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    Chosen time

    Posted by Sean at 09:25, November 22nd, 2005

    What I love most about Madonna as a lyricist is her inventiveness with language, the way she’s constantly stretching her idiolect to accommodate new contours in her idiosyncratic inner world.

    For example, this is the chorus to “I Love New York” from the new album:

    Other cities always make me mad
    Other places always make me sad
    No other city ever made me glad
    Except New York
    I love New York

    It’s like you’re privy to her most private thoughts, huh?

    Okay, enough with the deadpanning. WTF? I could have written that. In fact, I think I did write it–in first grade when Miss Cramer gave us an assignment that was, like, “Write a poem describing where you’ll live after you grow up and decide you’re too fabulous for the Lehigh Valley.” Maybe Lourdes was helping Mommy at work that day?

    Madonna’s intelligence is generally, uh, of the non-verbal variety, and that’s okay–she’s a musician and dancer primarily. Her lyrics are almost never graceful–she likes clunky metaphors and lines that scan dicily–but when she’s at her best, they’re punchy and immediate. Frequently (as above), she’s at both her best and her worst in the space of the same song. Of course, maddeningly enough, I love “I Love New York” to death. It’s just, I swear I can feel that chorus making me dumber every time I hear it.


    Autumn

    Posted by Sean at 10:29, October 17th, 2005

    Autumn is prime moon-viewing time in Japan. The yearning summoned up by the combination of chill, moaning winds and a cloud-wreathed moon is one of the major clichés of Japanese aesthetics, known by now throughout the world. But like most clichés, it still seems stark and real in its original formulations. The following are from the Shin-Kokin Waka Shu:

    秋風のいたりいたらぬ袖はあらじただわれからの露の夕暮

    鴨長明

    aki kaze no/itari itaranu/sode ha araji/tada ware kara no/tuyu no yuugure

    kamo no chōmei

    Though the autumn wind
    does not leave as it passes
    sleeves here touched, there untouched,
    on my sleeve alone settles
    the dew of this eventide

    Kamo no Chōmei

    *******

    たのめたる人はなけれど秋の夜は月見て寝べき心地こそせね

    和泉式部

    tanometaru/hito ha nakeredo/aki no yo ha/tsuki mite nebeki/kokochi koso sene

    izumi shikibu

    I am not waiting
    for a suitor to arrive,
    but this autumn night
    I sit gazing at the moon
    without any thought of sleep

    Izumi Shikibu

    Kamo no Chōmei is most famous as the writer of the Houjouki, but quite a bit of his poetry shows up in the third of the great court anthologies. Dew in classical poetry usually represents tears of longing. Though Chōmei knows that the autumn wind blows equitably–it literally and symbolically scatters dew everywhere–he feels isolated in his yearning, as if he were the only one weeping into his sleeve with stirred memories.

    Izumi Shikibu is the daughter of Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the famous (and massive) Tale of Genji. She’s no Princess Shokushi, but she often turns images very well. In this poem, she slyly underscores her melancholy by pointing out that not only is the beauty of the moon keeping her from getting any rest, but she also has no lover to refocus her attention.

    The Japanese have a worldwide reputation for loving nature, and that’s not unjustifiable; they’ve written about it for over a millennium. However, one of the reasons that many Western attempts at waka or haiku fail is that they just describe beautiful scenes…and that’s it. They sound merely quaint. Japanese poetry–the good stuff–doesn’t just document the existence of a stand of pine trees that were sitting there being pretty. It describes nature to convey a moment of keen feeling on the part of the writer, when inner thought and external environment had a spark of connection.


    One and one and one make five

    Posted by Sean at 05:23, July 20th, 2005

    Frequent commenter John has had his own blog for a few months–it’s very good stuff.

    There have been a lot of posts about math education floating around lately. His two (here and here) are great additions to the pool. Something that he says that more people need to understand (and that is pertinent to comparisons of American and Japanese educational systems):

    So being Americans, and enamored of the idea that everyone can become a genius, we came out with systems that emphasized creativity over memorization, forgetting that in order to be creative you need at least a few facts in your head, otherwise you live in a world of make-believe.

    Somehow, the conviction that your progress in life needn’t be limited by the circumstances you were born into has changed into the belief that you can bluff your way through anything. (That actually doesn’t work much better in literary study than it does in math, BTW, as anyone who’s lost hours of life to an assigned “critical theory” reading of zero meaning can attest. It’s just less noticeable because there’s at least some fudge room in interpretation and criticism. And misinterpreting a poem doesn’t make bridges fall down.)


    Leave your worries behind

    Posted by Sean at 23:45, July 18th, 2005

    Good weekend. It was sunny Saturday (it’s supposed to be the rainy season, remember), so the view from the mountaintop restaurant we went to was fantastic. We’d had lunch at a lakeside cafe not far from the airport. At one very Japanese moment, we were looking out at the (many) dragonflies buzzing around the window. The flightpath to the airport was in the middle distance, and suddenly, a landing airliner glided into view so that it looked the same size as the dragonflies flitting around inches away. They seemed to be playing together for a moment. It was beautiful.

    Sunday we went to the hot spring, stopping at an old aqueduct along the way. Water is released in a big, frothy arc for 15 minutes at noon; along with a lot of other tourists, we were there to take pictures and stuff. From there to the inn, Atsushi decided to follow the GPS map program’s suggested route. Apparently, the suggestions were made by dryads. We found ourselves on a one-lane road snaking over a mountain, with leaves growing in so closely the car touched them on both sides. (They were great for visibility, too. Poor Atsushi took a deep breath before every hairpin turn.) Most of the way there was no shoulder–and I don’t mean they didn’t bother to pave anything beyond the white line; I mean the vertical dropoff began at the white line. At one point, where the forest canopy converged what seemed like inches above the car roof, I said, “I keep expecting to see a witch’s cottage around every bend,” at which point my much-tried man muttered, “No self-respecting witch would be caught dead living back here.”

    The inn was worth it, though. It was new, so there were more man-made materials and obvious machines around than one might have liked for a hot spring, but you can’t get away from that. All the guest huts were named for flowering plants. We unfortunately didn’t get the one called after the flower of Atsushi’s family crest, but ours was on a high point with a great view of the valley and fields (and ubiquitous electrical-line tower–which wasn’t nearly as endearing juxtaposed with nature as the passenger jet had been). We were in one of the baths when the lashing rains and lightning drew near. When I was no longer able to count “1-one thousand” between the flash and the boom, we decided bath time was over for now.

    The drive back into the city was relatively uneventful. There’s a national park with flower gardens at the edge of Oita Prefecture, so we stopped there. It’s lavender season, so the fields were grey with it. It looked like purplish steel in the sun. We had lavender-flavored ice cream at one of the stands before heading back.

    Needless to say, all of this butching it up took a lot out of me. I’m back in Tokyo and headed to the office and may or may not feel up to posting tonight. On the other hand, there was an article about Japan in Atsushi’s latest Time Asia that got my blood boiling–Isn’t July a little early for such a big turkey? I thought while reading it. I may be banging something out about it before bed. Few comments I want to respond to, too.

    For now, I leave you with a summer poem by Princess Shokushi:

    かへり来ぬ昔を今と思ひ寝の夢の枕ににほふ橘

    式子内親王

    kaerikonu / mukashi wo ima to / omohi ne no / yume no makura ni / nihofu tachibana

    Shokushi Naishinnô

    I float into sleep,
    a past that will come no more
    made now in my thoughts–
    at the pillow of that dream
    the scent of orange blossoms

    The Princess Shokushi

    The fragrance of orange blossoms is said to excite the memory. When the princess awakes, the scent makes her feel the more keenly that some nostalgic memory, which she knows she will never live through again, had actually returned to life in her dream. It’s a little late in the summer for this poem, I think, and it’s not one of those with 500 fascinating allusions you can write a thesis on. Lovely, though.

    Hope everyone else had a wonderful weekend.

    Added on 20 July: I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I inserted that caesura above. Many Japanese waka are, in fact, constructed so that the first three lines (5-7-5 syllables) conjure up a feeling or reaction and the last two lines (7-7 syllables) give the concrete sensory stimulus for it. They can be difficult to translate because putting the caesura in the same place, in order to preserve the dramatic pause of the original as faithfully as possible, gives you less leeway in rendering each of the two parts.

    Princess Shokushi’s poem above is different. It’s one of those that come out in a long rush. The m and n consonants that dominate give the description a heady feel, when the images are actually rather plain. The whole poem is a long prenominal modifier for the final word, 橘 (tachibana: “orange tree,” which refers to a variety of citrus that’s a little different, of course, from those that produce the baseballs you buy with “Sunkist” stamped on them). If you translated it directly and in English word order, you’d get something like this (I’d like to apologize in advance to the Princess’s kami for the act of violence I’m about to commit):

    The orange tree wafts its scent at the pillow of the dream in which I’ve gone to sleep thinking that the past that will not return is now.

    Obviously, this was an occasion for compromise, and I figured that maybe making each line kind of self-contained and billowy would compensate for not being able to reproduce the liquidity of the original. It seemed most important to keep the orange tree at the end, where it supplies the moment of sensual awareness. I’m afraid the result was a little precious, though.


    Book stick II

    Posted by Sean at 03:54, June 18th, 2005

    Okay, third time’s the charm. Tom, Joel, and Susanna have all passed me that book thing again. I got it from Dean a while ago, so I’ll post an updated version of my original response:

    How many books you own

    On which land mass? If you count the books I have here, the ones I have at my parents’ house, the ones that are still in the apartment in New York with my old roommate, and the ones that are still at his parents’ house (yes, I plan to recollect them all eventually), uh, I’m going to say 1000. Of course, I pitilessly throw away books I think suck (Tokyo-sized apartment, kids).

    Last book you bought

    Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Ordered with a bunch of others from Amazon, of course; some day when I’m up to it we’ll talk about how much Kinokuniya or Tower or Book 1st shakes you down for imported books.)

    Last book you read

    The Division of Labour in Society by Emile Durkheim (No, I haven’t gotten around to reading it before. I should have stuck with French after high school, because the translation is pretty turgid; but anything that dense I would have had to read again, anyway, so it’s going to end up being the next book I read, too.)

    Five books that mean a lot to you

    • 恍惚の人、有吉佐和子作 (kokotsu no hito, ariyoshi sawako saku: “The Ecstatic Ones by Sawako Ariyoshi,” translated pretty effectively as The Twilight Years)

      This was the first novel I read all the way through in Japanese. It was first published serially in the early 1970s. It follows a housewife with a part-time job as she copes with the death of her mother-in-law and the realization that her widowed father-in-law is senile. It was written at a time of great transition in Japanese society, and Ariyoshi was very prescient about which issues would prove to be the thorniest as the Japanese household (the center of any society) evolved. It starts to lose focus and emotional charge toward the end, but the final scene is still devastating. I reread it every year.

    • A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel

      I’m terrible at keeping historical dates straight or, conversely, at reading what was going on in some corner of the world in 1350 and being able to recall what was happening at the same time elsewhere. Braudel’s book was written for high school students, but it was written for perceptive, industrious high school students to use as a basis on which to build further knowledge about specific historical facts. Some of his predictions (the book was written in the 60s) are outdated, but overall you get a real feel for the overarching development of social and political structures over time.

    • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

      Dickinson is the greatest American poet, and I will not deign to entertain counterarguments from supporters of that insufferable Whitman guy.

    • 新古今和歌集 (shinkokinwakashu), the third of the great anthologies of Heian poetry

      The earlier 古今和歌集 (kokinwakashu: “Collected Poems Old and New”) is usually regarded as the best of the three great anthologies, but, perhaps because of the way I was taught them, I like the third one the best. That’s especially true of the inclusions by the Priest Saigyo and the Princess Shokushi.

    • Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

      I think you have to be a certain kind of person to have your world reordered by this book, so I’m not sure how much universal value as art it has. Officially, it’s a mystery, but there’s less interest in the whodunnit aspect than in why protagonist Miss Pym thinks and acts as she does. It’s a really acute study of the unconscious factors that often impinge when we think we’re making clear-eyed ethical judgments: favoring people who are attractive and well-spoken, lazily drawing conclusions from circumstantial evidence, clinging to assumptions we’re comfortable with even after it’s obvious we should be questioning them.


    When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again

    Posted by Sean at 01:42, May 7th, 2005

    Yet another song you shouldn’t listen to on a crowded Tokyo commuter train. It was raining yesterday, the sort of chilly rain that reminds you how open to the elements you are as an organism, and in combination with Atsushi’s having gone back home on Thursday night, it probably made me a little more downcast and emotionally susceptible than usual. That wasn’t all of it, though. Tokyo isn’t populated by self-centered rock stars with celebrity doctors attending to them, but it is the sort of place where people frequently feel as if they’re being prodded from all sides to bury what they really think and perform, perform, perform for their handlers.

    I know that that’s a reductive picture. In the same way that “America is an individualistic society” doesn’t mean that we don’t have social rules and conformism, Japan is a free country with a lot of personalities on display. But last night, everyone looked unusually tired and spaced-out (first day back at work after a week-long holiday) and the rain and dark made the train feel like its own little isolated world. Hearing Roger Waters sing, “There is no pain / You are receding,” made me ache; it was so oppressively fitting. (Well, except that for most on the train, the show was over for the week and not about to begin again until Monday.)

    Despite its specific resonance for me, I don’t believe that I would try to argue that “Comfortably Numb” is a great modern poem, though. I was thinking that wry thought on the walk home from the station because my copy of Camille Paglia’s all-new book finally arrived a few days ago. I don’t know what took it so long to get here–amazon.co.jp can be weird that way. Anyway, it feels like another throwback to college, since the last time we had a whole new book of essays by Camille to read, I was a junior. Most of it is great. Even when she’s reading very familiar poems, she brings something new to them: I’m a big, bad Dickinson fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as chilled by “Because I could not stop for Death–” as I was when reading Paglia’s essay on it the other night. Her (Camille’s, not Emily’s) pushy, idiosyncratic voice has an odd way of making her readings universal. You get the feeling that you, too, with all your quirks, could find deep reserves of beauty and meaning in the same artifact, even if the actual points she makes sometimes seem a bit overworked.

    But, I’m sorry, not even Camille can brandish enough libidinousness and cosmic-geological history to make Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a great poem, much less “possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy.'” I am fully convinced that there are two pages’ worth of Significance in the sixteen words of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” But the six pages (!) devoted to “Woodstock” are the only passage in the book when you get the sense that Paglia yearns for literary value that just isn’t there. (I’m not the first to think this, as you might imagine.) And, while Camille almost always surprises you somewhere, about Joni Mitchell’s piece she says exactly what you expect her to say and no more: Flower power was a beautiful but incomplete dream; the Sixties visualized men and women as equal partners in civilization but underestimated aggression and sex differences; those fighter jets turning into butterflies are, like, totally trippy symbols of melting back into nature; and so on, and so forth.

    All good points, yes, but there’s another problem. When you finish reading her essay and go back to the lyrics, you find something you don’t with Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens: you have to keep consciously reminding yourself what Paglia said about this or that line in order to feel its importance. Despite Mitchell’s clear and mostly timeless images, the poem doesn’t reveal more about itself unless freighted with Paglia’s nostalgic interpretation. It’s an oddly satisfying way to end the book nonetheless. She’s so touchingly eager to make readers feel the vibrancy of the visions of the Sixties, even in the face of what four succeeding decades have done to them, that it makes you feel almost protective of her. And how often do you get the chance to feel protective of Camille Paglia?


    一周年

    Posted by Sean at 09:28, April 12th, 2005

    You gotta love that Dean. He takes that book quiz that’s floating around and decides that one of the people he’s going to pass it on to is “Sean Kinsell because he’s fun to pick on.” (Word to youngsters in the audience: You know how your parents keep telling you that when you grow up, you’ll find like-minded people to hang around who will love and respect you for you you are? It’s a total crock. Trust me–the best policy is swift and unapologetic VENGEANCE.)

    I wasn’t going to do anything with this, but today happens to be exactly one year after my first post. I never really planned to start a blog; I liked commenting at other people’s places. But when Atsushi was transferred last March and I wanted something to help fill time while I felt sorry for myself, I asked Dean to set this up for me. As in, I got out my credit card and signed up for MT and hosting, and Dean presented me a week later with a blog ready for writing to (of course, I immediately set about changing the fonts and faggifying the color scheme, but I could have gone with his original template and had a respectable blue-and-white theme…sort of like on-line ticking). He’s also helped me out a lot with my dumb-ass tech problems and by linking to me frequently.

    And, as you can tell, I’ve warmed to it. The number of readers I get amazes me; I’m very grateful. And it’s been good, I think, for my relationship with Atsushi. His English is great, but we speak Japanese at home and watch Japanese television and have all Japanese friends. There’s nothing about that that’s a problem–it’s the life I’ve chosen–but it means that he rarely gets to see me be a full-bore American in my native tongue. With the blog, he does, and, while I know I don’t always show myself to best advantage here, I think it’s a good thing that he has a fuller idea what kind of man he’s with.

    Uh, so anyway, thanks again to Dean and to all of you. For more about the Real Me, here’s that book quiz:

    You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

    Don’t we all die, anyway? If I could be any book until either the firemen or the bomb got me, sheer arrogance would make me want to be the Bible (the KJV–none of that bowdlerized “accessible” crap), which is probably more important in Western history than any other single book.

    Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

    I really don’t think so.

    The last book you bought is:

    Singular? Like one at a time? This test was obviously not written by a book addict. Uh, say 破戒 (hakai: “broken commandment”) by Shimazaki Toson. That wasn’t actually it, I’m pretty sure, but it’s kind of first in line for me to read next.

    The last book you read is:

    To be brutally honest? There was a copy of The Rules lying around our office–heaven only knows why–and I drifted through it while waiting for a friend.

    What are you currently reading?

    The book I’m carrying around with me and officially trying to get through is The Golden Bowl by Henry James; this time I’m going to finish it.

    Five books you would take to a desert island.

    Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

    I beg your pardon! I don’t discuss my stick with anyone but my boyfriend.


    Spring

    Posted by Sean at 08:16, March 30th, 2005

    The cherry blossoms have started to open in Atsushi’s city. They’re late again this year and are still closed in Tokyo, so the following is anticipatory:

    ねがはくば花の下にて春しなんその如月の望月のころ

    西行法師

    negawakuba/hana no moto nite/haru shinan/sono kisaragi no/mochidzuki no koro

    Saigyō Hōshi

    If I have my wish,
    I will die beneath the boughs
    laden with blossoms–
    Spring, the night of the full moon,
    second moon of the new year.

    The Priest Saigyo

    All right, I had to shove the “spring” after the caesura and pad the part before the caesura with “boughs” (in case you don’t know where the flowers on trees grow). And Saigyo doesn’t actually indicate that he’s talking about 夜桜 (yo-zakura: “night viewing of cherry blossoms”). Anyway, I think the point gets across. This is one of Saigyo’s most famous poems, and it has an uncharacteristic swooning tone (not that there’s anything wrong with swooning occasionally). It antedates the practice of appreciating the cherry blossoms by getting mortally tanked and singing karaoke, rather than dying, beneath them.

    Actually, I suppose they were getting tanked back then, too. I’m pretty sure they weren’t singing karaoke.


    Why I like old things*

    Posted by Sean at 05:58, March 27th, 2005

    It’s common for first-year students of classical Japanese to use the 方丈記 (Houjouki: “Written from a Modest Hut”) by 鴨長明 (Kamo no Chomei: lit., “duck” + “long” + “bright”) as a text. You memorize its first paragraph, which was frequently quoted after the Kobe earthquake:

    ゆく河の流れは、絶えずして、しかも、もとの水にあらず。淀みに浮かぶうたかたは、かつ消え、かつ結びて、久しくとどまりたる例なし。この世にある人とすみかとまたかくの如し。

    The flow of the running river is uninterrupted, and its waters are constantly changing. The froth that floats up in its pools now vanishes, now gathers into foam, but there is not a single instance of its enduring for long. So, too, are the men of this world and their dwellings.

    Like learning Latin through Caesar or Old English through The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, studying the language of the ancient Japanese is, in many ways, learning it through their suffering. Chomei’s famous introductory paragraph has a tone of philosophical ruefulness, but there are times when he uses very similar wording to achieve a much more piercing and personal effect:

    すべて、世の中のありにくく、わが身とすみかとのはかなく、あだなるさま、また、かくの如し。いはんや、所により、身のほどに随ひつつ、心を悩ます事は、あげて計ふべからず。

    Existence in this world is wholly a hardship, with one’s body and one’s dwelling fleeting and not to be relied on, as this [my previous discussion of the great fire] indicates. Beyond that, depending on one’s environment and station in life, the things that immiserate the heart can hardly be exhaustively cited and enumerated.

    Chomei had status as a writer and poet in his lifetime, but there was plenty to immiserate his heart: he recounts Heian Period disasters from the aforementioned fire to a great earthquake to the ill-advised movement of the capital.






    試行錯誤

    Posted by Sean at 12:39, January 18th, 2005

    This post is addressing the several people who have asked me what they can do to learn Japanese, under the flattering assumption that I have useful information to give them. That I am addressing those people will not be very clear for the first few paragraphs, so I’m going to ask in advance for everyone to bear with me. Then, too, if you can’t bear with me for a few paragraphs before figuring out what the topic of the post you’re reading is…not to be rude, but…WTF are you doing coming back here?

    Anyway. Connie du Toit recently posted a half-mischievous-half-serious set of new categories for websites in this general -osphere that, she contends, aren’t blogs in the strictest sense. In it, she gives valentines to all her blog friends, and what’s touching about them is that she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t give praise she doesn’t mean. The section about me–no, I’m not going to quote it; linking it is quite sufficient as a gesture of fatuous self-regard–is something I’m very grateful for, but it’s a little frightening, too. I say that because she pretty much hits all my specific points of vanity; what she wrote is the way I’d describe myself if I had the cheek to believe it’s actually true. I mean, it was spooky.

    One thing she called me was an expert in the Japanese language. Now, I don’t think any linguist (or Japanese person) would agree. I mean, my Japanese is good. Considering that a lot of foreigners here are content to learn what they need to pick up guys (or girls, you know, if that’s their thing), it’s not really hard to distinguish yourself that way. And I’ve lived here for a quarter of my life by now.

    However, the real reason is that I had fantastic teachers all the way through. Because my parents were willing to take out parent loans instead of telling me I could jolly well work my way through college if I wanted to go, I was able to loll about for four years at Penn, with only a work-study job (10 hours a week) to distract me from studying. Yes, I amused myself thoroughly, too, but I had the time and reserves of mental and physical energy to study. Having grown up around people who worked themselves to the bone, physically, I found this a new environment; and I really liked most of my classes, so I did the work gladly. The Japanese program was wonderful, taught mostly by native Japanese speakers who developed their own companion materials to go with Eleanor Jorden’s books, which are classics in their way but are based on some implausible ideas about language acquisition. My mentor on the Japanese side of my comp. lit. degree was just fantastic as an advisor, reticent in that Japanophile way but also willing to express himself with clarity and point when necessary.

    Where I ran into problems was during junior year. It was the worst year of my life, and I probably should have taken a year off to get myself together and resigned myself to being graduated late. But my grants and loans had already come through, and I’d spent the first two years piling on the courses, so I was able to take most things pass-fail and muddle through without disgracing myself (in schoolwork terms) or falling behind. I took fall semester of senior year to study abroad in London–it’s becoming clear that I’m the most pampered son of a steelworker there ever was, huh? I wasn’t able to take Japanese there, so I got the packets from the professor back home, and I worked through them and was able to enter second semester.

    My assumption all along had been that I’d go to grad school. It wasn’t just like, I woke up the summer after junior year, realized I hadn’t learned anything marketable, and it was either a PhD program or law school. I was excited about becoming a professor. I loved Japanese literature; I read it for fun. Get paid to think and teach about it? Hell, yeah. I went to the place that gave me the most funding, a program that’s known for being really demanding.

    And WHAM! I hit a wall. See, for the last two years, I’d been getting by in my Japanese classes on my ability to memorize. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been trying, but I’d been distracted, so I’d focused my energies on getting through the next kanji quiz, the next sentence pattern test, the next translation assignment. I wasn’t lazy, and I deserved my A’s on the finals–I mean, I’d gotten most of the questions right. But the thing is, I was only really putting my heart into learning the hard stuff: the tricky two-part sentence structures, the gajillion-stroke kanji, the names of obscure little plants mentioned in poems. After the placement test and some trial and error, I was assigned to second-year Japanese.

    That’s second-year Japanese. As in, with the college sophomores. It is clear, is it not, that this site is generated by someone of no mean ego. Well, let me tell you, I was unutterably humiliated. Just ABJECT. This sort of thing DID NOT happen to me when it came to coursework. Now, everyone–the Japanese teacher, my mentor, the professors teaching my literature classes–fell all over himself to tell me that my talent as a critic wasn’t in question, it was just that my language had to come up. Yeah, whatever. Lots of people are talented; I ACHIEVE, dammit, was my attitude. This sucked.

    Now, luckily, in a perverse way, my junior year had been so extraordinarily bad that I had enough perspective to realize that this was not the end of the world. Being ashamed did not mean I was going to die, or anything. So I studied, and here, too, the university had its own first-rate materials and uncompromising instructors. Still, being in second-year Japanese was sub-par, and I didn’t pass my review. I did great in all my lit classes, though, so it was agreed that I’d be given the chance to reapply the next year, as a new applicant.

    There was nothing unfair about this; fully-funded spots in graduate programs are not the sort of thing a department can afford to waste on people who show early signs of not making it through. What they did–this is very Japanophile–was say that since I was already a student who belonged to the university, I’d be supported (not with my grad student funding, but by applying to the Japan Foundation and such) as one to do the next year at an affiliated language program here. In the interim, I could write what would be a master’s thesis. So that’s how I first came to Japan. I spent a year doing a program in scholarly Japanese here–classes about research and reading the newspaper and finally figuring out what the hell the newscasters were saying on NHK. Loved every minute of it, and made friends I still have today.

    In that year, it became increasingly obvious that my mentor and I weren’t right for each other. He’s got a stratospheric reputation–it was not his problem. I didn’t really fit the program, and, in his gentlemanly way, he kind of nudged me toward seeing that. At least, that’s the way I interpreted it; one doesn’t exactly talk openly about these things in Japanese departments.

    Now that this post is longer than Middlemarch, you may be wondering what exactly, um, the message is. Don’t bother studying Japanese, because you’ll end up being wrong for grad school? No, not that. The message is: study Japanese. It’s an adventure, and it’s bloody hard. Like all adventurous, hard things, it teaches you about yourself and gives you the valuable experience of meeting and mastering obstacles. You can bluff your way through a lot of humanities courses nowadays, but, honey, when you’re studying an Asian language, either you know it or you don’t.

    And yet….

    Japanese teachers know that they are teaching a subject that foreigners find it hugely difficult to learn. They do their best to be rigorous, but unless you’re the military, you can’t ask people to sit still for 20 hours of instruction for a single course. There’s no way to avoid cutting corners somewhere. That means that, of necessity, much of what they end up testing you on in the first several years comes down to short-term memorizing of lists. They can’t help it. There’s so much to learn that they can’t make even the “cumulative” tests really cumulative. So if you’re a quick study, it’s easy to learn this week’s lesson for Friday’s quiz, cherry pick the things you think are cool enough to retain, and then re-cram everything for the midterms and final. And you won’t even realize you’re doing it, because sometimes, just cramming enough for the final will feel like a medal-worthy feat.

    The Piper will show up to dun you eventually, though. You will be in your first class where you’re supposed to read all those boring sentence patterns strung into paragraphs, and those paragraphs strung into a few pages of argument. And you’ll realize you can’t do it. You know most of the kanji, you’ve seen most of the 文型, but it’s not clicking. The ideas aren’t cohering into a main point, even though you can point to just about anything on the page and remember what it means.

    Normally, I wouldn’t generalize from my own experience about other people’s weaknesses, but my friends who teach tell me that this is a very common problem among bright Westerners studying Japanese. Part of the thrill is that it’s hard, so you gravitate toward the hard stuff. The easy stuff, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll remember that. Or, well, you recognize it on sight, which seems good enough, until you try to understand a five-page article in which you have to back-translate every phrase in your head to get what it means.

    So here is what you must do: review, obviously, is the first thing. Don’t wait until the next time you’re threatened with a test to go back over p. 23, even though, it’s, like, some stupid thing about when to use はand が. Trust me, p. 23 will come back later to hurt you bad.

    But also remember that you can’t learn a language just through classes. Nowadays, with amazon.com, you can get Japanese paperbacks and DVD’s and audio CD’s. I don’t mean language lessons; I mean regular novels and television shows and movies and (heaven help us) J-pops albums. You won’t understand almost anything at first; what you have to do is let it bathe your brain. Get used to the speech cadences, the way things flow. Get used to the way certain verb endings seem to appear in sentences with certain modifying phrases. Don’t worry about learning the rules in the linguistic sense; that’s why you’re taking classes. Worry about getting an intuitive sense of what follows what. That’s the way you think in your native language; you’re constantly hearing traffic signals that give you a sense of what’s coming next without having to be conscious of it. In your first year or so, books are a lost cause, to be blunt. It might be worthwhile to try reading a translation of a novel in English and then seeing whether you can run your eye over the original and get any glimmers of where you are in the plot. You won’t, most of the time. On the other hand, kanji and kana jumbled together will become familiar to your eye, and you’ll be able to practice reading the kana and recognizing kanji radicals, at least. You’ll be moving closer to the day when your eye falls on a page of Japanese and reacts with, “Oh, words,” instead of, “Huh? What are those squiggles?”

    By this point, I’m sure I’ve lost just about everyone. Lately, most of my long posts have been due to my switched-off editing function, but this one is different. English will always be my favorite language. It’s my native tongue, in which the founding principles of our country were first articulated, with its blend of modesty and plainspokenness. I consider it an immense gift, which I did nothing to earn, to have been born into a country in which my brain was reared to work in English, not just because of its market value, but because of the thoughts it plants in your head. But Japanese has had thousands of years of relative seclusion to develop into a language of formidable intricacy, subtlety, and power. It’s beautiful, sometimes in that lovely way the world goes ga-ga over, but sometimes with a pleasing roughness that’s not so famous. Japanese is worth learning, and it’s worth learning right, which I’m grateful to have had a second chance to do. You won’t need a second chance if you channel your energies properly the first time.

    Okay, a small reward for those who’ve read this far: one of the most touching demonstrations of the way Japanese can use restraint and austerity to tap into large reservoirs of feeling is the best-known haiku by Kobayashi Issa, who lived, as it happens, through the time of the American Revolution. Unlike a lot of the haiku that Westerners take a shine to, this one has nothing quaint about it:

    つゆの世は
    つゆの世ながら
    さりながら
    小林一茶

    tsuyu no yo ha/tsuyu no yo nagara/sarinagara
    Kobayashi Issa

    This world of dew
    is a world of dew
    and yet– and yet–

    Kobayashi Issa

    That’s not my translation; I don’t know whose it is, but it’s the one you normally see, and for good reason. It doesn’t fit the syllable count, but it conveys the economy with which Issa conveys himself in the original.

    The poem was written a month after the early death of his daughter. Buddhism, especially the Japanese strain, encourages an acceptance of the impermanence of life. Well, more like “requires.” Dew is as ubiquitous in classical Japanese as the moon or cherry blossoms; it symbolizes, for obvious reasons, evanescence. Using essentially three concepts (dew, the world, and two related particles that mean something like “while”), he shows how he has not yet resigned himself to his daughter’s death. (There’s also, to me, something of a suggestion of the verb 去る [saru: “to pass”] in the use of the particle さりながら, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it identified as a pivot word, so that interpretation probably isn’t an accepted one.) The different viewpoints and time frames come through, even though the poem could be said not even to be a complete utterance.