Thursday, April 26, 2007


The finer points of Japanese grammar further obfuscated (unnatural selection at work in the classroom)

As part of my renewed determination to grapple with and subdue the Japanese language, I've been taking three freebie classes a week recently: one in Hirakata on Tuesdays, one on Friday morning in Makino (where Wes lives) and the one in Bentencho that I've been going to for over six months.

Tuesday night is always a bit of a lottery- there aren't really enough teachers and I haven't had the same ones twice in a row since I've been there. Thankfully, the ones I have had a couple of times- Nishimura-sensei and Motomura-sensei- have been pretty decent. This week, however, was a debacle.

Once again faced with a dearth of teachers, the bird in charge paired me up with a Thai student who's studying at pretty much the same level as me. No problems so far, except we got stuck with an absolute disaster of a teacher. Let us call him Darwin.

Here's the thing: all of the people who teach me are volunteers. Unlike me, they don't make money out of language teaching; they just do it for whatever reason. This guy was evidently one of the unfortunate few who see it as a great opportunity to exercise their shite English on the more tight-fisted members of the Japanese-learning community. Darwin-sensei, it turns out, was at the bottom of this particular barrel, being enthusiastic but incapable in the delivery of English.

Example: where Nishimura-sensei might have said "kore wa riyuu desu ne" whilst breaking down a sentence, Darwin-sensei busted out "Dis... Reason!" stabbing his finger emphatically at the appropriate clause in the sentence.

When a glow of realisation failed to spread over my face, he got a bit flustered. In fact, I was giving him the ice grill (VMM) for two reasons: firstly, I was perfectly familiar with which part of the sentence was the goddamn reason and having it bellowed back at me by a monkey in a shirt wasn't bringing me any closer to knowing which of the four provided (and damnably nuanced) words for "because" I was meant to cram into the gap in the middle of the sentence.

Secondly, poor old Thai-jin to my right didn't understand English at all, so the debauched old goat's abysmal "attempt" at an explanation was about half as much use to him as it was to me. And half of nothing isn't much.

When I asked him, in Japanese, to explain or give an example, in Japanese, of how we could distinguish between various kinds of "because" he muttered something about "umaku setsumei dekinai" which I shall (un)charitably translate as: "I can't speak Japanese either. Somebody please throw me in a furnace."

Even more aggravatingly, a girl who'd taught/chatted with me a few weeks previously was assigned to our table to watch this senior (older) instructor at work and it must have made her think long and hard about whether she actually wants to become a teacher herself. Despite being young and bright, she wouldn't stick her oar in unless he directly asked her for assistance, which he was unlikely to do as Japan is not really a society in which old men listen to young women.

Fortunately, I found out that if I pestered Darwin enough about the differences between similar words, he'd bod off to ask the counsel of some teacher who wasn't too young and female to be of use. On these occasions, Thai-jin and myself would have about 90 seconds of getting genuine help from Doris Day.

The girl herself was smart enough, but hadn't really been around proper teachers enough. Thai-jin asked about the word wazato (meaning "on purpose"; I learned this the hard way, during my third week in Japan). Doris Day, rather than blaring at him in stunted English, told him in crisply-spoken Japanese that it meant the opposite of "by chance." All good, except, of course, that he didn't understand that one either.

Time for Dan with the stick-man art. I sketched out a quick picture of a concerned-looking juvenile stick man, with a football and a broken window.

"This is not wazato."

I sketched another, more delinquent-looking stick man throwing stones at a window.

"This kid is a shitty bastard. This is wazato"

Thai-jin was delighted with this and humbly declared me his teacher, which made me feel more bad than good; I hope that Doris Day will be versatile enough to add stick-man art to her teaching repetoire in future. I think Darwin's going the way of the dodos.

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Friday, April 20, 2007


Plan K2

In the beginning, there was Plan K: Korea. Of our original four pack, one dropped out at the last minute due to chicken pox, prompting the following legendary observation from Caitlin (sic):

"Chicken pox?! What, was he breastfed until he was, like, 12 or something?"

Barring the mumps or nappy rash or any other belated health issues, however, all four are going to be in attendance for Plan K2: Kyushu!

Just as K2 is widely recognised as being an extremely dangerous mountain, we intend to entertain ourselves by checking out a couple of Japan's volcanoes in our whistle-stop tour of the southernmost of the country's four main islands.

Just to whet my appetite, a student drew me a map of Kagoshima, including its famous volcano, Sakurajima (lit: cherry blossom island) a volcano which rises menacingly out of the sea. I noticed a bit of false advertising.

"Hang on- it's joined to the mainland. Shouldn't it be called Sakurahanto (lit: cherry blossom peninsula)?"

The student told me that it had been an island until a particularly enthusiastic eruption had sent enough lava into the sea to join it to the mainland.

I'm there. I can feel the flecks of lava singeing my cheeks and the ash blocking out the sunlight. I am there.

Remember kids: duck and cover.

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Son of a...

TWO WEEKS OR SO AGO... Dan gets off the train at Shinkanaoka, walks up to the ticket gate and suddenly realises that he is lacking the one thing indispensable for participation in the afternoon's football game, namely his kit, which is still on the train and wending its way to goodness only knows where. Two pairs of boots and the Coventry City away shirt they failed to win a single game in: gone.

So, after numerous fruitless trips to lost property offices and police stations, I gave in and just bought myself another pair of football boots. Of course, the shop wouldn't do anything so crazy as to stock my gaijin-ass size, so I had to accept a 1cm discount on the 30 I generally favour.

As a direct result of this, the shiny new toenail I've had for all of two months and was my pride and joy is now the same purple as George Best's liver (the first one) and probably not long for this world.

Son of a gun.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007


STOP PRESS: the good times are finally here

I have come to the conclusion that YouTube is the greatest step forward in human development since I got back in the habit of using the word "pest" (props to Andy.)

For example, I have managed to track down footage of my all-time Saturday morning fave, Star Fleet!

For those pests among you who don't know regular Pepsi from diet Pepsi, Wikipedia has a pretty decent-length article on the show (click here). For my part, suffice it to say that the show was an integral part of my childhood and Shiro taught me right from wrong with the best of them.

Also, just like Ninjutsu and 80% of sexual perversion, the show originates in Japan.


Send a message out across the sky
Alien invaders just past gemini
Who will come and save us now
Who can defend us from their power

Starfleet, starfleet
Starfleet, starfleet

Tell the people back at Earth control
Send starfleet legions to save our souls
Always daring and courageous
Ooh-oooh, only they can save us...



Heaven sent

With a few minutes to go in the lesson, conversation dried up. Fortunately, Japan was struck by an earthquake at that moment, prompting a new burst of loquacity from my hitherto tongue-tied seat warmers.



It is!

Crumbs, you're right!

Has it stopped?

No it's still going!

What should we do?

Sadly, none of this excellent interaction went down in English, but it was still good entertainment.

I calmed their nerves by laughing at them and calling them a bunch of babies. Then the bell went, so I left.

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Speak English, Doris Day

...Likewise for risutora kaiko (layoff or dismissal due to corporate restructuring). Then there's sexual harassment or sekuhara. In official documents, the native term (seiteki iyagarase) is generally used; but in the mass media and common speech, the abbreviated English term has taken firm root.

Still, Japanese seem to favor English these days for new types of crimes, both sex-related and the everyday garden variety.

Take stalking. I doubt if even five out of 100 Japanese can come up with their native term for this, which is defined in the statute of May 24, 2000, which finally made it illegal, as tsukimatoi nado, meaning to follow in a persistent manner. (I would tend agree that, given such a mouthful, stalking was the more practical way to go.)

Putting in a bad word for Japanese
Are loan words doing Japanese's dirty work?

The Japan Times


I'm personally dead set against bastardized loan words which pop up in Japanese all the time, requiring us to butcher our pronunciation in order to communicate. The one exception to this is that they do give me a couple of easy marks in Japanese tests.

However, if this is the direction that Japanese is going in I guess it's time to jump on the bandwagon. I hereby invite all readers of this page to submit any words which they feel should be assimilated.

Let's get the ball rolling: dandruff.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007


A foreigner in a strange land

This is the fourth year I've spent spring in Japan and I finally got a good opportunity to do some o-hanami (flower viewing) with friends.

It's simple: stake out a spot within reasonable proximity of some blossoming cherry trees, then get drunk.

Unfortunately, my experience of Japanese culture was somewhat marred by an altercation with some homeless nutter, during which he threatened to bash my head in with a pretty heavy rock.

THE SCENE: a sunny day on the river bank, lots of people sitting out, enjoying the warm weather. The cherry blossom is at it's most beautiful. Homeless guy yells "Grargh!" snatches up a rock, and advances towards Dan, holding said rock above his head.

I handled the situation reasonably well, I took the rock off the guy and told him to calm down. He gave me and Adam a load of verbal, pushed Adam a bit and generally looned. Suddenly, we were the hottest ticket in town; everyone was watching us.

One of the girls in our party phoned the police after the guy threatened us with the rock, so I told the guy that the police were coming and he ought to make himself scarce, but he didn't seem to take this too seriously.

We waited 45 minutes for the police. Forty-five. We could have ordered a pizza and it would have come quicker. I told Junko to phone the police again and tell them the guy had a gun. Or his name was Ichihashi (see below). Or anything, just tell them to get a move on.

In the interim, I made the homeless guy burst into floods of tears when he asked me if I knew some enka singer and I said I'd never heard of him. That made me feel just great: everyone staring at me and the homeless guy howling like a dog under the full moon.

Eventually a comedy duo of policemen came into view, walking up the path at about the same speed as a Japanese girl browsing a department store. The one who talked to us was friendly enough, but didn't exactly radiate competence. He asked what had become of the girl who originally called the police. Junko explained that she'd gone home during the FORTY-FIVE minutes it had taken them to arrive. The guy also asked Junko for her number and she pointed out (pointedly) that she had given her number when she'd made the second phone call to find out where the bloody hell the law was. I was amused by the fact that all Japanese present were reluctant to give the name of their employer.

The guardian of law and order also asked me the usual.

HE: Which country are you from?

ME: England.

HE: England? English people have such wonderful pronunciation, don't they? Now, Americans...

ME: Erm, there are two Americans here as well.

HE: ...Americans are also nice.


I had pretty mixed feelings about the o-hanami incident. Obviously, there's no danger that anyone in attendance will be forgetting our day by the river anytime soon. Plus, it isn't too bad for my swagger value to be able to say that I calmly disarmed a rock-wielding nutcase.

The tardiness of the police worries me though. How can it be that somebody phones in an attempted assault and the law takes 45 minutes to arrive? This more than a week after a teacher was murdered and the prime suspect, Ichihashi (see above), is still at large, having fled from the police barefoot.

The comic banter with the officer cooled my temper a bit, but still...

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Brothers in arms

What is it with the Japanese and their inability to distinguish between leopards and cheetahs? You know that new guy in level 3? He's pretty good, but I'm doing the "animals" lesson and I'm like, so tell me what you know about cheetahs and he's like, well, they climb trees and they drag their prey up into trees and they mostly hunt at night and I'm like, that's a f-ing leopard you asshole!


The best thing is, it wasn't me saying the above- it was Adam.

I may be losing the war, but at least I've got comrades I can trust.

Previous post on this sensitive subject


Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Identity withheld

"Does it ever surprise you to hear the students speaking Japanese fluently?"



Dare mo shiranai

Thirty eight and a half minutes into the forty, we have had a fairly enlightened discussion involving the proposal to build a commercial spaceport in New Mexico.

Then Student Y decides it's time to change the subject.

Student Y tells me that, by the way, she has been reading this book about London. She pauses for effect, then tells me that, according to her book, there are poor children living in London.

Having dropped this bombshell, she gives me a "what do you think of that?" look and waits for me to defend my country.

I point out, reasonably enough I think, that there are also poor children in Japan.

She corrects my erroneous gaijin folly and tells me that Japanese children are happy, or, rather, that they all enjoy financial security.


Upstairs, I announce to the rest of the school's teachers that Student Y has won my "Racist comment of the day" award, that she is "an oaf" (a word which I save for particularly special occasions), and that, on top of being unintelligent, she is also incapable of becoming intelligent.

I love this country; I just don't love the complacency. I think the rest of the teachers enjoyed my rant.


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