Daigaku Z: Itadakimasu

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 most college students do is expand their culinary horizons. Most of the time this takes the form of trying something different in the dining hall, but on occasion this includes finding a favorite take-out place and becoming a regular there. Depending on which campus you’re on, this can also include the resurgence of food trucks, which offer low-cost specialized meals. Pittsburgh is blessed to be part of this renaissance, with vehicles such as the Pittsburgh Taco Truck, Oh My Grill, and Mac and Gold being well-known and well-regarded when they come around. I’m fond of food trucks as a concept, especially in how the Taco Truck implements it, because they increase the variety available in an area relatively easily and create a sense of their appearance being a special event.

Except they’re not legal in Oakland, which is where the Pitt campus is. So instead we have three ancient trucks that were grandfathered in when the ordinance was passed, and cannot move from their spots. I ate at two of them this week, and quickly realized why Oakland might outlaw food trucks.

That said, there are plenty of very good permanent places to eat in and around the campus so that one never really gets too bored. Last semester, most of the 4pm recitation class invaded the Korean tea house Chick’n Bubbly, where there’s great bubble tea and very good small meals. Very close by on Oakland Avenue is my personal favorite, Oishii Bento, where one can find Japanese meals alongside the expected Chinese standbys. A little further away– closer to Carnegie-Mellon– there’s Lulu’s Noodles, which I really enjoy whenever I’m out that way. And I would be remiss in failing to mention the distant yet worth-the-trip Ramen Bar in Squirrel Hill.

Then again, even if you’re not looking for Asian food, Oakland has a lot of variety right in front of everyone’s face. Schenley Plaza is home to Waffalonia, a Belgian waffle stand that is much better than I make it sound. It’s also home to the incredibly controversial, yet very tasty Conflict Kitchen, who serve up meals with a heaping side of empathy. For something a little closer to home, though, there’s also the Burgh-renowned Pamela’s P&G Diner, or the Burgh-infamous Primanti Bros. sandwiches.

Of course, even with this map of the world on our plate, it’s important to remember that a masterfully-made meal is made even better with the company of good friends and a pleasant conversation. I’ve been to all of these places alone, and I’ve been to all of them with friends. They’re only truly great when I’m not alone, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a reflection on the food.

So let’s eat.

Daigaku Z: Borrowed Trouble

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.

As the second semester of my language study begins, I’m reminded of a rather interesting incident that happened during the very first time I studied any language. This would be from high school, when I went into learning French under the tutelage of the eminently capable Mme. Blair. Being fourteen years old, naturally I gravitated towards certain words more steadily than the ones that, necessarily, I would have had I been in any amount more mature than I was. The most infamous of those was vomir, which as you can expect means exactly what it sounds like.

This leads us to the French word demander, which similarly appears to be analogous to the English word “demand”, but in fact carries a very different connotation. I imagine that you are demanding an explanation as you read this, but je vous demande a little patience– that is, I politely ask for a little patience from you, even as you aggressively assert your requirement. While the words come from a similar linguistic root– the Latin cognate– they are what’s known in linguistic circles as “false friends”, or words that appear identical but carry diverging meanings in different languages. Odds are that you’ve run into this situation in a cursory study of Japanese yourself: the gerund form shite (to do) looks remarkably similar to an English word that I don’t think needs any further introduction.

In Latinate or Germanic languages, this kind of drift is understandable if somewhat strange. But in the case of certain other coincidences– such as the English “name” being similar to the Japanese nominal namae, which means the same thing– it can border on the baffling. These situations are instead known as “false cognates”, where two words in two unconnected languages are similar. That’s all fine and good when discussing relatively mundane words, but Japanese makes things much more interesting in many more interesting ways.

Recall that during the last semester, we discovered that Japanese society as a general rule is synthetic– not in the sense of being artificial, but rather in the sense of being synthesized from its own history combining with the customs and traditions of its neighbors here on Earth. This goes double for the language, as well. While we like to think of English as the reigning champion of taking loanwords from other languages with reckless abandon, Japanese takes it two steps further by not only appropriating words, but abbreviating them and then giving sometimes wildly new definitions to the abbreviations.

Take that most ubiquitous of Japanese shopping staples, the convenience store. Known over there as a konbini, they’re slightly more involved than your basic 7-11 in America; they are clean, well-stocked stores where most everything that could be needed at a moment’s notice is available. Certainly not what your average American thinks of when hearing the full expansion of the phrase. But then you get into places like soaplands, which are about as far from squeaky-clean as my imagination is willing to take this sentence; these serve as areas where one can receive “service” from particular types of ladies. Hell, even the word service means a vendor or provider going the extra mile to earn your custom.

It’s not all seedy bathhouses and microwaved noodles. Likewise, the false friends aren’t limited to English loanwords. The sentence particle de in Japanese is used to mark an adverb-like modifier of a verb; for example, densha de itte! means (roughly) “Let’s go by train!”. In French, and in fact a lot of Latin languages, de is a possessive marker– directly translating in English to “of”. That linguistic function is served, in Japanese, by the word no. Which, of course, in English is a response indicating a negative.

If anything, the whole mess has done one good thing for me. It’s taught me that the Great Engineer of the Universe put the French and the Japanese on opposite sides of the planet for a very good reason.

Daigaku Z: The Revenge of Context

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.

Welcome to the second semester, kids. The gloves are officially off, even if the bitter cold of January means they’re more necessary than ever.

Rather than my previous approach of taking on more work than I could handle and then dropping out of a class, I decided I was only going to take the bare minimum to qualify me for full-time status. With the daily recitation classes for language class, that actually means just three courses plus getting my “writing-intensive” requirement out of the way. That said, I gotta say, I picked some real winners this time around. The other two courses on my plate this semester are a meatier Japanese Culture and Civilization course and the scarily-titled Pragmatics of Japanese. I don’t really have a good handle on the professor for the culture course; as of this writing we’ve only met once and most of that was spent fooling around with Google Earth, until it got derailed entirely when the professor started talking about Perfume.

The Pragmatics course, however, is an entirely different animal, and deals with that most wonderful of aspects of any language: context. The first thing that needs to be said is that every single language has a dependence on context and also has wildly differing rules for how that context is established, built upon, and violated. I’m not using the negative connotation of “violated”, but rather more in the sense of McGraw and Warren’s “Benign Violation Theory” of humor: breaking the rules of language or context for an intentional effect. Since I’m looking to study Japanese humor as a side to my classroom instruction, you can see why I would think that a course all about context would be beneficial to me.

The thing is, though, my background is in computer science and software engineering. I didn’t have to take very many language or literature courses during my first degree, even though I was at what most people consider a “liberal arts” school. Worse still, I frontloaded a lot of those courses into my freshman and sophomore years, which meant that by the time I would be looking for a break from constant coding, I no longer had the opportunity to. About the only thing I can think in my existing background that really prepared me for this was the very first class I ever took at Gannon: a course on composition, writing, and rhetoric. That course shaped me so much, it’s not even funny (ironically enough).

So in order to understand what pragmatics is in Japanese, it would be good to know what they are in English. I could go into a long and drawn-out discussion of the topic here, but it’s probably better to say that this sentence itself is an example of the sort of thing that pragmatics handles. At first blush it doesn’t seem connected to the previous one: that sentence sets up an expectation that I’ll tell you about pragmatics, but then the sentence in question just kinda meanders its way to a point that doesn’t explain much of anything. The sentences that follow it in this paragraph are in contrast exemplary of the other side of the coin; they explain plainly their connection to both the “meandering” sentence and the first one of this paragraph. In the end, though, pragmatics isn’t necessarily the content of the sentences, but rather the mental logical leaps the reader (i.e., you) has to take in between the sentences to get at the whole picture.

Confused yet?

Where things get interesting is that the study of language pragmatics is, to put it into technological terms, reverse-engineering language such that rules can be determined from what evolved naturally as the language was used and developed. Take a classic Pittsburgh error like the word “need”. By itself, as a noun, it signifies something that is both required and lacking– stuff like food, water, shelter, companionship, etc. etc. As a verb it indicates a state of lacking something: I need food, I need water, etc. But in combination with an infinitive verb, it indicates that the verb must be done by the subject: I need to eat, I need to drink. If you use a past participle (an -ed verb) to indicate that a verb must be done to the subject, standard English rules say you must include the infinitive “to be”: the donut needs to be eaten, the car needs to be filled with gasoline. Pittsburghers drop that infinitive, shortening the phrases to “the donut needs eaten” and “the car needs filled with gas”. People who grew up learning that truncation find it to be the most natural thing in the world; to most Americans outside of the Three Rivers, it makes little to no sense. It’s not like Sam Pettigrew (first elected Mayor of Pittsburgh) just up and changed the language one day. It just kind of happened.

I never even noticed that I did it until I was 27. And now I’m going to start studying how a civilization on the other side of the world does it.

Buckle up, kids: pragmatics is gonna be a bumpy ride.

2014 In Gaming: Z’s Top 5

The year past has been a rather difficult time to be a player of video games. Even the word “gamer” has become passé, tainted by the vociferous minority. Still, despite the efforts of certain people I could name, 2014 has been one of the best years for video games since the halcyon days of the Super NES/Genesis. Bungie released their first post-Halo work; Professor Layton teamed up with Phoenix Wright (finally); Hearthstone tried to do for digital card games what Ascension did for deck-building games; and Freddy Fazbear charmed his way into our hearts and urinary tracts. Those are the big successes of 2014, and more power to them. But they’re (largely) not what I played.

Let’s take a closer look at the five games I played the hell out of in 2014, and why you should drop that Duty disc, stop staring at those gaming monitors and and put your eyeballs on these.

5: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (NIS America, PS Vita, February/September)

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I reviewed Danganronpa back in February, and found it to be a thrilling, hilarious trip through a twisted high school. When the sequel came out in September, I was a little busy and it fell through the cracks, but it’s no less fun and no less enthralling; it manages to correct a few of the problems I had with the first game and introduce me to a new cast of defectively apex classmates. Visual novels are still a hard sell in North America, though, so honestly it’s not that much of a surprise if these slipped past you, too. If you love detective games or ridiculous dialogue, there’s no need for despair: just go grab them.

4: Puyo Puyo Tetris (Sega, PS3/PS4/PS Vita/Wii U/3DS/Xbox One, February/December)

Puyo Puyo Tetris

I feel pretty confident in saying that in all likelihood you haven’t played these. This is because there has been a perfect storm of problems making it too difficult to bring into North America: the PS3 version wasn’t available digitally until the summer, and pretty much every other version has some form of region locking or inconvenience. That’s a real shame, because this is probably the definitive version of both Puyo Puyo and Tetris available today. This even unseats my previous favorite version of Tetris (The Next Tetris Online for Dreamcast). I had to resort to ordering yen-based PS Network cards to get the game, and I don’t regret it at all. With the next-gen versions having been released this past month, hope is renewed for a potential North American release… but with Ubisoft having locked up the Tetris license, it ain’t looking likely.

3: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (Nicalis, PC/Mac/Linux/PS4/PS Vita, November)

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Poop is funny. Let’s just get that out of the way right now, poop is funny and this game has a lot of poop. It’s also got a lot to say about religion, but the message is subtle underneath the hybridization of Rogue-like procedural generation and Zelda-like top-down gameplay. The game is fast-paced and challenging, and is deep enough that it’s a new experience every time you play. The PS4 and Vita versions are a little twitchy in terms of some nasty save-game bugs, but they’re mostly ironed out by the time you read this. I hope. Oh, and one more thing: poop. Funny. Trust me.

2: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (Square-Enix, 3DS, September)

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

I love music games. LOVE THEM. But ever since Harmonix wound down the production of Rock Band, it’s been really difficult to find good music games. Granted, the Kickstarter to revive Frequency was successful, but there’s something about jamming to music that brings back memories of casting Firaga that really speaks to me. The original Theatrhythm was all right, but had a few hiccups such as a too-strict main mode and a too-small set of on-card tracks. Curtain Call fixes these and grants access to a massive catalog of music almost right away. Plus, including one of my favorite characters from Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t hurt.

1: Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, Wii U, May)

Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart is one of those games that’s most analogous to pizza: even when it’s bad (ahem, Double Dash) it’s still pretty good. But the game’s notable in the year not necessarily for what it does well– it’s the best racing game since Split/Second— but for signalling the shift in Nintendo’s approach to DLC and titles-as-platforms. The announcement of the two DLC packs, which would include favorite retro tracks not initially included on-disc, completely upended the established paradigm of the games not necessarily obsolescing their past iterations. When Super Smash Bros. announced DLC, we knew it was the beginning of a new era. Mario Kart 8 doesn’t just improve upon its history, it improves upon every game Nintendo publishes thereafter. And not even Luigi can be angry about that.

Dishonorable Mention: Driveclub (Sony, PS4, October)

We live in an era where we no longer expect games to be “finished” by the time they are released. This has resulted in day-zero patches that creep into the gigabyte range (I’m looking at you, Halo). Being a former software developer, I get it. I really do. Marketing writes checks that developers can’t cash. But there is no excuse for a game to be launched broken, to remain broken months after release, and to be actively detrimental to its own sales. Driveclub hits all those rather awful marks. It was announced as a free title for Playstation Plus members, but when the game couldn’t even handle the artificially-suppressed number of paying customers, that offer was suspended indefinitely. And because the game still doesn’t really work online, nobody’s buying it. So it honestly doesn’t matter if the game’s a worthy successor to Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport; if nobody’s playing, it might as well be the entire text of this review pressed into a disc repeatedly.

As always, folks, thanks for supporting OTDT in 2014, and we look forward to serving you in 2015.

Daigaku Z: Let It Go

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: The semester is wrapping up and this week is the last Daigaku Z in 2014; I’ll return on January 11th, 2015 with the new year’s start. Thank you again for your continued support– yoroshiku, baby!

We had our last recitation class on Friday; by the time you read this I’ll be studying for my oral exam on Monday. I did something I wanted to do for everyone in that recitation class, some of whom weren’t moving on to the next semester: I bought them all sets of gaming dice in their favorite colors. Some of them reacted with confusion; others, elation. It was a bit of a moment.

But some of us won’t be in the same recitation class next semester. One of us disappeared without a trace about a week after mid-terms, and we all asked about him afterwards, but never heard anything. Others have conflicting class schedules which prevent us from staying united. Maybe it’s simply because I was in a small major the last time around, but the thought of not having some amount of continuity within the classes I take kind of has me uneasy.

During my first degree, I had almost all of my classes with the same group of peers throughout the entirety of my four years there, with only electives being the divergence points. We became close friends in that time, and we are all still mostly in touch with each other. But even before that, my high school was tiny compared to those here in Pittsburgh– I graduated as one of just about a hundred in the class. Even considering the usual cliques and pitfalls of any high school, we were close.

It’s always unnerving to be thrust from a situation where you’re familiar, and where there are those among you who are like-minded, into a literal new frontier. But the important thing to remember is that we are all strangers at first, and that we are all dealing with the same sense of isolation and fear. It will only get worse when we– the class, I mean– all head off to Japan for whatever purposes, because almost certainly we will not all be going together. Some of us may never go. Some of us may never finish learning the language.

It’s one thing to be grateful for friends, and to stick with them even when doing so is difficult. But it’s another thing entirely to cling to them beyond when one needs to, and that’s as much a process of learning as making the friends in the first place. This year I’ve learned so much more about who I want to keep in my life and who I want to let go of– gently, of course, but let go none the less. That is something I am very grateful for.

But it certainly would be nice if they would take the hint the dice were meant to signify, and tell me when would be good to meet up for some tabletop gaming.

Daigaku Z: Secrets And Lies

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: Thanks for bearing with last week’s absence. The semester is wrapping up and next week will be the last Daigaku Z in 2014; I’ll return on January 11th, 2015 with the new year’s start. Thank you again for your continued support– yoroshiku, baby!

I’m not the first person in my family to be enamored of the Land of the Rising Sun. My cousin Patrick is a teacher in Colorado, having previously spent a year in Japan studying the literature of the nation. I’ll freely admit that his ambition– and success– played a big role in my decision to get back to school; then again, this isn’t a column about my massive (and massively exaggerated) inferiority complex about my family.

The reason I mention Patrick is because, earlier this week while I was reading through an assignment for a final project, I happened to rant in his general direction regarding the book I was reading. Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling is a book which, at first blush, infuriated me. Initially presented as fiction, the book takes about ten pages before turning into an autobiography metaphorically separated from truth only by the opaque ministrations of a busted-out window. It was a bait-and-switch con job that, if the book hadn’t been required reading, would have caused me to stop reading at the exact moment that the tome went out my very real front window.

Well, that and I bought it as an e-book and I don’t want to replace my reading device just yet. Not the point.

So when I wrote that idle Facebook comment, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much in the way of anything outside of catharsis. Patrick’s response was even-handed and very illuminating, however, and it took me a little while to really get what he was saying. As it turns out, that was likely why I was having so much trouble understanding the book– and probably why the book was on my list in the first place. The project for which I was reading it was my Intro to Translation Studies class.

Culture clash is a very real phenomenon, and nowhere else is it more evident than in the Anglophonic otaku world. After all, we’re a community that can accept infamously incomprehensible statements like “people die when they are killed” and “I have never seen a yeast such as this– it brings me to tears!” at more-or-less face value, because we have knowledge of the context in which these are made (in reverse order, Yakitate Ja-Pan and terminal misogyny– I mean, Fate/stay night‘s protagonist Shirou Emiya). It’s when those statements’ references in their original culture have an unrelated, often unintentional reference in the destination culture, that the culture clash becomes a stumbling block to enjoyment and understanding. In some cases, the dissonance is mild and amusing, such as a character supposedly raised in America using the word “pierce” to refer to an earring (as happened with Momoko in Ojamajo Doremi).

And then there’s Oe’s work, which is representative of a greater genre of work known as “I-novels”. Typically confessional works of autobiography, these are less like the traditional Western term of a roman à clef and more like Dragnet: the stories are real but the names have been changed to protect the innocent– and not-so-innocent. Where a roman à clef is usually considered allegorical where its plot most closely aligns with reality, the I-novel instead (and this is typical of the genre but varied across its writers in its century-plus of existence) uses events virtually exactly as they are, to the point of referencing real-world events. The Changeling‘s protagonist of Kogito Choko is an exact döppelganger of Oe, from his disabled yet brilliant composer son to the titles of his past body of work. The Changeling‘s plot deals with the 1997 suicide of Kogito’s brother in law Goro, known in reality as Juzo Itami– director of Tampopo among other films.

In Western literature, we expect a clear delineation between fact and fiction. Fiction may draw upon reality as a backdrop or as context, but it must never give even the slightest appearance of being anything but made-up. Where fiction blurs the line separating itself from history makes most Anglophonic audiences extremely uncomfortable. A good example of this is Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, which fictionalizes the process of its own writing. While it’s a great film and well-constructed, it often can be confusing for the audience to separate what really happened from what never did.

Probably a better example of the dangers of autobiographical fiction, though, is the story of JT LeRoy, more accurately known as Laura Albert. From 1999 to 2007 Albert wrote her work as the wholly-fictitious LeRoy, who was portrayed in public appearances by her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop. This culminated in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which has a plot that parallels the trajectory of LeRoy’s fictitious history. When Albert was unmasked in 2005, after the filming (but before the release) of an adaptation of the book, the entirety of the book and “LeRoy”‘s ouvre were thrown into question. As it stands, they’re strong work, but the shadow of deception still lingers over them. For people of my generation, their questionable status is divisive: some of us believe they’re enhanced by being so successful in their ruse, while others (myself included) do not appreciate the dilution of fact into fiction, a solution that once mixed can never be distilled.

The earliest parts of my training as a writer were in journalism, and it was drilled into me at that early age that the reporter must never put too much of themselves into the story. We treat that objectivity as sacrosanct within the news, although within the last ten to fifteen years there has been a subtle backlash against that particular line on the stone tablets of journalistic ethics. So Oe’s work was a very bitter pill to swallow, in particular because there were more barriers blurring the lines than I had signed on for: first Oe’s own obfuscation and then the translator’s decisions to represent the works referenced in subtly altered forms. The fact that the cheesecloth of fictionality covering the account of actual events was threadbare and missing in spots made it very difficult for me to figure out what parts of the whole were real and what weren’t.

In the end, short of actually interviewing Oe myself (which is about as likely to happen as my swimming from Long Beach to Puget Sound by way of Okinawa), I’ll never know what side is which when discussing The Changeling. That might be the point, actually; it’s entirely possible that Oe wrote the book for his own catharsis, and dressed it up as fiction as a way of saying “Don’t take this too seriously; it didn’t happen to you, so there’s no sense worrying about it”. I have a hard time believing that, though, considering Oe’s real-world history of being ardently anti-war and, more importantly, being accurate when writing on those topics: he was cleared of libel in a case regarding Okinawan forced-suicides in World War II when the judge concluded that Oe’s assessments were correct, and holding with the precept that the truth is an absolute defense against libel.

But then again, I don’t want to throw the book out the window anymore, either. So maybe there’s something more to it than just truth versus lies. Who knows.

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