Is My Past Life Japanese?

I feel like I should post something – it’s not a pressure, really, but just a kind of nudge. But I don’t know what. So I’m just going to write a stream of consciousness post tonight and see what comes out of it. Maybe it’ll even be good.

I am… not sure what I believe on many different topics. I am a Christian in the sense that I believe Jesus died and rose from the dead and is now King – I’ve seen too much firsthand evidence to doubt that. But there are many other things that come with that, that I’m far less sure of. Many Christians are very sure of many doctrinal things – such as hell – that I’m far, far less sure of. For the most part, I feel that believing that Jesus died, rose from the dead, and lives now as King is sufficient, and the rest of it is just stuff that can be explored.

Many Christians will tell you that they do not believe in reincarnation. I am really not so sure of that. In fact, I’m kind of thinking that there is reincarnation. And I think, in my last past life, I was Japanese.

The thing about life is this: If there is no reincarnation, then life is stupid. I mean, some people are born into great circumstances and have a wonderful life with loving parents and much success. And others are born into squalor, with abusive parents, etc. And some are even aborted. What of the aborted children? Is that the only life they get, and they’re not even allowed to make it out of the womb? What kind of unfairness is that? About the only thing that could be said to be good about that is that at least the aborted babies haven’t had a chance to sin, per standard Christian doctrine. Though given “original sin”, I guess that matters. Either way, it’s a really bum deal.

(And if you want to start arguing with me about abortion, spare me. Number one, that’s not the point, and number two, I don’t want to hear it.)

I’m also told that I was born with some very specific personality characteristics, as well. My mother tells me that from birth, I loved to learn and I had a very strong will. These things haven’t really changed. So to me, this is a kind of evidence that I had characteristics that kind of predated this body – they didn’t develop but were already extant.

So this would explain some things that have been really kind of confusing me. Why do I seem to have such an attraction to Japanese language and culture? Why does Japan seem so much like home, even though it really isn’t? And what about me is me and what about me is my body? Because if I were to accept the thesis of reincarnation, I must also accept the thesis that there are two separate parts of me – one being my body, and one being… something else.

My body is… a rather basic thing, to be honest. It doesn’t really want a whole lot. It wants food, water, shelter, to be somewhat comfortable… it wants to be exercised, and it wants a female. That’s really all my body, such as it is, really wants.

The funny thing is, my body and I actually fight. It wants to be exercised and I hate exercising. It wants a female and I really want nothing to do with providing it with one (it’s just too much trouble). It wants food that tastes good, and I… well, we’re kind of in agreement there, honestly. But the point is that my body has its own desires, that don’t always meet up with my desires. They’re sometimes – often – quite different. In order to interact with this world in any meaningful way, I need my body, but when all is said and done, it’s disposable. I get a say in how long it lasts, but at the end of the day, it will die.

But will I?

Assuming my suspicions are correct, I left my previous life behind when I died the last time. There may be a grave somewhere in Japan, with my previous body. Did I have a family that loved me? Did I have a family that I loved? What was my life like? Was I a survivor of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki or Hiroshima? Many questions that, frankly, really aren’t all that worth pursuing. After all, there’s a reason we forget and start over, right?

But something made me how I am. And I don’t think it was entirely in this life.

Regardless, it is a really… odd… feeling. To identify with something so closely when there’s no rational reason to and when any ties that I might have had to it are, for all intents and purposes, entirely severed. But apparently not. Because something seems to have survived. After all, my previous body is in a grave and I have no more claim to it, or the life that was left behind.

But no other country calls to me in the same way. It’s disconcerting. I wish I understood.

Jealousy

I think in this world we have a kind of mental illness – or at least a misunderstanding about how it works to be a human. We find ourselves wanting to be something, and rather than trying to understand why it is we want to be that thing in the first pace, we just immediately try to become it, thinking that’ll make us happy. Honestly, I suspect most of the time it won’t, especially when it’s something that’s not fully (or even a little bit, in some cases) achievable.

This is, in my opinion, at the root of most of the western tendency to become “weeaboo”, which is a generically derisive term for someone who is unhealthily in love with all things Japanese. And as derisive as I am to the concept, it’s something I entirely understand. Because, while I am careful to keep these tendencies in their proper place, I most certainly share them to some degree.

I’m going to tell you something that may make you laugh at me. But hear me out.

I’m a middle aged guy living in Texas, and I’m very jealous of female Japanese idols. If I were to come back in another life, I wish I could be one.

This isn’t because I have any particular confusion about my gender – I don’t. I am what I am and I’m okay with that. To be quite frank, even if I did have some confusion about my gender, I wouldn’t do anything about it. My chromosomes are what they are, and trying to fight against that would be more trouble than it was worth. I’d just try to come to come to peace with it with a lot of therapy and move on. If you think that’s anything-phobic, that’s your problem. That’s how I choose to live my life, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.

No, I’m jealous of them because they seem to have so much fun.

I’m a realistic person. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know this about me. I know very well that when the cameras come off, they have the same kinds of problems as everyone else. They work hard, many of them aren’t paid all that well, and I’m only seeing a curated view of what their life is like.

But they seem to, pardon the expression, have life by the balls. They are always so happy and cheerful, they seem to always wear fashionable clothes and are happy wandering around Tokyo, etc., doing fun things and eating good food. They really do seem to thrive.

And that’s really what I’m jealous of.

I remember being a child. For a while, I had that “have life by the balls” kind of attitude, whether I did or not, and then in my early teenage years that was all ripped from me. They really, genuinely, don’t seem to have a care in the world. And I wish someday, somehow, I could find a way to get that back.

But innocence, once taken, can never be given back.

Sometimes I watch the DVD disk 2 of Morning Musume visiting Houston. I don’t understand everything they’re saying – in fact, I understand little of it, though that’s growing. But what I am always struck by is how much fun they’re having. The first ten minutes of the video, they’re just saying, over and over, “Houston! Houston! Houston!” in different tones of voice. One says “I want to be an American!” They go shopping and have a smashing time. They go to a fair and have a smashing time. They eat dinner and have a smashing time. They go to the space museum and have a smashing time.

And I… well, my life is pretty much the exact opposite of that, and has been since I was twelve.

I’m jealous of teenage female Japanese idols, and there’s no way that can be a healthy thing. I guess it’s one of those things I have to figure out.

Writing Japanese names in English

So for those of you who don’t know, Japanese family names come first. In English, Takahashi Minami, for example, would be “Minami Takahashi”.

This, frankly, causes no end of confusion, because it’s really difficult to decide when to use the English word order. One could easily say “never”, but to be honest, that doesn’t sit well with me. Japanese and English are two different languages, and it’s by no means disrespectful to use English word order when writing something in English. It’s, in my opinion, not unlike translating from Japanese. Of course, Shinzo Abe (Abe Shinzo) may disagree with me, but oh well. Abe-san is the former prime minister of Japan, so I’m really not concerned about that opinion.

But on the other hand, for someone like me who consumes a lot of Japanese media, saying “Minami Takahashi” just feels wrong. Japanese people would call her “Takahashi Minami”, “Takahashi-san”, or “Takahashi”. You just kind of get used to hearing “Takahashi”, and the given name just isn’t anywhere near as important. So when someone writes “Minami”, “Minami Takahashi”, etc., it just feels wrong to me.

So generally, but not always, I will use the Japanese word order – unless I am writing to an English audience who knows someone as the english variant of their name.

You’ll note that in my previous post, I referred to Nakamoto Suzuka as “Suzuka Nakamoto” – but only in the title. Otherwise I used the Japanese word order, or left off the given name entirely and added the “san” honorific. It just feels right to me. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, so used to the Japanese word order that it feels wrong to do otherwise. I have to have a good reason to switch things around for English speakers, and searchability is a pretty good reason, I guess.

Here’s my ultimate point: As long as you are not writing to a Japanese audience, I think it’s okay to use the English word order. But it’s also okay to use the Japanese word order. And if you want to write the words in Japanese (高橋みなみ )always use the Japanese word order. After all, if you’re writing in Japanese, there is absoutely no excuse for switching things around.

It gets even more confusing when you are talking about Japanese people who are American citizens, like my sensei. My sensei has a Japanese first name, and an American last name, written in Katakana when using Japanese characters, and standard English when using romaji. That is particularly hard to figure out. Formally, I’ll use “lastname-san” or “sensei”, but informally, I don’t think I’ve ever really used either the first or last name, not for sensei, and not when referring to sensei to other people. It just doesn’t feel appropriate. It’s a shame because it’s quite a nice name. Shrug.

But that’s how I’m going to do it. Japanese word order unless I have a good reason otherwise.

So I watched some Anime…

I have some extra time on my hands at the moment, so I decided that I was going to try some anime.

The first one I watched was “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid”. It was well animated. It was funny at times. And it was kind of dumb. I didn’t watch any further than the first episode (and not just because I couldn’t find an unsubbed and undubbed version).

The second one I watched was “Himouto! Umaru-chan”. It is about a perfect 15 year old girl who lives with her old brother, and when she gets behind closed doors, she turns into pretty much a spoiled brat. I couldn’t get through the first episode – what an annoying girl! Verdict: Funny at times, but dumb. I really didn’t see what the point was, honestly. On the bright side, I guess, it’s kind of wholesome in its way.

Then I found “Chibi Maruko-chan: The Boy from Italy”. I gotta say I really liked it. I was able to follow most of the plot from both context and understanding some of the language, which is a bonus! And it was a really sweet little story.

LIttle 3rd-grader Maruko ends up having to take in an exchange student from Italy, who is immediately attracted to Maruko, whose name sounds like that of Andrea’s dead grandfather, Marco. The movie follows the journey of all of the different exchange students as they explore Japan, but with a focus on Maruko and Andrea – who are trying to track down a restaurant Marco had ties to. Along the way they… I don’t know if you can say “fall in love” for children that young, but it’s definitely a kind of romance. It’s very sweet. And wholesome, too. There wasn’t an inkling of hentai in the whole thing, which was unfortunately a refreshing change. It really is a “slice of life” anime of a young girl, and nothing more.

It was in no way, shape, or form directed at otaku. And I loved that.

I think maybe my issue is – I don’t llike shounen. All the big, floppy breasts and action scenes and all that just don’t do it for me at all. But I liked that story. It was cute, and sweet, and I didn’t feel dirty or stupid after watching it. Maybe I need to find more anime like that.

Plus, sensei likes it too. That speaks volumes.

Tips and Tricks for Japanese Learners

Over the past ouple of years, I’ve learned a few things about Japanese that are not obvious to people just starting out in Japanese. Let me try to summarize them here. Maybe I’ve said some of these before, but I’ll just repeat here if so, I guess it bears repeating.

Okurigana

Okurigana are those hiragana characters on the end of Japanese words. Here’s the tip: An English speaker is going to be tempted to look at a kanji and think that it is a word. In many cases, it is not. It is a part of a word. The actual word is the kanji coupled with its okurigana.

For example, look at the kanji 見. It’s pronounced “mi”, and means “see”. But if you add okurigana to the end of the kanji, it can change both meaning and pronunciation. 見る (miru) means “see”. But 見える means “can see”, 見せる means “to show”, and 見つける means “to find” or “to discover”. This kanji has all of these meanings, but it’s the okurigana that distinguish one meaning from the the other. This is a difficult concept for learners to understand, as the question is often asked “how can one kanji have so many meanings and pronunciations?” The answer is that they are just building blocks for words, and almost never the words themselves. I say almost because some words do not have okurigana, like 桜 (sakura).

Jyukugo

Jyukugo are Japanese words that consist of two or more kanji stuck together. This is also hard to understand for Japanese learners, because when you combine two or more kanji, with some exceptions, they take an entirely different pronunciation – and the kanji together form a word that may have little if anything to do with its constituent kanji.

But here’s the simple rule: The kanji will almost always take an “on” reading (Chinese) in a jyukugu, and probably 95% of the time it’s the same “on” reading. So it’s kind of intimidating when you first start learning about this, but once you learn this trick, learning and reading jyukugo becomes much simpler. Learn the common “on” readings for the kanji, smush them together, and most of the time, you’ll be right.

Not always, of course, but it’s a really good start, and Japanese really is about learning the common rules and then when not to use them.

For example, you use the “kun” (Japanese) readings when one of the kanji is a body part. So 上手 (jyouzu) means “skilled”, even though one of the kanji means hand. But 右手 (migite) means right hand. Since “te” is the kun reading for hand, and you’re talking about a hand, the rules of jyukugo don’t really apply there. As I said, a few exceptions. But learn those and you’re golden.

Rendaku

This is something that, for some damn reason, beginners are never taught. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. But, dear reader, let me explain what is maybe one of the most outwardly puzzling but eminently sensible things about the Japanese language.

You may notice that sometimes voiced consonants will change to unvoiced consonants (adding the two little dots, or tenten) when they are part of a jyukugo. 紙 (kami), or paper, becomes 手紙 (tegami), or postcard, when turned into a jyukugo Why is this, you might ask?

It’s simply, and solely, because the Japanese really don’t like to waste mouth energy.

No, seriously. That’s it. That’s the whole reason.

It’s harder to say “tekami” then “tegami”, so they turn it into “tegami” so it’s easier to say.

You’ll find this is actually the case for almost all cases when voiced consonants are turned into unvoiced consonants. For example, “n” is turned into “m” when put before certain syllables to make the words flow better. “ganbatte”, for example, is harder to say than “gambatte”, so “gambatte” it is.

This changing of voiced to unvoiced consonants is called rendaku.

There’s actually a whole “law” (Lyman’s Law), I believe, that says when and when not to use rendaku, but generally, when you have two kanji, and the second has a voiced syllable, you just change it to unvoiced (add a tenten) and all is well.

Japanese has a few rules like this that no one explains, and for the life of me I have no idea why. It just makes life easier to know, don’t you think?

Dialects

Japanese has a few dialects, and by a few, I mean a metric buttload. Most of them aren’t really important unless you’re planning on travelling all over Japan, but there are a few that are kind of useful to know. Kansai, for example, is one of them. It is well represented in media and comedy because, as a native Japanese I know puts it, “they’re proud of themselves and their dialect so they refuse to change”. Regardless of the reasons why, you’ll have to reckon with it at some point. It has a different pitch accent and syllable emphasis, so I’m told it sounds a bit more sing-song than Tokyo standard.

For the beginner learner, it’s probably best just to know that it exists, and the reason you can’t understand comedy you see on YouTube or whatever isn’t entirely your fault. But it’s still a really useful thing to look into if you have some spare time.

Otaku aren’t Normal Japanese

This is really an important thing to learn, and it’s taken me a while to figure this out. Many of the things you’re going to be exposed to in Japanese media are things otaku like. Some of it might be funny, cool, all that jazz, but at the end of the day, most Japanese people kind of look down on Otaku. They’ll say something like “Well, I guess if they’re happy…”, which for a Japanese person is something like “Holy SHIT are they weird!”

By the same token, anime is hit or miss when it comes to Japanese. Some of it is good colloquial Japanese, but a lot of it is stuff you really should never be using as an example, as it will teach you bad habits, or things that you really should only use under specific circumstances – but those are context specific and the anime will never tell you what those circumstances are. Don’t try to learn Japanese through media. It’s self-selected by otaku and weeaboos, and generally you’re not going to be served well by it.

If it’s all you got, though, I guess it’s better than nothing! Japanese are often just happy you’re trying, so they’ll forgive a lot from a learner.

Native Japanese don’t know everything!

My sensei is a native Japanese, has degrees in Japanese pedagogy, and has been teaching for many years. And I still teach sensei things sometimes. For example, sensei had no idea what a “small ke” meant, and when I looked it up and explained it, well, sensei learned something. Never be afraid to ask questions, and if a native Japanese speaker does not know, it does not at all mean the answer isn’t to be found, and sometimes easily! It just means the native speaker never bothered to find out.

And that’s fine, of course! I only recently learned what a gerund was, for example, and I’ve been speaking English for mumble mumble years!

Sometimes you’ll be told “I don’t know”. Look it up. You might be able to teach something yourself.

Have fun with it

I only recently learned about something called Japanglish. It contains phrases like:

  • yamete kudastop
  • arigathanks
  • don’t itashimention it
  • nani the fuck

Of course, this isn’t real Japanese. It is almost but not entirely unlike real Japanese. But for all of the ragging I do on otaku, etc., they do have one quality that should be emulated. They have fun with it. They’re not really as concerned with the rules as they are with how cool it is. And so you come up with a list of things like this that are nothing like Japanese except on the most basic level, and yet, people are having loads of fun with it. Respect the culture (which gaikokujin otaku generally don’t do), respect the people, give it your best go, but at the end of the day, remember that if you can’t have some fun with it there’s really no point. And let me be entirely frank – if a native Japanese doesn’t like that you’re not taking it seriously enough, they can just ざけんなよ. Being irreverent is not the same as being disrespectful.

What are some tips that you think people should know that would make their Japanese learning life easier?

Sometimes I’m Wrong

I like to say that I’m never really wrong – as my decisions and opinions are nearly always right based upon the information I have. But sometimes I don’t have enough information, so as I get more information, my opinions can change. That kind of makes my previous ones wrong. I don’t really mind all that much because I did my best with what I have, but it still requires some acknowledgement.

I had the opportunity to ask my sensei last night about the whole “brother/sister” thing, and I have never seen sensei laugh quite so hard as when I mentioned the name of the hentai anime “imouto paradise”. It turns out that sensei does not really watch all that much anime at all, and particularly not hentai, which I totally understand. And this morning, I saw a video by “That Japanese Man Yuta” (a YouTuber whom I can usually take or leave, honestly) about anime songs, and most Japanese people could not identify “Motteke! Sailor Fuku!”. The interviewer said “it’s popular amongst otaku”, as if they were some kind of weird, foreign thing. My sensei seemed to share that opinion.

By its very nature, I have mostly been exposed to things otaku and weeaboos like, because this is what tends to get subtitled over to English or posted to English sites. Because of that, it’s very easy to forget that otaku are actually a rather small subculture of Japanese culture, and while their media influence is outsized, it’s not really reflective of the way most Japanese people see the world. It’s understandable because idol culture is quite literally how I was introduced to Japanese culture, but perhaps it’s time to look for things that have nothing to do with the things otaku like.

This does not mean, necessarily, avoiding anime, manga, etc. It means avoiding the anime and manga that otaku like. Maybe that will be a better reflection of average Japanese culture than the frankly unbalanced tendencies of otaku, weeaboo, and idol culture. It’s no reflection on the idols, I hasten to say. They’re doing what their market demands. But it’s not really a flattering reflection of Japanese culture, and perhaps I should seek out other things.

As my Japanese gets better, that should become easier, I suppose.

So, I should probably rethink some of my opinions. They’re based upon a faulty sample set.

Perhaps the first thing I should do is find manga and anime where the main characters aren’t barely adult women with an F-cup and straining blouse buttons. That’s… harder than it sounds, actually. Native Japanese might not understand this, but that is most of what seems to be imported to America. Maybe I can find better sources.

Vtubers confuse me

So lately, I’ve found a subset of Japanese culture called vtubers. This really wasn’t voluntary, and they confuse the snot out of me. As near as I can tell, they are different anime-like characters that are voiced and acted by real people, they have different personalities, and they stream. Like, a lot. And people seem to like them. A lot.

Now, let’s be clear: I understand this, a little bit. My favorite vtuber at the moment (and I hope I don’t watch enough of it to change my opinion, frankly) is Inugami Korone. The character is supposed to be a dog. A dog-girl. A doggo. Or something. Damned if I know. Occasionally the dog-girl does cute and funny things. Same with another named Luna. There was much confusion about how to say “OK Google”, and it was insanely cute. And sometimes, like the AKB48, etc., idols, they’ll let you in on a little of their real life, and I guess those things are good for otaku, and much for the same reason. I can sort of, a little, see the appeal, though I really have no intention of interacting with that community any more than I have – which is to say, watching random stream clips and laughing my butt off as, say, Korone falls over laughing at a bird sound. (HUUWAAAAAAAA) That is funny.

But people throw a lot of money at these characters. There seems to be a loyalty there that at least rivals that of idol groups such as AKB48. And, quite frankly, that I just don’t get. They just stream and act silly – or sometimes, frankly, lewd. Maybe that’s worth a few bucks every now and then, but sometimes people throw hundreds of dollars at those characters, and what for?

It’s not just vtubers, though. For some reason, Japanese media and culture seem to encourage unhealthy, and frankly obsessive behavior Who wants to throw hundreds of dollars at a vtuber? Who wants to buy hundreds of AKB48 CDS just to have tickets to vote in the senbatsu sousenkyou? How about considering anime or other characters their actual girlfriend, or referring to them as waifu? I’m confused. And I think I’d rather be confused, because if I understood this, I’d just be sad. There’s some cultural undercurrents here that I’m just not sure I think I’m better off just letting be.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose, but this obsession is, frankly, just a bit too close to actual mental illness for comfort. So I guess I’ll let Korone entertain me if I see something particularly amusing come by on YouTube. But I think that’ll be the extent of it. I’m just not impressed with the culture. Not even a little bit. And if I ever start to get anywhere near that obsessive, I hope someone slaps me. So far, so good.

What Japanese has taught me about English

I’d say this is a pretty good topic to talk about, right?

There are many things about Japanese that are very different from English. Some are just what they are – they’re different, but there’s no real useful insight to be gained about my own language. The fact that Japanese is postpositional, for example. It’s different, but neither system is better than the other. It’s just how things are.

But there are other things that are useful, and at least one thing that I intend on taking from Japanese and importing into my use of English.

One thing that I have learned is that language has a rather interesting way of distilling what a culture finds important. Because Japanese has a pretty well developed politeness structure. There are at least three different levels of politeness built in, and many words are rude unless used in a very specific context. English, for example, doesn’t really care about all that. There is a more formal way of speaking and addressing, but it’s not built into the language. We don’t consider it important enough to have that feature.

But what English does consider important is gender and countability, two things which Japanese seems to be mostly unconcerned about. In English, it is required to know whether we are talking about one or many items. It is important to know what the gender of a human or animal is. You can add this information in Japanese if you choose, but you don’t need to.

In my country, there is much kerfluffle about pronouns. Some people think you are required to use the pronouns which are demanded of you. Other people, such as me, don’t really care what is demanded and choose pronouns based upon longstanding societal norms. But this becomes difficult when eternal forces seek to demand that you use the pronoun that others demand that you use. “My pronouns are not up for debate”, you are told. Actually, I disagree. They are.

But that being said, it’s not something I really like to fight about. Truth be told, I’d rather just ignore the whole thing. Call yourself what you want, and I’ll just ignore it entirely. So the Japanese tendency to avoid pronouns is very appealing, and I think I am going to do that from now on. I have made it my goal to eliminate using third person pronouns in my everyday English.

After all, I did it in this post.

Ancient

My first exposure to Japanese was watching idol group variety shows, so I guess it’s somewhat forgivable that that is generally the lens through which I see Japanese culture. Their culture, as it currently is, is defined by a mishmash of their own culture and language and some very powerful foreign influences that have completely reshaped their culture over the past hundred years or so.

But I was reminded that theirs is a much more ancient culture than ours, and to define their culture by how it currently appears is dangerous, as you start to see their culture through a western window. It is currently extremely heavily western influenced, but that’s by no means the whole story, and we ignore that at our peril.

There are several things that brought me to this realization. Perhaps the biggest is the discovery of a storytelling form called “rakugo”. I knew nothing about this, and I’d bet that anyone reading this probably hasn’t, either. Basically, a comedian comes out, sits on a pillow, and tells a story with minimal props, and without moving from the pillow. The stories are engaging and funny, and a good storyteller can keep people enraptured until the very end, which is a kind of very Japanese punchline.

If you look at Japanese culture through the lens of its modern productions, eventually you will be disappointed. The Japanese are very prolific at manga, anime, and other “otaku”-type productions, but at the end of the day, it’s shallow. It may tell you something about Japanese culture – and what it does tell you is valuable, especially for someone unfamiliar with the culture – but at the end of the day, it’s not really useful for those who want to understand what actually makes the Japanese people tick. Eventually you discover there’s much more below the surface – some very amusing and entertaining, some very dark, some beautiful, some ugly, but all of it completely Japanese.

The hard part is knowing where to look. It an take years before you even start to see the glimmers of what lies underneath the current media-driven culture.

I suspect the same it true for other cultures too. Chinese immediately comes to mind (even though they are currently a hot mess and pretty much everything after their cultural revolution is really not worth much, in my opinion), but even the more familiar Eastern European type cultures have their own histories that we in the west can kind of steamroll over, as our culture is incredibly powerful at the moment. I don’t mean to imply that our culture is inferior – there is a reason that it is so incredibly influential all over the world. But at the end of the day, its very influence does run the risk of causing every other culture to be seen through the lens of ours, and when that happens, something valuable is lost. I am not a fan of “multiculturalism” – some parts of cultures are objectively superior over parts of others – but that doesn’t mean that all parts of one culture are superior over all parts of another. I, for one, was very happy about the fact that masks have become popular around the world where they were culturally accepted in Japan and China, for example. If only because it lets me hide my face.

If you’re truly serious about learning Japanese, find the things that aren’t commonly known – that’s where the true gems are. And the true stinkers too, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

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.