Ariana Grande’s BBQ Grill has Seven Rings

I’m sure, by now, if you pay attention to anything Japanese or related, you’ve found that a major US pop star with lots of beauty and very little talent has decided to get a tattoo with Japanese kanji.

It is supposed to say “seven rings”, which I assume is the title of either a movie or a song she darkened the door of, but instead, apparently, it says “BBQ grill”.

Even though Ariana Grande and I have little in common – she’s a beautiul young talentless star, I’m a balding middle-aged guy with more talent in my little finger – I understand why one would want to get a tattoo in kanji. It’s got that foreign exoticism to it, kind of a hidden meaning that only you and a few billion other people in the world might understand, and the logographs are actually rather pretty in many cases. So I understand the temptation.

But, seriously. If you don’t know Japanese, don’t.

Let’s set aside the issue of trivializing a beautiul and ancient language to make a fashion statement and focus on the fact that one is making a permanent or semi-permanent alteration to one’s body without fully understanding what the heck they’re actually drawing on.

Google translate is not a substitute for knowing Japanese.

Running it by a native speaker is only marginally more a subtitute for knowing Japanese.

Learning enough Japanese that you can be confident that a kanji or jyokugo means exactly what you think it does is the only way to be sure that what’s going on your body is what you expect is going on your body.

Plus if you learn Japanese, it gives you much more of a right, in my opinion anyway, to use the kanji in ways it was not intended. It’s much less disrespectful to a culture to first learn, understand, and appreciate the culture. After which, of course, you can go ahead and use the kanji as you will, secure in the knowledge that you’re neither embarrassing yourself or disrespecting a proud, ancient culture by being stupid and thoughtless.

Learn Japanese, miss Grande. Or at the least make some Japanese friends. Surely either of things are a better use of your time than whatever you do that makes you think it’s a good idea to look up “7 rings” on google translate and take that to a tattoo artist that doesn’t know any better either.

Our Japanese friends deserve just a bit more respect from you than that, don’t you think?

There is no such thing as a Japanese cat.

I made a little bed for my cat. It consists of a bamboo basket and one of her favorite blankets. She is currently curled up in it sleeping, and I have no intention or desire to change that fact.

But I was looking at her, and I realized an important fact: my cat could never be Japanese. She’s not even American. She’s a cat, and she will always be only a cat. She may understand some English words, and even sometimes choose to listen to them (I can only wish), but she could understand those words just as easily in Japanese, and it would make little diference to her which language the concepts are spoken in.

There are two reasons for this, I think. Reason number one is that the concepts that a cat understands are generally representable by one or two words in every language, and there is no need for the kinds of complex sentence structures that arise out of cultural separation. But another reason is: she’s simply a cat.

So this, of course, leads to the obvious (to me, anyway) question: is it any different for humans?

Yes, people from the island nation of Japan tend to look different in superficial ways from people from America. They also have a different language and cultural assumptions. But if you were to take all that away, what would you get?

You’d get simply a human.

The cultural differences are important, don’t get me wrong. The concepts that we need to represent and communicate are light years beyond that which a cat needs to understand and communicate, which are limited to pretty much “feed me”, “I’m sleepy”, and “let’s cuddle”. Oh, and in my case “you’re kinda pissing me off”. And we’ve built massive social and cultural structures that are designed to maintain the ability to live in dense populations that would otherwise be untenable. But take that away, and we’re not much different than cats.

Maybe we listen better. Sometimes.

We’re not all that different, really. None of us. We just put a tremendous amount of energy into pretending that we are. Or should be.

Find the Good

Today I’m going to write about something that’s on my mind that is not about Japanese at all. I suppose it could be tangentially, but let’s just say it’s not.

Like many in my country, I’ve been inundated lately with bad news. I don’t mean bad news in the sense that it’s bad from a qualitative standpoint – some of it’s actually been pretty good. But I mean it’s bad from a quality standpoint – the news is just bad. It’s badly sourced, badly presented, badly received – just everything about it is bad.

And thinking about it, I came to realize that the news is bad because that’s what sells. People have decided, for whatever reason, to try to stir up fear, to try to stoke fear, anger, separation – so many different negative things that can lead to many horrible consequences. For me, personally, it’s been depression and anxiety. Severe and crippling, even. When seeing so much negativity in the world right now, one could ask oneself “why even bother?”

And then I saw the sunset.

See, I moved into a new apartment here in Austin. It’s got a much farther view than my previous apartment – I can see for miles – and my living room window points right at the sunset (at least this time of year). And I realized the sun goes down, and the sun comes up. In fact, it happens with such regularity we completely ignore the fact that the sun goes down, and the sun comes up. It’s one of those things we just kind of take for granted.

But the sun goes down, and then the sun comes up again.

But if you listen to the news, they’ll try to make you worry that the sun won’t come up again. And if that fails, they’ll settle for the next best thing – making you worry that *your* sun won’t come up again. Or maybe that you won’t ever see the sun come up again. It’s all about fear – fear of the future, fear of repeating traumatic experiences from the past, anything to prevent you from looking at how things are right now, and perhaps even thinking that right now things aren’t actually all that bad.

How much of the political (or even other) news you hear actually affects you? Oh, I’m sure for some of you, it affects you more directly than others, but in most cases, you would have no idea that some of the things are happening if you weren’t told about it in excruciating detail. When you’re looking at a pretty sunset, does it matter what your favorite – or least favorite – politician is (or isn’t) doing? Perhaps it shouldn’t. There’s a sunset in front of you and the news can wait.

I have my opinions about what’s happening politically – who doesn’t, these days. I lean a bit right, so perhaps my opinions are a bit out of the cultural mainstream (as opposed to the general mainstream, which is an entirely different animal), but at the end of the day, that really doesn’t matter. Some of you might read that and then infer a whole bunch of different things about me. That’s wrong and stupid – particularly if you’ve never bothered to talk to me or get to know me. But that’s because people have told you things about me and the groups that I am associated with – either voluntarily or involuntarily. But it’s all fear. Fear is a basic human instinct. It’s sometimes a warranted basic human instinct. And it destroys.

I have my theories as to why this is. I think the root of it is something like man having a natural need for religion, and since we have marginalized – in some cases for good reason, and in some cases or not so good reason – the traditional religions of our culture, we had to replace it with something, and we chose a secular religion that is just as damaging as – and fulfills the need for – the religions that we have, for better or for worse – decided we don’t need any more. But my theories don’t really matter. What matters is the fear that is permeating and crippling my country right now.

I, for one, refuse to participate anymore.

No more fear. There are sunsets, and sunrises, to watch, and I’m not going to be tricked into missing them anymore by a media who has no interest in my well being in any way, shape, or form, except that I keep giving them clicks and attention. It’s past time to say “enough is enough”.

Those who want to continue to live in a world of fear, hatred, and evil can, if they want. Let the dead bury the dead.

Road of Resistance

I have recently stumbled upon this particular song by Babymetal, which may have become one of my all time favorite songs and/or pieces of all time.  And that’s saying something considering I have a classical background and also rank Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 as one of my favorite pieces of all time.

 

The Japanese are in a very real way not very innovative.  There is little that has come out of their country or culture that they can truly say originated there.  True, there are a few things, and they are wonderful things indeed, but until now I thought that the Japanese strength was taking things from other cultures and making them their own.

After listening to this, I came to realize that I have it entirely backwards.

I had thought that this was a western metal song with a Japanese twist, but it is not.  It is a Japanese song, I mean truly and completely Japanese, which borrows heavily from western genres.  That’s a subtle distinction, but extremely important.

We in the west tend to think that Japan appropriates Western culture as its own, improves upon it, and returns it back in better shape than they found it.  But the Japanese don’t assimilate.  They never have and I don’t think they ever will.  What they do instead is use modes of expression that they borrow from other cultures to express something that is completely Japanese and very difficult to quantify.

They took a genre, deconstructed it, put it back together in a completely unique way, and then made a production out of it in a way that I don’t think would ever occur to a western music producer.  I mean, who in the west would have possibly thought to put a heavy metal band together with three cute teenage girls and have it actually work?

The answer is simple.  In the west, it wouldn’t have worked.  We aren’t Japanese.  The energy would have been different.  We couldn’t find a way to harmonize those disparate things because we could never get past seeing them as separate.  But for them – why not?  It just makes a whole that is far more interesting than the parts.  And that is what makes the Japanese, well, Japanese.

I read that many metal fans think it’s kind of a watered-down metal that only hipsters would like, but that’s missing the whole point.  It’s not metal.  It’s not pop, either.  It’s kawaii metal.  It’s Japanese.  It’s what they do.

Verb endings

One of the things that confused me the most about Japanese when I first started to learn was the difference between “desu” and “masu”.

On first teaching a student Japanese, the teachers have to make a tradeoff at the very beginning.  Do they want to teach how the language works?  Or do they want to teach in such a way that the student can use what they know immediately without pissing people off with rookie mistakes in politeness level, etc.?  Most teachers seem to do the latter, but after starting to learn dictionary (plain) form and how kanji words are formed, I’m starting to wonder if this really does a huge disservice to the learner.

Here’s why.

At their core, Japanese verbs are essentially a kanji with an ending.  The ending varies depending on whether or not the verb is a godan, ichidan, or suru verb, but this is the structure of almost all of the verbs out there.  The verb ending is essentially the ofurigana at the end of the word.

So “masu” is then simply the conjugated ending of the verb in the polite form.

Simple, right?  Actually, it kind of is.

But if you teach in the style of, say, Rosetta Stone (ptooey) you’ll never understand that distinction, because you start off just thinking “oh, sometimes I stick masu on the end, and sometimes desu, but it’s not really clear which go where and when”.  Because you don’t really understand how it all works.

I’m not being too critical of teachers, though.  One of the major problems with learning Japanese is that the bootstrapping is the hardest part.  How do you even begin?  Maybe the way they approach it is the best way of a bunch of bad ways.  I don’t know.  I do know that I’m at the point now where everything I learn just explains the stuff that they taught by rote several months ago, and honestly, I don’t really like that feeling.  It’s kind of a “Why didn’t you just tell me?  This could have been so much easier!” experience.  It’s very discouraging because it feels a bit like I wasted a lot of time.

But alas.  Still moving forward.

Japan’s Checkered Past

Many years ago, I was taking piano lessons as a late teen.  My teacher was an older Filipino woman who was a child (or a teenager, perhaps) during the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines.

She hated the Japanese.  Or at least she struggled to not hate the Japanese.  She told me horrible stories, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for how she felt.  Obviously, that was not my experience, but there are many people and countries out there who remember a Japan that was not an exporter of cool media and well-built cars, but a warlike country that left many scars that have lasted a very long time, and with good reason.

On my feedly feed, I have a keyword search set up for “Japanese”, and to be frank, much of the things that come through are not complimentary to them.  There appears to be an ongoing dispute about the wartime Japanese practice of “comfort women”, which many countries still haven’t forgiven or forgotten.  Of course it would be easy for me to say “It’s been eighty years, maybe time to let it go”, but old scars run deep, and the Japanese history of war and conquering still holds repercussions today.  The Chinese, for example, have not forgotten the Nanjing massacre, and while that, too, was around eighty years ago, I don’t know if my country would forget the murder of three hundred thousand people either, no matter how long in the past.

The Japanese of today are an amazing people, contributing much to the world in the way of culture, of media, of philosophy and religion.  Obviously I admire and respect them enough to make a significant effort to learn about their language and culture.  But a part of me still has to wonder:  it’s only been eighty years.  We took Japan out of war, but did we ever truly take war out of Japan?  After all, their culture is thousands of years old – eighty years is just a drop in the bucket.  I wonder if the other countries who are currently having somewhat tense relations with Japan over the past – such as Korea and the Phillippines – are making a big deal out of something that should be left in the past.  But I also wonder if they’re right, too.

But, all told, the Japanese and my people settled our differences eighty years ago – we won.  Whether the Japanese and other countries have settled their differences is, in all honesty, not much of my concern.  Still, I hope that Japan and its quarreling east Asian neighbors can continue to work at settling their differences.

A part of me wonders, though, whether Japan has ever truly come to terms with their past.

Never fast enough…

I continue to have really mixed feelings about my progress in Japanese.  In some ways I know that I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was before – I can actually have a coherent – but basic – conversation, and I know quite a few more kanji and jyukugo than ever.  And even more, I’m able to start making connections between kanji and words that I couldn’t previously – actually sounding out jyukugo and being right half the time on how to pronounce them.

Which is probably already better than many gaikokujin living in Japan now!

But it’s still hard.  I’m at the point now where I kind of have an inkling of what I don’t know, and it’s a lot!  I know about maybe two hundred kanji to varying degrees of proficiency, but there are about two thousand more.  There are many more readings, and thousands of jyukugo to learn.  And that’s not even including the new grammatical structures I need to internalize.

I found an app called “kanji tree” (only available on Android for now) which has been really helpful.  I’m learning all sorts of different words and kanji and it’s helping me to remember them.  I’m not quite there yet even with those things, but it’s giving me a good foundation, and the spaced repetition is helpful.  If I were to be honest though, right now the on-yomi readings are the most intimidating things about Japanese.  It’s easy to learn the kun-yomi readings, for the most part, but since on-yomi readings are rarely if ever used in isolation, it’s a very intimidating prospect to learn how they’re all put together.

It feels like I’ve climbed one mountain, and reached high enough that I can see a much taller mountain in the distance, and I have to climb that one too.  It’s, honestly, a little discouraging.  It feels like I’m hitting a plateau, even with the lessons, and I’m not sure I like that.

But maybe that also means I’m in a good place.  I guess I’ll find out.