Bootstrapping and Finding the Fun in Language Learning

For my language learners and linguistics friends…


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I study and learn language versus how it was and is taught. I’ve been looking at a ton of language study apps (for myself and also my wife), and a lot of them have some of the main keys — learning words through multiple vectors and from different direction, interval training, etc — but they all feel pretty terrible at introducing NEW things.

So as I’ve been thinking about how I study when I make flashcards versus how these apps EXPECT me to study, I’ve come down to what I’m calling “bootstrapping” (term stolen from programming probably). That is, when you have no basis for building understanding, how do you get from there to HAVING understanding and having a foundation for building on more knowledge. It’s this idea of bootstrapping that I think most neglected — at least in the discourse of Japanese pedagogy. (There, I’ve gotten the big academic words out of the way, so I can write like a normal person again.)

Please allow me to start with an example of the problem:

I am an intermediate-level Japanese reader, and possibly an advanced-level speaker. But I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes large, gaping, embarrassing holes (like I only within the last month learned the verb “to guide” and it’s one they use all the time, and now suddenly I hear it EVERYWHERE). So I’ve been trying to fill those holes by starting at the JLPT N5 word list and studying up so I know that I know the whole thing. (N5 is the beginning Japanese proficiency level according to the nationally recognized JLPT system — Japanese Language Proficiency Test. You have to get at least a C on each level to be awarded that level. It goes 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 in increasing proficiency. If you are an N1 speaker, you are probably better than most Japanese at speaking the language and could likely teach their kids how to speak it better.)

After completing out my N5 list one afternoon, I excitedly switched over to the N4 list, ready to finally feel like my knowledge of the language was moving forward. I switched to the new list in the app I was using (Sticky Study, one of the better flashcard study apps I’ve found) and started the process of learning some new words. Unlike in the previous list, N4 had a lot of words I just plain didn’t recognize, neither from kanji nor from pronunciation. And I very quickly became frustrated (I’ll get back to the frustration part). It would show me a handful of words, maybe 5 or 6, then it would review some words I had marked as already knowing, and then when it brought me back around to the new words from before, they looked exactly as foreign to me as they did when I first saw them. There were no lingering pronunciations or meanings trying to become attached to these new words. It became disheartening and I gave up for the day.

And this is a problem. When you are handed 5 new things that don’t have any attachment or reference points in your mind, there’s nothing for them to stick to — no memories or ideas for those new words to affix themselves to. I envision knowledge like a web or lattice system: the more similar things a new piece of information has to attach to, the more stable that information becomes. Also, the longer you spend reinforcing the connections, the longer it sticks together (and over time if you never come back, the connections will wither away. I guess they need time to set at each layer before you can apply the next coating or something. It’s not a perfect analogy.)

So these words, all I had was having seen them on the screen and read the meaning once. I had no memories of seeing the characters before, I had no feeling like I’d ever heard people SAYING the words before. There was essentially nothing to attach them to, and so no memory could be formed.

This is where I feel like we need to improve the bootstrapping of new words and grammar. “Bootstrapping” here (which, I mean, I could be wrong), I am using to mean the process of starting something up from nothing. No foundation, no similarities to other things. Functionally nothing. You give people a vocab list, and the words they are most likely to remember are the cognates first, followed by maybe either the really common words they hear all the time or the ones that they’ve come up with fun mnemonics for. But there always seem to be some set of words that people have a hard time with — words that sound nothing like their own language, or whose meanings are more subtly different and difficult to translate. (Japanese has a lot of both, btw.)

I feel like I have, on my own, been able to overcome this problem pretty regularly, but the technique I use doesn’t seem to be represented anywhere in the literature I’ve read (and certainly isn’t present in the tools I’ve tried).

Basically, I take two arbitrary items and compare them to each other. I build up the framework by hand. I look at one crazy character or word, acknowledge its meaning, pronunciation, etc; and then I look at a second one. I see how it looks different, sounds different, and how its meaning is different. Then, before I’ve had a chance to really forget the first one, I go back to it. First, second, first, second. I do that a few times, and then I add in a third. The third isn’t very difficult because I’ve already learned the first two, so at first it’s just “the new one”. And I go through those three for a while before adding a fourth, and then a fifth, and so on. Sometimes I’ll add more than one, but I never add a new word until I’ve got a pretty solid sense of the difference between the last new one and the other ones I’ve already studied. (Sometimes I call them targets, since “word” is maybe not always the best, er, word to use — maybe morpheme would be more accurate here? But “target” in that it’s the thing you’re aiming at to learn, yeah?)

And after you’ve done this for maybe 5 or 10 or 30 words, you start feeling less like you have nothing going for you and more like you have quite a lot going for you. I used this technique every other day in college to memorize (and let’s not kid ourselves, what I’m talking about here is memorization, not quite learning yet) sometimes as many as 60 new words or more to ace the morning’s vocab quiz.

My tactic was also assisted by a kind of defacto interval training. The better I knew the word, the further back I would put it in the list of vocab cards, so words I had trouble with would come back sooner, ones I already knew would recur less frequently.

The thing that I want to emphasize is that the bootstrapping process in learning new words — that route by which you take something completely alien and make it familiar by comparing it to something else completely alien — seem both vitally necessary and severely underrepresented in the work I’ve seen on language learning.

Finding the Fun

In my career as a game designer, there was a mantra that everyone has used: “Find the fun”. If a game mechanic isn’t fun, then you don’t have a good game. Period. End of line. The single most vitally important thing in making fun games is for the designers to “find the fun”. This is both harder and easier than it seems (depending on how you look at it), but for now, I’ll just leave it at this is the most fundamental job that a game designer has. Everything else is predicated upon knowing that fun exists, and where it is and understanding it.

I think that this should apply to how we live our lives, as well. From a personal and professional standpoint, whether dealing with hardships or learning something new.

Remember how I said I would get back to the frustration I felt? If something isn’t fun, we tend to stop doing it. Or we do it begrudgingly. I don’t want to hear any old-person jibber-jabber about “sometimes you have to do stuff that isn’t fun, it just needs to be done.” I think their definition of fun is either too narrow, or they’ve gone about doing things in a way that makes them more miserable. (Which is totally a thing that people do. Maybe another blog post sometime about that one.)

When I was studying and I came back around to the new words, not only could I not remember them, the only thing I DID remember was that there was a set of words, and visually, yeah, maybe this was one of them. I guess. It was frustrating, and also it wasn’t very fun. So sue me if I want to spend my life enjoying the things I do (wow, I must have some repressed something about that fun thing).

Basically, nobody needs to learn a language that isn’t their native language — and native languages are kind of acquired without having to try too hard. That is, little kids try REALLY hard, but they’re at a stage in their life where just learning and making connections at whatever pace works for them is not only fun, it’s also TOTALLY OKAY for them to be having fun. They haven’t had the sense of “it’s okay to have fun” beaten out of them yet, and so they slowly build up their working knowledge. But for the “grown-ups” of us out there, yeah, we probably don’t NEED to learn another language. You can see this all over the world by looking at immigrants and refugees who never learn the language very well for where they are now living: Spanish-speakers in the US, English speakers in Japan, German speakers in Brazil… You can get by with surprisingly little native language understanding.

So when we say we want to learn a language, we should acknowledge that what we’re setting out to do is, functionally, completely optional (even for schools that require it, you can still get a simple job if you fail out of school, it happens all the time). And if something is optional AND unenjoyable (or regularly frustrating), we’re almost certainly going to give up.

So could you go through the list of five new words over and over again and eventually pick them up? Yeah, probably. And you would almost certainly learn one of them first, know which one that was in order, be looking for it, and then learn the others in the context of knowing that one. But in the meantime, you’ll likely be frustrated and (like I did) put it down.

Another thing I learned as a game designer is that once someone puts something down, if there isn’t a strong draw to come back, they won’t. Once the game is off, it’s gone. Once you stop studying, you’re done. Unless the task was REALLY fun, or you want to learn the language SO MUCH that it overcomes how boring and tedious and frustrating the task it, you’ll give up. I can’t tell you how often I’ve given up and come back and given up again.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that language learning should always be fun — ALL learning should be fun — or else you’re going to give up and you may never come back.

Level Design

When designing content for a game — levels and puzzles and so forth — your main goal is to push the player without frustrating them. You take what they already know and you add some new thing to it to make it just a little bit trickier, or to make it just a little bit newer or different. In this way, you’re always showing them something new and challenging them just a little bit. There’s a sweet spot for video games between making players do the same thing over and over again, they get bored; and forcing them to grow in skill too quickly, and the game becomes hard and many players will give up. But if the game does it just right, then you can start from not knowing how to do anything at all in the game to now pulling off crazy skilled jumps and attacks that, if you’d been asked to do them from the start, would have frustrated you and you would have likely given up.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this one.

I think we should be applying the same tactics to language instruction that we do to level design. Introduce things slowly. Give them some time to play around with that things and become comfortable and good at it. Then, right when they’re starting to get a little bored, you give them something new.

This, in a simple way, is an advantage that I think the system I use on myself has — at least in the sphere of learning new vocabulary targets. You play around in the space that you know until you’re comfortable with how to recognize it against the backdrop of all the other things you already know about. Then you add something new, and play with that. Eventually, you don’t have to do a direct comparison against EVERY other thing because you’ve built up that framework of knowledge. Though sometimes you do get thrown for a loop by targets that are surprisingly similar, or whose meanings get crossed somehow.

(I had that exact problem with the characters for big sister, little sister, and little brother in Japanese — I could easily recognize that each of them was one of the words in that group, and when placed next to each other I could have likely told you which was which; but when seen individually, I was just awful at remembering quickly which one had what meaning.)

A topic for another time (since I’ve written over 2,000 words already and I’m not QUITE done yet) is how we should take what I’m saying here and then train against things that are cognitively similar for whatever reason, to learn to differentiate them from one another.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this section is that, when you introduce topics or new words slowly and give people time to play and understand it, they will feel like they’re GOOD at it all, and they will want to do more. Whereas if you just hand them a huge list and say “go”, they’d probably do it ineffectively and they’ll feel like they’re bad at it and give up and (possibly) think themselves lesser than people who just naturally figure out how to study better for themselves earlier.

Memorization vs. Learning

Lastly, I just want to touch briefly on “learning” versus “memorization”. Obviously, the goal is learning. Learning is what we do with our native languages. It’s that instinctual kind of knowledge where you have a non-verbal thought and the words and grammar just materialize and you say them. Memorizing is more like having a high-speed look-up table. Like a dictionary in your head. And when you have a thought, you have to formalize it into something you understand (words, meta-thoughts, something weird like that) and then “look up” or “figure out” what those things are in the target language.

Memorization can happen very quickly, but it also goes away very quickly. It’s part of why I still got a D in that class where I was rockstar-memorizing over 100 words each week and acing morning quizzes. I did the quizzes, but then by the time class was out, the words were gone. The step I lacked was coming back to what I’d studied later, after a break, and RE-memorizing the ones I’d lost. It’s the classic long-tailed second half of recurrence learning. It’s the part that everyone already has figured out in all of their flashcard apps.

The thing they’re missing is that “getting started” bit right at the beginning.

And that little part is why I’ve started working on a flashcard app of my own. Because I’m tired of having to deal with poor bootstrapping of new vocabulary. Because it’s not fun, and I think it wastes my time.


As I Stand, Packing

Yes, packing.  It sucks.  It sucks muchly...  PS:  Love this photo.

Yes, packing. It sucks. It sucks muchly… PS: Love this photo.

I packed all my bags this evening.  This makes me sad.  Not because my bags are packed, leaving me nothing to worry about not getting done for the next day and a half, certainly, but because it means that I’m really basically finished here in Japan.

While packing I thought about a lot of things.  How I’m not the same person I once was.  How my sphere of friends has now expanded (ironically) to include most of the US, and almost none of Japan. ^_^  But the friends I made here have become like family to me.  I have my family, and I have friends back home who are like family, and now I have a third family that met up in Japan, and almost all of us are returning home to our respective states…  Washington, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Wisconsin…  All over the map.

Also I will miss a lot of the simpler things – smaller proportions, some of the stupid things Japan does, trains, yen, having a reason to speak Japanese to people around me…  Don’t get me wrong, I miss my home in Colorado very much, and I love everyone there and miss them all dearly… but I love my home here, too, with my friends here.  So it is a bittersweet thought, packing.

Leaving home for Japan wasn’t bad at all, because I knew that I would be returning within a year’s time, and that all would be well.  But I don’t know when I can come back here to Japan.  I don’t know when I will be with ALL of my new friends again.  Sure, we’re going to conventions together, but perhaps not all of us to them.  Sure, we have Skype for chatting, but you can’t get the energy from being AROUND them and able to move amongst each other.

On the one hand I have changed a great deal.  On the other, I am still the same person that everyone knows and loves.  I confuse even myself with this.  It’s just… not fun.

Tomorrow we head out to Disney Sea, a neighboring theme park to Tokyo Disneyland, which we went to two weeks ago.  We’re going to have a blast, and then we’re doing a final all-night karaoke marathon that will kick major ass.  Then at around 5 in the morning we head home, get a few final precious hours of sleep, followed by hiking our baggage out to the airport and awaiting flights.  There’s no time left.  Anything else we wanted to do will not get done, and any savoring we wish we could have more of will have to be left unsatisfied.  The week before finals’ week time couldn’t move fast enough and we all wished we were home already.  Now that finals are over, time is moving entirely too quickly, and freaking us all out.  A funny thing, Time.  ^_^  Don’t even get me started on my plans for when I get back to America.

Here’s a preview:

  1. Wash clothes.
  2. Sit down.
  3. Cry.
  4. Wash clothes. (Yes, again!)
  5. Call friends from home.
  6. Eat food with friends, and try to feel happy.
  7. Sleep in the presence of central air-conditioning.

And then I take things as they come…  ^_^

Mortality Complex

Okay, so this one isn’t DIRECTLY related to Japan, per se; but it was INSPIRED by things that I’ve seen and experienced here thus far.  ^_^  Also back home, but it becomes more prominent here as you’ll see.

Okay, so this one isn’t DIRECTLY related to Japan, per se; but it was INSPIRED by things that I’ve seen and experienced here thus far. ^_^ Also back home, but it becomes more prominent here as you’ll see.

So, I’ve had this thing about me for a while now, my brothers and I have talked about it before, and I thought for a while that it was a kind of… universal human trait that we all shared.  And while I’m not sure how universal it may be anymore, I have come somewhat to understand to a greater extent what it is, if not why.

So here’s an example:  You’re driving down the road.  It’s pretty late at night, and there really aren’t any cars around.  In fact, you’re pretty sure that you’re alone as far as you can see.  You start looking around you and notice a gigantic lamp post, and you feel the force of the vehicle around you, and you start wondering, What if the two forces met up, what would happen?  Sure you know you would crash, and probably die… but I mean…  What would actually happen?  Then your mind starts playing through these strange scenarios of what you might do to cause this, and what you might imagine would happen were it to happen, until you eventually start double-checking yourself to make sure that you aren’t ACTUALLY turning the wheel to steer you into the light post.

This is what I call the “Mortality Complex,” where you somehow feel a drive to explore the fringes of living…  (Okay, this sounds really creepy, and entirely too serious for how I take it, myself.)  It’s not necessarily a strong urge, either.  In fact, in most cases, it’s the easiest thing in the world to just brush off and ignore! ^_^  So don’t worry about me!  *is looking at you, you know who you are*  So yeah.  This thing happens to people.

But what’s very interesting is how I can see things in Japan and, perhaps because their idea of “safe” is so different that it starts my mind wandering thinking about what “safe” actually means, I find myself more frequently thinking along these lines.  See, they have things like, lots of trains that you ride everywhere, and stories of people killing themselves by jumping in front of trains – these spark questions like, “If I were down there, could I actually survive being hit by a train?  How fast is fast enough to kill me?  Could I perhaps run across the tracks to the neighboring platform?  How close to me could a train be when I started running before I couldn’t make it anymore…?  I bet you could duck down in the area under the platform and be pretty safe from the train…” and the like.

Also, they have these… roof things.  You can just go out and, without much trouble at all, dangle your legs 9 stories above the ground.  The windows in the schools don’t have SCREENS, and they open a fair amount, such that anyone wanting to could potentially just open one up and jump!

My friends and I look at things like this and ask ourselves, “Are they ASKING people to kill themselves?!?”  Descending the stairs in a game store, they have relatively little blocking you from, say, jumping the 6 stories down unto an active construction side next door, for instance, and we just stopped for a moment and said, “Man…  They REALLY make it easy in this country…”  And we paused.  We were both just kind of feeling the tension of how easy it would be to jump.

Naturally, neither of us DID, I mean, that would be just… STUPID! ^_^  There’s just that… Mortality Complex that makes you think about it for just a little while before you decide to move on.

And I guess the sum of it is this:  Japan tries to get people to kill themselves.  Who knew? ^_^

Also, now that summer has finally started to hit (80-something temperatures in Fahrenheit), I bemoan even further the lack of double-paned glass in this confounded country!  Double-paned glass would allow me to run my air conditioner for a couple hours in the evening, turn it off, go to sleep, and not wake up 4 hours later feeling hot and sticky again! >.<  Why, Japan?  Why?!?  Don’t you know that it saves energy – just like you’re always going on about – and ALSO lets you stay more comfortable?  For less money, even!!  Come ON, Japan!  I love you, but you gotta start being SMART about these things…  V__V

Dating Difficulties

This is not a personal entry, I promise!  It’s totally about Japan!  ;P (Translation: We ask men to refrain from entering the hot tob. Please understand.)

This is not a personal entry, I promise! It’s totally about Japan! ;P (Translation: We ask men to refrain from entering the hot tob. Please understand.)

So, I’ve talked about this on my personal blog site a lot lately (lately being in the last few weeks), but I have recently gotten myself into a relationship here in Japan.  (Yes, it’s awesome, okay, fine, moving on to more pertinent things in this blog.  Thanks.  ^_^)  I want to talk just for a moment about why I am now completely amazed that anything ever gets done in Japan with regard to relationships and dating IN GENERAL, as I have now seen some rather unusual things from the inside (of having a relationship).

First off, how do people ever get to know each other well at all?  There is nowhere in this city (Tokyo) that you can go to be alone together with someone, even just to talk or whatever.  Unless the last train has already left (more on that later), there’s going to be SOMEBODY walking nearby to SOMEWHERE, no matter where you try to run.  Societally, I suppose, this could function a bit like having a 24/7 chaperone, but when you hear statistics about the average 12-14 year old having had a sexual experience, you start to wonder where they go to DO it?  This isn’t me being frustrated, since I’m not looking for that sort of thing as you might imagine, but purely from a standpoint where I would like our personal discussions to ACTUALLY be personal and not having dozens of people walking by all the time, it’s a bit strange to think that ANYONE could be at ALL sexually active before they can afford a large apartment on their own (meaning after university)…

…and suddenly, it makes sense why nobody ever gets married or dates seriously here until well into college life or even an established career.  That makes me kind of sad.

Second, what’s the deal with purikura?  It’s a contraction of the English words “print club,” into Japanese, and it talks about the crazy photo booths they have here.  The picture atop this post is from a sign that I saw when my girlfriend and I went to take pictures at a purikura place in an upper floor of an arcade (they call them game centers here, though).  If you can’t figure it out, men are not allowed to be on the purikura floor by themselves.  If a man is present, he must be accompanying a woman.  I will freely admit that I felt freaking WEIRD going into that floor, hand-in-hand with my new girlfriend, ready to affix our newfound attraction into the annals of history with crazy backgrounds, bright shiny stars, and crazy glittery things dotted throughout the photos.  Was I adventuring into a forbidden realm?  Was there some hidden secret that only girls and boys-with-girlfriends were allowed to know?  (Pro-tip:  there wasn’t.)  What happened if she wandered around the corner to look at another booth without me noticing and some girl came up and saw me just standing by myself?!?  Were ninjas (girl ninjas) going to appear from the ceiling tiles and slice me in half for being a perverted monster, when really I just hadn’t stayed close enough to my girlfriend to be kept safe from the purikura ninjas?  o.o  I feared for my life.

[ed. note: Males are totally, technically allowed. I just never saw any nearby where the purikura stuff.]

I feared for my life muchly.

Lastly, what the hell, Japan, is with your trains?  Last trains leaving at 12:15?  But if you want to make the transfer that takes you all the way to your home station you gotta leave by 11:45?  And this is even on the weekend!  So we’re both in home-stays, and that kind of makes it impossible to meet up and just watch TV or a movie or play games at one of our houses, which means we have to meet up somewhere (usually the station nearest the school) to talk, as young lovers often will, into the not-so-wee hours of the night.  That’s right.  No staying up forever talking because you gotta catch your last train!  No cuddling together because, let’s face it, sitting down is generally frowned upon by THE ENTIRETY OF THE JAPANESE POPULATION…

…I once saw a few benches somewhere… >.>  I think.  Truth be told, there are benches, but they’re usually in places like, right out front of a train station.  You want to sit down on a curb?  Prepare to be stared at, and that’s before they realize you’re a gaijin and holding hands (in public) with a girl. *big sigh*

Anyway.  So things are… interesting.  We’re managing to have a lot of fun despite Japan’s seeming paranoia about letting two people have any amount of quality time together.  Meh, perhaps it’s for the best.  It will teach us to treasure the time that we CAN be together, perhaps?  (Pro-tip: On weekdays, you can get a karaoke room, up to 3 hours, for less than $4 per person.  And you can… sing songs… in the karaoke room.)

Well, peace from this side of the pond.

[ed. note: Now that I’m much older and “wiser,” I would be very much interested in returning and trying to observe more of local custom surrounding couples. Now to figure out how to sustain myself if I went, and how to not look totally creepy following couples around Tokyo… A safari hat probably wouldn’t help in this regard…]

What Have You Done to Me, Japan?!?

There are some times when you just go crazy, and others when you see that you have gone crazy.  Judging by the fact that I have no idea what relation this image has to what I’m writing, I deem that it must be the former of those two options.

There are some times when you just go crazy, and others when you see that you have gone crazy. Judging by the fact that I have no idea what relation this image has to what I’m writing, I deem that it must be the former of those two options.

I have a friend who helps me sometimes put my life into perspective.  That is, he’s a crazy, crazy guy, and that helps me to remember that I maybe am not as crazy as I sometimes fear.  Sometimes, I’m more crazy, but not usually. ^_^  This guy, by the way, is going to get murdered when he goes back to America, because he says a lot of things based around the fact that, if you speak fast, slur your speech, or use incredibly formal/informal English, nobody around you actually understands what you’re saying.  And he gets rather vocally frustrated at various things from time to time.  And sometime after returning to America, we just KNOW he’s going to let lose with one of these vocal tirades, and, well, see, in America, most everyone DOES understand English, which is going to get him into trouble.  A lot of trouble.

I present this anecdote not to berate him, because the things he says are often funny beyond belief, but rather as an example of one of the things that Japan does to you. ^_^;;

You see, when in a country where nobody REALLY understands your native language unless you use simple, common words and speak extra-clearly, you sometimes get into bad habits.  You have the liberty of saying things whenever you want, which is refreshing in a culture which limits the things you are allowed to DO, but sometimes a little disturbing when you realize that you’ve been swearing like a sailor in front of a mom and her 5-year-old at a crosswalk, and then a little refreshing again when you realize, Oh, right, they didn’t understand me.

Among some of the stranger things, I have always known dance instructors to be rather touchy-feely about instruction, and necessarily so in order that you can feel where your hips SHOULD be.  But in Japan, well, it’s worse than I could have imagined.  The other day at practice, they decided that everyone needed to stand up straighter, and in order to accomplish this, they deemed it necessary to stab each of the lower-classmen in the ass with their pointer fingers.  Now, I’m well aware of ‘kancho,’ but I’m also aware that this sort of thing is supposed to be limited to elementary and younger middle school students!  Not college seniors! >.<

And then, just to top off the whole, This is f*cking weird theme, at the NEXT practice, they took down one of the senpai, removed his shoes and pants and unbuttoned his shirt (forcefully, I might add) and then tossed him up into an overhead lamp a few times before dropping him back down to the ground.

One of the girls tried to be kind and stick her hand up, as if to touch the lamp, indicating that that was the lamp he was destined to hit.  I dunno, MAYBE she was trying to keep him from hitting it or something, but since girls can’t touch boys in this country (unless you’re dancing with them or teaching them to dance, in which case shoving your fingers up their patootie is totally fine), it’s a little hard to tell which was her true goal.

Seriously, Japan, what the crap?

Something that bugs me a lot here is the idea of “kimeta”, literally, “it’s been decided.”  This is one of the prime reasons for being a jerk-off in Japan.  Well, let me rephrase that.  If anyone is forced to do something stupid or is not allowed to do something intelligent and you ask those in charge “Why?” the answer will more often than not come back, “Kimeta kara.”  “Because it’s been decided.”  There need be no reason other than that.  I gotta say, I pretty much hated (with the firey passion of a thousand suns and all that) the reason “because I said so,” and this whole “kimeta” bullcrap is nothing more than the grown-up version of the same, perhaps with a little “my grand-pappy did it this way, and my father did it this way, and I did it this way, so you’re gonna’ do it this way, too” thrown in.  Y’know, for flavor. ~_^

I used to try to be a “good little gaijin,” when I first came here.  You know, I used to try to learn all of the customs, and to execute them all to the best of my ability, but now that I have been here for somewhat longer, I’ve learned that the Japanese people don’t really notice or care if you try hard to execute things the same way that they do.  In fact, I think it kind of throws them off their A-game to see a foreigner doing things as well as they do.  There’s this ‘sense’ here that Japanese people are “different” or “special” compared to the other nationals of the world, that they’re more naturally… “in tune” to some sense of Japanese… sensibilities.  While I believe this (and have OBSERVED this) not to be the case, you can’t really convince the average-Kenji on the street of this.  And so I have, partially out of increasing laze, partly out of rebellion, and partly because it makes me feel more like I’m filling in my rightful place in this society, I have begun to not care so much about some of the little details.  Things like eating food while walking someplace?  Whatever, I want to do it, I’m in an hurry, and besides, I’m a GAIJIN, so they expect me to do it wrong.  Talking on the train to friends?  Whatever, GAIJIN are always loud and obnoxious.  I think they are less thrown off when I ACT like a foreigner than when I don’t.  I think they prefer to have to struggle themselves and try to speak my VERY hard English for me than to have to endure the shame of my speaking their Japanese to them as fluently as the next guy.

…And sometimes I think I even start to believe that.  Just a little bit.

Oh, Japan, what have you done to me? ^_^;;;


More unrelated photos.  Yay. [Ed.: Does this count as a "selfie"?]

More unrelated photos. Yay. [Ed.: Does this count as a “selfie”?]

As I write this, I am sick.  It’s just a cold, and I think I’m mostly through it (it’s been on for a few days now and I have been sick enough to generally know what the dying throes* of a cold are like), but I’ve experienced some interesting things that come out through being sick over here.

*Thanks to my anal family members I get to look less like an idiot now!  The word is “throes,” not “throws,” and I should have known that.  I guess when you’re in the dying throes of being sick it’s hard to remember such things.  Thanks!

First of all, there’s the words.  You have a word for “cold” (as in the thing you catch, not as in the temperature), and you have a word for “sick.”  “Sick” is a very strong word.  I heard from one of the other kids over here that they once told their host parents they were “sick” rather than they had caught a “cold,” and they host parents were like, “Well, then we have to get you to the doctor!”  And created a big scene.  In America, you tell someone you’re sick, and they’re like, “Oh that sucks,” because being sick just means you don’t feel well, and it’s due to something beyond normal fatigue or whatever.  In Japan, it seems, “sick” is what justifies missing school/work, etc…

Second, they go to the doctor (actually, everything is just a hospital here, they just have lots of them and they each specialize in different things) for pretty much anything.  They would probably go to the doctor for a cold, and the doctors, I hear, will give you drugs for it.  I’d rather not drop $20 on a bum doctor’s visit and drugs that I don’t actually need, so I’ve just been trying to play the whole thing pretty low-key.

Third, apparently whenever someone gets sick here, they get a fever.  I’m not sure why, but it seems to be assumed.  I used the word for “cold” with my host parents here, and a little while later, when I was up to get some food (being sick doesn’t mean you don’t want to eat, I mean… jeez!) my host father was like, “Has your fever gone down at all?”  And I’m like, “Um… fever?”  I never said anything about a fever.  And besides, how would I know?  Did YOU guys give me a thermometer?  No?  What?

I think that the term may have some kind of usage whereby you talk about things like “feeling” hot… or cold…  But I’m really not sure, and I don’t much care to know if it does.  I’m sick, and I rather like the words that we have in America, where “fever” means your body’s temperature is elevated to generally around or above 100ªF, thanks.  I’d rather not have to play a game of “What do YOU think this means?” right now, because that takes energy, and well…  screw that.

I also had a girl in class ask me if I had a fever, too, the other day ‘cause I was really tired (it was also a morning class, but the cold was starting to get underway) and I’d told her I think I was getting a cold.  Here’s something about my physiology:  I don’t get fevers.  If I did, then I probably SHOULD go see a doctor, because it means I’m about to die.  My body temperature never elevates over about 99.6.  I know.  I remember being a child and trying to convince my mom to let me stay home from school, and I could never QUITE make the cutoff of 100˚F.  It made me very sad, and also pretty miserable just in class during the day.

They also have this weird idea here that if you’re ill, but you feel like getting up, then you’re a) getting better, or b) need to go lie back down.  Sick people shouldn’t do ANYTHING.  Now, what I generally remember from my health class back in high school was something along the lines of, “Even if you’re sick, but you feel like going out for a jog, or playing basketball, or whatever, then you should go ahead and do it.”  Something about getting the blood flowing and making your body work more, which can help it to flush out the affected areas, I think.  Okay, you don’t want to push yourself like WAY too hard (which is kind of what I did yesterday… >.>) but it’s not bad to be active even if you’re sick.  So, Mom, which idea is best, medically speaking?  I’m going to trust the western nurse’s perspective on this, because while Japan has thousands of years of traditions dealing with disease, the west has done the most EMPIRICAL study of disease and its effect on the human body, etc, to help weed out the more unnecessary wives’ tales about dealing with a cold.

Oh, and that’s another thing.  In America, when you have a cold, even your best friends will be like, “That sucks, hope you get better soon,” and then they’ll stay the hell away from you, because they don’t want to catch it.  Here, I’ve found (especially among girls – maybe it means something I’m missing?) that those who are your better friends won’t stay away from you, but will instead keep closer tabs on you, and ask if you’re okay, and work to try and help you feel better.  Not that there’s really a lot you can do, but people don’t seem to be as affected by the fact that you’re sick and they MIGHT CATCH IT from you.  It’s not a universal thing, but one I plan to adopt in the future amongst my friends and family.  If I’m gonna get sick, I’m gonna get sick.  Period.  Why ruin time with someone who’s currently suffering but the time could be enjoyed just because you’re afraid you might get it, too?


The answer is “yes.”  ^_^

Except for one guy I know.  He claims not to be a ‘people.’

Akihabara Tour

Here’s the group that went on the tour.  There were a bunch of us in total.  ^_^  You can kind of see our tour guide in the back there.

Here’s the group that went on the tour. There were a bunch of us in total. ^_^ You can kind of see our tour guide in the back there.

Akihabara – the technology capital of Tokyo.  This place has been revered, feared, worshipped, and avoided by countless dozens of people worldwide who’ve visited Japan.  That being said, Akihabara isn’t… REALLY a place.  When someone talks bout it, they mostly refer to a north-south street that lies just west of Akihabara station, plus a few parallel streets.  Along these streets you can find all sorts of games, anime, food, comic, model, and computer shops, along with various arcades and even several “duty-free” places dealing in some of the more mundane things – backpacks, watches, jewelry, shoes, etc…

It is also hailed as the center of what is called “otaku” culture.  Otaku is an interesting word, indeed, generally referring (especially outside of Japan) to people who are hardcore anime (Japanese cartoons, or “animation”) fans who will sometimes even go so far as to dress up and play the role of their favorite characters both at conventions and even sometimes on the streets or when shopping at the mall.  In Japan, the definition is a little more general, and a little different.  The Japanese term, “otaku,” refers to a subculture of people whose interests revolve so heavily around a certain area (games, anime, movies, trains, models, history, etc…) that they have left behind developing other parts of their lives, generally things like learning how to socialize with people on the street (who aren’t ALSO otaku) and learning how to interact with the opposite sex.

There’s even an otaku “look” which involves wearing relatively nice pants (since they never really go outside except to further their hobby), a button-up shirt (since they usually come from work), glasses worn awkwardly, an extra-large backpack worn on both shoulders, a plain, old-fashioned Beatles-style haircut, and usually a lot of sweat.

I think that if most Americans knew what it took in Japan to call someone “otaku,” that they would probably stop trying to use the term in reference to themselves.  ^_^

Anyway, since this “Akihabara” place (remember?  That’s the focus of this blog post!) is so famous, the program I’m with to study over here offers a tour of the place once a semester, so that students can see the place, and learn a bit about its history and cultural significance, and also learn something about what otaku life/culture is, and to see kind of into their world, in case the student was interested.  Since I happen to like video games an anime myself, and I’ve been to a few arcades in Akihabara already, I figured it could at least be interesting to go on the tour and see what was up.

Goku Tour GuideThe tour started off at the train station meeting this guy.  I don’t know what his real name is, since he called himself “Goku,” which is the name of the character he is cosplaying in the photo.*  At first I thought that it was really weird, and actually kind of dumb that our tour guide was in costume, but later on I realized that it’s in fact a brilliant idea!  His hair sticks up really high, and what with the bright colors and everyone always looking at him, it’s REALLY easy to spot him from quite a distance, and that’s just about perfect for a tour guide through a densely crowded city.  Needless to say, nobody really got lost. ^_^  He is also a graduate student from the university where I’m studying, focusing his research (or whatever) on Akihabara itself, so he knew quite a lot about the city, its history, and even many current events and changes going on in it.

*Cosplay refers to someone who puts on a COStume and PLAYs the role of the character represented by said costume.  It originally was called a “Costume Play,” but that was too long.

Essentially, Akihabara (as it’s known now) was a simple area west of Tokyo-proper and east of the Imperial Palace, that was set up as a fire-wall during the fire bombing in World War II.  As such, they created a shrine there to a fire spirit, called “Akiba Shrine” in the hopes that it would protect the area from fire.  It must have worked, because the shrine still stands, and a lot of original buildings also still remain (and the ones that don’t were torn down intentionally to build new ones).  After the war, the area around Akiba Shrine was used largely for black-market electronics selling – radio parts, circuit boards, transistors, other technical-sounding things – and much of the structure of the stalls and the building used for this are still around and in what looks to be rather heavy use even today.

When the train systems were built, and the train lines built up over the top of Akiba Shrine, they called it Akihabara.  (Akiba – 秋葉 – being the original name which means something like “autumn leaf,” and Akihabara – 秋葉原 – meaning something like “field of autumn leaves,” but in this case we were told it was used to mean something more like, “home of the Akiba Shrine,” which also works with the above kanji, it’s just a more… creative usage of the kanji than literal.  Things like that were rampant back in the day, it seems!)  Thus the area known as Akihabara isn’t really so much a city as an area.

There are many famous areas, for instance a place called the “rocket tower,” which was originally home to stores selling home-rocket parts for hobbyists and enthusiasts.  Now they sell duty-free goods, I think, but they keep the building name, as it’s rather famous.

However, up until about the early 90s, the place was relatively unknown around the world, and certainly not the center of otaku-culture that it is today.  It was just a place to find parts to build radios and maybe models and such.  In the early 90s there was a string of murders by one man.  Apparently this was pretty famous, even internationally, and the media kept referring to this man not as a “serial murderer, “ or a “psychopathic killer,” (either of which would have been fairly correct) they referred to him as “otaku,” intending the reference to a social deviant, or one who is societally inept.  This put the fear of death-by-otaku into the minds of all Japanese people, and there was a huge public outcry to keep otaku (who were really just nerds with serious hobbies) away from them so they could walk the streets without being afraid of being murdered every time they passed a guy with weird posture, a backpack, and glasses.  Thus all of the otaku were chased out of the major parts of the city, Shibuya, Shinjuku, etc… and they started convening instead in Akihabara, where a bunch of them went frequently anyway.  They started meeting up with friends there, gathering to look at newly-released merchandise, and as companies will generally place stores more where there are people likely to purchase from them, more and more otaku-specific store sprang up, until eventually you have what is now, today, to geek capital of the world.

Club Sega Crosswalk in AkihabaraThere are a lot of interesting current events and cultural shifts going on in Akiba as well.  (Lots of people just call it “Akiba,” because that’s shorter.)  For instance, there are major pushed within the government to set up more big-building business, and have larger department stores instead of smaller, privately-owned shops around.  As such, land prices are being driven higher in the area as bigger companies are purchasing property for their high-rise stores, and that’s making it increasingly harder and harder for the smaller guys to make a profit and stay in business.  Even I can see myself falling victim to this, as I much prefer the larger stores, with their air conditioning and wider aisles, to the smaller ones with run-down looking floors and narrow racks stacked high with bad photocopies of the games they have behind the counter, etc…  So it’s a big problem.  (Admittedly, it’s not like I DON’T shop at the smaller stores.  One of my favorite used game stores looks like a smaller-name private shop, though it is multi-story.  =/ )

Also, now that it’s been over a decade since the whole serial-killer thing went down, there’s been an increasing allowance of otaku in the world.  That is, a growing opinion that it’s okay to be otaku.  Especially with last autumn’s Prime Minister elections, one of the candidates gave a now rather famous speech, “I’m an Otaku” wherein he was standing on a major bridge just outside of Akihabara station and declared such to the media and those shopping the streets that day, setting a precedent that these are, in fact, people you have to deal with, and appeal to, and that they are major players in Japanese society anymore.

There’s even a large building (attached to this bridge) which is home to several restaurants and an Anime Museum, where all the restaurants have Akiba/otaku themed dishes.  This building also serves to infuse more of a night-life into Akihabara, as previously the whole area was basically shut down by 8, and the restaurants in that building intentionally stayed open until 10 or later, and now more shops are starting to stay open longer, and the whole of business is lasting later into the evening.

On the converse side, a lot of people who live in or near the Akiba area have been increasingly complaining about otaku behavior and presence to the police.  There are complaints of indecency, of otaku wandering around eating food outdoors (making the air smell bad), crowding on the streets and sidewalks, making it hard to get anywhere, etc.  Unfortunately, in Japan, the police aren’t able to (as the are frequently in the US) say, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about it.”  So they have recently begun to patrol the main street of Akihabara, watching for people dancing, singing, getting their pictures taken in costume, drawing a crowd, or just standing around (sitting and leaning are okay, I guess), and telling them to stop, or to keep moving, or to leave, etc…

There’s an event which happens every Sunday from morning until mid-late afternoon where they close off a section of the main street and allow people to wander freely around it.  This used to be used for an Imperial march… festival… thing, as the main street was used when the Emperor would travel between places, but has more recently just been a day when all the otaku get out their costumes and go out on the street and have a good time.  The new enforcement of rules has really rather gotten people worked up, and these otaku are starting to become afraid.

One cosplayer, rather famous I guess, was actually arrested on television for doing something where she would shove her butt out while wearing a terribly short skirt, thus revealing her underwear to passersby and fanboys.  Apparently this sort of thing is illegal, and everyone saw it on the news.  This sent a pretty strong message (only a few weeks ago, actually!) that otaku aren’t welcome in Akiba anymore, which I think is stupid, and the tour guide agreed with me.  Akihabara is the center of otaku culture, and it’s where they convened and have made it their own since they were kicked out of the rest of the city.  Now people who chose to live there are complaining about the otaku being there?  What did they expect?  Anyway, it’s not THAT bad, since the police are only enforcing this to keep images up, and as such they are only enforcing these rules on the main street.  Go back a street or two behind the main parts, and you can still find many of the cosplayers and otaku doing their thing, unmolested by the fuzz.  And that’s what the police in Japan do.  They track down criminals, and they help people who are offended by something feel like something is being done about it, even if it’s really not so much.  I still like it better than American police who don’t exist to serve the people at ALL, so much as to make money for the government and fill speeding ticket quotas.

The true irony in this new situation, however, is that in the same week as this cosplayer was arrested on television, sending out the message, “otaku are not wanted,” just a few blocks away there was a major “Otaku Convention” going on in the building with the anime museum.  This sounds to me a bit like a case of one hand slapping while the other hand scratches their back.  I told you it was irony.  “No otaku anymore!  By the way, if you are otaku, there’s a convention around the corner that you might be interested in.”  >.<

All-in-all, it was a fun, informative tour, and I’m glad I went.  Note, I didn’t even mention the maid cafe we went to!  Yes, we went, but it’s one I’d been to before, and it wasn’t all that interesting.

Peace.  v(‘_’ )