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.

Working Hard at Japanese Doesn’t Work.

I have been on Wanikani for a few months now.  I am taking the lessons very slowly so that I don’t get overwhelmed.  It’s funny – every time I learn a new kanji or a new pronunciation, I think “how am I going to remember that?”  And then, a month later, I look at it and it pops to mind, completely unbidden, the moment I look at the word.

So I think the harder you work at Japanese, the more you’ll seem to advance, and the quicker you forget.  It seems to me that a slow, steady path of absorption seems to work much better than trying to cram as much into your head as possible.  That certainly seems to be true to me.

I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t take time or effort.  Of course it does.  You’re not going to get anywhere by watching anime with subtitles and never studying the language – you’ll go backwards.  But I’m saying that if you’re struggling, you’re trying too hard.  It does sink in eventually, and things start to seem natural pretty quickly that didn’t seem to before.  You just have to get used to it.

I have told the story before about how I got acquainted with Japanese.  When I first heard the Japanese language spoken it was literally gibberish.  I could not pick a single word, phrase, or meaning out, and even when I started learning greetings, their accent was so different than I was used to that even if I knew a word it was difficult to pick it out of the sentence.  But now, I still have that problem, but much less so.  I still go back to that video every now and then, and I find myself understanding more and more of it.  And the thing is, I’m not really trying.  I’m just working on my Wanikani, practicing it as much as I’m able, and otherwise just letting it sink in.

That seems to work for me.

Study, but not too hard.  Work, but not too hard.  Memorize, but not too much.  Japanese is a language you have to be in for the long haul.

The Intimidation Factor of Kanji

Let’s face it.  As a Japanese learner, Kanji are intimidating.  They are this set of pictographs that really seem to have nothing to do with anything, each of them have a whole bunch of readings, all of which apply only in specific contexts.  There is a sentence:

明日は日曜日です

Where the same kanji appears three times, has two different readings, and two and a half different pronunciations (one of them is in a word that has a reading that only applies across the entire word – there is no specific reading for that kanji in that word).  It means “Tomorrow is Sunday”, btw, and is pronounced “ashita wa nichiyoubi desu“.

It is massively intimidating, particularly to the new learner.

In my opinion, though, it’s a paper tiger.  Here’s why.

First of all, you have to get rid of the idea that there is some kind of a pattern that will help you understand the meaning.  In most cases, there isn’t.  There is a pattern, but it comes from the Chinese the characters come from and was mostly entirely lost in its move to Japanese.  So stop trying, it’s not going to help you all that much.  That would seem to make it more intimidating for the short term, but there’s no use wasting time on things you’re not going to find.

But there are patterns.  The characters, by their very nature, do share characteristics with the Chinese characters they come from – there are specific radicals that make up kanji, and only a finite number of them.  Most kanji are created by sticking these radicals together in weird and unnatural ways.  You do start seeing patterns as you learn them – not in the readings, but in the kanji themselves.  You can build them up from more fundamental building blocks.  This helps make them a bit more manageable.

Another thing to note about kanji is that their on-yomi readings are exclusively Chinese – nearly all jyukugo (there are a few exceptions) are Chinese loan words.  For example, I once wrote the word shinnen (New year, 新年), and a Chinese speaker not only understood the word but my pronunciation (while almost certainly incorrect) was understandable to said Chinese speaker.  So again, you just kind of have to take it for what it is.  Much of your vocabulary is going to have its origins from a different language.

So if you put this all together, you have a path to memorization.

  1. Become familiar with (note I did not say learn) all of the different radicals that can be put together to form a kanji.  Remember that “radical” is a much misused word, but it is misused simply to make the concept easier to understand.  The true definition of radical is much narrower than you’ll find in wanikani, for example.  But don’t worry about things like that.  You’re trying to make kanji less intimidating, not become a Japanese language scholar.  At least to begin with.
  2. Remember that all of the readings have specific origins and uses.  There are exceptions to all of the rules, but if you just remember this, you’re pretty close to where you want to be.  Most of the time, on-yomi are only used in jyukugo.  Most of the time, kun-yomi are only used in native Japanese words with okurigana.  Remember these two rules and you’ll get there about 95% of the time.
  3. There are always exceptions, but don’t dwell on them.  Get to that 95% of where you need to be, and learn the exceptions as you encounter them.  Probably 95% of the jyukugo words you learn have predictable pronunciations.  About 5% of those are variations on the pronunciations, but knowing the rules still make those easier too.
  4. Mnemonics DO help.  They will get you to the point where you associate a character with a sound.  Eventually you won’t need them anymore with a specific character, but use them until you don’t.  In actuality, the more memorable the mnemonic, the better it is for learning.  Personally, I find that mildly offensive ones are the best.
  5. Learn the rules of rendaku.  This is the change of voiced to unvoiced syllables in the second or later syllable (read:  adding tenten, or those two little ticks at the top right).  There are always exception, but it makes some of the more unusually pronounced jyukugo more predictable.  I won’t go into them here, but there are several very simple rules to learn that cover about 95% of the times you’ll encounter it.  For example, there is a reason for the “go” vs. “ko” in the words chuugoku (中国) and beikoku (米国), and it’s actually a highly regular and predictable change.  But I have not found that this is something that is taught in beginner Japanese.  I think it should be.

Kanji is conquerable.  It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, finding the patterns you can discern, letting go of the idea that there should be patterns you can’t, because those were lost a long time ago, and understanding that while there are exceptions, not dwelling on them will help you to not acquire that initial mental block most students do when first seeing that vast array of inscrutable pictograms.  Just take it slowly and methodically, and you will get there eventually.

Don’t expect it to come quickly, though.  Two thousand of anything are hard to memorize, much less kanji.

Education Gaps

Here is a secret about me:  I did not actually go to traditional high school.  I was home-schooled.  My feelings about home-schooling, based upon my experience, are decidedly mixed, and lean negative, but that’s not a discussion I want to get into here.

One of the things that has haunted me through most of my life was the feeling that I had major gaps in my education.  I think perhaps one of the reasons that my interests are so varied and diverse is a subconscious desire to close those gaps.  I do not feel this as strongly as I used to, but I still feel it on occasion.  A haunting sense of inferiority that drives me to always learn more, always study more, and it always feels like there’s something big that I’m missing that is just out of my reach.

This weekend I bought myself a present.  I bought a lego model of the Saturn V rocket.  It stands a meter tall, and has 1,969 pieces in twelve bags.  I spent probably three hours tonight building just the first stage.  I gotta say, props to the designers.  They did an incredible job with the details of those monster Rocketdyne F1 engines.  But, as I was literally putting the final piece on the stage, I discovered that I had put an important brick on backwards.  Worse, it was one of the very first bricks that I had put on the model.  I very easily could have had to dismantle the entire thing to turn that brick around.

But in thinking about it, I realized that I did not need to take that approach.  I realized that the instructions built it the way they did in order to maintain structural integrity – everyone who has put together a lego structure understands that it’s very difficult to create a lego structure that does not come apart at particularly weak spots.  So, instead, I just pulled the engines and farings off, popped the sides out, and got access to the brick from underneath.  I turned it around and had the whole thing fixed in ten minutes.

And as I was solving this problem, I realized that I was teaching myself a life lesson on learning, as well.  Children have to build up their learning as a structure – stacking basic life skills on top of others until at the end they are capable of being functional people in society.  But as adults, we do not have to follow that method of learning.  We can evaluate the problem, find a solution that works for us, pop off the sides, and flip that brick without having to completely dismantle redo the whole structure.

So, thinking about it, I don’t think I feel all that inferior anymore.  I had reason to, once, but I’ve learned much, studied much, and accomplished much.  And although there is nothing I can point to as a crowning achievement of my life, I can still point to quite a bit and say “I can hold my own there”.  I don’t have to feel inferior and I don’t have to allow the pomposity of others to get under my skin.

So let me tie this back in to the topic of this blog.  One of the reasons that I attended a college Japanese course in the first place was that haunting sense of insecurity – feeling like if I didn’t take an actual course the people coming out of the classes would know things I don’t.  Maybe that is true.  I hated the experience, but I can’t deny it helped solidify the hiragana and katakana in my head.  But I know things they don’t, too.  I know the difference between ichidan, godan, and suru verbs – they would have never heard those words, because sensei doesn’t teach them.  They wouldn’t really understand how kanji radicals work, and there have been multiple times where I taught sensei something about her own language because I had incentive to learn it.  These are things you don’t really need to know as a JSL student – but knowing them and using them the right way makes life a whole hell of a lot easier.

Classes are good.  They are a basic starting point.  But there is no substitute for curiosity, having questions, looking up the answers, and going down that rabbithole until your curiosity is assuaged.  I don’t have to feel like there are gaps in my structure.  Because if there are, I have the framework that truly matters – curiosity, and the intelligence to find the patterns if I need to.  I can fill the gaps.  Asking “why” is worth more than all of the college courses in the world, if you get As in every single one and never ask that simple question.

I’ve done okay for myself.  There’s no reason to feel inferior anymore.  And Japanese is going to be what I make of it and what I want it to be, for me. No more, and no less.

Thanksgiving

I don’t often pay attention to the stats on this blog.  Quite frankly, I write because I want to.  I have no illusions that I’ll ever be able to monetize this, and I have never sought to.  If this blog ever gains enough popularity that I can try other projects I’ve been meaning to, perhaps then I can at least recoup the cost of hosting it, but as for right now, I’m not concerned with it.  But that said, tonight I looked at the stats, and this month has been the best month in view and visits in its history.  A fact that, frankly, surprises me, because this month I did not hold back.  I spoke about things I like about Japan and Japanese culture, and I also spoke about things that greatly disturb me about Japanese culture, both past and present.  Is this the reason for the good numbers this month?  I don’t know.  I could probably dig in and find out, but I honestly fear the results.  So I’m going to leave it for now.

In the United States, tomorrow is Thanksgiving holiday.  Traditionally it is a time for people to get together with family and friends, eat lots of very good food (turkey is a traditional food, as well as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie), and maybe watch football (American football, not that other kind.  We like physical contact.  A lot.)  It is also a time to stop and think about what we are thankful for, both in life and in the last year.  I have many things to not be thankful for, but many things to be thankful for as well.

I am thankful, for instance, that as of today (literally, today) I have finally learned possibly the root cause of many medical issues I’ve had over the past few months.  I am also thankful that I have the opportunity to spend the time and money to actually learn Japanese, instead of having to spend all my time trying to keep a roof over my head.  I am thankful for the people whom I have met while learning Japanese – perhaps we are not the best of friends, but a shared goal is often helpful, and I would not be as far as I am in Japanese without the help of sensei and my fellow nihongo no gakusei.

Is life difficult for the short term?  Yes.  I’m still trying to figure out why I’m even bothering – the best answer I can come up with is “because I can”.  But perhaps that’s a good enough answer.  Perhaps I do have much to be thankful for this year.

Tomorrow, which is Thanksgiving, I will not be spending time with family or friends.  There is a good reason for that, which I won’t share here for the moment, but it is both necessary and not a source of sadness for me, so I am fine.  But it is still a time of reflection, much as the blooming of the cherry trees and the falling of the petals (hanabiritachi) is for the Japanese people.  I have much to reflect on, much to think about, much to do, and much to be thankful for.  This year could have very easily turned out much worse, but so far, I’m threading the needle.  I couldn’t ask for much more.

And for those who have stuck with me on this journey by reading my posts, and occasionally commenting, I am thankful for you as well.  Would my life be any different without you?  Honestly, probably not.  I’d still post, just without the small dopamine hit that someone liking or replying to these posts gives me.  But I appreciate you all the same.  In a sense, you’re on this journey with me, and we’ll see where it turns out.

ありがとう。このブログはあなたが読みことんだいますから私は楽しって書きこといます。サンクスギビングはたのしんで下さい。あなたはサンクスギビングを祝すませんたらも日はよくをいますなさい。

 

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.

Sudoku

I’ve been recently learning how to do sudoku puzzles, and it turns out that I’m really good at it with the right hints, and really bad at the harder ones otherwise.  But I can’t help but to find some similarities between sudoku and the Japanese language.

Both of them – particularly the harder sudoku – are incredibly intimidating when you first look at them.  Sudoku has only a few numbers filled in, and you’re thinking “I’m supposed to deduce a solution from this?  But then, you start to learn, and as the basics become more old hat, it’s a little like filling in more of the numbers – the puzzle gets easier the more correct numbers you fill in.  It’s like a harder puzzle becomes a medium puzzle and then becomes an easy puzzle.  It gets easier as you go on.

In some ways, I feel this way about Japanese.  When you first start, you have this intimidating world set out before you – with brand new characters that have nothing to do with our writing system, even when it does, with ambiguous meanings that only make sense in context – it’s just this huge thing that you have no idea how to tackle.

But then you start, and you master one small part of it, then another part of it, and pretty soon you’re competent enough to read simple vocabulary and learn the most common readings of kanji.  And at that point it becomes clear that the common readings of kanji will get you most of the way to where you want to go.

Unlike sudoku, of course, more challenges immediately present themselves as you progress.  It is almost as if you solve one sudoku puzzle, and then it immediately expands to a cube of 729 units, and have to solve that as well.  So the analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy ever is.

But the first step to solving any puzzle – sudoku or otherwise – is to just start and keep going until you solve it.