Late night language learning

It’s pretty hot and steamy in Tokyo at the moment, and Al Gore has guilted me into sleeping without air conditioning.  Or rather, attempting to sleep without air conditioning.  I try to put my insomnia on these occasions to good use, however, and turn to Japanese TV to keep training my ears to absorb language.

One of the staples of late-night Tokyo TV are language-learning shows.  As native English speakers, we’re quite spoiled in that we can visit most countries with the assumption that many signs will be bilingual and at least someone there will speak our language.  However, for a native Japanese speaker only knowing the language spoken on the Japanese islands, if you have even the smallest interest in communicating with people of other nationalities, some foreign language study is going to go a long way.

This means you’re going to see many more people studying foreign languages (mainly business English) on the train in Tokyo than you will in most English-speaking countries.  While I’m of course biased, language shows aren’t as dominated by English as I had expected.  Russian, French, Italian, German, Korean and Mandarin shows can all be found channel surfing on most nights.

The formula for low-budget language-learning shows seems pretty well-established.  Ingredients:

  • middle-aged Japanese guy with thick head of hair as host;
  • very cute but clueless-acting starlet to act as the learner’s proxy;
  • older, academic-looking guy (always with gray hair, always in a lab coat for some reason) to explain the finer points of the language as needed;
  • native speaker of the language in question, who usually also has decent Japanese.

So, why does the foreigner need command of Japanese on a foreign language show?  Because a surprising amount of the show’s content will be in Japanese – usually more than the amount of the language being studied. This was surprising to me, since all the Japanese schools I’ve attended to date take the full immersion route (i.e. no English) from day one.  Even a high-level English learning show I saw explaining how to talk about things like prevailing economic conditions and mergers and acquisitions was about 60% Japanese, 40% English.

By chance, I did see a language learning show this week that broke this mold in a particularly interesting way.  Starting off conventionally, it was a French learning show with an attractive native speaker who also spoke decent Japanese:

Along with this guy wearing a beret so you know you’re studying French:

Once the native French speaker had finished explaining a point, a panel of young (and needless to say, cute and seemingly clueless) girls have to pick and attempt to read out loud (in French, naturally) the action they’d like an on-hand Frenchman to do.  The twist is that only one of the choices is a thing you would want, like a present.  The other two are humiliations.  Below, choice 1 is “Please wrap a stocking around my head.”  Choice 2 is “Please wrap this as a present for me”.  Choice 3 is…

“Please hit me in the face with a pie”.

Now that’s a good motivation to study: avoiding public humiliation.

Honestly, I didn’t know how effective this was as a learning device – it seemed that the girls were more or less picking randomly.  The French guy played his role to the hilt: being very French and doing what was asked with a sense of smug bastardry, like rifling though the girls’ bags when they unwittingly asked him to do so.

Well, I’m writing this post for the very insomnia-related reasons I was talking about to begin with.  It’s just gone 1am and I’m watching the 8th hour of a 26-hour telethon, which seems to have abandoned the use of a script or any pre-planned ideas between midnight and 8am.  Two guys are just sitting around a table (and horrors, casually lighting up cigarettes on live TV), having a grand old time amusing themselves. I think I’ll go and quickly read some global warming skeptics’ op-ed pieces and flimsily rationalise cranking up the AC to 11 and getting some sleep instead.


I will eat your Sol

It’s Astronomy Day!  Astronomers read for free.  Astrologers can read for free too, but should then bang their head against their nearest spirit totem, saying “Why must I always believe in lies?”.

So, I’ve complained about the kanji (Chinese characters) from time to time in the past.  Specifically, that there’s a lot of them to learn (around 2000 for basic literacy); that before you learn them, there’s no clues about how to pronounce them; and that each character has the nasty habit of changing pronunciations between words, sometimes as much as 10 or more different ways.

Sometimes though, I really like them. Like today.

With a solar eclipse upon us on July 22, naturally there was a bit of talk in the office about it. As I learned today, in Japanese, solar eclipse is translated as nisshoku, and it looks like this written in kanji:

Breaking it down:

means the sun.

means to eat.

Which means that a solar eclipse is… “eating the sun”.  When they were handing out awesomness quotas to words, “eating the sun” got the mother lode.

So a lunar eclipse would be…?

Yep, eating the moon – gesshoku.

If only more things could be so logical and poetic at the same time.

Postscript: sadly, because of bad weather in Tokyo, looks like no-one here will see much of anything tomorrow.  I will just have to imagine the spectacle of cosmic limb being ripped before cosmic limb before being consumed by the bloody, dripping maw of the moon.

Or, it will get dark for a little while.  I forget which.

The Yamato

If you ever go to Hiroshima, there’s one often overlooked place nearby called Kure.  It’s about half an hour by train and a nice half day trip.

Kure is most famous for being the naval base where the Yamato, the one-time flagship of Japan’s navy during World War II, was built.  Today, the Yamato Museum commemorates the ship itself as well as a lot of the naval history of Kure.

The central feature of the museum is an enormous 1:10 scale model of the Yamato.  The original ship was the crown jewel of the Japanese navy and packed a massive amount of firepower, one of the largest battleships ever built.  It didn’t see nearly as much combat action as might be  expected for the sizable amount of resources devoted to its construction, and it was sunk near Okinawa near the end of the war without having made much of an impact.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The attention to detail in this model is really something:

Yamato Museum, Kure

There are also a selection of other large exhibits around the museum.  One of the most sobering this this one, a Kaiten human torpedo.  These were employed in desperation by the Japanese navy in the later stages of the war, and were designed for a single, doomed pilot to steer their explosive payload into an enemy ship.  Talking to a co-worker about this, he said that most of these torpedoes were gunned down before reaching their target, making the waste of life mind-bogglingly senseless.

Next to this suicide torpedo are the pictures of a couple of its 18 year old pilots.  Standing in front of its narrow dimensions, you can’t help but imagine the horror of these boys of being sealed into a dark, metal tube, sailing off on a one-way trip to their certain deaths, whether colliding with an enemy ship, destroyed before reaching their objective, or just failing to get there altogether.  Thinking about modern day school boys you see on the train every day horsing around with their friends being forced to lay down their lives in such a horrific way leaves a lasting impression.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The plane you can see here is of course the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter.  At the back is a two-man midget sub along with a selection of shells.

Yamato Museum, Kure

Nearby the museum is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Museum, with its main attraction, the submarine Akishio:

Yamato Museum, Kure

Yamato Museum, Kure

If you ever end up visiting Hiroshima, have an afternoon to spare and have even a passing interest in history, a trip to Kure and the Yamato Museum should be on your list of things to do.  It’s an educational, if grim, experience, but if you’re visiting Hiroshima, that’s probably why you’re there, after all.

Zonbi flicks

After returning from a week or so of unrelenting presentations, meetings and get-togethers in Kyoto last week*, I felt that this shelf of movies at my local DVD store nicely reflected my rather exhausted state of being:

Japanese zombie flicks

I’m impressed that they had the forethought to divide scary moves into both “horaa” and “zonbi” sections.

Accordingly, once I am returned from my ghastly state of un-living betwixt the mortal realm and that of the eternally damned, onward ho to more substantial posts!

* Actually, it was good fun, but moasting (thanks Joel) is the best new word I’ve heard in ages, so I thought I’d give it a spin.