As fans might recall, I am a big fan of the game Final Fantasy XIII1, and lately I’ve been playing the sequels XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. I’ve enjoyed these games, and the story, so much that decided to purchase the novel. Actually there are a few novels available, but all of them are in Japanese-language only:
I bought all three, but only the last two are in stock,2 so I’ve begun reading Fragments Before.
The reading-level is a stretch, for me, but not nearly as difficult as trying to read Dune in Japanese. That was much harder. Already, I’ve enjoyed the book quite a bit and have finished one of the ministories. I don’t read fast, but I can read at a decent pace. Also, I sometimes have to go back a few pages and re-read because I understand the words, but have trouble grasping the overall meaning the first time. This happens with manga too sometimes, but novels are harder than manga. It doesn’t really bother me though, because I really want to know what goes on, and want to know the details of the characters and the world they live in, so I don’t re-read because I have to, but because want to.
It turns out that if you want to read in a foreign-language, you have to find something you’re genuinely interested in. I have English-language novels that I don’t finish because they’re not very interesting, and this is even more true in Japanese. I just can’t finish books that don’t interest me. Or if I finish them, I don’t remember much. So, now that I found something I really like and want to finish, suddenly I find it takes less effort to read. ;)
A good tip for language students out there: find something in your target language you really like and just focus on that. The rest will fall into place.
Lately, as I wrote before, I’ve been getting frustrated with the Heisig method for learning Kanji, and then switched to learning kanji using the classic grade-school method (1st grade, then 2nd grade, etc).
What I found was neither system worked perfectly. The Heisig method, that is to say the method for breaking down Kanji into simple units that you can re-use for other kanji, is quite useful. However, the book and the underlying assumption that you have to “learn all kanji” has a lot of problems and I finally gave up. I just have no motivation to finish the book.
On the other hand, the grade-school method works for children growing up in Japan, but without the Heisig method (or living in Japan), it is almost impossible to remember beyond the first 300-500 kanji unless you actively use them in Japan all the time. Even then, the learning-curve gets pretty steep one you get into 5th grade kanji and beyond.
For foreign-students of Japanese language, both methods are tremendously time-consuming, and sometimes even detract from actually learning Japanese.
I was inspired recently by an article by Tae Kim which explains that some aspects of kanji really aren’t that important to learn. You eventually learn them through exposure to Japanese language, so spending countless hours memorizing them is not worth the time.
Instead, he suggests investing that time in learning Japanese vocabulary (i.e. whole words) first.
Reading his article made me feel a lot better about quitting Heisig. It was nice to reaffirm from an experience Japanese-language student that studying kanji in isolation isn’t very useful. I’ve since stopped learning altogether, and spend my time focusing on vocabulary so I can take the JLPT N1 later this year. :)
The reaction to Tae Kim’s article shows that a lot of people are still hesitant to study Japanese without learning Kanji first, but I know from first-hand that it does work. When I was living in Ireland for a year, I was just learning to read Japanese, and so I was learning a lot of basic vocabulary. I had used flashcards before, but I quickly forgot them after a few weeks. Instead, reading very basic texts (with pronunciation guides) helped me more because I could see them in context.
As time went on, I started learning enough words that I could see them overlap. That’s when I really felt things paid off.
Even now when I read something much more difficult, like the novel Dune in Japanese, I see difficult adult words but can often intuit the meaning because I’ve seen those kanji before. I still have to use a dictionary to look up the words, but often I am correct. This is a good feeling.
Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.
In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.
Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:
Here, you can see:
The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.
These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.
Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. :)
On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).
This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).
But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.
If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.
Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.
Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.
For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. :)
Although I’ve complained about the JLPT exam (日本語能力試験) in the past, I have been thinking about taking the final level: the N1 (一級). The N1 exam is the most difficult, and usually takes a few years to prepare. I completed the N2 exam in 2011, and have been studying Japanese on my own ever since. I realized that the N2 wasn’t helping me with Japanese conversation, and I wasn’t able to read simple books, especially for kids. So, I spent 3 years getting more familiar with regular every-day Japanese and had no interest in the N1 exam.1
However, lately, I feel that I should finish the series. I finished the N4, N3 and finally the N2. This leaves only the N1. So, it would be nice to try and pass the exam. Then I have the satisfaction of completing the entire series.
On the other hand, I don’t want to spend a lot of time studying it either. What I mean is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money on textbooks, mock-exams, etc. I’m already studying Japanese, so I don’t want to purchase more materials. Instead, I want to see if studying natural Japanese (not to pass an exam) is enough to pass. I believe it might work.
For example, I often read the Asahi Shinbun. I used to post English-language articles on this blog, but these days, I read in Japanese:
It’s more fun because you’re reading it in natural Japanese, plus I find enough interesting articles each day. They are somewhat short, so I can read in 10 minutes or so. It’s not easy though. There are many words I still don’t know. So, I often use Safari browser because I can look up the words as I read, as shown above.
What about listening? I don’t watch too much Japanese TV besides Eagle Talon and Massan, so to be honest, my listening skills still aren’t very good. I do have Japanese conversations with native speakers regularly (wife’s friends, people at work), but I don’t know if it’s enough.
Will all this work? We’ll find out in December. The point is that I want this to be low-effort. Either I will pass, or I won’t. If I fail, then I will have to use more dedicated methods. We’ll see. :)
1 I was also annoyed because the overseas JLPT service in the US was hacked years ago, and my credit-card information was stolen. SInce then, I’ve had my information stolen twomore times, so I can’t really get mad at them anymore. :-p
My wife and I like to visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo often. Last year, my wife was having Yakudoshi right now (maeyaku, yakudoshi, atoyaku), so she went there to get purified and avoid potential calamity. I like going just because it’s a very nice Shinto shrine.
Normally, when you visit Shinto Shrines in Japan1 you can get your fortune for the year told. This is called omikuji and I’ve posted about it before.
However, Meiji Shrine is somewhat unusual because the fortunes you receive are not really fortunes. This is the “fortune” I received:
This is actually a poem written by Empress Shoken (shōken kōtaigō 昭憲皇太后) who was the wife of Emperor Meiji. In fact all the omikuji fortunes are written by either the Emperor or Empress.
The shrine’s website explains why: Before the war (WWII?), Meiji Shrine only sold ofuda, the sacred tablets used in Shinto. They did not have omikuji at all. However, after the war, the shrine wanted to provide more religious teachings, and decided to make a unique form of omikuji that would distinguish them from mundane temples and shrines. A professor of religious studies from the Shinto-based Kokugakuin University named Miyaji Naokazu came up with the idea to get rid of omikuji based on good or bad fortunes, and provide something with deeper meaning.
The Emperor and Empress wrote tens of thousands of poems each, but the shrine selected 15 poems each that were felt to have deeper meaning and these became the omikuji used today. Additionally, because there are more foreign visitors than before, there are now omikuji available in English too. These are from 20 poems selected, 10 from the Emperor and 10 from the Empress.
As for the poem I got, here it is:
人知れず Hito shirezu
思ふこころの Omou kokoro no
よしあしも Yoshi ashi mo
照し分くらむ Terashi wakaran
天地のかみ Tenchi no kami
I looked it up in Japanese (no translations in English, as far as I know), and it seems to be about how humans cannot know what is in each other’s hearts. We think these are private thoughts. However the heavenly gods know.
I might be wrong though. If anyone has information, please feel free to share.
Anyhow, I think it’s a cool idea to use poetry, not fortunes, for the omikuji at Meiji Shrine. If you go sometime, definitely spend the money on omikuji. Based on personal experience, some temples or shrines seem to “rig” their omikuji, so that people rarely have bad luck, or often have really good fortunes. The Meiji Shrine’s approach seems more genuine, which I think is cool. :)
1 I think Buddhist temples sometimes do this, depending on the sect. Shingon, esoteric Buddhism, is particularly eclectic, so you can see it there, for example.
Some readers might remember that I am a fan of Japanese waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry, is an older form of poetry that came before haikus. When people think of Japanese poetry, they often think of haikus, but haikus are relatively new, so there’s lots and lots of poetry written as waka, not haiku, that Westerns don’t know about. The main difference is that haikus are 5-7-5 syllables, while waka are 5-7-5-7-7, so there’s two extra lines of 7 syllables.
Waka poetry was very popular in the “golden age” of Japanese culture, the Heian Period. Noble men and woman, and their attendants, wrote poetry to one another all the time as a way of communicating their thoughts. Poetry could be a path to success too.
But also, poetry was so popular, that there were official anthologies too. There were 21 anthologies total, and some were better than others. I wrote about the 21 anthologies in greater detail on my other blog. The most famous of these anthologies is probably the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or just Kokinshū for short. It’s name literally means “A Collection of Poems, Old and New”.
The Kokinshu anthology was completed in 914, but start 15-20 years earlier. It took the committee, led by one Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) a long time to compile all the poems and then organize into an anthology. It is not as famous to Westerners as the Hyakunin Isshu, which I made an entire blog for, but the Isshu is a private collection. Althought it is very famous and influential, it was not an official, Imperial anthology.
The Kokinshu is far larger than the Hyakunin Isshu too. It has hundreds of poems. Instead of reading specific poems, Ki no Tsurayuki and the committee organized the anthology by “books”. There are 20 books, with different topics like “Autumn”, “Love” and “Miscellaneous”. What’s clever about the anthology is that the poems within each book are carefully organized too.
For example, in the “Autumn” book, the first poems talk about early fall, and tend to sound similar to each other. However, as you progress through the book, the poetry topics subtly move into other subjects, and then into late autumn. So as the reader progress, the season of Autumn progresses too. The trick is to not focus on one poem, but the progression of poems together. It creates a seamless progression through different subjects within the same book.
There are very few translations of the Kokinshu, but thankfully I found a good one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius. This book does a nice job translating the poems, and providing useful footnotes, but also translates Ki no Tsurayuki’s originally forward. Ki no Tsurayuki walks the reader through a brief history of Japanese poetry (relative to his time) and critiques famous poets of the past, namely the Six Immortals of Poetry. His criticism is pretty harsh, but I think this was typical of the era.
I haven’t through the entire book, but I tend to jump around and find a section worth reading.
There’s a lot of good poems in there, and I hope to share some soon. I don’t know if I could make a blog devoted to the Kokinshu, like I did with the Hyakunin Isshu, but instead I hope to post here and maybe the other blog from time to time. I hope to also read the Shinkokin Wakashū someday. This was a later anthology, and was intended as a kind of “sequel” to the Kokinshu.
But if you do like Japanese poetry, especially Waka poetry, the Kokinshu is among the best of the 21 Imperial Anthologies.
As readers probably remember, I started learning Japanese kanji using the Heisig method almost 3 years ago. Some people can learn all 2,200 kanji in 4-6 weeks but I work full-time and raised a daughter so progress was much slower but I still made pretty good progress. However when Little Guy was born, progress stopped. I was too tired for the first year and lost motivation. Once I lost motivation, I started to fall behind, and my kanji studies were neglected.
So I stopped around 1260 kanji and haven’t resumed. 1260 kanji is pretty good for a foreigner who doesn’t even live in Japan but it’s still not enough. Plus, after several months I started to forget many of the kanji. Lately, I started to get back into Heisig, and trying to remember all the kanji I forgot, but at the same time, I find myself getting frustrated with the Heisig method. There’s a few reasons for this:
The English words used for the kanji are not always the best choice for a kanji. For example the word “I” in this 吾, but usually in Japanese it is 私, 僕 or 俺 or some other kanji. Also, in Heisig’s system prosperous is 昌, but usually I expect it to be 栄. These often confuse me because I already know some Japanese, and I tend to pick the wrong kanji based on what people natively use, not what’s in the Heisig system.
Some of the word-choices are strange or awkward. For example, the 又 in Heisig’s system is “crotch” as in the crotch of the elbow, but frankly it sounded kind of weird. So, I changed the meaning to be a “dude” as in yatsu 奴 and I was able to make better stories from that. Other Heisig veterans have noted that they often have to change the primitives to something easier to remember. I also changed 隻 from “vessel” (too vague) into a Klingon Bird of Prey from Star Trek. It’s different and I could make more fun stories for each kanji.
Many of the English words are very, very similar, but the kanji look completely different. For example “yearn” is 憧 while “pining” is 慕. Then there’s kanji for admonish 警, criticism 批, rebuke 諭, and so on. When you first do the Heisig system, you only know a few kanji, so there’s not much confusion, but as you learn more and more words, there’s more and more risk of getting confused. Heisig doesn’t give you much advice either in remembering the differences. You’re expected to somehow imagine stories for each kanji that avoid confusion.
The system often begins with obscure kanji, then gradually moves into more useful kanji. You have to be pretty patient, because if you learn Japanese at the same time, you’ll find that you won’t learn the kanji that you should learn first. This can be pretty frustrating. This is why learning it the grade school way is often useful.1
I’ve been contemplating giving up on the Heisig method and using the grade-school method instead. I know the 1st and 2nd grade kanji pretty well, so I have a foundation at least.
On the other hand, I read a really good critique of the Heisig Method, and I was surprised to see that this person had the same frustrations that I had. But he argues that the Heisig method is still worth it.
I’m still thinking about it. We’ll see.
1 When I mentioned all these complaints to my wife, she said I was thinking too much, and should just learn the same way my daughter does: the grade-school method.
I was sad to hear about the verdict in the trial for police officer Darren Wilson. I felt bad for Mike Brown’s parents who lost their son, and for all those frustrated with life in Ferguson, MO.
But then I read another article by the BBC which shows how there are many, different eye-witness stories about what happened. Many people saw what happened, but they gave different versions and different viewpoints. So it was hard for the jury to find any concrete evidence.
Reading this reminded me of a famous old Japanese movie called Rashomon, which was originally a short story by the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. The story and the movie take place at the famous Rashomon Gate (羅生門) in Kyoto where three men talk about a murder that recently happened.
The murder is told from four different viewpoints. The first three (the thief, the samurai’s wife and the samurai through medium) all contradict each other. It’s clear each person is telling their version of the story out of self-interest.
Only the final version of the story seems objective but not completely.
So, the film (and novel) teaches a lesson that people are frequently motivated by self-interest and will distort the truth to suit their own beliefs or desires. Oftentimes people do this without realizing it because most of the things we do in life are motivated by self-interest anyway.
But it’s because of this distortion that we are unable to see the truth. We see what we want to see even if it is not accurate.
I guess this is partly why so many witnesses at the scene of Mike Brown’s death are so contradictory. Everyone brings their personal “baggage” and judgments. But it’s even worse on social-media. Many people who did not witness the death of Mike Brown still give their opinions. Some say Darren Wilson is a racist cop, some say Mike Brown is a thug. Some say Mike Brown is a saint, others say Darren Wilson was performing his duty in a stressful environment. Maybe all these opinions are true. Maybe none of them are true.
To me, it seems like people’s opinions on social media tell us more about that person’s “personal baggage” and views than what actually happened.
Unfortunately, we may never know the whole story.
As a Buddhist, I see the loss of life, any life,1 as tragic. Thus, regardless of why or how it happened Mike Brown’s death still affects us all. People are angry, scared, frustrated, confused and now rioting in the streets. So, regardless of what actually happened, a violent death still degrades society that much more. If we continue to act in self-interest though, the cycle will repeat and more lives will be lost.
As I wrote in a previous post, we may not always be able to help incidents like this directly, but there things we can in our own lives, and our own community that will still benefit people in places like Ferguson and others.
The Buddha gave some help advice on this, as taught in the Dhammapada:
129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.
132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.
133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
Until people learn to talk face to face and listen, respect one another as fellow humans, misunderstandings will continue and violence will repeat itself. We will have to cut through the madness sooner or later or perish as a society.
Lately, I’ve been converting my existing flashcards on Anki from basic flashcards (sentence or word on one side, translation on the other) into “MCD” cards. The idea for MCD was promoted by Khatzumoto at AJATT in this series of posts. The idea, as I understand it, is to test on parts of a sentence. One sentence can have 4 or 5 flash cards, one for each part of the sentence.
Lately, when I learn a new word in Japanese or Korean, i use an online dictionary (Goo for Japanese, Naver for Korean) to get an example sentence. I don’t want to make up my own sentence. I want to use sentences made by native speakers.
Then, I start making cards for each part of speech in the sentence. So for this sentence, 服の裏まで雨が染みとおる, I would break it up into 服の裏まで, 雨が, 染みとおる. So, I can make three cards. Here’s an example flashcard I made:
Here, I focused just on the particle が (ga). This is to help me remember that が goes with the verb 染みとおる (shimitooru) meaning to soak through.
Here’s another example from another card, another sentence:
This sentence has many parts of speech, so I can make many cards just from this one sentence. Here, I’m focusing on the verb 夜更かしする (yofukashisuru) meaning to stay up late.
The MCD method is much more helpful to me, because I’m learning new vocabulary and new grammar in context. When I was studying for the JLPT, I learned a lot of grammar and vocabulary but I learned it out of context, so in real life I often used it wrong. My words were too stiff, incorrect, etc. I still do this. But using the MCD method of making flashcards, I am slowly fixing this, and learning new words and grammar.
So, when reading Japanese manga, or Korean Twitter posts from Kpop people, I keep an eye out for new sentences to add to my MCD collection.
But what about my old cards? I am slowly converting or deleting them. If I still want to learn that word, I find example sentences and make MCD cards instead. If I really don’t need that word anymore, I delete it.
Sipmle as that. I’ve almost finished converting both my Japanese and Korean decks, so I hope to have just MCD cards only soon.
Most people who learn Japanese kanji, or Chinese characters, tend to learn them in isolation: one character at a time. But in reality. They are often used as compound words. So learning individual characters isn’t enough: you have to learn to read compound words effectively. Someday you might even see something like this:
How are you expected to read so many kanji?
Thankfully it’s easier than it looks once you understand some basics:
Most compound words usually come in two, maybe three kanji at most. Even the famous 4-character phrases in Japanese (yojijukugo), are just 2 pairs of 2-kanji compound words.
Longer words can usually be broken down into pairs of kanji.
Let’s start with a simple example:
The words in orange are 警告 keikoku, which means “warning” or “caution”. The kanji 警 means to warn or admonish and 告 means to inform or proclaim. One kanji might be enough, but it feels like something’s missing. It looks much better when you have two kanji together in a compound word. This allows for all kinds of nuances that are hard to do in English:
社長 – shachō a CEO or head of a business.
園長 – enchō head of a zoo or park.
店長 – tenchō owner or head of a small business.
婦長 – fuchō head nurse
You get the idea, right? By combining two kanji together, you can express a lot more ideas. So, it’s very common to see compound words using two kanji.
You calso see words with three kanji though:
This a single word, 消火栓 shōkasen, which as you can see means ‘fire hydrant’. The word 消火 means to extinguish a fire, but 栓 means a plug, cork or stopper, so it modifies the word a little. It implies that material (water, fire-retardent, etc) is stored there (literally, “stopped up”) for extinguishing fires. Another example would be 消費税 shōhizei, where 消費 is consumption (i.e. shopping) and 税 means tax. So, this is a tax for sales and consumption: a sales tax.
This is about as complicated as words get.
Now, here is a four-character word:
This is 非常電話, hijōdenwa, which just means emergency phone (or intercom). It is one word, but actually is made up of two smaller words: 非常 (emergency) and 電話 (phone). Pretty easy.
So what about this example?
You can break it down into pairs:
京都 – kyōto, the city of Kyoto
大学 – daigaku, university
野性 – yasei, wild
動物 – dōbutsu, animal
研究 – kenkyū, research
センター – sentā, center (this is katakana, not Chinese characters)