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.

Moving forward…

After the last post, I just stopped caring about blogging for a while.  I just pretended like it didn’t exist.  It kind of helps that a medicine I’m taking seems to make me care less in general, which, knowing me, is a good thing.

My feelings about Japanese are still very conflicted, but as of right now, I’m just studying wanikani and letting the rest kind of sink in.  And I am seeing results.  Today I went to the local HEB and there was a real honest-to-gosh Japanese person manning the Sushiya!  I carried on a conversation with him, and he told me my Japanese was not perfect, but understandable.  I told him I’ll take it – understandable but not perfect means I’m only failing a little.  I am gaining a level of fluency – not the “wow, I can just rattle this off” level, but more the “if I know what I’m going to say and am familiar with the words, I don’t have to think too much about sentence structure” level.  For simple sentences anyway.  That’s at least a sense of accomplishment.  I may not know why I’m doing it yet, but I am doing it.  That’s something.

Ever since I was a child, I have always learned for the sake of learning.  I learned the periodic table at eight years old.  I had no clue what I was going to do with it, but I learned it.  I learned about electronics at around 9.  The same pattern showed itself – I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I learned about it.  The knowledge was something I kind of collected – like some people collected baseball cards, or dolls, etc.  But all of these things have one thing in common:  academics only take you so far.  You can learn all about chemistry, but if you never perform an experiment, there’s no point.  You can learn about electronics, but if you never quite wrap your head around the idea that it exists to actually do work, there’s, again no point.  The same applies to music, which I have also learned quite a bit about – if you don’t know why music exists, then knowing how to play it is useless.

But all that being said, the academics still have some value.  Not for what the discipline is intended – for example, learning Japanese really only exists for the sake of communicating with Japanese people.  But instead, for learning about how people, and the world, works.  Without practical applications it does not satisfy its core purpose, but it satisfies the purpose of adding to one’s filter on how one sees the world.

Japanese has been valuable to me for that purpose, and the rest of it… well, maybe it will come in handy eventually.  Right now, though, I guess I’ll keep on trucking.

For those who sent comments, thanks.  I always appreciate them.

Nani?

I am not good at writing posts when I am discouraged.  I’m terrible at feigning enthusiasm, and there have been several posts I’ve written over the past couple of months that I abandoned halfway through, with the thought “what’s the point?”.  I tried to write another one tonight, and it met the same fate.  I just can’t pretend.  I can try to, but it never, ever works.  Maybe it’s just a peculiarity of my background or personality.

I keep coming back to one thought:  why am I doing this?  I’ve said before:  I don’t know.  I live in a city in Texas that has very few Japanese people, I am uninterested for the most part in nearly all Japanese media, I have little to no interest in going to Japan, and the best answer I can give myself is “because I can”.  That’s a perfectly legitimate reason, but it doesn’t, in my mind, justify the amount of time and money I’ve spent in a pursuit that has no purpose.  And yet I continue to do it, and I don’t know why.

Just like I don’t know why I blog here.  I think it’s partly because I want to help others who might be intimidated by the whole thing – no matter what my motivation, I’ve learned a few useful things over the past couple of years, and I think I have a few interesting things to share (that not even my native teacher knows!).  But I think it’s partly because I just want to convince myself that there’s a purpose for my studies.  It’s not working.

And it’s compounded by the fact that I am currently taking a medicine whose primary effect seems to be to make me care less.  In some ways that’s a very welcome thing, but it’s not very helpful when I am trying to convince myself to study in the evening and can’t even come up with one good reason to do it except that I committed to it for some unknown reason at some point in the past.  In fact, it is one of the few things I’ve managed to even remotely stick with – I don’t even practice piano as much as I do study Japanese vocabulary.

Maybe I understand myself even less than I do others.

And yet, tonight, I will study some more.  Why? It’s a complete mystery to me.  I wish I had a reason.