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).

 

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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?

Densha Otoko Review

Let’s talk about one of the more popular J-dramas out there, 電車男, or Train Man.

Densha is purportedly based on a true story about an otaku guy who saves a woman far above his level from harassment on a train, and consequently enters into a romantic relationship with her. From what I can tell the story is flimsy at best, and my best guess is that it had trace elements of truth with a lot of embellishment from the real Otoko.

That doesn’t subtract from the show, mind you.

Yamada is a normal Tokyo otaku. (For those of you who don’t know what an otaku is, picture any Japanese-obsessed person you know who shouts out random Japanese like “kawaiiiiiii” and talks incessantly about various anime or manga.) His hobbies include anime, manga, action figures, looking at models ankles, tight pants, rolled cuffs, and glasses. He is also deathly afraid of women.

One day he sees a beautiful woman being assaulted by a drunk on the train. As the only man with suspenders holding up his tighty-whities he feels he’s the only person around capable of stopping this hooligan. He does, and much to his surprise he is thanked by the beautiful woman.

He calls her Hermes after the thank-you present he receives.

So begins a love affair that involves a lot of Hermes saying “sorry”, Densha stuttering apologies during 90 degree bows, and them both using insanely polite language simultaneously while holding hands.

I’m going to skip the situations they get into because it’s fairly easy to guess based on these two facts: he’s an otaku, she’s a wealthy person living in high-class world.

Why does any of this work? Well, let me briefly explain.

First, there’s the fact that these two characters feel real. Yes, they feel like stereotypes to some extent but at the same time they could be someone you know. It helps create a sense of attachment to the characters.

Then, there’s the real reason: Densha and his friends.

Densha, for lack of better English at the moment, is completely lovable. He’s annoying as all get out, but for some reason you never get tired of his constant shtick of apologizing, bowing, whimpering, chickening-out, and acting like a 13 year old asking Angelina Jolie out to prom. He’s so damned sincere, his heart so apparent, that you can’t help but root for him.

Densha comes with friends. Lots, and lots of friends. However, these are internet friends whom he has never met. The relationship formed between Densha and these chat-room homies, the way the show explores said relationship, and the importance this plays on the story will most likely have tears rolling down your cheeks at times. It-is-beautiful.

The intro music is “Twilight” by ELO. It fits perfectly and by around episode 4 you’ll have that “YEAH!” feeling when the music kicks in at the beginning of each episode. Densha is a master at making you feel good about things.

It involves some standard J-drama tropes but doesn’t go overboard with them. This is one of those shows that really shouldn’t work when described but somehow pulls it all of better than most shows you’ll watch.

Japanese Level: (Remember, this is all in the context of “native level”) Surprisingly, not that bad. Densha and Hermes spend so much time speaking to each other formally it makes the Japanese portion of things pretty easy. Densha’s friends can be quite difficult to understand, depending on who is talking. If you are up on your “very guyish” speaking you’ll survive these parts. There is also quite a bit of Tokyo slang and otaku slang used. References to anime/manga/otaku culture are numerous; however, I feel missing these (as I did) doesn’t subtract from the show. Knowing them would probably add something to the show.

Final Thoughts: Densha is perfect for someone looking for an accessible drama where knowledge of human beings rather than knowledge of subtle Japanese culture provides context for the friction between the protagonist and his love interest.

At heart, Densha is the story of love. Not romantic love, but instead human love. It’s a story about how love can lift us to heights we never imagined we could achieve. It’s the story about being true to yourself and how good things will always result from that. It’s the story of chest high, tight pants.

Final Verdict:  J-drama watch-o-rating =   MUST WATCH!

Review Kickstart

Let’s get this J-drama review section kick started, shall we? 

First, I think I’m going to divide this section into two further mini-sections: Reviews and Impressions. 

The reason is J-dramas just tend not to be very good from my experience. I’ve started and stopped many more than I have completed. The problem I have is they tend to have very weak, usually helpless female characters, focus on high school life, resort to not-very-funny humor, and feature adults who act like anything but. In other words, things that most Japanese people can identify with. 

However, there are some good dramas. Hopefully I will help you find a drama that might suit your taste.

I will also provide a brief description of the Japanese involved with the show, for those interested. 

July is Here

Holy buckets! It’s already July. I can’t believe it.

That means swimming at school has started and the rain season is either over or about to be over. Both good news.

It also means my summer vacation is fast approaching. I’m about 3 weeks out. Then, it’s 3 1/2 weeks of no work. The best time of the year. Unfortunately, that also means it’s all downhill from there. Ha, there’s always a downside.

I’ve been watching quite a bit of Japanese dramas lately. Well, quite a bit for me, which means an episode or two a day on average. I somehow managed to find another one I like. I wanted to get it over and done with before I start the mini section of reviews.

In the mean time, it’s a new month. I haven’t done a 30 day challenge in quite a while. So, time to come up with one.

In other news I either re-aggravated my hernia last week at ju jitsu or I pulled/strained my hip flexer muscle. I’m not sure which one it is. I’m really worried I did something to the mesh from my hernia operation a few years back. I’ve given it about a week of rest. I was out throwing the frisbee with the kids earlier and now it hurts again. See how it feels in the next day or two before I make a decision to go to the doctor.

Summer in Japan means festivals and fireworks. I’m looking forward to both. What are you looking forward to this summer? Or, if you are in the southern half of the planet, this winter?

Ideas

Today was a very busy day. It was one of the few days I have where I got no time to put in some Japanese study nor much else. Very rare indeed.

I did some thinking over the weekend and I’ve decided I’m going to start a new mini side blog. It’s going to be 100% focused on J-drama reviews. The way I see it is that I should be watching much more Japanese things than I do. The problem is I just don’t like J-dramas all that much. I need some motivation. Also, I think people deserve to read reviews about J-dramas from someone who doesn’t think Japan is heaven on earth to begin with. It’s great if everything Japan is something you love, but that doesn’t work for many people.

In other words: Yeah, I’ve watched Gokusen and it sucks.

Right now I have 2 dramas I can write-up a review on with a 3rd one coming up. It will be something I’ll update every few weeks once I polish a drama off.

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