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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monjayaki and Humanity.

It's been a few weeks... I've been inspired by another blogger though (the excellent しあわせ by Robert Belton -"しあわせ" means "Happiness," and Mr. Belton has numerous quotes that cycle through his title that has great quotes about that subject...) which is what I hope my Blog grows up to be like some day!  I was estatic to learn that there were other people out there who started learning Japanese for no good reason, and to find out that great things came of it!

I think my main hinderance in writing here is that it truly feels like it's for naught.  I would like it to mean something to somebody, but perhaps just the writing of it is the end product I'm looking for after all.

A few days ago I went to dinner with my classmate Ray-san and our teacher Toyoko-sensei.  Ray is married to a Japanese woman and he knows all the little dining spots for various nihon cusine.  We headed down to Torrence for monjayaki.  Of course, it was in a tiny strip mall off of Lomita Boulevard.  All the places Ray takes us to are in tiny little strip malls.  Why do I always dress up too much for these evenings out?  Oh well -- I don't get out much these days!

Monjayaki is a type of stew that you cook yourself on a table grill.  This restaurant had so many pages on the menu, I was glad to leave it up to Toyoko-sensei and Ray.  The ingredients come in a large bowl -- you take the solid ingredients out first with a fork and build a circular wall on the grill, making it as high as possible, so that when you pour the liquid ingredients from the bowl inside it will stay there, burbling, evenutally becoming a thick rich stew.  When the liquid has finally thickened, you start to pave it around with a metal spatula, letting it get brown on this side and that, until you have a delicious, somewhat crisp browned stew -- then you eat with your own tiny (Barbie-doll size!) metal spatulas, either right off the grill or heaping some on a small  plate.  We ate right off the grill.  Toyoko said "We are now family!  My sickness is yours!" (we all laughed!)  They also sell blueberry beer, which was merely Japanese beer with fresh blueberries in the bottom.  おいしいです!

Ray, who is 6 foot 2 and a bean pole, ordered one tiny sake and after finishing it slowly, said "that's enough for me, I'm driving!"  Toyoko-sensei and I looked at each other...our pints of blueberry beer just finished and though I wanted another one, and I could sense she did too, there seemed to be a polite and unstated understanding that we would not appear to be alcoholics to our tea-totaler friend!  But on that one tiny sake, Ray told us all about his last trip to Japan and how he went into the baths with his father in law and of course was stared at by the other men in the bath.  Tall skinny white guy.  I said, "well, didn't that make you feel awkward?"  He answered, "No.  Not at all!  I felt like "Hey! All you've heard about is true! Here it  is!  Here I am!"  We three laughed so hard after that, and I know that Ray was drunk!  This is not the Ray that we know in class!  Is that the point of the drinking in Japan after work, I wonder?  This "really getting to know you" idea?  Toyko-sensei and I giggled when we got in the car, about how that one small beer did nothing for either of us and how silly Ray got!  But his story broke the ice - so maybe it only takes one person to get yopparau!

The more interesting part of the evening, however was the ride to and from the meeting spot.  I offered to drive Toyoko-sensei because she said "I am typical Japanese.  Bad driver at night!"  Little did I know that this meant I would have to speak only in Japanese all the way there and all the way home.  Great practice, of course, however, I am embarrassed at how difficult it is for me to speak.  I can understand SO MUCH more than I can actually string the words (I first wrote worlds, which might also be accurate) together.    I did learn how to swear about other drivers tho:
くそ! (ku so! But don't pronounce the "u" in ku - a hard k only).

Toyoko-sensei is a wonderful woman.  She was telling me, finally reverting to English the last 10 minutes of our drive home, that she has remained a friend to one of her high school students who has such terrible anger management issues that he was kicked out of UCBerkeley last fall.   His parents are lawyers and were divorced long ago in a very contentious way.  Toyoko said "everybody needs one friend.  I am that friend.  I tell him that I am there for him.  But I also tell him that it is not the way to be a human in this world, to treat people the way he treats many people - so condescendingly and so angry.  I try to show him how it is to be human."

There was something so very Japanese in this story to me.  It reminds me of how Japan has dealt with the aftermath of the Earthquake.  Say what you might about Japanese anti-individualism, when it comes to crises they really do all pull together in a beautiful way.  One famous British writer, Donald Keene recently became a Japanese citizen because of his experiences there after the Earthquake - no rioting, no looting, everyone dropping everything to help each other.  I guess he saw how it was to be human.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Note About Blogs

First of all, I want to apologize for not having posted much here.  I find it a larger responsibility than I imagined, in terms of time.  I have to give up on the idea that there's actually going to be any great (or even more than mediocre) writing on this blog, and just do it!  So I am officially taking the pressure off myself and thus, anyone viewing has the right to know that I won't be polishing these posts much.

And then, I guess the problem for me has also always been, what do I really want this blog to be?

Well, we learn by going where we have to go -- to quote a very dear friend of mine, who was quoting Roethke...

The other thing I need to tell you is that I still haven't quite figured out the mechanics of this site.  I tried to embed two videos but couldn't figure out how to do the second one to the same blog so I had to write two blogs and now I see that they are in reverse order.  Ugh!  Who has time to figure all this stuff out?  I just want to post something!

So please, if you can, read the following two posts in reverse order, starting with "ウエストサイドーストーリ。”  And I promise to spend some time in the near future  figuring out how to make things work around here...

yoroshiku onegaishimasu よろしくおねがいします。。。("please be kind to me, as I will to you")

Julie (written like this: ジュリエ)

West Side Story - Japan Cast Interview 2 / Tonight

If you want to watch the professionals do it, here is part of an interview of the Tokyo cast of 2009 (apparently a splendid, long running production).  They are on a typical talk show aimed at people in their 20s.  The hosts sit together on one side dressed in Japanese youth garb (except for the conservatively dressed female host).  The guests (the cast) sit near them in their own grouping of five.  The set up reminds me, for some reason, of the old "Dating Game!"

Watch this all the way through and you'll see the guest dancers trying to teach the young hosts a thing or two about how to dance like a Jet...

This is typical wacky Japanese TV!  And yet, even with the motley hosts, there is lots of bowing -- which always amuses me when they are trying to be so cool!

You will here the most outlandish host say this word in a long drawn out way "sugoi."  But he says it like this SSUUU-GGOII!  It means "Cool."  But he way he says it basically means, "hot damn that's coolest thing ever!"

Well, I happen to agree! Watashi mo わたしも(me too!)


ウエストーサエドストーリ - Or, as we call it here in America, "West Side Story" is celebrating its  50th Cinematic Anniversary.  I was lucky enough to see the "one night only" big screen release of the newly remastered print at AMC cinemas in Century City.   What a thrill that was; I've never seen it in a real movie theater.   The dancing exploded off the screen, the music was gorgeously newly remixed, the colors seemed more saturated and vibrant...everything pulled together to remind me just why this movie endures.  Even though much of it is is "beyond dated" (very hard to relax into that first scene when a band of white boys (who are really quite a bit older than the streetwise teens they are trying to be) get together to show off their toughness in the "hood" by making their way down the street doing ballet!)

Of course since everything I do these days seems to bring me back to thinking about Japanese or Japan, I wondered about Japanese productions of Westside Story and how it might be done.  In English?  In Japanese?  With the same costuming that we are used to seeing in America?  Or contemporary or classical Japanese wear?

I searched all over Youtube and found a few tidbits, but the following was the most charming.  Clearly a high school (or perhaps early college?) production.  In full Japanese no less -- but Maria is still wearing her white kerchief dress with the red sash (in fact in every production I viewed, she wears this!) and with only three words spoken in English:  Tony, Maria and "Tonight."  (I find it very funny, and very Japanese, that when the lovers are singing "Tonight" they stand like stiff boards facing the audience with an awkwardly staged holding of hands.  In the movie, of course Tony and Maria can't keep their eyes off each other!)


Friday, October 7, 2011

Jin - Television "Dorama"

In America, we call them J-Dramas.   In Japan they just call them "Dorama."  (In Japanese  every consonant except the sound for "n" has a vowel sound following it.  Sometimes the vowel sound itself is dropped in the pronunciation, like the word "desu" [it is] - which is pronounced "des," -- so instead of drama they say dorama.  (ドラマ). )

Last night I finished watching the 11th, and final, episode of Jin, the ultra popular dorama starring Takao Osawa, Miki Nakatani and Haruka Ayase.   And of course the inimitable Masaaki Uchino!

The second season was just aired this April, and to say it has the status that "Mad Men" has in this country is an understatement.  The first season of "Jin" was produced in 2009.  The second season took two years to produce and was broadcast in 80 countries last April.  I missed it, and didn't even know about it until I saw a big spread about it in a local Japanese monthly mag.  The production values are amazing and it's subarashi すばらしand very sugoi すごい (wonderful and cool!)  and totally fun (totemo tanoshi desu とてもたのしです) Here's the premise:

A brain surgeon, Dr. Jin Minakata  Tokyo is asked to operate on a specialty case at the hospital in Tokyo.  Problem is, he doesn't want to take on the case because he has messed up on a very important case (I won't tell you what) and he doesn't trust himself to do this one correctly -- now he only takes on "normal" brain surgery cases.  (Ha!)  Finally, of course, he agrees to do the brain surgery but he keeps getting these terrible headaches that practically make him fall over, yet uber-surgeon that he is, he continues on at all costs.  And what does he find inside the brain of the patient?  A large tumor.  As he pulls it out, guess what?  It resembles a human fetus!

O.K., so far this is typical J-weird.  I love that about the Japanese  culture though, they just go for it no matter how "out there."   So handsome Dr.  Minakata (Minakata sensei is what the other doctors call him - みにかたせんせい)、completes the surgery and they put the "tumor" in the lab in a jar.  A few things happen and Minakata sensei is caught in a Timu-Slipu (a time slip), falling into 1862  Edo.  Old Edo was the name of Tokyo under the Shogun.

This all might sound pretty hokey  but I'm not posting the real details of the story because I'm worried that someone on this blog might actually want to see this show - it is truly amazing with plenty of twists and turns --  and brilliantly cast - so I am going to post the actual story line on a different post so that if you want to catch it yourself this won't spoil it.

I watched it online at . If you check it out, the way it's set up is in parts, so every 15 minutes the section ends and you have to click out of full screen mode and then click on the "watch next part."  And of course it's subtitled.

  The production is gorgeous, which is why I think it took two years to make the second season.  It has a wonderful sound track too, and I learned that there is a fan club in Japan just for its sound track.  Oh those Otaku!  (おたく - people with an obsession for something, usually reserved for anime or manga fans).

The reason I'm writing this on my blog is not just because I'm now officially a Jin Otaku, and not just because Takao Osawa is completely winning (and terribly crush-worthy) as the bewildered but earnest  doctor but also because  since I've been watching Jin, my language skills have gotten so much better! Even my own sensei (Toyoko) asked me what had happened, why was I suddenly speaking so well?

  Although Minakata finds himself in a different time and the people of that time are talking in a very "high Japanese" manner with great formality, Minakata himself still talks in contemporary language most of the time.  I guess it would be like a time travel show where an American lands in Shakespeare's England.  

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the cast is wonderful and the story line is hugely engaging.  My other favorite, Masaaki Uchino, reminds me of Toshiro Mifune when he played buffoonish characters with big hearts.

If you have time to watch episode one, let me know what you think...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Watashi no Haha

Watashi no haha (私のはは) means: My mother.  In Japanese there are very many different ways to say mother, depending on who you are and what relationship you have with the woman who is someone's mother (possibly yours).

Here's all the possibilities:  

If you are talking to your mother,  or are talking about another person's mother it is Okaasan (the O is always honorific) おかあさん which also looks like this in Kanji: お母さん.

I love this kanji because the "kaa" kanji looks like a kite to me, and that is a wonderful image for a mother.

If you are talking about your mother to another person, you would call her はは (ha ha).  Instead of using an honorific, you want to talk about your own family member in a way that shows that you don't put them up above the person you are speaking to, so they are spoken of using the humblest of terms.

Some people, probably kids (kodomo)  also might call their haha  "mama" (ママ).  

I bring this up because on Monday the 26th,  it was the one year anniversary of watashi no haha no shi (my mother's death).   She lived a long and wonderful life, dying just shy of the age of 88.   

8 is a holy and lucky number in Japanese.  The shape of the kanji for 8 is like this:  八. Looking at this kanji from top to bottom, it shows that it gets wider and more abundant.  This is where the luck is - in the slow but continuous abundance.  I love how, at least traditionally, slow prosperity was honored over quick gains in Japan.  A lifetime of building ones abundance (not just financially, but spiritually as well, which is why 8 is  a holy number too), counted for a lot more than sudden wealth or power.  

Well, even if watashi no haha didn't live long enough to experience a double luck year, her life was pretty lucky anyway.  She traveled the world, including Germany and surrounding countries, Cuba and Africa, had three daughters (musume: むすめ - is the word for daughter.  As there are no plurals in Japanese, the word is the same for one or more daughters), had interesting jobs and was ever questing, both spiritually and intellectually.  

She never made it to Japan or any part of Asia, but if there had been an opportunity back in the day, I'm sure she would have loved to go.  

I learned that there is no "I miss you" in Japanese.  You can say I'm lonely or I want to see you.  Combining both I say to my mother:


Anata ga inakute, samishii kimochi ni narimashita.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jisei - Death Poems: In Honor of Troy Anthony Davis

Long ago, Samurai accepting their death were expected to write death poems moments before their end.  These death poems were called jisei, and the practice continued for many centuries.

Tonight the state of Georgia executed a man whom I believe to have been innocent, as do thousands and thousands of people around the world, including 7 of the 9 people who testified against him in his trial.  Those seven people recanted their testimony.  The warden of the Georgia State Death Row believed him to be innocent.  The former head of the FBI Warren Sessions and Georgia Congressman Bob Bar, a four term Republican who is a death penalty supporter also believed in his innocence.  All three petitioned for his stay of execution.  At 11:08 EST, Troy Davis was given his lethal injection.

In honor of Troy and for his family, I offer these Jisei:

died September 9, 1769, at 49:

During his last moment, Shisui's disciples requested that he write a death poem. He grasped his brush, painted a circle, cast the brush aside, and died. The circle— indicating the void, the essence of everything, enlightenment— is one of the most important symbols of Zen Buddhism.

Minamoto Yorimasa
Like a rotten log 
half buried in the ground - 
my life, which 
has not flowered, comes 
to this sad end. 

Ota Dokan
Had I not known 
that I was dead 
I would have mourned 
my loss of life. 

Ôuchi Yoshitaka
Both the victor 
and the vanquished are 
but drops of dew, 
but bolts of lightning - 
thus should we view the world.

Died in 1767 
Cicada shell:  
little did I know
it was my life.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Putting it Out There!

Well, I just invited everyone I know to take a look here, and send this link to people they know who might be interested in Japan.  If you're reading this, I'm talking  to you!

My sensei, Toyoko-san says that I can only really learn Japanese if I "shower" myself with Japanese every day.  So whenever I'm in the car, I'm listening to Pimsleur Japanese disks (I'm on Volume 2).  I like Pimsleur very much just to hear the language and that "call and response" technique.  However, the funny thing about those CDs, is that every language I've used them for has had some form of odd conversation having to do with meeting someone else's wife and asking her out for a drink while her husband is on a business trip.  I'm not kidding, it's very funny.   O.K., it's a little veiled, but I can see someone using that lesson in exactly that way.   And the Spanish version spent at least 6 lessons making sure the listener knew how to order drinks, ask others to drink with them, find out how much drinks (wine and beer) cost.  After the 4th lesson of this it was enough already!

Japanese thru Pimsleur is definitely "business" related.  There is one lesson that is clearly a lesson in how to tell your colleague (kaisha no hito) that you have to go back to American but you wish you could stay here in Japan with him (or her).   The colleague wishes so too and offers the idea that he/she could maybe go back to America with you.  There is a sadness in the conversation, a longing that's not expressed.  I find it a little odd on a language tape for beginners!

Jaa Mata! (until next time)

Stray Dog

Since I am getting blog error codes on the set-up portion of my site, I will just give a brief hello here. My name is Julie and I am heading into my true mid life, I think. I began learning Japanese two years ago when my son began studying the language for his black belt test in Yoshukai Karate. We hired a tutor to help him (and my daughter was interested too) and the three of us spent a summer learning hiragana, katakana and a few basic phrases.

To be honest, this all came about at a time I was contemplating divorcing my husband, so maybe my falling head long into learning the language was as close to a "love affair" as I was going to get and a true escape.

Japanese wasn't ever a language I was interested in, and I had studied fairly seriously a number of other languages: German (6 years), Italian (1 year) Spanish (2 years) and American Sign language (2 years). I also did a stint in Swedish and French, but i think those were "boyfriend related" so didn't stick!

In fact, Japan was never a country that was on my list! I'm not sure why this is true. I loved travel and spent a lot of time in France, England, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark as a young student.

But something clicked with me while helping my son and once he learned what he needed to know for his written exam, I kept going, fell in love with Nihongo -- and 9 months later we were all in Japan together for spring vacation.

This sounds like a "birth" story, and maybe it was for me in a way. A re-birth story of sorts. Arriving in Japan was truly a dream ... I wanted to learn about and be a part of their culture in a way I had never experienced before with any other language or country. I also knew that taking on Japanese as I head towards 50 was maybe not going to be the easiest mid-life crises swerve in the road I could take (like maybe I should just dye my hair blonde and go lease a red convertable mustang instead until this all passes?) however, it feels less and less like a passionate affair and more and more like a real longterm commitment. I think I know the difference by now.

So this is the beginning of this blog. I hope you like it and will contribute your own thoughts and stories about how you got started learning Japanese and why. Any cultural, travel, or random thoughts on learning the language, or tidbits about the language itself will be fun for all to read, so please share!

(For instance this thought occurred to me at the beginning of my most of my work books and also my language instruction via tutor, one of the first verbs you learn is the verb "to die." "Shinu." And oddly enough, it takes many chapters, (disks, if you're learning on tape) or classes before the word for "why?" is taught (Doshite).

I find that interesting and my interpretation of that is embeded in the culture. The Samurai and Ninjitsu mentality is still very alive in Japan, which means that death is a constant subcontext to their culture (as opposed to America where eternal youth and long life seems to be ours). And in a society that prizes working together as a whole as opposed to individualism, the word "why?" does not come up often and is not encouraged. "Why" is clearly a very real step out of the collective circle of accepted authority or "in the box" thinking. It doesn't surprise me that you have to wait until your second year of study to even learn how to say the word!

I titled this post Stray Dog because I just spent the entire evening watching 'Stray Dog" - the Akira Kurosawa film starring my favorite, Toshiro Mifune-sama. What a wonder!

I hope you visit this site often! I would love to hear your thoughts, not just about what I am writing, but your own stories as well.

Kitsukete Kudasai! (Take care of yourself please!)