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.

100 posts

I started this blog on a whim, not really knowing what I would even do with it.  Honest truth is, that hasn’t changed.  I still have no idea.  I just write about what I feel like.  Sometimes it’s good.  Sometimes it’s crap.  Sometimes it’s crappily good.

But here are some interesting insights.

My most popular post is 5 Reasons J-Pop sucks.  Interestingly, that was an experimental post.  Everything in that post was designed to be popular.  I put in a “5 reasons” tagline, I had an emotional conclusion that would draw people in, I even added a photo!  And, well…

I guess it worked.

Not sure what to do with that, though.  I’ll have to think about it.

The top country viewing this blog for this year is the USA.  Followed by Japan.  That’s a little surprising to me, as I didn’t think I was getting much Japan traffic, but it’s a pleasant surprise.  Last year, the second most popular country was Germany.  That is surprising.

I made a post once entirely in Japanese.  I honestly don’t think anyone’s even seen it.  That’s disheartening, but not surprising.  If I’m going to to Japanese, I’ll probably need to choose a different medium.  Or get better at Japanese.  Or both.

Nearly all the traffic comes from search engines.  I have generally no idea what people are searching for, because google sucks.  But that indicates that if I want, for some reason, to drive more people here, then I have to do some kind of SEO.  That, of course, has the premise of wanting to drive more people here.  I have mixed feelings about that.

The honest truth is, I’m an introvert.  I’m not good with people.  Other than the odd experiment, I’m honestly not too interested in selling out for popularity.  But on the flip side, that means this site will likely never be popular.  Am I okay with that?

I don’t know.  Guess I have to experiment some more.  Wish me luck.  But here’s to another hundred posts.  Hopefully of higher quality than the first 100.

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.

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.

Japan’s Checkered Past

Many years ago, I was taking piano lessons as a late teen.  My teacher was an older Filipino woman who was a child (or a teenager, perhaps) during the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines.

She hated the Japanese.  Or at least she struggled to not hate the Japanese.  She told me horrible stories, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for how she felt.  Obviously, that was not my experience, but there are many people and countries out there who remember a Japan that was not an exporter of cool media and well-built cars, but a warlike country that left many scars that have lasted a very long time, and with good reason.

On my feedly feed, I have a keyword search set up for “Japanese”, and to be frank, much of the things that come through are not complimentary to them.  There appears to be an ongoing dispute about the wartime Japanese practice of “comfort women”, which many countries still haven’t forgiven or forgotten.  Of course it would be easy for me to say “It’s been eighty years, maybe time to let it go”, but old scars run deep, and the Japanese history of war and conquering still holds repercussions today.  The Chinese, for example, have not forgotten the Nanjing massacre, and while that, too, was around eighty years ago, I don’t know if my country would forget the murder of three hundred thousand people either, no matter how long in the past.

The Japanese of today are an amazing people, contributing much to the world in the way of culture, of media, of philosophy and religion.  Obviously I admire and respect them enough to make a significant effort to learn about their language and culture.  But a part of me still has to wonder:  it’s only been eighty years.  We took Japan out of war, but did we ever truly take war out of Japan?  After all, their culture is thousands of years old – eighty years is just a drop in the bucket.  I wonder if the other countries who are currently having somewhat tense relations with Japan over the past – such as Korea and the Phillippines – are making a big deal out of something that should be left in the past.  But I also wonder if they’re right, too.

But, all told, the Japanese and my people settled our differences eighty years ago – we won.  Whether the Japanese and other countries have settled their differences is, in all honesty, not much of my concern.  Still, I hope that Japan and its quarreling east Asian neighbors can continue to work at settling their differences.

A part of me wonders, though, whether Japan has ever truly come to terms with their past.

Never fast enough…

I continue to have really mixed feelings about my progress in Japanese.  In some ways I know that I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was before – I can actually have a coherent – but basic – conversation, and I know quite a few more kanji and jyukugo than ever.  And even more, I’m able to start making connections between kanji and words that I couldn’t previously – actually sounding out jyukugo and being right half the time on how to pronounce them.

Which is probably already better than many gaikokujin living in Japan now!

But it’s still hard.  I’m at the point now where I kind of have an inkling of what I don’t know, and it’s a lot!  I know about maybe two hundred kanji to varying degrees of proficiency, but there are about two thousand more.  There are many more readings, and thousands of jyukugo to learn.  And that’s not even including the new grammatical structures I need to internalize.

I found an app called “kanji tree” (only available on Android for now) which has been really helpful.  I’m learning all sorts of different words and kanji and it’s helping me to remember them.  I’m not quite there yet even with those things, but it’s giving me a good foundation, and the spaced repetition is helpful.  If I were to be honest though, right now the on-yomi readings are the most intimidating things about Japanese.  It’s easy to learn the kun-yomi readings, for the most part, but since on-yomi readings are rarely if ever used in isolation, it’s a very intimidating prospect to learn how they’re all put together.

It feels like I’ve climbed one mountain, and reached high enough that I can see a much taller mountain in the distance, and I have to climb that one too.  It’s, honestly, a little discouraging.  It feels like I’m hitting a plateau, even with the lessons, and I’m not sure I like that.

But maybe that also means I’m in a good place.  I guess I’ll find out.

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.