Daigaku Z: Mission Creep

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

In official terminology, I’m what’s called a “nontraditional” student. As you can probably infer, that’s a very vague phrasing on purpose, because it’s intended to be as broad as possible without just using the term “everybody else”. It can be very difficult to feel welcomed and included on campus as someone who has a decade of time between the last degree and the first day of classes. Fortunately, I’ve felt pretty lucky in that the group I hang out with seems to accept me.

And that’s where things get weird again, particularly for me.

Ten years ago, when I lived in Erie and was just starting my career at (the now sadly defunct review website) Netjak, I was also part of a local organization called “DDR Erie”. As one of the two elder people in the group– calling it an “organization” is somewhat grandiose– I felt a sense of responsibility for the high schoolers I hung out with. In truth, some of them saw me as a mentor as well, and while I wish I’d stayed in better communication with them after I left Erie, the ones I do still keep tabs on are doing so well for themselves. I still feel a small amount of pride about that.

It was that drive to be a… I honestly don’t know what to call it anymore. I mean, in 2010 I went in to working with the local anime convention with more or less the same goal: to give back to the community and to guide the younger generation that would in turn, guide the next. But it wasn’t meant that I wanted to be an authority figure or a leader. I’m certainly not any of those things.

So you can imagine how weird it was when one of my classmates– the one who liberally sprinkles half-appropriate Japanese into his everyday speech– basically said, “I’m asking you as my <i>nee-san</i> on this,” and I had to blink for a moment. First off, he’d used the correct sibling word (yeah, I came out). Secondly, and more relevantly, I hadn’t prompted this or any other kind of feeling of superiority. He pretty much just dropped that bomb on me. So I answered his question and then got really quiet for a while.

It hadn’t been a conscious thing. I’d just more or less been myself, been the goofy Z who never shuts up about herself and tells boring stories about minor misunderstandings. And here was this kid, ten years my junior, who in between reminding me indirectly just how old I was (“I was, like, three when Final Fantasy VII came out”), was asking me for actual genuine advice. It was humbling.

It also served as a blatant reminder of just what college really is, a lesson I really shouldn’t have needed a reminder of. The American educational system is distressingly one-way; instructors teach the students, and there’s very little opportunity for the students to assist each other. High school is set up like a competition, because so much of one’s future is predicated on such early performance. If you’re at the top of your class, you get into a better college, and so on and so forth. The battle is relentless, and the pressure spills over into a dispassion (at best; antipathy at worst) for the fellow student.

And then, almost overnight, the rules change. College is about collaboration, about working together, about going above and beyond what one can do alone. The rigid structures of teacher and student, upperclassman and freshman, they all fall away. It creates a unity, a melange of humanity, that requires us to unlearn our cutthroat attitudes and to relax our guard once in a while. We can learn from each other as well as the professors; we can teach each other, student and professor alike. We are not rivals, but teammates.

As it turns out, “<i>nee-san</i>”– “big sister”– was the wrong word in his sentence, after all. It really should have just been “<i>tomodachi</i>”– “friend”.

Daigaku Z: You’re Too Tense

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

One of the things that you learn while you are studying international relations is that English, as a language, is insanely complex. As a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque patchwork of pretty much every European language, with bits and pieces bolted on after the fact from everywhere else in the world, English is a language built around setting up hard-and-fast rules that then get broken whenever it’s convenient. For example, the Virginia-based punk/ska band Ghoti Hook took their name from the rather amusing fact that, under certain circumstances, the first word in their name is pronounced “Fish”.

Native English speakers (such as most of the OTDT cast and about 80% of my classmates) have an advantage over people learning English as a supplemental language because, when us humans are in our earliest stages of development, we make the connections between a spoken word and the concept it represents much more easily than we do later on in life. As such, most of the exceptions and quirks of the language are things we accept more or less without question, simply because that’s how it’s always been for us. At the same time, though, those exceptions trip us up when we are learning how to write and compose our speech, because now we need to understand why it is the way it is.

In comparison, the rules for some languages are simple to the point of elegance. In particular, constructed languages such as Esperanto, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Elvish, or Hiroyuki Morioka’s Baronh take great pains to ensure that the languages are internally self-consistent and that exceptions are as rare as the word implies. But even naturally-developed languages such as French have strong rules for things such as the conjugation of verbs and the order in which a phrase’s words are said affects the emphasis of the sentence.

When I first started this semester, I was under the impression that Japanese was one of these strongly-ruled languages, as evidenced by the fact that its primary and most common form of transmission, the written word, was highly regimented and very precise. I have come to understand that I am not exactly wrong about this, but neither am I right. See, Japanese does have a fairly strong set of rules; but there are enough exceptions even in these early lessons that it’s starting to become difficult for me to keep track of them all.

This is hampering my efforts to try to get a little bit ahead of the game and add new words into my vocabulary, particularly with respect to verbs. English has only a handful of verb conjugations, mostly for tenses as opposed to matching up with the subject doing the verb. French has seven, and past and future tenses are handled with additional words. As near as I can tell, Japanese verbs have about thirty different conjugations, covering tense and certainty situations that English speakers simply can’t conceive of, and that’s not counting the fact that each of those has polite and informal variants. And heaven help you if you want to learn the Kansai equivalents, too.

It reminds me of nothing more strongly than a bit from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, where one of the top-selling books in the universe at the time of the narration was a guide to verb conjugation for time travelers, a book I am onwill havinged greatly anticipateding. And if that sentence makes sense to you, dear reader, you are ready to wade face-deep into the world of Japanese verbs.

Daigaku Z: Double Zeta

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

The rather anticlimactic midterm went off without a hitch, and I ended up with a B. That’s commensurate with the rest of my grades in oral and written communications, so I’m pretty happy about it. Where things get interesting is that, by design, this week was when we switched over from Mills-sensei to Kanisawa-sensei. And the difference is night and day.

Let me be perfectly clear, Mills-sensei is a pretty good guy, and he’s passionate about his work. But passion does not entirely equate to effectiveness, and he is not at all effective in keeping the class under even the semblance of control that he needs to. In fact, I felt like if I was going to be stuck with Mills throughout the semester, I probably would have skipped the lecture classes on occasion. I learned comparatively little from them to this point, and I wasn’t thrilled with the fact that I had to get up early for something that offered little benefit. In contrast, Kanisawa-sensei is much sharper, much more adept at explaining situations and engaging the class, and actually moved through the material at a pace that worked well (at least for me).

And as much as a leisurely pace might have worked well in the past, the amount of work that’s going on into the back half of this semester is ramping up very quickly. Within a week we’ll have double the amount of handouts to turn in, and the information we’re learning from those is becoming denser and more nuanced. We’re learning how to create more complex sentences than just basic “subject-verb” assertions, and it’s this complexity that is at once enthralling and terrifying. I’m genuinely excited for what’s ahead, but at the same time, I’m worried for the sake of my friends.

Being stuck together in a class by virtue of random assignment is an interesting way to meet friends, especially given that I’m the oldest of the group by far. I’m getting used to being around people literally half my age. For me, I’m not only friends with these people, but like all of my friends I feel compelled to help them. I was the same way in high school; if I understood something my peers didn’t, I made it my goal to help teach them. Getting that instinct back in gear has felt good, but sometimes I try to help when there’s something I’m mistaken about.

In either event, this is the turning point in the semester, even if it’s far past the halfway point. Things are moving forward, as they always do. Let’s see how far it goes.

Daigaku Z: History Repeating

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

The interesting thing about being an old geezer (or biddy, in my case) going back to school to study Japan and its culture is that, inevitably, some of the stuff that I’m learning about now is stuff that I watched unfold in real-time. I don’t like to talk too much about what I used to do in my spare time before I wound up volunteering with youth and anime organizations, because a lot of it isn’t the sort of thing one really talks about with pride. But I’ll just state it outright, and hope that most of the readers will understand: I used to lurk on 4chan, specifically in 2004-06. I like to think I’ve learned the right lessons from such activity, but I also like to think that I can still beat The Goonies II in under an hour, when I clearly can’t.

Anyway, 2004. I can’t tell you how I first found my way to that site, because I honestly don’t remember. I think it was while I was searching for more Azumanga Daioh stuff. Honest. But in 2004, a particular phenomenon swept through both Moot’s domain and its progenitor, 2ch, thanks in no small part to the rather widespread notoriety of the event and the endless amount of speculation that it prompted. Because in 2004, Satomi Mitarai was murdered by a fellow fifth-grader.

What would eventually be known as the Sasebo killing, after the location in Nagasaki Prefecture where it took place, was also what would later be identified as emblematic of the culture of bullying in Japanese schools. Ijime, the word for the bullying, can be written with one of two different kanji: one means “scolding” while the other means “tyrannize” (though it is often simply written in hiragana). Mitarai had reportedly been tormenting another girl in the school with remarks about her weight and, according to the reports of the time, calling her a “goody-goody”. Whatever the impetus, something caused the girl to snap, and she used a boxcutter to brutally slash Mitarai’s throat on June 1st.

The case was seized upon by 2ch users after, due to strict Japanese laws preventing identification of minors accused of crimes, the only photo of the murderer featured her in a brown sweatshirt labeled “NEVADA”, and flashing the traditional “peace-sign” salute. In what can most charitably be considered a perverse sort of sympathy for the girl, she became an instant sensation among the more artistically-minded users of the service, spawning thousands of stylized portraits of the girl and her weapon of choice. Around this time, anthropomorphized representations of operating systems, called “OS-tans” after a cutesy malapropism for the diminutive suffix “-chan”, were also in the popular imagination, and thus “Nevada-tan” was born. It wouldn’t be long before the meme leapt the Pacific, and 4chan users began reposting and in some cases creating the images themselves for the English-speaking audience.

For my part, I admit to a certain amount of curiosity as the deluge of images featuring a deranged hoodie-wearing girl wielding a boxcutter popped across the screen in the end of 2004, and I looked into the case a little at the time. The more I read, the more my heart broke for both the murderer and for Mitarai. At the same time, though, there was still a tiny little part of me that wanted to comfort “Nevada”, that wanted to congratulate her, and tell her that she couldn’t be hurt by her classmates any more. The aftereffects of my own bullying– what I endured and what I unthinkingly perpetrated on others– were affecting my view of the situation. It took a while for me to stop crying after I realized that.

It wasn’t the first time that social ostracism and childhood cruelty caused a student to go off the deep end, and it certainly wasn’t a phenomenon restricted to the heavily regimented and order-obsessed Japanese school system. The previous years had brought schoolyard violence to the forefront of the world’s attention, between incidents such as the “Shonen A” murders in Kobe in 1997, Dedrick Owens’ murder of a classmate in Flint, Michigan in 2000, and most horrifically, the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Japanese and American analysts pored over the data for months, but no conclusive action was taken, and very little has been taken since.

Very little positive action, anyway. Most scholars seem to agree that school life in Japan has far more pressure than is strictly necessary, but none can see a way to ease the strain without risking a drop in grades. And as bad as some of it can get, some of it is still self-inflicted: an aphorism among students preparing for college entrance exams states “Four [hours of sleep] pass, five fail”. As much as people have shone the light on bullying and overpressure, it still continues; the shadows are merely darker.

When the topic of education in Japan came up in class this week, the discussion turned towards Shonen A and Nevada-tan. I felt the blood drain away from my face as images I’d seen ten years prior were projected onto the screen above the professor, and heard the nervous chuckles of my classmates who thought it was amusing that a murderer would be so idolized. The professor was respectful in her tone, and did admit that there was a certain sense of culture clash involved in it, but I still felt mortified. My thoughts flashed back to those few weeks in the end of 2004 when I’d sat at my computer and flicked through the artwork and text posts. Did I have any right to laugh when, even indirectly, I’d participated in canonization of the girl?

In researching this topic, and to gain a greater understanding of what exactly is going on, I came across news of another schoolgirl murder in Nagasaki. This past July, Matsuo Aiwa was murdered by a classmate in her junior-high school, over… absolutely nothing. The murderer, who used a metal pipe to bludgeon Matsuo to death, reportedly had no quarrel with her victim, according to the Japan Times. She was simply a psychopath.

Ten years between those two murders. Ten years separate Nevada-tan and the unnamed killer of Matsuo Aiwa. In those ten years, more bloodshed and no changes. I wonder, in ten years, will we see another incident like this? I pray that we won’t, but there is still that cynical part of me that says I shouldn’t plan on any trips to Nagasaki in 2024.

Prove me wrong. I dare you. Do everything in your power to stop bullying. Do everything in your power to get help for those people who most desperately need it. Prove me wrong. And I’ll see you in Sasebo.

Daigaku Z: Challenge Mode

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

For the record, we holed up in a different part of the building that didn’t have any offices or classrooms nearby in order to continue our loud and sometimes wildly off-topic practice of the language. You know, in case you were wondering. But that was last week, and this coming week are our midterm exams. And I think we’re all either very confident, or extremely scared. I happen to be both.

One of the wonders of the modern age of education is the existence of almost real-time feedback on how the students are doing in their classes. This was previously handled by getting grades back, and the tell-tale mark of the dreaded red pen was always akin to a scarlet letter if it read anything less than “90”. For recitation classes, where there is no paper to grade, this was always tricky because you’d be relatively in the dark until after a milestone examination– such as the midterms.

Now, however, if we want to see how we’re doing in our recitation classes, all we need to do is log on to the Blackboard site and look at the numbers. It’s somewhat surreal to see that fluctuating line of success and failure– more often success on my part, if I may be permitted to brag just a little– but it’s no less valuable, as I can realize exactly what parts of the language I had trouble with and what parts I get without too much need to review.

So when the format of the midterms was released this past week, I started to panic. There was very little guidance as to what we’d be dealing with, just a general description of how the “interviews” were to be conducted. There were also two specific remarks that had me worried: first, the interview would be covering “everything we’d learned” up to that point, and secondly, it carried an admonishment to “not use terms you haven’t yet learned”. This seeming contradiction was very worrying to me.

Obviously, the intent was to say that the midterms would be restricted solely to the content of the first four chapters of the book. If it had been phrased that way, I probably would have felt a lot more confident upon first reading it. But the way that it was set up, combined with the knowledge of the ups-and-downs of my progress so far, shook me sufficiently that I kinda shut down my brain until Saturday. Which, again, would have been great if not for the fact that we got the specifications on Thursday and I still needed to get through Friday’s recitation.

Do I have real doubts about the ability to get through the midterms with the same amount of success that I’ve shown in the class so far? Not anymore; a careful look at my grades has shown that I’m doing far better than I had during the initial few weeks. I’m still a very worrisome individual– wait, that’s probably not the adjective I want to use to describe myself. I still am a person who frequently worries, though, so while that confidence is still in the forefront, all it has done is quiet that little doubt in the back of my mind: the one that is shouting obscenities in English the entire time I’m trying to remember if I should be using wa or o in the next sentence.

Daigaku Z: Silence Must Fall

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Within the hierarchy of languages at most American universities, particularly those universities not in the Pacific Time Zone, the East Asian languages– Japanese, Chinese (in all its variants), Korean, and so on– tend to get the short shrift in terms of attention, respect, and space. Now granted, it’s not as bad as the constant and incessant defunding of high school music and arts programs, but when the classrooms and labs for these departments are wedged incongruously into spare office space in the engineering building, as opposed to near the remainder of the language departments, it can seem somewhat disheartening. It’s that seeming slight which upset me more than the uphill hike (though I am certainly getting better at making my way to the classroom without being utterly winded).

So, we have our recitation class on a floor which also houses engineering grad student offices. I’ve certainly kept quiet in the hallways while reviewing and preparing, on those occasions where I am able to show up early; however, by necessity, there has to be some actual speaking practice involved in this, too. And while I have, traditionally, had trouble managing my indoor voice (which is an understatement that is currently making Jim cringe at the memory of my shouting into the microphone), I can also honestly say that some of my classmates simply choose not to. So last week, some signs went up to reinforce quiet in the halls.

After we were yelled at for the fourth time, I decided to invoke the privilege of the elderly and moved us to a nearby connecting room, which was reasonably soundproofed. And the problem has more or less solved itself; we’re able to practice (and joke around, which has historically been our biggest problem) without the pressure of quiet, and the grad students seemed okay with that. I was still bristling, though, at the thought that there wasn’t a greater effort made to compromise.

See, languages need to be spoken in order to be learned, and languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet in particular need the vocal component to assist in remembering the characters used. That means screwing up and that means sometimes attempting to make jokes as mnemonic devices, with the appropriate laughter afterwards when classmates get the jokes. When I was at Gannon there were dedicated language labs for these purposes, relatively soundproofed rooms where students could practice, discuss, and reinforce their skills without disturbing others.

Of course, Gannon had a far smaller language department, and I imagine that there was no trouble at all scheduling the space for the limited number of tongues offered. Pitt has the opposite problem, as I’m given to understand: there are some great facilities to have available, but they are limited in their availability because of the large number of languages offered. So, in a sense, it’s understandable that the freshman class just doesn’t have enough seniority to access those facilities. And I can be patient.

Apparently, though, I am a noisy jerk in any language.

Daigaku Z: Tools of the Trade

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

I’d like to turn away from the actual learning of the language and get a little meta with this post. See, the last time I was in college, most of the technology I’m using on a daily basis was little more than a tiny spark in the back of some designer’s mind. I took the liberty of digging through my box of ten-year-old notes, and found some UI mockup sketches that, if I had the ambition and had recovered enough from my programming burnout, would look perfectly at home on Google Glass. Neglecting the fact that I don’t have nor do I want Google Glass, it surprised me to know how prescient some of those idle thoughts are turning out to be.

But it’s undeniable that the face of higher education is changing, and it’s similarly undeniable that the faces are typically buried in their smartphones as opposed to books. Students taking notes in tools like Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, and storing papers in cloud services like Dropbox and Box.Net, and using even less business-oriented tools like Facebook and text messages in creative ways, are commonplace sights on campus nowadays. In a sense, the role of student and the role of business collaborator are increasingly blending into each other (though grad students probably already had that blurring and are shaking their heads in mock astonishment).

Education is one of the hotbeds of technological innovation, and it’s only natural that these innovations would feed back into the ivory towers that spawned them. But even with the incredible wealth of gadgets and apps that we have at our very fingertips, there are arguments that students are not learning anything more valuable than how to tap their way to an answer. That’s definitely not the case with language majors, and arguably not the case with any other major. Tests still require the students to have retained and absorbed the knowledge they were exposed to, and all those wonderful toys go in the bag when the exams start.

So what, then, are those handy tools I keep mentioning? And what, if any, apply to the study of Japanese language and culture more than anything else? I already spoke a little about the biggest guns on my side, but I’ll go over them one more time and add a few more.

  • Evernote: Probably my go-to tool, Evernote is an online notebook service that allows you to collect, safeguard, and retrieve class materials from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. It can store text notes as well as file attachments such as PDFs and audio clips. The basic service is free, but it’s very worth shelling out for the premium membership as it allows you to store your notebooks offline and greatly increases the amount of data you can store on a monthly basis.
  • Dropbox: Cloud storage services are a dime a dozen these days, but of the ones I’ve used I found Dropbox to be the most useful. Since the beginning the company has continually increased the value of the service by providing more storage space without increasing rates, although the basic service is rather generous as well.
  • Clear: I had originally used Evernote to collect my to-do list, until I remembered that I’d picked up this incredibly simple and clean list app when it was on sale a few years ago. With fast adding of items and syncing across devices, it’s been a great tool for keeping track of assignments and tasks. And, if you’re running iOS 8, it now has a Notification Center widget.
  • imiwa?: Every dedicated Japanese student needs a kanji dictionary, and imiwa is by far the best I’ve found. Not inherently a tool for learning the symbols (see the next item), imiwa instead is simply a replacement for a heavy paper version of the essential tool. It includes three different lookup methods (SKIP, multi-radical, and Chinese radical) along with English and Japanese direct searching. If you do want to use it as a teaching tool, though, it also includes the listings for the five levels of the JLPT as well as the grade-school kanji lists.
  • StickyStudy: This pair of apps, in kana and kanji flavors, is an excellent flashcard tool for rapid memorization and learning of both syllabaries and the kanji themselves. It was updated this past summer with audio vocalizations for every flashcard, recited by a native speaker, and while it had initially been slated to be a paid upgrade the developer decided to simply add it in to the base app. If Japanese isn’t your thing, there are also apps to learn Chinese or to create your own flashcard sets.

In addition to these tools, I also have a link on my devices to the NHK’s News Web Easy service. On mobile devices, the site shows the furigana assistance over the kanji without requiring any additional steps, making it an excellent way to test not just one’s ability to read kana, but also one’s vocabulary. Granted, at this early stage in my education, I pretty much can’t read more than a handful of the words on the page, but at least it’s an ambition.

Daigaku Z: Honne Mnemonic

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

I’m going to confess, this isn’t the first time I’ve made an attempt to learn to speak Japanese. In 2009 I took a “continuing education” course at CCAC, which was a two-hour session once a week for two months, from which I learned almost nothing that I hadn’t already gathered from online resources. Then, a couple of years ago, our very own Jeanie tried tutoring some of us in the language as a side project, and while I learned more from there than I had anywhere else, it wasn’t nearly as intensive and self-reinforcing as this formal educational setting. Part of that is, of course, that I didn’t actually spend a whole lot of effort on it outside of the classroom; Jeanie’s a fantastic teacher, but at the time I wasn’t all-in on learning.

But, one thing that she did expose us to was a particular song intended to introduce the order of the numeric place words in Japanese. I’ll get to the song in a moment, but to explain place words, think of it like the words “hundred” and “thousand” in English. In English, we construct large numbers out of the counting numbers and a place word word: four hundred, eighteen thousand, and so forth. Japanese, however, only has counting numbers up to ten, and uses place words for all numbers greater than ten. So, if you wanted to say my age, instead of the English construction of “thirty-four”, you would instead literally say “three tens four”. While we could say that “thirty” is an place word, and that we’re just combining them backwards compared to “three hundred”, the way place words are usually defined is as a single, or the lowest possible amount that word can represent by itself, and that it is multiplied when expressing larger numbers in the same scale. Put more simply, it’s not an place word because we don’t say “three thirty” to mean 90. (I’m looking at you, French.)

So Japanese has place words. But because this counting system was developed outside of the West, and was already codified long before the Meiji Restoration re-opened Japan to the rest of the world, there are certain… shall we say, idiosyncrasies to Japanese numbers. For one thing, their place words go one rank higher than ours, at least while they’re still under the “million” range. The Japanese system is descended from the Indian and Chinese systems, which places the “break” between portions of a number at the ten-thousand mark instead of the one-thousand mark in European-originating systems. In their words, “juu sen” (literally “ten thousands”) is incorrect, but “ichi man” is correct (“one ten-thousand”). There is an extensive list of the words for these powers of ten available at Wikipedia.

In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story to tell you this one.

I mentioned above that the previous attempts at learning Japanese had failed to “stick” with me, due in part to both a reluctance to study and a lack of true dedication. It certainly was no failing on the part of my teachers, who have all done excellent jobs in imparting their wisdom. It wasn’t them, it was me. Still, one or two things did manage to stay in the back of my mind, mostly the overblown dramatics of some of the interactions we were learning and practicing. Then there were the visual and multimedia aids that Jeanie used in the hopes that they’d help.

Now, you should know something about me: I learned to read very early in my life, and I was conversing pretty much as soon as I could talk. My mom probably wishes I’d never learned to talk back, but what’s done is done. Anyway, the point is that I pick up on things primarily through repetition and connecting them through experience. For all the failings of early-life education, Sesame Street and The Electric Company were my bread-and-butter for getting me to speak and read that quickly.

So it was probably inevitable that, during the Japanese tutelage that Jeanie attempted, we would wind up watching preschool television, or something not entirely unlike it. We did manage to catch bits and pieces of Pythagoras’ Switch, a children’s show produced by the NHK. But the highlight (?) was a song by Genki Japan called “Ikura desu ka?”. This song will never leave your brain.

Which, I think, is kinda the point.

Daigaku Z: Proprietary Propriety

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

One of the major problems with the rising trend of globalization, particularly in so-called First-World and New-World nations, is the matter of cultural appropriation. At its core, the phrase refers to taking an element of a culture that one does not belong to and inappropriately applying its aesthetics or activity, without regard for the context in which it is used in its native culture. This includes things like wearing First Nations’ war headdresses as a fashion statement, when in reality the original use of the headdress was as a war memento and required certain actions prior to its wearing.

As you can imagine, for an American guy of Irish, German, and Hungarian descent– all of it several generations in the past– this poses a not-too-uncommon dilemma with respect to both my appreciation of Japanese pop media and my study of the Japanese language and culture. Depending on which quadrant of Tumblr you ask, my efforts are either an admirable adventure that I should be proud to undertake, or a racist abomination that serves to reinforce that white guys ruin literally everything. Not like I really expected to be able to please everyone with doing this, but at the very least the fact that I’m taking my studies seriously should work in my favor, right?

I want to be clear on this: the practice of malicious cultural appropriation absolutely does exist. A 2011-2012 recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live parodies the practice, with the overenthusiastic and undereducated student hosts of “J-Pop America Fun Time Now!” expressing what their bored faculty advisor describes as “a loving form of racism”. You don’t need to be a student of the actual culture to realize that these people are just plain Doing It Wrong; mangled shonen cliches compound shallow understanding of the source material to make a sketch that induces cringes severe enough to cause faces to collapse in on themselves. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, as since it has to fit in with the (admittedly wide) broadcast standards of NBC, the sketch cannot delve into the genuinely offensive.

That said, it’s very difficult for me to muster up any appreciable level of counter-sympathy for the hapless exhibitionists in the skit, because despite their obvious handicap, at least they’re trying. Sincerity counts for a lot, as well as genuine affection for the source culture. Where the wheels fall off is when people refuse to take corrections when they’re pointed out. For example, wearing a kimono folded the wrong way at first (as in, wearing it in the arrangement it would be in if the wearer were deceased) is embarrassing but benign; but to continue to do so after being corrected pushes the act into willful ignorance and intentional disrespect. Likewise, chanting a mudra during meditation is fine, but just doing it at random because you think it sounds cool is an abuse of the mudra. (Even if some of them really do sound cool.)

The problem, again, is context; but it also goes into the realm of policing and accusatory action. One of my plans, once I am able to write more frequently and fluidly in Japanese, is to add brief paragraphs in the language here in order to demonstrate my knowledge and challenge it, as well. I did something similar when I was learning French in high school, seeking out verbs and nouns that weren’t in the lesson plans to add to my vocabulary. Someone seeing the wad of kanji at the bottom of those future posts, however, might be tempted to call me out on the use of the language, saying I’m just stringing words together at random and that I have no actual knowledge of what they mean.

This would probably prompt certain of those individuals to extend the castigations into the realm of saying I have no right to speak Japanese, let alone consume the culture. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, think again: a well-worn post on Tumblr asserts that simply eating food from a culture different from one’s own native culture is a malevolent act of cultural appropriation. Maybe it’s just me, but I would think that the zillions of Chinese restaurant owners in US college towns might be a little upset if this were to become a mainstream view.

Where the situation becomes extremely blurry is in the matter of Western culture being appropriated by East Asian populations. As much as we love to amuse ourselves with the unintelligible English so beloved by Pacific Rim pop culture, a case could be made that it is in fact the same kind of malicious cultural appropriation as your stereotypical pasty chick with a kanji tattoo on her shoulder. The lack of complete understanding coupled with the selection based on aesthetics over context grants them both the same hallmarks. Yet the outcry of “loving racism” doesn’t seem to be applied to the Asiatic act nearly as often as the Anglophonic variant. While the quick and easy answer is that there is some racism itself involved in the accusation of racism, it ignores one important fact that is universal to all of human society. If you read last week’s column, you can see where this is going.

The arrival of globalization and worldwide connectivity means that even the most isolated society on the planet is no further removed than a handful of clicks and keystrokes. Even without the Internet, our varied social structures and cultures never developed in a vacuum. There were crossovers and influences as early as 2000 BCE, when ancient Chinese and Korean peoples exchanged ideas and craft techniques. I was surprised to learn this week that the distinctly Japanese symbol of the magatama (a comma-shaped bead, usually made of a precious or semi-precious stone) is actually descended from a Korean bear-claw ornament. Imagine that– one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan isn’t even natively Japanese!

America is, like I mentioned last week, no different in its syncretistic accumulation of customs and culture. I come from three different European cultures myself, and have more than a few traditions and habits from still others that I picked up through where I lived and grew up. As Americans we tend to gloss over or ignore the idiosyncrasies of our own local areas, even when they’re blatantly obvious. For example, Texans think nothing of their obsessions with high school football, in much the same way that Hawaiians take an exceptional amount of pride in their high schools. We take our regional differences to be quirks, because they are secondary to the unifying label of “American” that we hold most sacred. In a sense, it’s a matter of hierarchy: we pride our national identity over almost all else, and become agitated when that primacy is challenged through a blending of national identities.

In an ideal world– the kind of world I wish for on every shooting star– we take that widening of the identity to its logical conclusion, and consider ourselves unified under the label of “human being”. I know that’s an unrealistic wish, at least for the time being. People are too invested in the concept of the primacy of national identity. It doesn’t make me wish it any less. It still hurts when it’s shown that it can’t happen in my lifetime. But I still keep wishing for it. And that’s one aspect of my culture I have no problem letting others appropriate.

Daigaku Z: Ex Benedict

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Ask any anthropologist what the most influential 20th century American work on Japanese culture is, and you’re likely to get the same answer. Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture is widely considered to be just that book, by Anglophones and Japanese scholars alike. However, if you ask those same anthropologists and Japanese scholars what the best work on Japanese culture is, Benedict’s book doesn’t even make the list. This is primarily because The Sword and the Chrysanthemum is awful beyond the capacity for measure. The two assertions are not contradictory.

Published in 1947, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was commissioned by the United States military shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in order to better understand the motivations behind the out-of-the-blue attack. Benedict sought to understand the general cultural motifs present in everyday Japanese society of the time, believing that an understanding of the society would naturally lead to an understanding of the military mind. In the end, of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the War in the Pacific, and drastically altered the way Japanese society would be ordered and would function forevermore. In a sense, the book was obsolesced by its own first customers, as the American occupation of Japan instituted sweeping reforms in government and other aspects of life. However, the book was still published in the immediate post-war era, possibly as a way to reassure Americans that they had little to fear from a defeated and now inexplicably-genial Japan.

Admittedly, with almost sixty years of hindsight, the book now appears to be unabashedly racist and xenophobic, in much the same way that Bugs Bunny punching out a caricature of Hideki Tojo to hawk war bonds is embarrassingly cringe-inducing. But even taking the book as a product of its time, Benedict’s work appears to be more about the American perception of the Japanese than it is about the Japanese people themselves. There is, of course, a very good reason for this: Benedict didn’t speak a word of Japanese. She never visited Japan. The majority of her sources were either Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps, Japanese prisoners of war, or films and other media taken from before the conflict. Benedict extrapolated huge swaths of “societal behavior” from the customs and idiosyncrasies of a handful of individuals, not separating herself from the perfidious seed of thought that turns benign commonalities into racist stereotypes. Basically, imagine if the only thing you knew about Japan came from unsubtitled episodes of Dragon Ball Z that you forced someone to translate for you, and you then went on to assume that all of the men in the country acted like Goku and all of the women like Bulma.

So, by and large, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a load of baloney. Where the story takes a sharp turn into Bizarro World is the fact that the book became a best-seller in Japan. A book which paints the Japanese people and their culture with much the same brush as contemporary depictions of “Darkest Africa” (i.e. not portrayed very well at all) was well-received in the land which it was smearing. In point of fact, the book is widely considered the originator of what would become a non-fiction genre in and of itself within Japan, called nihonjinron. Japanese scholars took Benedict’s book at face value, and began writing similar works in a spirit of self-criticism and cultural introspection. Nihonjinron as a genre is not just an analysis of Japanese culture, it’s an attempt to create a continuity of such.

When scholars describe Japanese culture and society as being “synthetic”, the word should be stripped of its connotations denoting artificiality or being somehow non-genuine. In this case, we use the word as the perfective tense of “to synthesize”, meaning that it has been assembled from parts taken from around the world. Things that we as otaku think of as intrinsic to Japan are more often than not remnants of a past instance of cultural appropriation. For example, when the subject of Japanese schooling comes up, we think almost immediately of uniforms, which were added to the Japanese educational system during the Meiji Restoration as part and parcel of adopting the Austro-Germanic model. The way I like to think of it is that if the United States is considered a “melting pot” of people, Japan is considered a “melting pot of ideas”.

A common theme to nihonjinron is a self-abasing, almost reactionary tone in their depiction of the Japanese culture quirk in question as being, at most generous, out of sync with the rest of the world. The works tend to act as sort of a devil’s advocate, wherein the writer must defend the aspect of culture and provide some sort of justification for why things are done in that particular way, and therefore why it’s not really a change in the culture so much as it is a perfection of it. To take another angle on the matter, they could be considered like patch notes for the culture; they explain how things were before, what problems this caused, and how it should be done in the future. In this way, Japanese society’s act of synthesis is a constant, gradual evolution, like the ocean eroding a boulder over millennia of lapping at the shore. Day by day you don’t notice a change, but skip ahead a few decades and you might not recognize it as the same thing at all.

That is the real reason why Benedict’s awful book is still taught. Its jarring dissonance most eloquently illustrates the fundamental truth of– in addition to Japanese culture– human socialization as a whole: the only constant is that there are no constants. We are all in a state of constant inconstancy, and we must recognize that, if we are to understand not just each other, but ourselves.

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