Earlier I mentioned being a big fan of the Japanese game show “Nounai Este IQ Supplement” (that link is to a Japanese-language website). Above is my favorite puzzle from the show, because it’s the only one I’ve been able to figure out before hearing or seeing the answer. (Since they insist on talking in Japanese on that show, I still consider it an accomplishment when I can solve a puzzle after seeing the answer.)

As far as I could tell, the question was: “How can you make this an accurate statement by adding only one line?” I put the solution at the end of this post. If you want a hint: you do have to know a little bit of beginner’s Japanese to understand it. And a bigger hint: it’s not a math problem, but a language problem, a visual pun.

The reason I’m putting it on here is because I absolutely love this kind of thing, and it’s exactly the reason why I want to learn Japanese. When I first started, I had this vague notion of being able to read manga or watch anime, or play imported videogames. As it turns out, I’m really not all that into manga and anime, and these days, the good stuff is quickly translated anyway. And I barely have enough time to check out the games available in English, much less go to the trouble of importing more. Plus, I’ve already been to Japan twice, and I’ve seen how easy it is to navigate knowing next to nothing about the language.

So now, the appeal is as simple as just being able to understand something I didn’t understand before. I don’t realistically expect I’ll ever become “fluent,” just because I don’t have any opportunity to use the language. (I also have some weird kind of dyslexia where Japanese is concerned; I’m constantly getting the syllables in the wrong order or using the wrong one, for words I should be familiar with). For me, it’s not about fluency as much as having a big puzzle to solve, discovering new pieces and then finding out how they fit together.

And that’s what’s frustrating me about the way the language seems to be taught. Nothing really presents the language in a way that makes sense. And from what I’ve seen, it’s hard, but it all does make sense. But it only makes sense after the fact — while I’m learning, it’s all arbitrary memorization.

You start out learning the hiragana and katakana, which makes sense because it’s kind of a bridge between western languages and Japanese. Each symbol corresponds to a sound, so there’s an order to it, but you’re not just trying to transliterate between the roman alphabet and a language that has nothing to do with that alphabet. And you’re learning something that’s actually used — it’s just plain neat to be able to read something that wasn’t translated or altered for my benefit, even if I can only pronounce it and don’t yet know what it actually says.

At the same time, you’re learning vocabulary: the days of the week, the days of the month, how to tell time, etc. That all has context, but it’s rote memorization. “Sunday” is nichiyoubi, “Monday” is getsuyoubi, and the number one is ichi unless you’re talking about the first day of the month, in which case it’s tsuitachi. It all seems arbitrary and needlessly complex, until you start to make the connections: in English, we don’t say the “oneth day,” but the “first.” That’s the kind of thing I can understand.

And through it all, kanji looms in the distance as this ridiculously complex thing you shouldn’t even bother looking at until you’ve mastered the basics. You start to wonder why they bother with kanji at all, since you can write everything in hiragana or katakana. (The explanation I read when I was first starting out was that it’s “faster,” which is astoundingly simplistic and off-base). It’s only after you struggle with the basics that you’re exposed to your first few kanji, and then you start to understand why it’s used.

The kanji for “sun” is sometimes read nichi, and the kanji for “weekday” is youbi. So nichiyoubi really does mean “Sunday.” Same thing for getsu (moon) youbi (weekday), “Moon-day” or “Monday.” And the rest of the days of the week are named after the elements — fire, water, wood, etc. — something that any fan of role-playing games should be able to get into. So how come I was never shown the kanji for these until after I’d already learned them the hard way? Why take something with such a direct analog to what I already know, and turn it into arbitrary memorization?

Especially since the language just builds from there: the names of the months are the kanji for a number plus the kanji for “moon.” The word Nihon for Japan literally does mean “sun source,” or “the land of the rising sun.” The kanji for “fire” in kayoubi (Tuesday) is also used in “fireworks,” which is written hanabi or literally, “fire flower.” I can’t be the only one who thinks that the concepts of “fire flowers” and “source of the sun” and “moon day” is much more interesting and evocative than trying to memorize long lists of unfamiliar words.

Plus, if you’re nerdy at all (and I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve read this far, then you are), then there’s all this built-in potential for etymologies and odd connections between words. The symbols are so packed with meaning and multiple readings, that they’re interesting both on a conceptual and a linguistic level. I mentioned that my favorite aspect of the Yokai Attack! book was that included the kanji for the monsters as well as notes as to which monsters derived from idioms or folk expressions. It was the first time I’d seen the characters for “woman” and “child” and “demon” pop up consistently, and realized that the names aren’t just arbitrary collections of syllables, but logical combinations of concepts: “Onibaba” really does mean “devil woman.” And some names come from the fact that the kanji used to write them can be read in different ways, which results in puns and homonyms.

With my current job, there’s no way I’ll have time to start taking classes again, so it’s back to the books. And all the books I’ve found so far fail in one of two ways: some start with an exhaustive break-down of all the radicals and kana and kanji that make up other kanji, and present them in long lists to memorize. This makes everything systematic and shows all the cool connections between the characters, but removes all of the context and meaning, making it dry and arbitrary.

The other books present mnemonics and build off those: this one looks like a dude boxing a giant spider, while this one looks like a leaky faucet on top of a slice of bread! These have the problem of having interest but not much system, and a context that’s just plain goofy. Sorry, but that does not look like a faucet on top of a slice of bread. And now that you’ve shown me the picture, that’s all I can think about, even though the symbol I’m supposed to be learning has nothing to do with either faucets, sandwiches, or giant spiders.

So, I guess I’m just going to start exploring on my own and see if I make any progress. One website for kanji instruction that seems pretty good so far is called Kanjiroushi, and it even has an interface that works well with Mobile Safari on the iPhone. And the answer to that puzzle up top is after the jump:
Continue reading “Wakarimasen”

Literacy 2008: Exhibition Round 2: Yokai Attack!

yokaiattackcover.jpgThere’s no way I’m going to finish my resolution to read 26 books by the end of 2008, but even out of desperation I can’t in good conscience include this book to pad out the list. But it’s still neat enough to be worth an exhibition round.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda, Matt Alt, and Tatsuya Morino

Like the excellent book The Field Guide to North American Monsters, but with yokai. Contains entries for several monsters of Japanese folklore, with information on their origins, habitat, and what to do in the event of an encounter.

Great introduction to yokai, making absolutely no assumptions about the reader’s familiarity with Japanese folklore, language, or pop culture. Includes the kanji name for each monster, a translation of the name into English, and notes on the etymology of the names and their use in idioms, which are great for people trying to learn the Japanese language. Each entry includes a full-page illustration of the creature done in the style of Shigeru Mizuki and the original source. Images from the original source material are also included wherever possible. Has an excellent bibliography and reference section, recommending plenty of related books and films. Mentions each creature’s “relevance,” indicating which creatures are the best-known and which are more obscure, or are only part of the folklore of certain regions.

Because the book is intended as an introduction, it’s pretty shallow. Each entry is limited to 2 and a half pages at the longest, the bulk of it dedicated to the height/weight/habitat information which keeps the “field guide” gag running. The descriptions keep a light “isn’t all this stuff wacky?” attitude, which can deflate the coolness of it all somewhat.

Although I personally prefer SHMorgan’s Obakemono Project website, both for the art style and for the number and depth of the entries, Yokai Attack! is a better general introduction. The book’s format and its use of popular expressions, idioms, and the monsters’ appearance in popular culture give a better sense of how this aspect of Japanese folklore fits into the country as a whole, and how many of them came about. It’s a fun book, highly recommended for anyone interested in this stuff. You should also check out the book’s official website.

Beat Bachs

A post on Boing Boing was the first I’d heard of Omodaka, a collaboration from a Japanese electronic musician putting out some of the most amazing videos I’ve ever seen. (You can read more about the artist on this modern Japanese music guide).

He’s got six videos available on YouTube, and pretty much every one is going to be something you haven’t quite seen before.

Kokiriko Bushi is a fantastic video that sums up everything distinctive about the music: a combination of 8-bit videogame music samples with traditional Japanese folk and pop vocals. (As Boing Boing points out, the track is an electronic version of a Japanese folk song).

I was a little surprised that my favorites were the ones that didn’t play up the retro-videogame angle. The Omodaka version of Bach’s Cantata No. 147 is just wonderful:

But my favorite (possibly my favorite music video ever) is Kyoteizinc. I love this so much I want to make another Voyager probe just so I can put this on the disc:

I’m hoping that a DVD of the videos makes it way to the US sometime, because this stuff is just amazing.

Ge, Ge, GeGeGe no Ge

My favorite TV show of the moment is called “Nounai Este I.Q. Supplement” [that link is in Japanese], a game show where a panel of celebrities answers Brain Age-type puzzles. It’s not subtitled, so I understand 0.01% of what’s going on, but for me, that’s a large part of the appeal. When I am able to solve the occasional “spot the difference” puzzle, I feel smart, and when I can solve a kana puzzle, I feel like a genius.

The episode that aired here last week was themed to GeGeGe no Kitaro a manga series by Shigeru Mizuki. (Presumably because one of the frequent guests on the show starred in last year’s live action adaptation). The characters kept popping up in the show, effects were superimposed on the celebrities, and the whole thing seemed like a ton of fun.

I was aware of Mizuki’s work, mostly from SH Morgan’s excellent Obakemono Project website and a mention on the Drawn! blog. His artwork directly inspired the parade scene in one of my favorite movies, Pom Poko, and just about anything that deals with yokai (Japanese goblins and spirits) is drawn directly from his interpretation. Plus, there’s a museum and a road lined with statues of Mizuki’s characters in his hometown. But I’ve got to admit that I’d dismissed it as a cultural blip, like Rat Fink.

You can’t really appreciate what a huge impact GeGeGe no Kitaro has in Japan — and is slowly, gradually getting outside Japan — until you see a bunch of people who grew up with the comics and cartoons and are really getting into it. And really, how could you not get into it? It’s early 60s cool combined with Japanese folklore, and I think it’s time we in the US admit that Japanese ghosts and monsters beat ours by several orders of magnitude. I’m guessing the closest equivalent we have in the US would be if The Munsters had been based not on a bunch of movies, but on centuries-old folk tales. Or if Charlie Brown had magic powers and lived in a graveyard with the eyeball of his father and was charged with keeping peace between the human and goblin worlds.

And had a really catchy theme song. Here’s the opening to three of the manga’s animated incarnations on TV. The late 60s (unquestionably the coolest):

The mid 80s:

And last year:

Now I’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Sakaiminato to see the yokai up-close and in person.

And here’s a clip of “I.Q. Supplement” in case anyone’s wondering what that’s all about. If it helps anybody figure out what’s going on: the only one I could get was around 0:50,because a Japanese word for “squirrel” is risu.