Hagibis and “Black Companies”

As I have said previously, there are many things to admire about Japanese culture, and quite a few things not to admire as well.  I have always strove, in this blog and elsewhere, to look at Japan with an unflinching lack of bias – acknowledging the good, acknowledging the cultural differences that are legitimately morally relative, and also calling out the unquestionably dark sides of Japanese culture that sometimes rear their heads.

Honestly, though I hear it’s recently changing, the biggest thing about Japanese culture that actually deters me from living there is its workplace environment.  They are a culture that tends to value uniformity and teamwork above individual contributions.  That, in itself, is one of those things that I think are legitimately morally relative, and that’s not really what I’m criticizing.  I wouldn’t want to work at a company like that, but my culture is different.  I hear some Japanese companies are taking a more western approach, and I applaud that, while at the same time recognizing that I’m applauding it because it’s more inline with my culture.

But what I don’t like are “black companies”.  These are companies that, to put it bluntly, abuse their workers.  Force them to work long hours, accept no excuses for being late, fire people for getting a snack… basically treating them as feudal slaves with the veneer of modernity.  The suicide rate in Japan is troubling, and at least a portion of that is people who are overworked so badly that they simply can’t hold up under the pressure anymore.

What prompted this observation was finding out that there were some companies that forced people to work through Typhoon Hagibis when it roared through the Tokyo metro area.  The trains were shut down, I’m guessing people were told to shelter in place or find somewhere inland to go, essential services were disrupted.  There were even a few people killed and injured.  It was, by all accounts, a pretty major hurricane, and Japan will be spending quite a bit of time and money recovering from it.  A direct hit on one of the largest cities in the world is not something to take lightly.

And yet, even Hagibis was not enough to excuse some people from work.

This is an aspect of Japanese culture that, frankly, disgusts me.  One can certainly argue the merits of long hours and some of the other aspects of the Japanese corporate culture that are questionable but not necessarily cruel.  But forcing your employees to come to work in the middle of a typhoon?  I don’t care who you are or what culture you’re from, that’s not excusable.

But the problem, as I see it, is that Japanese people accept this.  If people simply didn’t work for black companies, there wouldn’t be any more black companies.  But instead, people feel an obligation, cultural or otherwise, to continue working for the company that is mistreating them so badly.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the post-war idea that one works for the same company for life, or if it’s just the Japanese cultural tendency not to make waves, but the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening is a major black mark on Japanese culture, and is a part of the darkness that makes me think twice about visiting or living there.

And this problem will be exacerbated by the birthrate decline.  In a few years, there will not be enough people to fill all of the jobs that are needed by Japanese countries.  Foreigners, specially western foreigners, will not put up with that kind of environment, and those that are entering the workplace will slowly begin to realize that they are more valuable to the company than the company is to them.  And at that point, the apocalypse will come for “black companies’.  And not a moment too soon.

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?

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.

Japan: Warts and All

I imagine that when most people think of Japan they think of the media that Japan produces, and it’s really incredible.  There’s anime, manga, variety shows…  and there is so much more for Japan to offer.  It’s completely understandable that people from other countries might latch on to the otherness of Japanese culture and kind of worship it.  And there are quite a few people who do that.

But as you learn about Japan – I mean, really learn, and not just from their mass media or television, a different picture starts to be painted.  A picture of an ancient, insular culture that has very recently been thrust into a larger world where they don’t know what to do with us anymore than we know what to do with them, sometimes.  There are so many beautiful things in their culture, and so many destructive things as well.  Karoushi, suicides, the slow and seemingly inevitable decline of their culture even as they struggle to find their place in the world and even amongst themselves.

Worshipping their culture seems to be doing everyone a disservice.  For a culture that prizes unity and purity as much as they do, they just seem so.. I don’t know.  broken.

This isn’t intended to demean them at all.  In some ways they have so much to teach us about how to live in community.  We in the west value individualism so deeply that we’re willing to sacrifice community harmony (if this weren’t true, then “identity politics” wouldn’t be the troublesome thing they are today), but the Japanese seem to value community harmony so highly that the travails of the individual don’t really seem to matter all that much.

And in this case, I’m not sure who, if anyone, is right.  Both approaches have their upsides and downsides.

But the more I learn about Japan, the more sad I become, in some ways.  It feels like an ancient culture, full of beauty, in a slow motion collision with forces that maybe they won’t be able to recover from.

I don’t worship their culture.  I love many aspects of their culture, but I don’t worship it.  For, all else aside, they are, if nothing else, just as human as I am.  And when you truly love something, you love their warts as much as their beauty.

I wonder if they feel as lost in this world as I do, sometimes.

Rajiotaiso

So I’ve learned something very interesting about Japanese culture.

Every day at around 6 AM, they put exercise music on the radio, and have a prescribed set of exercises everyone in the country does.  Sensei told us that children, even in the summer, go to the park and do the exercises, and get a sticker, which they can redeem at the beginning of school for a prize.

So, naturally, sensei had the brilliant idea to have us do the exercises in class.

I did not.  I stood up and halfheartedly waved my arms for five seconds, and then just stood there feeling like a fish out of water while everyone else flailed around.

I’ll take the grade hit, if there is one.  She found my limit.

It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, for sure.  But I’m a gaijin.  I’m learning about Japanese culture, but it’s not my culture.  I wasn’t brought up with that, and I don’t have to do it.  So I won’t.

But I think I understand why Japanese do.  Not only is the common health very important to them, but it’s a shared ceremony, which is something my country doesn’t have enough of.  So perhaps it is rather telling of me that when given the opportunity (or even obligation) to participate in such a ceremony, even at work, I consistently refuse.

This is something I certainly need to dig into – it’s as if I am completely incapable at the moment of doing anything that might make me a part of a group, even a little.

But it is what it is.  It’s an interesting Japanese cultural artifact, for sure.  But the more I learn about Japanese culture, the more certain I am that I will never, ever set foot there.  Which, again, leads to the obvious question of why I’m bothering to learn it at all.

I still don’t know.

That is all.

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.

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.

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.