Cultural Neuroses

I think every country has something I call “cultural neuroses” – or at least I started to about twenty seconds ago.  Something in the culture that lives deep inside the cultural zeitgeist and underlies invisible assumptions that a culture makes.  In my opinion, this is one of the primary reasons to learn a foreign language – but for two reasons, not one.  One reason is to try to see the cultural neuroses in other cultures that are invisible to them.  And another is to try to see the cultural neuroses in your own culture that are invisible to you.

The former is easy, but the latter is far more difficult.

I live in the United States, and have lived here all my life.  I think because of my background I’m a little more perceptive to many of our cultural neuroses than most – primarily because in a very real sense I have never truly been a part of this culture.  I think in America, one of our biggest cultural neuroses is that of liberty.  Perhaps because of many things that have happened in our past, many, if not most, Americans are deathly afraid of losing their individual liberty, and protect it at all costs – sometimes to the point of being paranoid or neurotic about it.  Rules, restrictions, and regulations that other cultures might see as a balance between the good of the individual and community (though, of course, due to their own cultural neuroses, they never quite that get that balance right) appear onerous and intolerable to people from America.  Americans around the world have a reputation for behaving as if they are culturally superior to others, and I think many even feel that they are.  But that comes, I think, from the fear of submitting themselves to a system that does not value individual liberty as much as, or in the same way, that our culture does.

Of course, this is not the only cultural neurosis, but it’s one of the most prevalent.  Perhaps another is the fear of impending scarcity that came from our forefathers, most recently from the times of the Great Depression.  Much of our current materialism has probably evolved directly from these times of economic scarcity.

The Japanese are not immune from cultural neuroses.  There is something about their culture that has never quite seemed right to me, and upon reflection, I think I’m picking up on one of their cultural neuroses.  One of their biggest neuroses, I think, is that they have a difficult time facing their “dark side”.  Whenever that is exposed, they seem to react with denial and shame, which is seen by other cultures as not owning up to mistakes made in their history.  I think this is why they have such a fascination with cute and innocent (kawaii) characters, but also, why anime and other forms of media seems to have such a dark and dystopian bent.  They see their dark side, but it is culturally suppressed, and comes out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.  I confess to not having seen very much anime, but I have yet to see an anime that does not, in some ways, have either an underlying current of darkness and dystopia, or is extremely cute and innocent.  I do not see much introspection.  And I think that is because they are afraid of what they might find.

Of course, this is just a theory.  And I put forth one of my own cultural neuroses because the point is not that this is something that is unique to Japan – it’s something that every culture has.  For example, Germany is still, eighty or so years later, reeling from their role in the second world war and the horrible stuff that they did as a country.  You can see elements of this particular neurosis in the way they treat certain kinds of speech – they seem deathly afraid that the dark side that manifested in their culture might show again.  And perhaps for good reason, that was not completely eradicated with their loss.  But it’s still useful to note.  A country’s history is not lost with the death of a generation – the cultural wounds live on.

It is, perhaps, one of my flaws as a human, that I have a difficult time respecting people that are not introspective, while I am sometimes envious of them in the same breath.  This is my biggest challenge with the Japanese culture – it seems to discourage introspection.  Going with the flow and not making waves was probably an incredible survival strategy in the eras of the shogun, but these days, it seems to lead to a fractured culture that is having a difficult time finding their way in a world that has, in some ways, left them behind, even at the same time as they are some of the most innovative and creative people in the world.  It is my biggest struggle with the Japanese culture and learning Japanese – it’s hard for me to get past that.

Why I study Japanese

A previous commenter, as seems to be the case a lot, got me thinking about why I study Japanese.

In all truth, I am somewhat of a misanthrope.  I’m not usually very fond of people.  I am pretty good at interacting with people in a competent way, and I do not dislike everyone, but in most cases I can just take them or leave them.  So the question of why I am studying a different language, especially one as different as Japanese, is a fair one.  And truth be told, I’ve been struggling to answer that question myself.

Because studying a language implies an interest in the culture and people, and by and large, I don’t really have that.  Of course, there are things about the Japanese culture I like and don’t like, and things about the Japanese as a people that I like and don’t like, but truth be told, I have enough problems trying to navigate my own culture.  Adding another into the mix seems like it’s just compounding my problems.  But yet I study it anyway.  As said commenter pointed out, no one’s forcing me, and I continue learning it.

Why?

That’s a really fair question, and one I have to ask myself as well.

Here’s the honest truth, at least as far as I’ve figured it out so far:  because it’s hard, because it keeps me busy, and because it allows me to see the world from a different point of view, which I can then integrate with my own point of view and have a more complete view of the world.

That’s really the reason, and I think probably pretty much the only reason.

I’m an extremely intellectually curious person, and I always try to find patterns.  I learned how to play piano (I’m working on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor” now) simply because it was difficult and trained me to look at music in a different way than I would if I simply consumed pop or something far less complex and interesting.  I studied theology for much the same reason – it was the study of something that interested me – and my ultimate conclusion was that it was something that could not be studied directly.  And even that was a very useful discovery.  After all, a God with an agency is not a predictable God.  Studying Japanese and Japanese culture also assisted my other multi-disciplined studies, because their view of God (when they have one) is very different than the view of God in my culture, and I find that extremely interesting.

So, the answer to that question is actually very simple but difficult to arrive at:  I study Japanese because I can.  I don’t really have a particular reason except it’s difficult and it’s different and it provides many different datapoints for shaping how I see life – what we have in common, what we don’t have in common, how the languages have developed similarly, and how the developed differently.  Talking to or interacting with people as part of studying a language is a necessity, of course, but one that I more tolerate than am particularly interested.

Basically, I have never studied a language because of the people, but more as a reflection of language itself, and helps to shape how I see linguistics in general.

I came to this conclusion when I was thinking about the origin of kanji this morning.  The realization came to me that if I want to actually learn about kanji, Japanese is the exact wrong language to study for that purpose.  Sure, I can learn the meanings of kanji, which are, for the most part the same, and I can learn the Japanese readings of kanji, which sometimes bear some resemblance to their origin, but kanji is something that was bolted onto the Japanese language from Chinese hanzi and then evolved separately.  No, if I want to learn why kanji are shaped the way they are and how the developed, I will have to learn Chinese.

Truth be told, I have little to no interest in current Chinese culture.  I am sure that they are individually nice people, but I have no interest in ever visiting China or having anything to do with Chinese people except for those that I might interact with in everyday life here, in America.  But going down the rabbithole, I have realized that if I truly want to understand parts of the Japanese language, that is something I will eventually have to do.  And I will probably do it at some point in the future.

But I’ll learn it for the same reason I’m learning Japanese.  For the sake of learning it.

There are many simpler languages I could learn.  Spanish would actually be a very useful language for me, living in Texas, and by all rights that is the one I should have tackled first.  But I didn’t.  And the primary reason that I didn’t is because it’s not challenging.  It uses roughly the same roman alphabet (with some diacritical marks) as English does, the words are roughly (but not completely) similar, so mostly it comes down to a few grammatical differences and a new vocabulary.  Anyone can do that.  But it’s neither fun nor interesting, so as useful as it is, I just didn’t bother.  And I may never.  I did learn conversational German once.  It took me about nine months and after that I lost interest.  The next class I took would have meant that I would have had to go to Germany (I think), and I had zero interest whatsoever in doing that.  Just as with Japanese, I learned it because I could.  I still remember most of the grammar but lost nearly all of the vocabulary.

And that is why I learn Japanese.  It’s a huge puzzle to solve.  And that’s, essentially, it.  And it’s why I continue to learn Japanese.  I tend to not give up on puzzles.

Why I Could Never be Japanese

A couple of weeks ago and a few posts ago, I wrote about a part of Japanese history and culture that really bothered me.  Nothing in it was unfactual to the best of my knowledge, though I was perhaps a little harsher than… No.  No I wasn’t.  That was a topic that I was actually holding back on a bit.

I still lost two followers.  I don’t think I’ve lost 4% of followers from one post on any blog, ever.

It’s not so much that I keep track of these things, as much as I like to know when I’ve hit a nerve.  Obviously the topic bothered people enough that they decided they were done with me.  I’m okay with that, but as with many things in my life, it sparked some introspection.  And I realized that I would never survive for more than a few weeks in Japanese society.

Why?

I speak my mind.

I am outspoken even for an American.  I have, in the past, said things that other people refused to say, for one reason or another.  Perhaps that’s because they disagree with me.  Perhaps I touched on a verboten subject.  Or perhaps I was just plain offensive.  Hey, I’m human too, and I’ve said things in the past that I probably shouldn’t have said.  And some things I still believe I should have said that other people think I shouldn’t have, and I have a couple of words for that idea that don’t go on a “family” blog.

But I’ll never apologize for speaking my mind.

The Japanese culture seems more collectivist.  They seem to want to blend into the crowd, not make waves, go with the flow.  Of course, this makes for a more peaceful society than mine most of the time – there is something to be said for a people that make as much of an effort to get along with each other as the Japanese do – but it also makes for a society where you… go with the flow, I guess.  I’m not that type of person.  I have never been that type of person.  That made my childhood difficult because of being raised in a religious cult that frowned very hard on questions, but I have never lost that quality.  I am not loud and obnoxious like the stereotype many people have of Americans, but I do speak my mind, I’m not shy about it, and I’m sure in many cultures, such as that of Japan, that is a most unwelcome quality for the most part.

My Japanese teacher, after spending several decades in the US, has even expressed a frustration with that tendency.  I told her that she was definitely Japanese, she said she felt more American in some ways, and we agreed that she’s somewhere in between now.  She is Japanese, but she has been exposed to “my” culture for a long time, and it’s rubbed off on her.  Not all the way – there are still culture clashes often – but enough so that she can put up with my outspoken nature.

But I don’t think most Japanese people could.  And the fact that my post had such an outsized negative impact on my small, insignificant blog, bears that thought out.

I am outspoken.  I am who I am.  I don’t care who doesn’t like it.  But it still makes me sad that, for that and a few other reasons, I fear ever going to Japan.  I would not fit in.  I know I would not fit in.  Hell, I don’t even fit in in my culture.

But, for some reason, I continue to learn the language.  It is still interesting.  But I will always be an outsider in that culture, and to be blunt, I’m sick of being an outsider, and no way am I going to put myself in a position where that feeling is exacerbated rather than mollified.

I love many things about Japanese culture.  It is good to learn the language, consume the culture, laugh at their comedic antics and media, and generally broaden my horizons by learning about a different way of thinking.  But the admiration for the culture that I used to have is waning a bit.  Now I see it as I do mine.  A proud culture that mostly works and has some glaring flaws that can’t be put aside or ignored.  And I’ve got enough to deal with in my own without taking on the worries of another.

I am American.  I will always be American.  I was born here, and I was raised here, and daggum it, no bushwhackin’, sidewindin’, hornswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna ruin my bischen cutter… oh wait.  What was I saying again?  Seriously, I am American.  That’s what I’ll always be.  And there’s no use trying to make it in another culture when I can barely make it in my own.

Honestly, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying Japanese.  And I don’t regret that time and effort.  I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future.  But it is just one part of this complete breakfast.  I haven’t really studied piano for a long time, and many pieces I learned to play I’ve actually forgotten how.  I need to remedy that.  I need to push Japanese aside just a bit and make sure my horizons stay broadened.

Maybe some time I spend thinking about how much of an outsider I am in the Japanese culture would be better spent going back over my scales and Hanon exercises.

That’s all, I guess.  Time to review wanikani and figure out what’s next in my life.

My Thoughts on Japanese Culture

Ever since I began learning about Japan and its culture, I’ve been of decidedly mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, they are particularly imaginative when it comes to existing means of artistic expression – they come up with things that we in the west would never even dream of, and the world is (most of the time) better off for it.  On the other hand, they have some significant challenges that they are trying to wind their way through, and failing.  I keep having the most unpleasant feeling that we’re watching the slow motion destruction of a great and ancient culture.

And a part of me isn’t incredibly sad about that, while a part of me is.

Their birthrate has hit a thirty year low, with either this year or last year (I can’t remember) only having 900,000 births.  That may seem like a lot, but for a country of 125 million people, it’s not really sustainable.  They are already having to allow more foreigners into their country just to keep essential services running, and I don’t see how that’s not going to become even more pressing an issue as their society ages.  At some point it’s going to hit a tipping point, and they’re going to have to face head on their cultural tendency towards isolationism and perceived cultural superiority.

And when that happens, it’s going to be a major shock to their culture, as the presence of more and more foreigners is going to, almost by definition, impact their culture in ways that no one really can foresee.

The part of me that isn’t incredibly sad about this thinks that there are some parts of their culture that may be better off treated as relics of the past, not to be repeated.  The part of me that is sad about it recognizes that once this happens, something of value will be lost forever.  For you cannot have cultural change without there being both good and bad effects, and usually the bad effects are centered around forgetting what made a people what they are in the first place.  We have been dealing with that in America for quite a few years now, and it’s not a pleasant thing for a country to experience.

It’s not my problem to solve, and I’m not going to try.  It’s not my place.  I’m not Japanese and sometimes a people have to solve their own problems.  I’m sure that they will be a mixture of innovative and conservative when coming up with these solutions, and I would expect nothing less from the Japanese.  I just hope that they can fix their cultural problems without losing too much of what makes them admired (mostly) around the world.

Honesty

I’m struggling with what to write, to be honest.

I think a part of it is that I’m far more depressed then I usually am, but that’s not all of it.  I just feel like I’ve said everything interesting that I have to say, and everything else just seems to be a rehash of some old post from here or there.  There are only so many ways to say “Japanese is hard”, and Japanese popular culture, as I’ve mentioned, seems mostly to be a very broad, very shallow sea – one that’s quickly exhausted if one is going for any kind of meaningful depth.  Manga, manga, everywhere, and not a page to read.

A part of the issue, I think, is that I’m talking about something I don’t know much about from the perspective of someone who lacks the resources – for whatever reason – to find out much more about it than I already know.  When it comes to Japanese culture, all I’ve really got are youtube videos, the random book I manage to scrape from Half Priced Books, or Kinokuniya, or my sensei.  And that’s about it.  I can’t go any deeper, because I lack the connections and resources to go deeper.

Being completely honest with myself, this is probably the reason that this blog hasn’t gotten very far – not that I expected any different.  I’m not bringing anything new to the table.  No particularly new observations, no unique tidbits, no cultural observations from the heart of Tokyo.  Just some guy from Texas blathering on about things he doesn’t understand.

I can keep learning Japanese, but truthfully, I have no idea where to go from here.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.

America’s Darkness

A part of me feels like I’ve been a bit hard on Japan.

I take back nothing, honestly.  There is a darkness that runs through their society, and it is a little jarring when contrasted with the beauty of their culture.  I am not comfortable with that, honestly.

But then I thought about how my country must appear.  There are some places in most major cities in which it is not safe to be out at night.  There are fewer but far too many places where it is not safe to be seen during the daytime.  Cities like Memphis or Philadelphia have a well-deserved reputation as places that are not safe to visit.  I went to Oakland once, and hailed a cab outside of a tall office building.  That night, someone was murdered not fifty feet from where I was standing.  Thankfully, I had already flown back home.

Japan is a homogenous society where probably 90 percent or more of the country are racially Japanese.  American is about the exact opposite of a homogenous society, where people of every conceivable ancestry try to live together peacefully – and it doesn’t always work.  One wishes it did, of course, but it doesn’t.  We are also a people who are the opposite of Japan in another way – the Japanese value harmony so greatly that they’re pretty eager to pound down the nail that sticks out – but we in America say “oh, that is a unique nail sticking out” and celebrate it.  Of course, sometimes that leads to snagging one’s clothing on said nail – or worse, stepping on it.  Sometimes, it’s better to pound down the nail.  Of course, sometimes it’s not.

My point is that there are things in America that the Japanese might consider dark as well…  and many of those things they’d be well justified in doing so.  I would still love for them to visit my country.  For as dark as it can be, we have many things worth seeing, things such as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, etc.  And the people are also mostly friendly – there are a few bad apples, but for the most part, we’re a good people who just want to live our lives in peace.

And, I imagine, so are the Japanese.

I live in a suburban city in Texas where you can still approach the police with questions, where people are friendly, and while major crime does happen, one can feel relatively safe walking or driving through town.  Even the major city that I live near (Austin), while it has many problems due to mismanagement and an incompetent city council, is relatively crime free and known for its live music scene and status as a major technology hub.  But to the Japanese, perhaps our free-wheeling, libertarian, “I’m not bothering you so leave me alone” ways might seem intimidating, or worse.  But it’s just how we are.  You learn the rules.  And you thrive.

Japan has problems.  Big problems.  Some of these problems threaten their very existence as a country and a people.  But perhaps it’s no more fair of me to define them by their troubles than it is for them to define America by the high-crime neighborhoods in its major cities.

All that said, I still feel very uncomfortable with the thought of visiting.