Friday, February 11, 2011

For the Record: Harmony

If you've lived abroad, or even visited another country, chances are you enjoy comparing notes with others who have done the same. One of the primary reasons I enjoy reading other J-blogs is because I like to see other peoples' take on Japan. In my real, non-internet life (if such a thing exists anymore), I talk to Joe (and Dylan, too) about Japan quite frequently. As such, I wanted to bring you some of our thoughts. Because they can be both lengthy and rather dry at times, we've tried to set up an easily readable and digestible format. Since neither one of us loves or hates Japan in an absolute sense, one of us will be playing the wide-eyed newb-like character, and the other person the Japan-basher. These characters just reflect a kind of amalgamation of our thoughts - not that one of us is really pro or against Japan. I look forward to getting some feedback on this. Anyway, for now, let me introduce "For the Record," a conversation about Japan between Joe and I.

Joe: Hey, Paul.  As you and I know, Japan is both the "Land of the Rising Sun" and the "Land of Harmony."  Recently I've been kind of surprised to see people doubting the accuracy of those statements.  Specifically about the harmony.  We've been in Japan about the same amount of time.  You agree with me right?  You couldn't get a more harmonious country without soma (if you remember your high school reading materials).

Paul: Hiya, Joe. Well, I'm no scientist, so I can't speak to from which country the sun rises, but the "Land of Harmony?" Are you kidding me? Japan is a brave new world, all right, but try stopping by Best Buy the next time Black Friday rolls around. That's zen compared to Japan. Hell, I've seen monkey pits at the zoo that were more orderly than Japan. And the poop, Joe! Oh the poop they threw!

Joe: Are you crazy?  If we're talking about orderliness, there is no better example than Japan.  They've got their stuff together.  For example I went to McDonald's the other day and they didn't mess up my order.  They also didn't mess it up the time before.  Or the time before.  Or before that.  Or before that into time immemorial.  In America, once my McChicken didn't even have a bottom bun (true story).  With Harmony comes Order (either Yoda said that, or it's something Yoda 
should say).  Therefore the root of Japan's excellent record of correctly prepared fast food orders comes from it's Harmony.  

Paul: Don't get me started on Japanese fast food. Two little pieces of bread and a flimsy, sterile piece of beef does not a hamburger make. Bring on the grease! But I guess that's an argument for another time. If Yoda were going to say something like that, it would be in the following format, which shares the same grammatical structure as Japanese: (subject [optional]) (everything else) (verb). So really it would be "Harmony with Order comes." Or actually, it would be whatever the hell he felt like saying, because Yoda basically speaks Japanese. And as we both know, when you speak Japanese you can just say whatever the hell you want and leave it to the listener to sort out. Take the word "行く" as a simple example. You and I both know it most simply means "to go." But without a context it's basically "he/she/it/they/you go(es)/will go." And forget the fact that it can be used to mean other things, as well. That is utter chaos, my friend! The Japanese language itself is a perfect example of ordered chaos. Sure, it has rules and structure, but it's also completely insane.

Joe: Oh Paul, you just proved my point.  Could you have a language so lacking in specifics without a country whose people are so in harmony with each other?  When two Japanese people are having a conversation and one drops the subject of the sentence, the subject is still there.  It's in the minds of our communicators.  They understand because they're on the same page, on the same wavelength, and just possibly on the same boat.  Compare that to America where, with all the subjects in the world, my McChickens still lack bottom buns.

Paul: Well, sometimes it does seem like the Japanese have telepathy or some kind of hive mind, the way we're always being told things like "we Japanese like skiing" or "we Japanese don't like sweet food." But I don't think Japanese people really understand their language. I mean, it's not easy (mostly because of its insanity). Why is it that most katakana words are bastardizations of English, but if you pronounce them in actual English or heaven forbid mistakenly pronounce an "ah" as "oh," all of a sudden they have absolutely no clue what you're talking about?

Foreigner: すみません、コンヴィニ (convini) はどこですか?
Japanese: えっ?
Foreigner: コンヴィニ (convini)...Uhh...
Japanese: ごめんなさい、英語無理です。No English.
Foreigner: Uhh...Oh! コンビに(conbini)!
Japanese: あっ!コンビにか!むこうですね!

And you know that's not far-fetched at all. That kind of lingual rigidity isn't harmonious, it's crazy. And kanji, man! Next time you're walking around with your girlfriend, ask her to read some random town or station names for you. If she's like mine, she won't know half of them. Who makes a language with readings so ambiguous that most people have to guess at a pronunciation?

Joe: OK, you got me on the station names. Or names in general really.  There's the famous one: 小鳥遊 whose Kanji means "small birds play" that's actually pronounced like 鷹無し - Takanashi, which means "no hawks".  But is that a lack of harmony, or just a written language that has a lot of neat trivia?

That kind of language rigidity in katakana isn't harmonious when it comes to the outside world, but in Japan everyone is in perfect harmony.  They all know what a conbini is!  And it's not like we don't bastardize their words.  But hey!  Never mind this argument, let's go sing some carry-okie in Ko-bee.

Paul: As to that I can't say (not being an exclusive VIP member card-holder of Japanese society), but I have my doubts. You'll get no argument from me about the English language or American society being harmonious. Maybe I'm just too Americanized to recognize true harmony when it's practically biting my nose off. Anyhow, that sounds good, Joe. I'll just take my little bubble of chaos and be right over. Let's drink some sak-ee, too! 


  1. Hahaha! I like this, and I can totally relate! Nice work.

  2. Like what you did here, Shoe. Joe too. Gambatta! My Japanese is nowhere near where your fellas’ is at, but you both make a lot of interesting points. I find it can be very ambiguous and since, as a foreigner, I don’t have the access to the hive mind of Japanese, it is often frustrating. I started reading a book once about studying Japanese and the guy said that it’s only ambiguous in the beginning, that when you get closer to the native level you won’t have any trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough to find out. I’ve been here a year and a few months and still can’t carry the simplest of conversations. Maybe it’s because I never studied the language before coming, maybe it’s because Japanese is soooo very different from English, maybe it’s because they have at least one too many “alphabets,” maybe it’s because I can’t access the hive, or maybe I’m just a slow learner. But language aside, which ever way you spin it, I think Japan has a strict No-Harmony-For-Foreigners Policy.

  3. Hey Peter,

    I still can't access the hive mind. But I'm still far from native level so hopefully one day I'll be able to. I continue to find the language ambiguous sometimes but it doesn't bother me any more. I like to use it to my advantage. How was the unfunny Japanese comedy you just sat through on a date? Omoshiroi! It means funny AND/OR interesting. I let the listeners decide how to take that.

    Still, there are the times when someone says "Hey! I said not to do that!" And I reply "What? No you didn't!" "Yes I did! I kind of frowned and breathed in through my teeth!"

    So I guess it goes both ways :). Still, it's all part of the fun, right?