, but did we ever truly take war out of Japan?  After all, their culture is thousands of years old – eighty years is just a drop in the bucket.  I wonder if the other countries who are currently having somewhat tense relations with Japan over the past – such as Korea and the Phillippines – are making a big deal out of something that should be left in the past.  But I also wonder if they’re right, too.

But, all told, the Japanese and my people settled our differences eighty years ago – we won.  Whether the Japanese and other countries have settled their differences is, in all honesty, not much of my concern.  Still, I hope that Japan and its quarreling east Asian neighbors can continue to work at settling their differences.

A part of me wonders, though, whether Japan has ever truly come to terms with their past.

Never fast enough…

I continue to have really mixed feelings about my progress in Japanese.  In some ways I know that I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was before – I can actually have a coherent – but basic – conversation, and I know quite a few more kanji and jyukugo than ever.  And even more, I’m able to start making connections between kanji and words that I couldn’t previously – actually sounding out jyukugo and being right half the time on how to pronounce them.

Which is probably already better than many gaikokujin living in Japan now!

But it’s still hard.  I’m at the point now where I kind of have an inkling of what I don’t know, and it’s a lot!  I know about maybe two hundred kanji to varying degrees of proficiency, but there are about two thousand more.  There are many more readings, and thousands of jyukugo to learn.  And that’s not even including the new grammatical structures I need to internalize.

I found an app called “kanji tree” (only available on Android for now) which has been really helpful.  I’m learning all sorts of different words and kanji and it’s helping me to remember them.  I’m not quite there yet even with those things, but it’s giving me a good foundation, and the spaced repetition is helpful.  If I were to be honest though, right now the on-yomi readings are the most intimidating things about Japanese.  It’s easy to learn the kun-yomi readings, for the most part, but since on-yomi readings are rarely if ever used in isolation, it’s a very intimidating prospect to learn how they’re all put together.

It feels like I’ve climbed one mountain, and reached high enough that I can see a much taller mountain in the distance, and I have to climb that one too.  It’s, honestly, a little discouraging.  It feels like I’m hitting a plateau, even with the lessons, and I’m not sure I like that.

But maybe that also means I’m in a good place.  I guess I’ll find out.

Visitors

Every now and then I check my site stats to see who’s visiting what and where they come from.  In something that is perhaps not a surprise and is totally expected given the crap quality of what I create here, there are not many visitors, though there seem to be a little more lately.  Perhaps the most highly trafficked page is one where I call out Akimoto Yasushi for being a bit of a…  not so nice person.  Perhaps the second most one is the one where I say why I think J-Pop sucks.  Not perhaps the finest foot forward on this site, but it is what it is.  I’ve never been one to moderate my opinion just because it might piss someone off.

But what has always, since I started this page, befuddled me is how few visitors I actually get from Japan.  In fact, I get far more visitors from the US than Japan.

Perhaps this is because I don’t write the page in Japanese, and that would be completely reasonable.  Perhaps it’s because people in Japan aren’t really interested in what I think about their country, culture, or language, which would be completely reasonable as well.  Perhaps it’s just because they hang out elsewhere and don’t use WordPress, which is also understandable (I wish there were better options, as I’m often wondering when WordPress will go the way of Patreon, etc., and start censoring people).  There are many likely reasons, but the simple fact is this:  they’re not interested in, can’t find, or understand what I have to say.

I suppose that’s fine, but in some ways, it’s rather boring, dontcha think?

Or perhaps I’m not talking about anything interesting to the Japanese.  I mean, they live with their culture every day, and I’m not saying anything particularly new, am I?  They know how to speak Japanese, they know what sakura trees mean to them, they know about J-Pop and other media, far more than I do in many ways.  And my perspective is probably not very useful to anyone but me.

Maybe someday I’ll say something interesting to the Japanese, and they’ll come here, and tell me something interesting back.  Maybe someday.  But right now, I guess I’ll keep yelling into the wind.

Gaijin

I don’t have any tattoos.  In fact, I think tattoos are ugly and I would never intentionally get one.  Why one would intentionally blemish their skin like that is beyond me.

(and if you disagree, then go ahead, but this is my opinion and I’m sticking to it).

I haven’t put a lot of thought into the topic, but lately a particular image has been sticking out at me, about what I would get as a tattoo, if I ever somehow decided to get one.

Here it is.

外人

This is the Japanese word for foreigner, pronounced “gaijin”.  And I think this word, above all of the other words in all of the languages I know, describes me the best.

For I have no home, no place to which I belong.

One of the reasons that Japan appeals to me as much as it does is that it’s not here.  In fact, it’s about as far from here as it’s possible to get, in all ways.  Physically, culturally, linguistically, spiritually – you name all the ways, and Japan is the exact opposite of my world.

I have never been comfortable being the outsider, but I have always been the outsider.  In every situation I have been in, for as long as I can remember, I have been the gaijin.  I am a gaijin in my own country, I am a gaijin in my own culture, I am a gaijin in my own faith, I am a gaijin in my own skin.  And the most appealing thing to me about Japan is this:  At least in Japan, at least when speaking Japanese, I am expected to be the gaijin.

In my world, others perhaps do not see me as the gaijin.  They see me as a member of the in-group, as an American, as a Christian, as all sorts of things and labels that I could (and often) do take but never fit.  But to Japanese, I am a gaijin (or gaikokujin, if that makes you more comfortable).  I will always be a gaijin.  I will never not be a gaijin.

And frankly, I think in some ways I prefer that.  The low expectations of being a high functioning child in Japanese culture.  In many ways, it beats what I am in my own culture.

Maybe that is why I am learning Japanese.

Learning English (ESL): Definite vs. Indefinite Articles

My sensei, who has been in this country for somewhere around thirty years, still has difficulties with this topic.  It is as difficult for a foreign speaker as “wa” vs. “ga” is – and she had to ask us once which one was appropriate to use.  So I thought this would be a good thing to post for Japanese speakers who are learning English.  Here goes.

It is very simple for a native English speaker to know when to use “a” and “the”, and I honestly think it could be as simple for you too, if you remember one specific rule:  the trick to choosing which one to use is based upon existence.  Here’s what I mean.

If you are talking about something that doesn’t exist yet, then you use “a”.  If it then exists, you use “the”.

For example, let’s use the example sensei was trying to use.  She wanted to write on the board that we were going to participate in games, and she wanted to know whether “play a game” or “play the game” is correct.  I told her it was “play a game”.  This is because the game didn’t exist yet.  “Let’s play a game” means that there are an infinite number of games, but since they haven’t actually taken form, we want to pick one of the games out of all of the possible games and play it, but we don’t know which one yet.

But once we start a game, we would then use “I need to go back to the game”, because the game exists, has taken form, and we then want to specify that that is the one specific game that we want to return to.

Note above that I said “all of the possible games”.  This is perhaps more confusing, because I just said that we don’t know which game to play, so how could we use “the” to mark that there is existence?  That’s simple – the set of all possible games is a single thing that has existence, so we want to use “the” to indicate that there is one thing that we want to speak of.

“The” set of all possible games, of which we will play “a” game.  Oh, look.  We’re playing a game now.  Let’s start the game.

See how that works?

That third sentence became difficult, though.  “We’re playing a game now”.  Why is it not “the” game?  Well, in this case, it actually could be.  I prefer to use “a game” because while we’re talking about a specific game, the emphasis is not on the fact that we’re playing that game, but rather, on the fact that we’re playing any game at all.  So even though we’re playing a specific game that has existence, we don’t really care about which game we’re playing, we just care that the activity we’re involved in is playing games.  I imagine this is where you just have to get familiar with it enough to be able to choose the correct article.  For me, “a” just feels right, but “the” feels okay.  “That” could be used too, but only if you’re actually pointing at the game that’s about to start.

But for the vast majority of cases, just remember this simple rule and you’ll get it right 95% of the time.

Hope this helps.