Reflections

It is that time of year again – nay, that time of the decade.  The time where we hit an arbitrary marker that causes us to look back on a particular, arbitrary period of time, and think about how it measures up against a series of arbitrary criteria that matter not to anyone.  But we have, indeed, hit upon one of those markers, so this is a good time for reflection.

I consider this blog to be aimless and disorganized.  Usually my posting schedule is “oh, I have something to post about, I think I’ll post about it.”  So I write up a bit of a post and then click publish.  That’s it.  Generally, what you see, I’ve just taken five to ten minutes to write up, and then clicked the little button.  The fact that it’s even of the quality it is, is pretty much a miracle.  It could probably be more if I were willing or able to put aside my personal integrity and turn into a kind of “social chameleon” – being what people want me to be instead of who I am.  That is, indeed, how you get followers.  It is also how you eventually lose sight of who you are and become solely subject to the whims of your audience.

But, the truth is, that what I’m doing now isn’t working.  I’m just blogging about whatever I want, whenever I want to, and at the end of the day, there is no coherent mission to this blog, no cohesive theme or idea other than loosely talking about all things Japanese, and while folks may consider it interesting, it’s only marginally useful.

I generally do not do new year’s resolutions.  I consider them to be additional pressure that I don’t need in my life, to bite off too much and eventually end up scaling it back until it’s worthless.  But perhaps it would be a useful exercise, as the decade comes to an end, to figure out what I want to do with this blog and then do it.

It’s either that or stop posting, and I don’t really want to do that.

Leggo my eigo

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, the cult that I was raised in had a propaganda magazine called “Youth <insert year here>” where leaders of the cult would attempt to be relevant to the youth of the day, and most of the time, they just came off as condescending.

I remember very little about that magazine, to be honest.  I remember the very first magazine that came out had a large photo of the cult leader’s face adorning the front, inside was a crossword puzzle of trivia from the cult leader’s autobiography, and it went on like that.  About the only bright spot was Monte Wolverton’s drawings.  For the most part the attempt at trying to be relevant to the teens of the time fell completely flat, as such magazines are wont to do.  It’s about as jarring as watching a middle aged, balding caucasian guy trying to rap about minivans or computers.

Still, a broken clock is right twice a day.  I remember an article they wrote about Japan.  This was at a time when the Japanese culture was just starting to make inroads around the world as “cool”, and I think they were trying to nip that in the bud.  They talked about a “cultural superiority” that they felt the Japanese had – and narrowed down on the fact that they insisted on completely mispronouncing English words.  As they put it, their word for “baseball” was basubouru, and if you tried to correct them, they would correct you.

Sadly, I have seen some hints that this, while likely not quite as widespread as they would have liked us to believe, is not entirely false.  The very first video I watched was the “Morning Musume English Lesson”, and in that same episode, they had English “shiritori”, where you were supposed to connect words by their last syllables.  What they were doing was many things, but it was not English.  For what they actually ended up doing was taking the katakana butchering of English words and using those .  So “toilet” became “toireto”, etc.  Probably massively simplified the game for them, and I can’t blame them for that, but the truth is that what they were doing had only a passing resemblance to English.

I remember also seeing that in an AKBingo video, where an English speaking girl said “Follow me on Instagram and Twitter” in a normal American accent, and they could not understand a single word she said.  She repeated it in Japanese, and they understood it then, and said “Oh, that’s cool!”  It is.  But for all of the English classes they had, they couldn’t even understand a basic English word that was shared across cultures without having someone spell it out for them.

I have maintained previously that the language that many Japanese speak and think it’s English, is not.  It bears a passing resemblance and shares its grammatical structure with English, but it’s almost unrecognizable.  I’m not entirely sure the cult leaders who called this “cultural superiority” were correct – I think it’s probably the fault of those who are trying to teach them English and failing, and the Japanese simply not knowing better.

In my Japanese lessons, there is not much emphasis on proper pronunciation.  One of my co-students pronounces “me” with a long A sound.  There is usually very little attempt to pronounce the “r”s properly, and there is a kind of English sing-song in the pronunciation that I doubt a Japanese person would recognize or respect.  In a very real way, we are not speaking Japanese, in the same way that Japanese do not tend to speak English.  I try hard to get the pronunciation right (as best I know) and even then, I often get it wrong because I introduce stresses into the word without realizing I did it until after the fact.

Japanese would – rightly- want me to work on my Japanese pronunciation so they could understand me.  Perhaps I would have an American “accent”, but I think that’s alright, as long as they can understand what I’m trying to say.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask to expect the same in return.  Of course, just as with the Japanese, we love when they make an attempt to learn and understand our language – and we’re often more than willing to forgive errors in pronunciation, just as I would expect them to – but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to at least have them recognize that what they are speaking is not really English.  It’s not good when you think you’re really good at a language and are barely understandable.

For the Japanese folks that may or may not be reading, here’s how you can tell if you’re speaking not-English: if you put vowels where they are not written in the word.  English is very precise with how we write words, even though they may sometimes be pronounced unpredictably:  if there are no vowels between consonants, then there are no vowels between consonants.  Full stop (pardon the pun).  I can’t think of any exceptions offhand, so it’s a good rule of thumb.  Try to remove those vowels and the ones at the end, and you’re halfway there.

 

Jyukugo

Japanese jyukugo fascinate me, because each one tells a story.  Sometimes the story is boring, but sometimes they offer an unwitting insight into the mind of a culture.

I was reminded of this when I learned the jyukugo 電池.  The two kanji together mean “electricity” and “pond”.  But if you put them together, it means “battery”.  It’s a very poetic word, and not really intentionally, I think.  The Japanese people needed to think of a word for electrical storage, and well, why not?

I’ve often been curious as to how these words arise.  The word for “wife”, for example, is “kanai”, or 家内.  The two kanji mean “inside” and “house”.  One could say that this isn’t a very forward thinking jyukugo, but then, the Japanese culture is thousands of years old, of course it’s not.  Sometimes you just have to take a word at face value.  That’s the word.  Trying to demand that an entire country change their language because it offends you is…  well… what seems to happen these days.  But it’s not reasonable.

Jyukugo are one thing about Japanese culture that I’m willing to accept for what they are.  Some are poetic.  Some are not.  Some are disturbing.  And some are beautiful, in their own way.  We don’t have these same kinds of constructions in English for the most part, and in some ways, I kind of wish we did.  It would make my language much more interesting.

In my opinion, Japanese is difficult, incomprehensible, inscrutable, and a whole bunch of other words that start with “in”.  But it’s beautiful.  English is all of those things, and ugly, too.  I guess that’s one reason I like Japanese – for the same reason I collect porcelain dolls.  I like beautiful things in my life.

Speaking Out

Today’s post isn’t going to be about Japanese at all, though I might find a way to fit it in.  I do have a Japanese post waiting in the wings, but I think I want to discuss something else.  If you would like a Japanese post, please skip this one, and the next one will be about Japanese.  If you just want to unfollow me, well, go for it, I guess.

I have been on this planet for somewhere around forty-five years, and I have seen some crazy stuff.  I believe I was born when Gerald Ford was President – I was born not long after Nixon resigned.  I was in my 20s and living in Oregon when Clinton was impeached – I remember purchasing and setting up a state of the art CRT television at the time and seeing him apologizing for lying to the American people.  Even then, impeachment was a divisive topic, and even though he was impeached in a bipartisan manner, he was ultimately acquitted.

This is to say, I have seen many craven political things in my time on this earth, and none can hold a candle to the craven partisan display I saw in my country today.  Today I saw a group of people so driven by hatred for a man that they were going to impeach him one day after his election – it was just a matter of finding the right things to impeach him for.  And through all of this, they still haven’t succeeded.  Oh, sure, they impeached him, but on “crimes” so flimsy that they wouldn’t even make it past a grand jury if they had been trying to actually prosecute.

I’m tired and burnt out of the whole thing, and I just want it to stop.

I think, worldwide, that politics are not a pleasant thing.  I know that Japan has a parliamentary system, much as Great Britain has.  They also have a constitution that makes at least a basic attempt at providing human rights (in practice, not so much, much of the time, but they try, anyway).  But in any country, a constitution really is just a piece of paper – it’s the ideas on that paper that are what actually matter.  And when you have a group of people who are so blinded by irrational hatred that they’re willing to shred those ideas just to get their pound of flesh, well, we’re not in a very good place.

I also know that in Japan, people write prayers on little slips of paper and pin them to shrines.  Pin a few on shrines for my country, please.  We really need it right now.

I’m intentionally not stating how I lean politically.  As far as you know, I could be a Trump supporter, or I could be someone who really dislikes the guy but has a deep enough respect for our constitution as to be able to recognize a travesty of justice when I see one.  Or I could be somewhere in between.  It doesn’t matter.  My government disgusted me last night, and I remain disgusted today.  In fact, it disgusted me so much, I am considering donating to a political candidate for the first time in many years.  Hint:  It’s not a Democrat.

I am not ashamed of my country right now, but I am ashamed of my House – and if the Senate doesn’t act quickly to trash this piece of… well, I’ll be ashamed of them, too.  Perhaps, or perhaps not, I am ashamed of the President too.  It doesn’t matter.  There are more important things to be concerned about at the moment.

I think things will turn out okay, but I hate the process.  Just make it stop already.

Okay, I’m done, I think.  Next post – Japanese.

Politeness

One of the more frustrating things about Japanese to a beginner is the multiple levels of politeness.  At first glance they seem completely foreign, but I really don’t think they are.  It’s baked into English as well, it’s just not so much a grammatical construct as a manner of speaking.

Contrast, for example,

Greetings, I would like to inquire as to the report dated 11/15/2019, and await your reply forthwith.

with

Yo, dawg, you got that report or no?

The first example is intentionally pretentious, but you get the idea.  There are multiple levels of politeness in English as well, and the consequences for breaking those rules can be the same.  I very much doubt that someone saying the second in a workplace that’s anything but majorly casual would last very long at all.  Things have loosened, but not very much.  We call it “professional” speech, but it serves the same function.

I kind of like the way it’s baked into the grammar in Japanese, though.  I don’t generally have to learn new words in order to speak more politely, I just have to conjugate a bit differently and remember to use the correct forms when addressing someone.

There are many, many things to complain about in Japanese, but I don’t think politeness is one of them.  In fact, in case you didn’t get the idea, I think English is worse in that regard, because you basically have to learn an entirely new vocabulary to speak professionally as opposed to speaking with your friends.  When I write on this blog, I speak in a semi-professional manner.  I could say it’s gauged to be appropriate for a blog such as this, and I’d be correct, but this is also the way I write in any professional setting.  There’s a place for cursing, and this ain’t it.

(By the way, “ain’t” is a perfectly legitimate word.  It’s also not professional.  I never said I was consistent about it.)

Anyway, my point is this:  be glad you just have to learn a few conjugations.  It seems to become second nature after a while.  I know, for me, when I use polite form in Japanese, it feels a bit stifling and stilted – just like professional speech should.  Well done, Japanese folks.

Babymetal

Over the past year or so, I’ve become something of a fan of Babymetal.  This may seem odd to people who know me, because I’m a classically trained musician, and I find most metal to be just people making noise, loudly.  But Babymetal has proven to be an exception.

There is a particular characteristic of classical music, in my view:  it’s all perfect.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a huge fan of romantic era piano concertos (Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, etc.) and I’ve come to believe that every one of them is perfect, even as they are different, perhaps even vastly so.  I cannot conceive of any one of Rachmaninoff’s works, Saint-Saens’ works (except for perhaps his organ symphony), Tchaikovsky’s works, being any different or improved upon, even as not one of them is the same as the other.  Even from the same composer, each work is very different, and perfect in its own right.

I don’t quite have the same feeling about Babymetal, but it’s a similar feeling.  They cross all sorts of genres, and it seems that none of their music is formulaic, and yet pretty much every song I’ve heard except for Megitsune, I like – and I like for different reasons.  I like “Gimme Chocolate” because it’s cute.  I like “Road of Resistance” because it’s very flashy – I’d liken it a bit to Tchaikovsky’s first concerto.  I like “Karate” because of Suzuka’s vocal solos in a very strange musical mode – I can’t identify it offhand, but I think it’s… phrygian?  I like Akatsuki because it allows Suzuka to shine and she really delivers in vocal power.  And I like Metataro because of the fact that it really is genre defying – I’d almost think of it as an appropriated Celtic folk song.  Morning Musume did the same thing in being genre defying (“Mr. Moonlight” comes to mind), but they didn’t break out of the J-pop mold like Babymetal has.  I haven’t heard many more of their works but I’m sure I’ll get exposed to more as time goes on, I’m not seeking it out.

But that’s the thing I think I like most about them – they have the same qualities as classical and romantic composers – each piece they create is nearly perfection for what it is and yet none of them are anywhere near remotely the same.  If you don’t like one piece, that’s okay, there will be another one that will blow your socks off.  The whole band seems to be built on experimentation and pushing the boundaries, and what comes out, I think, actually (and as I say, for what it is) rivals the great composers of western civilization – Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Saint-Saens.  It’s not that genre of music, but the spirit is the same, and I think that’s what people pick up about it and what makes them fans.  They do things no one has ever even considered doing before, and do it in such a way that, many years down the road, I think they will be seen as one of the more influential musical influences of our time.

And coming from a classically trained musician such as myself, that is high praise indeed.  I would not say that about nearly any other metal band.  For all of their talent, skill, and even popularity, most of them have never been really good at pushing the envelope.  Babymetal broke through it and became something truly transcendental.

Cultural Neuroses

I think every country has something I call “cultural neuroses” – or at least I started to about twenty seconds ago.  Something in the culture that lives deep inside the cultural zeitgeist and underlies invisible assumptions that a culture makes.  In my opinion, this is one of the primary reasons to learn a foreign language – but for two reasons, not one.  One reason is to try to see the cultural neuroses in other cultures that are invisible to them.  And another is to try to see the cultural neuroses in your own culture that are invisible to you.

The former is easy, but the latter is far more difficult.

I live in the United States, and have lived here all my life.  I think because of my background I’m a little more perceptive to many of our cultural neuroses than most – primarily because in a very real sense I have never truly been a part of this culture.  I think in America, one of our biggest cultural neuroses is that of liberty.  Perhaps because of many things that have happened in our past, many, if not most, Americans are deathly afraid of losing their individual liberty, and protect it at all costs – sometimes to the point of being paranoid or neurotic about it.  Rules, restrictions, and regulations that other cultures might see as a balance between the good of the individual and community (though, of course, due to their own cultural neuroses, they never quite that get that balance right) appear onerous and intolerable to people from America.  Americans around the world have a reputation for behaving as if they are culturally superior to others, and I think many even feel that they are.  But that comes, I think, from the fear of submitting themselves to a system that does not value individual liberty as much as, or in the same way, that our culture does.

Of course, this is not the only cultural neurosis, but it’s one of the most prevalent.  Perhaps another is the fear of impending scarcity that came from our forefathers, most recently from the times of the Great Depression.  Much of our current materialism has probably evolved directly from these times of economic scarcity.

The Japanese are not immune from cultural neuroses.  There is something about their culture that has never quite seemed right to me, and upon reflection, I think I’m picking up on one of their cultural neuroses.  One of their biggest neuroses, I think, is that they have a difficult time facing their “dark side”.  Whenever that is exposed, they seem to react with denial and shame, which is seen by other cultures as not owning up to mistakes made in their history.  I think this is why they have such a fascination with cute and innocent (kawaii) characters, but also, why anime and other forms of media seems to have such a dark and dystopian bent.  They see their dark side, but it is culturally suppressed, and comes out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.  I confess to not having seen very much anime, but I have yet to see an anime that does not, in some ways, have either an underlying current of darkness and dystopia, or is extremely cute and innocent.  I do not see much introspection.  And I think that is because they are afraid of what they might find.

Of course, this is just a theory.  And I put forth one of my own cultural neuroses because the point is not that this is something that is unique to Japan – it’s something that every culture has.  For example, Germany is still, eighty or so years later, reeling from their role in the second world war and the horrible stuff that they did as a country.  You can see elements of this particular neurosis in the way they treat certain kinds of speech – they seem deathly afraid that the dark side that manifested in their culture might show again.  And perhaps for good reason, that was not completely eradicated with their loss.  But it’s still useful to note.  A country’s history is not lost with the death of a generation – the cultural wounds live on.

It is, perhaps, one of my flaws as a human, that I have a difficult time respecting people that are not introspective, while I am sometimes envious of them in the same breath.  This is my biggest challenge with the Japanese culture – it seems to discourage introspection.  Going with the flow and not making waves was probably an incredible survival strategy in the eras of the shogun, but these days, it seems to lead to a fractured culture that is having a difficult time finding their way in a world that has, in some ways, left them behind, even at the same time as they are some of the most innovative and creative people in the world.  It is my biggest struggle with the Japanese culture and learning Japanese – it’s hard for me to get past that.