Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician.  I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos.  Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years.  I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.

So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things?  In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t.  You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases.  By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to.  About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.

Nonetheless, I still rather like it.

I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”.  It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there.  Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”.  You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded.  You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something.  The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.

I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves.  They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so.  Take AKB-48.  People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done.  People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece.  People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony.  People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.”  Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.

Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude.  If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.

I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality.  They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career.  But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops.  Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste.  You only learn to do one thing very well.

But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work.  Take Babymetal, for example.  If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.”  And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap!  That shouldn’t work at all, but it does!  What did I just watch?”  And then they go down the foxhole.

I think this is why I like J-Pop.  They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things.  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo.  You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah?  Watch me.”  And they do.  One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”.  You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own.  Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”.  I’ll try my best.

And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides.  It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them.  Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them.  But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”.  Trying their best.  And that’s why I like them.

They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.

It’s really hard not to admire that.  Even as a classical pianist.

Sudoku

I’ve been recently learning how to do sudoku puzzles, and it turns out that I’m really good at it with the right hints, and really bad at the harder ones otherwise.  But I can’t help but to find some similarities between sudoku and the Japanese language.

Both of them – particularly the harder sudoku – are incredibly intimidating when you first look at them.  Sudoku has only a few numbers filled in, and you’re thinking “I’m supposed to deduce a solution from this?  But then, you start to learn, and as the basics become more old hat, it’s a little like filling in more of the numbers – the puzzle gets easier the more correct numbers you fill in.  It’s like a harder puzzle becomes a medium puzzle and then becomes an easy puzzle.  It gets easier as you go on.

In some ways, I feel this way about Japanese.  When you first start, you have this intimidating world set out before you – with brand new characters that have nothing to do with our writing system, even when it does, with ambiguous meanings that only make sense in context – it’s just this huge thing that you have no idea how to tackle.

But then you start, and you master one small part of it, then another part of it, and pretty soon you’re competent enough to read simple vocabulary and learn the most common readings of kanji.  And at that point it becomes clear that the common readings of kanji will get you most of the way to where you want to go.

Unlike sudoku, of course, more challenges immediately present themselves as you progress.  It is almost as if you solve one sudoku puzzle, and then it immediately expands to a cube of 729 units, and have to solve that as well.  So the analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy ever is.

But the first step to solving any puzzle – sudoku or otherwise – is to just start and keep going until you solve it.

Uncomfortable

Note to Japanese readers:  if you are not prepared to accept a rather harsh criticism of your culture, please stop reading now.

A couple of days ago, I learned about the behavior of the Japanese in the second world war, and it rather shocked me.  I didn’t really understand why the Japanese were (and to some degree, are) so reviled in South and East Asia, but after hearing about some of the atrocities that were done in Manchuria, China, and the Philippines, among others, I think I understand it now.  I’m very uncomfortable with it.  Primarily because it seems, from what I’ve been reading, that most of those countries, including South Korea, only want an acknowledgement and apology for what the Japanese did eighty years ago.  I imagine some are looking for reparations too, but I’m not going to get into that discussion.  That’s also something we’re dealing with in America, on a smaller scale, and I don’t want to open that can of worms.

However, such an apology and acknowledgement has, from what I understand, never been forthcoming.

I can think of many reasons for this.  I am not familiar with Japanese culture as much as someone who may be living there, but my general impression is that they tend to avoid things that cause them shame or embarrassment.  So I can kind of understand why they, even today, avoid thought or mention of what was done in world war two.  But in other senses, I can’t.  Culture is a very strong driving force, and I get that, but there are some things with which the only appropriate thing is swallowing your pride, and owning up to the history of one’s country performing unimaginable atrocities in wartime should be one of those things.

I am very uncomfortable with Japanese culture right now, and while I continue to learn the language as I don’t wish for two years of study to be in vain, I’m not sure if I want to ever visit there at the moment.  I mean, before I was pretty sure I would never be able to, but now I’m not even sure if I want to.  Because behind every kawaii thing they come up with, there are relatively recent wounds of war that are still festering, and I remain very disturbed by what I learned.

Japanese is Not a Straightforward Language

Every now and then I’ll hear someone say that Japanese is pretty straightforward.  I’ve said that a couple of times, and in limited contexts, it’s true.  The rules are pretty clear, and most of the time if you follow them you’ll do okay.

See the catch in that sentence?  “Most of the time.”

Let me enumerate the ways in which Japanese is NOT straightforward.

  • Rendaku.  It’s so complicated that a guy made Lyman made a law about it.  That only mostly applies.
  • Yomikata.  Kanji readings are for the most part predictable – there is usually one kun-yomi and one or two mainly used on-yomi.  But most kanji seem to have the occasional exceptional reading that you can only really learn by trial and error.
  • Verb conjugation.  It is rather straightforward in one sense – but there are several verb classes, two irregular verbs, exceptions to one of the classes, and the conjugation for the other class requires a lot of memorization.
  • Modifiers.  There seem to be an endless number of modifiers that you can stick at the end of or in a sentence that change its meaning, sometimes subtly.  These aren’t really particles, there’s modifiers that change the meaning of a sentence.  Speaking of…
  • Particles.  I’m not even sure English has the concept.  In English, the function of particles is performed by context.  Japanese spells it out.  Except for when they don’t.  An entire sentence can be said using one word, if you know the context it’s said in.
  • Politeness language.  There are several levels of politeness language in Japanese, and you are expected to know when and to whom to use it.
  • Pronouns. Here in America there is this huge battle over pronouns – who gets to tell who which ones to use.  I imagine that’s confusing in Japan – most of their pronouns are somewhat rude to one degree or other.  Again, most of the time.  And I wonder what American far-left authoritarian types would do if the language they used didn’t even bother with pronouns most of the time.  On balance, maybe a good thing.  Google translate almost always gets Japanese wrong when it comes to pronouns because it cannot figure out context.

As you get more familiar with the language, these things become… not less of a concern, per se, but you get used to them.  Which, to me, is a tragedy in itself – who in their right mind would get used to this mess?

But then… I can’t really say a whole lot about that, considering English is probably worse in many ways.  At least they have a really robust “alphabet” (in the form of kanji).  We have 26 letters, 15,000 syllables, and are not afraid to use any of them.  And we have quite a few more vowels and they change sounds based upon context, very much like rendaku, I think, just supercharged.  So I guess English isn’t straightforward either.  No less a tragedy that I was raised with it and am used to that, too, I suppose.  Oh, to have a nice, simple language that most people spoke.

I have a mind that is geared towards linguistics and I’m usually pretty good at choosing the right words at the appropriate times.  It is frustrating to be learning a language where not only do I not know the rules, I don’t even know which rules I don’t know.  But I guess that’s what keeps me busy.

 

Commitment

Learning any language, particularly Japanese, for most people is a major commitment.  There are some people who seem to be able to pick up languages very quickly, and don’t hesitate to make sure you know that, but their tricks don’t work for everyone, and I’m pretty sure their knowledge is broad but shallow.

But I think sometimes someone goes into a language thinking “I’m going to learn this language”, and then give themselves a goal.  “I’m going to study for six months”, or “I’m going to study for a year”…  and then they start to learn the language and find out it’s, like, really hard.  Some languages are harder than others, of course, but no language is easy.

And people have lots of reasons why a language is hard, and most of the time, those reasons are legitimate.  I’ve gone over why Japanese is a difficult language to learn many times in this blog alone, and I haven’t even begun to cover the important points.  Mainly because I’ve been studying for two years, and I don’t even know what they are yet.

But the major obstacle to learning a language is time.  Not to study, while the study is important.  Not to learn grammar, while that’s important too.  Not even practicing speaking it, while that’s important too.  No, it’s the time you spend immersing yourself in the language enough that you can actually start to think in it and understand the vocabulary you know without effort when someone else speaks it.  That is a process that takes time and can’t be rushed.

And, I think, that’s honestly the most valuable form of practice.  When I first started to learn Japanese, it was literally gibberish to me.  I listened to a young woman speaking quickly, and I could not even pick out words.  It was utter nonsense – she may as well have been speaking in tongues for all the good it did me.  But every now and then I go back to that, just to see how well I’ve progressed, and now I understand most of it.  All of my studying was important to get there, but no amount of studying can prepare one for actually letting it get into your head, sink in, and start to live there.

And to become fluent, that’s what you need more than anything else.  The vocabulary and grammar come in time, but fluency only comes with deep familiarization with the language – the kind that study simply can’t provide.

All of this is a lot of words to say:  If you’re only studying Japanese and not living and consuming it as much as you can, you will never truly succeed at the language.  It may be good enough, and Japanese people will certainly appreciate your efforts – even at where I am now, I could probably get around Tokyo or Osaka pretty well.  But there will always be that limitation – that wall that will be difficult to climb.

Only experience breaks that wall down.

Complexity

One thing that many people don’t know about me is that I’m fairly competent on the piano.  As with Japanese, I am only now learning exactly how much I don’t know in that discipline, but I can hold my own.  If I really want to learn a piece, even if it’s difficult, I usually can.

But the reason I chose the piano was precisely because it is a different instrument.  I also became relatively proficient with the clarinet, and while in some ways it is a far more expressive instrument, and with all of those levers and buttons it has its own form of complexity, but it was not really a satisfying thing for me to learn.  It wasn’t complex.

Many languages don’t hold much appeal to me, even if I know their usefulness.  I have absolutely no interest or desire to learn Spanish, even though, living in Texas, it would be a terribly useful language for me to know.  One of these days I will probably learn it, even as I really don’t want to.  I learned conversational German in college, and while I’ve forgotten most of the vocabulary, I remember much of the grammar.  It was also not particularly challenging, so I lost interest.  Most of the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon languages don’t interest me – I already know English, so what’s the point, really?

However, languages that have their own special symbols have always fascinated me  I learned a little bit of Thai a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten all but a couple of phrases, but I found the fact that it has its own alphabet and/or syllabary to be quite interesting.  I’m not particularly interested in learning Hebrew or Greek, but those languages do have some quite interesting symbols I’d be interested in understanding at some point.  Russian, with their Cyrillic alphabet, probably would interest me if I hadn’t have had some run-ins with Russian people who soured me on the whole culture.  And Chinese… well, that does hold a certain fascination for me, but being a tonal language, it’s very likely something that would be too complicated.  I only have so much time, after all.  Plus I’m really not impressed with their culture at the moment, so on to greener pastures for me.  (and I know what will likely happen with that statement, and I won’t approve those comments.)

So that pretty much leaves me with a few of the other far-east languages, like Korean or Japanese.

Korean doesn’t hold a lot of interest to me because its writing system is actually simple.  Their grammar is very similar to Japanese, though their vocabulary is not, but after learning Japanese grammar, it should be pretty simple to pick up Korean if I really wanted to – just learn a much simplified writing system and pick up vocabulary, and I’m golden.

So that leaves Japanese.  One of the most complicated languages in existence.  Three writing systems, a completely inverted language structure, several politeness levels… basically a hodgepodge and mishmash of things stuck together, jerry-rigged, and smushed into one huge glorious ball of confusion.

And I suspect that is the major reason I chose it.

Hagibis and “Black Companies”

As I have said previously, there are many things to admire about Japanese culture, and quite a few things not to admire as well.  I have always strove, in this blog and elsewhere, to look at Japan with an unflinching lack of bias – acknowledging the good, acknowledging the cultural differences that are legitimately morally relative, and also calling out the unquestionably dark sides of Japanese culture that sometimes rear their heads.

Honestly, though I hear it’s recently changing, the biggest thing about Japanese culture that actually deters me from living there is its workplace environment.  They are a culture that tends to value uniformity and teamwork above individual contributions.  That, in itself, is one of those things that I think are legitimately morally relative, and that’s not really what I’m criticizing.  I wouldn’t want to work at a company like that, but my culture is different.  I hear some Japanese companies are taking a more western approach, and I applaud that, while at the same time recognizing that I’m applauding it because it’s more inline with my culture.

But what I don’t like are “black companies”.  These are companies that, to put it bluntly, abuse their workers.  Force them to work long hours, accept no excuses for being late, fire people for getting a snack… basically treating them as feudal slaves with the veneer of modernity.  The suicide rate in Japan is troubling, and at least a portion of that is people who are overworked so badly that they simply can’t hold up under the pressure anymore.

What prompted this observation was finding out that there were some companies that forced people to work through Typhoon Hagibis when it roared through the Tokyo metro area.  The trains were shut down, I’m guessing people were told to shelter in place or find somewhere inland to go, essential services were disrupted.  There were even a few people killed and injured.  It was, by all accounts, a pretty major hurricane, and Japan will be spending quite a bit of time and money recovering from it.  A direct hit on one of the largest cities in the world is not something to take lightly.

And yet, even Hagibis was not enough to excuse some people from work.

This is an aspect of Japanese culture that, frankly, disgusts me.  One can certainly argue the merits of long hours and some of the other aspects of the Japanese corporate culture that are questionable but not necessarily cruel.  But forcing your employees to come to work in the middle of a typhoon?  I don’t care who you are or what culture you’re from, that’s not excusable.

But the problem, as I see it, is that Japanese people accept this.  If people simply didn’t work for black companies, there wouldn’t be any more black companies.  But instead, people feel an obligation, cultural or otherwise, to continue working for the company that is mistreating them so badly.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the post-war idea that one works for the same company for life, or if it’s just the Japanese cultural tendency not to make waves, but the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening is a major black mark on Japanese culture, and is a part of the darkness that makes me think twice about visiting or living there.

And this problem will be exacerbated by the birthrate decline.  In a few years, there will not be enough people to fill all of the jobs that are needed by Japanese countries.  Foreigners, specially western foreigners, will not put up with that kind of environment, and those that are entering the workplace will slowly begin to realize that they are more valuable to the company than the company is to them.  And at that point, the apocalypse will come for “black companies’.  And not a moment too soon.