Anime

I honestly don’t have a whole lot of experience, or interest, in anime or anime-inspired things.  I have seen some anime, and I was impressed with it technically.  By which I mean, there is often a lot of care put into how the higher quality animes are animated.  I remember watching “Akira” and being really impressed by how well they animated it, and I also watched an episode of “Nodame Cantabile” which also really impressed me – those who animated it did their homework and actually animated the playing of the instruments exactly correctly.  There was none of that “Tom and Jerry” hit a random key on a piano with 40 keys and pretend like that’s playing – it was actually really well done.

In point of fact, Japanese folks have a rather amazing sense of attention to detail – I have come to realize that when it comes to artistic expression – idol groups, television shows, anime, manga, etc – there really isn’t a such thing as a “happy accident”.  What is shown is absolutely deliberate and well thought out – all of it.  This hit home to me when I was watching an idol group – I think a team of AKB48 – going to see someone for a reason I don’t recall.  They ran into a television personality, and he was very nice until he thought the cameras had stopped rolling, and then he turned into what could only be described as a douche.  I thought about that for a minute, and then realized that was included absolutely deliberately.  Japanese folks don’t make mistakes like that.  They wanted him to look bad.

So, I found an Anime inspired game on my phone.  I think it’s a fun and cute game, but I really do see it as just a game, and treat it as such.  It has a whole bunch of anime “girls”, most of which are rather skimpily dressed and have very big, umm…  assets.  Think back to what I just said – this is a deliberate choice.  The girls call the player “senpai”, which I find actually a bit cringey, and the voiceovers call the player either that, or “goshujinsama”, or an extremely polite form of “master”.  I find that really cringey as well.

Pulling up the comments for each girl, you can see people (and who knows if they’re serious or trolling), saying some pretty nasty things about the imaginary girls.  Like “stay away from her, she’s mine”, or much, much worse.  As I said, while being a guy I can’t say a little eye candy isn’t nice every now and then, I rather like the game play and simply see it as that.  I see absolutely no point in growing attached to a “girl” who doesn’t actually exist.

I think my point is that there are many people out there who see anime characters unhealthily, and that this unhealthy obsession with imaginary characters is something that is deliberately encouraged by those who create the characters.  After all, sex sells.  Sex always sells.

I honestly think this is why I’m not really a fan of anime.  Some of it impresses me, but I just don’t want feel like a “weeaboo”.  Everytime I watch anime, or play an anime game, or actually have anything whatsoever to do with popular Japanese culture, I rather feel like a weeaboo wannabe.  And I really don’t enjoy that.  It makes me feel a bit, um… squicky, for want of a better word.  And every time I see people celebrating anime character’s birthdays, etc… it just makes it worse.  I really don’t like that feeling.

I don’t like feeling like I’m even close to being associated with weeaboo “culture”, but, to be frank, the very act of learning Japanese automatically brings that association, whether I want it or not.  And I am most distinctly not comfortable with that.  I am not learning Japanese because I’m a huge fan of their pop culture.  But, that really doesn’t matter.  Many in America who are learning it are, and quite frankly, that is often not very good company.

Tokyo

I’ve never been to Japan.  It’s possible I may never go to Japan.  Nonetheless, YouTube has many interesting videos about many interesting places.  Recently I saw some videos about driving through Tokyo.

Now American cities, generally, are not very impressive.  Most cities – even large ones – have a small downtown core, and sprawl out with a large suburban footprint.  Tokyo reminded me of an American city in aesthetic – it could have been Dallas, or Los Angeles, or Houston, or New York.

Except it just didn’t stop.

It had to be half an hour of skyscraper after skyscraper.  Turn onto the Rainbow Bridge – skyscrapers in the distance.  Turn north off the bridge – more skyscrapers.  Turn west, north, west, whatever – everywhere you go just skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t damn impressive.

The speed limit on Japanese expressways in Tokyo seems to be around 60kph, or around 40mph, which is different than here in America – the speed limits here are often 55 to 65 mph in the city centers.  I noticed also that, while in America, we seem to focus on wide freeways, even in the city center, freeways/tollways are only four to six lanes at most.  Perhaps this is because they have such an efficient rail network and don’t need them.  I also noticed that there were no potholes.  Try driving through almost any large American city, and play “dodge the pothole”.

Apparently, in Japan, there are also d-bags, as I saw a couple as well.

It is, at least from a distance, an astonishingly modern city, even though I’m sure there are areas that are… not so much.

I almost want to visit just to see the Tokyo skyline – such as it is, as saying Tokyo has a skyline is rather like saying Mount Fuji is a pretty impressive hill – in the morning.  I imagine that is, in its own way, breathtaking.

Always the Same

I am sitting here, in my apartment, which is neither expensive nor not, in a suburb of Austin, Texas.  I can hear traffic roaring by on the tollway outside, muted by the double-paned windows that the builders thoughtfully put in, when they realized that the noise would be otherwise intolerable.  Traffic is slowly picking up from where it was a month ago, as Texas is slowly letting up on the “lockdown” orders that have been plaguing us (pardon the pun) for the past couple of months.

Maybe everything will be okay.  Maybe not.

Every car or truck I hear is one person or group of people going somewhere.  Maybe they are going somewhere important, maybe not, but every time I hear the roar of a truck, or the whoosh of a car, someone has somewhere to be.  Sometimes I will hear the roar of a jet landing at Austin-Bergstrom, or cruising overhead at tens of thousands of feet towards places unknown.

Thousands of miles away sits a small island nation, off the coast of a continent full of history and tradition, as well as conflict and strife.  In that country, there is a large city of twenty-eight million people.

Perhaps someone is sitting in a small apartment, in that city, listening to cars roar by on a tollway, and trains roaring by on tracks, looking out into the distance at green mountains that I cannot see, and thinking perhaps the same thing.  Perhaps they are thinking of a land thousands of miles away, where people wear boots and cowboy hats and eat tex-mex and BBQ, and thinking that if only they were there, they would finally find a happiness they have never found in their city or country.

Perhaps they may even decide to attempt to move here, and eventually, they will land in Dallas or Houston.  Then maybe they will make their way to Austin, and see people in cowboy boots and hats.  Perhaps they will eat BBQ and tex-mex, and even start to say ‘y’all’ like the native folks do.

Then, perhaps, they will sit in their apartment that is neither too expensive or not, and fight back the tears, knowing that no matter where they go, there’s always a tollway or train outside.  And there’s always cars and trucks going to and fro, and people on them doing their thing, and that in the end, nothing at all changed.

Eventually, when learning about or experiencing another culture, it becomes familiar.  And at that point, you realize that even though the language might be different, the food might be different, the expxectations might be different… at the end of the day, it’s all the same.

It’s always the same.  It’s just the slightly different details that mask the sameness.  And once you get past the details..  it’s always the same.

Always.

Home

I am going to push through on a post here, and I’m not sure exactly what form it will take when it comes out.  I honestly don’t want to write it, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe it sounds stupid, or maybe it even feels stupid.

I have lived only in America for what feels like a hundred years, but is really only somewhere around forty.  I have never been outside the country except for one very brief excursion to Canada, where my sole impression of that country was “someone needs to fire all of their traffic engineers”.  And yet there are some countries, some locations, that fill me with such emotion that it is almost as if I have been there before.

There are two places like this.  Ireland, and Japan.  I don’t think there are any other places in the world that I even give two figs about, but something about those two places feels like home, and I feel like if I were to go there, it would be like coming home to a place I’ve never been.

And I have absolutely no idea why.

It’s not because of the entertainment.  To be quite honest, I find most anime inane.  It almost feels as if anime is a disrespectful caricature of Japanese culture, even as, being a product of Japanese culture, I have no right to feel that way.  Japanese music has a very odd feeling to it, like memories of Japan are built into it, and as you listen, the memories are transferred to you.  Or maybe the memories were always there, and I don’t understand why, considering I am about as gaijin as they come.  Even the language seems to be making a kind of sense to me, in a way that I would frankly not expect it to.

I have such mixed and conflicted feelings about Japan – it’s as if I feel a kind of connection to their culture that I have no right to feel.  As I’ve mentioned, I am so keenly aware of their shortcomings, but I see fujisan, or a Japanese school room, or other things, and it’s almost as if I have memories of a childhood I never had.  I feel so strongly about their shortcomings for the same reason that one might be overly critical of one’s family.  It’s a kind of caring that only comes from intense familiarity.

And I’ve never been there.

I am a gaijin.  I am a tall, white, bearded, pudgy guy who would probably be looked at funny by most Japanese people if I were to walk down any street in Tokyo.  Maybe they would think I were a “weeaboo” or “otaku” (I’m not), maybe they would ignore me as an inconsequential gaijin, and maybe I would chafe under all of the restrictions of their culture, only some of which seem to make any sense of all.

I learn Japanese, I think, because a part of it is like home to me, and I could never even begin to tell you why.  Maybe some things are just not to be known.

And what makes it far worse is, it’s not.  It never will be.  Even though it has never truly felt like it, America is my home.  It always will be my home.  All Japan will ever be to me is a bunch of memories that aren’t even mine, and maybe aren’t even real.

Life…  is nothing but a mystery sometimes.

The petals of our tears

Namida no hanabiratachi ga harahara

The blooming of the sakura trees in Japan is a joyful, yet bittersweet moment, as they, in a very real way mark the passage of time.  The passage of time is both a time for new beginnings, and bittersweet goodbyes.  Sometimes goodbyes are temporary, sometimes they are permanent, and sometimes they are final.

Goodbyes are often accompanied by tears, as tears are often associated with loss.  It is an unfortunate consequence of life that loss is unavoidable, but it never hurts any less, does it?

In this time of pandemic we are having to deal with more loss than most of us have in our entire life, and many of us don’t know how to deal with it.  It causes tears, it causes anxiety, and sometimes worse, as everything we know falls apart in front of us.  Some of us don’t know where our next meal is coming from, as government bumbles around incompetently with little information and even less idea of what the right thing is.

sakura no hanabiratachi ga saku koro
dokoka de dareka ga kitto inotteru
atarashii sekai no DOA wo
jibun no sono te de hiraku koto

But often with loss comes opportunity, as clearing out the old brings opportunity that may not have existed, for those that can allow the tears to fall, to splash on the ground, and ultimately to dry, forgotten about.  Tears contain the essence of that which we leave behind.  Tears must be shed, and sometimes copiously, but they are no longer a part of us once they leave, and ultimately, we move on without them.

Our tears fall to the ground like sakura petals, and for much the same reason.  As the cherry trees must shed their petals to make room for next year’s beautiful display, so must we shed out tears to make room for that which lies ahead of us.  Sometimes what lies ahead of us are more tears – and sometimes many more tears.  But sometimes the tears will dry, and the door will open, and we will see the vast expanse of what is waiting for us as we leave our tears behind.

The petals of our tears fall to the ground with little splashes, yes.  They will fall, and we will see them on the ground like little drops of dew, the sun reflecting from them as they dry, and

kono hoho wo nagareochite arukidasu
aoi sora wo miage ookiku

If you look to the sky, the tears are already forgotten.

Namida no hanabiratachi ga harahara

空気

I’m going to try a different approach to posting today.  Let me know if you like it.

I have never been to Japan, but many things come to mind when I think of it.  I imagine the crisp air of fujisan.  The roar of trains, such as the shinkansen, as they come whooshing by.  The fragrant smells of sakura petals as they fall to the ground in spring.  The greenery of a small island nation that gets more than its share of rain, and the fragrant smells of grasses and blossoms on the hills, meshing seamlessly with the smell of traditional Japanese food, such as fish and rice.  Even the tall buildings of Tokyo seem to come with a certain kind of refreshing energy that I haven’t really found in American downtown cores.  Of course this is all in my imagination, but I’m not talking about reality.

I also see the darkness of a culture that values conformity over individuality.  I see a darkness that is difficult to fathom for me, a society that seems to have a lot of very flashy lights, amazing culture and food, and underneath is a vein of darkness that takes your breath away when you even begin to see it for what it is.

In my mind, Japan is a very beautiful, and a very dark, country.  Both the beauty and the darkness sometimes bring tears, and each defines Japan completely in its own way.  I don’t think Japan would be entirely the same without its darkness, just as it would not be the same without its beauty.

But to understand Japan, one must understand its darkness.  Yes, one must appreciate the wonderful things about Japanese culture – their almost boundless creativity, their respect for living things and the land around them, their ability to persevere and even triumph in the face of what seem sometimes insurmountable odds – but to see Japan through the eyes of their entertainment and tourism industry is to completely misunderstand who they are.

As I learn more I have come to respect them for what they are, and I’ve also come to a profound sadness.  They are an ancient and beautiful culture, and to solely define them through the entertainment they present to the world is to disrespect them profoundly.  To truly love something, or someone, you must understand their failings as well.  It is a profoundly sad thing when you realize that the person – or culture – that you love is flawed, imperfect – even profoundly so – but until one understands the warts, one cannot truly love.

This has been a difficult thing for me to grapple with as I’ve been studying Japanese and learning about the Japanese culture.  The veins of darkness are very dark indeed.  But even so, I am not too different from them, and they are not too different from me.  The darkness runs through all humanity, not always taking the same form, but being just as dark all the same.

Maybe someday I will see the beautiful white and red trees with the sakura petals falling, and I will remember that, for the Japanese people, the blooming of the cherry trees indicates graduation, the passing of time, and new beginnings.  And I will remember that the darkness does not have to stay dark, and the next year, the petals will also bloom, no matter what the previous year has brought.  And I will see all of the people hanami, and perhaps they will have a similar thought.  They are constrained by their darkness, but they are not defined by it.

And perhaps, not just in spite of their darkness, but because of it, I will grow to love them.

Questions

Like in many places in the world, I’m not really able to go anywhere except for necessities.  This has given me a lot of time to think.  One of the things I’ve been thinking about is:  Why am I so frustrated with Japanese right now?

I have settled on an answer:  because I do not learn things the way people like to teach them.  If I can find the underlying pattern to something, I never forget it – but if I have to memorize things, it never works.

So with that said, I have the following questions, which I feel like I need to find the answers to, to progress.

  1. Why is Japanese a postpositional language?
  2. Why are words conjugated the way they are?
  3. What are the rules for rendaku?
  4. As a generalization of the above question, in Japanese, when are consonants modified?
  5. What are the actual underlying patterns to kanji, and is there a way to chart those patterns in a visual way?
  6. Why are some adjectives “na” and some “i”?
  7. Are there patterns in okurigana?  If so, what are they?
  8. As a generalization of question 1, how do Japanese people think, and how is that expressed in their language – and vice versa?

Basically, I feel like I need to learn how the language works.  And I’m sure I will have more questions as my research progresses.

Wish me luck…

Covidity

This blog is nearly always about topics Japanese, but not always.  Today, as with most people in the world, other things are on my mind.  And I think I’m going to post about that, today.  We can talk about Japanese some other time.

The world – MY world – has begun to see severe disruption because of the spread of the Chinese Virus, also known as the Coronavirus, SARS-2-COV, or COVID.  In my neck of the world, schools have shut down, for some reason people are buying so much toilet paper they must be swimming in the stuff, grocery stores have implemented a limit on the number of people who can be inside at one time.  Austin has shut down pretty much all non-essential businesses, such as restaurants and bars, and my suburb will, if it hasn’t already, follow suit very soon.  Currently, in Austin, there is no longer a rush hour, as nearly everyone who is capable is now working from home.  Heck, even my Japanese class is going to be virtual for a while.

The world feels subtly different.  It’s like, with the sound of a billion screeching brakes, the world just… stopped.  And I’m not sure it’s ever going to be the same again.

And I’m not sure how I feel about that, to be honest.

Some people are going to die, some people are going to get sick, and some people are going to get through this with a big question mark over their heads asking what the heck just happened.  Are we going to return to business as usual when this is over?  Or is the world now forever changed?  If it’s forever changed, will that be for the good, for the bad, or a combination of both?  Or will it even be over?  Will we be, for the rest of our lives, forever looking over our shoulder, afraid of every cough or sneeze as if it’s looming sudden death?

I’m not comfortable with this.  Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe no significant or meaningful change happens without some precipitating factor that is the trigger for it.  Maybe I am living through a historical inflection point, and the world will look significantly different when we come out the other side.

Or maybe I won’t come out the other side.  That’s a possibility I have to consider as well.

I’m not going to go to sleep, and wake up in the morning, and it will be better.  The nightmare continues, and soon, the nightmare will be the new normal, and I think that is what I am most afraid of.

Systems vs. Goals: Why I am Failing at Learning Japanese

A couple of years ago, I was watching a Morning Musume video and saw lots of strange characters flashing along the screen, along with a bunch of gibberish.  And then I thought to myself, “I would like to learn Japanese”.  And thus, a goal was set.

Two years later, I am wholly unsatisfied with my progress towards this goal, and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been seriously thinking about quitting.  It’s still something I want to do so the odds are that I won’t, but it is currently a miserable process for me and I am pretty sure I’m doing something entirely wrong.

And I think the first thing I did wrong was to set a goal of learning Japanese.  Goals never work.

First of all, it’s an amorphous target.  What does it even mean to learn Japanese anyway?  Does it mean that I want to become fluent?  To what degree of fluency do I want to achieve?  Does it just mean that I want to read manga, or be able to hold an intelligent conversation with a Japanese person?  The honest truth is that I don’t know.  I don’t know why I set that goal other than because it seemed an interesting thing to do, I don’t have a “definition of done”, nor is there a sensible one that is even possible, and I have no idea what the correct way to even achieve this goal is.  So I throw a lot of money at the goal, and make some progress, but at the end of the day I’m entirely unsatisfied – both with myself and with the progress towards the goal.

I have a goal, and I have no system for getting there.

This is complicated by the fact that learning a language is not something that you can realistically achieve by learning.  I mean, you can learn vocabulary, and grammar, and all that stuff, and by learning you can get to the point where you can make sense of what something is saying, and you can say something sensible as well, but it requires a lot of thought, and by learning, it will always require a lot of thought.  Language is not an academic exercise – or at least the fluent execution of a language is not an academic exercise.  You need to get to the point where something just feels wrong, and that is something that cannot be learned.

So it is completely clear to me now that I am approaching this in entirely the wrong way.  I am trying to learn a language, when learning a language is essentially impossible.  I set a goal for myself that I cannot reach, and I failed to create a system for making progress towards that goal that gives me any kind of sense of accomplishment.

Put another way, if I continue just learning for the sake of learning, I may as well stop now, because I’ve already failed.

I must revisit my original motivation for setting this goal, I must unset the goal, and I must instead replace it with a system that will ultimately have a similar result.

Continuing Introspection

The past month or two has – whether I want it to or not – been a time for stepping back and reflecting on things.  Primarily:  why am I doing the things I’m doing in my life?  What do they accomplish for me?  With that introspection comes a lot of other kinds of introspection as well, and one cause for introspection is this:  what makes me uncomfortable with the Japanese culture?

Because, I’m not gonna lie, I’m really freakin’ uncomfortable with it.

After some thought, I think it comes down to this:  their culture is far more group oriented than mine.  One might think that was a positive – and it does have a lot of good things to say for it – but it has one, huge, honking, glaring thing that makes me not really want to explore their culture firsthand.

See, in my culture, people are very self-actualized.  In practice, what this means is, people are empowered to be jerks, but they are also empowered to be really nice, too – even if that goes directly opposite of where society (or authority) wants to go.  Groupthink is a factor, but as a culture, we are empowered to be able to easily pull ourselves out of it if necessary.  So, in my culture, if one sees an injustice, one feels a reasonable safety in stepping up and correct it.

True, we get the question of “what is an injustice” wrong more often than not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I feel like there are people in my culture that I can trust to do the right thing, just as I know that there are people in my culture that I can trust to do exactly the wrong thing.

I don’t feel that kind of safety in the Japanese culture.  Yes, they can be very nice, gracious, and polite people, but they don’t or can’t often question the things in their culture which are questionable or dangerous.  So I fear that if I were to go to Japan, that I would not be able to rely on people to help if I needed it.  For example, if I were to have a medical emergency of some kind.  The groupthink would be too strong, and I”m a scary gaijin.

Is this fair?  Truthfully, I don’t know.  It may be, or it may not be.  The point is not whether it is fair, or even whether it’s correct.  It’s how I feel.  I’ve heard many scary stories about how Japanese people can just kind of ghost you if you step out of line, or worse.  I’ve heard scary stories of their hostage justice system.  I just don’t feel safe in their culture.

That may surprise some of you.  How could you feel safe in Texas, you might say?  You have guns and trucks and and and…  and I say, that doesn’t make me feel unsafe at all.  Those who legally have guns can almost to a one (almost) be trusted to do the right thing.  But can those who have been brought up with extreme societal pressure to defer to authority – in whatever form – be trusted to do the same?

I… don’t know.  And the fact that I don’t know is enough.

That is most of the source of my discomfort.

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.  *Shrug*.  You might even be right.  But introspection doesn’t often care about correctness.  It is about identifying what is and then figuring out where to go from there.