Whenever I go to classes, pubs, or restaurants, friends and classmates often asked me what kind of books I read. I would take out some bunko I’ve been reading and they were surprised that it’s in Japanese. Some would ask me if they could read the book. While commenting on how light and compact these “paperbacks” are, they would look at the Japanese characters and flip several pages as if they were looking for the ending in the middle of the book. They would then return the book and ask, “Is learning Japanese difficult for you?”
Someone else would have shifty eyes like they were preparing to steal a gem from the jewelry store before saying, “I wonder if I can learn Japanese like you.”
Of course, my friends knew English was my second language and always said they were impressed that my English was almost indistinguishable from the “Americans” whatever they mean by that. But English is unfortunately a language many people need to learn in order to survive in the modern world. You are almost forced to be at least decent in the language. Japanese, on the other hand, has those weird Chinese characters that look complicated and aren’t those things — uh, kanji? — don’t they have their own “stories” in each letter or whatever you call them? Japanese seems useless and going beyond the textbooks feels impossible to imagine. It is thus no wonder why my classmates would see me as climbing over the wall and think I’m some kind of demihuman.
But not everyone buys into the praise: they might point out that I knew how to write and read a bit of Mandarin Chinese, which should help me in acquiring some fluency in Japanese. Japanese and Chinese mostly share the writing systems and, while the grammars and syntactical structures may be different, certain aspects should be similar enough that I don’t need to exert as much effort as, say, a monolingual Londonite. My “success” can’t be generalized into a formula for the whole world.
And that is all true to a certain extent. I definitely have benefitted from knowing some Mandarin, but I am also confused how I managed to have some reading proficiency in the language. More importantly, there are bigger caveats to this representation: I am terribly weak at speaking and writing Japanese sentences nor am I aware of the cultural nuances of the different levels of politeness. Knowing some Chinese is also sometimes harmful to my understanding of the language as I will mention this later. I don’t believe my path in learning Japanese is some royal road to success; yet, there are patterns that may be generally applicable and useful to people who are learning Japanese.
So I would look at my bunko a bit before looking up to my shifty-eyed friend and say, “Hmm, not really. But I think you can figure something out from how I learned Japanese.”
The next question would obviously then be: How did I learn Japanese?
And I would open the book in front of my friends. “Like this,” I would say, “I learned Japanese through subculture.”
Compared to Clyde Mandelin’s wild journey from an EarthBound fan to becoming a professional translator, my history is far duller. I didn’t become a translator nor did I expect to use what I learned to pad up my anorexic resume. Even blogging about niche media like what I’m doing today wasn’t something I expected to do. I just wanted to learn Japanese because I enjoyed what I’ve seen of the subcultures there in translation and wanted to find more.
The impact of translated anime like Mawaru Penguindrum and Haibane Renmei, novels like Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kubishime Romanticist, and visual novels like Muv-Luv Alternative and Umineko no Naku Koro ni made me curious about the potential subversiveness lurking in these niches. I didn’t know much about these subcultures, hence referencing works I would eventually dislike, but I did get the feeling there was more than what’s translated. That suspicion was confirmed when my IRC friends who were already in their second or third years learning Japanese were discussing then-untranslated visual novels like Subarashiki Hibi and Grisaia no Meikyuu. The themes and characters sounded rich and different from the books I had to read for literature and fiction writing classes. Here was a brave new world that was alien to anything I have read in the Western canon. If I learned Japanese, it would be to read stuff like that.
But I was not convinced I could learn Japanese at that time. I had just moved into Chicago and was beginning to settle into my bachelor’s for filmmaking. I knew I was going to be very busy learning the trade, so I postponed learning Japanese like I always did in high school: there were more important things to prioritize first. I was deadset in becoming a film director and I didn’t need some distraction to bog me down.
However, a series of incidents including the passing away of my maternal grandmother occurred and I found myself alone homesick. I flunked a semester and felt pretty hopeless. My college told me I should take a small break before returning to class.
It was at this point I got restless and bored from not attending class that Moogy (@moogy0) mentioned I should just pick up Japanese. I thought it would be a good way to waste my time and not worry about my grades for a bit. Little did I know that on early 2013 that I would get quite serious about learning Japanese.
I had three goals in mind to accomplish in order to feel like I could actually learn the language, all of them media-related:
- Play Atelier Ayesha
- Read Subarashiki Hibi
- Play the Kiseki/Trails series
The first goal was rather silly in retrospect. When I moved to Chicago, I got myself a PS3 because I thought I missed out on the next-gen gaming hits and played two JRPGs recommended by an acquaintance on Twitter. One was Hyperdimension Neptunia MK2, one of the worst games I had ever played which somehow didn’t stop me from playing its sequel Victory, and the other was Atelier Totori. I was familiar with the Atelier franchise through Iris and Mana Khemia, but Totori blew me away. It was my first real encounter with yuri and the classic Atelier formula, so I became an Atelier convert overnight (and quite literally since I played Totori from evening to one hour before morning classes began). Ayesha was the start of a new Atelier series, so I had to play it.
Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the reign of a new terrible translation company. This is not to downplay NISA’s already stellar “achievements”, but Koei-Tecmo EU was on another level. Ayesha did not have the Japanese dub because supposedly the company didn’t know fans wanted that; the translation too suffered from being even more literal and it had the nasty habit of overflowing out of the textbox. I considered Ayesha unplayable then and was jealous of people I knew who got to play it in Japanese. That’s why I put it as my first goal to achieve in Japanese.
The second goal was Subarashiki Hibi and this was just the result of the hype that was building in visual novel communities for a while. I didn’t know much about the work, but it was getting translated since I graduated in high school at Singapore. All I knew was that it quoted lines from two works I had never heard of, Cyrano de Bergerac and Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At that point in my life, I had a shallow understanding of the histories of literature and philosophy and I admitted I was the type to put deep quotes from books I had partially understood in my forum signatures. After SubaHibi, I thought I would give up on visual novels since few things interested me and focused on Japanese literature instead.
Lastly, the Kiseki/Trails series were really big in the communities I was in. Its popularity in these communities was very different from today’s — this was before Sen or Cold Steel 1 was out and Sora no Kiseki SC/Trails of Sky Second Chapter was translated — so the interest came primarily from the Crossbell arc (Zero and Ao). People noted the higher-than-usual vocabulary level and how detailed the worldbuilding was, especially in Ao. My JRPG senses, especially when an acquaintance linked the Super Arrange Version of “Inevitable Struggle”, tingled with excitement. I began seeing learning Japanese as an … inevitable struggle. Ahh, youth is so embarrassing…
These three goals were explicit, but now that I look at them again also expressed my limited understanding of Japanese subculture. I was easily swayed by the discursive waves of hype and focused on the superficial elements on what made these media great. If I knew more about these works, then maybe I’d learn Japanese earlier and had a wider range of goals. Nevertheless, these three goals were really important to me and it gave me a sense of direction.
The typical path for many people learning the language is to go to your local bookstore and pick up a language textbook. But I realized from my experience learning English that was not the optimal route for what I wanted to do: I wasn’t too interested in Japanese culture as a whole since it was distracting; I just wanted to read.
The way I learned English was through video games and books, so I downloaded a UNiSOFTSHIFT visual novel titled Flyable Heart as my textbook. This was another visual novel I didn’t know much about, but the original character designer was Noizi Ito of Haruhi fame and it got some hype. It looked cute, so it was good in my books. I also had another reason to choose a visual novel over a proper Japanese textbook: I want to get into the material as soon as possible because it is one thing to read about theory but another to see it in practice. That was my biggest difficulty in learning English; my understanding of the “rules” rarely matched with how it was used. The same worked for Japanese, albeit differently.
Visual novels also have the upper hand of having both visuals and audio. The latter especially help a lot because you can feel what correct intonation for each word is.
This is not to say I didn’t prepare for Flyable Heart; I obviously needed to learn kana and some grammar. I remember going to an Epic Burger store and with one hand a burger and another an iPad for the kana sheets. I focused my attention on hiragana since I had the impression that I would encounter them more than katakana. After spending a day on rote memorization, I booted up YouTube and converted the lyrics of Muv-Luv Alternative‘s opening into hiragana. I proceeded to sing the kana-ized lyrics in order to remember them even better and later did something similar with other popular anime openings of that period. My neighbors never mentioned how noisy I was at 11pm, so I was glad I had good neighbors.
I also decided to read Tae Kim’s flawed but extremely useful online grammar guide as a foundation for Japanese grammar. I say flawed nowadays because it simplifies a lot of grammar too much for my taste, but it remains useful for many people learning Japanese. After finishing the guide, I would cross-reference the guide while reading Flyable Heart.
Another important difference is that I ignored remembering kanji. Most people use the Heisig guide and I find it a useless scam since not all kanji are that pictorial. It also doesn’t matter when kanji itself is like an alphabet in the English language; it can’t work without placing it in context or it’ll just be like a stray letter (the letter “p” means nothing until we make it into a word like “penis”). 勃 means little by itself since it’s not a word but if we put it with 起, it becomes 勃起 a word, which means erection.
Flyable Heart itself was another matter. I hooked up to Interactive Text Hooker (ITH) and Translation Aggregator with EDICT support, meaning the softwares would copy and paste into textboxes that let me hover and show the English definitions just like the family of Rikai apps for Chrome and Firefox. I had zero standards then and thought everything was cute and fluffy. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but I needed some “textbook” and I might as well pick something that I could enjoy. And I did. It was fun to learn words that I knew I would never encounter much like ちょんまげ (chonmage, the stereotypical hairstyle of samurais in historical dramas) and useful everyday words like 本屋.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing as I hoped. Like many people, I had the impression that knowing some Chinese would help. However, I struggled with the earliest scene when the characters mentioned they got a 手紙. In Japanese, this means an envelope or a letter. However, I recognized the word from my elementary school’s Chinese class and rendered the word as “toilet paper”. I was very confused why … there was toilet paper inside an envelope which was visually depicted. That was my earliest encounter of a false friend, words that are the “same” in different languages but mean completely different things, and it became a lifelong enemy ever since.
I also was very interested in Japanese social media too. I used Rikaichan to parse the sentences in Pixiv descriptions and tweets. ll.
Around this time, I was beginning to go back to school and switched my degree to the Fiction Writing programme and enjoyed learning about writing techniques there. This new beginning coincided well with taking my first steps with Japanese.
However, I began to get quite irritated at Flyable Heart the minute it started having melodramatic scenes. I lost it at finishing the first route and wanted to read something different and good for once. Moogy once again recommended me a visual novel, はるまで、くるる (Harumade, Kururu).
HaruKuru, as it is often shortened to, is a Sumikkosoft visual novel by emerging scenario writer Watanabe Ryouichi (渡辺僚一). This was another visual novel I had never heard of except I really didn’t know what this was about. This was a recommendation out of the blue, but I decided to go with it after watching the opening and seeing Alice in Wonderland quotes. I’m a superficial human being that way.
The problem with this visual novel recommendation is, well, it begins with sixteen eroscenes. No one exactly knew why it began with so much porn — maybe it was a way to troll people into thinking this was some nukige (or game meant for the ultra-sensory details) — and that was something that initially turned me off. But I decided to plough on when I heard more people talk about it on IRC: it’s a different take on science fiction they’ve never seen before and I was quite interested in it.
After the trudging of sixteen eroscenes is over (nowadays I actually think they’re hilarious), I was hit with what millennials today called a dank plot twist. The opening movie played and I realized I was going to be in for a ride. Unexperienced as I was to science fiction tropes, I did feel there was something different to how Watanabe treated the characters and the crazy setting ideas from the few science fiction novels I read. It was genuinely exhilarating till the very end when spring finally came to the characters. I took me months to read everything, cross-reference the English sources I had, and I even got to ask an embarrassing question about what a Japanese neologism meant (it meant penis). But the exhaustion I would feel every day was rewarding because I was so immersed into the plot and just wanted to know more.
And on September 2, 2013, I finished my first ever visual novel. I was surprised I actually finished the work and I thought to myself, there’s more works like these out there and I wanted to read more and more! I was cursed to consume more Japanese subculture media.
And then, I accidentally finished two of my three goals. The first was Atelier Ayesha while I was reading White Album 2, officially my second visual novel finished. I was quite excited about finishing HaruKuru that I bought the game and tried playing it. Then, I realized the game was … surprisingly easy in Japanese. Video games, especially Atelier, are often made for the mainstream in mind and they may be picked up by kids, so the language there isn’t that complicated. I was worried for a bit on not having any recourses to pick up the words, but I ended up not looking many words. In the end, I learned three words, one of them being the literal Japanese word for alchemy (錬金術).
Another one was Subarashiki Hibi, henceforth described as SubaHibi. I overestimated the difficulty of the visual novel thanks to the hype, but people actually said I should give it a go. And that became my fourth Japanese visual novel completed…
I felt Kiseki was still a long shot, so I didn’t have to worry much about having no goals. But a lot of the enthusiasm died out and I had the mistaken egoistic idea of knowing Japanese and the media. Nothing else interested me, so what’s the point? But bored as I was, I decided to pick up 紫影のソナーニル -What a beautiful memories-, now being translated as Sona-Nyl of the Violet Shadows -What Beautiful Memories-.
Sona-Nyl held (and still holds) a special place in my heart. It was the first visual novel I ever encountered that had an emphasis on episodic structuring and it felt more like a well-composed short story collection than anything else. The art by AKIRA was very cute, but more importantly it was my first exposure to the poetry of Sakurai Hikaru’s (桜井光) writing. Today, most people would know them as one of the scenarists for Fate/GO and Fate/Extella, in particular the Nero chapters, but they also wrote some of the most charming stories in inventive settings: the “Steampunk” setting. Visual novels like Sona-Nyl were set in a hodgepodge of various influences like Lovecraft and steampunk/alternative historical settings, but the stories were grounded in romance and adventure, stylized in a minimalist prose. Their works were a radical reimagining of the fictional techniques I had to learn in school and it made me think of the possibilities of subculture deeply for the first time.
But I also had difficulty reading Sona-Nyl because it was very unlike what I’ve read. I recognized my understanding of Japanese grammar was poor while my vocabulary was still basic. I didn’t use Anki or any flashcard software, but I knew that I was looking at the same words over and over again.
So it took me a while before I made the decision to drop Japanese-English dictionaries except as a last resort and use monolingual Japanese dictionaries. Japanese-English dictionaries were flawed at explaining concepts and EDICT was actually a reference material that poorly translated definition entries from monolingual dictionaries. I started using the in-built Mac dictionaries, 大辞泉 and 大辞林, more and also relearned some grammar in the meanwhile. I picked up a visual novel that I knew would be more “basic”, this time 屋上の百合霊さん aka the then-untranslated Kindred Spirits, while going through the very painful task of relearning Japanese again.
Why do I describe this phase as a “relearning”? Because it sounds nicer than what I want to describe: this is when I actually was learning Japanese.
For a long time, I was using a mostly-English framework to understand Japanese. I didn’t fall into the usual pitfalls many language learners often do: employ the linguistic framework of their native languages into the language they are learning. Japanese grammar, for example, is very different from the English grammar and you’d just get broken English — the same kind you see in machine translations — that you need to mentally reorder. That makes it difficult to understand Japanese grammar — and the language as a whole — in its own terms. But my understanding of words like 適当 was still framed like English concepts. I mention 適当 because that’s one of those words that can’t be translated into English. Depending on how it is used, it either means “suitable/appropriate” or “vague/noncommittal”. Knowing that the word can mean either obviously helps, but I’m not looking at the word as a Japanese word — I’m looking it as an English word that can be written into Japanese. I want to think in Japanese, hence this (re)learning process.
Along the way, I decided to peruse some Japanese grammar guides. The most useful one is a Geocities website that serves as a dictionary of Japanese grammar (use EUC-JP as encoding). I can’t definitively say that I know everything in Japanese, but I am able to “diagnose” sentences and see them as parts of a sentence instead of just a coagulation of words.
I also decided to pick up some Japanese books. On my second trip to Japan, I picked up some Morimi novels as stimulus (if you buy something that you always wanted to read and place it by your desk, you can get very motivated to learn more Japanese when you glance at it) as well as 紫色のクオリア (Qualia the Purple) which became the first light novel I had ever finished (March 9, 2014). That novel made me even more curious about the light novel and science fiction subcultures.
It had only been a year since I started learning Japanese proper, but now that I wrote about it it sure sounds like a lot…
But that wasn’t enough for me. I began to consider marathoning the Kiseki series since Sen 2 was going to be released that September. But I knew this was going to take forever for me because, well, I wasn’t that confident with my vocabulary. I didn’t know words like 虹色 (nijiiro/rainbow) and still relied on software that could copy the text from the game. I only had access to the Kiseki games on my PSP and Vita, so I needed to look up every word via radical search.
I was familiar with radical search because of my C and D grades in Chinese. To look up a hanzi or in this case a kanji, you have to recognize that these characters are actually composed of radicals. If you know how to “disassemble” them, you can use radical search on websites like Jisho.org but the problem is it’s cumbersome. And I did that for every word I didn’t know in the games.
But by the time I reached Zero no Kiseki Evo, I actually felt like I was remembering each words. This is a reminder that I didn’t intend to learn kanji; I wanted to learn words. But a sideeffect of learning words was learning how to spell words which were formed up by kanji. Let’s say I didn’t know what 劇団 was and I had no recourses to copy the word. Because I know what these kanji are via the words I have seen, I was able to type out 劇団 by writing 劇場 and 団子 and deleting both 場 and 子 to get the word I need. Zero Evo also had the added benefit of having voice, so I got to practice my hearing skills and typing the words I need. My experience from listening to Japanese let’s plays (it’s called 実況 in Japanese, which is more like what we would call a livewatch) helped me out her. I didn’t need to use radical search much and so, my playing experience was far smoother.
In the end, I finished Sen 1 with a week to spare. The cliffhanger ending was really good and I was excited to play Sen 2, but that’s another disappointing story to write about someday… Either way, I was excited about leveling up my Japanese and felt like this was when I learned how to read Japanese for the first time.
Now, readers might react to “the first time” with disbelief: “The first time? Didn’t you mention that you were learning Japanese at 2013 and then you underwent a relearning process in early 2014? Why did you think you’re learning Japanese again for the first time in late 2014 after catching up to Kiseki? Didn’t you accomplish all three goals you set out in 2013?”
The self-deprecating answer is “I have an inferiority complex”, but the truthful answer is that a newfound appreciation for Japanese culture began around that time because I didn’t need much English recourses. At that point, I had forwent any usage of English dictionaries and I understood the humor instead of just feeling like I’m pretending to laugh at jokes thrown in anime. I was engaging with Japan and its culture not as entertainment-producing entities but with its socioeconomic realities and cultural contexts.
Learning a language, I had come to realize, wasn’t just about learning the words and grammar but the culture that used them. This might sound like a trite observation, but I find this insight quite beneficial to understanding what made Japanese media tick for me. This goes beyond understanding the nuances of a text since it makes me question how words and concepts play out in cultural interactions. The easiest comparison is how in English discourse, we are trying to figure out a way to transcend the strict notions of a gendered language. Using the singular they helps out in many circumstances including pronouns — the Japanese language is having a similar paradigm shift and we are seeing this in the latest developments of the Japanese #MeToo movement.
Any book I pick, any article I choose, any tweet I glance at — they all are part of a lively world of discourses and debates. Media isn’t just entertainment but a way to express thought. And language, of course, is how we communicate. It took me a while to see the language not just as a tool of reading but as a way to discuss important ideas.
This dimension of learning a language is not always discussed from what I have seen. Language acquisition stops when people are linguistically fluent, but that does not mean they are culturally nor socially fluent. The power of language is related to its usage in the culture. Concerns about learning English as a second language for many diasporas, for example, come from a real fear of their cultures being replaced by what feels like a stronger and more hegemonic culture. In the case of Japanese, being able to understand the sociopolitical lives of everyday people gives insight to the subcultural values held in certain Japanese media niches.
I started to be properly aware of the impact subcultures have in the late 2014 and early 2015. My aesthetic values changed so much that I couldn’t track what I wanted out of Japanese media except a certain something in subculture. I began to consume more and more, not realizing I didn’t have much difficulty in reading Japanese novels anymore. The only real difficulty I had was trying to make sense of the country and its values.
While I still looked at grammar guides and dictionary entries, I was more interested in the histories of Japanese political and media cultures. Obviously, I don’t mean this post as a “throw away your dictionaries, start studying history and politics” deal. However, at a certain level in my journey on learning Japanese, I saw Japan not as the oriental “empire of signs” Roland Barthes imagined but as a country brimming with discursive potential. Chaos;Child (March 7, 2017) showed new possibilities for the world and myself, so someday I will like to write about them in detail.
But the real tipping point for me was a 2018 movie titled Liz and the Blue Bird (リズと青い鳥) .
This movie is not at all politically subversive and I doubt people will say it is challenging the status quo. But my history of how I learned Japanese through subculture had to end with this movie because I associate the movie much more than just the greatest yuri relationship of all time.
When I watched the movie on 24th April, 2018, I was feeling uneasy in how I had my own personal paradigm shift on what learning Japanese meant. I saw Japan less as the touristy scenes from Lost in Translation and more of what it actually is: a country that has people. Was it the never-ending task of learning the words and the grammar of a language I wanted to use to read books and watch this movie without any subtitles? Or was it something more related to what I want to do in the future?
“Is learning Japanese difficult for you? I wonder if I can learn Japanese like you.”
I can’t say it’s easy nor difficult. I am not thinking about the struggle to remember kanji: if I was, then I don’t think so — wait until you see how complicated grammar is. But I also don’t think much about grammar, even though I still peruse these guides. I know what I’m deficient at and it’s surprisingly easy to look them up. Instead, I’m thinking about the language I was going to use to watch a movie.
What does using the language mean for me personally and how difficult is it to learn that?
That’s a question I still have no idea how to answer to.
So before I would leave the pub, I decided to add a caveat to my shifty-eyed friend: “But I still haven’t learned Japanese yet. I’m still learning about its cultures, its subcultures, and so on. Everything about the language and the people who use them is too fascinating for me. I only know enough Japanese to read books and watch anime.”
I don’t know if such a wishy-washy answer is satisfying to anyone and it might sound like I’m trying to brag that I’m actually a humble person. But I am not: this complicated history of learning Japanese is still being written and I am trying to (re)negotiate the values of subcultures in the contested spheres of Japanese cultures.
Learning a language is fun. You can do silly things like read menus, talk to campus security guards with your poor language skills, or watch the news and pretend to understand what the reporters are saying by nodding at every thing that sounds important. If you have the chance and time for it, go for it. Any kind of language that sounds cool to you will make a great hobby at the very least. It helps if you are really interested in the media like I did: I had fun consuming subculture media while learning Japanese — it really gave me a ton of practice on comprehension and listening. If you put enough effort and time into it, you’ll see results. Accept the constructive criticisms you may get and use them to change your understanding of the language. It isn’t easy, but it is at the very least straightforward.
But what about learning a culture? Or at least attempting to understand a culture and how you relate to it? That’s the kind of questions I ask everyday when I check out some subculture work, let it be some furige or visual novel. Situating these works in a history of people is difficult but quite interesting.
Learning Japanese through subculture isn’t going to be for everyone, but it is certainly the way for me. I am still going strong, despite starting my journey close to six years ago. It has helped me in fun and weird ways and I don’t regret one bit. If anything, I don’t mind the difficulty because it has helped me find new friends to talk to and media to check out.
So instead, I wish people ask me the more interesting and easier question: “Has learning Japanese changed your life?”
It sure did, it sure did.