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Gaijin Learning Japanese

Who am I?

I am a 40-mumble-mumble year old computer engineer from Texas.  I am single and have a cat.  My hobbies include annoying said cat, playing piano, and studying philosophy and theology (I’m a stand-up philosopher!)  Politically, my views are generally none of your business, but I’ll promise you that whatever it is you believe, I probably have some quibble with it.

Why am I learning Japanese?

This is a hard question and requires some background.

I have always been a little bit interested in Japanese culture, but not in any particularly strong way.  Recently, though, I found a funny video by the Japanese girl-group Morning Musume, where the members were showing off their hilariously nonexistent English skills.

I thought it was possibly the cutest thing I’d ever seen.  So I started looking into it more, and found that the group Morning Musume had a variety show ten years ago, and I started watching some of their other videos.

As I did so, I started to see the appeal of “idol culture”, though I did so with a healthy dose of skepticism.  After all, pop culture is pop culture, right?  And I’m sure Tsunku (the guy who created the whole idol thing in the first place, starting with Morning Musume) knew exactly what he was doing.  I also was well aware that some people have Japanese fetishes and thought of these girls in what could charitably be called an unhealthy fashion (and uncharitably called straight up creepy).  I became aware of people known as “weeaboos” who basically worship all things Japanese.  I was determined not to become any of that.

I grew to like these girls, though.  I learned that the word “musume” means “daughter” or “daughters” in Japanese, and I started to understand why people enjoy them.  I started to see their different personalities (or at least the personalities they showed on screen).  Fujimoto Miki, Makoto Ogawa, and of course that little rascal Michishige Sayumi, along with all of the other girls, wormed their way into my heart in their own way, and it was sad to see them graduate and move on, even though I wish them the best.  I’ve never had a daughter and it kind of filled a gap in my own heart, at least a little tiny bit.

I also grew to respect their sense of ceremony.  Their graduation concerts are some of the most touching productions I’ve seen, and I’m sure there was not a dry eye in the place.  I came to realize that the Japanese culture has something that we in the west sorely lack – even as we have a lot of things in our culture that we could benefit from.  That is a sense of decorum and ceremony.  While their culture is, indeed, quite rigid, with a lot of spoken and unspoken rules that we in the west have no clue of, there is a certain amount of that that does, indeed, lead to a shared cultural experience, one that we in the west are increasingly leaving behind in favor of a toxic individualism that rips us apart.  Their sense of ceremony and pageantry is something I feel we sorely miss, and miss even more since the primary source of pageantry in the western culture, the Church, has been slowly but surely losing its influence, as has the secondary source of pageantry, which is patriotism.

So I became fascinated with their culture in that sense, and began to realize that by understanding their culture, perhaps I could understand my own a bit more, by contrasting them.

That is why I decided to learn Japanese.

How did I start?

Well, I started with Rosetta Stone.

I found it almost useless.

Rosetta Stone does have two redeeming qualities.  The first is that it teaches and enforces good pronunciation, and I’m not sure that I would have known some of the unspoken (pardon the pun) rules if not for their voice recognition.  The other is that it teaches a lot of basic vocabulary very quickly.

The downsides to that product, however, are massive.  It teaches vocabulary in what they call “immersion”, but it’s really frustrating for someone who learns as I do.  I had to find other resources to puzzle out the grammatical constructs, and I wish they’d taught me that instead of leaving me to fend for myself.  Their chat was full of people with useful information, but apparently sharing URLs are against their terms of use, and they enforce them religiously.  So, with that, the expense was not worth what I was gaining from it, and I let the account lapse.  It was a good jumpstart, but I don’t miss it.

Instead, I’ve been watching Japanese videos, memorizing hiragana, katakana, and kanji, and I’m planning on taking courses at my local community college when enrollment starts in a couple of months.

What is the most challenging aspect of Japanese?

Some would say that it’s the amount of memorization required, but honestly, I don’t find that too much of a challenge.  I’m picking up kanji just by exposure, and the hiragana isn’t all that more difficult than the roman alphabet.

For me, I think the biggest challenge is the shift in mindset required.  Their language is, indeed, very foreign, and has concepts that English does not, as well as not having concepts that English does.  Right now I actively translate in my head when I hear something, and that is not the place I need to be – fluency comes when that is not necessary.  I’m so far away from that, and I’m not entirely sure how I’ll ever find my way to that point.  But I suppose it comes with experience and practice.

The second biggest challenge is finding people to practice with.  I tried, and found a couple of people, but I think my Japanese is yet too bad, and they never responded again past the first conversation.  Maybe I’m not good enough, but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.  That’s why I hope community college will be helpful – I’ll have a chance to practice real conversation.

What have been my greatest breakthroughs so far?

Compound kanjis (jyukugo), bar none.

See, I learn in a different way than most people.  Most people want to start with their ABCs (or should I say their kokekus), but that’s just memorization for me.  I want to learn how it’s structured.  Once I understand that, then filling in the blanks is easy.  And the greatest resources I’ve found don’t start with これわりんごです (“this is an apple”) but instead they teach me how it got that way, why it is the way it is, and how it’s structured.  Otherwise it’s just intimidating.

Take the kanji 語, for example, which means “language”.  I did not understand it until I found a site that explained that these kinds of kanji have two different parts, a radical on the left, and a part on the right that determines its pronunciation.  If you look on the right, you see 五, which is the number five, and pronouced “go”.  So that kanji is pronounced “go”. So in the word 日本語, which means “Japanese” or “Japanese language”, you know it’s pronounced “nihongo”.

Rosetta Stone would never in a million years have taught me that.

My vocabulary sucks, but I’m working on it.

What’s the point of this blog?

I don’t want to go over the basic things.  That’s boring for everyone and there are a hundred sites that handle that far more competently than I could.  What I want to do instead is talk about the interesting cultural, language, and other things I learn about Japan and their language.  What is interesting?  What helps my learning improve?  What are some useful tidbits that I pick up that one won’t usually find unless they go to obscure sites?  I’m doing this for that reason.

And I’m doing this because I want to start a community.  I want to find other people for whom Japan and the Japanese language is interesting.  I want to find interesting little details that are like little delectable mochi.

I want to stay interested.

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