Gauging Progress

The very first thing I watched in Japanese – and the thing that made me feel like I wanted to learn it, was this video:

It is a rather cute video of a bunch of Morning Musume girls (this was 13 years ago!) taking a faux English lesson.

When I first watched this video, I was highly dependent on the subtitles.  By “highly dependent”, I mean that everything they were saying was, to me, utter gibberish.  You might as well have tossed me in front of a charismatic speaking in tongues for all the good it would have done me.  But it was the combination of this being gibberish, the fact that I discovered that the Morning Musume girls were actually funny, and all of the interesting symbols flashing over the screen like a secret code, that set me on this endeavor that has so far cost me over a thousand dollars and quite a few hours off my life.

But every now and then I revisit this video.  The reason is that each time I watch it, I understand a little more, and a little more, and a little more.  At first, I just picked up “chiisai”, “sensei, chiisai”, and was proud of myself for that! And then I picked up “eigo”, “daijoubu” (and I think I finally understand why Ogawa-san said “boo”, she was making a pun on “daijoubu”, which is very much not obvious).  And then I picked up a few more things, and a few more things, each time I watched it.

I listened to it again today and I could understand even more.  I may get to the point where I don’t need the subtitles – though whether that’s because I understand the words or have memorized the subtitles is a matter of some conjecture.

Subtitles really are not a good way of enjoying these videos, though.  I mean, if it’s all you have, they are satisfactory, but you miss a lot of nuance.  I don’t understand exactly how, yet, but Ogawa-san seems to have a slightly different way of speaking then Fujimoto-san, for example.  And there are even occasions where what is being said is not really what’s appearing on the screen (the Japanese language is so context dependent that the translators are almost required to take some editorial liberties with the translation).

If you like Japanese media, seriously, learn the language.  You’re kinda missing out.

5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Song #3: 女子かしまし物語 (モーニング娘)

Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari (“The story of Noisy Girls”) by Morning Musume is one of the first songs that made me think that J-Pop is a little bit more than just stupidity, even if, paradoxically, it’s one of the least intelligent songs of the whole batch.

The reason is both structural and not.  Structurally, it’s extremely high energy.  I find myself rather envious of the energy those girls exhibit when performing this song, but then I have to remember they’re young and, well, as they say, youth is wasted on the young.  It has a very fast and driving bassline that pretty much makes the whole piece.

But the really interesting thing to me is how many levels of meaning they can introduce to the stanzas dedicated to each girl, some of which are related to the choice of language rather than the actual word.  For example, Kimura Ayaka has the phrase “I want to strive to be a better singer” in English, which implies that she can speak English, even though she never explicitly says so.  And Nonaka Miki has probably one of the funniest lines – but it’s not her that makes it funny.

How are you doing? I am fine.
I’m so happy to be a member of this team
Why don’t we talk about the globalization of Morning Musume together?
I want to liven up the Japanese pop music industry with you all!

A flood of big words, recited rapid fire, to which another girl yells “I AM A PEN!”

There are about three levels of meaning to that interaction, all of them stuffed into one stanza, and exhibited by the choice of words rather than the actual words themselves.

Honestly, I think Nonaka-san can be just a little annoying with the whole “I lived in the US for eight years!” (wait for applause) schtick, but she’s young.  It’s easy to forget idols are (or are expected to act like) children for the most part.  I’m a guy in his early 40s, so I have to keep some sense of perspective about the whole thing (if only more guys my age would!)

Anyway, there’s not a whole lot more to say about it.  It’s a fun, high energy little song that does a good job of introducing the characters of all of the different members, and I think it’s very indicative of the quality and complexity of music that Morning Musume creates – and moreso because it’s been updated a few times as members come and go.  I think this song is one of the songs that defines the difference between Morning Musume and other idol groups such as AKB48 (another is AKB48’s Heavy Rotation.  I don’t think Morning Musume would be quite so… unsubtle).  Oddly, one of my favorites so far.

Sunday Song #2: What is Love (もーニング娘)

Life is hard, with many contrasting things, all fighting with each other for supremacy.  Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry.  Sometimes you are burning with passion for something, sometimes the passion leaves.  But through it all, you have to ask yourself – is what I’m doing helping or hurting?

If I can’t even make one person understand me, how can I change the world?  If I can hurt someone, how can it be said that I’m making the world better?

This is something that many people are grappling with today, in this postmodern, post-truth world.  We all want to make the world better as we see it, we see how the world could be a better place.  But how do we know that we’re making the world a better place?  How do we know we’re not hurting more than we’re helping?

Jordan Peterson, a man who, despite his many flaws, is highly intelligent, speaks to exactly this question.  “Clean your room”, he says.  The first thing you have to do is get your own “room” in order – your living space, your room, your mind, whatever – and once you’ve “sorted yourself out”, as he says, then you’ll be able to go out and help to coax the rest of the world into the same order that you’ve gotten your own world into.

What do you want?  What do you want the world to look like?  Do you want it to be a reflection, a projection, of your own unresolved issues?  Or do you want it to reflect actually healing, to reflect your own inner peace into the world?  Is it necessary to impose yourself onto the world, or will it become a better place when you’ve learned to deal with your own issues and help the world to deal with its own issues too?

Change starts with you, but so does love, a “worldwide chain of positivity”.  Laugh, and the world laughs with you, as the proverb says.  But cry, and you may make the rest of the world cry too.  But they may not be crying with you.  If you don’t fix yourself first, they may be crying because of you.

Shave and a Haircut, HAPPY

I am, by training, a classical musician, so from a musical perspective I find most idol music trifling.

This does not mean it is always uninteresting.  Every piece of idol music I hear (well, almost) has  something interesting or thought provoking.  Sometimes it’s even in the lyrics, which are mostly insipid but with glimmers of depth to them.  For example, the lyrics of “what is love” by Morning Musume:

If you can't even make one person understand you
how will you seduce the world?
If you leave one person feeling sad
will you be able to make the whole world happy?

This is reminiscent, to me, of the story about the boy who was tossing starfish back into the ocean, was stopped by someone who told him it didn’t matter, and he pointed to a starfish he threw back – “it mattered to that one”.  Actually surprisingly deep.  So I’m not entirely unappreciative of the music (though I could not honestly be considered a fan – if I had a choice I’d much rather listen to a piano concerto, and no idol music is on my phone).

But that’s really the only reason it interests me, truly.

So I was listening to one of the songs on the more insipid side of the scale, Happy Summer Wedding by Morning Musume.  It is actually a rather sweet song, I suppose, but it’s obviously not meant to appeal to either my gender or age range.  Fair enough, I guess.  But right in the middle of the song is a rendition of “Shave and a Haircut”.

This struck me as surprising and incongruous.  Right in the middle of the song a small fragment of something that honestly does not fit culturally (or, honestly, even musically) was dropped into it, rather like a little drop of oil in a sea of water.  It just didn’t match, and I’m not sure why Tsunku, or whoever wrote the song, decided to do that.

And it’s something that I’m not sure if most Japanese would even pick up on – it’s almost as if it’s a little nod to their Western audience.

So today my boss made a statement about the “Goldilocks sweet spot” and my mind went back to the incongruous “shave and a haircut”, and I realized that there are aspects to a culture that cannot be taught in a language class, or at least cannot easily be taught.  And that’s when I fully realized that learning how to speak a language is only half the battle, if that.

And it’s also why I post about things that are not specifically language related.

I cannot understand Japanese without at least being familiar with the underlying culture.  And that is very important to me, and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time familiarizing myself with Japanese popular culture, reading books, manga, and other things that will help me to understand the underlying cultural assumptions.

But make no mistake – I’m not otaku.  Many Japanese pop-culture things are fun, and cute, yes.  And I’m always looking for ways to integrate them into my own culture.  But they’re not of any great interest to me past being a curiosity.  If I ever behave in a way in which I could be consider otaku, or even worse, weeaboo, it will be time to hang it up, dust off my cowboy hat, and spend some time on a ranch where there is no Internet or phone.

I learn the language because it fascinates me.  I study Japanese pop culture because it fascinates me as well, and helps me to learn the language better.  But I refuse to make a fool out of myself worshipping all things Japanese.  And I think that’s how it should be.

A Tale of two Idols

Ever since I started learning Japanese, I’ve made it a personal goal to try to understand idol culture, because I feel that in doing so maybe I can understand a little more about what makes the larger Japanese culture tick.

I want to discuss two idols:  Koharu Kusumi and Minegishi Minami.  Because in looking at their individual cases, I think it becomes a little clearer what it’s all about.

In 2013, Minegishi-san was caught spending the night with a man.  She faced expulsion from the group she was an idol in – AKB48.  Before she learned her fate, she ended up shaving her head (as an idol she had beautiful hair) and made a tearful apology video where she was regretful that she let everyone down.  She ended up getting demoted to a “newbie” team – essentially having to start from zero.

In 2014, Koharu-san had a rather tone-deaf interview on the radio (and make no mistake, “utterly clueless” would be a nice way to put it) where she essentially admitted that she only joined Morning Musume to jumpstart her career, and that she really wanted to be something else.  This upset Michishige Sayumi, who had been her mentor (and by all accounts she was also inexperienced and failed at it) a great deal.  The interview was a disaster and many of her fans lost respect for her.

The fact that many of her fans lost respect for her, I think, is the insight into Japanese culture that I’ve been looking for.

AKB48 and Morning Musume (Hello Project) are businesses, and the idols are employees.  This is a very important thing to understand, because the job of the idols is to sell records, and do whatever is necessary to sell those records.  Just because the employees are girls in their early teenage years and their job is to have loyal fans who buy their music and see their concerts does not change the fact that it is a primarily business relationship.  From a purely business perspective, Koharu-san was very mature for her age, as she understood exactly what she was getting into.  One could make the argument that Michishige-san was quite a bit less mature in that regard, because she appeared to have a personal loyalty to Tsunku and Hello Project.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – having a personal loyalty to your employer is a two edged sword but helps you succeed in the company – but she didn’t even appear to understand Koharu-san’s point of view on that.

But Japanese value loyalty.  Koharu-san’s sin was not that she was clueless, though obviously she did not gain any favors with Sanma-san and the others in the interview, but her sin was that she was disloyal.  She made what she thought was the best decision for her – to graduate at 17 and move on to modelling – but she did it in what is, in Japanese culture, a very selfish manner.

Seen from this perspective, Minegishi-san’s actions, which see inexplicable from our militantly individualistic western perspective, make perfect sense.  She knew what the rules were, and she broke them.  This was disloyalty.  So she had to show her loyalty to AKB48, and the way she did that was an act of sacrifice.  She cut off her beautiful hair.

And she was allowed to stay on the project.  By all measures, her sacrifice worked.

The fans, though, I think share a lot of blame for allowing this situation to come into being, and believe me, I kind of get it.  You get to know the girls and eventually you kind of start to care about them – and I would imagine you buy their music because of the same kind of loyalty.  Even now I can see in my mind’s eye the confused look on Takahashi Minami-san’s face whenever something happens that confuses or surprises her.  But it’s all just business.

Koharu-san understood this.  I think Minegishi-san may have, although she responded in a culturally appropriate manner.  I don’t think Michishige-san did.

Idol culture is built, from its very foundations, on manufactured loyalty.

And that, I think, is the insight I’ve been looking for.

AKB48

In my ever widening exploration of Japanese popular culture, I have run into a few groups in the style of Morning Musume.  AKB48 and its sisters, etc.

One thing I particularly liked about Morning Musume was, in its golden days, the way the girls all seemed like sisters.  I realize that a lot of this could have been scripted, but I don’t think all of it was.  They were a small group, I think thirteen or fifteen at most, and they worked closely together.  As girls cycled in and out, it was clear that they took care of each other and looked after each other (for the most part).  This was a dynamic that impressed me.  After one of the graduations – I think Niigaki Risa’s, they went backstage with the girls, and if they were faking that, they were some of the best actors that have never been given credit for it.  They were utterly heartbroken.

It was sincerely touching.  They loved each other (for the most part).

So many other groups were created to try to capitalize on the “idol” craze.  One of the most popular were AKB48.  It is a group that has something around 140 members and its own theater, separated into different “teams”.  They even had a variety show, something like “Hello Morning”, where different members played games and sometimes had batsu games.

It just wasn’t the same.  They didn’t have the chemistry.

No, it’s true that there were some members that were more notable than others.  Takahashi Minami was one of them.  But they were in an environment that was far rougher.  The MCs were very hard on them in a comic fashion, insulting them and calling them names.  Their shortcomings were paraded about as if they were in a circus, and perhaps they were.  Even the songs they did were more racy and less playful.  It’s as if the producer of that group took all of the wrong lessons from the popularity of Morning Musume.

Which, I suppose, is to be expected when there’s that much money on the line and that many girls to undergo varying degrees of exploitation.

There’s a reason they called the early days of Morning Musume the golden era.  And if you want to see why, contrast them with how the idols are presented now.  It’s really no contest.

And it’s quite sad.  The Japanese culture is not immune to cultural rot.