Wednesday, February 28, 2018.
The Japanese language and me
Many Westerners think the Japanese language is difficult to learn. Chinese, too. Not only is it a different language but a different writing system and grammar structure as well. There’s a lot more to learn than just memorizing vocabulary, and trying to make sentences by literally translating vocabulary in your mother tongue’s familiar sequence is apt to produce gibberish.
I’ve picked it up as a matter of necessity, first learning useful expressions for everyday life (including work), then expanding as I needed. The matter of need is important because even now I find that if I don’t use a word - I mean, have a need to use it - then I am not likely to remember it. I am constantly learning new words and forgetting old ones in measure with my need to use them. (I keep a small pocket notebook of new words and I add to it frequently.) This is true in reverse as well, in English education, so over the years I have tailored my classroom speech and my supplementary print vocabulary around my ideas of the students’ needs, and my ideas of the best ways to build vocabulary for memory. I categorize vocabulary (Interrogative Pronouns, Greetings, Self-Introduction, Days, Months, Family, Body, Health, Sports, Hobbies, Food, Colors, Shapes, Home, Money, Shopping, Numbers and Counting, Transportation, Directions, School, Jobs, Countries and Nationalities, Everyday Activities, Irregular Plural Nouns, etc.) like rooms in an imaginary mansion, where memories can be stored and enable a student to remember a sting of hundreds of words. My goal is to enable people to use English meaningfully with a few dozen well-chosen verbs (past, present and present perfect tenses), some pleasantries, and a sense of word order.
I follow the same pattern, year after year with growing students, like a spiral returning in on itself but with broader arcs that encompass more vocabulary and more sophisticated grammar each year. Students sometimes say, “We studied this.” Ah, yes, but you didn’t study it like this, with this many new words, and this many new applications!
I have also modified my speech to fit their ears. I speak slowly, use simplified vocabulary, and I repeat myself in such a way that to a native English speaker it might almost sound as if I have a speech impediment. I don’t. The way I speak is calculated and purposefully. But, as I’ve said before, when I am visiting Canada many people think I’m a tourist. They ask me, “Where are you from?”, and “What part of the States are you from?” I tell them I’m not from any part of it, thank God. (I don’t say that last bit out loud. That’s just how I feel inside.)
When I am trying to learn and use Japanese I organize my approach in a similar manner to how I present English to students. I learn categories of words, new verbs, etc., as I need to know them. The need results in usage which results in retention. It inevitably happens that I live my daily life on a plateau of language. It feels like I’m stagnant and not learning. Then eventually I have a boost to a new, higher plateau. (It took me 20 years of hearing the word for basement - “chika” - before I finally understood what I was hearing.)
Japanese represents a challenge to many foreigners because it used a very different writing system, derived from Chinese. The language is not derived from Chinese - meaning there is no “genetic” link - only the writing system has been adopted and adapted, making extensive use of Chinese “kanji” characters - thousands of them. And, it is not an alphabetic language, with one letter, or character, representing one sound. Instead, Japanese is a syllabary. Each character represents a sound ending in a vowel. These sounds are represented by a “kana” syllabary consisting of 50 “hiragana” - used for native Japanese - and 50 more “katakana” (representing the exact same syllabary) used for foreign words. The hiragana are more rounded in appearance than the katakana, maybe somewhat similar to how English lower case/small letters are more rounded than upper case/capital letters.
Latin script, called “romaji,” is used in a limited fashion, such as for imported acronyms, and the numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals alongside traditional Chinese numberals.
Japanese has very little emphasis on its syllables. American English has lots of emphasis, and there are a great number of typically American mis-pronunciations of Japanese names and other words. Japanese pronunciation is very flat, with almost all syllables emphasized equally. I have measurably better Japanese pronunciation than most of my British friends (British people are terrible speakers of foreign languages), because my pronunciation is much flatter. Maybe that’s because my native Canadian accent is naturally much flatter than a typical U.K. English accent, or maybe it’s because I’ve meticulously trained myself t pronounce words as closely as I can to native Japanese.
Verbs are conjugated, primarily for tense and voice, but not person. Japanese adjectives are also conjugated. Japanese has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned. Japanese features gender specific language. Women typically use “onakotoba” - women’s language, which tends to be politer than male speech. But I noticed long ago that when high school girls think they are alone they tend to use male vocabulary amongst themselves. When teachers or other adults are nearby they revert to more feminine speech. They relax their guard near me because they don’t know that I can understand what they’re saying. Or, they underestimate the extent to which I can understand them. Being underestimated has its advantages.
In school students study Old Japanese (“koten”) and also Modern Japanese (“nihongo”). Modern Japanese is considered to begin with the Edo Period, which lasted between 1603 and 1868. Historically, the Kansai dialect of Osaka constituted standard Old Japanese was the de facto standard Japanese nationwide. However, during the Edo period, Edo (now Tokyo) developed into the largest city in Japan, and the Edo-area dialect became standard Japanese. Since the end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords (“gairaigo”) from European languages increased significantly. The period since 1945 has seen a large number of words borrowed from other languages—such as German, Portuguese and English. Many English loan words especially relate to technology—for example, pasokon (short for "personal computer"), intānetto ("internet"), and kamera ("camera"). The large quantity of English loanwords in modern Japanese has led to the development of some distinct sounds - “sh,” “ch, “ji” - found only in loanwords, and nowhere else in the language.
Finally, although there are several distinct dialects in Japan, modern Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands in the far south) due to education, mass media, and an increase of mobility within Japan, as well as economic integration.
Monday, February 26, 2018.
2018 Winter Olympics, Alexander Krushelnitsky
Russia had little representation at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea due to sanctions against the Russia Olympic Committee for systemic cheating via drug enhancement in its sports programs. Russia's team was officially banned from the games because of widespread doping at the Sochi Olympics four years ago, but 168 Russians were allowed by the IOC to compete as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" under the Olympic flag. But despite sanctions and special arrangements to allow for Russian participation the doping just wouldn’t stop. One athlete in particular, Alexander Krushelnitsky, attracted much attention when he was stripped of his bronze medal in curling for use of a banned substance (a heart medication).
Drugged Olympics are the only kind of Olympics that I`m interested in.
As I’ve said before, I don’t care about sports, but as long as we’re on the topic, I kind of admire the gumption of doping athletes for their pursuit of success. Drugged Olympics are the only kind of Olympics that I`m interested in. Sports are stupid and useless, the IOC is corrupt, sycophantic and irrelevant, and the Olympic Games are an economic and cultural disaster. So if we are going to have them foisted on us then what I want to see is the extreme limits of what the human physique is capable of - safety, or good sportsmanship be damned - and the only way to do that is with drugs and hormones. I want to see a man run 100 meters in 4 seconds. I want to see swimmers hold their breath under water for 5 minutes. I want to see a man lift 2,000 kg straight overhead. I`d like whingers to duct-tape shut their self-righteous gobs about drugs in sports. Hell, drugs are the only interesting thing about them! But I could be wrong. The Olympics, by the way, are not the pinnacle of sporting achievement. That status goes to the World Championships of each sport. The Olympic Gold Medalist might also be the World Champion, but if she is then that`s more by chance than by design. So long as we have World Championships, why do the Olympics even exist? It`s such a waste and whinging about any aspect of it is an even greater waste. Or not.
Friday, February 16, 2018.
Every Friday morning I wash my cat, whether he needs it or not.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
Japanese Labor strikes
During all of my years living in Japan I have never seen a labor strike. I haven’t seen any, experienced any, read about any, been affected by any, etc. No garbage strike, public or college teachers strike, nurses strike, pilot or air traffic l strike, bus drivers strike, teamsters strike, truck drivers or taxi drivers strike. Nothing. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any strikes (which is what I believe). I simply haven’t known about any. This does not mean that Japanese do not have a right to strike. They do. They just don’t do it very much. Going on strike is not the sort of thing Japanese do. It’s contrary to their work ethic. Japanese believe that the purpose of life is to work. The individual and her rights are subordinate to the good of the group.
I know many young people who have never seen or heard of strikes. In that sense they have no prejudice or preconceived notions either; their minds are blank slates. Article 28 of the Japanese Constitution guarantees workers’ right to solidarity, and that includes the right to strike. This only causes perplexed looks on the faces of many people. If you’ve never seen or even heard of a strike before, it’s hard to really get what it is.
Looking back at why labor laws and unions were created, we see that the purpose was to address the glaring power imbalance. Workers fought to win labor laws and unions, to close the gap, and strikes are their most powerful means of bolstering their negotiating position. Without strikes, workers have no way to stand up to corporate goliaths. I doubt that the apparent decline in labor strikes means that workers are in a position of strength vis-a-vis the company. On the contrary. The decline in strikes might be a symptom here of the decline in the power and influence of unions. More and more young Japanese spend their lives as part-time rather than full-time workers, and unions have failed to recruit many of this younger generation. The younger generation is aging, so now more and more middle-aged people remain part-time or short contract workers. It affects people’s income so much that it might be contributing to the decline in marriage and the birthrate, and population shrinkage. More and more people feel they cannot afford to marry, or have children if they do marry, or have second children. Work is being chopped up into little pieces involving part-time contingent and dispatch workers, making it harder and harder for workers to build solidarity at a workplace and look forward to a stable future. Stable and durable work - the famous lifetime employment regimen - is a historical artifact. But if you think that the employment instability and threat to a middle-class lifestyle that these things represent would motivate more union recruitment and activity, you’d be wrong.
Every spring new contracts are negotiated with unions and everyone gets a raise. It’s like an escalator - although maybe a slow one. If you stick to the job, stick with the program, then you rise.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
For old times sake
This train station is the Higashi-Nakano Station on the Sobu Line, the Chuo Line, and the Oedo Subway Line. I never come here. During my first year in Japan I worked at two vocational schools called “senmongakko” near this station and I came here twice a week. On Sunday, January 21st I was passing through and I decided to get off the train and walk around to take a look for the first time in 28 years. For old time's sake. Except for the local shopping street, the "shotengai," everything looks different. (Well, the shotengai looked different, too, but I was glad to find it still there, at least.) First, when I came here regularly the Oedo Subway Line did not exist. Second, the station building has been completed re-made. Third, there are several tall condominium buildings there now which are new, some standing where one of my schools used to be.
I did find one of the schools where I worked, the Japan Hotel School. It must have done well because the two buildings it occupies look new and don't match my memory. The other school was called Travel Journal. They were two separate schools, but related. I did not find the other school, Travel Journal, although I did find another school in the area, nearby JHS, called Trajal Hospitality and Tourism College. Could Travel Journal have changed ownership, changed its name, and changed its location in the neighbourhood?
I've been in Tokyo for 28 years. Holy crap! Imagine someone coming here in 1945, in the ruins of war, and still living here in 1973! I've seen the city change incrementally. Most of the changes are technological and infrastructural. When I came here there was no internet, no Yahoo or Google, no Amazon, no E-mail, blogs, or social media, no cell phones, no iPhones, no Facebook, no digital cameras, no garbage separation and recycling, no 100-yen shops, no Book Off, no Uniqlo. When I arrived the old 500-yen bill was still being used (although it was in its last year of circulation). And the small, crowded, dark Immigration Office was in Otemachi.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
The Great Gatsby
I’ve read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) three times. Once in high school English class as a requirement. Twice for my own pleasure. But I never harvested much pleasure from it. It was advertised as the greatest American novel of the century, and at first I was excited to read a book with the word “great” in the title, figuring it must really be great if it’s in the title.
I was excited to read a book with the word “great” in the title, figuring it must really be great if it’s in the title.
But I didn’t get it. I mean, I didn’t understand why it was considered the greatest American novel of the century. I especially did not understand all the importance given in class lectures, discussions, and examinations questions to the optometry billboard on Long Island featuring the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg. They are supposed to be the eyes of God, or something, watching over the characters in the story and, in the end, judging, I suppose. In my memory of the book the eyes of T. J. Eckleberg are large, important, and a major story element. But that’s not the case in reality. In the novel the billboard in question is mentioned only briefly, and once. It’s given cursory treatment. It’s almost marginal. I always thought teachers’ concern with the eyes imagery was out of proportion, mistaken, and wrong.
Jay Gatsby (played in film by Robert Redford in 1974 and by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2014) is a wealthy bootlegger living on Long Island. His mansion home is open to partying guests among whom the source of Gatsby’s wealth is a kind of open secret, but whose invented autobiography is a semi-legendary semi-mystery. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a would-be Wall Street trader living in a cottage next door. Caraway’s cousin, Daisy, lives nearby and is the object of Gatsby’s fetish. Gatsby created himself. Never mind that he built his wealth on crime. Never mind that the autobiographical back-story he crafted is a bunch of lies.
So what was the big deal about Gatsby? I was recently discussing books with an American I know who likes to read. Our talk was far-ranging and diverse. At one point, Gatsby came up and during our talk I suddenly - after all these years - realized something about Gatsby and the claim that it is the greatest American novel of the century that I never figured out before. It's the most American of stories. Encoded at the very center of American DNA is admiration for the self-made success story, the mythic figure who pursues and fulfills his dream - someone like Jay Gatsby, a "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" who rises from obscure poverty to immense wealth. In particular, Gatsby’s biography - even though it’s fiction - is his own invention, and American mythology is that it’s the land where people’s origin doesn’t matter, it’s a land where people can write their own story. Not only can they make a different future for themselves than they might otherwise have had in whatever place they came from, but they can change their past by writing / re-writing their own backstory.
You see, I disregard Gatsby because the namesake character is a criminal, a liar, and in the end a failure. There’s no depth to him, no reliable permanency. He is ridiculous, shallow, and temporary.
That’s why it’s a great American novel. It’s ridiculous, shallow, and temporary.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
Leslie Van Houten
No one associated with the August 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders has ever been paroled. Good.
When I say this to some people they quickly bring up would-be Gerald Ford assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who was paroled in 2009 for her 1975 attempt to kill the American President. But while Squeaky was a member of the Manson Family, she was not a participant in the Tate-LaBianca murders.
I'm very happy that 68-year-old convicted murderer Leslie Van Houten, who at 19 was the youngest follower of Charles Manson to participate in those murders, has again been denied parole by California Gov. Jerry Brown despite a Parole Board recommendation that she is fit for parole.
Screw the Parole Board.
Van Houten has been in prison for almost fifty years. If this pattern of denied paroles continues she might die in prison of old age and become the longest-incarcerated person - male or female - in U.S. History. Tough. It's not that I disagree with paroling inmates. I certainly do. I believe that we can begin considering parole once they have undone the crimes they committed - not just convicted murderers, but any felons. It’s just easier and more popular to talk about perpetrators of heinous crimes. So when Sharon Tate and her baby are restored to life, when the LaBianca family is returned to life, only then may we begin to consider parole, by regarding other factors in an inmates life, like ‘rehabilitation.’
Being forgiven for your sins does not mean you go to heaven. You still go to hell, only without malice. Being forgiven for your crimes does not mean you get out of jail.
It's not that I'm mean and unforgiving. I am very forgiving. I forgive Van Houten. There, that’s done and I declared it. But forgiveness does not mean absolution. Being forgiven for your sins does not mean you can go to heaven. You still go to hell, only without malice. Being forgiven for your crimes does not mean you get out of jail. Also, I don’t care one iota if an inmate is so old that she is considered no longer a danger to society. Incarcerating people for the protection of society is one view of judicial incarceration. My view is that incarceration is for punishment, and if the courts have the courage of their convictions then if they sentence an offender to life in prison, then life it ought to be. Otherwise, WTF?! It is in a spirit of love and forgiveness that I want her kept in prison until she dies there. That’s a very forgiving attitude, I think. I love her, so please die in prison.
Van Houten could be released by a future state Governor. I hope not.
But I could be wrong.
Saturday, January 27, 2018.
For most of the week of January 22, 2018 I walked past this empty beer can balanced on a roadside fence on Nakano dori near my apartment. It was there since the day after the Big Snow we had at the start of the week. Strange that it hadn't fallen or been blown down yet. Maybe someone stuck it there as a joke, glued it or froze it to the post it sat on. Every time I went out of the house I wondered if I would see it still there, and I sort of looked forward to seeing it. Seeing it still there inspired me with hope, as if its removal would diminish me somehow. Seeing it made it part of my life experience. To remove it would diminish my life experience and therefore diminish me.
I admire durability, reliability, permanence.
Monday, January 1, 2018.
Like my mother before me, I believe that Christmas gift shopping is not the gift shopping we do at Christmas time (or during the Christmas season) so much as it is the gift shopping we do for Christmas, at any time of the year. So like Mom, I often finish my Christmas shopping in August or September, leaving only stocking stuffer items for December. Throughout the year I keep an eye out for things that might make good gifts. My policy has habitually been to buy things I like or I want when I see them (and have the money), because if I delay then the chance will be gone. That’s my experience. Listening to people talk (complainingly) about Christmas shopping is an annoyance I have to tolerate.
For me the problem is not the shopping so much as remembering where I hid everything. Then retrieving it and wrapping it. Ugh!
Christmas is not a holiday in Japan. I often have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. For Japanese school children December 25th is usually the last day of classes in their Second Term before the New Year holiday which is the major holiday in the Japanese calendar - sort of like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Canada Day all rolled into one.
I had no work on the day before Christmas or Christmas Even last year, but that was an exception. Habitually I have used December 23rd as the day for my Christmas Party because December 23rd is a national public holiday in Japan to celebrate the Emperor's birthday. It didn’t feel like a holiday last year because it was a Saturday. Emperor Akihito (born December 23, 1933) turned 84. In the spring of 2019 he will become the first emperor to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne in over two centuries. In a rare television address to the nation on July 13, 2016 he expressed his desire to retire before old age and fatigue impede his ability to carry out his ceremonial functions, while reassuring everyone that he was still healthy and fit (despite surgery for prostate cancer , pneumonia , and heart bypass surgery ). At the time there was no legal protocol for a royal abdication, so the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe crafted and passed a one-time only abdication law. Akihito's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will succeed to the throne on April 30, 2019.
Because it was his birthday, December 23rd was one of the few days of the year when the general public is admitted to the Imperial Palace inner gardens to view the royal family waving to them from behind sturdy bullet-proof windows. I've never tried it because the crowds are too dense. I don't like crowds.
"Emperor" is "tenno" in Japanese. If you pay attention to American WWII movies, when the actors portraying Japanese troops make suicidal charges into USMC lines, dressed in rags and waving samurai swords, they are often shouting "Tenno!!!" or "Tenno heika!!!" That's historically accurate. They wanted the Emperor's name to be the last words issuing from their lips before leaving this world. Remember that up until the Second World War the Emperor was regarded as a living deity, so dying in battle with the word “tenno” on a soldier’s lips was like a dying prayer. Oh, well.
The Christmas Party that I habitually have attended on December 23rd (for its convenient proximity to Christmas) was, instead, held on December 24th to accommodate people’s schedules.
I can buy turkey meat in Tokyo, and I can even get a whole turkey from a Costco store. But Tokyo’s two Costcos are very far away. I need a car and a membership. Even if I had a turkey, Japanese kitchen ovens are not well suited to such a large thing. So I always make do with a whole roast chicken that I buy from a bakery already roasted. The meat is greasier than a turkey, but so what?
Christmas Day in Tokyo was cool and sunny. When I woke up the pavement of the street was wet from night time precipitation and the air smelled of wet. But when I went out for my usual newspaper at 7:00 a.m. the sky already looked promising, so I took a photograph of it and put it on Facebook. I have noticed in recent years the cessation of two old Japanese customs that I used to witness, but no more. First is the custom of convenience store workers dressing up in cheap Santa suits and standing outside their stores on Christmas Eve, when the weather is chilly, selling Christmas cake to people on their way home. I did see that years ago, but not recently. I surmise that it has largely been stopped. Or, maybe they just sell the cakes inside the warm store now, which makes good sense to me. I would like to get a picture of that. Second is something that I do have a picture of - the custom of delivery people to dress in cheap Santa suits during the Christmas season (not only on Christmas Eve) while they scoot around town on their motorbikes delivering stuff. Again, maybe some still do this, but I’ve had my eye out for it for the last few years and haven’t seen it recently.
Boxing Day (also not a holiday) seemed like a good time for dental plaque removal. So I had a dentist appointment.
The day after Boxing Day was a good day to clean house, because I took delivery of two pieces of furniture. I had to clean up, move other furniture and make space. New Year’s is the season in Japan for housecleaning anyway. In Canada it’s commonly done in the spring - “Spring cleaning.” But in Japan it’s done at the start of the New Year to help start things off fresh and clean and new.
After that, the time was ripe for thinking of seeing a movie in the cinema, a rare occasion for me. The biggest thing in the theaters now is the newest Star Wars film, but frankly, I think Star Wars has been flogged to death and I’m just bored with it. So I did something else instead. Recording studio! Rehearsal!
I am a permanent foreign resident in Japan. I have no plan. I don't know what I'm doing.
3 月 2018