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.

Sunday Song #4: Sakura No Hanabiritachi (AKB48)

I haven’t written one of these for a while, and this one’s a little late.  I have some good excuses which you don’t care about, but if you knew them, you’d agree that they’re good, so we’ll just leave it at that.

This is an interesting song.  Its first few bars of introduction are really catchy and high energy – they actually remind me of an 80s or 90s song.  In fact, that’s how I found this song, because they kept playing that intro on AKBingo and I liked it enough that I wondered what song it belonged to.

This is a song about endings and beginnings.  As I have mentioned, the sakura (or cherry tree) seems to have a significance to Japanese culture, and at least in the way it’s usually used in J-Pop songs, as a marker of time.  For the sakura blossoms only for a few days a year, and then they all fall off, waiting for the next year to come around.

This is a sweet and sad song, about graduation from school and heading into adulthood.  That’s an experience that, for many reasons, I never really had, but it seems that in this song they are trying to capture the bittersweet feelings that must come with that kind of an event.  As the petals drop from the cherry tree, so does one stage of life end and another begin.

The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
On these cheeks they come out, flow, and fall
As we look up to the blue sky
And breathe in deeply
The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
Memories of that part make me happy
The stairs to adulthood before our eyes
Together we climb and wave our hands

This is something I’ve really grown to appreciate about J-Pop.  It can be very sweet and saccharine, it can be fun and mindless, it can be sweet and sad, it can even be tragic, but there is a depth and poetry that is very much missing from western pop, and has been for many, many years.  It’s like, they want to sell albums, but they are also proud of what they produce.

What would it look like if we could take A-Pop (what I call American pop) and infuse a Japanese sense into it?  The sense of beauty that the Japanese have cultivated over thousands of years, and even now, manifests in a bunch of young girls and women dancing around in frilly, colorful (and sometimes downright loud) costumes and singing about things they may or may not understand?

What would it look like, indeed.  I’d like to know.  It would be nice if there was actually some “A-Pop” that one didn’t have to feel embarrassed to do anything but make fun of.