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.

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