Category: Japanese

Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind

We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.

This was my third time in Japan and Theo’s sixth; between the two of us, we’ve explored most of the touristy metropolitans on Honshu, so we were content to just stay put in Tokyo, visiting museums and parks, eating soft serve, and making late-night trips to Family Mart.

Sunset over Setagaya Park.

People are always surprised when they find out that I keep going back to Japan though I only know the most basic of conversational Japanese, and yet I’ve only been to Korea once despite being fairly fluent in Korean (going on my ninth year of studying)!

The reality is, I’ve been your typical anime, manga, and (later) JRPG nerd for far longer than I’ve been studying Korean. I loved Pokémon in elementary school, watched English dubs of Rurouni Kenshin, and ate up the most ridiculous shoujo manga I could borrow from my friends. I taught myself kana when I was in high school and studied the language for a year in college — in a lot of ways, Korean was the interloper in my Japanese studies, heh.

That said, I’ve never been good at learning Japanese, even though I keep coming back to it. (I recently had an epiphany about this but that’s another blog post).

Learning Japanese through Korean (kinda)

As I got better at Korean, I wondered if things would stick better if I learned Japanese in Korean. To some extent, I was right; it did make learning grammar easier since there are a lot of grammar constructions that have a one-to-one equivalence between Japanese and Korean. But then I’d always feel like the two languages were competing for my time — and I would always choose Korean in the end.

When I told my Korean teacher about my upcoming trip to Japan, she asked if I wanted to spend a few minutes every class doing some basic Japanese, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

(As an aside, I’ve been taking private lessons in Korean for about a year now and my teacher is phenomenal. She’s done academic research in linguistics as well as technical translation work from Japanese into Korean, and she is trained to teach Japanese. She’s currently studying to get her TESOL certificate too. We have the nerdiest conversations about language and culture in Korean and it’s brilliant.)

In any case, I decided to show her some of my notes from a Japanese book I picked up on a whim when I was there in 2015.

My Japanese notes are in a mix of Korean and English.

Much like I’d started out learning Korean, I brute forced my way through the text, looking up every unfamiliar Kanji, unknown vocabulary word, and grammar point I didn’t know. I even made index cards to flip through on my commute to work.

But then my teacher suggested we try a more inductive approach to learning Japanese. So rather of meticulously going over grammar point by grammar point, this is what we do instead.

  • I read through the Japanese text on my own out loud (yes, stumbling over all the Kanji I couldn’t read)
  • My teacher then re-reads each sentence out loud, and then translates it into Korean.
  • We go over some key vocabulary and phrases in the text.
  • We discuss the text together in Korean.

Even though our discussion (and my comprehension) of the text is largely in Korean, I find my ear becoming more and more attuned to cadence of Japanese sentences; I’m even retaining more words and improving at reading. Most importantly, I feel myself getting better at Japanese, while also getting to practice Korean.

Two birds! One stone! I finally feel like I’ve found a sweet spot for learning both Japanese and Korean.

My teacher has been incredible; she basically lets me set my own curriculum and follows me patiently wherever my language whims take me. Obviously this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her. But! There’s something also to be said about this book I serendipitously picked up four years ago

日本人の心が分かる日本語: a mini review

I didn’t know anything about this book when I spotted it in the Japanese language section of Kinokuniya’s flagship store in Shinjuku, but the book’s subtitle caught my interest: “A book for foreigners wanting to read between the lines to see what the Japanese really think.”

The book is made up of short essays (3-4) pages on specific words related to Japanese culture and etiquette. Each essay is structured the same way:

  • A few introductory sentences defining the word and its origins
  • Several specific example scenarios, usually in the form of dialogue, illustrating different nuances of the word or the concept it represents
  • Each example scenario is followed by an explanation
  • Each essay has an additional section called もっと深くwhich goes deeper into the topic using more advanced Japanese
  • Finally, each essay ends with a list of key vocabulary words. These words tend to show up in subsequent essays.

I haven’t taken the JLPT exam, but the essays are probably at an intermediate to upper-intermediate level in terms of grammar. The vocabulary felt more advanced than the grammar, though the book does a great job of referring back to and reinforcing the key terms that were introduced in earlier sections of the book.

Here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • しつけ
  • けじめ
  • 遠慮(えんりょ)
  • 気をつかう
  • がんばる
  • 無理
  • 空気を読む

So my teacher and I discuss these essays in a mix of Japanese and Korean, and the great thing is, I’m learning a lot of basic things about Japanese culture that I didn’t know before, while also using Korean to compare and contrast it with Korean and Indian culture. It’s stretching my brain in fun and exciting ways.

Speaking of brains, I think I’m feeling my mind sort of… unlock(?) itself to Japanese lately. It’s easier to learn and retain new things. I feel energized by studying Japanese — that’s something I used to only ever feel with Korean.

懐かしい

I love the word 懐かしい (natsukashii).

It’s one of those words that most people learn through anime, that’s usually translated as “how nostalgic” or “I miss when I used to experience such-and-such.” I don’t think I really got the essence of the word until I started going to Japanese conversation club, back when I was taking Japanese in college. One woman was talking about going to onsen when she was younger, and the other responded with 懐かしいね.

I don’t think there’s an equivalent Korean word that has the same kind of connotation and is used in the same kind of way. The dictionary tells me 그립다 is the closest equivalent:

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It’s interesting that the words aren’t exact equivalents of each other. I’ve only ever seen 그립다 used in songs or poetry, or used in literary or scholarly speech, usually when talking about something really sentimental. 懐かしい can be used in those cases too, but also more casually–like when you describe a childood anime, or when you hear an old song, or eat a dish you grew up with.

A couple weeks ago, I went out with my Korean language class classmates for dinner and karaoke. I tried to sing some “old” K-pop songs and failed miserably because I didn’t remember the melodies at all. (Honestly, I was kind of shocked at myself–yeah, it’s been years since I really listened to K-pop but to not recall some of my favorite songs? Sob!)

A few days following that, I plunged myself into the songs and idol groups I used to like (and learn Korean from) back in the day and spent hours watching old variety shows and dance practice videos, channeling the long lost fangirl buried with in me…. The best way I can describe how I felt is 懐かしい.

Speaking of which, I’ll be back in Japan during the first week of October this year. Is anyone else going to be there? I’d love to meet up!

すみません vs. すいません

So, I’m not crazy.

I was re-watching きみはペット (incidentally, one of my favorite Japanese dramas) and I confirmed a long-standing suspicion. A lot of Japanese people pronounce すません as すません.

For years I’ve thought my brain was somehow not computing the み sound correctly until I actually saw it spelled with い in a manga I was reading.

The general consensus from all the language forums I’ve combed through seems to be that すません is a colloquial and more casual way of pronouncing すません. The latter is always used when you’re being exceptionally apologetic (as opposed to simply trying to catch someone’s attention) and/or speaking formally to superior.

Probably because I don’t know the language that intimately, I’ve always assumed Japanese to be a really rigid language compared to Korean. There aren’t any complex pronunciation rules like in Korean, hiragana/katakana spelling is pretty much 100% phonetic, and verb conjugations are shockingly regular…. I guess that’s why this ‘mispronunciation’ surprised me so much.

I am getting to the point in Japanese where I’m finally starting to pick up on colloquialisms and slang, which is kind of cool. (The first bit of Japanese slang I picked up was the word 「ちょう」). At some point I should graduate from reading manga to actual novels so I don’t sound like a middle schooler the next time I’m in Japan.

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On a related note, anime has been holding my attention far better than Korean dramas these days. (I couldn’t even make it past episode four of 마녀보감, the last drama I attempted to watch. Sigh.)

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ReLIFE has been my favorite this season (definitely one of my favorites in the last couple years too). The story hits home–a 27-year old man, recently unemployed, gets the chance to participate in an experiment that lets him redo his senior year of high school. The webcomic is also available to read for free on comico! I know I’ve written a ton about webcomics/shows that I never actually finish (heh), but this one I can recommend wholeheartedly.

積ん読

I stumbled across the Japanese word tsundoku some time ago on Buzzfeed.  It was one among several Japanese words included in a list (listicle?) of “untranslatable” words from foreign languages.

First things first: This is a cool word.  I feel particularly attached to it because it describes an act that I commit with alarming frequency.  For various reasons,  have an issue with calling this and any word “untranslatable” – but that aside, it’s still interesting to consider its etymology.

tsundoku (Found in Translation by Anjana Iyer)

 

First off, 積ん読 [つんどく] is a compound of two words 積む + 読.  Breaking that down, we have:

  • 積む [つむ]: to pile up
  •  読 [どく – note the on’yomi reading]:  to read

Now the interesting thing is that the whole word is actually a pun on the word 積んどく[つんどく] which is a contraction of 積んでおく [つんでおく].  The latter verb ending – VERB STEM +ておく – indicates doing something and leaving it that way for a while.  (Think 아/어 두다 in Korean).  So,

  • 積んでおく = to leave piled up for a long time

The “books” part of the word comes in when you substitute the contraction of でおく (which becomesどく) with 読.  So clever!  And so very Japanese.  It sort of reminds me of the humor in 花より男子 with all the jokes around Domyouji’s misuse and misinterpretation of Kanji.  It’s so hard to get the humor or cleverness behind Japanese wordplay when you… uh… aren’t that good at Kanji or vocabulary in general.  Looking up the parts that make up this particular word was enlightening though.  And it sort of made me want to pick up one of those several unread books I have lying around!

Mandarake – (Used) Manga Paradise in Japan

Okay, so imagine you’re in Japan.

For lovers of Japanese fiction/non-fiction, there’s Kinokuniya.  For lovers of manga, light novels, and anime merch, there’s Animate.  And then, my friendsthere is a store for those of us who like all of the above but are on a budget.  That’s Mandarake.

Image courtesy of Lisa Pinehill (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ginkgraph/8093211245)
Image courtesy of Lisa Pinehill (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ginkgraph/8093211245)

Mandarake (まんだらけ) is a multi-story anime/manga media store found in a number of locations throughout Japan.  The store is chock-full of anime CDs, DVDs, even VHS tapes (it’s true!), collectible figurines, cosplay gear, toys and cell phone charms, fan-made doujinshi and, best of all, a jaw-dropping quantity of used manga.

I went to two different Mandarake’s when I visited Japan: one in Akihabara (Tokyo) and one in Namba (Osaka).  The photo above isn’t mine, but that’s the Namba branch of the store.  And no, your eyes do not deceive you:  Those are shelves of used manga literally chilling outside the building.

I very often delude myself into thinking I know Japanese better than I actually do, especially when it comes to reading.  I’m horrible at reading Japanese.  You’d be amazed how undeterred I am by that fact when I am in store such as Mandarake.  One of the most difficult things about this store was actually navigating around and trying to find a specific title.  The manga seemed to be classified by genre first, and then by the magazine it was serialized in, and then by author.  So basically, I was wandering like a lost sheep most of the time, under the guise of “browsing” casually.

I did spot some familiar titles.

Throwback to early high school.  You will not believe how emotionally invested in Marmalade Boy I was.  Funnily enough, it’s one of Theo’s most memorable mangas too.  We don’t overlap a ton in terms of what we’ve read or watched so that was pretty interesting to find out!

Believe it or not, it wasn’t too difficult to walk away empty-handed from normal bookstores like Kinokuniya.  One tankoubon at Kinokuniya is $6.20 in the U.S. and roughly the same price in Japan; I wouldn’t save money by buying manga or novels in Japan.  But used manga in Mandarake run as cheap as ¥200 (1.60 USD) and are in practically new condition.  That was true temptation.

In the spirit of bonding over manga that we’ve both read, I picked up volume 1 of a couple of Theo’s favorites.  Orange in particular was quite popular, probably because the final chapter release a few months ago.  There’s apparently going to be a live action movie too, releasing in Japan this December.

IMG_0616-1 copy

Slowly, but surely, my Japanese bookshelf grows.  One of these days I’ll actually finish something on it.  My first ever Japanese novel was 告白 by Minato Kanae, the novel which gave rise to one of my all-time favorite movies.  A friend gave me the novel… oh, three or so years ago.  And I still can’t make it past the third sentence without stumbling across kanji that I can’t read.

One of these days!

World Connections

Yes, yes, I know – and you do too if you been following me on Twitter or Instagram – I got back from Japan a whole week ago so where be all the Japan posts?!?  All in good time, friends.  I’m not even done writing about Korea from a whole year ago.  Spoiler alert:  I only slightly fail at writing travelogues.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was at a job interview for a position that is heavily focused on writing and communication (EDIT:  I GOT THE JOB).  One question I got was “Why writing?” – aside from the fact that I must be a fairly good writer, being an ex-PhD student and all (not universally true, by the way), why was I choosing to make writing the focal point of my career path now?

I hadn’t thought about that question at all, really.  The duh answer is that I’ve always loved writing and language.  And writing about language.  Naturally, I brought up this blog.  This blog is the perfect marriage of my two greatest passions and being able to do both in one space gives me boundless satisfaction and joy.  I’ve said it over and over again: I don’t think I would’ve ever entertained the idea of blogging had it not been for the other language bloggers I had silently followed before starting my own.

Blogging hasn’t just brought me personal joy, it’s brought me connections to people all over the world.

Real talk:  By Internet stats, I’m not a popular blogger by any means.  My daily page views are practically negligible and I only have a few hundred followers.  That being said, I’m incredibly lucky.  I have come to know many of my followers through my blog and social media and through language learning itself.  The majority of us may not have met in person, but these are still true, meaningful connections.  Last year, I met my wifey Jeannie for the first time in Seoul after years and years of getting to know her online.  This year, I stopped in Nagoya to meet another online friend in person.

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I first met Haruna through Theo’s Japanese-American friend, who had met her through a language-exchange site.  We Skyped a few times after that, talked for a bit on Facebook (she introduced me to Sakanaction hehe) and Line and when I mentioned that I was coming to Japan and would love to meet up with her, she agreed!  Haruna commuted something like 2 hours from her hometown to meet Theo and me at Nagoya station where she took us to eat donburi.

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but it was incredibly touching to know that through my language learning endeavors, I had made a friend in Japan – and we were both really excited to see each other!  She may have plans to come to California next year so hopefully we see each other again.

It just feels really awesome that I have friends that I’ve made through language learning and blogging in all these different pockets of the world.  I feel kinda like a global citizen.

I love writing, but in all honesty, I never thought to make it a part of my career.  I’ve been “writing a novel” since seventh grade or so, and it’s always been on the side.  It never felt like I was doing enough.  Now I know exactly what is so satisfying about writing and why I want to make it the center of my career:  I love that my words can reach other people.  And that we can inspire each other as a result!  That’s pretty damn powerful.

Reading 桜蘭高校ホスト部

Look at what I have not been reading these days.

2012-12-13 22.51.43*squeals*  桜蘭高校ホスト部 (Ouran High School Host Club) is one of my ALL-TIME favorite animes and mangas ever.  It’s cute, funny, endearing, and not to mention the art is gorgeous.  (It’s also the only anime I’ve ever watched both English-subbed and English-dubbed – and the dubbing is very impressive!)  Now shoujo manga can be pretty ridiculous but one of the charms of OHSHC is that it makes fun of its own genre and tropes and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  You have the typical shoujo setup:  a cross-dressing(or is she?) female from a working-class family enters a private academy for the Incredibly Wealthy & Snooty and gets entangled in rich-kid shenanigans – but our heroine Haruhi is far from the typical Mary Sues of shoujo-verse (lookin’ at you, Honda Tohru).  She’s sharp, resourceful, delightfully glib and her deadpan humor keeps readers laughing and rooting for her.

2012-12-13 22.53.02I’m not going to lie – reading this was (is) a very long and painful process.  I’m amazed at how much Kanji I don’t know (heh), but in turn, I’m surprised at how much I do know.  The grammar is very basic and easy to follow; I hardly need to look up anything, even with the mere year of beginning Japanese that I went through.  And the Kanji really isn’t as awful as I make it out to be.  I use the microscopic furigana over each character to get the pronunciation, and I have my Japanese dictionary app open to help with learning the meaning and stroke order.  It works!  I have a notebook that’s solely full of Kanji from this manga and I find myself getting better and better at remembering them without needing to make flashcards.  Yay.

I’m taking just over a week off for winter break (so short *sob*), but hopefully I’ll get around to studying Japanese a little more very soon.  For now, though, my days are consumed by experiments and labwork; I need to get tons of stuff done before Christmas.  Wish me luck.  Sigh.

What’s in a name?

One of the reasons I love watching Korean and Japanese dramas is because language often plays a role in the progression of a relationship.  Sometimes within just sixteen episodes of a Korean drama, we can hear the shift from honorific language to polite language to plain language; and, I don’t know if it’s just me, but hearing the change from polite to intimate language makes me giggle and spazz and flail more than physical displays of affection.

In particular, I love hearing the use of honorific suffixes.  I’m sure students of the Korean and/or Japanese language are no strangers to honorific suffixes.  In Japanese we have most commonly  さま (sama)、さん (san)、くん (kun)、ちゃん (chan)、先生 (sensei)、先輩 (senpai) and, unless you’re addressing a peer by his/her last name only, it’s pretty uncommon to hear a name without one of these suffixes.  In Korean, we mostly see 씨 (ssi), 군/양 (goon/yang), -님 (-nim), 선생 (seonsaeng), and 선배 (sunbae), which are similar to but do not directly parallel their Japanese counterparts.  Another related concept is that of occupational titles.  I know in Korean at least, it’s not uncommon to address a person by his/her title such as 양 작가 (Writer Yang) or 김 검사님 (Prosecutor Kim).

Anyway, I love that the intimacy between two characters can be shown through the use (or lack) of honorific suffixes.  For example, I always found it amazing that couples in Japanese anime or dramas would address each other by their last names even though they were “dating.”  For example when I was reading 君に届け (Kimi ni todoke), Kazehaya and Kuronuma fantasized about calling each other by their first names (no honorifics) but just the thought would make them blush, as if it was too intimate to even think about.

In Korean dramas, I’ll admit the most heart-fluttering moment for me is when the guy drops honorifics with the girl.  Best example of this?  Lie To Me.  Throughout the first half, we have Kang Ji-hwan’s character calling Yoon Eun-hye’s character “Gong Ah-jung ssi” and then when he suddenly starts calling her “Ah-jung-ah,” not just once but over and over again?  I just about melted.  Clearly, it had that effect on Ah-jung too, since she kept replaying the recording of him saying the diminutive form her name.

Another one of my favorite examples is in 건빵선생과 별사탕 (Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy) when Tae-in says “Na Bori ssi” instead of “Na Bori seonsaeng-nim,” showing that he regards their relationship as that of a man and woman instead of  student-teacher.  This type of courtship is something you can only appreciate if you understand the language and  the culture to some extent.  And to someone who grew up in a culture that oversexualizes everything, it’s refreshing to watch romance unfold through language.  It almost makes me cry with happiness.

Romance aside, I also love relationship terms following a person’s name:  오빠 (oppa), 언니 (unnie), 형 (hyung), 누나 (noona), all of those terms literally make me squeal.  I remember being surprised but also happy when a Korean-American friend of mine called me 언니 once when we were chatting in Korean, even though I’m not Korean myself.  Haha.  All of a sudden, it made me want to act all elder-sisterly.

In Act II scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose //By any other name would smell as sweet” to mean that an object is an object, regardless of what it is called.  Though that may be the case in English, we see that in other languages, how one uses another’s  name is indeed a significant matter to consider.  Whether or not you say that person’s name with an honorific suffix, an occupational title, or a relationship term matters.  Whether or not you say that person’s name at all matters too. In Korean and Japanese, the way a person addresses you can give you insight into how that person perceives your relationship with him/her.  It can be a tricky thing to grasp… but I still wish English had some sort of thing like it.

Fishing for compliments

No matter what language you’re trying to learn, if you’re learning by yourself, you’re bound to get discouraged at some point – especially if it’s a language that you don’t get to practice on a daily basis.  Unless you have the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker, there’s still a degree of unreality, a sense of “foreignness” associated with that language that I feel has to be overcome before you can aim for fluency.  For example, when I first learned Hangeul, typed my first Korean sentence, and submitted it as a comment on TTMIK, I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing – until one of the teachers replied back.  It’s really hard to describe the amazing feeling of being understood by native speakers of the language you’re studying.  That, in itself, was a powerful motivation to learn more and to keep improving.

I don’t live in Korea nor do I really live in place populated with many Koreans but still, as I learned more Korean, I kept trying to find ways to communicate with native speakers.  (My best friend is Korean-American, but she’s also a second-year medical student so I’d rather not bother her!)  I’ve talked to some people on Twitter, left comments on Talk To Me In Korean, communicated with my fellow Korean-language bloggers, posted on Lang-8, and even messaged people on tumblr.  I’ve been so fortunate to get incredible feedback from so many people.  One person mistook me for an actual Korean person!  And my fellow language-learners have been more than generous with their compliments.  I even received this incredible comment from someone on Lang-8 that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

정말 훌륭합니다. 1년밖에 배우지 않은 실력에 이렇게까지 쓸 수 있다니 놀랍습니다.

Sometimes, a person might just say 한국어 잘 하시네요 simply to be polite but even that can be encouraging to a self-learner.  What I’m trying to say is that when you feel deflated and discouraged some time during your language-learning pursuit, or when you just feel stuck in a rut, FISH FOR COMPLIMENTS.  Not in the crude sense of belittling your ability in order to be complimented – rather, put yourself out there to the language-learning community, to the community of native speakers to be motivated.  Sometimes that motivation is a compliment, sometimes it’s a correction or a suggestion, or sometimes it’s just an answer to a comment or question you made in the language you’re learning.  Nothing is more motivating than being able to communicate in the language you labored to study by yourself.  The important thing is to not just bury yourself in an academic atmosphere of language-learning – among books, professors, and exams.

Of course, after reaching a more advanced level, compliments or communication without criticism, can be more frustrating than motivating; people tend to just say you’re good without giving you any points to improve on.  I’m guilty of that in English – I prefer not to point out every single English grammar and/or spelling mistake an advanced English-learner makes, even if he/she asks to be corrected.  For now, I don’t have to worry about that in Korean.  Whether it’s compliments or criticism, feedback of any kind always motivates me!