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?

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.

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.

Japanese Does Get Easier

So the final grades are in.  I got a 91%.  I would have gotten higher but sensei dinged me on participation.  I’m not sure why, but the difference between 91 and 98 percent is really just ego, to be honest.  So I’ve let it go.

Japanese is an interesting language – it has a very, very high initial learning curve.  It’s intimidating as heck and it’s hard to even know where to start – because you have to learn several entirely new writing systems before you can even start doing anything productively with it.  It’s really easy to want to give up during that stage, because it can feel like you’re getting pretty much nowhere.

And that’s because you are, actually, getting pretty much nowhere.

But once you gain some proficiency with hiragana and katakana, find a study system that works for you, and figure out how to immerse yourself in the language enough that you start to understand how it works, it actually becomes much like learning any other language.  You pick up words, you learn grammatical constructs, and you start figuring out how things fit together.

It gets easier.

That’s not to say it gets easy.  It still requires a lot of work and study.  But the “a-ha!” moments start getting closer and closer together, you start studying the kanji and suddenly things start clicking, and you find that somehow you picked up about five hundred different words and a hundred kanji and you weren’t even really trying, it just happened.  I mean, it was a lot of work, but it just kind of happens when you put in the effort.

I found an app called “kanji tree” which has become my new favorite kanji study app.  It helps you with recognition, with readings, and with drawing the kanji – and if you do these things with any regularity at all, you’re going to learn a whole hell of a lot without really doing much more than fiddling with your phone.  It won’t take the place of a native sensei and also a good textbook, but it’s an invaluable substitute and I’m spending an hour or two per night with the app.

Getting over that hurdle is hard, though.  I think it’s when most people give up, because while you’re trying to learn hiragana, katakana, and enough kanji to not feel like an idiot, you’re not going to get very far at all, every word you learn seems disjointed (without the kanji to help, it’s really hard to memorize words), and it just seems insurmountable.

But… it’s not.

Just find a method that works for you, and go for it.  And even though it feels like you want to every step of the way, don’t give up.  It gets easier.  But you have to get over that hump first.

Class is over

Last night I tool the final exam for the Japanese class I’ve been taking for three months.  I learned a lot.  I’m pretty sure I passed with an A (or at the very worst a B).  I feel like I have a better foundation than I did when starting the class.

I am not taking Japanese II for the time being.

I have felt uncomfortable in a college setting from the very beginning, and there were many reasons for that.  A relatively large percentage of the students there were teenagers, and as a man in my early 40s I was rather uncomfortable with that – one must be far more careful in that context than one would with people closer to one’s own age.  It was also uncomfortable because I am trying to hold down a full time job and the amount of studying and time commitments required were very difficult to fit into an already busy life.  Trying to go to every class prepared was very stressful.  Also, today’s college settings are very PC and I was not comfortable with the fact that I felt like I had to always be careful what I said, being concerned that someone would take it the wrong way and bring the wrath of the PC gods down on me.  Don’t get me wrong – I actually do think professionalism is important in such a setting, but these days there’s no room for even a slip-up.

All told, it was just too stressful an experience, and I don’t want to do it again for the short term.  Truth be told, if it weren’t for the experience I’d already had with hiragana and katakana I would have been completely sunk.  Even towards the end I kinda stopped studying.  Which didn’t hurt me all that much but it will if I have to keep this up.

But all is not lost.  When I told sensei that I was not going to take the next class and outlined some of the reasons why, she offered to give me semi-private lessons.  They are about twice as expensive as class for the same amount of time, but I think I will be more comfortable in these kinds of lessons.  I don’t have to stress out about attending every single one, and maybe the interactions with adults closer to my own age will be a little less… awkward.

I start those tomorrow.

The background is important.  The fact that college was able to help me to solidify my hiragana and katakana was invaluable to me.  I feel much better prepared to move on in my studies than I was three months ago.  I also feel like I’m going to be better served in a smaller, more focused environment.

Also, in the past few months, my views on Japan have changed some.  I no longer think of Japan as this strange and exotic place full of amazing wonders – though I think there are certainly some aspects of that!  I, instead, have begun to think of Japan as a country that has found its national identity under attack over the past century or so, and are trying to figure out how to square their ancient and proud culture with the modern pressures towards assimilation and integration.  They don’t want to assimilate their culture into the larger world – and in some cases, with good reason! – but they are finding that as their population dwindles and their economy stagnates, that they may not have a choice in the matter.  It is almost as if I am watching an imperfect parallel of my journey out of a cult on a country-wide scale.  Their culture is ancient and proud, and they have a lot to offer the world if we choose to pay attention.  But the world has a lot to offer them as well, and they need to pay attention as well if they hope to survive.

But I feel that we in the west need to also help.  And I think the best way that we can help is to learn about their language and culture, and maybe use that knowledge to explain some things about my language and culture as well.  Perhaps I am a gaijin, or gaikokujin, but at the end of the day we are all people.  I live in Texas.  I see many pickup trucks every day, I see cowboy hats and wide skies and eat BBQ frequently (too frequently).  I don’t share the same language or cultural assumptions.  In some ways I feel that my culture is superior, but not in all ways – in some ways I see much to admire or respect from Japanese culture.

But how will one who only speaks Japanese know if I don’t share that?

I have a dream at some point to start a blog or youtube channel where I talk about my experiences of America, as an American – in Japanese, and to a Japanese audience.  That is a niche that I don’t think has very much content, and I think could be very useful.  I think that is one reason why I continue to learn Japanese.  I want to do that.

So, ikimasu.  On to the next step.

How did the skit turn out?

Pretty well.

The constraints were, we had to use introduction phrases, speak relatively fluently, and make sensei laugh.  So early on, we came up with the idea of a doctor and patient.  My partner was the doctor, and I was the patient.  I had not filled out the forms and she kept asking me questions while I asked for help.

The kicker was that the questions got more and more absurd the longer we went on.

Towards the end, she asked my cats’ names (Inoki Antonio, Abe Shinzo, Takahashi Minami, and Kaori Iida), and their birthdays, at which point I abruptly ended the interview by dying.

The biggest laugh was at the reveal of the cat names!

I threw in an easter egg, too.  When she asked for my address, I recited the address of the AKB48 theater.  I don’t think anyone in the class picked up on that.

I got an 88%.  So there’s that.  Even though I hated doing it with an utter passion.  My partner didn’t seem much happier with the assignment, so there’s that, too.  Frankly, that assignment is one of the major reasons why I’m not taking the next class, now, anyway.

After this class ends, I’m going to start studying for the N5.  Probably by studying Japanese to an N4 level so I can be sure I’m overprepared for the N5.  I hear that’s the best way to do it.

Still not sure why I’m learning Japanese but walking up to my boss and saying “今は医者にいきます” and seeing the utterly confused look on his face almost makes it worth it.

Kanji makes it easier?

One of the assignments given to us by sensei was to do a skit where we have to make up and memorize our lines.  I’m finding this very difficult and am rather annoyed by the whole idea.

Okay, “rather annoyed” is something of an understatement.  I’m closer to “royally pissed” on the scale, I think.

But it is what it is, and I have a partner I can’t let down, so here we go.

Anyway, as I’m studying, I have found that one of the biggest obstacles to my memorization of the words is the syllabic system.  No, seriously.  See, English letters are very different than Japanese syllables.  English letters sometimes do not have their own identity, and several letters blend together to make a syllable.  Even though there are 15,000 or so potential syllables, it’s really easy to see the words because the letters don’t really count for much by themselves.

With the syllabic systems – hiragana and katakana – that’s not really true.  While some vowels are unvoiced, entire syllables are never, and they have the same importance mechanically when recited (I said mechanically, not grammatically).  So if you can’t get out of the mindset of sets of hiragana/kanji/ofurigana being actual words and are stuck on the syllables, memorization and fluency becomes near impossible.  This is because you’re memorizing sets of syllables rather than words for themselves.

So kanji, while a formidable challenge in their own right, takes ones mindset off of the individual syllables and puts it on the words where it belongs.  There are some nasty rules when it comes to this as well – their pronunciation changes on a whim, depending on what the context is, but the pronunciation becomes secondary to the meaning of the word.  It’s still vitally important, obviously, but it’s what pulls you out of the syllabic mindset and into the word mindset.

The textbook I’m using starts with romaji, graduates to hiragana and katakana, and only then introduces kanji.  I absolutely understand why they do that – hitting students with kanji all at once would be incredibly intimidating – but I also think that level of intimidation might be the kick in the pants needed to understand that Japanese is fundamentally different from English.  What I mean is this:  if you exposed students to kanji from the very beginning and then had them start to swim out, maybe it would be easier to toss the conventions of English that we have a tendency to stick to for as long as possible, when they just don’t apply.

In fact, I think this is such an important concept that I created my own “study kanji”.  I have kanji now for desu, deshita, masu, mashita, deshouri, and a couple of others.  I’m also learning kanji for words like “iie” and “totemo”.  They’re only for my own use, of course, but the purpose of these is to focus my mind on the “wordness” of the words and particles, rather than what they’re composed of.  It seems to be bearing fruit.  Memorization has become much easier, at least when I have whole sentences to memorize.  Like I do for this kami-forsaken test.

Of course I will cuss myself out for that choice the minute I accidentally use them when I shouldn’t.  But it is what it is, I suppose.