Progress

This morning was a very stormy day.  In fact, it was so stormy, that parts of I-35 were shut down because of flooding.  My Japanese lesson was scheduled for the morning.  It got cancelled.  But we rescheduled for the afternoon, so it was not necessarily a bad thing.

Sensei told us yesterday that she only wanted us to speak to her in Japanese in the future.  That did not work out.  But I think it sets a good direction, so I started sending messages to the group in Japanese – even if I had to look up words in Jisho to find words I didn’t know.

There was a little pushback from the group wrt the kanji I used that they did not know, but I showed one of the members how to look up unfamiliar kanji, and I pointed out that I prefer to use kanji rather than hiragana because the meaning is far more precise.  He seemed to understand.  I do not recognize words as easily when using hiragana as I do when using kanji, though maybe that is something I should also work on.

I am not the most competent in the group (I refuse to remark on where exactly in the group I think I am), but I am working on it, and my strength right now seems to be in memorizing kanji and the important readings.  In fact, when necessary, I can remember a kanji even after seeing it only once or twice, though it does depend on the kanji.  Some give me more trouble than others.  But I was drawing kanji on the whiteboard that no one else in the room except for sensei knew.  Perhaps I was showing off just a bit, but truth be told, I was just enjoying actually knowing something useful for once instead of feeling like I was just barely keeping up, as I usually do.

I still do not like where I am.  But for the first time, today, I felt like I could at least hold my own and contribute something of value to the group.  And that’s something, anyway.

I think a part of my issue, honestly, is that I am very good with the English language.  I’m not perfect, as it is a very difficult language, but I’m good at it even compared to other native speakers.  I spell well, I have relatively good grammar, and I manage to avoid most of the pitfalls that many others fall into.  But in Japanese, I have none of that.  I read and write on the level of a first grader, and frankly my vocabulary is much smaller than that of a first grader.  That is an uncomfortable place to be.  And the sad truth is that no matter how good I get at the language, I will never be as fluent as even the youngest grade school student.

But all that aside, and for reasons I don’t even understand, I’m not giving up.  And as I’ve mentioned, it gets easier.

My Gaijin Life

I have launched my new project.  Well, “launched” is a pretty hefty word.  Perhaps it would be better said, I have thrown my new project at the world, while holding out a faint hope that the world doesn’t throw it right back.

It can be found at https://mygaijinlife.com.

In the beginning, I fully expect I will be making liberal use of Google Translate and jisho.org.  I will not be using Google Translate to translate English phrases to Japanese, as that would be cheating and contrary to the purpose of the site.  But I will be using it to make sure that the phrase at least passes a “smell test”.  I assume I will need it less and less as I become more proficient in the language.

I think this may be the best way for me to learn.  The lessons are helpful, but I’m stuck.  And maybe this will help me get out of my stuckness.

The point of the blog is to describe life in Texas to a native Japanese person, from the viewpoint of a native American (as opposed to a Native American, which is a different thing entirely).  I’m hoping the entries will become more interesting and complicated as I learn how to express myself better.  But I guess you have to start somewhere.  I think I have just enough knowledge of Japanese to start to bootstrap this.

Japanese people can watch me grow in the language, I suppose.  Or ignore me.  Probably better off doing the latter, honestly.

Anyway, that’s my new project.  Enjoy or not.

Note:  I mentioned before that I use the word gaijin deliberately, even as some gaikokujin find it offensive.  I understand the difference.  I do not see myself as a gaikokijin.  I see myself as a gaijin.  And not just when it comes to Japanese culture, either.  I’ve posted about this before.  Just wanted to clear that up.

It is time.

It is a stormy day in Round Rock, Texas today.

My Japanese teacher has decided that she now only wants to speak to the small group of people I learn with, in Japanese.  I don’t like this, but I think it may be necessary.  I’ve been feeling a little stuck lately – and I have no confidence in anything but the most basic written and spoken Japanese – so I don’t want to.  But I’m going to see what I can do.

That means, I think that it’s probably time that I pull the trigger on the project I’ve been wanting to do for a while.  I want to create a blog, in Japanese, from the perspective of a gaijin living in the US.  The intended audience:  Japanese people.  In Japan.

It will be broken Japanese to begin with, but as I learn it’ll become less broken, hopefully.  There will be a lot of word looking up and probably a little help from Google translate too, but as I get better, hopefully my dependence on those tools will lessen and I will gain some amount of fluency.

I guess the only way to do it is to do it.  Let’s go…

Honesty

I’m struggling with what to write, to be honest.

I think a part of it is that I’m far more depressed then I usually am, but that’s not all of it.  I just feel like I’ve said everything interesting that I have to say, and everything else just seems to be a rehash of some old post from here or there.  There are only so many ways to say “Japanese is hard”, and Japanese popular culture, as I’ve mentioned, seems mostly to be a very broad, very shallow sea – one that’s quickly exhausted if one is going for any kind of meaningful depth.  Manga, manga, everywhere, and not a page to read.

A part of the issue, I think, is that I’m talking about something I don’t know much about from the perspective of someone who lacks the resources – for whatever reason – to find out much more about it than I already know.  When it comes to Japanese culture, all I’ve really got are youtube videos, the random book I manage to scrape from Half Priced Books, or Kinokuniya, or my sensei.  And that’s about it.  I can’t go any deeper, because I lack the connections and resources to go deeper.

Being completely honest with myself, this is probably the reason that this blog hasn’t gotten very far – not that I expected any different.  I’m not bringing anything new to the table.  No particularly new observations, no unique tidbits, no cultural observations from the heart of Tokyo.  Just some guy from Texas blathering on about things he doesn’t understand.

I can keep learning Japanese, but truthfully, I have no idea where to go from here.

Kanji is easier than Hiragana

At my Japanese lesson today, the question was posed:

ひらがなは漢字どちら方が一番やさしいですか (which is the easiest, kanji or hiragana)

I responded 漢字は方が一番やさしいです (kanji is the easiest).

I didn’t make this statement lightly or without thinking.  And while it would have been fun to troll sensei, I wasn’t doing that either.  I really do think that is the correct answer.  And here’s why.

Yes, when it comes to pronunciation, hiragana is by far easier.  This is obvious. Each kana has its own pronunciation, and the syllables are one to one – meaning there is one and only one pronunciation for each kana.  But that doesn’t make it easier.  It just makes it a more predictable writing system, which is not the same thing.

There are two things that make kanji difficult:  the fact that there are so many of them, and the fact that each one has many different pronunciations.  But, honestly, I think this is a problem of scale.  When you take a look at a word with its kanji, compared with the word in hiragana, it’s really no contest.  Kanji is far easier.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you just go by pronunciation, there can be many, many different meanings for the same word, and it is unclear except through context which meaning is the correct one.  The second is that in hiragana, you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins, and this leads to no end of confusion.  So you can tell at a glance which word (and by word I mean meaning and not pronunciation) you are looking at, so it is far easier to figure out what a particular sentence means than by using the equivalent hiragana.

Kanji is more intimidating than hiragana is, for sure.  It’s a lot more to learn and a lot more to memorize.  But not by much, as you would need to remember the words one way or another, and kanji gives you a visual anchor to help memorization.

So, all told, I think kanji is far easier than hiragana.  Hiragana is important and indispensable, for sure – how could you tell how to pronounce the kanji without it!  But for actually getting anywhere with the language – I think staying exclusively with hiragana hurts much more than it helps in the long term.

Ignorance

I found a book at Half Price Books yesterday called “zakennayo”.  It’s an introduction to slang in Japanese.  It doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of early 90s Japanese teen culture, but maybe that’s just realistic.

“Zakennayo” is an extremely rude word that means, essentially, “fuck off” in Japanese.  It’s a word I’d actually rather I didn’t know, but I guess it’s good to have in my arsenal if I really, really need it.  And I can’t think of a situation where I would.

But here’s the funny thing.  This is a word that is just to be taken at face value for what it means, but I wanted to dig in a little further to find out where it came from.  I didn’t succeed at that.  But I did find that there’s a (rather highly rated, it seems) sushi restaurant in Guatemala called “Zakennayo Sushi Bar”.  Don’t take my word for it, look it up yourself.

Basically, it’s a sushi bar that is telling every one of its customers to fuck off, and they have absolutely no idea that’s the case.

It seems to me that some people use the fact that they know a different language to their advantage.  Some people use it to talk about someone right in their face, and they have absolutely no idea.  Others use it to try to cheat them.  And some just do stuff like this to troll.

It works right up until someone figures out that they’ve been trolled or insulted, and then the jig is up.

It might be a joke.  And it might be a way of insulting people right to their face.

This is why I think it is so valuable to know another language.  You learn things that you never would otherwise.  For example, I learned what a sushi restaurant owner in Guatemala thinks of their customers.

Maybe sometimes you’re better off not knowing, to be honest.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.