Sakura

Every year, around springtime, the cherry trees in Japan (sakura, or 桜) bloom. It’s only for a few days, and I’m to understand it is justifiably considered a national treasure.  People come from all over the world to see the beautiful blooming of the cherry trees, and there is much said in Japanese art and music about the cherry trees.  In fact, several AKB48 songs reference cherry trees, such as Sakura No Hanabiratchi, Sakura No Shiori, and maybe one of the more heartrending, Sakura no Ki Ni Narou:

I will turn into an eternal cherry tree
Yes, I won’t move from here
Even if you get lost on your heart’s path
I will stand here so that you know where love is

It is beautiful, yes.  But every place has its own sakura.  Here in Texas, it’s wildflowers and bluebonnets.  For a few days in spring here, the fields turn blue, sometimes as far as the eye can see, and it’s at least as beautiful as the sakura trees in Japan.  In my home state of Ohio, the lilac and mulberry trees would bloom, releasing their fragrance into the air as it mixes with the petrichor before a spring thunderstorm.

Japan is home to the Japanese, and the beauty of the sakura trees is something they treasure as a part of their culture, as the bluebonnets are as a part of where I live, and the spring thunderstorms and petrichor are as a part of mine.

We are the same people.  Separated by thousands of miles of ocean, a slightly different genetic makeup, cultures that have different markers of beauty, languages that come with different histories and base assumptions, yes.  But I’m willing to bet that a Japanese person who is in America remembers, for a few days each year, the sakura in their home country, and feel a sense of longing and loss.

For that is their home.

Sometimes I feel the same longing and loss for what was.  There are many things in my past that are now gone, and they will never be coming back.  Life marches on, time marches on, and eventually, somehow, we forget.

But the sakura trees do bloom every year.  The petals sprout, bloom, and fall to the ground.  And, for just a few days, I think the Japanese people remember that Japan is their home.

And it will never be mine.

And that is okay.  I have my own.  But I will learn their language.  I will learn about their culture.  And even if it is never home, even if I long to see the sakura as they see the sakura, I can be comforted that they also long to see the bluebonnets and wide open skies of Texas.

Someday, maybe, God or 神 willing, we will all get our wish.

こんばんわ, 私の日本の友達.  The cherry trees will bloom again.  And maybe, just maybe, someday I will show you the bluebonnets.  You are proud of your home.  Maybe I will show you mine.

In the Beginning

While I am a little (okay, a LOT) burned out on it, I am a bit of a theology nerd.  This is not a theology blog and it will not become one.  But as in the post Kami, there are some interesting theological insights to be gained from seeing how western theology interacts with Japanese culture.

The Bible has been translated into Japanese.  The very first sentence is this:

まだ何もなかった時、神は天と地を造りました

Note the character 神, which means Kami, or God.

Here in the west, we have a very specific idea of who God is, and it’s mostly based upon several thousand years of history that Japanese culture does not share.  So, we can translate the Bible into Japanese, but the translations are built upon a shared culture that isn’t.  神 is a very animistic concept, is neither plural nor singular (as I mentioned previously), it is neither male nor female, and it can apply to any number of different god-like beings.  So it is, indeed, a very faithful translation (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) and the Japanese reader would read something entirely different into it.

But, with that being said, it would also introduce an entirely new concept, as the Shinto 神 (and the Buddhist 神, too) is not really a creator, so even as such, a major concept of western spirituality is infused into this sentence – one that the Japanese would readily understand as other, even as the word that’s used has untold centuries of cultural baggage attached to it that it does not for us.  After all, it has centuries of cultural baggage for us in the west too, just a different kind of cultural baggage.

To me, as a theology nerd, this indicates in very stark terms the danger of trying to take religious texts literally.  Even if you get the translation 100% right, there’s always something cultural lost in translation, which could mean that the reader gets an idea that was not intended by the writer.  A caution for us in the west, as well.  Because, as you may well know – it’s also translated for us.

Discovery

One thing I love about learning a new language, is that once you get past the basics, there is always something to discover.  I’m still a beginner by all means, but I consider having learned hiragana and katakana, and getting to the point where I understand the language enough to actually discover things, to be “getting past the basics”.

Even though arguably I have not.

Yesterday, I encountered the word “大日本”, which means “greater Japan”.  I found that it was pronounced “dai-nihon”.  I knew the characters for “nihon” (日本), and I know that 大 means “big” and is pronounced おおき in on-yomi, but when I saw how 大 was pronounced in kun-yomi, the wheels in my brain started turning.  Is this, I said to myself, the same character that is in 大好き, which means to love very much?

Yes!  It is!

So I looked up 好き, and realized that both of those words mean love, but 大好き is something greater in scale, like “I love you” vs. “I love you very much”.  And so now I know the kun-yomi pronunciation, or at least one of them.

So then I thought of the word 大人, which means “adult”, and I thought “why isn’t that pronounced “daijin”?  Turns out, it’s not.  Turns out I just stumbled on one of the few exceptions to the rule of compound words in Japanese.  It’s pronounced “おとな”, and who knows why.

But, you know, I’m just pleased that I know enough to ask the questions!

I’m still studying kanji and vocabulary, but I think this kind of discovery is honestly the best way to learn.  It’s just not a very quick way.  But what you discover in this way, you’re probably never going to forget.

A Post About Actually Learning Japanese

After all of the posts about Japanese culture I’ve been spewing forth, I thought I’d write one about actually learning Japanese.

I finally found a tool that I actually like, and I finally feel like I’m actually learning things.

Putting the effort into learning hiragana and katakana has been completely invaluable.  I say this because it underpins absolutely everything else, and I think that this is probably the first thing that needs to be done – before kanji, before pronunciation, before everything.  Because it makes everything past that so much easier.  In fact, I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that it opens up entirely new worlds – even if you don’t know the vocabulary yet, you can sound it out and at least you have something to look up.  And with katakana, you’re about halfway certain it’s a borrowed word, and sometimes it’s even an English borrowed word!  Of course, this is probably completely obvious to someone who has studied Japanese, but for someone just starting out, this is actually not obvious.  It’s very tempting to go right for the vocabulary and to learn conversational phrases, but I’m actually thinking that’s a pretty bad idea, unless you’re heading to Japan in two weeks.  Then I guess you do what you have to.

The tool I found is Japanese Level Up.  Specifically, Jalup NEXT.  It’s like Anki flashcards, but more portable (anki doesn’t work well on a chromebook, if at all).  I didn’t need to take the hiragana and katakana courses, but it’s there if you need them.  I’d suggest taking that, making sure you’re solid on those, then taking the kanji and beginner courses at the same time.  If you’re familiar with even the basics of Japanese, you’ll sail through at least the first few flash cards of the beginner course.  The kanji is a little more difficult, but even after a few repetitions, you’ll look at something written in Japanese and even recognize a few kanji!  You won’t know how to pronounce them, necessarily, but I guess that comes in time.  Of course I want it all now now now, but it’s a big topic, and that won’t happen.

One thing I also like about Jalup is that you can buy the flashcards as you need them – they’re about $8 for a set of 100.  Of course, that will get spendy after a while, but you can space it out over a long period of time, and you get indefinite access to what you’ve bought, unlike Rosetta Stone, which you lose access to when you stop paying (and Rosetta Stone isn’t all that effective anyway, in my opinion).

I’m going to work with that, probably even after I start community college classes.  Hopefully, with all of these things working in concert, I’ll at least get to a point where I don’t feel like a complete fraud when I start trying to speak Japanese.

 

Grass is Greener

There are two YouTube videos I watched recently that have caused me to think, and to rethink my approach to Japan.

It is true that Japan has some frankly amazing things going for it, but it’s not all great.  One of the videos I watched were about “things that can get you arrested in Japan”.  It was sobering enough that many people in the comments posted that they had made plans to go to Japan and they cancelled them.  And the other video was about a young woman who made a trip to Houston, which is a city nearby to where I live (Austin).

The first video made me realize that Japan is a very different country than America, for good and for bad.  Some of the things that make it so great – a sense of community, a conformist society, a reliance on knowing your place in society and speaking with deference, politeness, and respect, are things that also can make it a very oppressive place, especially for gaijin such as me.  The authors of the video were careful to note that it’s not likely to happen, but still, it made me think.

In the second video, the young woman (who goes by “Cathy Cat”) was so excited to be in Texas – she tried out a Texas hot dog, met a bunch of American people, modeled “lolicon” outfits, and was basically just having a grand time.  She was so excited to be in America, even as she was attending an anime conference.

And here I am, wanting to learn about a different culture, and one that is not in all ways superior.

Here’s the thing.  I live in Texas.  This is a state – pert-near a country – where people from other countries really want to go.  They see cowboy hats, steaks, cows, ranches, etc.  And these things are here.  But there’s also shopping malls, grocery stores, foot markets and stores of all different types and nationalities – even Japanese.  And I’ve explored very little of it.

Why would I want to explore Japan when I live in a place that many Japanese want to go and haven’t even explored it yet?

I intend to continue learning Japanese.  But I don’t think I’m going to spend quite as much time exploring Japanese culture as I have been.  It’s been interesting, and it’s served its purpose, and I know a lot more than I did.  And I’ll, by the very nature of the studies, be learning even more about it as I learn Japanese.  But truth be told, I think I prefer to put on my cowboy hat and my cowboy boots, hop in my pickup*, and explore where I already am.  After all, Japan is interesting, but so is Texas.

And maybe someday I will go to Japan.  But not anytime soon.  And I may never.  But here I am.  I think, next year, I will go to Ikkicon if it’s still in Austin.  I will try to figure out why the heck people cosplay (I have absolutely no idea).  Maybe I will pick up some fun anime stuff (it’s not completely my thing, but why not).  But here I am.  In Texas.  Time to make the best of it.

*not really a pickup.  Okay, it’s a blurple Chevy Cruze.  So sue me.

Japanese Food and Stores in Austin, Part 4

Today I decided to “pop” into Anime Pop, a small store dedicated to Anime on Airport Rd. just north of Koenig.

When you walk in, there are two aisles full of anime stuff.  Figures, magazines, books, pins, plushes, the works.  If you are interested at all in anime, this is the place for you in Austin (though Gift World might have something you’re interested in).

Perusing the figures, the thing that struck me the most is that nearly every single female is scantily clad to various levels, to the point where while some of the figures were extremely beautifully done, I would have felt a bit ashamed to bring one home.  So I didn’t.  Instead I bought a pusheen plush, of which there were several.

I chatted briefly with the guy behind the counter, and got the impression that he’s pretty much an otaku – doing what he loves doing.  He expressed a desire to someday get J-pop stuff in, and I agreed with him that that would be cool.  He said he would like to have an Oshima Yuko (AKB48) figure, and I countered that I would love to see a Suzuki Kanon (Morning Musume) figure.  We laughed a bit – like that will ever happen – and I left.

Of course, said figures would probably sexualize the hell out of them, so I’d probably pass anyway, but it’s a nice thought, anyway.

Anyway, it seems to be a decent place run by a knowledgeable guy, so if you like anime stuff, that would be a good place to visit at some point if you’re in Austin.  There are also Anime Pop places in Dallas and San Antonio (as far as I know), so maybe it’s a Texas thing.  Even if so, cool.  Maybe I’ll stop by every now and then, even though anime is not and has never been my thing.

Wotagei

If you ever see an idol concert, don’t only pay attention to the performers – if you do, you’ll be missing out on what is perhaps the most unique aspect of Japanese concerts.  That is wotagei.

It seems that wota, or people who are devoted fans of a particular idol group, coordinate very advanced dances for particular songs, using glowsticks, and then perform them in the audience while the performers are dancing on stage.  Let me repeat this:  there is an entirely different performance, synced to the stage performers, happening in the audience.

These performances are called wotagei.  And some of them are particularly complex, using vocalizations, etc.

I am not aware of this phenomenon occurring, ever, in western concerts.  In fact, in western concerts, there is an area near the stage called a “mosh pit” which, near as I can tell, seems to be a place where people just do whatever the heck they want.  As near as I can tell (and I’ll stand corrected if I’m wrong, because the only concerts I’ve ever been to involved sitting quietly while the conductor waves his or her arms).

Still, this is a fascinating thing. I am sure there is a cultural reason for this, probably involving ritual, conformity, and community, but I can’t pretend to truly understand it.  Still, it is a very interesting thing that, once you know to look for it, adds an entirely new dimension to watching J-pop concerts.