Back home, that’d sound like a good thing, but not in Japan. Japan has very distinct “events” through the year, and allergy season is one of them. Even though I grew up in an agricultural valley (a big one) I never had allergy problems. In Japan I do.
It seemed like a good idea at the time…
After WWII, Japan had to work hard to improve its economy. One thing was the production of paper. Someone in the government had the good idea to plant cedar trees because they apparently grow quickly. This would help Japan to have a supply of paper.
Nowadays, everyone in richer countries outsource things. Paper is one of those things. Because Japan is now an economic powerhouse in the world, things like paper are just too expensive to produce at home. I assume that the majority of the paper now comes from China.
So what does this mean for the cedar trees? Seems like a nice thing to let them grow old gracefully. The thing about cedar trees is that they produce a lot of pollen. And many people are allergic to that pollen. To make matters worse, cedar trees make more pollen the Oder they get. At least , that’s what I’ve read. So now well over 30 years old, these freeze produce so much pollen that you can see it! The mountains hide in a faint yellow haze.
But wait! That’s not all!
As China grows, its appetite for oil does too. Apparently a large part of their oil is refined at small, not very well regulated oil refineries. The bottom line: lots of pollution. And it blows to Japan. That along with pollution from many factories.
On top of that, there is the constant migration of yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Yep, it all blows over here. Actually, South Korea gets the worst of it. Just a few weeks ago, the air quality in South Korea was so bad, that the computer models couldn’t give accurate readings because the numbers went above the limits! It wasn’t pretty.
Invest in masks. It’s a growing industry!
When I came here, one of the things that creeped me out was all of the people wearing those ubiquitous, white masks. Mostly people wore them to protect against colds or from making other people sick. (Most of the time they are not very effective.) But now, you see the masks at times other than cold and flu season. The masks have grown finer and able to filter out molecules as small as PM 2.5. Wow! But it works as long as it fits well and you keep it on!
Hacking and sneezing
This has to be my least favorite season. Every year I have manages to get a sinus infection. This year, I’m hoping that I can avoid it. I have tried masks, medicine, air filter and a host of other things. Last year, I went and got my sinuses washed out on a weekly basis for about 2 1/2 months! So far so good.
In English, word order of a sentence is very important. Not just the basic subject, verb, object order, but also things like prepositional phrases. For example:
I saw the lady on the train.
On the train, I saw the lady.
It’s not an important point for the story, perhaps, but it does change whether I was on the train or not.
In Japanese, such differences do not exist. Things like who did what and where, are signified by grammar called particles. Of course Japanese has a typical word order. One does not just put a subject wherever one pleases. But the point is that even if you do, the sentence will be understandable.
For new learners of Japanese, it can be quite a daunting or confusing task. It takes some time not only to get used to speaking that way, but also to understand how they are used. To make matters worse, the explanations that one often comes across are rarely helpful. This isn’t because they are bad explanations, to the contrary, most of them are rather good. But trying to explain the grammar rules of one language, in a different language, well, loses something in the translation. No one explanation ever helps you get a clear picture of what is going on. The answer? Practice.
When I studied French in high school, the masculine and feminine forms of everything was overwhelming. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. One day my teacher said to the class, “You just lean it (le or la) as part of the word. French people don’t think, “Oh, table… let’s see… it’s feminine, so it would be la table!” You just learn it as a set.
Learning to speak Japanese is the same way. When you say, “Watashi ha (WA)” it means that you are taking about yourself. That’s it. There is no need to think any further. Of course reading various explanations can speed up your learning of grammar points. Just don’t rely on them to solve all the problems.
Knowing is half the battle.
One of the particles that I learned (WO) I thought I had understood perfectly. It is the direct object marker. After all, English has direct objects. But an important point to note is that verbs in Japanese do not behave the same way as they do in English. The sentence that confounded me? “When the bus comes to a complete stop, stand the seat.” (Rough translation) the noun “seat” was marked as the direct object. How on earth do you stand a seat? Of course I knew what the announcement meant, but even to this day, that particular use of the direct object is strange to me.
In Japanese, verbs often become passive. It’s very natural and has a very different nuance than it has in English. If you see something that has been translated from English to Japanese, you are likely to see a passive English sentence. Another perplexing example of English and Japanese differences that I learned was when I tried to explain that I had heard something. In English we have:
I heard something.
Normal, right? Not in Japanese. If you directly translate the sentence from Japanese you get:
A sound was heard.
Sound is the subject so your Japanese sentence is おと(sound) が(subject marker) 聞こえた(could be heard)。 Approximate pronunciation (owe tow GA kee ko ay tah) or, “A sound was hearable.” “Sound” is marked as the subject because of its relation to the verb. In English we would consider it the object because it received an action by the speaker, who would be the subject. Yeah, it can be that different.
So, what do I do?
So the idea is that practice is best. It takes time. Read as much as you can about and see as many examples as you can. Each will help you a little further toward understanding. Remember, there is no magic answer that will suddenly bring you to a perfect knowledge of the subject. Patience pays off and is a lot less stressful.
Yep, that’s what I said, spring. In Asia, people traditionally followed the lunar calendar. The new year starts in February and this is also considered the beginning of spring. In all fairness, there are some trees that blossom in February. Where I live, the plum blossoms are very popular to go see. (Japanese plums are not actually plums at all, but are related to apricots. They cannot be eaten unless pickled.) Also, what we call Chinese New Year in English is also the Chinese Spring Festival.
I was quite surprised when doing a quiz game with my students one year. I asked them, “What season is it now?” Being February, I of course knew that it was winter. But, the students answered that it was spring. What?! I couldn’t believe that they didn’t even know such a basic thing! They were 15 years old! The teacher (who spoke English well enough but not quite well enough to explain their answer to me) said that foreign countries have a different way of thinking. Um, okaaaaaaay. I was also further surprised to discover that all of my students believed that February was the beginning of spring. I was highly irritated. I have since then calmed down.
Since I have been over here in Japan, I have come across many differences. Unfortunately, I haven’t always met those differences with a mature attitude. “How dumb!” is something I have frequently thought. People often say that they are interested in other cultures, but I think that only extends to vacation time activities. When you have to live with it, rarely are such differences tolerated or met with understanding. I have gotten used to a lot of things, but I still run into things that I just can’t let slide. (Like the time the local government office tried to give me “back” ¥50,000 [$500] that wasn’t mine. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to explain to this lady that it wasn’t mine. She agreed with me and promptly gave me the money!)
February snow showers bring March…?
The interesting thing is that with the advent of the spring in February, there are no changes, except for the few trees that blossom. China has its biggest festival of the year but in the west, we all call it Chinese New Year. I guess calling it the spring festival would be too unnerving for many people. There is a festival here in Japan, but it’s not a big to do at all. It’s just something people do at their homes. I’ll write about that next time.
Just a little more
So, even though spring is almost here, I will simply go about my daily activities and continue to freeze my tail off. That is, until the solar calendar spring comes.
Christmas is over and Japan’s biggest holiday is here. Everyone is busy running around trying to prepare. Food prices are going up and students are enjoying their holidays. Not much for a foreign guy to do except stay home and hide from the crowds.
Japan isn’t a religious country. There are very old practices stemming from Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, but they’re pretty much just habits now. And the grandest occasions for some of these practices is New Year’s. If you were to compare holidays, the Japanese New Year’s holiday is like Christmas.
Japanese New Year (Shogatsu) begins well before the first of January. The biggest thing for most people is the New Year’s post cards. The number of cards depends on the family, but I know some people who have to send somewhere around 300. Yeah, it pretty much brings the postal service here to a grinding halt!
A great migration
The next thing is coming home. Many people return to their home towns and spend the 3 day holiday together. It’s a chance for people who have been away to meet their childhood friends as well. It always amazes me that people here keep in touch even with people they know only in elementary school.
The next thing is the traditional food,osechi. Before there was refrigeration, food couldn’t be kept without means of preservation. For the 3 day holiday, traditionally there is no cooking. So food is cooked with high amounts of salt and or sugar. Needless to say, it isn’t necessarily the best. Traditional food takes a long time to cook too. So nowadays, most people buy osechi or just eat regular food and go out to eat.
Not in Kansas anymore
Then there is New Year’s day. Back home, things are noisy when midnight comes. Sadly, guns have in some part replaced fireworks. But in Japan, it’s quiet, very quiet! If you live near a shrine that has a bell, you can hear the bell ring and that’s it. The interesting thing is that people are out and about. There is a tradition of visiting 3 shrines after the midnight hour.
So this year, I’ll be in Japan for New Year’s. A perfect time for me to stay home and hide from the crowds.
Some of those trying out the lessons may have some questions concerning the forms of verbs that are chosen for the phrases. Here is an excerpt from someone’s question about the Japanese lesson’s phrases.
“I tried out the demo for Japanese and was kind of off put because you
are teaching a mixture of informal with formal. Whilst some words
ended formal “-masen” some words were ending with “-nai”. (Informal)
Is there a plan for fixing that or differentiating the two? Is that a
part of the full lesson plan?
I just don’t want people going out there speaking awkward or formal
with friends and informal at inappropriate times. Or bouncing between
the two forms during one conversation.”
In answer to that question:
“We used phrases that would be useful for people traveling to or getting started in Japan. I know what textbooks teach, I myself have spent many hours memorizing them, but it’s not as cut and dry as the textbooks would have you believe.
Here in Japan, expressions are often mixed and really depend on a wide variety of variables. Those would be too numerous to list for each lesson and truthfully, don’t apply to most non Japanese people. For example, a Japanese friend of mine uses some honorific phrases when talking to taxi drivers. When I asked her why (obviously that would be completely backwards from what is in textbooks. Honorifics are used to the customers, not the other way around) she couldn’t answer. She just told me that’s the way it is. So I asked some other Japanese friends of mine and they said that they do the same thing. I wanted to know why only to taxi drivers. I still don’t know, but now I do it too. Even if I don’t, there have been no problems.
Lessons for beginners
Part of our choices also concerns the length of the phrases. Too many people were having problems with the longer phrases, and so some shorter phrases were chosen. However, all the phrases chosen are appropriate ones for non Japanese people to use. Again, this is contrary to what the textbooks state, but language in use is not so black and white.
We are continuing to refine the lessons and your concerns have been noted. Given the style of study though, we are trying not to add too much information to the sentences so students can concentrate on learning to say the phrases rather than study the grammar. If we see that it is necessary to add that information to every problem, then we will.”
No one actually says that
This is a very important point to note in any language. There is the textbook language, then there is the language in action. Despite the fact that I am an english teacher in a junior high school here in Japan, I still say things like, “Him and his friends went downtown yesterday.”
Seriously?! Him and his friends?! Of course, in my school lessons I teach the proper grammar, but when I speak to my students, I speak to them as I normally would.
In Japan, the divisions between the various levels of speaking isn’t quite so clear. Textbooks teach that there is simply a divisions of social status that decides the politeness of language. While social status is a deciding factor, there are many more. On top of that, simply changing verb ending doesn’t make a conversation polite. In Japanese, many other words (such as nouns) and even pronunciation change as well. It can be quite complicated and overwhelming.
A sigh of relief
The good news for non Japanese people is that Japanese people do not expect foreigners to speak Japanese at all, let alone speak it perfectly. Especially for those who are going to Japan for the first time.
In the Japanese lessons here at language101.com, we do not teach any rude language. The phrases taught, whether casual or formal, are ok to use in any situation that visitors to Japan may find themselves in.
One of the many surprises that I had during my first year in Japan was the popularity of Christmas. It’s everywhere! Everyone loves it. Who wouldn’t? All the lights, decorations, presents… Ahhhh. It’s cold here in the winter too! We may even have a white Christmas this year. (That’d be my first.)
Wait a minute…
Yes, Christmas is here, but there are some differences. First of all, it doesn’t feel the same. Yeah, Christmas doesn’t have that same magic feel as it did when I was a kid. And nowadays, a common occurrence is people trampling each other for a new piece of poorly manufactured gadget.
But at Christmas time, the feeling changes. People change. And that’s what’s missing. Christmas is here, but it’s ‘fun’. It’s not a time for thinking about others or helping those less fortunate. It’s just fun. It’s a work day too. Bleh! (I’m off though. Woo hoo!)
Roast turkeyFried chicken
My first Christmas in Japan was a sad and lonely time. I missed all the traditions, the cartoon specials and the decorations. I was happy when I heard that my Japanese friends (I had a grand total of 5 at the time) wanted to have a Christmas party. Someone else supplied the food. I can’t remember if I brought anything. (I had such bad manners!) Much to my surprise, we had KFC. Yep! Kentucky Fried Chicken. I thought perhaps that it was their best attempt to mimic a “real” Christmas dinner. Hey, it’s american and it’s a bird! I later found out that it is a huge traditions here. One that resulted from a KFC campaign years ago.
I’m sorry, do you have a reservation?
The week of Christmas here is weird. Well, as far as KFC is concerned. You need a reservation. You can’t get any food there unless you reserved food a week or two in advance! They close the whole restaurant! And when you make a reservation, you have to specify when you will come pick it up. And they have limited spaces available! Needless to say, the first time I thought about buying chicken on my own was a failure. I didn’t have a reservation. You can’t even eat at the restaurant! I was very surprised when I went in and they said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any chicken.”
Peace in Japan
Politics of late, in America, has caused me to scratch my head. One of the things is Christmas symbols in schools or public places. Japan is not a Christian country. It’s not even very religious, for that matter. But symbols of Christmas are everywhere. And the word “Christmas” too. Once in awhile you’ll see “Xmas.”
None of this bothers anyone. They don’t see it as an encroachment on their rights. They don’t see it as bad behavior. They don’t see it as some one trying trying to force something on them. They just enjoy it, or if it doesn’t concern them, they don’t pay attention to it. There’s a peace in not being angry at people.
It’s been a year and a half in the making, but we have finished the Japanese lessons.
What has been done?
An extra set of lessons were added for the student beginning from the very start. They are titled, “Introduction to Japanese.” There are four of them. These lessons have been pared down to their simplest form. For those of you who are familiar with Japanese, you know that it can be quite a complex language. Actually though, Japanese conversation can be really concise! In fact I have found that if I am not in a conversation from the beginning, it can be pretty hard to understand what people are talking about.
When learning a new language, the hard part in the beginning is catching the individual syllables and the unfamiliar sounds. Especially if the sounds are very similar to the ear of a new learner. The introductions lessons have been pared down to the very basics so as to make them easier to hear and remember. However, the lessons have not been unnaturally oversimplified. The Japanese that is taught in the lessons is real Japanese as it is used in everyday conversations.
After you finish with those four lessons, you can then go on to the Ultimate Beginners Lessons. You an also look at the lessons to learn the two basic writing systems, hiragana and katakana. These lessons will help you become familiar with the sounds of Japanese.
There are a number of basic lessons to help you get started from the beginning. There are counting lessons and also basic greetings. There are many lessons to help get you started with learning Japanese that you can choose from.
There are also pre lessons that you can do to help prepare you for the full lessons. The pre lessons have a variety of practice styles. Most of the time, there are two sentence patterns to focus on. The pre lessons will swap certain key words so that you can learn to say a wide variety of things. You will be shown different words to use in the focus sentences.
That’s too much!
When doing the lessons, don’t worry about the Kanji. The lessons at language101.com are about what you hear. The kanji and the literal translations are just helps. Your ears will get you through it!