The Other

Western people know many Japanese place names. Osaka, Tokyo, and even for more unsavory reasons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But what many western people don’t know is that these are actually very ordinary names in Japanese.

Hiroshima, for example, means “Wide Island”, and Tokyo means “Capital City” (or something similar).

The fact that the names are in a language we don’t understand makes them sound exotic, but they’re not exotic at all. Just like, for example, “Austin” might sound exotic, but it’s just a random guy’s last name, and “Round Rock” is named for a literal round rock in Brushy Creek.

How much learning another language makes the culture behind that language seem so much more ordinary.

But does everyone want to lose that otherness, that exoticism?

Sometimes I Wonder…

As all of the symbols in Japanese start coalescing into individual meanings and pronunciations, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. I mean, there are tons of websites out there breathlessly proclaiming how cool Japanese is, giving you tips on learning different phrases and words, grammar points, etc. There are other sites out there that are breathless commentaries on different aspects of Japanese culture, and all of them seem oriented towards people who think Japanese is the coolest thing ever, and I think partly because it’s so exotic and foreign.

But as I learn more about the Japanese, their culture, and their language, it loses that breathless quality, it loses its exoticism, it loses that “other” quality that makes it so appealing, and it just becomes another group of people that I’m learning to talk to on their own terms.

All those websites, all those YouTube videos, all of which sell how strange and wonderful and amazing Japanese is, and once you start learning it, it’s just a language, and it’s just people.

There is a lot of beauty in the Japanese culture, please don’t get me wrong, but there is much ugliness as well, too. There’s a reason that many countries in the far east have ongoing issues with Japan – they can and have been a very cruel and warlike people. And at the same time, they’ve come up with kawaii culture and some of the cutest and funniest and strangest things, and it’s a paradox.

But they’re people. Just like me. They are born, they die, they go to school, grow old, fall in love, fall out of love, eat, sleep, and are everything I am, and everything I am not. They are beautiful and ugly and sometimes at the same time, just like me.

And so I continue to learn, words of love, words of hate, words of action, words of inaction, words of caution, words of recklessness. Most of the words I have in my own language, and some I don’t, expressed with different syllables, different pronunciation, different symbols, different grammar, but at the end of the day, the same language – the language of living, the language of existing, the language of being human.

As I go to bed, one hundred and fifty million people on a small island nation half the size of Texas are going about their Sunday, living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… and tomorrow morning, as they go to sleep, three hundred million people in my country will be going about their Sunday living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… we’re all just people.

What’s the point of making them something they’re not?

It goes both ways, though. The Japanese seem to romanticize Texas in much the same way. Our land is one of wide open spaces, cowboy hats, cows, pickup trucks, etc. And there is some of that, yes. But we are just people too. Our language is the same language – one of existing, one of living, one of being human.

How do we just be human with each other? Can we? Is it even possible?

Maybe we start one person at a time.

I see you, Japanese people. I don’t mean I see you with my eyes. I mean I see you.

Do you see me? Do you see me?

あなたは私が見ますか?

またね。おやすみなさい。

Visitors

Every now and then I check my site stats to see who’s visiting what and where they come from.  In something that is perhaps not a surprise and is totally expected given the crap quality of what I create here, there are not many visitors, though there seem to be a little more lately.  Perhaps the most highly trafficked page is one where I call out Akimoto Yasushi for being a bit of a…  not so nice person.  Perhaps the second most one is the one where I say why I think J-Pop sucks.  Not perhaps the finest foot forward on this site, but it is what it is.  I’ve never been one to moderate my opinion just because it might piss someone off.

But what has always, since I started this page, befuddled me is how few visitors I actually get from Japan.  In fact, I get far more visitors from the US than Japan.

Perhaps this is because I don’t write the page in Japanese, and that would be completely reasonable.  Perhaps it’s because people in Japan aren’t really interested in what I think about their country, culture, or language, which would be completely reasonable as well.  Perhaps it’s just because they hang out elsewhere and don’t use WordPress, which is also understandable (I wish there were better options, as I’m often wondering when WordPress will go the way of Patreon, etc., and start censoring people).  There are many likely reasons, but the simple fact is this:  they’re not interested in, can’t find, or understand what I have to say.

I suppose that’s fine, but in some ways, it’s rather boring, dontcha think?

Or perhaps I’m not talking about anything interesting to the Japanese.  I mean, they live with their culture every day, and I’m not saying anything particularly new, am I?  They know how to speak Japanese, they know what sakura trees mean to them, they know about J-Pop and other media, far more than I do in many ways.  And my perspective is probably not very useful to anyone but me.

Maybe someday I’ll say something interesting to the Japanese, and they’ll come here, and tell me something interesting back.  Maybe someday.  But right now, I guess I’ll keep yelling into the wind.

Gaijin

I don’t have any tattoos.  In fact, I think tattoos are ugly and I would never intentionally get one.  Why one would intentionally blemish their skin like that is beyond me.

(and if you disagree, then go ahead, but this is my opinion and I’m sticking to it).

I haven’t put a lot of thought into the topic, but lately a particular image has been sticking out at me, about what I would get as a tattoo, if I ever somehow decided to get one.

Here it is.

外人

This is the Japanese word for foreigner, pronounced “gaijin”.  And I think this word, above all of the other words in all of the languages I know, describes me the best.

For I have no home, no place to which I belong.

One of the reasons that Japan appeals to me as much as it does is that it’s not here.  In fact, it’s about as far from here as it’s possible to get, in all ways.  Physically, culturally, linguistically, spiritually – you name all the ways, and Japan is the exact opposite of my world.

I have never been comfortable being the outsider, but I have always been the outsider.  In every situation I have been in, for as long as I can remember, I have been the gaijin.  I am a gaijin in my own country, I am a gaijin in my own culture, I am a gaijin in my own faith, I am a gaijin in my own skin.  And the most appealing thing to me about Japan is this:  At least in Japan, at least when speaking Japanese, I am expected to be the gaijin.

In my world, others perhaps do not see me as the gaijin.  They see me as a member of the in-group, as an American, as a Christian, as all sorts of things and labels that I could (and often) do take but never fit.  But to Japanese, I am a gaijin (or gaikokujin, if that makes you more comfortable).  I will always be a gaijin.  I will never not be a gaijin.

And frankly, I think in some ways I prefer that.  The low expectations of being a high functioning child in Japanese culture.  In many ways, it beats what I am in my own culture.

Maybe that is why I am learning Japanese.

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.

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.