Category Archives: General

Learning Japanese – the Real Question

Whenever I talk about my Japanese studies with others, invariably I will get the question, “Why Japanese?” or “What are you going to do with Japanese?” These questions often put me on edge a little, and often bring out a bit of defensiveness in me, I have to admit.

On the other hand, as frustrating as these questions from others may be, I think that they are good questions to ask oneself. These questions are actually sub-questions to what I have come to think of as the real question. The real question in my eyes is: what relationship do you want with Japanese?

vlcsnap-2015-11-16-00h05m29s711If a language is to be more than a school subject, one is going to develop a relationship with the language. I took two years of French in high school, because I had heard that most colleges required two years of a foreign language for admission. French was a school subject for me.  I was a good student in high school, and I did well in most of my school subjects, including French. I did nothing with French beyond what was required in school, though, and I remember very little of French beyond “bon jour.” I never developed any relationship with French.

For those of us learning Japanese in the present day, we are blessed and cursed with a huge amount of random information and advice. There are treasures to be sure, but sorting through what is useful and what is not a job in and of itself. With Japanese, in particular, it can be even more overwhelming because one must start from scratch. While Japanese is not an inherently difficult language, it is nothing like English, or any other language for that matter. While linguists are in disagreement as to whether or not Japanese is a language isolate, the only language that one might know that is even remotely like it is perhaps Korean, which is still not very close. This means that unlike European languages, one must begin with Japanese from ground zero, which can be a huge task. Much of the advice and information out there concerns shortcuts to make this task smaller.

I think that pondering the relationship one is looking for with Japanese is really helpful in sorting through all of the information available, particularly with respect to any shortcuts one may wish to take.

This question has come to mind because I recently started studying two other languages, Swedish and Spanish.  My family is from Sweden, and I still have many relatives in Sweden. Some of the relatives came for my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, and I had a hard time explaining why I was immersed in studying Japanese when I could not even speak Swedish. I also saw how happy my grandmother was speaking Swedish…much happier than she ever was speaking English. About a month after the party, my grandmother passed. I want to maintain contact with my Swedish relatives, now that my connection through my grandmother is gone, and I want to read the books my grandmother left that were written about her home town, Billesholm.

With respect to Spanish, my goals are even more limited. I have a dear friend who lives in Mexico, who I plan on visiting in less than a month. I want to know enough Spanish in order to get back and forth to her house, to go to the store, and to order in restaurants. I also have a lovely book with beautiful pictures in Spanish about traditional textiles that was given to me by a friend a couple of years ago, which has commentary I might someday like to be able to read, but that is a very low priority.

With each of these languages, I have clear and limited goals about what I am looking to be able to do, which guides my studies. I am looking for a completely different relationship with Japanese. I want Japanese to be my default language, the language I use when I do not have to use a different language. I want Japanese to be my second mother tongue. Actually, more than this, if possible I would like it to replace English as the language that I think in. Why, when I live in the U.S., and I am likely to be living in the U.S. in the foreseeable future? Well, to put it simply, I like myself better in Japanese than I do in English. It is a spiritual journey for me. I am trying to raise myself in Japanese. I do not have a limited goal or objective; I want Japanese to be the central language of my life.

There is a rather famous website, “Fluent in 3 Months,” which raises the hackles of some Japanese learners and learners of other languages. Yet, when reading this site, the author rather clearly states his goals. He is a world traveler. He choose the time frame of 3 months because that was the average length of time of a travel visa. His aim is to learn a lot of languages so that he can enjoy his stay in many countries and be able to speak to the locals. There is nothing wrong with this goal, and it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. In order to achieve his goals, he takes many shortcuts, which are perfectly appropriate for his goals. For Swedish and Spanish, I might look at some of his advice (I recently looked there for advice on how to roll my r’s, for example, which one must do in both Swedish and Spanish); however, for Japanese, I probably would not, because my goals with Japanese are much, much different.

One area that this comes into play strongly is whether to and how one goes about learning kanji.  One of the most popular methods of learning kanji is the Heisig method, outlined in the book, Remembering the Kanji. It is a method designed to help one quickly learn the kanji, often before one learns any Japanese. It is designed as a shortcut to put the learner in the position of a Chinese native learning Japanese, who already knows the meaning of the kanji (and how to write them). Whether or not this is a good method, it does not fit with what I am trying to do with Japanese, which is to raise myself in it. I do not want to go into Japanese from the standpoint of a Chinese learner, but as much as I can from the standpoint of a Japanese child.

This being the case, I am going about learning kanji using the organic method as discussed on this site. In addition to that, I am learning how to write kanji. For me, learning to write feels like an important part of my Japanese upbringing. I am doing it slowly, though, using workbooks for Japanese children. I am now finishing up a 2nd grade kanji workbook, and I will be starting a 3rd grade workbook soon. Interestingly though, with the exception of one or two kanji, I already was able to recognize the meaning and some of the readings for all of the kanji at that level. I think that this is closer to the position of Japanese children who are likely exposed to the kanji in their lives before they learn them in school. Is this a better method than RTK? Well, for me it is, I think, because of the relationship I want with Japanese. It is much slower, to be sure, but I think it is building the foundation for a deeper relationship with Japanese than RTK could give me.

The question of the relationship one wants with Japanese is a personal one, and there is not a right or wrong answer. It is an important one, though, which has many practical implications.

A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

Alien-girl-cover-dolly500Cure Dolly’s book based on her first experiences of Japan has been published, just as the Doll herself returns to Japan.

You can read her current adventures, in Japanese, here but if you would like to read about her first adventures, in English, you should get this book.

It is only available in a Kindle edition because color printing still makes books prohibitively expensive and this book is full of color photographs.

For Japanese learners, An Alien Doll in Japan is a fascinating record of getting by in Japan with no English at all after one year of studying by what gets called the Dolly Method.

For Cure Dolly fans, of course, the book is a must. We reproduce the publisher’s introduction:

A Doll’s-Eye View of Japan

An Alien Doll in Japan is a unique look at Japan by the well-known Japanese language blogger Cure Dolly, who assures us that she really is a doll even though she can pass for human “on a rainy night or when people are seeing what they expect rather than what they see”.

However you take her, it is clear that Cure Dolly has very little Western-Earthling enculturation and so comes to Japan with a perspective that is neither Japanese nor, in any of the usual senses, gaijin.

Her “Doll’s Eye View” of Japan is unlike anything else you may have read. This book, lavishly illustrated with color photographs, covers her first month in Aichi Prefecture.

She photographs and writes about such things as Shinto shrines and maid cafés, but also about sides of Japan that are less often seen, ranging from family life and a day in pre-school, observing the enculturation of very young Japanese children, to wanderings in Japanese countryside and small city environments, observing everything with the passion and freshness of a doll to whom human culture as a whole is something strange and new.

At the time of going to Japan, Cure Dolly had been learning (she would probably reject the term “studying”) Japanese for about a year, using the self-immersion methods she advocates. She put her theories into practice by adopting the challenge of using no language other than Japanese during the whole of her stay, even in emergencies (of which there were several).

Cure Dolly’s aim was not only to live in Japan but to live in the language she has often declared that she is “in love with”.

Being a doll rather than a regular human, there are many occasions in which her inability to negotiate ordinary situations lead to results which seem funny only in retrospect. As she says, her newness in the language was in a way her best friend, since it served as an apparent reason for her difficulty with everyday human situations.

The book is full of intense love for all the things she sees and thoughtful, but often entirely unexpected, reflections on everything from infant education to cosplay, from uniforms to Japanese Denny’s.

As Cure Dolly says in her introduction:

When I left Japan, for the first time in my life, I experienced culture shock. Japan is not my home. I am not Japanese. I am sure I was almost as strange to the Japanese as I am to anyone else. And they were strange to me. But not as strange.

Seeing an airport full of gaikokujin, I was overwhelmed by the strangeness I had seen around me ever since I came to life. It has never become less strange to me. But after Japan it seemed even more strange.

Which is a rather negative way of presenting my experience. But perhaps it clarifies it a tiny bit.

I want to try to show you Japan through my eyes.

This is Japan as you have never seen it before!

Buy it now through Amazon: An Alien Doll in Japan

Three Reasons People don’t Make Japanese their Default Language

We have talked on this site about making Japanese one’s default language. Learning to think in Japanese, which is closely bound up with actually using Japanese rather than just practising it.

Most learners don’t do this. Let’s look at why:

1. They don’t want to. In my view this is the best reason not to. In fact, it is the only good reason not to.

I “know some French”, as people (wrongly in my view) say. But it is not my default language or one of my default languages. Why? Because I am not in love with French. To me it is a foreign language. It is not my language. Japanese is my language. English is just the language I happen to know well.

I can read books in French, slowly, if I have to, but I can’t hold much of a conversation. I wouldn’t say I “know French” at all. I only know about French. And that is where I am happy to be with French. If that is where you are happy to be with Japanese, that’s fine. You don’t need the rest of this article.

2. They feel uncomfortable in Japanese and want to return to “real language” as soon as they have stopped practising it. Mostly they don’t say, or even explicitly think this, but actually it is what is happening.

This is the second biggest reason after 1, and I strongly suspect that all the other reasons are largely rationalizations of this.

English (if you are a native English speaker) feels like “real language”. Anything else feels like a sort of game. That is why the internet is full of sites talking about Japanese in English. [Don’t we do this too? Yes, but we are (amazingly) the only one that is also trying to create a place for everyday interaction in Japanese].

There seem to be endless people who are genuinely fascinated by Japanese and sometimes quite advanced in it who still return, as a matter of course, to “real language” (English) in order to talk about their enthusiasm for Japanese.

Now if you already fall into category 1, this is quite natural and proper. I don’t talk about French in French either. But if you are serious about making Japanese your language, if you are serious about learning Japanese and not just learning about Japanese, you must overcome this first and most serious barrier.

This means you have to:

Step outside your English comfort zone and

Create a new comfort zone in Japanese

And, of course, at first the Japanese zone won’t feel comfortable at all. Making it comfortable — making Japanese the (or a) default language that you actually use, and not a foreign language that you “practise” — is largely a matter of changing your perspective and getting used to Japanese as a (or the) primary means of communication.

3. They are afraid of making and/or hearing mistakes.

As I said, I believe this is to a large extent a rationalization of 2. If you fall into category 1, you don’t need excuses. Embrace it, as I do with French. But if you really want to make Japanese your language, you need to be aware of the problems caused by 2. So let’s break 3 down into some of its sub-departments:

A) I am embarrassed about my poor Japanese

This can be a good reason for using it among non-native speakers. We are all learning and happy to learn together. Embarrassment has to do with seeing Japanese as “a language”. One can retreat back into the “safe haven” of English. But if one is establishing zones where Japanese is the only language, then you just have to manage it, mistakes and all.

Small children make mistakes all the time. What do they do? Cheat back into a language they know better? They can’t. They don’t have one. They just have to ganbaru. And if we are serious about this, so do we.

B) But won’t this cement my mistakes and make them permanent?

In one word, no. In five words, only if you let it.

If you are continually imbibing Japanese material, you will keep learning. All of us can look back on what we wrote in Japanese six months ago and squirm a bit at how awkward and unnatural it was. Just the way you might squirm at baby videos of yourself. We are all growing children. And gosh, we can be at that bashful age at times!

But we are growing. And let me add a very important thing:

You do learn by your mistakes. What? Even when no one is correcting them? Absolutely. You can hear a particular speech form a dozen times (in anime, manga, books etc) and still not get it right when you try to use it.

But when you have tried using it, you become aware of the problems surrounding it. Next time you encounter it, you will hear/read it much more clearly and be thinking “Ah, that’s how to say it properly”. In fact, you will be doing just what small children do.

Input alone will not teach you these things. You also need output experience, however flawed, to make you aware of the issues and teach you to listen for the right things. Now, every time you encounter this speech form it will be consolidating your knowledge and comfort with it in a way that would not have happened if you hadn’t tried to output it.

Input and output are inextricably intertwined in real language. One in isolation will not make language become natural. Textbooks and classes know this and try to compensate with book exercises and stilted “conversation practice” that is kept nice and sterile and mistake-free by following the book.

But if you want to make Japanese your language, you have to step outside these artificial arenas and start getting your hands dirty with real use.

Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are part of the learning process.

C) If I am interacting with non-Japanese people in Japanese won’t I be learning unnatural ways of speaking?

This is a small problem but nowhere near as big as the problem of not using your Japanese. If you have plenty of native input (whether people, anime, novels, games, television or what), you will learn. Having Japanese moving around in your head helps you to learn. Even incorrect things help you to learn. Learning loves to have something to “stick to”. That is how the mind works.

Part of the reason people can, and often do, study so much and never really become proficient in a language (even if they can pass exams) is that the language is locked away in the little “study” compartment of the mind rather than being a part of life.

This is far, far more dangerous to your Japanese than learning wrong things. A senpai who has passed JLPT1 and is fluent tells me that her breakthrough came largely because she talked only Japanese with her German roommate. Did she hear a lot of bad Japanese? Certainly. But her mind was working in Japanese a lot of the time.

Mistakes are not some fatal disease. They pass if you give them a chance to. They sound funny to you after a while, as you grow in Japanese.

But guess what? You don’t grow in Japanese unless you are in Japanese to start with.

Japanese is like swimming. You can read about it and take dry-land instruction and play in the shallow end with water wings till the cows come home; but you won’t really start to learn it till you dive right in and get wet.

If you are ready to take the plunge, a nice safe place to start is right here.


Japanese Inner Monologue – My Experience

I was going to comment on Cure Dolly’s article about changing one’s inner monologue to Japanese, but in thinking about it, my comments seemed long enough for a full article.  I am an extrovert as well, I think, although not so strongly as Cure Dolly has described herself to be.  Still, a lot of my inner monologue is rehearsing conversations.

vlcsnap-2015-04-25-14h57m30s077Like Cure Dolly, I have found that using brute force to change my English thoughts into Japanese is not very useful.  One of the reasons this may be so is that my Japanese thoughts tend to be much different than my English thoughts.  My English mind is very noisy, far, far noisier than my Japanese mind.  The first difficulty I have is just getting my English mind to be quiet.  It goes round and round in circles endlessly, sometimes rehearsing the same conversation over and over again.  Even though I have relationships that are almost exclusively in Japanese, I really do not rehearse my Japanese conversations very much.  Indeed, I only do so when I need to communicate something above my level, and I need to work out what to say.

When I do quiet my English mind, my Japanese mind tends to be rather still, often just enjoying the quiet.  This is great for my soul, but I am not sure that it is all that useful to my Japanese.  Sometimes when words do come to my Japanese mind, they are things like Anime theme songs, or simple things like 幸せ (shiawase), happiness, or 気持ちいい (kimochi ii), good feeling.  I think I am much happier in Japanese.

I am shyer in Japanese than I am in English, I think.  I am realizing that with the Kawaii Japanese Forums.  It is interesting.  I am happy reading and listening, but I find it hard to talk.  Some of it is my current level of Japanese, which is much lower than a lot of other participants.  It is really exciting, we have people of all different levels, from professional translators to those who are just beginning their Japanese journey.   Some of it is that I am just not as talkative in Japanese as I am in English.  I like to be with people and listen to what they say, but I do not always feel the need or pressure to add in my two cents, as it were.  Spoken Japanese is so nice that way, in that one can get along for a long time with 相槌 (aidzuchi), or words and phrases that indicate that you are listening, such as そうですね、そうね、and そのとおり, without having to interject anything at all into the conversation.

Given all of this, I have developed my own strategy for converting my inner monologue to Japanese.  I do not know if it will be helpful to anyone else, but I think it is working for me.  I am letting my English mind be my English mind, and my Japanese mind be my Japanese mind.  In order to quiet my English mind, I have been talking to it in Japanese.

For example, if my mind is going round and round rehearsing a potential English conversation, I might say, 気になるね (ki ni naru ne), “this is worrying you, isn’t it?”.  Then I feel myself responding そうね, and my English mind gets quiet.  Sometimes my Japanese mind gets more forceful, 英語、英語、英語、やめて!(eigo, eigo, eigo, yamete!) “English, English, English, stop!” or even うるさい! (urusai!) “Noisy!”

When I can quiet my English mind, I let my Japanese mind do what it will, even if it just wants to be still.  Sometimes Japanese comes, sometimes it doesn’t, but I am allowing that to be ok.  This seems to me a better strategy than to try to force my English thoughts into Japanese.

Making the Kawaii Japanese Forums More readable

If you are having trouble reading the Kawaii Japanese Forums, here are a few tips to help make it easier.

1. Increase the size. On a personal computer, the site will comfortably enlarge by at least 3 increments (not all sites will, but it works quite well here). Press Ctrl (cmd on a Mac) and the plus key 3 or 4 times and see how it looks.

In Firefox you can also set the zoom to adjust the size of the text only – without messing up the rest of the page.

Go to the 表示 menu (“View” if you still have your Firefox in English), scroll to the ズーム (Zoom) popout and check the last item, 文字サイズのみ変更 (のみ is written-instruction-speak for だけ), which will be “Change character size only”, or something like that, in English.

Do you know why books for small children have such large print? It isn’t because they have poor eyesight! It is because they need to clearly recognize the shape of each letter in a way people who are more used to the alphabet and the written language don’t.

You will also notice that while the very large print is only for small children, children’s books up to the age of ten or so have larger print than most adult books. It takes a long time to become fully proficient at recognizing letters and words at smaller sizes and there is a sliding scale of familiarity determining how closely the eye needs to examine the characters in order to read comfortably.

So the “younger” you are in Japanese, the bigger the print should be.

2. Use Rikaisama if you need it. You may be nervous of it, and with reason. “Rikai-skimming” with English definitions turned on is a bad habit to acquire. How much help you need clearly depends on your level. If you are a beginner punching well above your weight in reading a certain post at all (good for you! えらいね!)then use all the help you need.

If you are intermediate we would suggest that you set Rikaisama into Sanseido mode (J-J definitions) by default. Go to Configure > Startup > Check Sanseido Mode. Optionally toggle off definitions by pressing D while a Rikai window is up (or turning them off by default in the settings – you can still restore them with D). With this set-up you can use Rikai as “on-demand furigana” for unknown kanji. Look at the Japanese definition if you are still in doubt and only go to the English definition if you are really stuck. O toggles between Sanseido and English definitions.

These two techniques should help you to read the Forums more easily.

Back to Forums


On a mobile device, don’t forget to hit the link at the very bottom of the page to switch to the mobile version.

If occasional English definitions turn up in Sanseido mode it doesn’t mean Rikaisama is broken. Unfortunately the Sanseido dictionary is a little limited, and where a J-J definition does not exist Rikaisama uses the English one. This is another argument for having definitions off to begin with.

Using Anime for a Balanced Japanese Study Routine

To learn and maintain Japanese, or any other language, one must must develop a study routine.  If one is in a class, some of this routine will be provided, such as assigned homework and test preparation; however, classes do not last forever, and to keep a language, one must use it.

Learning a language is not just one skill, but many.  For this reason, it is important to have a well balanced routine.  While the different skills build on each other, I have found it necessary to make sure that each skill gets at least some attention, and to grow in a skill one must practice and use that skill.  For example, listening is very helpful to one’s speaking ability; however, one is never going to become proficient in speaking unless she actually spends time speaking.  It is as simple as that.

So, how does one decide what practices to use?  It can be a matter of trial and error, and one’s routine may, and indeed should, change over time as one becomes more proficient.  Something may become too easy to be useful anymore, and something else that was too difficult early on may become useful over time.

vlcsnap-2015-02-22-11h32m07s154In my own routine, Anime watching plays a central role.  I use it in all different ways, and I have found ways to make it useful for every skill (except handwriting).  For me, each way of watching develops different skills.

Below are the ways I watch, and the skills that they develop:

Slowly and carefully, with Japanese jimaku (“subtitles”), as described by Cure Dolly.  This practice develops my vocabulary, kanji recognition, reading, reading comprehension, and grammar.  On the other hand, for myself, this method does very little for my listening ability.  I find that when watching this way, I am concentrating on the written word, and I barely take notice of the spoken words.

With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, with preparationBecause of the difficulty I described above, if I watch an Anime slowly and carefully, I always watch it again with jimaku at full speed.  This matches the words that I have previously read and studied with the spoken word.  It also serves as a review of everything I studied and researched during the careful watch.  I have discovered that I get the best results when I do this at least one day after my first watch, but still within a few days.  This way there is time for the new words and expressions to cycle through my Anki at least once, but it is still fresh in my mind.

With Japanese jimaku, at full speed, without prior preparation.  I started doing this because there were only so many series I could manage at a time using the slow and careful method, and there were a lot of series I wanted to see.  Yet, unexpectedly, I have found that watching some series this way develops some rather important skills, such as reading speed and the ability to understand what is going on from context, even when one does not understand all of the words.  This is also useful in associating the spoken and the written word, because in order to keep pace with the action, one must use spoken and written cues.  On the other hand, this method is not very useful for learning grammar or vocabulary.  It does review the vocabulary and grammar one already has, though, and really forces one to use those skills at a real pace, rather than a practice one.

With English subtitles.  As I discussed more fully here, I have found some limited use for English subtitles, although really this is the least helpful way of watching.  I think that to be of any use at all, it must be accompanied by another form of watching.  The uses I have found for English subtitles are to check my comprehension after watching with Japanese jimaku and to prepare to watch jimaku nashi (without any subtitles).  The best time I have found to watch with English subtitles is a day or so after watching with Japanese jimaku (with or without preparation) and a day or two before watching jimaku nashi.  I only include this step for the series I watch with my spouse (who is not studying Japanese).

Jimaku nashi, with preparation.  For any show I watch with subtitles, I include a final watch jimaku nashi (without subtitles).  For me, this is an essential step in the process.  This reinforces everything I have previously studied in prior watches, and in my mind, this is the only time I feel like I am really “watching” a show, rather than “studying” a show, which is important in and of itself, I think.  Everything prior is preparation for watching it jimaku nashi.  While eventually one will want to be able to listen and understand unprepared in real time, I think that this is a later skill.  I think being able to understand after preparation is a stepping stone to being able to understand unprepared.

Jimaku nashi, with no prior preparationI tried this in my early days of Anime watching, but not for long.  The reason for this was that I was not really getting anything out of it.  I could pick out a few words here and there, and I would find myself making up little stories about what was happening (rather like a small child).  After about six months of working with Anime, I could manage something for small children, like Anpanman, and have a general understanding of what was going on.  Yet, now after over a year of watching Anime, I tried this again with Go! Princess Precure, and I found that I really did understand most of it (which I was able to confirm afterwards, when I watched slowly and carefully with jimaku).  I tried this with a couple of harder Anime as well, and I understood less, but enough for it to be useful, I think.  I still think that it is important to use the other methods I described to work on other skills, such as vocabulary building and reading comprehension.  On the other hand, I think I am now ready to add this practice to my Japanese study routine.

Audio only.  Lastly, I take select episodes and put them on my iPod to listen to over and over again, with only the audio.  Usually, these are my favorite episodes, but they may also be episodes with important vocabulary.  In the beginning, I chose episodes with a lot of singing to help with my pronunciation and ability to form morae, which are different than syllables.  I found that singing along was extremely helpful.  Now, I have about 30 episodes on my iPod, which I cycle through, usually using about about 2 episodes a day.  This is almost completely passive learning, which I do while doing other things, such as housework.  I think that the passive component is really important, because it allows Japanese to slip in at a deeper level than active learning does.  It brings Japanese to the level that one does not have to think about it.

I have also recently found another use for the audio only component.  I recently learned of the technique of shadowing, or trying as much as possible to talk along with the characters.  Pronunciation is my weakest skill, so I am using shadowing to work on this skill.  While this would be impossible with  an unfamiliar episode, I have episodes on my iPod that I have been listening to for over a year, so much so that I almost know them by heart.

This probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is.  I get enough benefit out of it, that for me, it is worth it.   I hope that some of these ideas are useful to the reader.

Learning Japanese through Anime – English Subtitles

Over a year ago, Cure Dolly wrote a wonderful and helpful article about How to Learn Japanese through Anime.  I have followed that method for almost a year myself, and I think it has really helped me learn.  Watching Anime with Japanese subtitles is not my only learning tool, but it remains an important one.  In that article, Cure Dolly discussed that using English subtitles is not very useful, and I agree with her.

The trouble with using English subtitles, aside from the translation difficulties, is that our minds are efficient, and despite our good intentions, will take the easiest route to understanding possible…which is English.  For example, I have noticed that when I used to watch shows with English subtitles, when the theme song played in my head later (and it often did), I heard the music in my mind with the words in the English translation, even though I actually heard the song originally in Japanese.

vlcsnap-2014-12-28-21h12m10s82This being said, there are some shows I still watch once with English subtitles.  The reason for that is I live with someone who is not learning Japanese, and there are some shows I watch together with her.  I think that there is an important strategic value to this.  One of the things that attracts many of us on this site to Japanese is its culture, including the importance of community and family.  Learning a language and using immersion really does require one to make adjustments to one’s life, and it is so very helpful to have the support of one’s family and one’s household.  Sharing the shows that you are watching with one’s household can be a good way to solicit and encourage their support.

Aside from the social advantage, I have found ways to make this time useful to my studies as well, which may also be of use to some readers.  First and foremost, anything I watch with English subtitles, I watch again without subtitles.  For kikitori (“hearcatching”), it is quite helpful to be able to anticipate what is likely to be said next.  Even if I have only recently watched the show once with English subtitles, I can actually hear and understand much more when watching jimaku nashi (without subtitles) than I can watching a kinnie cold for the first time (or for the first time in a long time).  I have done (and do) both, and there is a clear difference in what I can catch.

If Japanese subtitles are available, I watch the show with them before I watch with English subtitles.  This increases the chance of me actually hearing the show in Japanese rather than in English.  The mind is efficient, and it will rely on the memory of the previous work I did with the Japanese subtitles in understanding, as much, if not more than the English subtitles.  This also gives me the opportunity to check my work.  I can say…oh I did understand this….or oh dear, I missed all of that explanation.

This being said, use of English subtitles is a slipperly slope.  In order to minimize the dangers, I have two rules for myself.  I only use English subtitles when watching with someone else and never watching alone.  If she does not want to watch the show, I do not watch it with English subtitles at all.  Knowing this rule also gives my family member a sense of importance (she is helping me safely “check my work”).  I can not emphasize enough that the more family support one can get, the better.  I also do not give the show my full attention when watching with English subtitles.  I do a lot of handcrafting, and if I watch a show with English subtitles, I work on a project at the same time.  This means I am not looking at the screen the entire time, because I often need to look down at what I am working on, so that I need to rely on the spoken language from time to time.

Actually, as an aside, I have found that to be an interesting test of whether I am processing the show in English or in Japanese.  Before I started learning Japanese, I would watch a show with English subtitles when doing other tasks, and I would find myself surprised that I would lose track of what was happening when I would look away.  I would then remember…oh I am understanding through the subtitles, and not through what I am hearing.  Now that I have learned much more, I do hear the Japanese when I look away (even if I do not understand every word).  It is quite interesting really.

Keeping it Kirei – Procon Latte Blocklist Update

'cause clean is better than dirty
‘Cause clean is better than dirty

For those of you following our recommendation to use Procon Latte to filter out non-kawaii crudity from your internet sanpo, we now have an update to the Kawaii Japanese official blocklist. The list has been extended to block more variations on kitanai kotoba, but continues the policy of not blocking standard English words that can be used in a bad way (unlike many filters).

The following is the report from the blocklist team:

This is the second version of the list from Kawaii Japanese. There have been several changes. More variants on vulgarity have been added (the original blacklist lets some really quite nasty things through), but we continue our policy of not adding words that have common legitimate uses, as this seems to us to do more harm than good.

Another issue arose from using it in practice. The word d–n was by default blocked. It is not a word we use here or especially approve of, but – we found a curious result of blocking it in practice. For example:

A discourse by a scientist in the 1950s used this word a several times in talking about particle physics. This is the informal speech-style of a reasonably-respectable 1950s male academic. The problem with having the word on the blacklist is that it made the article look much nastier than it actually was – as if the writer was using a stream of filthy language, which wasn’t really the case.

Consequently we have de-listed d–n. What do readers think?

On the other hand, a few words that are counted as “acceptable” by some current Western people are blacklisted by us (they weren’t by default). For example a word for the emission of liquid waste often used to mean “annoyed”. Our feeling here was that whatever the intention, these words are very offensive to us and should be blocked.

If you have comments, don’t hesitate to pop them below.

Also, some  readers had trouble installing Procon Latte, so we have now included more complete instructions in the main article.

The Kawaii Japanese settings file contains not only the new blacklist, but our recommended settings – word filtering only (no site-blocking which is used by default otherwise) and other small tweaks. You can of course make your own changes to our settings and blocklist.

Get the new version of the Kawaii Japanese custom settings here.

See the full article and instructions on filtering here.

Dolly on Ambiguous Japanese

Seeing Transcendence in Nature
Seeing Transcendence in Nature

Cure Tadashiku’s recent comments on ambiguity and Japanese really help me in learning to hear (聞き取る — there really isn’t a good English word for the Japanese kikitoru, “hear-catch”, is there?) Japanese.

As Cure Tadashiku says, at the upper reaches of understanding nothing can really be put into words. Words are only signposts to the ineffable Truth. But does that have anything to do with everyday Japanese? I think it does because all the things of life have an inner core of Truth, and the more language tries to nail them down to exact formulations, the more we lose that Truth.

Of course we need exactitude for many purposes, but we also need to be able to see things in the light of their transcendence.

If I may make so bold as to quote from one of the founders of the English Romantic movement (Coleridge in the preface to Lyrical Ballads):

Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

In listening to Japanese anime with a higher, more childlike tolerance of ambiguity, I believe I come closer to freeing myself from the mask of “familiarity and selfish solicitude”, which to a large extent is created by language. We see a tree or a flower and say “oh tree”, or “oh flower” and having put it in its verbal box we may well feel we have done with it, rather than standing in awe before its astonishing wonderfulness.

English, I believe, has this effect more than most languages, since it is so very geared to the matter-of-fact and practical. Japanese may be one of the least “familiar and self-solicitous” languages (I say this with no authority but just a feeling) languages, and I think that may have a lot to do with a certain aversion to over-specificity.

Also — and I think in one’s personal experience the two things are linked — by listening in a more childlike way, not expecting to understand everything, accepting one’s toddler-status in Japanese, as it were, one can come closer to a child’s pre-diseducated appreciation of being in all its amazing wonder and generosity.

I think this is especially true in shows like Doki Doki Precure where the disruption of the instant-categorization that is near-forced by native English allows one to experience the rich symbolic depth of the show — symbols like the Heart which appear in so many ways and always in ways that connect them to the Universal and not merely the incidental.

Opening like a child to the symbolism of the Heart

It even opens one to a fresh appreciation of English as Wasei terms like “cure lovies” and “lovely compact” help us to return the word “love” to its magical significance as a universal and beautiful power manifesting among us.

The frankness and straightforwardness (non-cynicism) of much of the language is also, from an English-language point of view childlike (it is often changed in translation because it is just too “uncool” for even standard modern English). From a Japanese point of view, and I would say from a natural point of view, it is — just natural.

Interestingly, on this front, I think one might argue that Japanese is more direct and straightforward than modern English, which seems compelled to “mask” expressions of sentiment — especially pure and good sentiment — with a veil of cynicism.

But that is a topic for another day. For today I would like to suggest that learning to live with ambiguity and listen like a child is not just a useful language learning exercise but, given fundamentally good material, a way to open oneself to the dream-like depth of things.

See also:

Ambiguity and Japanese