The Heart of Japan

I tend to annoy my coworkers with discussions of Japanese and all things Japan.  Some of them find it interesting.  Some just recite “press 1 for English”.  But at the end of the day, the discussions can be interesting at times.

One of my coworkers made the statement that “the best representation of Japanese culture is anime”.  I vehemently disagreed.  He then asked me the very fair question, “okay, then, what is it?”  After some thought, I answered.

But before I tell you what that answer was, let me go down a bit of a rabbit hole.

I follow Sora News 24 (Sky News) from Japan, which tends to focus on otaku and pop culture, as many Japanese sites seem to, for whatever reason.  They had a very interesting link wherein a person found an American wartime propaganda film, and posted it to a social media site.  Many people responded “how have we changed in the past 80 years?”  Many Japanese folks couldn’t answer the question.  They had to admit that they really hadn’t.  An observation I’ve made here previously.

As wonderful as Japanese media is, there is this undercurrent of darkness that runs across Japanese culture, which is why you have the chronic problem of overwork, of suicides, of so many things that run under the surface of what is by all respects an ancient and proud culture.

I love the Japanese, don’t get me wrong.  Their contributions to culture and media are amazing.  Their contributions to technology are amazing.  I find their art to be more beautiful, their music to be more interesting, their written word to be more thoughtful and introspective, than I’ve ever found western pop culture.

And yet, something in their culture drives people to overwork, to a declining birth rate, to wartime atrocities that their neighbors still haven’t forgiven them for.  Just as there are some major things wrong with western culture, there are some major things wrong with Japanese culture as well.  And covering it with a layer of cute and funny doesn’t fix those problems, it only hides them.

I love kawaii!  Really I do!  When I’m looking for something to lift the seemingly never-ending depression, it’s really hard to stay depressed when seeing things like nyangostar, AKBingo girls going crazy (particularly that little cutie Ichikawa Miori), Gaki no Tsukai ya Arrahende…  and there are so many things they have to offer the world that I think we ignore at our peril.  Shintoism has some really interesting insights that we in the west should pay attention to – without romanticizing them like we do most Eastern religions.  I don’t say any of this because I hate the Japanese culture – I say these things because it’s so beautiful sometimes that the spots on it are almost unbearable.

My answer to the question above:  the best representation of Japanese culture right now is karoushi.  Death by overwork.

See, there’s no karoushi in America.  Do you know why?  It’s not because companies wouldn’t enforce that if they could.  I worked at a company in the LA area around 2008 when the economy crashed – they told us flat out that they were revoking some of the perks we’d grown used to, and the reasoning was “the economy’s worse now.  Where are you going to go?  You’re lucky you have a job!”, as they laid off half the company.  That’s not the reason.  The reason is that the workers would simply say “I’m not doing this” and walk out.  There is no karoushi in America because no one would stand for it.  Companies such as Amazon and some video game companies come pretty close in some cases, but they really can only go so far.

Yes, there are plenty of companies in Japan who treat their employees well, but there are plenty that don’t, and the point is, that people will not speak up, to the point where they kill themselves rather than say “you’re not treating me well, I quit”.

I know there are many social pressures in Japan that make this difficult, but that’s entirely the point.  Japan is a small and very densely populated country.  It doesn’t have the kind of wealth of natural resources that we have in America.  Its greatest treasure is its people.  And there are millions upon millions of people in Japan who will silently bear abuse, rather than speaking up and saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we have it right in the west.  We take that too far.  Everyone seems to think they’re entitled to everything.  There are times when we should kind of suck it up a bit and be okay with minor inconveniences for the greater good.  Right now we take any kind of offense whatsoever as a grievous slight, and that, too, must stop.  But being worked to death, being bullied by superiors, that kind of thing, could not be classed as “minor inconveniences!”.

So the thing that most represents Japanese culture is karoushi.  And that makes me tremendously sad.  I love Japan, I love Japanese media, I love Japanese people.  And right now, I really don’t ever want to visit.  The darkness would cripple me.

Karate – Babymetal

I’m not going to review this song.  We’ll just say I rather like it and leave it at that.  But I do want to point out something interesting about it.

One of the central musical themes of this song is a contrast between staccato and lyrical.  The part of the chorus that starts “hikasura seiya soiya” are very sharp, cut off, and aggressive, while the part that is “wow” is very lyrical.  These two things contrast off of each other to make the music more effective than it might otherwise be.  I think it actually represents the tension and release of the fight that is being described in the lyrics, and on the video.

But one of the things that makes this possible is the rapid fire nature of the Japanese syllabic structure itself.  I saw a video where a girl tried to do an English translation, and it was lacking.  Not because the words were bad, and she wasn’t even a particularly bad singer, but the rapid fire staccato didn’t translate well and she didn’t seem to understand why it was necessary to try to keep that character.  So, instead, she did it lyrically, and didn’t attack it hard enough, so her voice was wavering.  It didn’t work well.

When translating Japanese, things can be lost in translation, even when all the words are correct.

That’s the worst trap to fall into.  Japanese are people like me, yes, but theirs is a very different culture, and a very different way of looking at the world.  If one doesn’t see and accept that for what it is, one runs the very real risk of losing something important in translation.

The Shallowness of Exported Japanese Culture

A recurring theme of this site is my continued wonder at why I’m bothering to learn Japanese at all.  I mean, it is an interesting language, it’s difficult, it’s a challenge.  All these things are true.  But at the end of the day, as a gaikokujin, I find that my reasons for learning the language are really, at the end of the day, somewhat puzzling.

What I mean is this:  after learning Japanese, I’ll have the following abilities:  I’ll be able to read manga in its native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to consume Youtube videos and other media in their native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to…

Umm,  hmm.  What will I be able to do, other than that?

This became clear when I read that AKB48 is not going to have their annual elections this year, and I thought, oh hey, maybe I can post about that!  And then I thought… why would I want to do that?  What possible reason would I have to post about something so incredibly shallow as a bunch of (admittedly quite pretty and cute) Japanese girls getting up on stage and crying because they won a popularity contest?

And the answer came:  Because, as a gaikokujin, I’ve got nothing else interesting to post about!

So I’ll be able to read manga.  So I’ll be able to watch AKBingo videos, or “Gaki No Tsukai Ya Arrahende”.  Or maybe I can watch “Swing Girls” or “Gou Gou Datte Neko De Aru”.  Or some random anime that butchers the language but is interesting nonetheless.  And maybe I won’t need subtitles or translations.

And that’s all there is.

Is it worth the time and money I’ve been spending on it?

It’s an open question.

As of right now, I have no idea what I would even use it for.

Immersion

My first true exposure to Japanese language was Rosetta Stone.  In fact, I remember the first word I ever learned:  otokonoko.  I became very disillusioned with Rosetta Stone very quickly, and decided that it wasn’t worth it, particularly for the price.

But lately I’ve been studying the kanken books.  You see, in Japan, there are ten levels of kanji certification.  I could probably pass test 10 right now, but honestly, so could most first graders.  But what really interested me was the beginning of the book.  Because, you see, there is a section dedicated to practicing hiragana.

But there are no word definitions.  I wondered why, but it hit me quickly:  it’s because these books are for Japanese children, and they already know the words.  They just don’t know how to read and write them yet.

So the Japanese children already have a command of the Japanese language through immersion – they know the words, they have to know the words.  They have to know how to ask for food and to make their needs known, and they do so in Japanese.  Not because they want to, but because they have to.

When I realized that I looked back on my experience with Rosetta Stone, and I realized why I was so dissatisfied with it.

They were selling immersion, but it wasn’t immersion.  Because while you can repeat the words back, there’s no meaningful interaction.  You just get a multiple choice test, and while the creators of RS actually have the right idea, they aren’t doing it in a really useful way.  Japanese children know the words they know because these are words that they need in their lives to get through their days.  RS taught words that really weren’t all that useful, with very little context, and in some cases, weren’t even the correct words.  For example, I have only heard the word “otokonoko” used in every day language a handful of times, Japanese people would never say “o-genki desu ka” as a greeting, and “kanojo” actually means girlfriend in colloquial language.  But you’d never know that.  Especially from Rosetta Stone, which is, frankly, useless.

But it did have a kernel of the right idea.

And I think that kernel is this:  Learn through immersion, but find the words that children know.

So I’ve started making lists of basic children’s words.  Words like “monkey” and “elephant”, etc.  Words that children would know from childrens’ books, zoos, songs, etc.  And those are the words I’m prioritizing learning right now.  The other words are useful.  They’re even necessary.  But I think that those are the words that will give me the same foundation as Japanese children, and thus make the Japanese-oriented learning material, such as the kanken books, more useful to me.

And they’ll also give me a little insight into Japanese culture.  Because for conversational Japanese, us gaikokujin would never even know to look for those words.

How Would I Have Done It?

Let me preface this by saying: this is only a thought experiment. I have no illusions that this will ever happen. I’m not even seriously proposing it. But I do like to think about these kinds of things.

So, that said, how would I redo Japanese if I were God?

Well, my first thought is, expand the syllabary. Add a couple of vowels and a couple of consonants.

Then, redo the syllabary to something that is logical, something like the korean hangul. Make the rules regular and predictable – this part means this vowel, this part means this consonant, etc.

I don’t think I would get rid of kanji, because that’s actually kind of useful, but I would normalize the pronuncation. One kanji pronounced one, or at most two, ways. I’d also add a cue to the kanji – like some already have – as to how to pronounce them.

And then I’d make sure the kanji had a little more variety in the pronunciation. It’s like there are about 10,000 kanji right now that are all pronounced “doo”.

And then what I’d have wouldn’t be Japanese and no one would care.

See, that’s the thing. Japanese is a difficult language, with many different rules, some without rhyme nor reason, some contradictory, some counterintuitive, some bolted on from other languages, and all of which come together to make… Japanese. Change it, and you’ve got an easier, more intuitive, more logical and regular, more consistent, and just probably better in almost every way language that isn’t Japanese.

Weight it all in the balance, and it’s probably better just to keep it the way it is.

All that said, though, a guy can dream, right?

Maybe I’ll do that someday as a pure linguistic exercise, just for fun. But it won’t be Japanese and I won’t make any effort to pretend it could be. Still, might be fun.

If you were God and didn’t have to deal with a hundred and fifty million angry Japanese, though, what would you change?

The Two Pillars of Success

There are two pillars to success when learning any language: vocabulary and grammar.

The thing about them is, they are actually rather orthogonal to each other. Even in Japanese, as long as you learn the dictionary form (or to some degree even the polite form of the word) you don’t need to worry too much about how to use it to know the word.

You need to know both, obviously, but you can work on both separately, and not lose anything when it comes to learning whatever language you’re trying to learn. Eventually, of course, you have to tie them together, but that actually happens rather naturally with exposure.

And each requires a separate way of learning. Vocabulary seems to work best through a combination of exposure and rote memorization, but grammar seems to work best mostly through exposure and immersion. Grammar is how you learn to think in a language, and vocabulary is how you learn to express the thoughts within the framework grammar teaches you.

I think this is one reason why Japanese is seen as so difficult: in order to learn either vocabulary or grammar, you first need to learn the framework in which both of those things are expressed. Such as hiragana, katakana, kanji, particules, etc. And you have to learn them before you can move on.

That’s the “hump” I was talking about earlier. Japanese is very much not an instant gratification language, if you’re starting from zero.

The Other

Western people know many Japanese place names. Osaka, Tokyo, and even for more unsavory reasons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But what many western people don’t know is that these are actually very ordinary names in Japanese.

Hiroshima, for example, means “Wide Island”, and Tokyo means “Capital City” (or something similar).

The fact that the names are in a language we don’t understand makes them sound exotic, but they’re not exotic at all. Just like, for example, “Austin” might sound exotic, but it’s just a random guy’s last name, and “Round Rock” is named for a literal round rock in Brushy Creek.

How much learning another language makes the culture behind that language seem so much more ordinary.

But does everyone want to lose that otherness, that exoticism?