New Changes

It’s been a while since my last update. I was actually a bit surprised to see that people still visit the blog. However, seeing as they do, maybe I need to keep my blog more up to date. It’s a small, stupid blog with little to recommend it, yet it seems some people are still interested.

I now live in Matsumoto and I no longer live alone. Living with someone is quite a change I suppose. Luckily, while apartment searching, I was able to secure an apartment with an extra room for myself. Yes, it bothers my girlfriend to no end that I’d rather be alone than with her often times, but that’s how I’m wired.

Living in the city rather than a village has ups and downs, obviously. The biggest change for me is the traffic. I hate traffic. I’ve always hated traffic. For unknown reasons my company decided to give me three schools to work at, 2 of which are on the opposite side of the city. Yet, a girl who lives closer to one of my schools works at the school right down the street from me. I have no idea why they would do this. Why would I simply not get the 2 or 3 schools that are all rather close to me? Why force people to commute an hour one way to the other side of the city when they have a school right down the road? It’s beyond me.

The other change is that I switched to working at junior highs rather than elementary. I wrote up a blog post a while back about this but never posted it. I might just do that, however. What’s it like to work at junior high in Japan? Pointless. That basically sums it up. There’s a reason people tend to burn out of this job and leave Japan after 2 or 3 years. It’s just a pointless existence as far as work is concerned.

I have been horrible with my Japanese study or usage for the past few months. It’s rather depressing. I’ll need to get back on to watching some dramas. I also plan to read my first Japanese novel shortly.

That’s about it for my mini update.

My Boss, My Hero Review

Here’s a show that seriously crept up on me. I really thought I was not going to like it for several reasons. Instead, I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. That show is “My Boss, My Hero”.

The title explains a lot of what the show is about. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best English-named show in the history of J-Drama. I’m going to go even further and say this might be the best use of English for Japanese people in the entire country, for anything.

See, the title plays on the double meaning of the phrase. Depending on how you read it it could either mean “My boss, who is also my hero” or it could mean “My (person X) boss, and my (person Y) hero”. See how that works?

So, the question you immediately ask is, “which one is it?”

The answer is both, which qualifies this for the best English title in Japan. I’m not sure who came up with this title but 1) give that person an award and 2) pay them some money to redo all your horrible translations everywhere else in the country.

Makio Sakaki is second in line to take over a powerful yfamily. He’s the strongest member in any yakuza family and is rightfully feared. The problem is he’s also the dumbest member of any yakuza family. He fights so well people call him “tornado” for being able to wipe out entire rival gangs single-handed. He also destroys really good negotiations single-handed.

Therefore, his father makes a deal. Makio must return to high school for the senior year and graduate or else he will find another person to take over the clan when he steps down. Makio, loving the yakuza, grudgingly accepts.

For those of you born long ago enough that you remember Adam Sandler as a good comedian, this might remind you a little of Billy Madison. And I think that comparison has some merit. Certainly, the plot follows much the same structure as Billy Madison.

I had high doubts as to whether I would enjoy this one.

Not only am I not a big fan of the Billy Madison theme, this drama plays on a lot of typical J-drama tropes I’m not a fan of. It centers around high school life, it resorts to “Japanese humor”, the lead is a long-hair Japanese pretty boy. Usually I make it about 60 minutes – 10 minutes per above situations present. That would normally make this one a 30 minute drama experience.

Yet, it works. First, Makio’s facial expressions are hilarious. Yeah, they are juvenile, but they are hilarious. It’s really the first thing that got me to enjoy the drama.

Furthermore, the show is about more than just high school life. It really does a good job at showing the personal growth of an individual when confronted with a situation contrary to their character. There are many touching moments and the character growth of Makio is fun to watch develop. In fact, Makio essentially develops 2 personalities: “Makio” and “Makky”. Makio himself undergoes the transformation through language use, tone of voice, hair style change, and clothing changes. The highlights of the show are when these two personalities clash or need to appear at the same time.

There are two things I’m not overly fond of in the drama.

First, the romantic relationships never develop. They are teased at but that’s about it. I’m not necessarily a big fan of romantic relationships all over the place but these seem a little weird. It’s almost as if they were half written and then forgotten about. I would have liked to see at least each person dealing with the resolution of a romantic interest not developing as hoped. One love interest in particular is hinted at and teased for 3/4 of the show, only to have it disappear as if it never existed.

An aside to this is Makio’s love interest. Now, you forget often during the show that Makio is supposed to be 28 years old when he returns for school. His girlfriend is 17. This never feels weird or odd in the show, but after everything ends you do tend to start thinking about that. I’ll let you decide how that stands with you. (Note: the actress who plays this part will appear more prominently in my next show review)

Second, the final episode is pretty bad. It’s really just a ceremonial reunion show. Japanese shows seem to have the “let’s overview the entire show” format for final episodes, which puts them at a disadvantage, but they can still be done alright (see Tokyo Love Story – the most difficult to watch last episode I can think of). This one is just bad. It leaves you feeling unsatisfied with the entire experience almost. It’s hard to say what they could have done differently seeing how the episode begins, but it would have been nice to have a better send off.

Japanese Level: Standard to extreme

Makio is a yakuza boss. This presents several problems. First, he speaks like a yakuza gangster. This is not normal Japanese. It’s very gutteral, very guyish, and uses tons of curse words and other forms you would never hear anywhere else in Japan. Yakuza speech to Japanese people is instantly recognizable, and there’s a reason. Second, it also means his underlings have a tendency to use very elevated speech when speaking to him. There’s even a small comical part when one uses standard politeness and Makio threatens to kill him for not addressing him with the proper respect. This requires very good Japanese skills to stay with the politeness shifts and different vocabulary used.

On the other hand, when Makky is in school it’s pretty standard Japanese. Nothing too difficult here. There’s some “high school talk” here and there, but overall I think it’s manageable.

Final Thoughts: A highly recommended show. Perfect for anyone who likes watching characters struggle with immense personal growth, the battle of destiny over desire, or pretty-boy Japanese guys.

Final Verdict: J-drama Watch-o-rating =  In the upper tier, but not the premium tier. Watch.

Update

No, I have not forgotten about my blog. I have been without a computer for 2 months now. I just haven’t gotten around to blogging much.

I’ve also been fairly busy with prepping and studying for graduate school since the new year. Previous to that I spent about 8 weeks getting my application material ready. Right now I’m putting about 1 1/2 hours in every day to studying/reading Latin and Greek. It’s not a great deal of time necessarily, but combined with not having a computer it has added a little to not blogged for a while.

Maybe you’ve seen in the news but Japan has undergone record snowfalls as of late. We had over 4 feet of snow in 8 days. Some places had 6 feet or more. (180 cm +)  Coming from Minnesota I’m used to big snowfalls. What I’m not used to is a system that can’t handle them / doesn’t want to handle them. That has been a new experience. Food shelves were barren for 5 days, restaurants were closed, fast food joints were closed, food was scarce, the roads were all closed, trains weren’t running. It was a disaster! I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.

Things are finally starting to get back to normal. I doubt it’s over as there is snow in the forecast. Should be fun.

Anyway, today’s post is another show review. It should be up later today.

Happy Holidays and All That

It’s Christmas back home, which means it was Christmas yesterday here. What did I do for Christmas? I worked. Then I went home and had a very normal evening alone. Finally, I decided to have a Merry Christmos and had some hamburgers for dinner.

Mos Burger is the name of burger chain in Japan. It’s kind of like the Chipotle of the hamburger world, I suppose. It’s still fast food, but it at least tries to disguise itself as something more. Every Christmas they run a promotion explaining why you should have a good “Christmos”. See what they did there?

I also had some chicken from them because I’m in Japan and it’s Christmas.

Every Christmas in Japan, KFC sales explode. Pre-orders for some good Kentucky cookin’ go through the roof and I’ve heard about month long reservations in some of the more populated areas of the country. I’ve enjoyed it the past two years but was alone this year, so I forewent the pleasure. Maybe in a few days when we celebrate our make up Christmas I will convince the girl to get some KFC.

In other news I have decided on a new 30 day challenge for January. Every day I will make one blog entry and watch at least one drama episode in Japanese. It will help me concentrate a little more on Japanese study.

Both of my graduate school applications were accepted and now I just have to await decisions. Unfortunately, after crafting a great essay (the 4 professionals to whom I showed it all used words like “amazing” “terrific” “awesome” etc. I was feeling good about it) one of the programs had a wonky system in place and jeopardized everything. On the main page it gave the prompt for what to write in a personal statement. If you do a Google search for personal statements for graduate school applications you will likely find the typical length is 1 1/2 – 2 pages. My length was just short of 2 pages, about 2,100 words. There was no mention of length in the prompt.

Then, in the application itself when it comes time to upload the document (near the very end, to add) there is suddenly a word limit. 1,000 words. 1,000!!!!  That means I had to cut my beautifully crafted essay by more than 50%. On the spot! I was hot. I hope what I ended up submitting to that program will be sufficient.

In the mean time I’ve picked back up studying Latin and Greek. It’s been fun. I’ve also added/re-added German to the mix. I spend every day studying 4 languages, each to a varying degree. At least I get a feeling of accomplishment, which can be a difficult thing to find living as an ALT in Japan.

The funny thing is that my Japanese studies have propelled my Latin. Despite not looking at Latin for over a year, I’m only very slightly below the level I was at in college (4 years ago). In fact, in some aspects I’ve gotten better. When one learns Latin they tend to learn an approach based mostly on explaining the grammar of each individual sentence (or word) and focused heavily on translation. I was fortunate enough to go through a program that tried to explain Latin was once the most spoken language on the planet, and if it worked for them it should work for us. So, I was able to take a conversational Latin class as an elective. My instructor for my Cicero and Caesar class routinely taught entire class periods strictly in Latin (she is a fluent speaker).

The point of this was to cultivate the ability to read Latin like we would read English. Basically, to teach us what to do with Latin what ALTs try to teach Japanese students to do with English: don’t read every word individually but try to look at the paragraph as a whole. Well, sometime during all this Japanese studying this all clicked in my brain. My Latin isn’t good enough that I can do this entirely, but I have noticed my brain doing the “understanding” stuff rather than the “translating” stuff.

If you’ve studied a foreign language you will know what I’m talking about. It’s that time when your brain stops interpreting conversations as they happen and just shuts up and accepts the foreign language in. You just understand it without really thinking. In Latin you do this with your reading. I seem to have developed this skill reading Latin without reading Latin but through studying Japanese. It’s an odd, positive twist.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about I will try to explain it briefly. Let’s take this sentence:

パンを食べてから運動しました。

pan wo tabete kara undou shimashita

In English we can translate this as “I worked out after I ate some bread” or any similar idea.

What language learners between beginner and advanced-intermediate will tend to do is translate this as they hear it.  “Bread.. wo.. wo.. oh ok that’s the object marker. Eat… from?.. maybe from.. well probably from.. work out.. ok that was a past tense, long form verb. So it must be working out in the past tense. Ok.. Got it. Wait.. what was the first word again?”

Maybe you know how these thoughts feel. They are perfectly normal!! If you feel this way don’t despair. Everyone in the history of the world who has ever learned a foreign language has gone through this. I promise.

The problem is you are usually lost by the time you get to the later parts of the sentence. A long sentence or a paragraph? Forget about it.

Eventually, however, your brain quits thinking about each individual part. It will hear the sentence as a whole and then spit it back out at you in English. Stick with that for long enough and you reach what all language learners strive for: your brain will hear/see the sentence, understand it, and then stop. There will be no English, no grammar breakdown, no deeper wondering, just acceptance of input like it was your native tongue.

Somehow my Latin jumped from the first to somewhere approaching the second without ever looking at it. In a year of a rather underwhelming Christmas it was a really great treat.

Have a safe, happy Christmas!

Confused

Women confuse me. Japanese women confuse me more. Individual Japanese women confuse me the most.

I have one co-worker, we’ll call her Yuki (Not her real name), who confuses me greatly.

She’s about 25 and is somewhat new to teaching. Shortly after she came to this school a year and a half ago I heard her say she enjoyed foreigners and liked to experience foreigner culture in Japan. So, last year I invited her to a foreigner/Japanese Halloween party my company was having. It was a bust, but it seemed to be OK. We had dinner a few times as well last fall/winter. Everything was strictly platonic and it seemed we meshed fairly well. I bought her a CD for Christmas as I thought we were friends.

Things got kind of weird sometime in December and have stayed odd since. She became fairly distant, always coming up with excuses not to do something if I’d ask to go snowboarding or eating. She also went from being pretty friendly at work to being rather distant. I used to get an おはよう   “ohayou” (good morning in a casual/close manner. Maybe ‘mornin’) from her but recently I don’t even get the full on おはようございます (GOOD MORNING), which is verbotten in Japan. I only get a grumpy look.

Today I have no class and was searching for a class to go watch to fill up an hour. Yuki had a class in her 5th hour block that would have been perfect to join. So, I asked her if I could come in and watch. Here’s a bit how the conversation went:

Me: “What are you doing for 5th hour?”

Yuki: “Umm.. why?”

Me: “Oh, I just want to come and watch class if that’s ok.”

Yuki: “We have a test. A test.”

Me: (hint: I had already asked the kids and KNEW they didn’t have a test) “Whaaa? No you don’t. You’re lyin’ aren’t you, tease.”

Yuki: “Test. We have a test.”

Me: “Really? Are you sure?”

Yuki: “Test. We have a test.”

Some kid somewhere behind me: “Teacher, we don’t have a test.”

Yuki: “SHHH! Shut up.”

 

I left the room after that. Now is it just me or is this just plain bizarre? I used to think the issue was the old “a girl liked you, you didn’t reciprocate feelings, and now she’s going to treat you like ass” routine. But now I’m starting to think Yuki is simply a crabby, unstable person. I keep wondering if it’s something I did or should have done differently. I don’t know any more.

So, that’s my Friday. Other than that I caught a cold last night, my first one this year. I had 1 or 2 very minor ones before which disappeared before they even really began.

Have a good weekend. I will have a new drama review coming soon. Hopefully I’ll get a little more blogging done starting in December once graduate school application season is over.

English Bubble

I’ve written about this in brief before.

This Sunday the largest foreigner get together in my prefecture is happening. In my village. That is saying something because foreigners are always in large groups. This confuses me a great deal. It also irritates me to some extent.

I have no idea why this is the case. Foreigners are almost always found in giant herds of mostly white faces doing whatever it is foreigners in Japan do, which, let’s be honest, is drink 90% of the time. I don’t understand the mindset of always wanting to be in a giant group whenever you’re doing anything. What is wrong with doing an activity with 2 or 3 people?

Even more confusing, is why so many people find it worthwhile to pack up their life, move half way around the world, and then hang out almost exclusively with the same groups of people they just got done moving away from. This makes 0 sense to me. If I wanted to hang out with foreigners and spend all my days speaking English I would have stayed in America. Why come to Japan to repeat something you can do back home?

This is the confusing part. It just makes no sense to me. I don’t understand the appeal of it and I don’t understand the rational reasoning behind it.

Here’s the irritating part.

JETs are the most common to be found hanging out in giant foreigner herds. Not coincidentally I would say roughly 60% of all the JETs I’ve ever met have only a limited grasp of Japanese even after 3 or 4 years in the country. Another 10-15% have only a somewhat more advanced understanding, capable of fudging their way through an easy conversation about the weather or sports.

It’s astonishing how many foreigners you can meet in Japan who know almost no Japanese despite having resided here for sometimes 10 years or more. As above, it never comes as a surprise to learn these people’s entire social networks consist of foreigners. Lots and lots of foreigners.

In America speaking English is a rather big pet peeve of most people. There are many different nationalities and many get upset when someone can’t speak English. It seems only a respect thing to try to speak as much a language in a country as possible. I don’t understand the mindset of people who can’t speak a word of Japanese after 1 or 2 years.

I find it irritating when someone can live in a country for several years and doesn’t know the language. At that point I feel you have to be going out of your way not to pick it up.

So, if you’re coming to Japan do yourself a favor: get out of the foreigner bubble. Or, if you decide you absolutely must hang out with giant herds of foreigners on a constant basis you might want to think about saving your money and staying home. Yes, you will see some sights in Japan, as many foreigners do. And you might even get a few nice cultural experiences out of it. But you’ll speak almost no Japanese at the end of it all, have drunk a ton of alcohol, spoke a lot of English, and seen a lot of western people. Doesn’t that sound like your life at home? Moving to Japan can cost a lot of money. Why spend it to do what you’re already doing?

By staying outside the bubble you’ll start to develop a more accurate taste of Japan. More importantly, you’ll actually start to develop some language skills. This will only open Japan up more, give you more options, and allow you not to feel like a baby in a country on a regular basis.

Drama Review – H2

Next up in the review series is the Japanese Drama “H2”.

This is going to be one of possible several reviews that are in fact half-reviews. This is one of a number of shows I started to watch and simply had no interest in continuing. I think I made it through about 45-50% of the episodes before stopping.

I initially gave it a shot for two reasons: 1) I was looking for an easier show to get into to work on my Japanese. 2) A bartender at a local establishment recommended it to me after I told her about my love of Tokyo Love Story.

H2 is a drama, like most J-dramas, based on a popular manga. It’s the story, like most J-dramas, of high school life. The story revolves around a high school baseball team, its star players, and their rival baseball team. In junior high, 3 friends comprised the nucleus of the best team in the nation.

Then they got hurt. They were told they would never play baseball again. So, they went their separate ways and ended up going to different high schools.

However, the doctor who gave the diagnosis turns out to be a quack and in fact all the kids are perfectly capable of playing baseball.

In many aspects the story is similar to the Bad News Bears mixed with Major League – an amazing player joins a team who literally can’t help but trip over their own feet (this comprises 50% of the “jokes” in the show as far as I can tell) and makes them great. The team is to be cut from the school the following season unless they can reach the high school tournament in Tokyo. The principle is a bit corrupt and through workings I couldn’t quite make out he stands to profit a bunch from this.

So the team sets out to accomplish what should be impossible.

Hilarity ensues.

.

.

.

Actually it doesn’t. Well, unless you find watching people fall off chairs hilarious. I guess some people might.

The show isn’t too bad, and it does have some rather cute girls. Fortunately, I’ve never been persuaded to watch anything… wait… almost anything simply because the presence of some cute girls. Part of the story is that the two former best friends went to separate schools. Our protagonist (A) and his new rival (B) are those friends. The seemingly older B (seriously, the actor who plays him might be 35) spends a good deal of time secretly watching A and wishing him well. Even going so far as to help him out clandestinely a few times. I enjoyed this part of the show as traditional rivalry stories are a bit old at this point.

The main girl is cute and she grows on you after a while. Still, she spends most of her time as comic relief, and by “comic” here I mean she spends most of her time falling over and dropping things on the floor.

Japanese humor is just awful.

Anyway, she does grow on you. She’s a pretty decent actress, especially when you consider what she’s given. The burgeoning love story between A and the girl has its moments of sweetness.

In the end, I just couldn’t get in to it. I find myself too far removed from high school to care about watching high school things. I’ve been going through Buffy by everyone’s favorite nerd Joss Whedon and have found it tolerable, and at times enjoyable. Whedon used a lot of the show’s plots to discuss themes on life and coming of age. It also has some wickedly sarcastic humor.

H2, and most J-dramas, are simply about high school life. It would be like reading a teenager’s blog. There’s no discussion on themes but rather just watching teenagers act like teenagers. And the humor is just bad. Personally, this doesn’t interest me very much.

Japanese Level: Something around conversational level. A lot of the sports moments has very manly colloquial speech, which is much more difficult in my opinion. Also, some of the behind the scenes moments (why does the principle want the team gone, etc.) requires more advanced Japanese. However, I think because the subject matter is baseball and not too much else, it would be easy to familiarize one’s self with some key words and word mine through some of the dialogue. You could easily get a sense of things from doing this.

The rest of the show is fairly standard. Dialogue between A and the girl is standard and easy enough to follow. This is also a great show for people to try to pick up some Japanese because a lot of it is physical based plot lines. You won’t understand what is going on between characters or who is who so much but you’ll definitely be able to follow most of the plot without understanding much of what is said.

Final Thoughts: This is a show that I simply couldn’t get in to. If someone loved baseball I could see it working. If someone really wanted to practice some Japanese and didn’t care about content they might find it worthwhile. Finally, someone in their late teens or early 20s, who still thinks high school was the high moment of their life, would probably really get a kick out of it. Heck, someone who just likes to look at cute people would also enjoy it.

It’s not a bad drama; it’s just not for me.

Verdict: J-drama watch-o rating:    I’ve seen worse.

Summer Break

Summer Break just ended the other week. I’m lucky in that at my company I’m afforded the same breaks the students get, minus a few minor exceptions. This means I get almost an entire month off between the end of July and end of August. It’s a nice time.

This break, much like last break, I didn’t do too much. It’s mostly money problems that keep me from exploring too much. Student loan payments have rendered me on the brink of destitution. One of the greatest disservices the US continues to allow its citizens to suffer.

That is not, however, to say that it was not an unproductive break. Ok, in truth it was rather unproductive. I didn’t study at all, and I didn’t even get much cleaning done. What I did do was break out of a funk that has bothered me for most the time I’ve been here. The funk of social stress.

I’ve mentioned before some of my struggles with social situations and my continuing lack of friends. I made a concerted effort over break to get out of my giant shell and do some things with other people. I did enough that I feel I’m somewhat back to a normal life. Well, normal for an extremely introverted person.

Now that school is back I’m trying to get back in the groove of studying. Last week was tough as I was actually pretty busy all around. This week is looking up. I need to find a new drama to start. I’m thinking of wading into some of the classics despite the overwhelming language barrier that will accompany them (they are period pieces with some old dialects. Like Shakespeare in Japanese).

 

Japan and Religion

I’m not sure about this but Japan might be the most secular country in the world. It certainly must be in the top 5. The people themselves in general could care less about religion and the only time it enters any discussion past “you’re Christian, right?” is from some crazy Jehova’s Witness who comes a-knockin’ on your door on a Sat. afternoon. (Yes, they exist here).

I love it.

One of the reasons I grew so fed up with America was the insane amount of Jesus preaching that goes on. In America, founded largely somewhat as an experiment to separate religion and state officially and irrevocably, the president has to meet with an evangelical preacher (if you aren’t from America and not sure what that is, it’s one of those people who believe the snake in Genesis was an actual, talking snake) in order to even have a chance at getting elected. America is insanely nuts over Christianity.

As an atheist, I grew very sick of the entire scene. Luckily for me, I landed in a country that believes in god only somewhat more than I do.

One of my favorite things to do is to debate religion. I could care less about what happened on some reality show. But talking about the meaning of life and whether a soul will outlast our human bodies eternally? Yeah, that sounds important. Debate is more difficult to find in Japan than it was back home, what with trying to maintain wa and all that.

My journey to atheism started during high school. I got it into my head reading the bible would be great fun. What it really was was the quickest path to becoming a non-believer. From there, it was a matter of some years while the layers of faith I had held since I could remember slowly crumbled away one-by-one.

Two distinct occurrences kept me hanging on for quite a while.

One day, I was driving to school or my friend’s house. I was about 16 or 17 at the time. On this particular road there was a RR crossing without a gate. I drove this road almost every day of my life. This particular day I was driving along and keeping tabs on the car behind me. This car suddenly started to slow down. I couldn’t figure out why this moron was going from 45 mph down to 30. 20. 15. Damn, he’s nearly stopped. In the middle of the road. What is he doing? I couldn’t explain it. The track lights weren’t blinking. There was no sound from the RR tracks. The light ahead of us (the one on the immediate other side of the tracks) was still green. What is this guy doing? So, figuring he’s just out of his mind I kept on driving.

Upon reaching approximately 5 feet to the other side of the tracks I looked again into my rear view mirror to see what this guy was doing. To my surprise I was staring at the middle of a train. I quickly glanced to my left and saw this train was a few cars down the track. Even to this day I have no explanation for how that train got that far down the track without either 1) some kind of disturbance of time/space or 2) blasting my car apart and killing me instantly along with it.

At the time I was convinced it had to be some sort of guardian angel.

The second instance happened some years later. I was on my way to being an atheist but making a spirited stop at “spiritual”. The Christian god might not exist, but one like him without all the rules and violence surely did. I had read some snippet of the book “Conversations With God” at some point. I can’t recall where this happened. I can’t recall being able to recall at that time whether I ever knew when and where it happened. I just knew I had read some of it and wanted to read more. I took my girlfriend to the book store to hunt this book down. Problem was, I couldn’t remember the damned title.

So, we wandered around the spiritual section for a good 40 minutes or so with no luck. I even asked the staff. Nothing. So, we both resigned it just wasn’t to be and decided to go home. On the way out of the section I told her I’d like to take just 10 more seconds. Give it that ol’ Christian try, ya know?

Suddenly, off to my right a woman exclaimed “Here it is!” I looked over and she was kneeling, reaching for a book on the bottom shelf. Her husband or boyfriend, who had been looking at the books on the 3rd shelf, was putting a book away and starting to bend down toward her. She was probably 15 feet away. Instantly, I knew the book she had just been so elated was the exact same book I was looking for. I walked over to grab the copy next to it, thumbed through it, and lo’ and behold it was the book!

I was convinced this was one of those “messages” from god. The entire thing seemed like it was out of a movie, except the audience would have groaned for the ex machina mechanics at play.

For a long time those two instances kept me hanging on.

Eventually I moved on. I’m now pretty much in line with strong atheism, where not only do I reject the belief in a god I would go so far to say one doesn’t exist. Nor does any other supernatural occurrence.

Japan is still a country ripe with superstitions of ghosts and spirits. However, Japanese people are much less likely to condemn you to hell for laughing off their ghost stories as their Western counterparts.

It’s one of those points that meshes with me very well here. It’s probably one of the things that has me most concerned whenever I pack up and head back to the States.

A Singing Bird

Pretend you have a bird in front of you. You really need this bird to sing for a bet you recently made with every friend you have. However, this darn bird won’t make a peep. Not one. What would you do?

There is a famous poem every school child in Japan learns. It goes like this:

鳴かぬなら殺してしまえホトトギス

鳴かぬなら鳴かしてみせようホトトギス

鳴かぬなら鳴くまで待ってみようホトトギス

nakanu nara koroshite shimae hototogisu

nakanu nara nakashite miseyou hototogisu

nakanu nara naku made matte miyou hototogisu

 

Before getting in to the English translation let’s set the stage.

The three most powerful men in Japan gather together and begin talking.  During the course of their conversation a topic comes up. What if they were faced with a bird who wouldn’t sing? How would they handle the situation? What tactic would they use to ensure the bird began to sing? As the three talk, it becomes very clear that each has their own very unique way of handling the situation, none necessarily any less effective than the other. After all, they didn’t become the three most powerful men in Japan by chance.

The first man to speak up looks like he’s lived a life time of fighting and war. He speaks with authority, yet not all-together uncultured. It is immediately apparent he is a natural leader. He steps forward and declares the following:

鳴かぬなら殺してしまえホトトギス

If the cuckoo doesn’t sing, kill it!

 

The second man to speak up has a glint of crazy in his eye. He’s a little shifty but still commands respect. He seems like the kind of man you wouldn’t want to wrong as he might spend the rest of his days seeking revenge. His dialect gives away his humble origins as he says the following:

鳴かぬなら鳴かしてみせようホトトギス

If the cuckoo doesn’t sing, coax it.

 

The third man, who has been watching all this unfold without betraying any thoughts he might have, slowly stands up. He’s obviously in no rush. He slowly contemplates his speech, forming the words in his brain so he makes no mistakes. He appears to have paid little head to the other two’s speeches, instead focusing all his thoughts on his own words, making them perfect.  Slowly, he announces the following:

鳴かぬなら鳴くまで待ってみようホトトギス

If the cuckoo doesn’t sing, wait until it does.

 

If you haven’t yet figured it out (or heard this all before), the three men in question here are as follows:

Oda Nobunaga

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Tokugawa Ieyasu

These three men were the three most powerful men in Japan, ruling in succession. They also happen to be perhaps the three most famous men in Japanese history to anyone not raised in Japan.

The poem provides a brief glimpse into each personality. Nobunaga, the warrior, had a reputation as a violent man who preferred to use force to achieve his objectives. Hideyoshi, more of a tactician, preferred to use clever planning and maneuvering to achieve his objective. Tokugawa was patient. His best gift was his ability to wait out all the trouble and then emerge unscathed and in charge.

 

So, what would you do with this bird? Which path would you take? Or would you make your own path?

It’s a nice little poem, don’t you think?

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