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Why I don't speak Japanese - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 04:58 pm
Why I don't speak Japanese

From mid-July until the beginning of October I'll be in Japan. It's shameful that, although I pass for some sort of 'expert' on, or ambassador for, Japanese culture, and although I consider the country in some way my adopted heartland or home from home, I still don't have any real command of the Japanese language. Sure, it's become second nature for me to shout 'itai!' if I drop something heavy on my foot, or 'kawai' if I see something cute, or 'hidoi!' if I'm annoyed. But these are just phrases I've parroted from the Japanese people I've lived with over the years. I've never made any systematic attempt to learn verbs and declensions and adjectives, or take lessons.

Being me -- someone who's always put a lot of work into justifying my laziness -- I've adopted some rather self-conscious postures on this. For instance, I've quoted Paul Bowles on the joys of remaining a foreigner. Bowles was preoccupied with the theme of 'the expatriate coming up against the incommensurable otherness of the host culture' (in the words of Douglas Shields Dix, who adds 'usually disastrously'). Bowles claimed never to have learned Arabic despite living in Tangier for decades -- in fact he spoke more than he admitted, conversing with his friend Mohamed M'rabet in a mixture of Arabic, French and English.

'Remaining a foreigner' and 'preserving the incommensurable otherness of the host culture' obviously relate to my love of ostranenie -- they are estrangement devices, verfremdungseffekt. The counter-argument, of course, is that understanding might well be a route into a whole new level of strangeness, and that not-understanding one culture is pretty much the same as not-understanding another, and finally rather boring.

This is where my second argument might kick in. It goes something like this. 'Where the housewife is lazy, the cat is industrious'. When the left brain is blocked, stumped or impaired, the right brain takes over. To the non-Japanese speaker, Japan becomes a succession of scents, textures, sounds, colours, lights, experiences, tastes, shapes, emotions. And in fact this is very much the way I experience Japan: as a rush of nonsensical impressions, a delicious regression into the primitive and the sensual, the lower cortex, the right brain, the pre-lingual, and pseudo-babyhood. In Japan I'm a homunculus, a cute and happy sensual monster in need of a mother, preferably with gigantic breasts filled with Calpis milk. Add a bit of jetlag and some de-contextualisation and you get the best psychedelic drug experience there is, a sort of bio-cultural high.

Despite these arguments about 'respect for the otherness of the other' and 'creative disorientation' and the joys of being a 'cute monster', I probably will speak passable Japanese one day. Especially if I can find a language learning system like the Flash cards used by Meguro Language Center.. Some of their course materials are free for download on their website. They're kind of trippy in themselves.


Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 08:16 am (UTC)

Hmmm. The last few times I've travelled alone I've developed a real fear of not being able to communicate. Last summer I was in this part of Turkey where literally no one spoke English or German or anything else (there weren't even any postcards). The first few days were definitely that bio-cultural high you speak of, but then I found myself gradually withdrawing into a shell and getting more and more anxious when I had to speak to anyone, feeling my affect slip away. It made me understand in a way that i hadn't before the adage about personality being a construct of language. It also made me understand why hermits become terrified of seeing other people, something i always thought was nonsense. Now I'm sort of envious of your ability to muddle through regardless...

Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 08:22 am (UTC)

You should do it--go ahead and learn some on purpose. You'll never be as ept with it as you are with English, so no need to worry about losing your innocence! (Besides, in Japan you'll always be a bit of a trained monkey anyway, so you don't have to worry about not being a the special child there, ever.)

Plus, I find that trying to read in Japanese puts me back in that trippy place a bit anyway, kind of like being a baby who can't quite focus its eyes yet and the world is a "buzzing confusion", punctuated by faces one recognizes but can't yet name.

Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 10:05 am (UTC)

high fives for teaching yourself a language. i am studying russian these days.
when i was in high school, i would try teaching myself languages all the time, on top of being in classes for german and french. sometimes i fear my ambition, i'm sure it will all be too much for me someday. but endless fun, as well.

Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 02:57 pm (UTC)

I completely agree about the 'psychedelic drug experience' of a foreigner. Last summer I went to Japan (knowing absolutely no Japanese) and on my second or third night there, I went to Shibuya for the first time. It was a Friday night and there were bands playing on every street corner and I got lost looking for Tower Records and I wandered through the giant market under the street and it was incredible.
However, one doesn't really need to know Japanese to get around in Tokyo. Some of my more interesting experiences happened in Kagoshima City (at the southern tip of Kyushu). At one point I was caught off guard by a news reporter (who could barely speak any english) interviewing me about a sightseeing tour I wasn't a part of. Walking down dark alleys being approached by hordes of scantily clad women yelling 'KONBAN WAAAA' and trying to hand me mysterious pamphlets was also memorable.
But back to your point, thinking back, a lot of my good memories and experiences in Japan didn't come from a deeper cultural understanding, but from moments of confusion and misunderstanding, which make visiting a foreign place such an incredible experience.

Have fun.

The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 08:51 pm (UTC)

Right now I'm majoring in Japanese, and I can definitely identify with the joy of feeling like a wordless toddler again. I loved my first few classes because it felt like I was back in kindergarten. Now, several classes and a book on "readings in modern Japanese" later, I'm in the middleschool doldrums. The terrible thing about reliving your childhood without childhood peers and inputs is that I can follow talk on random political topics fairly well, but fantasy pulp novels remain unintelligible to me.

English Makes Me Hard
Thu, Jun. 24th, 2004 11:44 pm (UTC)

Although I wouldn't trade the meaningful conversations with Japanese friends for anything - at this point, after three years here in J-town... I find that knowing Japanese only makes me crazy.

I would give anything to go back to the days when Japanese sounded like music to me - a mix of punk and rap. Now I hear things I really wish I didn't and I constantly struggle between being "Japanese" or being "American". Japan has been taken off it's pedestal for me, it's scuffed white patent leather.

Don't get me wrong, I love Japan... I always will, but like knowing too much about a lover, knowing too much Japanese can really make being in Japan that much less exciting.

Reading your thoughts make me feel happy for you - I would take advantage of your "ignorance" for as long as you can.

Japan prefers it's foreigners to be as foreign as possible - if you get to be too Japanese they get really really freaked out.

I tend to freak daily.

Delicious James Flow
Fri, Jun. 25th, 2004 12:09 am (UTC)

Too true. The down side of speaking Japanese is beautiful jumbles scrambling together to suddenly gain profound meanings such as "Please do not cause an inconvenience by parking here".

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Jun. 25th, 2004 04:14 am (UTC)

Azuki Pie, I found your metaphor of the too-well-known lover very interesting, and it reminds me of a whole third level of the argument against integrating: Rilke's point in the Duino Elegies that unrequited love is so much more intense and creative than requited, domestic love. He refers this to the tradition of the troubadours and courtly love -- an etiquette of love and a creative, idealising projection onto the loved one:

But if you want, then sing of women in love; for their
celebrated feelings are still not nearly immortal enough.
The forsaken - you almost envied them - whom you found
so much more loving than the satisfied. [...]
Have you adequately considered
Gaspara Stampa, so that any girl
abandoned by her beloved would feel of that
exalted example: if only I could be like her?
Shouldn't this most ancient of agonies finally
become more fruitful for us? Isn't it time we lovingly
freed ourselves from the beloved and endured, trembling:
as an arrow endures the bowstring, so that drawn into leaping
it can be more than itself. For there is no place to stay.

(Rilke, First Duino Elegy)

This desire not to be requited, and not to integrate (and I've heard other people make your point that the Japanese like their foreigners to stay as foreign as possible, and hold them at a mutually respectful distance) has a political corollory in the west: I'm always annoyed by politicians, like Jack Straw and David Blunkett in Britain, who stress that immigrants must integrate -- learn to speak English, adopt recognisably English ways of life. This, it seems to me, is the expression of a fear of difference, a fear of 'the otherness in our midst', and a fear of true pluralism. What I value in immigrant communities in western cities is their otherness; I'm perfectly happy for Bangladeshis living in Britain to refuse to learn English, to keep distinct customs and cuisine and religion if they want to. (It's slightly different if they try to force this on their second-generation children against their will, though.)

There is a 'right to be foreign', I think, and there are many arguments why being and staying foreign is a good thing. Perhaps we could say 'All cultures, when you misunderstand them, are equally, and boringly, baffling. All cultures, when you understand them, are equally, and boringly, explicable. But there's a place in between understanding and misunderstanding, between sensing and projecting, where you can get a sense (perhaps it's an illusion) of the extraordinariness of a particular culture, and therefore of all cultures.

It's in that liminal zone that my understanding of Japan is currently hovering. You could say I'm inventing Japan -- for myself, but also for the Japanese themselves, who are fascinated by 'how foreigners see us' -- or you could say I'm seeing the oddness of culture itself each time I go there.

Sat, Jun. 26th, 2004 03:13 am (UTC)

'All cultures, when you don't understand them, are equally, and boringly, baffling. All cultures, when you do understand them, are equally, and boringly, banal. But there's a place in between not-understanding and understanding: misunderstanding. This allows for some idealisation, some projection, some wish fulfillment, an admixture of fact and fantasy. Now, malevolent misunderstanding becomes the worst sort of genocidal racism. But benign and positive misunderstanding is different: it can actually impact on the projectee's own sense of self, and become a 'virtuous circle'. A bit like when a man says 'I don't know what she sees in me, but whatever it is, that belief is something I'm trying to live up to.'

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Jun. 25th, 2004 04:33 am (UTC)

Bowles spoke of 'the expatriate coming up against the incommensurable otherness of the host culture'. We can switch this around to describe modern mass immigration: 'the host culture coming up against the incommensurable otherness of the expatriate'. Now, because of recent European history it's assumed that this otherness must always lead to xenophobia, resentment and even genocide. The policy of integration is seen as a way to avoid this. The expatriate dresses like the host, speaks like the host, passes for the host just as a gay man might pass for a straight man, assuming that if he came out there would be instant retribution. But what if this premise were wrong? What if it were seen as a virtue to be 'other', and a virtue to declare this in public? For just as virtue isn't virtue (as Milton pointed out in Areopagitica) unless it's tested by exposure to vice, tolerance isn't tolerance until it confronts the truly other.

Fri, Jun. 25th, 2004 11:49 am (UTC)

The short version of all these arguments is:

'As soon as i understand something I no longer have any need for it.' John Cage

ms. ls.
Fri, Jun. 25th, 2004 09:50 pm (UTC)

I was just about to post an entry on my site about working in an immigration law firm where everyone speaks Chinese. I'm Chinese American, and I can understand and speak on a functional and semi-social level. Despite being able to understand most of the conversations people are having, I get lost when listening to the more intimate and familiar talking that my coworkers have with each other. Sometimes I understand it, but I have no idea how to say something in the same kind of tone. It's one thing to know the language (I grew up speaking it with my parents) and it's another to use it among your Chinese speaking peers. The language that's developed in the social arena is usually missing from most language classes -- sounds obvious, but it's likely the unexpected downer to the language idealist.

It kind of made me realize just how discouraging it can be to truly learn a new language. I get funny looks all the time, sometimes I am probably imagining it too. I now kind of understand why people stay in cliques or feel uncomfortable with the presence of a foreign language. It decreases your chances of social inclusion by a significant bit.

I think that it's untrue that it's just simply harder to pick up a new language once you are older. It isn't because kids are fast learners, it's because older people have already created their comfort zone and have developed a specific type of social circle to become involved in. My coworker was telling me about how her daughter is picking up English a lot faster than she is after being in the U.S. for eight months. I'm not surprised, especially since she works in an office where people socialize only in Chinese. I understand why this would be so though, because when it comes to work and a stable income, sometimes one has less choice about what kind of environment one is in. Nevertheless, I really don't like when people say that after a certain age, people can't pick up a language as well as they should. Who needs that kind of discouragement, especially when it's probably just not true? The problem isn't failing memories and less time. The problem is that people just don't truly socialize after a certain age, have stopped making it an important and risky necessity of their lives.

Anyway, you can say all you want about the limnal language thing, which I agree with somewhat, but I think there is just as much to gain by learning a language really well (perhaps this is because I'm still on the unwell side of the fence?). I think there is just as much to gain from a outsider's point of view as there is with a deep excavation, or maybe both things are the same. An outsider's point view can be the motivation for such a deep excavation into a language. Most people who speak Chinese probably won't think as much about it as I might (and same thing with me and English, my own primary language).


Sat, Jun. 26th, 2004 05:53 am (UTC)

speaking of looking only at shapes and images, not language... where is the daily photo ? i liked them so much. at least make it a monthly photo if it cant be a weekly. i sure would like a minutae one.


The Empire Never Ended
Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 01:48 am (UTC)

I'm a little surprised that you're not more proficient in Japanese. Momus was a name I came across occasionally in the UK press and heard from time to time as well. It was when I lived in Japan that I became intrigued as to why I had more success finding recordings by you there than here. Just as I was alerted to the fact that the Monochrome Set still seemed to be playing. They may have stopped by now though... [No inference that you should also! - Subtextual Ed.]

You're right that an ignorance of the Japanese language provides a different experience of the country. Aside from the flash of various English words upon products and such, you become illiterate. It's a blessed relief not to be reading for once. There's a silence to it.

Sometimes I wish that I could go back to a point when I neither spoke nor read the language. But it's done now. Mind you, I can't pretend that an ability with either precluded estrangement. I think Paul Bowles could have managed to be swallowed up into Tangier if he'd actually wanted to. I don't see the similar ever convincingly happening in Japan.

Given that you've been a regular visitor to Japan, my suggestion would be to change the nature of your relationship with the country and learn both the spoken and written language for the following reasons:

1. Character-based writing systems are a wonderful tool for approaching sound, language and thinking through new means. You also gain some peripheral skills in ordering from Chinese restaurant menus.
2. No matter how good your Japanese gets, you will still frequently be met with baffled looks.
3. You'll never understand what high school girls say anyway.
4. Err, you get to read all the scandal sheets and find out what is really going on in the country.
5. There's always Korea. I find Korea quite fascinating at the moment, but then I can't speak a word of it...

Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 05:10 am (UTC)

hey-hop, momus
saw you in BBC’s medical film here in Moscow ( ever-snowy Russia)
a brilliant surprise to see you on our television (guess there are less than 10-20 copies of your CDs in the whole country, huh)
you‘ve looked damn handsome in a grey jacket saying that “I’d never know that such small creatures could do so many harm”..

Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 09:33 am (UTC)
Re: off-top

Oh wow, they just showed that in Russia, did they? It's a horrific documentary. That reminds me, there's another language I never want to speak: amoeba.

ReplyThread Parent
Jack Sensei
Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 05:48 am (UTC)

For me, the biggest objection to learning Japanese is the immense difficulty of it, although I'm only speaking from my experience and my brain, which may or may not be especially rigged for learning languages like others people's brains may be.

I distinctly miss the bracing 'ostranenie' that enveloped me the first few months I was here, and I recall having decided to retain it forever. However, I didn't really know that there might be a relationship between my being blocked out of the signified and my delight in estrangement. And it certainly was delight: everything at once unknown, curiously complex, and seriously cute or cutely serious.

I wanted to learn the language, to make a full-blown project of it. I had hoped that I might be able to acquire new thoughts in Japanese that I couldn't have in English - and of course I also wanted to smooth everything out; all my relationships and daily situations. I also wanted to be able to explain myself, or more honestly, give my carefully edited version of myself to people I meet. This requires rhetoric, feedback, all the linguistic and cultural machinery that goes into the production of white lies.

What ended up happening is that 1. The initial forms of delightful estrangement were threatened, both by my knowing some of the language. Also, the flipside of "some of the language" is knowing what I don't know. So, I gained a newfound paranoia about what I think I know, need to know, and what I’m possibly overhearing being said about me. Now that I could understand in part what was going on around me, the part I didn't know began to loom. It was dense, suggestive, and not delightful. This passed, but it was a bit of a trial to begin with. I'm still not fluent by any means, but I got over it.

The interesting thing was that as I began to get better, I began to also Anglo-fy my spoken Japanese. I would insert subjects, scramble around in my dictionary for unnecessarily precise terms, repeat what I thought was essential in a redundant way. Basically, because I think in English, I was forcing the Japanese language to serve my terms and my aims. By this I mean I didn't feel secure without employing a heavy Western clarity, the thudding concrete. I didn’t know how to communicate with shadows. I would desperately and needlessly reiterate my terms. I wanted to be sure, to get across above all WHO was acting, and WHAT was acted upon, and for what reason - and all in the 'right', that is to say, my English order. This was me failing to get new thoughts by awkwardly succeeding in forcing old thoughts into new forms. I’m still trying to resist my resistance.

So, even by learning pieces of the language, I remained foreign because I was employing those pieces to construct my decidedly foreign discourse. During some conversations, my Japanese friends or employers would ask me to speak English instead of Japanese, because, I suspect, my Anglified Japanese was actually more alien than my pure native language.

I don't think I ever truly lost the positive estrangement. Now, I am estranged by myself in Japan. Sometimes I stand still and grok that some kanji are immediately explicable, or I reflect that I feel comfortable naked in a sauna chatting with a Yakuza fellow, or I realize that I sometimes don't see everything around me as 'Japanese' or 'different', but as basic reality. At those times, I become estranged from myself, or my personal history. I think of my own self-identity next to my being-in-japan. This is equally as delightful as the old estrangement, the being-in-myself next to the japan-identity.

Jack Sensei
Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 05:54 am (UTC)

The following photo illustrates it pretty well. I first received it when I arrived and I delighted in its absurdity, innocence, and inexplicability. There I was, represented with tiny manga eyes, cute as a button, radiating optimism and childlike vitality - I enjoyed it like I enjoyed a joke.

Now, almost two years later, I can instantly read the katakana. None of it appears strange to me. I find the picture genuinely endearing, and I hope that whatever my students put in that picture was also authentically in my character - that makes me feel pretty happy. Not only do I love Japanese cuteness and the dizzy signs, but it loves me too. That picture is of me being assimilated.

That fun pink elephant-amoeba to the left of me named "Po" is still pretty indecipherable though.

By the way, your article on cute formalism had significant impact on my everyday experience. Thanks for that. It was an unlocking idea.

ReplyThread Parent
Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 09:54 am (UTC)

That's a really fascinating account of learning Japanese: both what's lost and what's gained. I wonder if you were referring to Tanizaki's 'In Praise Of Shadows' essay when you spoke of the 'shadows' in the language? I'm vaguely aware of things like the dropped subjects in Japanese from things like web translation. It does suggest a whole other way of looking at self, group, life.

The Cute Formalism insight you mentioned -- and it means a lot to me that my essay impacted your day-to-day understanding of the country -- just 'came to me' one day as I was walking down Omote Sando. I don't quite know what it was that triggered it. Probably visual things: the way people were dressed, the visual language of posters and shop window displays. I think, though, that if I'd spoken Japanese a lot of the things I was seeing as 'form' would have skewed more in the direction of 'content', and it's quite possible that I wouldn't have had the insight that I did. Because that insight is an exaggerated and stylised take on Japan, and a more 'inside' understanding of things might have lessened the drama of my impression by lessening the exaggeration (and certainly giving me less room for projection). The language would have made the strangeness of things seem more 'natural', as language tends to do (unless it's poetry).

ReplyThread Parent
Jack Sensei
Sun, Jun. 27th, 2004 11:44 pm (UTC)

Tanizaki is spot on what I was thinking of. I had attempted to construct a metaphor using his `oppressively hot` floodlights and `ruined moon-viewings` to describe the reformatting liberties I take with the Japanese language, but it came out sounded forced and inelegant so I scrapped it. Also, I didn`t want to inadvertently borrow any overtly negative associations with that might be present in Tanizaki`s laments - not that he was actually that pessimistic about Western influences himself.

Perhaps more closely related, but less metaphorical, would be the super-popular Marakami Haruki`s appropriation of English as a tool to strip down and reconfigure Japanese into more direct, less oblique form. His first book was brought out in Japanese only after he had written it first in English, and then translated it himself. `I wasn`t really setting out with the idea that I would write a novel in English. It`s just that I wanted to try coming up with a different way of writing in Japanese.`

But where he was reshaping Japanese syntax with English in the spirit of play, I do it out of knee-jerk habit.

I still have not warmed completely to Murakami - I`m not sure about his insistence that language must be a `tool` alone, and that the `beauty` of Japanese can get in the way. He likes to streamline and strip down - but I only know this from reading what people who have read him in Japanese have to say. I`m not at the level at which I can read Japanese literature yet, so I can`t really make make a judgment about that. It`s just stuff I picked up, polished little opinions. I`m still plugging along with menus, memos and notices.

Also, I think, even with literacy in place, the visual-language-landscape you are talking about is still very potent, internally coherent-seeming, if not objective. I don`t think that it is all an illusion that belongs to the outsider. For example, your Design Zen cartography of Tokyo, I think, is present with or without ostranenie. Isn`t it present for the Japanese, as well. With or without Japanese ability, I believe that much of the form will still remain its own content. Especially in Tokyo!

ReplyThread Parent

Mon, Jun. 28th, 2004 02:53 am (UTC)
Re: Ou est mon pampelmousse??

It's one of the big English Language schools in Kitchi-jioji, advertising cheap summer rates. Ewan McGregor has become the poster boy for English learning in Japan, which is odd because in his make-or-break role as Rentboy in Trainspotting he was so incomprehensible that he had to be subtitled in the US. English for Drug-Scoring, Unit 6.

ReplyThread Parent

Mon, Jun. 28th, 2004 10:46 pm (UTC)
well, yes but...

the thing about japanese is that it is so different from the indo-european (or even tibeto-chinese) model of language and such a poorly constructed system of language (they are stuck with the terrible inherently-tonal based kanji writing system for their madly simplistic syllabic language), that there never comes a point where you can get "bored" with digging deeper into it. it's a language not even used to its fullest by its native speakers. it's a linguistic mess with a very small set of acceptible ritual expressions and sentence constructions. they imported all thse "big words" from chinese that you basically can only write; it's difficult to sound intellectual in japanese since so many complex words will make no sense to people aurally.

i agree though that a mastery of the language will reveal that yes, japanese popular culture is essentially daft. trying to talk about it without having gone into the original sources, however, is like talking about jane austen by just reading trilling. one cannot discuss japanese fashion without having actually read how japanese fashion magazines work. the japanese youth-oriented mass media is horrible inauthentic - they make up things out of thin air and no one will or can or cares to correct it. it's one thing for a Westerner to say, "they wear a lot of limited-edition street brands" in japan, to report, but once you cross that line into "explanation," it's almost criminal to attempt without having delved into the language. momus has always been a reporter and a theorizer, but not so much an objective explainer, and so, his lack of japanese skills should not be held in contempt.

the most important thing in this dialogue, however, is that the japanese are generally inept at english. sure, there are some bilinguals (mostly kikoku shijo), but we must all deal with the truth that there is 7 years of compulsitory english education and a huge english language industry, and still - because of linguistic and sociocultural barriers - the average japanese person's english is not really good enough to translate cultural concepts OUT of japanese. (compare the Japanese with almost every country in the world, and they are lagging in the world's new langua franca) and with the media controlled in Japan by people who want to re-iterate myths about japan to the japanese themselves, those with power to spread the word overseas often don't. while interest in japan has escalated over the last decade, has understanding about Japan? i doubt it. compare Japan to China where english language ability is much greater. what will this mean in the next 25 years?

it is highly rewarding to learn japanese. sure there are barriers, but don't let them get in your way. really knowing japanese (especially being able to freely read anything) will open up a japan that is generally hidden from the average foreigner. and sometimes that's much more magical than just stumbling around and adding the dialogue yourself.

Tue, Jun. 29th, 2004 09:57 am (UTC)
Re: well, yes but...

A couple of points raised by that (and I don't disagree with any of it).

It's said that students may not know any more than people who haven't been to university, but they do know where to look if they need information, or who to ask. I think 'human-assisted intelligence' is the key. I've often been surrounded by unusually able, articulate and intelligent Japanese people who can explain, not just the literal meanings of things, but the surrounding context. I just need to ask. I bounce my theories off these people. (And yes, they're mostly women.) My second choice would be westerners living in Japan, friends like Robert and Jean, although I'm slightly more wary there because I'm aware that they may be projecting just as I do.

And my other point is, given the choice between me learning Japanese and seeing the Japanese learning English to the level of, say, Hong Kong or Singapore people, I'd certainly choose the former. I would rather let my own identity get lost in some sort of hinterland between Scotland and Japan than see the Japanese identity getting lost somewhere between Japan and America. So I am in a way throwing my lot in with those 'people who want to re-iterate myths about Japan to the Japanese themselves'; 'Nihono Tatsujin', 'human-assisted intelligence' tells me they're called.

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Jun. 30th, 2004 09:25 am (UTC)
Re: well, yes but...

The level of info you are getting is SO much higher than the level an average foreigner living in Tokyo gets because of you being a sort of VIP, and this is one of the reasons that you've actually had so much success exporting concepts and culture out to the West. If you stay in Hiroo all your life, you never see UraHarajuku.

I agree that projecting is a problem, but there has to be some kind of happy medium between keeping "native Japaneseness" alive and having a variety of Japanese people from all sorts of backgrounds export their own experiences out of the Japanese code. Of those that can speak English, there are elitists (who want to keep the Japanese under wraps for personal gain), kikoku shijo (who aren't considered to be real japanese because they went away as kids and therefore do not have full access or full understanding to the central nerve of the culture), and outsiders (who have embraced English as a way to vent frustration OR those who learned to think a different way because of learning English.) Either way, anyone who you talk to in English is generally a skewed sample. I think you would find it interesting to be able to really talk to a real kogyaru circa 1995 or a ex-Bosozoku.

For your sake, it doesn't look like the Japanese are learning to speak English anytime soon. In the long run, this means they will be seriously detatched from the rest of this new internet global community. How many of the people who commented on your blog are Japanese? If a lot of your fans are in Japan, why are they not proportionally high on your blog? It's disappointing to me that I am reading 15 comments from people learning Japanese,but not one from a Japanese person.

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Jun. 30th, 2004 08:36 am (UTC)

nononono... by learning a foreign language and living abroad you get alienated by YOURSELF, that's much more of a rollercoaster than vice versa. the scariest - or best - part of it is when you can't remember a word or concept in either of the languages you know, making what will come out of your mouth totally random //


Wed, Jun. 30th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC)
The new you

I think there is often an assumption that learning a new language simply puts some new knowledge in your head which has the effect of removing mysteries from the target country / culture. I don't see it like this.

Learning a new language creates a "new you". Because language is so tied up with culture, learning it well means building a new personality suited to the language and culture you are learning. Perhaps it could be compared to an artist working in a new medium. If a musician changes from acoustic guitar to laptops (for er, example) the people who appreciate his music may well recognise the artist in his new music, but the new music will sound different, may trigger different emotions in the listener, and may be composed with a different set of motivations.

A non-Japanese person who has learned to speak Japanese well will usually be a slightly different person when speaking Japanese to Japanese people. This is why they can feel awkward speaking Japanese to other speakers of their native language - There is a confusion over which personality to use.

So people do say that their personality doesn't change when they use other languages. I am willing to believe this for true bilingual speakers - Both personalities have been around since birth, so they are as one. But in other cases I would argue that it is a case of "Embassy Japanese" - where the person speaking Japanese as a second language rigidly does so with the culture tied to their native language. This can sound pretty abrasive - particularly in Japanese.

To me, the feeling of discovering the "new you" is at least as exiting that that initial bewilderment of being immersed in but not understanding a foreign culture. I'd advise doing the latter, then the former.

And I doubt that even through learning Japanese, Nick would lose his fascination for Japan. I doubt that very much.

- Lex


Sun, Jul. 4th, 2004 11:37 pm (UTC)
The Japanese view of Western popular/rock music

Momus, I was planning on getting your email address from ILM and sending you an email, but the site is down. And I have been unable to find your email address elsewhere. So I hope it's okay if I ask you some things that are related to this topic. I'm studying Japanese here in Japan this summer and need research on Japanese vs. Western music.

Japanese jazzers have always been a good example of how Japanese viewed American music. Because jazz was a distinctly black American creation, Japanese were hyperconscious of how their version of jazz compared to American jazz. Most Japanese, no matter how good of a jazz musician they were, viewed black jazz as more "authentic." Only blacks could play "real" jazz. Some argued that Japanese had the ability to play jazz well, but lacked the capacity to improvise at the same level. Others argued that Japanese didn't have the physical ability as their bodies are smaller and less powerful.

Some Japanese played straight jazz in the American way, but others tried to make music that was more "Japanese" by using traditional Japanese instruments like Koto. Of course the purists saw this as gimmickry.

So, Momus, I'm wondering what the younger, pop/rock generation thinks of Western music. Are Western musicians seen as more authentic? Is it "cool" for teens and young adults to like Western music? And if it is, are they attracted to it because it's foreign? Can bands get away with ripping off Western bands because nobody will know any better (the Polysics spring to mind)? Or does the younger generation have the Nihonjinron mentality, where the Japanese way is the best. I walked up to a Japanese alterna student who was wearing a Losalios (Japanese jazz-rock band) shirt to say that I liked that band. I talked about the bassist, Tokie, in broken Japanese ("Losalios ga tsukides"). The student looked me up and down, probably thinking, "who is this guy?" Will he never wear the shirt again because I'm an American and Losalios was HIS band.

Does the Japanese music fan/musician understand English lyrics? I wonder if my adoration of Akiko Yano, Miharu Koshi, and Masami Tsuchiya/Ippu-Do would be less strong if I knew everything they sang.

I don't know if anybody will read this because the topic is old. Momus, I would be very greatful if you could share your thoughts/experiences. Please comment here or email me at psouth@uiuc.edu. Anybody else can of course respond as well.

Patrick South