Tag Archives: Japanese language

There are no short cuts

Eric Hoffer, in his book “Reflections on the Human Condition,” writes, “People who cannot grow want to leap: they want short cuts to fame, fortune, and happiness (47).” For Hoffer, life lies in the ability to grow, that is, in the ability to learn and continue learning. The less attuned you are to the importance of the growth-process, the more you will struggle with outcomes that aren’t to your liking.

No great undertaking that you embark on will be easy. There are no real short cuts. If you take a hard look at how you were able to achieve something great, you will probably find that it was not an easy process.

Eight years ago I began learning the Japanese language and now, eight years later, I am still a perpetual beginner. My use of the language how gotten me to great places (at least great in terms of where I wanted to go). Nonetheless, it has never been easy. Mistakes were made and plenty of embarrassing moments happened. The fear of not knowing how to “go on” in conversation or getting caught up in assignments or conversations that suddenly hurtle out of my comprehensive range happen all the time. I’m perpetually struggling to catch-up and tune-in. I know, from this first hand experience, this first-hand struggle, that anyone who speaks, reads, or writes Japanese “fluently,” went through countless hours of preparation and struggle. There is no way to short cut yourself to fluency in a second-language.

Developing your capacity to grow and learn is necessary if you want to change who are. An adult attitude of “I know it all” will constrain and limit your vision. Again, think about learning a foreign language. There will always be things that you don’t know and there will always be situations that you are not 100% equipped to deal with. You must stay in the learning-mode as much as your capacity allows. The paradox here is that the more you learn, the more you grow and the more your thinking changes. Steer your learning so that it benefits where you want to end up and devote yourself to it wholeheartedly and you’ll be in the stream of growth, the stream of recognizing that if you truly want to achieve something, you’ll have to recognize that there are no short cuts. The more difficult it seems, the more you are growing.

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50 Ways to Increase Your Japanese Language Ability (Study Techniques)

I have been studying Japanese for eight years. The first three years I studied at a university in the United States (studying and working for the university as a Japanese tutor). One year was spent working in South Korea and studying Japanese every morning with Korean adults (I was the only non-Korean student in the class). The latter four years have been me living and working in Japan, using Japanese on a daily basis and, for the most part, getting by quite well with the skills I have developed. I have experience in academic translation work, language consultation, education and interpretation.

I’m not sure how relevant this will be to those learning a language other than Japanese, but if they are of use, then great, I’m happy to have helped contribute to your gain in competency.

The following list is in no particular order. You decide which of these is more useful than the other and above all, use them. Thank you.

1. Start with reading and writing as this will help you in the long run.
2. Learn the hiragana syllabry perfectly and be able to write and recall it from memory.
3. Learn the katakana syllabry perfectly and be able to write and recall it from memory.
4. Learn a set number of kanji per day by writing them over and over and over again.
5. Memorize at least 10 particles. If possible, buy a book specifically dealing with particles and learn as many as possible. You will thank yourself later.
6. Increase and review your vocabulary on a daily basis.
7. Practice pronunciation with native Japanese speakers.
8. Have conversations with native Japanese speakers as much as possible.
9. Learn how to say: “How do you say _______ in Japanese?” in Japanese.
10. Watch Japanese movies with English subtitles and take notes.
11. Watch English movies with Japanese subtitles and take notes.
12. Watch Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles and take notes.
13. Listen to Japanese music and pay attention to pronunciation.
14. If possible, go to karaoke with Japanese friends and sing Japanese songs.
15. Find articles written in Japanese about things that you are interested in. Read them even if you don’t understand every single kanji. Try to grasp the subject matter and explain it to someone else in Japanese.
16. Buy a reliable paper dictionary. Spend an afternoon exploring it.
17. Go to Japan by yourself for two weeks and interact as much as you can.
18. When in Japan, ask random people for directions and listen carefully.
19. Write your own paragraphs in Japanese and have a native speaker check them for you.
20. Learn the difference between casual and formal Japanese.
21. Learn “keigo” and learn how and when to use it.
22. Listen to podcasts or radio broadcasts in Japanese.
23. Listen to a Japanese speaker or celebrity whom you admire and mimic the way they talk. I recommend Ryuichi Sakamoto’s podcast.
24. Learn about Japanese dialects and how they differ from each other.
25. Learn how to read and write. I say this again as it will set you apart from other foreigners who can only speak. Plus, you will understand much more of what is happening around you.
26. Learn about “aimai” and observe how people around you talk to one another.
27. Write messages on your cellphone in Japanese. Learn the Japanese emoticon system.
28. Study more kanji. Buy kanji flashcards and study the hell out of them.
29. Take the JLPT tests or buy the study books and simply learn from them.
30. Participate in a speech contest and practice your speech AT LEAST 500 times.
31. Videotape yourself speaking Japanese and observe your pronunciation.
32. Record your Japanese teacher’s lecture and listen closely.
33. Record your own voice speaking Japanese and observe your own pronunciation.
34. Speak to your Japanese friends on the telephone and observe how challenging it is when you cannot see the other person’s mouth.
35. Pay attention to body language and mimic those around you (do this respectfully and subtly).
36. Learn how to bow properly.
37. Learn how to count things properly.
38. If you come across a word that you don’t understand, ask someone.
39. Organize a study group and meet weekly. Don’t just complain or watch anime, but STUDY together. Challenge each other.
40. If you want to excel in a certain kind of career, learn as many words about that career as you can.
41. Start a translation project of a book or article that you like.
42. Once a month, go back and review ALL of the basics (grammar patterns, vocabulary, kanji, etc.).
43. Become a master at asking questions.
44. Enlist the help of a tutor or mentor, someone who can help you develop your skills.
45. Re-read articles that you have read and note how your understanding has changed or how you have forgotten kanji that you were certain you already knew.
46. Study Japanese “reiho,” or manners.
47. Start teaching Japanese to others who are just beginning. Explaining the concepts will help give you a better grasp on them.
48. Practice your reading and writing as much as possible.
49. Listen to Japanese audio and speak along with it (again, imitation).
50. Put yourself in reasonable situations where you MUST speak Japanese.

Tuning in Silently

signal

I have seen consultation sessions here in Japan where the client/student sit in enclosed silence while the therapist/teacher silently and patiently waits, neither saying a word until the end of the session. Perhaps it is through such silent meditation with another that we can truly penetrate to that internal space beyond spoken language, that beautiful nothingness. That is, when our spoken language fails to meet the expectations of the other due to linguistic barriers, how to we deeply learn from each other? How do we help each other? It seems that the Carl Rogers way of empathic understanding would work very well in this situation and sometimes it may only take a smile and time to sit together to open up the situation and create a comfortable space between self and other.

I think that sometimes listening can be more difficult than expressing. Perhaps listening itself is a form of expression. What does it mean to actively listen to another person without forming our opinions and judgments during their talk? Even though people seem to value the quick response as a valid method of replying, I think we should take a note from the Japanese way of communication and learn to become better listeners. If we look at music, the beauty of electro-acoustic music or environmental recordings is the attention it demands of us. It can be very challenging to engage in the sound of crickets. How does one listen to the uneven sound of the evening rain? How do our environments change when we truly listen?

Recently, I was asked for a method of learning a foreign language. More specifically, I was asked how one can better develop listening skills. One way is to practice the art of “tuning in.” When I am in a public place, I concentrate on all of the conversations taking place around me. Since all of the conversations are in a different language (Japanese), I can become aware of the limits of my listening abilities. I see the family enjoying food across from me and in their conversation with the owner of the restaurant I can observe interaction and lose myself in tuning in to their conversation. There is no ill-intentions in this act, simply the desire to enter into an attuned state of listening. Similarly, the train announcements at the station, the recorded messages on the bus, the radio, a Japanese podcast and so on. When we really tune in to the myriad of sounds around us, we let them enter into us and we eliminate the barrier between our own comprehension and the actual sound of the foreign language. During the state of tuning in, the mind is silent, even though thoughts and recollections of understood vocabulary may drift in and out. The purpose of the exercise is to develop one’s ability to tune in to the sounds and to let them merge with oneself.

All in all, listening promotes empathic understanding of the other and develops concentration skills. Of course, in the example of second-language acquisition, I think it is also very important to balance your listening with a host of other exercises and strategies (self-experimentation as to what methods work the best for you are encouraged). In the case of silent listening, sitting together and creating a language-less space may increase and deepen awareness between you and the other. By simply experiencing the flow of life, the flow of mind, you may come to a richer understanding of the present moment.

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.

An Explication of Bernard Rudofsky’s On Language from “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese”

halloween

Upon entering into a Japanese conversation with a native-Japanese speaker, one may find oneself at a crossroads of misunderstanding, incomprehensibility, extreme conversational nuance and tremendously polite speech. That this communicative mountain shall serve to block one’s attempts at deciphering the conversation or inspire one to imitate one’s Japanese conversant, depend on one’s capacities for minding and comprehending not just the Japanese language as such, but the character of what a conversation could be and the ways in which Japanese verbal communication may differ from one’s own mother tongue. Investigating this, architect/photographer/writer/curator and world traveler, Bernard Rudofsky, in his piece On Language, from his book “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese,” leads us through a sketch of the art of spoken Japanese with firsthand observations, linguistic insights, historical quotations and with examples from Japanese thinkers and writers.

A thesis that Rudofsky will continue to flesh out through the remainder of this piece is: “Only unimaginative people conceive of language as a means of communication (Rudofsky 153).” From this, Rudofsky begins by analyzing the the Japanese language from viewing a direct translation of simple Japanese into English. Rudofsky points out the commonly used phrase, “Nihongo de kore ha nan tte iiudesuka?” which translates literally into English as “Japan-language in, this as-for, what that say (Rudofsky 153)?” He writes that, “By merely skimming the English columns in the pages of a Japanese phrase book, once perceives at once the mock-profundity of every utterance (Rudofsky 153).” That is, by looking at the way the language unfolds, we get a glimpse into the, what appears to Rudofsky, the poetic nature of the language (“mock profundity”) and to see its difference and grammatical uniqueness when directly contrasted with the English language. That is, not only is the grammatical flow of Japanese in sharp contrast to English, the way the language calls for one’s minding of the world, is also very different.

Rudofsky continues by setting the backdrop of the origins of the Japanese language by using the Biblical story of the Curse of Babylon. He writes, “Yet, with the greatest of misfortunes often being a blessing in disguise, the shutdown of the enterprise led to the Babylonian separatist movement, which in turn brought about the discovery and subsequent colonization of the Japanese islands by a splinter group (Rudofsky 154).” The elucidation of this particular story in relation to the Japanese comes, as Rudofsky notes, from the German physicist Engelbertus Kaempfer. He goes on the elucidate the Babylonian movement in Kaempfer’s terms as opposed to the more mystical and mythical creation myths as presented by Japanese writers of old. In support of the Babylonian Curse story, Rudofsky notes, in addition to it being a more sound creation story, “It also would help to account for some of their peculiarities: their aloofness from all non-Japanese, their legendary endurance of incommodities, their addiction to pilgrimages and travel in general, most of all, their convoluted language (Rudofsky 155).”
For Rudofsky, who in the larger context of his life, I assume possessed some ability to speak Japanese, the Japanese language was particularly cursed by the Tower of Babel incident, although even so, “It is their secret strength, but it also could become their undoing (Rudofsky 155).” He goes on to write about the Japanophile-writer Lafcadio Hearn, who even though he made Japan his permanent home, married and had children, refused to learn the Japanese language, because of the difficulty of being able to not only speak Japanese, but in the seeming impossibility to think like a Japanese person. Holding this position as well, Rudofsky is hesitant to compare Japanese to romance languages like French or Italian. For Rudofsky, “It simply is not a tourist’s dish. Moreover, anybody who has acquired by some gruesome brain manipulation the faculty to speak Japanese, realizes how futile were his efforts. His difficulty in communicating with the Japanese has merely grown in depth (Rudofsky 157).”

The task of having to “think Japanese,” Rudofsky continues, presents a challenge to Western peoples in that the Japanese language relies more on strict forms of etiquette and layers of obfuscation than on lucidity and intelligibility. But, he writes, “Paradoxically, such inability to express themselves in articulate speech gives the Japanese a sense of superiority similar to that which the women of Old China derived from their bound feet (Rudofsky 157).” That is to say, it is their distinct curse of linguistic obscurity that opens up the singularity of the Japanese language. As the caption from a picture from a “Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) dictionary” featured says, “There are upwards of 80,000 ideograms. A knowledge of 3,000 is necessary to read a newspaper. Even the simplest of them permit several interpretations (Rudofsky 157).” Again, Rudofsky is returning to this idea that the obscurity Japanese language is the secret strength of the Japanese.

As to the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky presents three examples, the first being Japanese poetry and its importance in the realm of everyday Japanese life. As Rudofsky points out, “Pronouncements that decide the lives of millions of people are sometimes couched in poetic double-talk (Rudofsky 158).” Rudofsky clarifies this by giving the example of Emperor Hirohito, who, in trying to establish a peaceful resolution before engaging in the Pacific War, recited a poem, which unfortunately wasn’t clear enough. Furthermore, Rudofsky writes, “In their endeavors to save face, the Japanese are able to climb heights of detachment ordinarily reserved for stage characters only (Rudofsky 159).” He backs this up by giving the example of the poetic recitation delivered by the builder of the Castle of Tokyo to his assassin at the moment of death.

Continuing on his analysis of the language comes the perception that the Japanese may hold for the non-Japanese speaker and the role of the translator, Rudofsky writes, “They cleansed their language of its functional impurities and elevated it to an abstract art. They have no love for clumsy foreigners who pester them for explanations and elucidations; who dig for a meaning until it stands revealed. Hence the translator is made the whipping boy for all linguistic ills (Rudofsky 159).” For Rudofsky, the Japanese revel in verbal expression and, given the chance, are apt to spin out of control with their verbal incantations increasing the difficulty of extracting a “correct” translation into another language. In his words, “Being wordy people, they are apt to let themselves get carried away by their verbal flood and to launch into fabrications of their own. So flagrant is their license sometimes that even a person innocent of any knowledge of Japanese discovers the deceit (Rudofsky 159-160).” The example is given of Commodore Perry who, despite not being able to understand Japanese, greatly mistrusted his Japanese translator and, upon having told him so, was surprised to see his delight. For, “Accusations of this sort do not ruffle the composure of a Japanese. He may reply that his thoughts are too subtle for translation; that his rendering them into an uncongenial idiom is an approximation at best. No harm is done, he thinks, if thoughts are left unsaid, or words go untranslated (Rudofsky 160).”

For Rudofsky, the obscurity of the Japanese language blossoms in the realm of politeness instead of, like those of us in the English-speaking world, intelligence. That is, it is more important for one to be able to speak properly, following the codes of etiquette, than it is for one to speak clearly and directly. He writes, “In sum, a Japanese interpreter seems to be under a compulsion to vaporize a thought and to make the most gripping ideas sound innocuous (Rudofsky 160).” In this way, Rudofsky is returning to the aforementioned points regarding the difficulty in being able to think in a Japanese way and the struggles which one who undertakes the Japanese language will struggle with, perhaps what Rudofsky himself, as a foreigner who lived in Japan, struggled with.

As to some positive points regarding the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky says, “It sustains an even temperature of colloquy, discourages confidences, and preserves an all-important standoffishness. The supreme medium of communication is, not surprisingly, silence – a rather sullen silence, indistinguishable from boredom (Rudofsky 160).” From this semblance of silence, Rudofsky mentions the impressive nature that the Japanese language comes to have in the eyes of foreigners, that is, the image of a zen master contemplating a koan in temple. However, as Rudofsky almost humorously points out, “Usually silence means that their train of thought has jumped the track (Rudofsky 161).”

Also, Rudofsky discusses the tendency of the Japanese speaker to verbally overdue conversations that could be relegated to short responses. He gives the example of how one must be careful not to be too direct even in such simple requests as a hotel wake-up call or asking for a bill at a restaurant. His method of combating the futility of direct speech is this: “The complex message has to be chopped up into tiny earfuls, patted and moistened with generous amounts of spittle and kneaded into acoustic pellets to be dispatched one by one with perfect timing (Rudofsky 161).” In this way, Rudofsky again points to the poetic and indirect nature of the Japanese language as it is intertwined with the etiquette of politeness. Finally, Rudofsky notes to the foreigner approaching the Japanese language, “Keep in mind that they are unfamiliar with our athletic regime of hardening the eardrums, snatching the thread of discourse from others, drowning words with laughter and expletives, talking fast while trying to follow the conversation of others (Rudofsky 161).” What Rudofsky provides here is a strategic approach to the language, hints from someone who has gained an inside view, so to speak.
In closing, Rudofsky describes a huge Japanese dinner party in which many speeches were delivered and received applause and attentiveness despite the fact that the speakers’ volume was only audible to those in the first two rows. He writes, “The Japanese have a faculty of enjoying speech regardless of content (Rudofsky 162).” That is, it didn’t matter that the speeches could not be heard, for the Japanese, the murmur of the speech was enough to enjoy and, furthermore, it would have been in bad form to have requested the speaker to raise his or her voice. Rudofsky continues by giving the example of a foreign lecturer speaking about Henri Bergson (in French) and that by the end of the speech the only members remaining in the audience were Japanese, despite the fact that the Japanese in attendance could not speak or understand the French language. Rudofsky: “This makes the Japanese the world’s best listeners (Rudofsky 162).”

“To the Japanese, the thought that a speaker, celebrated or not, casual or formal, should attach importance to being understood reveals a small mind. Incomprehension on the highest level has its own merits, even when they are not discernible to us (Rudofsky 163).” It is this recognition of incomprehension that leads Rudofsky to respect the Japanese language, despite his seeming frustration with it. He closes On Language with a message to foreigners coming to Japan: “Cultural differences or no cultural differences, if we want to get along with the rest of the world, we cannot afford to be dogmatic (Rudofsky 163).”

What this end points to is, despite all of the barriers posed by the Japanese language when approached by an English speaker, one should learn to capacitate oneself to the unique, to the acceptance of other ways of conversing and, hence, being. It seems to me that in Rudofsky’s probing of the Japanese language, he has come to appreciate the differences and has come to lend his ear and heart to the difficulty of the Japanese language.

In my reading of this piece, I have come to see Rudofsky, himself, as a pure Japanese enthusiast and from re-reading this piece, I would like to offer a brief summary. By engaging and reopening the ways that other travelers have approached and been befuddled by the Japanese language, Rudofsky has drawn out several points for those with interest in learning Japanese or for those who wish to gain some insight into the angle of the Japanese character. For him, Japanese, as such, is a language much different from English. The structure is completely different, which proves the first point of difficulty, and, moreover and more importantly, the way of communicating while using this language demands a wholly new way of understanding and approaching a conversation. Moreover, it seems that Rudofsky is preparing the reader for a chance encounter with a Japanese person and, at the same time, educating the reader in how to approach the conversational situation so as to put the Japanese speaker at ease. At the same time, this text also calls for the positive recognition and appreciation of the Japanese way of communicating. That is, Rudofsky is asking the reader to allow him or herself to accept this way of communicating as something uniquely Japanese and, upon encounter with Japan, to keep these points in mind and, instead of trying to “dogmatically” adjust the flow of conversation to fit the foreigner’s way of being, to be willing to be open to the Japanese way of politeness and etiquette. Furthermore, looking at this piece in relation to “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese” as a whole, I see this as being a plea, a plea to those who would be quick to dismiss the Japanese language as a hodgepodge of other Asiatic languages and instead to see the Japanese as a singular way of expression and a challenging, yet rewarding cultural experience.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Rudofsky, Bernard. The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965.

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