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- Rudyard Kipling
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In addition to practicing pick-up lines for potential nameless encounters during my next visit to Japan, I have begun a walking regimen. I won’t be able to hop in the car to get where I’m going during my three-month stay. Instead, there will be many treks to and from railway stations and subway lines all of which have numerous stairs to navigate. Yes, there are escalators, but not always.
I’m just a little older than I was in 2007 when I decided (after too many winters camping on the couch beside the fireplace) to climb to the pinnacle of Fushimi Inari and could barely walk afterwards without liberal applications of Nihonshu (or sake as we call it here). That memory has made me wiser; therefore I’ve begun a systematic program to build some strength and endurance.
Fortunately for me, I now live a short stroll away from Mt. Douglas Park (also revered as Pkols by Indigenous peoples of the area). Mornings the road up the hill is closed to vehicular traffic and the walk to the top (1500m to 225 m above sea level) is a quiet avenue under a canopy of trees. There are trails of varying difficulty, too. However, (story of my life) I go for the wide gate and the broad way.
Mt. Douglas or Pkols is perfect environment for shinrin-yoku, the Japanese habit of forest bathing which is said to have proven health benefits. I don’t doubt it, though I also don’t doubt there are dubious claims attributed to the practice. However, trees produce oxygen, and being under them is likely the closest approximation of a hyperbaric chamber you can find.
Walking has many known benefits as does any mindfulness practice. It’s a wonderful interlude attending to the smells, sights and sounds of the forest as well as glimpses of the sea through the trees and wider views from the summit. The beach and easy trails at the mountain’s base are another option.
Today a pileated woodpecker thrummed his Morse code through the canopy. I’m certain that had I known the cypher, the dots and dashes held a comprehensible message.
For decades I faithfully created a special and memorable celebration for Father’s Day. Now six years after his death, it’s an empty spot on the calendar—like a tooth you’ve lost. It doesn’t ache as it did in the beginning; still, you keep running your tongue over it.
Grief is an odd duck. You’re never prepared for when or in what form it’s going to slam you. On a recent visit to Foggy Mountain Forge in Sooke I came upon a madly grinning skeleton riding a rusting bulldozer.
Instantly memories of Dad on his beloved cat filled my mind and wrenched my heart. Clearing brush. Clearing snow. Pushing. Pulling. Leveling. Logging. Winching. Fixing–constantly fixing–the old thing.
What a jolt of joy to imagine him in bulldozer heaven having a grand old time, and the occasional street of gold with cat tracks.
One of the things we know is that a positive attitude toward a subject we wish to learn contributes greatly to our success in that endeavor. Successful language acquisition depends on two main factors: the motivation of the student and the opportunity to use the language in in a real situation.
However, nothing kills motivation faster than boredom, frustration or other negative emotional states such as fear and anxiety when it comes to language acquisition. Those interfere with a student’s receptivity to input, the ability to process that input and perform successfully when output is required. Whether on a test or in conversation, when in a negative emotional state students often freeze or go blank.
I find myself in that state many times now as I prepare for my upcoming 3-month stay in Tokyo. The four and one half month interval before my departure will pass quickly. Certainly more quickly than my capacity to acquire proficient Japanese.
I’m seriously motivated to improve my limited Japanese language skills. However, to endlessly repeat phrases aloud is too tedious to endure no matter how often I remind myself that the average person requires 50 repetitions of a thing to acquire it.
Worse, to blank out over something that I know I know aggravates me to no end. Finding no reward for my effort I enter a debilitating cycle. I avoid the practice which guarantees even less success.
Unable to find much reward, at least I can find fault. A highly underrated pleasure and delightful compensation, that.
How long have people been teaching Japanese? Why isn’t there a logical program for Japanese conversation that teaches people what they might need to say as well as what they might hear in response in various day-to-day situations they might encounter? Seems only logical doesn’t it? However, it also seems that it doesn’t exist.
For example, in the first CD program I acquired, I had not been taught to state my name, say hello or pleased to meet you before I learned to say Would you like to have a drink at my place? What kind of trouble do Japanese language programs wish to start?
Since I’d paid $300 for the program I completed it and managed to patch a bit of useful stuff together. However, it was nothing that would rescue a woman who might invite a nameless stranger for drinks. Thanks for that.
Though I have made considerable progress with some of the niceties since, the source I am presently using isn’t much better. It’s teaching me to ask: What is your favorite Japanese word? Or say Sugar is not as cheap as salt in Japan. Neither is a sentence that is remotely useful to a beginner who is still looking for material to fill the first 10 minutes after Pleased to meet you. What could I say after that to a newly introduced person? Let me guess: Would you like to have a drink at my place?
By now I’m sure some of you are thinking that I ought to hire a private tutor. I did. Several hundred dollars later that also proved fruitless. My sensei seemed on board with my desire to learn practical phrases I could memorize for such situations I might encounter as I traveled through Japan.
However, after an hour it was clear that my sensei was not comfortable without a text book or set lesson plans. Before the end of the second hour we were into her agenda, conjugating way more verbs than I needed to know at the time.
At my sensei’s urging and because she assured me it was practical, I bought Japanese for Busy People: Volume I. Lesson One plunged me into an office with a lawyer, engineer, student and secretary from the USA, Germany and China. Though that lesson, too, failed to move beyond Pleased to meet you. On the bright side, if I had been tempted to drinks with the lawyer or engineer, at least I knew their names.
Lesson Two yanked me out of the office and threw me into a drawer containing keys, a cell phone, a book, an umbrella, a newspaper and a wrist watch with this is and that is exercises. Somewhat useful, I’ll admit, but not what I asked for. I got more disappointment out of that venture than my money’s worth.
Because the book cost me a few bucks I persisted with the accompanying CD and the written exercises (but not the sensei) before calling it quits 50 pages in. Not a lot of it stuck. I can recognize the fill-in-the-blanks words when I reread them, but there’s no quick recall necessary for conversation. That said, I may have given up too soon. I certainly didn’t give it the 50 repetitions an average person requires to learn something.
Lately I’ve been cherry-picking through short YouTube videos and other online materials. Some are quite helpful but often so mind-numbing that I can’t stay interested. Alas, brevity fails to make tedium more palatable. Nor does the absence of any logical progression in a sequence of thought which a conversation might require. Even so, I have persevered in spite of it.
The latest series I’ve stumbled upon has the social niceties (after introductions and names) in this order: May I call you? Do you like it here? I love you. Will I see you again? Are you married? Oops. Now that’s an amusing hiccough in sequence. Still, you have to concede that it’s a step up from drinks at my place after a still nameless encounter.
Recently I learned the phrase Nanika otetsudai shimasho ka. (Can I help you with something?) Oh yes, please! Do help me find a rewarding way to learn useful Japanese. And, oh yes! Pour me that drink. I’m more than content to drink alone.
From mid-April last year much of my life revolved around my mother’s hospitalization, death, memorial, selling her condo, settling her estate, selling my home and moving from Abbotsford to Victoria within a period of five months. After that I focused on physical, mental and emotional recovery, adjusted to my new home and began to build a new life. What a whirl.
One of the wisest decisions I made when Mother first went into crisis was that apart from keeping up with my responsibilities as Past President of the Fraser Valley chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), I gave myself a sabbatical from freelancing. After some consideration I made an exception for this blog as my website is my main marketing platform.
I thought it important to keep a hand in, but am not sure how long I will continue. I haven’t ascertained yet whether it’s the blog that’s not motivating me anymore or whether my lack of zest is due to the nature of grief and its aftermath. Although I’m still not sure how anything will unfold going forward, I’m not putting any pressure on myself to embrace or abandon anything.
Therefore, because of my year-long hiatus it came as some surprise to hear my name called when Stephanie Lasuik, the BC Regional Director, announced the BC Regional Volunteer Award for 2016/17 at the PWAC National AGM.
In her remarks to the delegates and attendees Stephanie said:
Lynda has consistently gone above and beyond in her service to the Fraser Valley chapter. During her two terms as chapter President and now as past-president, our chapter has benefited greatly from her keen organizational abilities, creative spirit as well as her dedication and thoughtfulness in ensuring that PWAC is represented within the community.
From attending events on behalf of our chapter, suggesting and organizing chapter business cards for members to hand out, assisting to coordinate co-sponsored events and ensuring that the local papers received news of our meetings – Lynda has been a dedicated volunteer and an excellent representative of PWAC at large.
In addition, Lynda has spearheaded two important chapter traditions; our annual strategic planning session which has allowed us to maintain focus on member needs through providing a diversity of learning and sharing opportunities, and a monthly “public frogging” wherein members are recognized for their accomplishments or contributions through being presented with Fraser the Frog – a whimsical muse and chapter mascot.
Although I didn’t seek or expect the distinction, it’s most gratifying to have my work for the Fraser Valley chapter acknowledged in this way. It was a joy to use my administrative gifts to lead and create. Though its beginnings were somewhat like herding cats, I’m especially proud to have laid the foundation for a cohesive and forward-thinking chapter executive which functions as a respectful and supportive team. The success of the chapter does not depend on a single individual (a factor which is often the death knell of organizations) but relies on a group of amazing, gifted and compassionate people who creatively move the group forward.
In addition to other initiatives I set in motion, I’m particularly pleased with the Executive Guidelines which I wrote and the Executive edited and ratified together. That document describes our best practices as a chapter and executive. When both the President and Vice-president were new to their roles in 2016 and I rather suddenly moved to another city, it proved an excellent resource.
Many thanks to the person who nominated me, and to Stephanie for taking the time to speak on my behalf as none of the other Regional Directors highlighted their recipients’ contributions. I was touched and delighted. I celebrated with a half bottle of bubbly and am looking forward to the arrival of the swag!
I manage to catch the last day that photographer Kishin Shinoyama’s photographic exhibition The People is showing at Kanazawa’s stunning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. (Do take a peek at the building here as it is beyond words.) After following a long white hallway I enter a small door in the wall and walk into a room draped in black. A darkroom. When I emerge the first larger than life-sized photo I see is of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Opposite is the word GOD.
Instantly I am reminded of John Lennon’s wry observation that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. However, in this instance the word denotes the first section of five sub-themes for the exhibit: GOD, the deceased; STAR, various celebrities; SPECTACLE, other-worldly and dream dimensions; BODY, beauty, eroticism and struggle as expressed by the nude body; and ACCIDENTS, portraits of the 03/11/11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Disaster victims.
As is often the case with many other exhibits throughout Japan, there is no English translation. No texts on the walls. No audio tape. According to Kishin Shinoyama these selected works are people everyone knows. But besides Lennon and Ono I recognize but cannot name two faces. That’s all.
In spite of my frustrating ignorance, the photos speak for themselves. Powerful and luminous like the monstrous statuary often found in temples, they tower above me or spread before me in super-sized splendor.
However, I’m not satisfied with a face-value viewing. I must understand more fully what I see. Notebook in hand, I wait in front of many of the most compelling images until someone who looks approachable steps up beside me. In sotto voce Japanese I ask, “Excuse me. Who is that, please?” People are eager to tell me. I write down the names, and if they can identify them by their roles in English, a brief note.
Afterwards I Google them all. They are iconic personalities. Among them centenarian twin sisters Kin-San and Gin-San, actors, writers, opera stars, popular singers, models, baseball players, a pop-idol girl group, a geisha.
Whether captured in theatrical grandeur or humble reflection, the range of emotion expressed in each image leaves me more than raw. As a whole they are shattering. In composition, gesture, body language and micro-expressions they reflect the shared human condition. I see their majesty, power and prestige. Their anguish, despair, and guile. Their indifference, resignation and terror. Their innocence, menace or defeat. In theirs I recognize my own.
I leave overwhelmed by what I have seen. At the same time, I am baffled. I failed to see joy or delight or elation. Why not? I leave with that disturbing question which sometimes haunts me still.
I agree with Matt Zoller Seitz the editor in chief at RogerEbert.com who states that Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a film you experience and then live with. That’s true in spite of its flaws.
Originally a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who have illegally entered seventeenth century Japan which at that time was closed to foreigners except for strictly limited trade in carefully controlled port cities. The men are searching for a third priest, their mentor who has reportedly recanted his Christian faith and lives with a wife in the style of the Japanese.
I won’t belabor the story line as it is recounted in great detail in almost every review available for anyone wishing to know. However, given the beauty of the cinematography, and the landscapes, as well as the excruciating dilemmas the characters face, the film should have been more enthralling—even heartbreaking—than it was.
Why didn’t it move me? Probably because the story was told from a distancing point of view. In spite of its obvious craft and visual beauty, the film felt almost like a textbook recounting the details of a time that no one cares about now.
Also, the characterization was weak, at times more like caricature and stereotype. The costuming intensified that effect. Though the Jesuit priests and the hidden Japanese Christians struggle with philosophical, religious and moral questions while living under constant threat of torture, I never suffered along with the protagonists.
Perhaps, like Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic would have found their specific struggle more compelling; however, due to the detachment established by the point of view, they seemed rather tedious and predictable people. I could pity them for the accident of their birth in such a difficult time and place, but otherwise, I wasn’t touched. I wanted to be.
In addition, the motives of the antagonists aren’t made clear. Without some knowledge of Japanese history and the political foundation of the story’s events, much is lost. It helps to know that the determined extermination of the Christians at that time was rooted in a rebellion by mostly Roman Catholic Japanese. Like most uprisings, the events could be attributed to famine, over-taxation, and a large population of peasants with little to lose other than very miserable lives. The local government believed the rebellion was assisted by the seditious teachings of the Europeans.
Now that’s an over-simplification; however, without understanding that much, the ruthless response of the Tokugawa Shogunate against the Jesuits and Japanese Christians doesn’t make as much sense. Especially in a country in which Buddhism and Shintoism already co-existed. Otherwise, why single out Christianity for exclusion?
It also helps to remember that European colonizers in their dealings with indigenous peoples were as cruel as any of the Japanese depicted in the film. There are no black or white hats in this context. Given internal and external conflict this rich, it shouldn’t have felt flat, and 161 minutes shouldn’t have felt long.
As for the ending, I saw it coming. I hate when that happens.
Even so, in spite of everything the film resonates and is timely. In an interview with Time Out Tokyo, actor Shinya Tsukamoto answers Mari Hiratsuka’s question, “What message does Silence have for us in the present?
“Personally, I’m struck by the absurdity of why, at any given point in history someone is always using violence to suppress what others believe. Silence asks a powerful question about that absurdity.”
Reviewer Peter Debruge maintains, “Scorsese…has created a taxing film that will not only hold up to multiple viewings, but practically demands them.” That’s also true in spite of its flaws.
Last week I downloaded Microsoft’s Translator to my phone. Now I can photograph, keyboard or speak into the phone and get an instant English to Japanese or Japanese to English translation. Someone with whom I wish to communicate can hear as well as read the result.
It’s also useful for learning Japanese that is not in my Tuttle Concise. Though it’s pretty good for anything I need to check, to my surprise it lacks the word beginner. I can state that I don’t speak or understand Japanese very well. Plus, I can ask someone to speak more slowly. However, there are times when I need to let myself off the hook and say I am a beginner.
The translation app isn’t perfect. Even though I speak clearly (or at least I thought I did), my first verbal attempt was understood as I am a big dinner. I guess I’ll have to work on that.
Now it’s time to get down to methodical study. I’ve arranged to return to Japan in November. I will live in a furnished studio apartment in the Aoyama area of Tokyo (yellow circle on the subway map below) until the end of January. Over those three months I will begin and complete Level One of the Ikebana Sogetsu course in the International Class.
Steve Jobs once remarked that there was a lightness in being a beginner. Being less sure about everything freed him to enter one of the most creative periods of his life. I am a big dinner. Imagine–even feast on–that!
As part of the ongoing celebration of five years of blogging at The Way of Words, today I reprise a single story in 5 posts. These describe an intense experience in a remote Japanese temple during a single afternoon which unexpectedly and forever altered my perception of everything.
In Internet and ideal blog terms it’s a long story. Therefore, I originally broke it down into shorter segments. Each also stands alone.
For anyone unfamiliar with the terms, Buddhists use the words kensho and satori to describe profound experiences of enlightenment. To attempt brief definitions here is problematic. However, if needed, clicking on either one will take you to the good folks at Wikipedia for a detailed introduction.
Click on the links below to read my satori story.
The last time I was part of a group where everyone minded each others business was before adulthood. During that time I belonged to a church; a small, conservative, community of Mennonites who despite their unique culture, good works and upstanding qualities felt compelled as a group to regulate the behavior of others. Sometimes that meant great pressure on members to conform and often to make public apologies for transgressions.
In that respect, even though it’s set in present day Japan, I found the world of Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City oddly familiar. Made by Fuji Television in cooperation with Netflix, this Japanese reality show has a twist. There is no script.
The cameras roll as six strangers—three men and three women between the ages of 18 and 29—share a stunning house and enjoy free use of automobiles provided for them. The dramatic arc is the day to day stuff of life. Who cooks, who does dishes. Who does or doesn’t get along with others, and the consequences of such interpersonal friction. The members set rules, eat and socialize together while maintaining their daily working lives or studies.
The resulting footage is shaved down to 30-minute episodes by clever editing and presented together with great music. (A playlist is available on Spotify.) This is complemented by insightful commentary from a group of well-known Japanese comedians and actors who watch the episodes together. Then like a Greek chorus, they interrupt with their take on developments. The result is crazily compelling and addictive.
The house members are exceptionally attractive people: models, would-be actors, dancers, designers, and other creatives. Each person is working with varying degrees of success toward personal aspirations just like most other people. However, at some level most have already distinguished themselves before they joined Terrace House. They have chosen the experience as well as the global exposure that comes with it for a variety of reasons.
Of course, some are also looking for romance. They are singles living together unchaperoned (if you can forget about the cameras) with other super-hot looking members of the opposite sex. Thus their day to day interactions buzz with underlying sexual tension.
Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City tests the characters and emotional stability of the participants, exposes their transgressions and highlights moments of exceptional sensitivity. More than that, it reveals how social conditioning and mores work to govern Japanese behavior. The elegance of Japanese social graces is immediately apparent. House members bow to each other, constantly acknowledge each other and express their thanks for the smallest things—all the time—even in moments of deep personal distress.
When it comes to courting, there are established and codified rituals quite unlike those in the West. Public displays of affection or even gestures of comfort such as putting an arm around someone are not that common in Japan. Therefore, holding hands in public signals the status of a relationship and indicates an intention. A chaste little kiss is a very big deal.
In a world of largely American reality TV with its sleazy excesses (from the Kardashians to the highest office in the land), Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City is refreshing for its restraint. More than once the commentators use the word pure in describing the appeal of an individual. When was the last time you heard that in a conversation?
Over the course of the Terrace House series there are many compelling scenes. Some leave the commentators momentarily speechless or jubilant or in tears. After one poignant moment, one of the commentators is awestruck and remarks that you couldn’t write a script like that. No one would believe it. But this was real.
However, the absence of a script is somewhat misleading and only partly true. What is often revealed as the series progresses is a tacit and deeply ingrained cultural script. At its fundamental core is what it is to be Japanese.
So sorry. I’m overdue. I ought to have posted some time ago. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at me, I’ve been busy.
What have I been up to, you ask. Answer: Binge-watching Netflix.
Uh-oh, you say. Winter sloth. Slacking off, eh? Answer: Not exactly.
Bear with me, I say. There’s a bit of backstory. You think: Excuses always have a backstory.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hear me out and then decide. Though it has been a long process, I’ll try to keep the telling brief.
About a decade ago I began to teach myself Japanese from CDs. I began by using the Pimsleur method. The method is research-based and structured to acquire language by ear and patterned repetition the way infants do. No written text or syllabus is provided so that pronunciation isn’t influenced by English-based ways of reading vowels. It is strictly listen, repeat and remember. As I didn’t want to learn writing anyway, I wanted to be able to speak—even if just a little—while traveling, that suited me just fine.
Unfortunately, there were serious flaws in the Pimsleur content. I was frustrated from learning too many macho pick-up lines along with vocabulary for driving and gassing up a car which I would never need in Japan. Quite alarmingly, the dialogues went from pleased to meet you to would you like to have a drink at my place to I want to stay in Japan with you, without any of the niceties or necessities between each stage.
Still, it was a reasonable way to start as it tuned my already musical ear. I am always complimented on my pronunciation. However, at $300 USD for each level of 30 CDs, I wasn’t inclined to move to levels 2 or 3 without knowing that the content would be suitable.
Since then I have acquired a smattering of additional, useful phrases on a hit and miss basis from friends and lessons on YouTube. Most of the latter I find excruciatingly tedious. Bored to death at the pace, I give up. Drilling phrases and sentence patterns into my skull so they stay there isn’t easy.
According to Bernard Saint Jacques, Doctor Emeritus in communication and linguistics at the University of British Columbia, successful language acquisition in adult learners depends on two things. First, the motivation of the student and second, the opportunity to speak the language under real conditions.
Alas, I don’t get too much opportunity for the latter and all too quickly I arrive at the end of what I know how to say. Then I’m stuck again.
To shorten a much longer story, let me just say that’s how I ended up at Netflix. The Internet has changed greatly over time, and so has Netflix since I subscribed about two years ago. Recently their content has expanded to include options from various countries. Some say this is the new wave of content, a platform no longer limited to old runs of American movies or series such as: Friends, Suits, Scandal and the like.
First, by chance a series called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories piqued my attention. Then of course, the bots offered more in that vein. That’s how I ended up at Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City and Terrace House: Aloha State.
In Japanese with English subtitles, these series have helped me not only to learn more Japanese, but also gain insight into a variety of cultural nuances. Bonus: I’ve had a splendid time. I’ve not been bored for a second, though it still hasn’t solved the problem of not having opportunities to speak under real conditions. Never mind. One step at a time.