Tag Archives: Japanese culture

Spoken and Unspoken Japanese

I move between two languages on a daily basis, English and Japanese. When I say that I “move between” these two languages, I mean that I dive into conversations, jokes, sarcasms, criticisms, small-talk and office politics in both languages throughout the day. I am surrounded by others who do the same. I am also surrounded by others who prefer to use one language over the other.

Learning a language is funny and if you ask me “how does one learn Japanese?” I’ll probably give you some tips on how to study or what you can do to increase your language-learning potential, but when does “study” stop and “fluency” begin and at what point does one become “fluent”? Despite confidences from the Japanese, which we know can just as much be cliche as it can be true compliment, the idea of fluency does not enter into my sphere…What I mean is that, in expressing myself in Japanese there is always a wall, an invisible wall that flares up heavily at times and magically disappears at times. Sometimes, I trick the wall out of existence by knowing how to agree, knowing how to carry the conversation. Other times, the wall completely vanishes only to reappear when I least expect it.

If you also find yourself (or want to in the near future) move between these two languages here are a few things you may want to try or at least take into account.

  • Pay attention to the others around you and turn your daily life into the playground of learning. That is to say, I think that people can learn a lot by simply tuning in to the words that float around them, the little parts of speech that aren’t taught in textbooks, the kanji that reappear, the nodding of the head, the gait of the other, intonation, pauses…all of these come to life in the others around us. It may be difficult for one to see oneself a part of this and emulation is a wonderful way to learn the art of the spoken and the unspoken.
  • Pay attention to what is talked about and how it is talked about. For those who are wondering about “aimai,” the way of vague affirmation or indirect communication, one should always be paying attention to what is being talked about in small talk and how it is furthered on by others. Sometimes talking about the weather is simply talking about the weather and sometimes it is doing much more than that, it is strengthening the bond between you and the other person. It is a reaching out across the abyss from the other to you.
  • Humble yourself. I remember someone telling me to always “degrade myself” when presenting some project that I finished as the Japanese heavily do this when talking about themselves. Hhmmm…Well, yes and no. I think that at times it is proper to exit one’s ivory tower and to truly apologetically present some new completed project to co-workers, but at other times it serves one well to be steady and confident. The trick is that it completely depends on who you are surrounded by and who you are perceived to be in said situation. When in doubt, perhaps humbling yourself will serve you well.
  • Play with language. I think it is most important to play with the language slowly and smoothly. I used to write poetry in Japanese. At that time my goal was to create a harmony between the Japanese syllables, the form of the poem and the meaning that it held for me. In playing with the language in this way, I realized that it is possible to express or create some kernel of myself in this other language and I think with the proper amount of respect for the language and play with the language one’s ability will grow and the ability to “tune in” will increase.

By no means am I a master at Japanese and sometimes when challenged by a fellow ex-patriot as he seeks to test my level of Japanese, I back down. I don’t appreciate such challenges and don’t wish to duel. The foreigner who wishes to partake in a linguistic duel does nothing for me and doesn’t prove anything to me. The ex-patriot who questions with me and who plays with the language with me is beneficial and much appreciated. Being in a relationship with a friend whom you can learn with is wonderful for both of you and much more productive than the stand-offish challenge.

Thank you for reading this and I wish you all the best in your studies.

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Ramo Nakajima: Zombie (from his book “Shiritori Essays”)

A Haitian zombie at twilight in a field of sugar cane.Image from WikipediaThe following is an original translation of the late counterculture essayist/novelist, Ramo Nakajima and comes from his book “Shiritori Essays.” “Shiritori” is a Japanese word-game where one after saying a word begins the next word with the last letter of the preceding word. For example, if I say “tree,” you may say “eat” and I may say “telephone,” etc. In this way has Nakajima structured this little book of cultural oddities and observations. I chose this particular essay, “Zombie,” based on the content (I happen to like zombies and zombie films) and brevity of the piece. Moreover, I like how Nakajima ties in a bit of Japanese culture with the topic. It makes me want to eat a certain kind of raw fish. OK, here it is…

Ramo Nakajima’s “shiritori essay,” “ZOMBIE”:

In the world of zombie movies, except for the wizardry of director George Romero, we find that most zombie movies are not that interesting. Or, in examining the archetypal zombie film series made by director Lucio Fulci, we see hordes of zombies who only recklessly devour human intestines ((munchy munchy)) and there is a definite lack of artistic merit in this. In the early days of “hammer horror films,” there were “bloodsucking zombies” and in one film, a mean coal-mining boss created zombies and forced them to work in his mine with no pay. This movie is so painfully bad that it almost brings one to tears.

The unique work among zombie films is “The Legend of Zombies (JP Title)”, which is available on VHS. It is a documentary based on “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” by the scholar Wade Davis who meets actual zombies when studying the reality of voodoo in Jamaica. Actually, the people he meets are normal people, but they are the ones who have been brought back to life by voodoo magic after they were found to be dead. Davis comes into contact with “zombie powder” as he investigated those who were resurrected. So, it is the special medication that brings the dead back to life, which is made by voodoo magicians. Davis secretly obtains some zombie powder and he scientifically analyzes the ingredients. As a result he finds out that the content that brings the dead back to life is the same as the poison found in the “fugu” fish, tetrodotoxin. The reality of the zombie phenomenon is that the person who dies by ingesting the poison of fugu, only temporarily dies and returns back to life several days later. This is a rather interesting theory.

Actually, I’ve heard of a story where an old man poisoned by the fugu’s tetrodotoxin was almost buried alive. The old man was thought to be confirmed dead, however, he came back to life while in the coffin. That is, he regained consciousness while confined in the pure darkness of the coffin. And, as regaining consciousness he was reportedly surrounded by the sound of a mantra. He thought that he had died. It often happens that the status of temporary death is considered to be real death and especially in old times it was not only the case of getting poisoned by fugu that one was mistakenly pronounced dead.

Consequently, it could make sense that the legend of zombies is actual. However, concerning “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” there is still opposition by other scholars who say that fugu fish caught in and around Jamaica do not contain tetradotoxin. Moreover, Professor Yasumoto from Tohoku University reanalyzed the actual zombie powder and tetradotoxin was not found in it. Here we have just returned to our starting point. By the way, apart from voodoo there are other episodes that are equivalent to “zombies”. In areas where Hinduism is practiced it is called “Vetara.”In China it is literally translated, “Kishiki ((Wake up – Dead Body – Devil)).”

To bring the dead back to life, one draws a mandala with powder made from human bone and puts pots filled with human blood in all four directions. As lightning strikes, burn human fat. After this, you have to do more creepy stuff, but I’m not going to write about them because I’m afraid that there are readers like a “Mr. M” who actually attempted such a weird ceremony to bring his dead grandfather back to life.

Translation and Adaptation by LK/JG (March 29th, 2008)

“Zombie” is from the book entitled “Shiritori Essays”

Lacan through Zizek: On ‘the big Other’

Triad of the Real

It seems that Slavoj Zizek’s book “How to Read Lacan” is a wonderful starting point for both students of Zizek and, of course, for new students of Jacques Lacan. At least in my case it has provided a graspable yet engaging starting point for my study of both of these thinkers. I have stumbled through several of Lacan’s “Ecrits” and bumbled my way across the pages of Zizek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology” and “The Parallax View,” to little avail ((dense)). The struggle will continue, though.

In the first chapter of “How to Read Lacan,” Zizek lays the groundwork for concepts such as “The Triad of the Real,” “The Big Other” and “Empty Gestures.” I will do my best here today to put the idea of ‘the big Other’ into my own words in hopes of being able to better understand it. If you have spent time with the works of Zizek and/or Lacan and would like to clarify, correct or challenge my interpretation of what is discussed here, please do so. I am a humble student and it is my hope this year to better familiarize myself with the works of both Zizek and Lacan.

The Lacanian idea of ‘the big Other’ comes through human interaction/communication. ‘The big Other’ is the virtual regulator of etiquette and social conversation. That is to say, ‘the big Other’ is the ambience of the situation that comes through human ways of following situational “rules.” That is, without human beings, there is no ‘big Other.’ When I shake someone’s hand, I am performing an act with no real significance to me. The shaking of the hand is the expected way of greeting in American culture (similar to the empty question: “how are you?”). The shaking of the hand is done in accord with the virtuality of ‘the big Other.’ For Lacan, the big Other operates on three interconnected levels: The imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The ‘imaginary’ is the virtualization of the other. It is seeing one’s lover as being more than just a skeleton with decaying flesh, it is covering the other with an imaginary image. The symbolic is the way of interacting with the other. That is, it is the following of grammar, “going on” in conversations, shaking hands, bowing, etc. The real is the surrounding forces of the situation, it is the unpredictability of the environment, disaster, unexpected happenings and so on. Of these three, the ‘symbolic’ is most important in understanding ‘the big Other.’

Through Zizek’s elucidation of this Lacanian idea we find: “When we speak (or listen, for that matter), we never merely interact with others; our speech activity is grounded on our accepting and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions (Zizek 9).” That is to say, our communication with others (and with our self, perhaps) is grounded in and acted out through ‘the big Other.’ The big Other comes through us in how we speak and in how we comprehend the other. Zizek akins it to the philosophical use of ‘one.’

In Japanese culture there are myriads of culturally sensitive ways of interacting, proper expressions to use when interacting and such. When one gives a gift, it is correct to depricate oneself and the gift, while fully knowing that it is not a bad gift and that one is probably in fact very happy to give the gift. This following of verbal etiquette is adhered to and, for Lacan, I think that this would come through as a recognition of ‘the big Other.’ That is, the putting down of oneself (in many situations in Japan) comes through the use of language and the importance of following these linguistic rules. Moreover, it is not a written rule, but it is as if there is a spectral presence watching over the situation, a spectral presence that one recognizes and obeys.

The origin of the big Other comes through language and as Zizek writes, elucidating a dense passage by Lacan: “The symbolic order emerges from a gift, an offering, that marks its content as neutral in order to pose as a gift: when a gift is offered, what matters is not its content but the link between giver and receiver established when the receiver accepts the gift (Zizek 12).” That is, in the above mentioned example of giving a gift in Japan and admitting that it is not a good gift, etc. is done knowing that it is necessary to sustain the link between self and other and this putting down of oneself is the way in which that link is sustained. Even for the receiver, the way that the giver gives the gift is more important than the gift itself.

All quotations are from: “How to Read Lacan” by Slavoj Zizek (Norton Publishing)

The Readable Air: On the Japanese Expression “KY”

Every year in Japan there is a vote for the most popular new word. In 2007, the word of the year was “KY,” which stands for “Kuuki wo Yomenai,” literally translated into English means: “Air read cannot.” This calls for an adaptation and through this adaptation, it can be translated as: “One who cannot read the air (atmosphere) of a certain situation.”

For example, last night I saw a man on a train eating potato chips. He had obviously been drinking and was trying to combat his drunkenness with food (we all know that being drunk on a moving train is horrible). The man, oblivious to the other passengers noisily munched his chips with myopic dedication. It should be noted that even though all the surrounding people ignored his munching (the Japanese are masters at pretending not to notice), his actions were unabashedly “KY.” One does not eat potato chips on a train. It is not proper.

The foreigner who approaches Japan should take note of the relevance of KY and use it to his or her advantage when communicating in Japanese. I’ll give another example. I went to a small Thai restaurant and upon leaving one of the owners (a Japanese man), giving me a huge smile said, “This is your third time to come here, isn’t it?” Knowing fully well that this was only my second time to come to the restaurant I softly and gleefully said, “I think this is my second time.” He continued smiling and said, “No, this is definitely your third time to come here.” I could do no other than accept his mistake and say, “Ah yeah, you’re right, this is my third time. My apologies.” To have refuted him would have been KY and would have destroyed the relationship he was trying to build with me. However, his insistence in itself was slightly KY, but from his position, it would have been KY for me to have disagreed with him.

Learning to understand KY can be very beneficial as (and I may have stated this before), the Japanese language as such and ways of interacting revolve around the idea of “being proper” and continuing things in a proper way. However, playing with KY (with friends) can result in humorous situations that the Japanese admire. For example, the man on the train eating potato chips sent my girlfriend into excessive giggling (which she had to conceal as the whole situation – quiet train, everyone looking somber, drunken man eating potato chips and her laughter was quite KY).

KY is sticking out, it is saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Moreover, it is saying too much or not saying enough. This is why I think that for many Japanese people, the foreigner is horrific in that the foreigner, being unaware that there is an atmosphere to read is prone to do anything and to completely destroy the atmosphere, hence inciting shame and discomfort in social situations, hence the slanderous Japanese expression “yabanna gaijin (dangerous – socially unaware – foreigner).”

In closing I am reminded of a new ad campaign that I saw in a train station near my apartment. The poster showed only four sets of shoes. One pair was small and signified a pair of children’s shoes, the other pair resembling a grown woman’s pair of shoes, the other perhaps the shoes of a junior high school student (smallish white sneakers) and finally, and most obvious, the shoes of a businessman (brown leather Italian dress shoes). The image, shot from a God’s eye view showed three sets of shoes (woman/child/student) as properly together, that is, there feet were not spread apart, while the fourth set (the man) was spread apart. Although we are only given the partial objects, we can easily read this poster. The four people are on a train and the man, obviously KY, has his feet spread wide disrupting the other obediant passengers. He cannot read the situation that there are certain manners to be obeyed on a train. The caption read: “The way you sit tells everyone all about you.” The message: Don’t be KY.