Daigaku Z: Honne Mnemonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which, I think, is kinda the point.

Daigaku Z: Proprietary Propriety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daigaku Z: Ex Benedict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daigaku Z: Protext vs. 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.

During the first few sessions of the lecture class, Mills-sensei took great pains to emphasize the importance of the Core Conversations assigned to us in our textbook and audio course (Japanese: The Spoken Language by Noda and Jorden). In particular, he stressed that it was critical that we learn the conversations by heart, so that we repeat them verbatim instantaneously when prompted. Most of the class seemed to accept this at face value.

And then there’s us. The 4pm recitation group. It might seem strange how quickly we bonded to each other, but in the face of our common adversary– utter confusion– we happy few, we band of bakas, we have found our communal resolve. We have met the enemy, and it is context.

Japanese is a language heavily dependent on context. A single word can itself be a complete sentence, because of the context in which it is used. Unlike English, a Japanese sentence does not necessarily need to have an explicitly referenced subject or object. The word “wakarimashita” is a sentence, literally meaning “understanding has happened”: but who understood? The speaker? The person the speaker is addressing? Is it an acknowledgement, is it a statement, is it just a polite formality? The sentences around “wakarimashita” frame the meaning of that simple sentence. But not just the rest of the dialogue; the very situation in which the sentence is said can change the meaning. This is most highly evident in the case of the word “shimasu”, which is the general-purpose “to do”. What are you “do”ing? Playing tennis? Studying? Controlling a video game?

In a way, the idea of the Core Conversations is to help provide ready-packaged context. A situation is set up, and then resolved. A question is asked, then answered. However, it can be a bit difficult to know during the recitations which conversation is being started– or even when the conversation has switched. This past week we had several instances where we answered in coherent, correct language, but in a way different from how the core conversation went, frustrating Takabatake-sensei to no end. In turn, we also became frustrated, because it appeared, to us, that the rules were being changed arbitrarily. We also had difficulty picking up the varying meanings behind certain tense-particle constructions, and that contributed quite a bit to our confusion. While the difference between “Tabemasen ka?” and “Tabemasen ne?” seem, at first blush, to be minor and interchangeable, the fact that one is a direct interrogative question and the other is an invitation took a bit of time to sink in.

Despite the trickiness of the conversation switching, I think we are making significant progress in the limited time that we have been working together. Our walks down the stairs at the end of class have us all comparing our mental notes and discussing what we thought we were doing right and wrong during the hour. One of us raised the point that we were saying the right things, but not at the right times. Outside of the context of trying to drill certain concepts of the language, a native speaker would understand us, even if they would be a bit nonplussed at our primitive grasp of the language.

That said, we can only go so far with what we know, and introducing new concepts and constructs is the lifeblood of the instruction. We need to be challenged constantly; we need to have the material reinforced daily so that we do not lose it. That’s critical for our understanding. If confusion is the price to pay for education, then it is one we should be willing to pay without question. But we also need to pay in terms of time and attention, and that means the Core Conversations, hours a day if need be. We’ve seen now the consequences of slacking on them: it creates a dangerous context for our education.

Daigaku Z: Let Me Say This To Start…

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’ll be the first to admit that, when I walked in late to the recitation session, my utterance of sumimasen was prompted less by a knowledge of the disruption my intrusion would cause and more by the fact that I had heard it as an apology in countless episodes of Kamen Rider.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

At the end of last year, due to a lot of different things, I lost my job as a Java programmer; though I struggled valiantly against the monster that is burnout, I realized that I couldn’t continue working in such a “disposable” field. I had been feeling the stress of my impending collapse for a few years by that point, but had soldiered on in the hopes that it wasn’t me, it was the environments in which I was working. After a four month job search that led to no offers being extended to me, I finally decided to take the advice of a dozen or so people and try to find another line of work.

As you might have noticed from my work on the OTDT podcast, I like to talk. A lot. Communications and dialogue are really important to me, and I’ve been fascinated by the Japanese language since time immemorial. Translation seemed like it was a natural progression from there, as if you can’t understand someone, you can’t exchange ideas with them. Moreover, my background in technology gives me an edge over other individuals, as it would allow me to more easily grasp the complex vocabularies needed for, say, translating internal documentation for software inside a major company.

So in May, I started the process of applying to the University of Pittsburgh, and was accepted in very short order. I’ve spent this entire summer waiting for this past Monday, the first day of classes, to come; and with each passing day I slipped back into the self-consciousness that appears to be common to every incoming collegian, regardless of age or background. Will people avoid me? Will I make friends? How will I handle the stress of balancing studies with earning a living? Is this even something I can do? As the end of summer approached, these anxieties grew larger and larger.

Part of it is due to the rather repressive stereotype that I sort of completely embody: someone whose Japanese vocabulary comes virtually solely from anime and Power Rangers, and whose desire to learn seemingly takes a back seat to the desire to be exposed to “Cool Japan”. I’ll even admit to a slight amount of chagrin when I wrote in my notes “At least I got here before the guy in the Evangelion t-shirt”. Of course, this is an extremely toxic attitude to take, and un-learning it will be as difficult as the idea is itself pernicious.

I felt something change, though, during that first recitation class, where twelve of us sat dumbfounded at Takabatake-sensei’s gesticulations and face-faults when we failed to understand her; when we chuckled at each other’s various mangled pronunciations; when we helped each other out in silent sympathy. The same thought ran through all of our minds: “This is incredibly awkward. I feel like an idiot.” Our self-consciousness was being brought front-and-center, and we had no choice but to address it with a polite bow and stare it directly in the eyes.

For one hour, in a room where only one person knew innately what was being said, everyone understood each other perfectly. And though we entered as strangers, we were all talking and chatting as we left. That’s what communications and translation does. It unites people, it bridges gulfs that are sometimes metaphorical and sometimes very real. It is not easy, and the first stumbling moments of that new world opening up are always going to be awkward and embarrassing.

But, it’s important to remember that at our core, humans learn best by repetition and installing automatic, rather than thought-out, responses. The incessant usage of catchphrases and common words in anime, manga, and live-action media is intentional– it’s meant to stick with the audience, to become that reflexive response. The awkwardness comes from the fact that, while we are learning, we may not use the language correctly. In a sense, we’re like infants who have learned their first words; we say them because they get a response from our teachers and elders, but we don’t have a firm grasp on the context of those words. It’s this kind of attitude which leads to the trope of the “weeaboo anime fan” who litters his or her speech with mangled and incomprehensible pseudo-Japanese. We see it as someone taking an obsession too far, in a childish and immature manner, and we have a great deal of shame about it.

So, I have to offer an apology to the fellow student who showed up on that first day of class in the Eva shirt. You may have been the only one in the room who had the right approach to the class. We, as students, are never going to learn the language if we are terrified of making a mistake. That’s precisely why the recitation classes are so small and compartmentalized: so we let down our guards and can allow ourselves to make those mistakes, and learn from them. We’re not there to “count up our sins”– we’re there to, in the long run, “make it showy”.

1 2 3 4