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.

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.

Rajiotaiso

So I’ve learned something very interesting about Japanese culture.

Every day at around 6 AM, they put exercise music on the radio, and have a prescribed set of exercises everyone in the country does.  Sensei told us that children, even in the summer, go to the park and do the exercises, and get a sticker, which they can redeem at the beginning of school for a prize.

So, naturally, sensei had the brilliant idea to have us do the exercises in class.

I did not.  I stood up and halfheartedly waved my arms for five seconds, and then just stood there feeling like a fish out of water while everyone else flailed around.

I’ll take the grade hit, if there is one.  She found my limit.

It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, for sure.  But I’m a gaijin.  I’m learning about Japanese culture, but it’s not my culture.  I wasn’t brought up with that, and I don’t have to do it.  So I won’t.

But I think I understand why Japanese do.  Not only is the common health very important to them, but it’s a shared ceremony, which is something my country doesn’t have enough of.  So perhaps it is rather telling of me that when given the opportunity (or even obligation) to participate in such a ceremony, even at work, I consistently refuse.

This is something I certainly need to dig into – it’s as if I am completely incapable at the moment of doing anything that might make me a part of a group, even a little.

But it is what it is.  It’s an interesting Japanese cultural artifact, for sure.  But the more I learn about Japanese culture, the more certain I am that I will never, ever set foot there.  Which, again, leads to the obvious question of why I’m bothering to learn it at all.

I still don’t know.

That is all.