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.

Am I Otaku?

I’ll be honest. I dont identify as otaku and I dont want to be otaku.

But last night I sent a bunch of funny links to my friend from AKBingo, explained to him who Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko are, and then gave him the backstory on how Shinoda-san became an idol. Then I was humming “Oogoe Diamond” and the intro to “Sakura no Hanabiritachi”, after I went through most of their discography to find out where that intro came from (it’s catchy).

Unfortunately I guess that makes me otaku.

Why does that upset me?

Because I consider otaku somewhat unbalanced, tbh. One commenter to this very site told me he’d punch someone out if they dissed his favorite AKB48 member. And that is disturbing. Sure they’re cute and funny, but they’re just entertainers and I’m entertained. Sure, if I were escorting an idol down the street and someone threatened her I’d open a can of whoopass, but that’s because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re idols.

I dont want to be associated with that. But I guess by talking about it, I am.

So what to do?

Culture and Humanity

As a gaijin, which literally means “outsider” or “outside person”, our exposure to Japanese culture is almost always initially through their media in some way.  Either anima, manga, J-pop, or some other type of media that Japan has spread throughout the world.  And make no mistake, Japanese media and culture is amazing.

It seems, though, that people who stop there tend to have two generalized reactions.  One is to tend towards otaku or weeaboo – people who are obsessed with Japanese pop culture to the point of it being unhealthy.  The other are people who acknowledge the artistry of Japanese culture, but never really get into it, preferring to instead consider them to be strange or unique, and just kind of moving on.

This is because these kinds of people focus on the differences between the Japanese and us in the west.  And there are quite a few differences, yes.  Differences in language, differences in history, differences in worldview, differences in culture.  And they are important differences.  But in all of the talk about how different we are, we forget, sometimes, that we’re more the same than different.

Here in the west, we’ve been kind of forced into a conversation on how multiple cultures can integrate peacefully.  In the US, we’ve had an influx of people, primarily from Spanish-speaking countries, and we’ve had to open an intense national debate on how to move forward given this reality.  But the problem we’re dealing with is not how to integrate people with different color skin – that’s oversimplifying the problem we have to solve.  The problem is how to integrate people with very different cultures, while still keeping the national identity that’s made us so successful over the past couple of hundred years.  It’s a very hard problem to solve, and some people are more interested in solving it seriously than others (and I’ll let you decide for yourself who you think the people you think are more interested in solving it seriously are.  Please just assume I’m talking about whoever you think I am and move on).

Some people take the simple way out and blame genetics – which is what leads to dehumanization and other horribles.  But the force that’s far more powerful than genetics is culture.  It’s the culture which we import, the culture which we integrate, and the mixture of the cultures which ends up determining what kind of amalgam is created once all the dust settles.  Many in the west have this idea of “multiculturalism” – the idea that all different cultures can keep their own identity.  But that’s dumb in its own right – cultures form in relative isolation, they meet each other, and they immediately mix, sometimes leading to something better as the best things from both cultures are absorbed, and sometimes leading to something worse.

That process is happening right now, in slow motion, with Japan, as their culture mixes with the west and creates something entirely different.  The Japanese culture from a hundred or two hundred years ago would be utterly unrecognizable from now.

But what the otaku and weeaboos tend to forget is that it’s not just the differences that we should pay attention to, it’s the similarities.  The Japanese people are humans, just like we in the west are, with all of the frailties and strengths that entails.  They’ve evolved different ways of dealing with them culturally, some of which we might consider progressive, and some regressive, but ultimately, they want the same thing we do.  Love.  Meaning.  Abation of suffering.  And something that transcends this life that they, like us, understand instinctually is intrinsically meaningless.  Gods, or kami, do not evolve in a vacuum.

The miracle, after all, is not that Japanese is very different from English.  The miracle is that it can be translated at all.  They developed many of the same concepts independently.

I think this is why I generally have a difficult time with the idea of otaku.  I love Japanese culture.  I think we, in the west, have a great deal to learn from them.  They have created beautiful art and poetry over the centuries, their sense of beauty and ceremony is unmatched, and our religious traditions have things that we can learn from Shinto.  Their sense of wa is something sorely lacking from the west, where we seem to actively value disharmony.

But they have things to learn from us, too.  Their sense of wa, one of the very things that brings such beauty to their culture, also brings such ugliness and regression, as they find it difficult to be innovative and free-thinking.  The cultural factors that bring karoushi into being are very much Japanese, and are things that we should not strive to duplicate in ours.  They struggle so very hard to keep their national and cultural identity, and that is leading to the slow-motion destruction of the very thing they are trying so hard to keep.

The Japanese are not an escape from our culture, and fetishizing their culture with worship of the exotic, as we tend to do (and which is almost the very definition of weeaboo), does no one any good.  At the end of the day, we’re all people.  We want the same things in life.  Let’s work together and make that happen.

The Japanese Mind

I went to Kinokuniya yesterday here in Austin, and found several interesting books.  One is called “Japanese Respect Language”, which I intend to read at some point soon.  One is “Read Real Japanese”, which is a reader of six stories of increasing complexity, with notes as to things that may be challenging.  The third was “The Japanese Mind”, which I find to be the most interesting book of the three so far.

It is a series of about twenty essays, each of which discusses a different aspect of Japanese culture.  For example, on of the essays is on “Ganbare”, which is a topic of which I’ve previously wrote.  It turns out I picked up on something pretty accurately – it’s a word that is often translated as “try my best”, but in actuality, that’s not really all that accurate.  It has a connotation of persisting through adversity that doesn’t really come through in English translations.  It actually doesn’t have a good translation in English, and that kind of comes through in the context in which it’s used.

There is also a description of Honne and Tatemae, a topic which I find interesting, confusing, and not the least a bit annoying.  As a westerner, I’m a very direct person (in some ways) even for my culture, so trying to navigate the legendary indirectness of Japanese culture would be very difficult for me.  But in other ways, I am almost as indirect as a Japanese person, so in some ways, I think I would be right at home.  The point, though, is that there are very distinct cultural differences and traps, and trying to navigate those as a westerner are nearly impossible.

But I imagine they have the same issues with us.  Where we might find them indirect and inscrutable, they might find us brash, brazen, and incredibly rude.  I heard it described somewhere that gaijin are considered in some ways to be very high functioning children in their culture, and I guess I can kind of see that.

The language is a gateway into a very old and rich culture, but it’s only a gateway.  You can learn the grammar easily, and the constructs, and even the writing system and vocabulary, but that all falls apart the moment you meet a Japanese person, say everything right, and still manage to fall into a trap that you had no idea existed.

It’s not like my culture is much better, though, honestly.  It’s just a different set of traps.  Trying to navigate the whole culture of dating in this culture is so difficult, irrational, and utterly impossible that I frankly stopped trying about five years ago.

Am I discouraged?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  But I do know that no matter what, any contact I have with a real Japanese person is going to require forbearance on both sides.  I’m going to have to try to understand what they’re really saying.  And they’re going to have to understand that my directness is not rude, just different.

Logan Paul: An Apology on Behalf of my People

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, I think the kerfluffle happened before I even started blogging.  But I want to chime in on this anyway, because I think it’s really important for me to.

Logan Paul is (or, maybe, was) a YouTuber who was known for his over-the-top style of videos.  That’s fine.  Logan Paul went to Japan.  That’s fine.

Logan Paul managed to get himself in so much trouble he’ll likely be arrested if he ever sets foot there again.

He took a video in the famous “suicide forest”, found an actual dead body, and treated that with a complete lack of respect.  This is what got him in trouble.  But he did something else that I find a hell of a lot more disrespectful.  He desecrated a Shinto shrine.

I am a Christian.  That means that I believe that Jesus Christ is lord over everything.  Fine.  But I have come to have a great respect for the Shinto belief system, and I think that while they are subservient to Jesus, kami actually may even exist, and I’ve come to respect the respect that Shinto has for nature, balance, and peace.  If I were to go to Japan, I would even consider going to a shrine and following the rules for purification, etc., there.  It’s a matter of respect for the Japanese people, their beliefs, and an ancient belief system that I think very highly of.

And Logan Paul marched in there, threw coins in the water, polluted their harae water, talked loudly and disrespectfully, and basically just pissed everyone off.  I guarantee you any Japanese that were there at that time (and there were quite a few) left with a really bad impression of Americans because of that one…  baka otokonoko.  He probably didn’t even know that a priest probably had to spend a lot of time afterwards purifying the shrine because of how badly he polluted it.

This is not how I want my people and my country to be seen.  Yes, there are a few assholes in my country. I’ve even met a few.  But many of us are decent people who, while maybe being ignorant, generally want to do the right thing.  Some of us even took some time to read about your belief systems and have a great respect for them, even as we may find them mistaken in some ways.  But it may be that someday I go to Japan, and I really don’t want people to look at my thick beard, cowboy hat, white skin, and American accent, and think “oh, great, here comes another one”. And Logan Paul set my people back in that regard incalculably.

So.  To my Japanese friends, especially those I haven’t met yet.  I apologize sincerely.  What he did, how he treated your sacred places, as well as your places of greatest shame and how he just generally comported himself, was utterly inexcusable.  I am unable to make it up to you – frankly, that is his responsibility – but I want to tell you that not all of us are muchina baka no kodomotachi and some of us actually spend a little more thought than desecrating your sacred places for attention.

Anyway, I thought that needed to be said.  I’m done here.  His name will not be spoken here again.  I hope.

Sakura

Every year, around springtime, the cherry trees in Japan (sakura, or 桜) bloom. It’s only for a few days, and I’m to understand it is justifiably considered a national treasure.  People come from all over the world to see the beautiful blooming of the cherry trees, and there is much said in Japanese art and music about the cherry trees.  In fact, several AKB48 songs reference cherry trees, such as Sakura No Hanabiratchi, Sakura No Shiori, and maybe one of the more heartrending, Sakura no Ki Ni Narou:

I will turn into an eternal cherry tree
Yes, I won’t move from here
Even if you get lost on your heart’s path
I will stand here so that you know where love is

It is beautiful, yes.  But every place has its own sakura.  Here in Texas, it’s wildflowers and bluebonnets.  For a few days in spring here, the fields turn blue, sometimes as far as the eye can see, and it’s at least as beautiful as the sakura trees in Japan.  In my home state of Ohio, the lilac and mulberry trees would bloom, releasing their fragrance into the air as it mixes with the petrichor before a spring thunderstorm.

Japan is home to the Japanese, and the beauty of the sakura trees is something they treasure as a part of their culture, as the bluebonnets are as a part of where I live, and the spring thunderstorms and petrichor are as a part of mine.

We are the same people.  Separated by thousands of miles of ocean, a slightly different genetic makeup, cultures that have different markers of beauty, languages that come with different histories and base assumptions, yes.  But I’m willing to bet that a Japanese person who is in America remembers, for a few days each year, the sakura in their home country, and feel a sense of longing and loss.

For that is their home.

Sometimes I feel the same longing and loss for what was.  There are many things in my past that are now gone, and they will never be coming back.  Life marches on, time marches on, and eventually, somehow, we forget.

But the sakura trees do bloom every year.  The petals sprout, bloom, and fall to the ground.  And, for just a few days, I think the Japanese people remember that Japan is their home.

And it will never be mine.

And that is okay.  I have my own.  But I will learn their language.  I will learn about their culture.  And even if it is never home, even if I long to see the sakura as they see the sakura, I can be comforted that they also long to see the bluebonnets and wide open skies of Texas.

Someday, maybe, God or 神 willing, we will all get our wish.

こんばんわ, 私の日本の友達.  The cherry trees will bloom again.  And maybe, just maybe, someday I will show you the bluebonnets.  You are proud of your home.  Maybe I will show you mine.

Grass is Greener

There are two YouTube videos I watched recently that have caused me to think, and to rethink my approach to Japan.

It is true that Japan has some frankly amazing things going for it, but it’s not all great.  One of the videos I watched were about “things that can get you arrested in Japan”.  It was sobering enough that many people in the comments posted that they had made plans to go to Japan and they cancelled them.  And the other video was about a young woman who made a trip to Houston, which is a city nearby to where I live (Austin).

The first video made me realize that Japan is a very different country than America, for good and for bad.  Some of the things that make it so great – a sense of community, a conformist society, a reliance on knowing your place in society and speaking with deference, politeness, and respect, are things that also can make it a very oppressive place, especially for gaijin such as me.  The authors of the video were careful to note that it’s not likely to happen, but still, it made me think.

In the second video, the young woman (who goes by “Cathy Cat”) was so excited to be in Texas – she tried out a Texas hot dog, met a bunch of American people, modeled “lolicon” outfits, and was basically just having a grand time.  She was so excited to be in America, even as she was attending an anime conference.

And here I am, wanting to learn about a different culture, and one that is not in all ways superior.

Here’s the thing.  I live in Texas.  This is a state – pert-near a country – where people from other countries really want to go.  They see cowboy hats, steaks, cows, ranches, etc.  And these things are here.  But there’s also shopping malls, grocery stores, foot markets and stores of all different types and nationalities – even Japanese.  And I’ve explored very little of it.

Why would I want to explore Japan when I live in a place that many Japanese want to go and haven’t even explored it yet?

I intend to continue learning Japanese.  But I don’t think I’m going to spend quite as much time exploring Japanese culture as I have been.  It’s been interesting, and it’s served its purpose, and I know a lot more than I did.  And I’ll, by the very nature of the studies, be learning even more about it as I learn Japanese.  But truth be told, I think I prefer to put on my cowboy hat and my cowboy boots, hop in my pickup*, and explore where I already am.  After all, Japan is interesting, but so is Texas.

And maybe someday I will go to Japan.  But not anytime soon.  And I may never.  But here I am.  I think, next year, I will go to Ikkicon if it’s still in Austin.  I will try to figure out why the heck people cosplay (I have absolutely no idea).  Maybe I will pick up some fun anime stuff (it’s not completely my thing, but why not).  But here I am.  In Texas.  Time to make the best of it.

*not really a pickup.  Okay, it’s a blurple Chevy Cruze.  So sue me.