Daigaku Z: More Writing About Buildings and Food

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

今日は、悟飯をたべましたか?お飲物は?では、Let’s 大学 Z!

When I was learning French in high school, (and Louis XIV was the King of France, not coincidentally), food was not one of the early lessons. It was only after a few of the more basics were in place that we began learning about le fromage, l’eau, and le pain (which is exactly what it sounded like). Japanese has been more or less on the same track, and it was this past week that we began looking at some of the more edible aspects of the world.

Half of this week was also going over directions, because what good is knowing what to order if you can’t figure out how to get to the restaurant? We went a little more in-depth into how to sequence and order directions, so that we didn’t run into the horrible kind of situations as the mythical GPS that tells people to turn left off of the bridge. But the most interesting thing about this confluence of lessons has been the fact that we’ve started asking the teachers about their favorite recipes. Amazingly enough, they’ve actually given us them.

It’s a virtue of the accelerated pace that we’re able to take a few moments here and there asking about such things. The intensity of the remainder of our work gives us a liberty to have a little bit more fun with the topic than we would otherwise. Depending on the teacher, too, we can relax and work in a more free-form fashion, without risking spending precious focus time on something we won’t need in the immediate.

It’s not foolproof, of course. And the pace is starting to catch up to me; you probably noticed this was late on Sunday. That said, things are heating up. Let’s see what cooks.

Daigaku Z: Levels

Daigaku Z: Levels

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

今日は!久しぶりですねえ。では、授業がはじめましたんので大学Zがもう一度きてますよ。じゃ、英語で言って:”Let’s Daigaku Z!”

I don’t expect many of you to be able to read that, and I also have my doubts as to the grammar within it. Nevertheless, as Sega would say: welcome to the next level.

The accelerated program for Japanese Year 2 was hyped up to me as being unattainably difficult: instead of learning 5 kanji a week, we were now learning 5 a day; lessons would be blasted through in the span of a week rather than more or less at a leisurely pace; the emphasis on the student’s effort was greatly increased; and so on and so on. This first week, though, has not been quite as bad as advertised (aside from coming down with a horrible cold on Thursday and Friday). Truth be told, the accelerated pace has done wonders for my ability to stay focused and concentrate on what needs to be improved upon, and as it turns out my grades for the week have maintained more or less the same levels that they did at the end of first year. That said, I harbor no doubt in my mind that everyone was going easy on us this week, and that things are going to very rapidly become difficult very quickly.

The differences between the standard program and the accelerated program couldn’t be more stark. Class sizes are dramatically reduced; whereas in first year we had 40-50 students in lecture and roughly 10 students in each recital, there are only six of us in the summer semester (counting myself). This means each of us have a lot more focus time in recitation, and consequently a lot more time under the gun. The seven hours on-campus are staggered into three hours of recitation, one hour of lecture, two hours of on-our-own practice, and a one-hour lunch somewhere in there; we never have two hours “on stage” in a row. The overall effect becomes a 30-hour a week meat grinder that is proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated, but not more difficult than I prepared for.

Even with the rather grueling pace, morale is still high. We quickly became acclimated to each others’ presence– relaxing and interacting much more than the first few weeks of recitation in the standard program– and we’re able to more quickly understand each others’ quirks and foibles, such that communication amongst ourselves has become a rather amusing mishmash of English and Japanese. I am definitely bringing up the middle of the class ranks, mostly due to being sick, but even with that I feel strongly that I can put in the extra effort needed to bring myself up to code quickly enough (assuming I stay healthy, which is in fact looking more likely this morning than it was last night). Probably the most important thing, though, is that we’re finally moving out of what the rest of the class considers boring and uninteresting material (phone conversation discussions) and into something that everyone can enjoy: food. To say we’ve been looking forward to this is a bit of an understatement.

From this perspective, having just dipped our toes into the maelstrom, we all feel reasonably confident about our abilities and capabilities. We’re not overestimating ourselves, but neither are we selling ourselves short. All in all it’s probably the best possible outcome for the first week. But, like baseball, football, and the League of Legends professional splits, trying to judge season performance based solely on the first week’s showing is a recipe for unmitigated disaster (just ask Team Coast). Time will tell if I’m headed for the Big Dance, or if I’m about to be busted back to the minors.

Don’t tell anyone this, but I’m betting big on myself to go all the way.

Daigaku Z: Live And Learn

Daigaku Z:

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 East Asian Language and Literature department 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.

Also, this is the last issue of Daigaku Z for the Spring 2015 semester. Thank you as always for your support and readership. The Summer 2015 semester’s columns will start on May 31st, so please look forward to it.

I dropped a little bit of a bomb on you at the end of the last column, but if you expect me to apologize for it, you’re not going to be happy. Actually, it’s something of a weird idiosyncrasy of mine to feel incredibly embarrassed to be bragging about a scholarship like that, but then again, if there’s been anything I’ve learned during this first academic year, it’s that I need to be less embarrassed by these victories. It’s funny that I would figure out that I need to develop an ego while learning a language that is explicitly designed to emphasize modesty and diminish personal aggrandizement.

These past twelve months– since I took the first steps to re-enroll in school– have been among the most stressful and grueling of my life. This summer semester is only going to get worse in that regard; eight hours a day to cram almost 30 weeks of learning into just 10 will tax my intellect and adaptability to their absolute limits. On top of all of this has been the stresses of an ordinary adult life. Bills, responsibilities, and other upkeep costs drained me of a lot of motivation and energy on the weekends. Fighting depression and the general strain of transition has been an anchor around my waist, but somehow I pulled through.

Even still, here I am. Here we all are. Last semester I was getting misty-eyed over being in a different recitation class than the friends I’d made in the fall. Now I realize that I’m going to be leaping forward beyond the people I started with, advancing on my own schedule, according to my original plan. It’s just as bittersweet. And yet, it’s also a strong position to be in. I have no real reason to be sad. It’s not like I’m losing these people forever; I’ll see them around. And if I want to pick up a few dollars and a little more practice, I can even consider tutoring them. (Yeah, I’m shameless.)

There’s a month or so until I start the next step in the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ll be resting well, practicing and trying to get a couple steps ahead, and by the time May ends and the summer semester kicks into high gear, I’ll be ready. I am so thankful for the support everyone has shown me to date, and I am so eager to continue my journey.


Daigaku Z: The Weight

Daigaku Z:

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 East Asian Language and Literature department 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.

Also, while I know it’s a bit sudden, next week is the last issue of Daigaku Z for the Spring 2015 semester. Thank you for your continued support. Daigaku Z will return… sooner than you think. Spoilers! Read on to find out why.

When I started my journey just about eleven months ago, I had only a vague idea of how I would be able to get through the full course of this second degree. I had dreamed big, and only now is it finally starting to pay off: only now am I really aware of just how far I’ve gone, and just how much further I have to go. This past week is certainly a big part of that.

Most of you are aware of the incredibly high cost of even the first post-secondary degree one wants to get. A four-year degree in the United States costs, on average, anywhere from $40,000 for in-state students at public universities to upwards of $120,000 for private schools, according to COLLEGEData. Depending on your financial status and your savings, the guaranteed loans for that only cover about 30-50% of that cost. The government has lots of programs for people looking to get their first degree, but once you have one, you’re largely on your own– retraining or continuing education is not covered by those programs. The crushing weight of the debt incurred in gaining a degree, regardless of which one it is, totalled just about 1.4 trillion dollars last year, and the current climate of scarce hiring of new graduates makes it difficult to the point of impossibility to pay it off expediently. Couple all that with the fact that by the time they were 48, the latest of the Baby Boomer generation had changed jobs almost 12 times (according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics), and you can see why the ability to make a professional U-turn is something that one would think would be easier.

Then again, there are some ways that the most exceptional students can find their way to receive assistance no matter what their status. I don’t really consider myself to be an “exceptional” student, despite my repeated ability to outperform my own expectations. Depending on the school, scholarships make themselves available to those who reach the highest pinnacles of capability. I honestly thought that I was not anywhere near among them, but nonetheless I applied for a full-roll scholarship for the accelerated summer semester, hoping that my decent performance coupled with my particularly unique situation would at least merit consideration. 

As the deadline for the scholarship application process neared, I began to doubt even what I had accomplished. I had been a bit under the weather more often than I would have liked, which has dragged down my grades across the board; I wondered if the statement I’d put in the application letter, that I “expected to achieve similar performance” in the spring, would be proven a lie. Every day that passed was a weight on my chest, pulverizing my motivation and annihilating my hope. It all came to a head on Thursday, when I found that I wasn’t getting any additional help for the Fall 2015 semester beyond what had already been approved. I was seriously considering dropping the whole thing.

Friday morning, the weight was still there, but as anyone with depression can tell you, making plans helps tremendously with one’s mood, even if the plan is counter-productive at best and self-destructive at worst. I went to my classes on Friday with something akin to a devil-may-care attitude: I would do my best with these last few weeks of classes, and whatever happened beyond that, I would at least have this basis to build upon on my own. Interestingly, not having the pressure of worrying about a scholarship that I had convinced myself I wasn’t going to get, and wouldn’t hear about until after finals anyway, made me a bit more fluent in the language. I had one of my strongest recitation classes in months. In any event, I had a paper to write after my classes were over, and I had been looking forward to playing League of Legends all weekend to forget my troubles. I camped out in the dining hall, writing and anticipating, for a little while before I boarded the bus home.

Five minutes after I got on the bus, I got the email saying I was being awarded the summer scholarship.


Daigaku Z: A Question of Existence

Daigaku Z:

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 East Asian Language and Literature department 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.

Japanese has two verbs indicating the state of being: iru and aru. Both are used similarly to the English phrase “to be”. However, they are not interchangeable. While iru is used probably far more often in everyday speech, that’s because it is used exclusively for living or animate things. Aru, by contrast, is used for objects– things. A good rule of thumb is that only a mortician should be in the habit of using aru for their clients.

When the standard was set forth some thousands of years ago, it seemed pretty straightforward. Living things got iru, motionless things got aru. Then technology came and mucked everything up. How do you handle the case of robots? What about artificial intelligences that might be confined to their terminals? Where is the cutoff for considering something to be “alive”?

We actually encountered this situation on Friday in class. There was a disagreement whether or not Siri– the pseudo-intelligent virtual assistant included in the iPhone– should be referred to with iru or aru. Setting the service to Japanese and asking “How are you feeling?” garnered the response “Pinpin shiteru desu yo”– a construct that’s normally used with iru. This irked me, because Siri isn’t alive by any stretch of the imagination; but my classmates all argued that Siri was intelligent enough to use iru when speaking reflexively.

This isn’t a question that’s just now coming up, either. Japanese students around the world are always trying to figure out this delineation, sometimes using ghosts, sometimes using zombies, sometimes using androids. It’s a strange irony that the land that birthed ASIMO and this thing should have such a specific built-in inflexibility in its language. Between Siri, Cortana, Google’s voice assistant, and more sophisticated systems such as IBM’s Watson, artificial intelligence is closer now than it has ever been in the past. So, we’d better think of what to say to our robotic overlords once they come into existence.

Now, that said, Japan may have already solved this problem due to yet another aspect of their culture that the rest of the world sees as peculiar: the “kawaisa” aesthetic and its all-pervasiveness. That second example up there– the toilet-cleaning elephant robot wearing the little yellow hat– perfectly exemplifies what I mean. How can you not fall in love with the idea of a giant blue cyber-pachyderm that cheerfully scrubs urinals? Japan’s product design tends towards the friendly, the non-threatening, the adorable. This might be as much to lower one’s guard as it is to get the product to feel indispensable: it’s harder to replace a refrigerator if it’s seen as part of the family. Whether or not the relentless anthropomorphization of household appliances is good or bad is irrelevant to the point, though, because the closer something is seen to being or acting human, the more it seems to breed use of iru as opposed to aru.

I’m probably not going to be bowing to my rice cooker anytime soon. But when it comes to computers that can hold a conversation with me, or at the very least tell me when I have a column or paper due, I think I can learn to use iru for Siri.

Daigaku Z: Crash Burn

Daigaku Z:

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 East Asian Language and Literature department 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 missed last week, which I’m sure you noticed. This past week was Spring Break, as well, and I was very tempted to say that there wasn’t going to be anything worth talking about this week, either. But the convergence of the two led me to pass on a cautionary tale, and the timeliness of the coincidence, as it turns out, was a pretty good motivator to tell it. Let me say this, though: as much as I want to say that missing a column “wasn’t my fault”, and as much as I hope the following tale will back me up on that assertion, it simply isn’t true. As I’m sure you’re about to see.

So on Thursday I had a major mid-term exam for Japanese Culture and Civilization, and of course I hadn’t prepared much. The column two weeks ago, on Oda Nobunaga, was as much studying as I’d done prior to that point. So I spent Wednesday evening on my couch, scribbling through a test prep worksheet and trawling through the books trying to find the answers. I am not great at focused studying. It sounds a little too audacious to say this, but up until I was in college I never really needed it; high school was fairly easy, and only once I was in some of the less-directly-related-to-my-major general education requirements at Gannon did I really need to sit down and hit the books heavily. Studying, like pretty much everything, is a skill, and students need to both learn it and stay in practice. I hadn’t. I fully expect I’m going to pay a heavy price for not doing either of those.

That would have been fine, if not for the fact that on Friday I had the first draft of a major research paper due as well, for Pragmatics of Japanese. The professor was, of course, very lenient– the deadline was midnight on Friday– but it was still a bit moe pressure than I had initially anticipated, considering I had been under the impression it wouldn’t be due until after Spring Break. I was, as you can tell, wrong, and I had that stress pushing against me in the back of my mind. I was able to get the paper done, of course, and I think I did fairly well. 

But at the same time, the stress of getting it done was wearing me down much faster than normally, and by the end of the day on Friday I was a shivering, painful mess. I ached, I felt like I was going to throw up, my blood sugar was spiked through the roof, I had a horrible fever, and I could barely stay upright waiting for the bus home. When I finally did get home, I collapsed into bed, where I would fail to sleep for more than two consecutive hours. I didn’t fully recover until late Monday morning.

Believe it or not, this was not the first time I’d had a metaphorical total system crash due to classwork. The first time around, in junior year, there was an end-of-term project that seriously threatened my sanity and health. I had tried to be more proactive about that one, locking up my video game consoles until it was done, but by the end of the project I was feverish and sleepless. It was so bad that I had a full-on “lost weekend”– I literally do not remember the two-day span between turning in the project and waking up at home. That was fifteen years ago, long before I ever touched a drop of alcohol, and it scared the hell out of me.

In case you think I’m telling you this story to garner sympathy, I freely admit that 99% of what happened was the result of extremely poor time management on my part. I have time each day where I can do class reading, or where I can listen to Japanese-language tutorials to keep in practice. But instead my bus commute is usually filled with me playing games on my phone or just idly surfing. There’s a ton of things I could have done better, and a ton of things which I’m going to have to do better. After this weekend I really don’t want a repeat of this situation.

But I’m telling you this story because, quite frankly, stress can kill you. If you’re overstressed, your immune system loses its effectiveness. Stress can impair your judgment in much the same way alcohol can. If you are too overstressed, something’s gotta give, and unfortunately whatever snaps in you is highly unlikely to be something you can do without. You might get a cold. You might lose some hair. You might have a depressive episode. Whatever happens, it’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to be easy or quick to fix.

Fortunately, there’s ways to manage yourself so that you don’t ever have to encounter these do-or-die situations. Give yourself plenty of time to work on assignments; work ahead if you can. Take frequent breaks, but keep them short and controlled. Don’t wreck your sleep schedule. Reward yourself when you make progress. Work with a friend to collaborate and ease the load. Go somewhere new to work if you feel distracted at home or in your usual spot. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for more time if you honestly feel overwhelmed. Talk to your professors and teachers, explain your situation, and accept their input. 

College is fun. I honestly love being here again. But don’t let a few easy classes early on fool you into thinking it’s a walk in the park. This is the most difficult work you’ll do in your educational career, and for good reason: if it’s hard now, facing it out there in the real world will be nothing you haven’t overcome already. But you can’t take it on if you’re still sick from the last battle. Take care of yourself, and I’ll catch you next week. I promise.

Daigaku Z: Warring States

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 East Asian Language and Literature department 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 2013 and 2014, the theme of the long-running Kamen Rider series was, on the surface, fruit. Each of the Armored Riders in Kamen Rider Gaim had a preferred weapon, which was matched to a fruit ranging from grapes, bananas, kiwis, and durians. However, the true theme of the series– introduced in the opening moments of the show’s first episode with all the subtlety of a mace made out of a massive brass pineapple– was a retelling of sorts of the early 17th century in Japan’s history, more commonly known as the Warring States period.

I am fairly certain that Oda Nobunaga did not solidify his power in what would soon be considered a unified Japan through the use of a large sword resembling an orange slice. Similarly, I’m also not convinced that Nobunaga used the awe-inspiring power of Rayquaza and Arceus to bring his rivals to heel. With the sheer amount of times that Oda Nobunaga is referenced in Japanese pop culture, someone not familiar with the basics of what actually happened could easily be mightily confused by the massive smear job being done upon him. It would be like Benedict Arnold being considered the worst villain in American history for his role in betraying the Army of the Colonies, but not understanding why he actually did it. The man who in his younger years was known as the “Fool of Owari” is shrouded in awe and fear.

Nobunaga was one of the warlords in the final years of the Muromachi shogunate, and he himself was instrumental in the downfall of the Ashikaga clan that was supporting it. His own band of warriors contained three classes of fighters: spearmen, archers, and gunners. Using the primitive (by our standards) muzzle-loading guns of the late 16th century as brought to Japan by Portugese missionaries, Nobunaga innovated the state of warfare by arranging his gunners into ranks to alternate fire, raining down continuous bullets upon his enemies the Takeda clan– a clan which was known in Japan as the initiators of the age of firearms in the country. Nobunaga’s cleverness in making up for the faults of the slow-loading firearms leads most military historians to claim that he was the first commander in the world to deploy gunners in such a fashion, beating out the British and American commanders by decades if not a century.

Starting from what is modern-day Nagoya, Oda Nobunaga spread his forces throughout the central portion of the main island of Honshu, pushing west and north in equal amounts. No one was safe from his ruthlessness. In 1571, Nobunaga torched a mountaintop monastery for the crime of having failed to vow allegiance or neutrality in the ongoing struggle for supremacy. The Mount Hiei sanctuary was the premier scholarly establishment in Japan at the time. It’s analogous to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, both in the priceless knowledge forever lost and the petty reasoning behind the annihilation. Still, Nobunaga had a single goal: the unification of Japan. Nothing would stop him.

It is, then, a somewhat predictable twist that Oda Nobunaga would be assassinated by one of his own lieutenants. Akechi Mitsuhide, a retainer of Nobunaga’s who felt slighted by his master’s plans to name a successor other than himself, took it upon himself to rectify the situation in a similarly ruthless fashion. In June of 1582, Mitsuhide killed Nobunaga, his wife and children, his bodyguards, and his “companion” Mori Ranmaru. Unfortunately, while Mitsuhide was great at taking the reins of power from the “Fool of Owari”, he was somewhat less adept at solidifying his position, and in the two weeks of his rule a rival follower, the future Toyotomi Hideyoshi, releived him in the only way that was possible– he had him torn apart by peasants.

Oda Nobunaga never unified Japan. That was done by his successors, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. But the road to that unification was not easy; Hideyoshi was notoriously unstable late in life, launching two failed campaigns to invade Korea, and Ieyasu would institute crippling reforms to the social order that sowed the seeds of his family’s downfall some two hundred years later. Popular culture of today believes Hideyoshi to be a madman, Ieyasu to be a calculated despot, and Nobunaga himself to be a demon from Hell. Reality is not so cut and dried, of course, but for the period known as the Warring States era– the dawn of the Tokugawa Shogunate– one could be forgiven for buying into the hype.

Daigaku Z: Gaming The System

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.

Also, thank you for bearing with the absence last week; I was rather ill and couldn’t get much done until Monday. With any luck this will be the last break before the end of the semester.

The preface to every Daigaku Z column thus far has included the assertion that I am learning Japanese in order to become a translator. This is true. It sounds rather absurd to have to state that, but there it is. As with everything, though, while it is true, there’s more truth to it than what’s in that statement.

A couple years ago I was made aware of Andy Kitkowski’s translation of the 1997 tabletop game Tenra Bansho Zero, which fuses steampunk aesthetics to jidai geki style (classical Japanese history) swashbuckling. It was a fairly ambitious Kickstarter, but the more I read through the book’s rules and its game principles, the more I realized it was something truly unique among tabletop role-playing games. Mr. Kitkowski’s work turned out to be an excellent introduction to this world of games that we, as English speakers, have very little insight into.

Of course, even before that, I had an interest in what’s colloquially known as “import gaming”. I’d picked up Ewen Cluney’s translation of Maid RPG; I had collected a few of the Super Robot Taisen games for PS2; and Z-Man Games had brought out an English edition of the Shadow Hunters board game that I really enjoyed. The subsequent releases of OVA and Golden Sky Stories were also fantastic products that I’m proud to have supported, but through it all I realized that there was so much more out there that is being left more or less untouched.

Games are an excellent tool, not just for passing the time on a snowy weekend, but for learning a number of skills that we use daily without thinking about them. I’m sure everyone who’s had an elementary-level Spanish class wound up playing Uno to learn the numbers and at least four colors. But there are other skills we learn through games: fast mathematics, spatial skills, inductive and deductive reasoning, short term behavior modeling… The list is as long as there are games in the world. There’s a reason we correlate high intelligence with strong chess skills. (For the record, I am terrible at chess.)

But even more than that, the Internet age and the advent of smartphone app stores means that we have access to, in theory, any game we could ever want at any point in time and on any point on the globe. We no longer need to find someone out there to teach us some of the less commonly played card games like euchre or contract bridge: all we have to do is run a search. Where things get complicated is the extreme provincialism of some app developers, who may never think for even a second that their best-selling mahjong app might be worth translating into English.

Back in 2009, a Chinese developer thought they were going to make it big in America through their introduction of the first true mahjong game on the Xbox 360. Funtown Mahjong was a break from what the American audience generally perceives mahjong as being– instead of the tile-matching game Shanghai, it was the original multiplayer melding game. It was a day-one purchase for me, because I’d always wanted to learn how to play. Unfortunately, it was a torturous experience, and to this day I still don’t know how to play to any great satisfaction.

It’s the same with more or less any of the “classic” games. Hanafuda (koi-koi), mahjong, go, shogi… All those great and in some cases maddeningly rich games that we’ve seen for decades in anime, and nobody on that side of the Pacific has bothered to try teaching the North American audience how to play. There’s been mahjong and pachislo (pachinko-slot) games on every console since the days of the Famicom and they’ve all been awkardly inward-facing. It drives me up the wall, to be honest.

So, allow me to reiterate this point. I’m going to be a translator. I’m going to find the best versions of mahjong, the best versions of shogi, the best versions of any weird or unusual game that hasn’t been brought out in North America, and I am going to give them the same level of care and polish that fan translators have given games like Cave Story, Danganronpa, and Yume Nikki. That’s my plan. I estimate I’m about six months away from being able to start on a game– that would put me at the end of the summer accelerated session, with the equivalent of two years of study under my belt.

Consider this your head start, game industry.

Daigaku Z: Mutually Assured Discussion

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 finding myself enthralled by the Pragmatics of Japanese class I’m taking this semester. It’s certainly one of the hardest courses I’ve ever taken, but that’s because it’s challenging me to think about things which would never cross my mind in a million zillion years. It’s asking me to examine something as subliminal and beneath notice as the way I speak and organize my thoughts. (Yes, there is actually an organization to my thoughts. Try not to be too surprised.)

The most recent article we discussed in the class as of this writing was about the differences between how Japanese group discussions are held and how American group discussions are. The short version of the article is that, while Americans launch straight into topics and only give as much detail as is asked for, Japanese people preface their conclusions with anecdotes to back up their assertions. The prevailing theory on this is that Japanese society highly values harmony, correctness, and prevention of embarrassment, which means that even an innocent mistake can be costly to one’s reputation. On the flip side, Americans are so free with their words that it’s easy to overlook the occasional slip of the tongue.

Case in point: yesterday in recitation class I said “suika” instead of “suiyoobi“, which means that yesterday was Watermelon, and today (as you read this) is Sunday. I was able to get over this mix-up with a slight blush, but the sideways glance I got from Ootani-sensei was unmistakable and unforgettable. While I, and most of the rest of the class, will probably forget about this in the long run, it’s something that sticks in the mind of native speakers.

More to the article’s data, however, was the way in which discussions were organized and sequenced. The Japanese speakers went through what most Americans would consider to be too much preamble, sorting out how the discussion would be framed and the order in which people would speak. The Americans, on the other hand, had “Who goes first? …okay, I will” as the full extent of their preparatory discussion. The American view of the Japanese discussion felt it was stilted and overly formal for what was just a short chat about why people decided to study abroad. It seemed, to most Americans, that they were approaching a casual topic with the same level of formality and structure (same or greater, actually) that Americans would use in Presidential debate!

On the flip side, though, there’s the Japanese view of American conversations as being terse, unorganized, pushy, and overly assertive. The article described American discussion tendencies as “reporting” or “summarizing”, and noted that we tend to provide our conclusions and assertions straight away and only delve into the supporting arguments if prompted or challenged. Left to our own devices, our thoughts can appear random, disconnected, and chaotic to someone who might not be following our train of thought exactly. This paragraph is actually a fairly good example of that particular style; it’s condensing a ten-page scholarly report into three or four sentences.

For being a language so heavily dependent on context, where “ii desu yo” can mean anything from “yeah, it’s great” to “no thank you”, the thought of American English as being “terse” and “unorganized” can seem a little bit projective, or less charitably, hypocritical. However, the Japanese paradigm of conversation and discussion lends itself towards providing that context. In a situation where understanding is critical, the Japanese are not frugal with their words; they offer lengthy establishing statements to set up the context necessary for their final point to be as clear as possible. Moreover, very seldom will a Japanese speaker directly assert anything; more than likely they will suggest options to who they perceive as their higher-up, in order to avoid making a statement that is or would later be contradicted or contraindicated. It is a sort of cultural avoidance of a clash of opinions that is coded into the language itself.

Now, all that said, there will be times when a Japanese person just says something flat-out. And there are going to be American discussions that are heavily regimented and directed. But by and large a reference for the “default” conversation style of a culture is a very necessary thing to know, if only to avoid trying to impose Robert’s Rules of Order when figuring out where to have dessert.

Daigaku Z: The Greatest Story (for)Ever Told

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.

Around 1000 CE, Murasaki Shikibu wrote what most scholars of literature consider to be the first Japanese novel, Genji Monogatari (or The Tale of Genji). A massive doorstopper by today’s standards, the story is in fact unique in early Japanese literature because of its sheer length and prosaic format. Prior to Genji the most famous works were the Kojiki, the creation myth of Japan, and the Man’yoshu, a collection of poetry from the earliest times of the Japanese people. Both were short, poetic in form, and by and large written in a mishmash of Chinese and Japanese, owing to the nascent and scattershot importation of kanji into the island nation.

Genji, on the other hand, was written in chaptered installments, much like the Victorian-era “chapbook” publishing plans favored by Dickens and later experimented with by Stephen King for The Green Mile. Furthermore, the language used in Genji was, although arcane and peculiar to the Heian court, undeniably Japanese, allowing a full translation into modern Japanese to be undertaken some nine hundred years later. Even considering the rather groundbreaking aspects of the book, that such an important text in world literature was not even readable in anything approaching its original form by modern or classical audiences for almost a millennium meant that one could be forgiven for overlooking it… but only for so long.

Three English translations of The Tale of Genji exist, and each of them has their own flaws. Last semester’s course on how to better understand translated works, and to comparatively read them, was very influential in my decision to take on the book before actually enrolling in a class about it. While Pitt does offer a course on Japanese literature, that course uses an abridged version of Genji that clocks in at just under 400 pages. The full version of the text (in my case, the Tyler translation) is over 1100, for just the text of the novel alone; including footnotes, appendices, and other material it’s over 1300 pages. So, hooray for digital books, I guess.

When I put out the call for suggestions on which translation to read, a friend sent me a message to the effect of “I’m sorry you’re being forced to read that huge book”. I responded, of course, that it was my own decision, that of all things I was doing this for “fun”. It’s also worth mentioning that I picked up a digital copy of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms at the same time, as that particular novel has been on my list for a while; a different friend is an ardent scholar of that book, and has long advocated that people read it. If I’m going to be reading ancient books, I might as well go for the really big ones.

Still, even considering the massive undertaking of reading both of them, I feel fairly confident that I’ll manage it. I did, after all, plow through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle over the course of a year, and that series is easily three times as long as Genji and infinitely more esoteric; unless there’s something I’m not aware of, that is, and Genji can top having a syphilitic maniac as a main character alongside Sir Isaac Newton as a mildly deranged alchemist. I’m betting it won’t, and that because of that it should be much easier to read. Almost by definition it would have to be.

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