5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Syllables

There are about a hundred syllables in Japanese, give or take.

I looked up today how many syllables there are in English, and the answer, apparently, is 15,381.

I think this gets to one of the roots of why Japanese is a difficult language to master for English speakers, and English is a difficult language to master for Japanese speakers.  Japanese syllables are always pronounced the same way.  It’s true that they might run together and thus make slightly different sounds in practice, like あい sounding a little like the English “I”, but there’s very little variation in the sounds of Japanese syllables, even when recited at high speed and no matter what the syllables are connected to.

In English, though, the syllables can change their pronunciation based upon the surrounding syllables.

So, let’s say, you have the Japanese syllable に, or “ni”.  In English, we can pronounce that quite a few different ways.  It can be pronounced as in “night”, or “nitwit”, or “Nimoy”.  So, it’s tempting to say “Nihon” as in “nitwit” rather than “Nimoy”, but only one of those is correct, even if in English, the first one is far easier for us to say.

So Japanese pronunciation is actually rather difficult for us English speakers, because we have this tendency to mispronounce the syllables based upon English rules.  The variances are subtle, but very real.

Couple that with the English system of emphasis stressing rather than pitch stressing, and it’s really, really easy to unintentionally mispronounce Japanese words.

For example, in the word “kawaii”, I find myself wanting to pronounce it like “Hawaii”, you know, the state.  But if I sound it out, that’s not really the correct pronunciation.  It’s more like “ka-wa-ii”, where each syllable is distinct and pronounced exactly as it would be if the syllables were on their own.  It’s complicated because when you run it together it really does kind of sound like “Hawaii” – it’s a very subtle distinction.  But it’s an important one.

But I really thing the greatest challenge in this aspect is the fact that with so few syllables it’s really easy to let your guard down.  “Self”, you might say to yourself, “This isn’t so hard!  Just say it as written!”  And you’re right, but then you say it as written according to English syllabic rules, and screw it all up.

I imagine for Japanese, the challenge is very difficult as well, going in the opposite direction.  They’re trained that every syllable and vowel is pronounced exactly the same way, and they’re faced with fifteen thousand syllables, all with different rules and put together slightly differently, using sounds they may not even know existed.  It seems a real challenge even for Japanese to stop using unneeded vowels at the end of words.  Some Japanese even seem to think it’s not worth the trouble.  I think it’s not worth the trouble, indeed, to get a perfect American or British accent.  That may be beyond their reach and not worth the time.  But just as we need to learn the rules of Japanese pronunciation as a matter of respect, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect the same from them eventually.

The word “eventually” is important, btw.  I’m not suggesting that Japanese students just out of high school should have English pronunciation that excellent.  As they generally feel about us, I’m just happy they’re trying.  But if we’re to communicate well, we both need to make that little bit more effort eventually.

Let’s all “try our best”.

 

What is Missing in Japanese Language Education

I have been thinking a bit about why Japanese is so seemingly difficult to English-speakers such as myself.  I’ve made a few other posts on this topic, but I think they were all skirting around a more fundamental issue.

English is a very difficult language, from what I hear.  Of course I’m fluent in it, but that’s because I was raised in the language.  And because of that, there are some things that are pretty obvious that may not be obvious to a foreign language speaker.  Specifically, some words have common roots, and thus their meaning can be teased out without knowing exactly what it means.  Not all words are like this, obviously, and there are some false rabbit holes (Yoshizawa-san famously getting “Refrigerator” and “Refresh” mixed up is one example) but by and large, this is something that an English speaker can sometimes do to “fake it till you make it”.

But Japanese does not seem to have anything similar.  Some words can mean about a hundred different things (“ikaru” and “sakura” being two examples that come immediately to mind), and other words seem very similar but have very different meanings (“muzukashii” and “hazukashii” are two examples that, again, come to mind).  Why are these words related?  Are there other words that end with “kashii”?  Can their meaning be teased out from the root?  (“muzu” and “hazu”, for example).  Do those roots mean anything on their own?

But there seems to be no pattern to it.  You just have to memorize the words.  I suppose that makes some sense from a pedagological standpoint, but my mind doesn’t work that way.  What are the patterns?  Are there rules that can be inferred?  Are there shortcuts to understanding?

Either there aren’t, or no one bothers teaching them.

That, to me, is what makes Japanese difficult, above all others.

Why J-Pop?

I was actually trained as a classical pianist.

Yes, it’s true.  I went to college and everything.  I learned how to either play or appreciate much of the repertoire – in point of fact, if I put my mind to it, there are piano concertos that are not out of my reach.  I am very, very familiar with many very complex pieces, even if I can’t play them yet, and I find composers such as Rachmaninoff to be quite sublime – even if the lay person might hear it as just a jumble of noise.

Why, then, have I grown to like J-Pop?

If I were to put, say, “Ponytail Shushu” up against Rachmaninoff’s second or third piano concertos, “shoujiki”, it would be like trying to compare fine art to the drawing of a five year old.  There is utterly no comparison.  Rachmaninoff’s music has a very definite structure, with every note thought out, all meshing together into a cohesive whole that is not even obvious without careful and educated listening.  J-Pop seems to be kind of what you’d expect from seeing two young teenage girls chatting with each other over a milkshake or boba drink.  You’d lose several IQ points just by hearing the conversation, and yet…

And yet.

Do you know what a conversation between two young teenage girls has that classical music does not?

It’s the same reason I like J-Pop.

Classical music is not alive, not really.  Most of the composers are long dead.  Most people listen to classical music quietly, and when you attend a concert, you usually dress up, sit there, and watch a conductor waves his arms, and out emanates some lovely music that you can only consume.  But J-Pop is like being included in a youthful conversation between several teenage girls – it’s stupid and mindless and immature – but there is also love and friendship and parting and angst and all of the things that make life life.  They capture the life and energy of youth in a way that classical music does not and cannot.

Is it beautiful like classical music?  Absolutely not!  But is it beautiful in its own way, expressing things that we as adults forget and only seem to get back when confronted by youth in all of its hormone-ridden, angsty, immature glory?

Yes.

It is a reminder of a long-past part of my life that I, thirty years later, had forgotten.  It hearkens back to a time when I didn’t have to worry about pleasing bosses, or the next performance review, or paying the rent, or what happens if and/or when I get sick, or all of the worries that adults like me destroy ourselves with.  It hearkens back to a time when young love overpowers all, when friendships were made and broken, when living on one’s own is nothing but something that may happen in the distant future, and one has their whole life yet ahead of them.  It’s a celebration of youth.

And sometimes, it is nice to forget how much the ravages of age have destroyed all of that optimism.

That is why I like J-Pop.  It is not always happy, but it is a reminder of how things once were.

Prelude

I have purchased the books required to attend the CC Japanese class, and have paid the tuition.  Looks like I’m doing this.

The book is “Yookoso 3”, which is horrendously expensive (I got it for about $99 and that’s half the price the bookstore was selling it at), the workbook which is also horrendously expensive (I got it for $80, which was a $40 discount from what the bookstore was selling it), and I didn’t opt for the CDs, as those resources are available online.  So, in total, I would have had to pay $400, and instead I paid $170.  Still a lot, but that’s doable.

I didn’t know it was going to be that expensive though.  I should have guessed.  It’s college, after all.

I leafed through the workbook and textbook, and my learned and considered decision is that I know about 70% of what I should know about halfway through the class, so maybe I can do this.

The question remains, though:  why do I want to?  And to be honest, I still don’t know.  The honest truth is that I’m a bit of a misanthrope on the best of days, so why would I be learning a language, the result of which I will know enough about the Japanese culture to know what I don’t like about it?  There are two sayings:  “familiarity breeds contempt” and “ignorance is bliss”, and both are the truest things ever.

But I’m doing it anyway.

Honestly, I will consider myself to be improving in Japanese when I can read enough of something or listen to enough of something to know that it’s boring.

This much I know – I find much of the Japanese culture that we Americans seem to like increasingly boring.  Perhaps it’s overexposure, perhaps I am having one of those moments where I have become familiar enough with it that it has lost its exoticism.  As unnerving as that is, and as adrift as it makes me feel, I feel that it’s a positive development, as there’s much more to the ancient and sometimes beautiful Japanese culture than a bunch of teenage girls flailing around and trying to find their notes.  I would branch out into other Asian cultures except Japanese is a friggin’ handful on its own, so one thing at a time, I suppose.

I just wish I knew what doors it could open, because right now it feels very much as if I’m voluntarily wasting my time.

Endings and Beginnings

I have mixed feelings about blogging, to be honest.  I’ve been doing it since before blogging was a thing – a while ago, I found a blog that I’d written nearly 20 years ago out of pure HTML – wordpress didn’t exist back then, and all I had available was a web server.  I’m glad that blog’s gone – but the point is I’ve been doing it a long time.

And I don’t feel like I’m very good at it.

Blogs have come and blogs have gone in my life, and each time, I’m never happy with the quality of writing, with the topics I come up with, and I feel as if any audience that I have is pissed off as often as they’re interested.  I’ve tried to keep this blog as high quality and on topic as possible, but I don’t really feel like I’ve succeeded.  And if you toss in the fact of my depressive personality and a rather aimless and scattershot learning technique, what you get is a blog that’s rather aimless in its topics and tries to be at the same time too many things and not enough.

I’m not quitting blogging here, but I’m seriously thinking about what I’m trying to accomplish.  Why do I blog in the first place?  And why do I blog about this topic in particular, when my interests are spread far wider?  Why not blog about sports cards?  Why not blog about theology?  Why not blog about piano, or classical music?  Why this, why now?  And am I blogging about J-Pop?  Japanese culture?  Japanese language?  All of the above?  Apparently, I have no idea.

So I’m not quitting this blog, but I’m going to reboot it.  I start a Japanese class at community college at the end of the month.  This marks a transition, a graduation, if you will, from a scattershot, exploration based approach to learning to an actual, methodical approach to learning.  It also marks a transition from me doing it because it interests me to me actually taking it seriously.  Who knows where it will take me now?  Or, conversely, who knows where it will not?

As I take the studies seriously, so will I take this blog. I will think carefully about what I want to accomplish, and that is where I will go.

The petals have fallen from the sakura trees, and where do we go from here?

Ikimasu.  Ganbarou.

Counters

Every language has an annoyance.

In English, it’s the definite vs. indefinite articles.  I have been told that this is almost impossible for a foreign person to get right, though I don’t see what’s so hard about it.  In Spanish, it’s the conjugations – I like to joke that there’s a special conjugation for something that happens on Tuesday under a full moon.  But I’m only partly joking.

There are two things in Japanese.  Wa vs. Ga, and counters.

The Japanese counter system is insane.  In case you didn’t know, there’s a counter for many different things, and it’s a suffix for the number words (ichi, ni…).  There’s ko (1個), which is the counter for objects.  There’s ban (番), which is the counter for order (first, second, third – this is where “ichiban” comes from).  There’s sai (歳), which is the counter for years (juu sai desu means ten years old).  There’s kai (回), which is the counter for “times” (watashi wa juu kai deshita means I did it ten times).  Each one has its own kanji, and you have to use the correct one.  There are over fifty of these.  One for books.  One for long, cylindrical objects.  Using the wrong one is a grammatical error, and in most cases, you can’t use a more generic one as a substitute if you don’t remember what the correct one is.

Not only that, but sometimes the actual words change based upon the counter.  One object is “ichi ko”, but one person is “hitori”.  Why?  Because they’re Japanese, that’s why!

It’s actually not insanely hard once you learn the different counters, honestly.  Compared to wa vs. ga it’s pretty straightforward if you put a little time into memorization.  But for me, it is, hands down, the most freaking annoying part of the Japanese language that I know.