The most difficult things about Japanese

I’ve been studying Japanese (to varying degrees of success) for close to three years now (I think).  It’s most certainly been a while.  Over this time I’ve grown to understand where Japanese is simple and straightforward – and where it’s not.  Here are what, in my opinion, are the most difficult things about Japanese.

Understanding Spoken Japanese

It is very difficult for me to understand spoken Japanese.  It may be because there are many different dialects than Tokyo standard that are just different enough to throw me for a loop.  It may be that Japanese people just rattle things off rapid fire and it’s hard to tell where the words stop or begin.  It may be that sometimes they seem to take verbal shortcuts that I haven’t learned yet.  I’m slowly getting an ear for it, but it really takes time.

“R” vs. “D”

The Japanese sounds for “R” and “D” sound very similar – to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart.  I think the D is a little more consonant, but that’s one of my biggest frustrations with trying to understand spoken Japanese.

What’s the Deal with all the Hononyms?

There are so many different things one word can mean.  “Hashi” has two that I know of, “Kami” has three, and who knows how many “Hi” has.  The only way you can tell the difference is in context.  This is made even more troublesome because of the reverse problem – one kanji can have multiple meanings and readings, and you can only tell the difference by context.  It’s actually not quite as hard as I’m making it out, but it’s still troublesome.

The Unwritten Rules

This is perhaps the hardest part of the language – the often stifling rules of the culture are built into language.  You can say something grammatically correct and still be rude just because you chose the wrong way of saying it.  Like there are six different ways of saying “you” and each of them is rude except in a very specific context.  There are at least three different levels of politeness, casual, polite, and obsequious, and many, many different levels of rudeness.  One of the hardest parts of the language isn’t learning how to speak it, but what the correct way of speaking it at any given time is. Because in order to do that, language lessons aren’t enough.  You have to understand the culture well enough to know what’s expected.

That’s not to say that learning Japanese isn’t rewarding.  I think it is, and I don’t really regret the time I’ve spent studying it.  And it’s, all told, not as hard as it has the reputation of being, as long as you keep your wits about you and choose a way of learning that works for you.  But it’s also not an easy thing to learn, and I continually find myself pivoting to try to find a way to learn it that works better for me.  At the moment, the things that are giving me trouble are just the things that come with experience and the right kinds of lessons.

What’s the most difficult thing about Japanese for you?  What about the easiest?  I’ll do a separate post on my answer to the latter question.

My Favorite Japanese Words

And now for something completely different: A post about Japanese!

I love the way some Japanese words sound. I will confess something: The long “I” sound is one of my favorite sounds. I’m not sure why – perhaps it’s because the abbreviation for the word “Interstate” in the US is a long I, and when I was a child, any long trip we took would always be along an interstate. I-75, I-70, I-80, I-90.. For this reason, I also like city names like “Rock Island”, “Moline”, or “Salina”.

Japanese doesn’t have this sound, but it does have something that sounds similar. The two sounds “a” and “i” together. It’s technically pronounced “ahh-eee”, but when spoken fast, it’s almost indistinguishable from a long I.

So let me tell you the criteria I will use for these words: There will be two classes. One is based on how they sound. I don’t are so much about the meaning, but just the sound. Some will be because of how the kanji are structured, etc. So, with that said, here are my favorite Japanese words.

兄弟

Pronounced “kyoudai”. It means siblings. This word just sounds nice. As I mentioned, I think I like any word with a long I sound, but this one just feels… fresh, somehow.

ほとんど

This word means “nearly all”, and is pronounced “hotondo”. I just like how it rolls off the tongue.

Pronounced “mori”, this word means “forest”. It has a very dark and foreboding feeling to it, kind of like you’d imagine a dark forest.

This is the first word that I include not so much because of the sound, but more because of how the kanji is structured, etc. It is “sakura”, and means cherry tree. The three components of the kanji make up a woman sitting under a tree with light rays shining on her. It’s very poetic. And on that note…

This word means umbrella, and is pronounced “kasa”. If you look at it closely, you’ll see four people sitting underneath a roof, and on the ground. It’s very easy to figure out what this kanji means just by looking at it.

です

I’ll wrap up with a surprising one. I love this word. Not because of what it means, or even specifically how it sounds, but there’s a way cute way many women say it that I really like. Some women also say “ka” cutely, it sounds like “kaw”. But I’ll leave that for an honorable mention.

What are your favorite Japanese words?

Featured

Lamentations

It has been amonth since I’ve posted. I should post something.

I have been putting little effort into Japanese lately, if I’m to be honest. I’ve been mostly, when I do study Japanese, just looking at Japanese media and looking up things that might interest me. It is nice to have a sensei at these times, because she can help me learn things I don’t know, but I find that half the time, she doesn’t know either. In some ways I’m truly on my own, and in some ways I’m not, as is the case with most things in life.

It seems my life, as of late, has been nothing but finding the most effective distractions I can, and when those run out, moving on to something else. And I’ll say this about Japanese media, it does make a very good distraction. One person on YouTube commented that Japanese media tends to skew very deliberately towards positivity, and while I’m sure there’s a cultural reason for that, it’s a welcome change at the moment, and something I’m wholeheartedly in favor of. When your world seems to be collapsing around you, cute cats, or even cat-girls, aren’t an unwelcome thing.

And maybe that is the cultural reason after all. After all, Japan went through some very dark times before their current culture emerged. Maybe they’re just culturally sick of darkness.

I think I understand. A little, anyway. There’s only so much darkness that you can be assaulted with before you start to seek out a respite. Any respite.

But, paradoxically, I find my Japanese getting a lot better the less I study. Don’t get me wrong, studying is important, and I should do more of it. But I seem to have hit on an underestimated recipe for success – familiarity is just as, or more, important, than studying. I find as I consume media, I start to understand things I didn’t before, and with a surprisingly little amount of effort. It’s just about massive exposure much more than grammar and vocabulary study. It’s a bit like riding a bike – at some point, after falling off a hundred times, it just kind of clicks, and with little conscious effort. Your brain just kind of rewires, and there it is. It’s almost as important to spend an hour a day consuming the Japanese language, as it is learning it.

Japanese is a good distraction for me. But I always keep in the back of my mind that it’s life for Japanese people. It’s like the fish that says to the other, “how’s the water”, and the other responds, “what is water?” I guess in the same way I find Japanese people trying to speak English both cute, and a bit cringey. There was this one Japanese girl telling a story about how she had to write an English phrase on her hand in katakana using a pen so she’d be able to use it. I think she was ordering coffee. She told it in Japanese. I understood it. She had to think very hard what the word for “pen” is. I think it’s the same in Japanese (unless it’s a fountain pen…).

Anyway, this is a rambly post. I won’t lie and say my mental state has been the greatest as of late. But it is what it is. I don’t have any really useful Japanese tips, no really interesting Japanese observations… except for one. If tonkotsu is pork broth, and tonkatsu is a breded pork cutlet, is tonkutsu pigs feet?

Probably not. But it’s fun to think about.

It is Labor Day weekend in the USA. It is also my birthday. I am, unfortunately, in my mid forties. I hope next year is better than this one.

Gaijin

I heard a story.

This is a story that appeared on one of the Reddit subreddits that are dedicated to stories.  It could have been MaliciousCompliance, or ProRevenge.  I can’t remember.  It’s not important.

Our protagonist was working at a Japanese company somewhere in California.  The managers there were Japanese nationals, and the employees were gaijin.  As far as the Japanese managers knew, no one there could speak Japanese.

So they basically ran roughshod over everyone.  It finally came to a head when a manager who had it in for the protagonist tried to railroad him out of the company.  But what they didn’t know was that he could speak some Japanese.  So when they had their big meeting, he mustered up all of the Japanese he knew and told them that the manager was lying.  He then quit.

Apparently the very fact that someone there could speak Japanese and they didn’t know it put the fear of kamisama into them, and they pretty much reformed how the branch was run.  And they sent the problem manager back to Tokyo to become a “window-watcher” (someone who has to come to work every day but has no duties, and then has to give a report every day on what they’ve done to their manager.  It’s a way to shame people into quitting, apparently.)

I’ve heard this story in several different forms.  Japanese people looking down on a stupid gaijin until they prove they can speak or understand Japanese, often in a way that is very embarrassing to the Japanese person.  I read this story once where an American (or some such) was in a Japanese store, and they insulted him in Japanese – and when he called them out in Japanese they were extremely apologetic.  They got caught.

It’s almost as if it never crosses the mind of a Japanese person that a gaijin might be able to speak Japanese.

On the one hand, this is an atrocious attitude, and in my view it is right and proper to call Japanese people out on it.  Us gaijin are not stupid.  We’re just different.  We mastered a language (well, most of us did, anyway) that is at least comparable to Japanese in difficulty, and we have managed to build a pretty cool society – if we can keep it.

On the other hand, sometimes they’re not wrong.  A gaijin coming to Japan without having learned even the basics of Japanese and their culture is nothing but a disrespectful tourist who has money to spend – and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that those who visit – or even worse – live there without learning any Japanese is showing absolutely no respect to the Japanese people, and they’re at least somewhat justified in having no patience with that.  It’s important to the Japanese people, and at the end of the day, it’s their country.

The Japanese culture is very ancient, and was pretty much literally dragged kicking and screaming by America into the modern age (look it up!).  I think I can understand some resentfulness to this situation, as for reasons I don’t understand, not having grown up in their culture, their cultural identity and their homogeneity as Japanese are extremely important to them.

Unfortunately, the world is moving on, and they’re having to move on with it.  That ship (literally, come to think of it) has sailed.  But the least we can do as gaijin is to recognize this, and at least have enough respect for them to come to their country with a basic understanding of their language and culture.  It’s just the right thing to do.

And in return, I don’t think we’re out of line in expecting some basic respect in return.  I’m not going to say we’ve earned it, but I will say that our effort should not be dismissed.  We’re making the effort, and that should count for something.

As for the “window-watchers”, well, that’s a really Japanese thing, I think.  A way to address the problem without actually addressing the problem.  Kind of like “fixing the glitch” in “Office Space”.  I guess the problem just eventually resolves itself.  It’s interesting to me though that wasting salary on a deliberately unproductive worker is more acceptable than actually removing someone from a company.  Certainly not something we in the west would tolerate.  But as I’ve pointed out many times – they have many of the trappings, but at the end of the day, they’re not western.  They’re East Asian.  With all of the cultural perks and baggage that that entails.

Kawaii Aidoru

YouTube is an incredible distraction throughout most of the issues that have been going on in the world, and in my country.

One thing I’ve been watching is Babymetal reactions.  It’s quite amusing to see someone reacting for the first time – “Well, this is a band with… three girls?  And they’re Asian?  Korean maybe?  Well, I have no idea what to expect…”  “SOMEONE GIVE THOSE GIRLS SOME CHOCOLATE”  Anyway, I find it amusing.

There’s this one guy, NeonReaperGaming, who has been really going down the foxhole – to the point where he’s diving into Sakura Gakuin’s stuff, just to see where Su, Moa, and Yui came from.  He comments all the time about how cute they are – and they are!  And there’s nothing really wrong with that.  I find some of Sakura Gakuin’s stuff to be super cute as well.

But something doesn’t sit well.  It’s something that hasn’t sat well with idol culture for me, for a long time.

All we see of idols is exactly what they want us to see.

Are the members of those idol groups (Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin, et al.) cute?  Damn right they are!  But are they really cute, or have they been trained to be cute just so we can have a dose of cute?  Is it really respectful to them to look at what they present to us and judge them solely based on that?

I saw a video once of one of the lesser known AKB48 members.  She made a video where she was crying that she didn’t have enough money for chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  While I felt a little bad for her, and thought it was a little bit cute, I remember it.  Because that was a look behind the scenes, when the curtain falls.  Even though her concerns were a little trivial in some ways, she was actually sharing a little of her true self with the world.  All she wanted in life at that moment were some chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  Don’t we all experience that every once in a while?

And I value that genuineness much more than artificial cuteness.

Manufactured cute is a distraction.  Real cute is what melts hearts.

It’s an industry that can chew up young girls and spit them out when it’s done with them.  I’ve even written a few posts (one of which is really popular) about just this topic – I’ve wondered if Akimoto Yasushi is doing the world a service or a disservice by coming up with the AKB48 groups.  It’s an industry that can lead to, to put it charitably, unrealistic expectations, both of the girls and of the relationship the girls have with the fans.  It’s an industry that, I imagine, can put a lot of pressure on young girls to perform in ways that maybe they’re not ready or able to.

It’s an industry that, quite literally, sells cute and innocent.

Is cute and innocent something I want to consume, as a product?  Those girls are someone’s daughters!

I don’t know.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But at the same time, it’s nice to know there’s a little bit of cuteness in the world right now, even if it’s manufactured, packaged up, and sold with a little sailor-uniform bow.

But I most treasure those little moments where the mask comes down and you can see who they really are.  Because those are the few moments where they’re not producing, and I’m not consuming.  It’s too bad that those moments are, by their very nature, one-sided and rare.

Anime

I honestly don’t have a whole lot of experience, or interest, in anime or anime-inspired things.  I have seen some anime, and I was impressed with it technically.  By which I mean, there is often a lot of care put into how the higher quality animes are animated.  I remember watching “Akira” and being really impressed by how well they animated it, and I also watched an episode of “Nodame Cantabile” which also really impressed me – those who animated it did their homework and actually animated the playing of the instruments exactly correctly.  There was none of that “Tom and Jerry” hit a random key on a piano with 40 keys and pretend like that’s playing – it was actually really well done.

In point of fact, Japanese folks have a rather amazing sense of attention to detail – I have come to realize that when it comes to artistic expression – idol groups, television shows, anime, manga, etc – there really isn’t a such thing as a “happy accident”.  What is shown is absolutely deliberate and well thought out – all of it.  This hit home to me when I was watching an idol group – I think a team of AKB48 – going to see someone for a reason I don’t recall.  They ran into a television personality, and he was very nice until he thought the cameras had stopped rolling, and then he turned into what could only be described as a douche.  I thought about that for a minute, and then realized that was included absolutely deliberately.  Japanese folks don’t make mistakes like that.  They wanted him to look bad.

So, I found an Anime inspired game on my phone.  I think it’s a fun and cute game, but I really do see it as just a game, and treat it as such.  It has a whole bunch of anime “girls”, most of which are rather skimpily dressed and have very big, umm…  assets.  Think back to what I just said – this is a deliberate choice.  The girls call the player “senpai”, which I find actually a bit cringey, and the voiceovers call the player either that, or “goshujinsama”, or an extremely polite form of “master”.  I find that really cringey as well.

Pulling up the comments for each girl, you can see people (and who knows if they’re serious or trolling), saying some pretty nasty things about the imaginary girls.  Like “stay away from her, she’s mine”, or much, much worse.  As I said, while being a guy I can’t say a little eye candy isn’t nice every now and then, I rather like the game play and simply see it as that.  I see absolutely no point in growing attached to a “girl” who doesn’t actually exist.

I think my point is that there are many people out there who see anime characters unhealthily, and that this unhealthy obsession with imaginary characters is something that is deliberately encouraged by those who create the characters.  After all, sex sells.  Sex always sells.

I honestly think this is why I’m not really a fan of anime.  Some of it impresses me, but I just don’t want feel like a “weeaboo”.  Everytime I watch anime, or play an anime game, or actually have anything whatsoever to do with popular Japanese culture, I rather feel like a weeaboo wannabe.  And I really don’t enjoy that.  It makes me feel a bit, um… squicky, for want of a better word.  And every time I see people celebrating anime character’s birthdays, etc… it just makes it worse.  I really don’t like that feeling.

I don’t like feeling like I’m even close to being associated with weeaboo “culture”, but, to be frank, the very act of learning Japanese automatically brings that association, whether I want it or not.  And I am most distinctly not comfortable with that.  I am not learning Japanese because I’m a huge fan of their pop culture.  But, that really doesn’t matter.  Many in America who are learning it are, and quite frankly, that is often not very good company.

Questions

Like in many places in the world, I’m not really able to go anywhere except for necessities.  This has given me a lot of time to think.  One of the things I’ve been thinking about is:  Why am I so frustrated with Japanese right now?

I have settled on an answer:  because I do not learn things the way people like to teach them.  If I can find the underlying pattern to something, I never forget it – but if I have to memorize things, it never works.

So with that said, I have the following questions, which I feel like I need to find the answers to, to progress.

  1. Why is Japanese a postpositional language?
  2. Why are words conjugated the way they are?
  3. What are the rules for rendaku?
  4. As a generalization of the above question, in Japanese, when are consonants modified?
  5. What are the actual underlying patterns to kanji, and is there a way to chart those patterns in a visual way?
  6. Why are some adjectives “na” and some “i”?
  7. Are there patterns in okurigana?  If so, what are they?
  8. As a generalization of question 1, how do Japanese people think, and how is that expressed in their language – and vice versa?

Basically, I feel like I need to learn how the language works.  And I’m sure I will have more questions as my research progresses.

Wish me luck…

Systems vs. Goals: Why I am Failing at Learning Japanese

A couple of years ago, I was watching a Morning Musume video and saw lots of strange characters flashing along the screen, along with a bunch of gibberish.  And then I thought to myself, “I would like to learn Japanese”.  And thus, a goal was set.

Two years later, I am wholly unsatisfied with my progress towards this goal, and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been seriously thinking about quitting.  It’s still something I want to do so the odds are that I won’t, but it is currently a miserable process for me and I am pretty sure I’m doing something entirely wrong.

And I think the first thing I did wrong was to set a goal of learning Japanese.  Goals never work.

First of all, it’s an amorphous target.  What does it even mean to learn Japanese anyway?  Does it mean that I want to become fluent?  To what degree of fluency do I want to achieve?  Does it just mean that I want to read manga, or be able to hold an intelligent conversation with a Japanese person?  The honest truth is that I don’t know.  I don’t know why I set that goal other than because it seemed an interesting thing to do, I don’t have a “definition of done”, nor is there a sensible one that is even possible, and I have no idea what the correct way to even achieve this goal is.  So I throw a lot of money at the goal, and make some progress, but at the end of the day I’m entirely unsatisfied – both with myself and with the progress towards the goal.

I have a goal, and I have no system for getting there.

This is complicated by the fact that learning a language is not something that you can realistically achieve by learning.  I mean, you can learn vocabulary, and grammar, and all that stuff, and by learning you can get to the point where you can make sense of what something is saying, and you can say something sensible as well, but it requires a lot of thought, and by learning, it will always require a lot of thought.  Language is not an academic exercise – or at least the fluent execution of a language is not an academic exercise.  You need to get to the point where something just feels wrong, and that is something that cannot be learned.

So it is completely clear to me now that I am approaching this in entirely the wrong way.  I am trying to learn a language, when learning a language is essentially impossible.  I set a goal for myself that I cannot reach, and I failed to create a system for making progress towards that goal that gives me any kind of sense of accomplishment.

Put another way, if I continue just learning for the sake of learning, I may as well stop now, because I’ve already failed.

I must revisit my original motivation for setting this goal, I must unset the goal, and I must instead replace it with a system that will ultimately have a similar result.

Continuing Introspection

The past month or two has – whether I want it to or not – been a time for stepping back and reflecting on things.  Primarily:  why am I doing the things I’m doing in my life?  What do they accomplish for me?  With that introspection comes a lot of other kinds of introspection as well, and one cause for introspection is this:  what makes me uncomfortable with the Japanese culture?

Because, I’m not gonna lie, I’m really freakin’ uncomfortable with it.

After some thought, I think it comes down to this:  their culture is far more group oriented than mine.  One might think that was a positive – and it does have a lot of good things to say for it – but it has one, huge, honking, glaring thing that makes me not really want to explore their culture firsthand.

See, in my culture, people are very self-actualized.  In practice, what this means is, people are empowered to be jerks, but they are also empowered to be really nice, too – even if that goes directly opposite of where society (or authority) wants to go.  Groupthink is a factor, but as a culture, we are empowered to be able to easily pull ourselves out of it if necessary.  So, in my culture, if one sees an injustice, one feels a reasonable safety in stepping up and correct it.

True, we get the question of “what is an injustice” wrong more often than not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I feel like there are people in my culture that I can trust to do the right thing, just as I know that there are people in my culture that I can trust to do exactly the wrong thing.

I don’t feel that kind of safety in the Japanese culture.  Yes, they can be very nice, gracious, and polite people, but they don’t or can’t often question the things in their culture which are questionable or dangerous.  So I fear that if I were to go to Japan, that I would not be able to rely on people to help if I needed it.  For example, if I were to have a medical emergency of some kind.  The groupthink would be too strong, and I”m a scary gaijin.

Is this fair?  Truthfully, I don’t know.  It may be, or it may not be.  The point is not whether it is fair, or even whether it’s correct.  It’s how I feel.  I’ve heard many scary stories about how Japanese people can just kind of ghost you if you step out of line, or worse.  I’ve heard scary stories of their hostage justice system.  I just don’t feel safe in their culture.

That may surprise some of you.  How could you feel safe in Texas, you might say?  You have guns and trucks and and and…  and I say, that doesn’t make me feel unsafe at all.  Those who legally have guns can almost to a one (almost) be trusted to do the right thing.  But can those who have been brought up with extreme societal pressure to defer to authority – in whatever form – be trusted to do the same?

I… don’t know.  And the fact that I don’t know is enough.

That is most of the source of my discomfort.

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.  *Shrug*.  You might even be right.  But introspection doesn’t often care about correctness.  It is about identifying what is and then figuring out where to go from there.

Moving forward…

After the last post, I just stopped caring about blogging for a while.  I just pretended like it didn’t exist.  It kind of helps that a medicine I’m taking seems to make me care less in general, which, knowing me, is a good thing.

My feelings about Japanese are still very conflicted, but as of right now, I’m just studying wanikani and letting the rest kind of sink in.  And I am seeing results.  Today I went to the local HEB and there was a real honest-to-gosh Japanese person manning the Sushiya!  I carried on a conversation with him, and he told me my Japanese was not perfect, but understandable.  I told him I’ll take it – understandable but not perfect means I’m only failing a little.  I am gaining a level of fluency – not the “wow, I can just rattle this off” level, but more the “if I know what I’m going to say and am familiar with the words, I don’t have to think too much about sentence structure” level.  For simple sentences anyway.  That’s at least a sense of accomplishment.  I may not know why I’m doing it yet, but I am doing it.  That’s something.

Ever since I was a child, I have always learned for the sake of learning.  I learned the periodic table at eight years old.  I had no clue what I was going to do with it, but I learned it.  I learned about electronics at around 9.  The same pattern showed itself – I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I learned about it.  The knowledge was something I kind of collected – like some people collected baseball cards, or dolls, etc.  But all of these things have one thing in common:  academics only take you so far.  You can learn all about chemistry, but if you never perform an experiment, there’s no point.  You can learn about electronics, but if you never quite wrap your head around the idea that it exists to actually do work, there’s, again no point.  The same applies to music, which I have also learned quite a bit about – if you don’t know why music exists, then knowing how to play it is useless.

But all that being said, the academics still have some value.  Not for what the discipline is intended – for example, learning Japanese really only exists for the sake of communicating with Japanese people.  But instead, for learning about how people, and the world, works.  Without practical applications it does not satisfy its core purpose, but it satisfies the purpose of adding to one’s filter on how one sees the world.

Japanese has been valuable to me for that purpose, and the rest of it… well, maybe it will come in handy eventually.  Right now, though, I guess I’ll keep on trucking.

For those who sent comments, thanks.  I always appreciate them.