Is Japanese a Waste of Time?

A couple of days ago, I got a pretty sweet invitation.  It’s the opportunity to go to Japan in a year or so, with a group.  The chance also possibly (depending on the ticket lottery) involves the chance to see the 2020 Olympics.

It is pretty much the chance of a lifetime.  I would have a chance to use the Japanese I’ve been working really hard on learning.  Maybe I’d even like it there…

… and I declined.  I’m not going.

The honest truth is, I have no expectation whatsoever that I will go to Japan before I die.

There are about three reasons that I had to refuse the invitation.

  1. I do not fly well.  By which I mean that I’m white knuckled on even the shortest of flights.  I cannot imagine flying fifteen hours and then knowing that my only way home is another very long flight.
  2. I will be in a country where I know almost no one, speak just enough of the language to get around, and if I get sick or something happens to be I’m screwed.
  3. Considering the amount of time such a trip requires, working around that with my job would be difficult.

I don’t know why I’m learning Japanese.  I don’t know anyone in Japan, I know few people from Japan, I don’t really consume anime and only a little bit of manga.  In the Austin area there are very, very few Japanese speakers – certainly not enough for it to be a necessary skill.  I basically picked the least useful, most difficult language out there just to do it.  And right now I’m having a crisis of confidence on multiple levels.

To be quite frank, there are better things I could and should be doing.  But I continue spending time on this interesting but dead-end pursuit.  It’s, frankly, no less a waste of time at the moment than staring at YouTube for hours on end.

I guess it’s a mystery and always will be.

The Heart of Japan

I tend to annoy my coworkers with discussions of Japanese and all things Japan.  Some of them find it interesting.  Some just recite “press 1 for English”.  But at the end of the day, the discussions can be interesting at times.

One of my coworkers made the statement that “the best representation of Japanese culture is anime”.  I vehemently disagreed.  He then asked me the very fair question, “okay, then, what is it?”  After some thought, I answered.

But before I tell you what that answer was, let me go down a bit of a rabbit hole.

I follow Sora News 24 (Sky News) from Japan, which tends to focus on otaku and pop culture, as many Japanese sites seem to, for whatever reason.  They had a very interesting link wherein a person found an American wartime propaganda film, and posted it to a social media site.  Many people responded “how have we changed in the past 80 years?”  Many Japanese folks couldn’t answer the question.  They had to admit that they really hadn’t.  An observation I’ve made here previously.

As wonderful as Japanese media is, there is this undercurrent of darkness that runs across Japanese culture, which is why you have the chronic problem of overwork, of suicides, of so many things that run under the surface of what is by all respects an ancient and proud culture.

I love the Japanese, don’t get me wrong.  Their contributions to culture and media are amazing.  Their contributions to technology are amazing.  I find their art to be more beautiful, their music to be more interesting, their written word to be more thoughtful and introspective, than I’ve ever found western pop culture.

And yet, something in their culture drives people to overwork, to a declining birth rate, to wartime atrocities that their neighbors still haven’t forgiven them for.  Just as there are some major things wrong with western culture, there are some major things wrong with Japanese culture as well.  And covering it with a layer of cute and funny doesn’t fix those problems, it only hides them.

I love kawaii!  Really I do!  When I’m looking for something to lift the seemingly never-ending depression, it’s really hard to stay depressed when seeing things like nyangostar, AKBingo girls going crazy (particularly that little cutie Ichikawa Miori), Gaki no Tsukai ya Arrahende…  and there are so many things they have to offer the world that I think we ignore at our peril.  Shintoism has some really interesting insights that we in the west should pay attention to – without romanticizing them like we do most Eastern religions.  I don’t say any of this because I hate the Japanese culture – I say these things because it’s so beautiful sometimes that the spots on it are almost unbearable.

My answer to the question above:  the best representation of Japanese culture right now is karoushi.  Death by overwork.

See, there’s no karoushi in America.  Do you know why?  It’s not because companies wouldn’t enforce that if they could.  I worked at a company in the LA area around 2008 when the economy crashed – they told us flat out that they were revoking some of the perks we’d grown used to, and the reasoning was “the economy’s worse now.  Where are you going to go?  You’re lucky you have a job!”, as they laid off half the company.  That’s not the reason.  The reason is that the workers would simply say “I’m not doing this” and walk out.  There is no karoushi in America because no one would stand for it.  Companies such as Amazon and some video game companies come pretty close in some cases, but they really can only go so far.

Yes, there are plenty of companies in Japan who treat their employees well, but there are plenty that don’t, and the point is, that people will not speak up, to the point where they kill themselves rather than say “you’re not treating me well, I quit”.

I know there are many social pressures in Japan that make this difficult, but that’s entirely the point.  Japan is a small and very densely populated country.  It doesn’t have the kind of wealth of natural resources that we have in America.  Its greatest treasure is its people.  And there are millions upon millions of people in Japan who will silently bear abuse, rather than speaking up and saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we have it right in the west.  We take that too far.  Everyone seems to think they’re entitled to everything.  There are times when we should kind of suck it up a bit and be okay with minor inconveniences for the greater good.  Right now we take any kind of offense whatsoever as a grievous slight, and that, too, must stop.  But being worked to death, being bullied by superiors, that kind of thing, could not be classed as “minor inconveniences!”.

So the thing that most represents Japanese culture is karoushi.  And that makes me tremendously sad.  I love Japan, I love Japanese media, I love Japanese people.  And right now, I really don’t ever want to visit.  The darkness would cripple me.

オタク… 何?

One of the most fascinating things about Japanese culture, I think, is the otaku.  I’m not one by any means, and I don’t at all understand them, but I find them fascinating.  I’m not sure in what way – I think it’s at least in a “what the heck makes them tick” sort of way.  I don’t dislike them or hate them, I just don’t understand them.

I don’t understand cosplay, for example.  To me, it’s just a waste of time and effort.  Why bother with it?  I’ve seen people spend a lot of time and energy on makeup and costumes, and sometime they even get into character and act the part.  I had a coworker who once tried to get me to go to a “Ren Faire” (where they cosplay as medieval or renaissance people) with the rationale “the women there are easy!”.  I declined (that, for me, was an argument against), but I still just don’t get it.

There are certain aspects of anime that do impress me, I have to admit that.  There is an anime called “nodame cantabile” that impressed the hell out of me with their attention to detail – they animated a guy playing a complex Rachmaninoff concerto on the piano – and got every single note right.  But I don’t understand the huge and complex fandoms that have sprouted from the artform.  I don’t understand the half-clad figurines, the anime character pillows, etc.  I just don’t get it.

I don’t at all understand “waifu”.  In fact, I personally think this is an aspect of Japanese otaku culture that is as endearing as it is disturbing.  I don’t understand fans who appear to think that they can date idols and anime characters – to the point where the idols aren’t even allowed to date because it might destroy the fantasy that many otaku have built up around their favorite idol.  Perhaps there’s something I’m missing.  There probably is.  But on its face, it just seems rather sad to me.

It really does seem to me that otaku culture is mostly a way to take money out of lonely people and put it in the pockets of certain kinds of media creators.

All that said, I’m trying to keep an open mind.  Next January, there is an anime convention here in Austin (I found out about it because I was driving down the street and there were cosplaying people heading to get something to eat) literally within walking distance of my apartment.  Ikkicon 2018, to be precise.  I intend on going, just to see what all the fuss is about.  I won’t be cosplaying.  I may even just keep to myself and observe.  But I really want to understand it.

Right now, I don’t.  My attraction to Japan is its history and culture, of which otaku really isn’t a large part.  But it’s a part, nonetheless, so the more I understand, the better.

Japanese Food and Stores in Austin, Part 4

Today I decided to “pop” into Anime Pop, a small store dedicated to Anime on Airport Rd. just north of Koenig.

When you walk in, there are two aisles full of anime stuff.  Figures, magazines, books, pins, plushes, the works.  If you are interested at all in anime, this is the place for you in Austin (though Gift World might have something you’re interested in).

Perusing the figures, the thing that struck me the most is that nearly every single female is scantily clad to various levels, to the point where while some of the figures were extremely beautifully done, I would have felt a bit ashamed to bring one home.  So I didn’t.  Instead I bought a pusheen plush, of which there were several.

I chatted briefly with the guy behind the counter, and got the impression that he’s pretty much an otaku – doing what he loves doing.  He expressed a desire to someday get J-pop stuff in, and I agreed with him that that would be cool.  He said he would like to have an Oshima Yuko (AKB48) figure, and I countered that I would love to see a Suzuki Kanon (Morning Musume) figure.  We laughed a bit – like that will ever happen – and I left.

Of course, said figures would probably sexualize the hell out of them, so I’d probably pass anyway, but it’s a nice thought, anyway.

Anyway, it seems to be a decent place run by a knowledgeable guy, so if you like anime stuff, that would be a good place to visit at some point if you’re in Austin.  There are also Anime Pop places in Dallas and San Antonio (as far as I know), so maybe it’s a Texas thing.  Even if so, cool.  Maybe I’ll stop by every now and then, even though anime is not and has never been my thing.