Author Archives: Micah

About Micah

Oldest of 8 children. I'm skilled in piano performance and computer programming (especially C and Perl on Linux), and have a strong interest in typography, and well-made entertainment media such as books, movies, and video games.

The Role of Worship

(A comment I posted at My Sister’s Farmhouse.)

Hey Rechelle, I can totally relate to what you’re saying. Before my deconversion, I was a “worship leader” at various churches. I received a lot of emotional fulfillment from that job (still miss it), but looking back on it now, I see it for what it was: emotional manipulation. In fact, I think a lot of my relationship with God, and my impression of a relationship and conviction that God was a “real person”, was defined by the act of worship. It’s the medium through which you practice the art of loving God… and if you love Him, there must be a Him to love, right? (Realizing I’d spent nearly thirty years being hopelessly in love with what turns out to have been a fictional character is not an easy thing to come to grips with, that’s for sure. I felt like a schizophrenic who’s just come to terms with the fact that the elaborate and detailed fantasy world in which he’s spent so much time being the hero, was never real.)

In the church background I come from, we were acutely aware of artificial, “performance-y” sorts of worship. Better to sing off-key and a capella in a heartfelt ballad to Jesus, then to play with an immense band, complete with video accompaniment (filled with nature scenes and people raising their hands to God), but be so distracted by the machinery of worship that I’m no longer singing to God.

And yet, how can an outsider judge whether a worship leader was giving a “heartfelt” performance or not? In the end, isn’t it just a certain infusion of emotion into the music, a little spontaneity, knowing when and where to shift the dynamics of the song, when to take out or subdue the instruments, when to rise to full-bodied playing and singing? Sure, I really was “singing my heart out to God” when I was playing this stuff, but the real, observable result was… performance. Performance specifically designed to sound like “not a performance,” but guaranteed to manipulate the emotions of the (devoted) congregation. I had been raised up in and had an innate intuition for what “real worship music” sounded and felt like, and that’s what I played. And sure, I was manipulating my own emotions right along with every one else, but that’s what it was: emotional manipulation. If, by the start of the pastor’s message, everyone wasn’t feeling rested, and at peace, and then just-fired-up enough to be ready and eager to listen to what the pastor had to say about Jesus – as well as humbled and ashamed of their dirty, foul human nature, and yearning to come closer to perfection by looking to Jesus’ example – then I hadn’t done my job.

I never felt closer to God than when I was worshiping. Not even when God would “make his presence” known by all the various amazing and beneficial coincidences we’re conditioned to believe are the direct Hand of Providence, and not the result of statistical probabilities which the human psychological make-up has such a poor innate recognition of (and which is equally biased to completely ignore and forget the unbeneficial and equally “amazing” but coincidental events that come to our lives).

Micah, the Pianist

After a quite long hiatus, I’ve been getting back into piano performance for personal pleasure (say that 5 times fast…), revisiting some old pieces that have been on the border of my ability for some time, having decayed to a certain point, but never completely lost.

I’ve got the piano tuned (first time since I first got it a few years ago!) and the damper pedal adjusted so the dampers aren’t contacting the strings “even when it’s lifted”, which was resulting in tones that decayed quickly into their harmonics (“wrong pitches”) that lingered, muddying the sound until everything sounded indistinct. The dynamic range of this instrument is still nowhere near where I’d like it to be, but otherwise it actually sounds good (ignoring some mildly harsh harmonics… it is a spinet after all: shorter strings means they have to make them thicker to get the same pitch).

I’ve been playing the same old repertoire that I’ve never lost, but also revisiting a couple of Poulenc Novelettes that had fallen just out of reach (I’ve never entirely stopped playing the C Major one; it’s one of my all-time favorite piano pieces), and a couple of Samuel Barber’s delightful Excursions. I’m rediscovering the bluesy one, and finding it much easier to find the feel for it than I did back when I was preparing it for my sophomore concert at CSUS ten years ago. Guess I’ve managed to mature musically since then, even though I haven’t been playing seriously in, like, forever. I’m also working on a Bach fugue, and of course some ragtime (Joplin and Bolcom) and frightfully fast novelty pieces (Confrey: “Kitten on the Keys” and “Dizzy Fingers”).

While I’ve been working on these, I’ve picked up some recorded performances of them from Amazon on MP3 for reference. I’m amazed at how poor they are. The Barber’s the worst: the only performance of his stuff you can get on MP3 is John Browning’s, and he’s really pretty atrocious. He plays the fourth one about ten times slower than he ought to, and he gets the rhythms completely wrong in the blues one. Oh, but I found it on a Horowitz album just now—that’s bound to be better. There, downloaded! Hm… definitely better, but still mostly sucks. He’s pretty much lost on the blues one. Though he’s pretty dazzling with the fourth excursion, which always reminded me of bluegrass and banjos. 🙂 Horowitz improvises it a little in fairly nice ways, though there are a few abrupt tempo aberrations I find a little strange.

I’m pretty sure these two albums were the only references I had back at CSUS, too; I can recognize some of my own poor past choices from them—it’s no wonder if I wrestled with the blues Excursion with references like these! I’ve ordered a CD from Daniel Pollack, but I’ll have to wait a few days to find out how that one sounds.

Meanwhile, I also got a couple performances of Poulenc’s Novelettes, both of which have serious flaws. Cazal’s is technically accurate, but lacking in emotion; Parkin’s has beauty, but some significant errors. Unfortunately, I spent about a week “repairing” my version of it to match the Parkin version (in his trills), only to later realize that he was in fact doing it wrong.

I’ve decided to go ahead and put up some of the MP3s I have from my CSUS performance from a decade ago, including the Barber Excursions. They don’t have ID3 tags, and you may need to turn the volume up to hear them.

37th in Health Performance? has an article on how we get the fairly misleading number “37th in Health Performance” worldwide. A revealing point is that we’re actually ranked 15th overall, before per capita expense is taken into consideration (a problem current proposals seem unlikely to resolve).

This doesn’t mean there aren’t severe problems with the current healthcare system, though: the 2008 WHO report points out “persistent under-performance of the United States health sector across domains of health outcomes, quality, access, efficiency and equity”, citing
U.S. Health System Performance: A National Scorecard
, which notes that US placed 15th in fatalities that were “potentially preventable with timely, effective care”, and scored the nation 66/100. Ouch!


So, I’ve recently been toying with the idea of getting a smartphone. The iPhone had been looking good to me for a while, and especially the 3gs, but then I hadn’t been looking much at what else is out there.

Looking at the iPhone, it’s probably one of the most fluid and natural devices from a user-interface perspective, and especially as an MP3 player compared to other MP3 players (besides, of course, the iPod Touch, which is just an iPhone without the phone). Targeted apps for Facebook, WordPress, Amazon, Pandora? Love it! Best of all, I qualify for an upgrade to the 3g for $50 if I renew my contract for two years.

And then the 3gs with its better performance, video capabilities, and a camera with a tap-to-focus feature! And, yeah, the compass and voice-activation features, but I’m not nearly so interested in those. That being the case, the fact that it’ll cost me $150 more to upgrade put it just out of my consideration. Even if it plays Katamari Damacy (I’m told it’s not worth trying on the 3g).

But then, I’m not jazzed that I’d have to use iTunes whenever I wanted to interface it with my computer. I don’t have a Mac, and I don’t enjoy using Windows. All my MP3s are on my Ubuntu disk, and so I’d have to transfer them all to a FAT32 disk and use that as my main base of MP3-playing operations. And either boot into Windows or fire up a larger-than-I’d-like Windows VM just to talk to the iPhone. Not cool.

And, of course, not having a Mac means I can’t write software for it, but have to make do with rigging up a website (and hoping I’ve got connectivity) to add customization to the thing. And I can’t even easily load it up with PDFs or offline-stored web content or what have you.

But of course, all third party apps these days will have an iPhone version, and that’s support I can rely on (until my version of iPhone becomes too obsolete, anyway).

So I looked at some alternatives: Google Android-based phones. The great thing about these is they have many, if not all, of the apps I really care about. Obviously all the Google-related ones, a web browser, GMail, Google Maps; and also at least Facebook and Pandora. And the best part is, it’s emminently hackable. I can access it like a hard drive, and load whatever software I want—which I can write in Java on my Ubuntu laptop, and test in their Java-based Android emulator.

The problem with these phones, though, is that the only Android-based phones currently available don’t work with AT&T (and by “work”, I of course mean that they can use AT&T’s 3g network, and not just the standard cell data service). It’s expensive to switch, and on top of that the phones themselves are more expensive, even with the contract.

A coworker pointed out the new, Linux-and-Gnome-based Maemo OS, which is the sexiest “mobile computing” OS I’ve ever seen. And the Nokia N900, which is apparently releasing next month, is the most powerful smartphone/mobile computer I’ve seen yet; and of course, it’s also
completely hackable.

However, the price tag is steep. $800 for a phone, when my laptop (with which I’m perfectly pleased) cost me $350 new (yes, I’m cheap, but my needs are low), is… well, it’s a lot.

And, too, while I’m at work all day, I have a wifi connection, and my laptop. When I’m home, which is the vast majority of the rest of the time, I have a wifi connection, and my laptop. The idea of getting a smartphone would be to cover the other, what, one or two percent of my time when I’m not near wifi. To cover me when I’m on the train to work, or in the waiting room. Given that I pay close to $30 a month for my connection at home, paying an additional $30 a month to cover the gaps just feels wrong, if I can avoid it.

Anyway, during all this, I’d also been eyeing Amazon’s 2nd-generation Kindle e-book reading device. It’s not a smartphone, obviously, or any kind of phone, and while it does boast internet connectivity, it’s not a “mobile computer” by any stretch of the imagination, and my interest in it had been in its excellent display, and of course its usefulness in consolidating my library of books-to-read in one, very small, very slim, very readable device.

I do a lot of reading, and I typically buy several books on Amazon every month. I got to check out a friend’s Kindle 2, and was amazed at how close it was to reading off a piece of paper. The resolution, combined with the set of grays available, is good enough that you don’t see the pixels; it looks like printed words. It’s “e-Ink”, not LCD, and it looks terrific even when you’re reading in direct, bright sunlight. And it’s tied directly via free wireless network to Amazon, which is the store I’m familiar with and use for most of my non-book purchases as well. After seeing it live, and knowing the price had dropped into the ballpark of “reasonable”, at $260, I was having a hard time convincing myself I didn’t absolutely need one.

But here’s the thing. As I said, the Kindle is connected to a free wireless network; in fact, it uses Sprint’s 3g network. But it’s not just usable for getting to Amazon’s Kindle store: the Kindle 2 includes a web browser, too! It’s not much of a web browser, to be sure: it’s roughly as powerful as the text-based, built-in browsers for non-smartphones like my Motorola RAZR. But it can handle JavaScript (once you enable it), and… it’s free. Free Internet access. My phone might have almost as good a browser, but without a data plan I have to pay a buck to download 100k of data, and an unlimited plan costs (as I said) around $30, which is a major reason why I don’t use that to cover my “one percent” time. Plus, my cell phone doesn’t do 3g, either.

But, with Kindle’s browser, I’ll be able to see Facebook updates (and write my own), manage my Netflix account, read blogs (it’s especially good for that task), and read WikiPedia (Kindle has direct integration for searching WikiPedia quickly, without having to first open up the browser first). Apparently people can even get their GMail on.

So why get a smartphone? My Kindle’s on its way now! 🙂

The only thing that I really dislike about the Kindle, is its lack of native PDF support. You can have PDF files converted to a format that Kindle can use, but it’s pretty much just the text; it won’t keep the fonts and layout, and may not keep all the images. There are techniques to get around that—such as converting the PDF to a series of image files, and then sending that to be converted to Kindle format—but of course such tricks have definite shortcomings. The larger, more expensive Kindle DX—which has a page-sized view, and so is better suited to viewing the PDFs anyway—has native PDF support, but it’s too bulky to be practical for my needs, and too expensive ($500). Sony’s e-book devices have native PDF support; but in other ways they don’t hold up quite so well to the Kindle; for me, at least. Their devices are very similar to Amazon’s, but they are (at this moment) more expensive, and lack the internet access that makes the Kindle so attractive. In fact, in the currently available models (a new one will be remedying this shortly), you can’t even access their store using the device; you have to download it to your computer first, and then transfer—and several reviews I’ve read complain about serious quality issues in the desktop software. Upon finishing the first book in a new series, it will be very convenient to be able to immediately just start reading the second, without even having to wait for it to ship (or wait until I get home to my desktop to purchase it).

Why Learning Japanese Can Be Frustrating, Part Two

This article has been moved to; post any new comments there.

This is part two of a series on the frustrations of learning the Japanese language. The foregoing assumes you’ve already read part one (though you should be able to get along without it: it’ll just start somewhat abruptly).

Learning Through Reading Japanese

I believe that my voracious appetite for reading is directly responsible for an enhanced understanding of English; and when you want to master a language, it stands to reason that you should expose yourself to as much reading material written in it as possible. This makes it all the more frustrating, that learning Japanese through exposure to its written language is extremely difficult, time-consuming, and tedious.

For instance, suppose you’re confronted with a Japanese sentence such as:


Assuming that you’ve studied your approximate hundred hiragana characters (half of which are just systematic modifications of the basic 46 forms), you’ll have no problems with the へ and きましょうか bits, and since hiragana is a syllabery, you instantly know how they sound, too: even though they don’t represent much in terms of meaning until you know what are the more complicated-looking characters that remain (the kanji).

But what can you do with the kanji (明日図書館, and 行), if you’ve never encountered them before? It’s not like you can look each up in a dictionary by its name, since you don’t know it. Literally all you know at this point is its shape. And that’s what you end up having to look it up by. Many characters can be broken into separate constituent parts that might be common to other characters, or are possibly complete characters in their own rights—for instance, 明 can be broken into 日 and 月, 館 can be broken into 食 and 官. So you count the number of brush/pen strokes it would take to write that character, look it up by that number, then find that component (called a “radical”), and then find the character you’re looking for (possibly by further looking under the total number of strokes to find a character). Once you find the character that matches, flip to the page number that describes that character.

So, we’ve found the page holding the description of the meaning for (say) 行, and its pronunciation. Except there’s not one pronunciation: there are several. Fortunately, in the case of 行, it’s followed by a string of hiragana which, after even a small amount of training, a student will quickly recognize as the final portion of a verb. The list of possible readings for 行 will include various verbs that start with that character, and an indication of what characters would be expected to follow it when performing its function as a verb. Verbs, whether written with initial kanji or not, will virtually always be followed by a string of hiragana which indicate how the verb is being conjugated, and usually indicate which reading the kanji itself has (if one is already familiar with the character, of course). You’ll determine that in this case it should be read simply as the “i” in “ikimashouka?”, which means “shall we go?”.

The 行 had hiragana to help indicate its reading (when filling this role, they are called “okurigana”). No such luck with the others. If I look up 明, I see 14 possible readings, and 10 different verbs/adjectives it could form part of (depending on the okurigana that follows it, and fortunately most of them have the same reading for 明). I can rule out the ones that require okurigana, because there isn’t any in this case. And the remaining readings can be divided into two groups, one group that is used mainly when the character appears as its own separate word, and another that is used mainly when the character appears in combination with other kanji to form a compound word (but there are no guarantees). Since it appears with other characters, it’s reasonable to assume they form some sort of compound, and fortunately the group of readings more commonly used for compounds comprises just 3 of the 14. Ideally, the compound I’m looking for will appear in the list of common compound words that will appear on that page of my kanji dictionary: then I will have identified not only the correct reading for this character, but for the remaining characters in the word, too. Otherwise, I’ll most likely need to look up the next character the same way I did the first, find its list of possible readings, and try looking up various possible reading combinations between the two characters in my Japanese dictionary (the one for looking up words, and not kanji).

Alas! In this particular case, none of the possible readings of 明 are correct here! 明日 is a relatively special case where two characters join together to form a word which is pronounced based on the characters’ combined meaning, rather than their individual readings. Unless it was listed as one of the example compounds (fortunately, this is likely), I would probably have a very, very hard time discovering that the word is “ashita”, which means “tomorrow”. Fortunately, even without knowing this, I probably would have settled on the alternative reading “myōnichi”, which is a legitimate reading of the characters 明日, and also means “tomorrow”, but combines the actual readings of the characters, making it possible to find using the dictionary approach. It wouldn’t be wrong, and I’d be able to continue reading from that point—even understanding the correct meaning—but “myōnichi” is a very formal word, and I’d sound pretty funny to any Japanese person that would hear me use that word in the middle of a relatively casual sentence. There’s even one more possible reading of 明日 (still with the same meaning): “asu”!

Perhaps you’ve noticed at this point that I’ve now said 明日 is a single word. Of course, it’s a word that appears in a sea of kanji: 明日図書館. How the hell are you supposed to figure out where one word ends and another begins? The answer: brute force. If, when trying to look up what word might be formed from 明 and 日, you see that there’s a word 明日, well then the next kanji might start a new word, so you react accordingly. (The remaining characters turn out to form the word for “library”; the meaning of the full sentence was: “Shall we go to the library tomorrow?”.)

Of course, it’ll suck if it turns out that there’s another word that continues with that kanji… the other day, someone on a Japanese-language IRC channel wrote “今日本語を勉強しています”, which means “I’m studying Japanese now”. But there’s a bit of ambiguity in the start of the sentence: 今 is the word for “now”, and 日本語 is the word for “Japanese language”. But 今日 is a word meaning “today”, and 本 by itself means “book”: “今日本を読みました” would mean “I read a book today.” Notice that the first three characters (kanji) of both sentences are the same, even though they have no words in common (not counting the particle “word” を). You don’t know whether the first couple of words are “today, book” or “now, Japanese” (obviously, the word order is completely different from that of English), until you reach the character 語. If you’d never seen any of these characters before, and were looking each of them up individually, it might take you quite a while to figure out what was written if you first started down the track of 今日 being the first word, and trying to figure out what word might be formed by 本語, only eventually discovering your mistake after an hour or so of banging your head against the table! A well-placed comma will go a long way in such a case, but by now I think you’ve got a very good picture as to why learning Japanese through reading it, has the potential to shorten your lifespan.

As you saw with 明日, “ashita/asu/myōnichi”, a given string of kanji can sometimes have multiple possible readings. This is not particularly uncommon. However, sometimes a string of kanji can not only have multiple readings, but those readings can actually have different meanings! Take 見物, which can be read either as “kenbutsu/to go sightseeing”, or as “mimono/thing worth seeing”. Only the surrounding context can make it clear which is meant. (In practice, 見物 is a rarer reading, and a writer might choose to write 物 in kana instead, to alleviate any ambiguity.)

When I sit down to make an attempt at reading a Japanese book, I’ll often end up with several other books nearby to help me do so. There’s the actual book I’m trying to read, the kanji dictionary for looking up unfamiliar characters, and the vocabulary dictionary. I’ll also often have a secondary kanji book that is less useful for discovering what a character is, but more helpful for providing advice and information on how to remember the character. And, I might even have another book or two to look up points of grammar that I’m having trouble grasping.

As I read a passage, I look up my characters, possibly look them up again for tips on what the individual components might mean, look up unfamiliar words, and if necessary look up an unusual verb or adjective use. I can easily spend twenty minutes, maybe even up to an hour, on a single sentence. These days I try to rely more on electronic dictionaries, which save both time and disk space, but the process remains largely tedious. As I learn more characters, vocabulary and grammar, each additional passage takes me less time, but it can still be an ordeal.

But, after mastering reading and gorging myself on Japanese literature, will I finally have gained an intimate familiarity with the language that I can take and apply directly in using the spoken language in conversation? Well… yes and no. Obviously, Japanese is Japanese, and a lot of phrases I get from books can go straight into conversations too. But, the usual style of written Japanese is still significantly different in tone, level of formality, etc, from spoken Japanese. Nobody speaks the way a typical Japanese book reads, except maybe radio announcers and other people who aren’t actually speaking to a particular person. If you spoke sentences you’d gotten from a book, in many cases you’d sound like you were quoting (which, of course, you would be). Fortunately, reading (modern) novels means that you may pick up some actual conversations in the form of dialog, and manga (Japanese graphic novels) are a popular way of learning the colloquial language—but note that both of these can often depict very casual conversation styles that would be considered quite rude if you employed them in conversation outside of family and close friends.

Wrapping things up

I was going to follow this section up with some ideas about learning Japanese vocabulary and kanji efficiently; but after working on that for a while, I’ve decided that the ideas are still too immature to put here yet. Meanwhile, I think I’ll write an article that talks about my favorite Japanese-learning resources instead, and where they still manage to fall frustratingly short, and what I think the perfect Japanese course might look like. Probably, some of the ideas I had for efficient learning will seep into that article.

Why Learning Japanese Can Be Frustrating

This article has been moved to; post any new comments there.

I’ve always been fascinated by the study of foreign languages. This fascination probably sprang from a childhood love of codes and ciphers. The languages I was most fascinated with were those with beautiful and exotic writing systems. If I had encountered Devanagārī before Japanese, perhaps that would have become the primary object of my dedicated language studies.

I was 11 years old, trying to learn to write in Russian, when my buddy Laban showed me some Japanese characters he’d been learning—the Hiragana (ひらがな). These characters have a simple, graceful beauty to them; from that moment I was hooked.

My buddy and I learned the two sound-based, syllabic writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana (カタカナ), and had good fun doing so. We even incorporated them into the ciphers we’d use to write letters to each other.

The funny thing is, we both learned both writing systems, without actually knowing a lick of Japanese—so we had little to write in it, apart from Japanized English. It didn’t take us long to decide that we really wanted to start learning the language to go with the writing. We both tried starting from library books, but quickly switched to some weekly classes that were being taught on Saturdays at a Japanese Buddhist church. I later took several classes at CSU Sacramento, and beyond that, both of us have been struggling off and on to continue our study of the language over the last twenty years.

Now, obviously, during the twenty years that have passed, there has not been twenty years’ worth of work put in. Nevertheless, I definitely would have hoped to be further along at this point than I am. In particular, it frustrates me that I can’t pick up a book, newspaper or magazine and just start reading along, stopping briefly every so often to look up a word. An explanation for how this is possible is the focus of part two of this article.

I’ve recently entered into another spurt of Japanese study, and I am happily finding that I am making significantly more progress this time than I have in the past. Partly because I’m motivated by the growing realization that I’ve spent so much time on this language, but am still as yet unable to put it to reasonable use: I would like to put enough additional investment into it to avoid all my past effort having been little more than wasted time. And also partly because I’m beginning to understand what sorts of techniques have the best effects for me, and am learning to avoid the sorts of practices that have in the past caused me to burn out, and set aside studying for large spaces of time.

Grammar and Pronunciation

Thankfully, neither Japanese grammar nor its pronunciation are particularly difficult. Japanese pronunciation has sometimes been compared to Spanish (though there are of course some important differences), and the structure of the language is controlled by a set of rules which, though very different from English, are at least consistently followed, so that you are not required to memorize a plethora of exceptions (as you might find necessary if you were learning English as a second language). In fact, if you do not intend to learn anything beyond actually speaking and comprehending spoken Japanese, you might find it to be much easier to learn than some Western languages.

For one thing, it lacks the concept of “gendered nouns”, that many Western languages have (but not English), requiring English learners to memorize the apparently random words that must be prefaced with (e.g.) “la” and “las” instead of “el” and “los”. In fact, Japanese doesn’t even have a word for “the” or “a”.

Japanese also nearly lacks plural forms—that is, Japanese does have a couple different ways to express plurality, but they are generally only used when there is a reason to stress the fact that we’re talking about more than one. The Japanese word “hon” could mean any of “a book”, “the book”, “the books”, “some books”, or “books”.

Some Asian languages, such as Chinese and Thai, distinguish meaning via the use of variously pitched tones. A rising, falling, or stationary high or low pitch can seriously change the meanings of words. Fortunately, Japanese has no such thing—or almost none; pitch is very occasionally crucial for distinguishing one word from another, but it is rare for a textbook to explain these, and virtually unheard-of for a dictionary to include them.

Japanese’s Three Writing Systems

Japanese is written using three distinct writing systems. There are the two syllabaries I’ve already mentioned, and an additional form called “kanji”. The kanji are characters that come directly from Chinese (though there are a few characters that were invented in Japan), and in fact “kanji” means “Chinese characters”. Kanji are used primarily for two things: to write Japanese words that were taken from Chinese, and to represent the meaning behind many Japanese words. The “hiragana” syllabic system is used to fill in the gaps, serving the purpose of allowing Japanese grammar to flow around Chinese ideographs. The “katakana” syllabic system is mainly used to represent foreign words and non-word sounds, and also to provide emphasis.

As an example of how hiragana is used together with the kanji, take the Chinese character for “come”: 来. But when used as a verb, especially as the primary verb in a sentence, it won’t usually be used to express the verb “to come” by itself: it needs to be accompanied by some hiragana characters to indicate the tense of the verb—and even how you should pronounce the character 来. If you want to say, “I will come”, you might write “kimasu” 来ます; if you want to say, “I have come”, you might instead write “kimashita” 来ました. The character 来 provides the initial “ki” sound, and the rest must be written using hiragana characters. (Note: the pronoun “I” is ommitted in the Japanese examples, and isn’t necessary for these complete sentences, which could also have been translated as “she will come”, and “it came”, etc, depending on the surrounding context.)

The two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana (together known as the “kana”), each have 46 basic forms used in modern Japanese, and modified versions of these forms are used to represent another fifty sounds or so. In contrast, there are several thousands of kanji characters. Students in Japan are expected to know some two thousand kanji by the time they’ve finished high school.

A natural question might occur to you: why are kanji even necessary, given how daunting a task it is to learn them, and that there are two complete syllabic writing systems, either of which could be used by themselves to write any Japanese phrase without resorting to kanji? For instance, take the following sentence:



bangohan o tabete kara tsukarete ita no de, eiga o mi ni ikazu ni neru koto ni shimashita.

After eating dinner, I found I was tired, and so decided to go to bed instead of going to see a movie.

As you can see, the second line, which is written entirely in hiragana and is perfectly comprehensible to a Japanese reader (barring any mistakes I may have made in writing it), is a whopping five characters longer than the first line, which uses eleven kanji, most of which are quite a bit more complex than any hiragana. If I had written these using a pen (or a brush), the first line could possibly have taken nearly twice as long to write! So why bother with them at all?

Well, probably the main justification is that this is simply how the written language happened to evolve. Of course, that’s hardly consolation, and it’s far from the whole story. After World War II, the government made some fairly extensive changes to the written language, simplifying the use of kana, and restricting the number of kanji required to be a literate reader of the language. If they could do these things, they could probably have eliminated the kanji altogether; but they did not. As you’ll see shortly, there are good reasons not to use kana alone, but surely something else would have been more expedient… though in losing the kanji altogether it would inescapably have lost much of its beauty as well.

But the kanji aren’t useless, either. The Japanese language is filled with more than its fair share of homonyms; which can easily lead to confusion. Remember “kimasu” 来ます? But “kimasu” can mean “I will wear” as well as “I will come”. In the vast majority of cases, context will make it quite clear which is meant; but when reading, the judicial use of kanji will eliminate all doubt: the one meaning “will wear” is written 着ます.

An extreme (and famous) example:



sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi.

Both the plum and the peach are members of the prunus family. (Literally: Both plum and peach are within “peach”.)

The second line, written only with hiragana, is unreadable. As you can see, written Japanese does not use spaces to separate words (though these may be used in romanized Japanese, as in the third line). The word “momo” appears twice, the word “sumomo” once at the beginning, and between these are a couple of small words “mo”, which are called particles, and serve a grammatical purpose (the “both … and …”). Someone speaking this phrase out loud could easily distinguish the words and particles from each other with the use of inflection and light pauses; but as a string of hiragana characters all you see is a sea of も (“mo”).

Kanji comes to save the day! The top line uses kanji very effectively to distinguish one word from another. “SUMOMOmoMOMOmoMOMOnoUCHI”, where each string of capital letters is a single word written in kanji. It’s very easy to pick them apart now!

A Foreign Mode of Thought

Another obstacle to learn Japanese, is the fact that not only isn’t it very similar to English and other Western languages, but it isn’t really very similar to even the way we tend to think about things.

Take for instance the phrase, “I like sports”. In Japanese this might be expressed as “watashi wa supootsu ga suki desu” (the “oo” in “supootsu” is not pronounced like “boot”, but as a long o sound “oh”, which makes “supootsu” a tolerable approximation of the English word “sports”, especially since both u’s are actually silent/whispered). “Mary likes Jon” could be “Meari wa Jon ga suki desu”. In the first few lessons of a typical Japanese textbook, a student will usually learn that “A likes B” is given as “A wa B ga suki desu” in Japanese. Unfortunately, this is a simplification of the truth.

The truth is, a Japanese sentence tends to rely very heavily on its context. “A wa B ga suki desu” doesn’t quite mean that A likes B… in some cases, it can actually mean B likes A. I was recently chatting on IRC with someone, and she said (in English) that she likes “Pocky” (a popular Japanese sweet). My response in Japanese was “Pocky wa nihon no minna-san ga suki desu”. In this case, the meaning is “Everyone in Japan (nihon no minna-san) likes Pocky”; not “Pocky likes everyone in Japan”!

Well, if “A wa B ga suki desu” can mean either one of “A likes B” or “B likes A”, then how can you know when it means one and when the other? The answer is that it doesn’t really mean either one, but something else entirely that doesn’t map all that cleanly onto English modes of thought. How to translate it into something that makes sense to an English speaker depends heavily on what else had been said before it!

“A wa” means something like “as for A”, or “speaking of A”; it marks “A” as “the thing I’m going to say something about now”, and implies that the actual interesting part of the sentence is the rest of it (whatever follows the “wa”). The particle “ga” marks the word or phrase before it as being the grammatical subject of the sentence, and “suki” means something similar to “likeable” except that it doesn’t entirely make clear whether the subject is the sentence is the thing liked (the typical situation), or the thing that does the liking (the case in my Pocky sentence). So, “Watashi wa supootsu ga suki desu” really means something like, “Speaking of myself, sports (are) likeable”. The “watashi wa” bit says, “I’m speaking of myself, but ‘myself’ is not the interesting thing I’m saying: the interesting part of the sentence is that I like sports.”

Without surrounding context, “Minna-san wa Pocky ga suki desu” can mean what most people are taught to think it means: “Everyone likes Pocky”. However, its implication is that the thing we’re talking about isn’t Pocky, it’s everyone. It makes a great answer to a question such as “What kind of thing is loved by everyone?”, because in that case, the interesting part is “what kind of thing”, and not “everyone”, which is only the topic of conversation (the interesting thing is what you have to say about the conversation’s topic). But in most cases that you want to say “everyone loves Pocky”, you’re not talking aobut everyone, you’re talking about Pocky. The interesting part of the sentence is what you have to say about Pocky, so Pocky gets the “wa” after it, and the “ga” goes after “everyone”. “Pocky wa Minna-san ga suki desu.”

This is an extremely difficult concept for many Westerners to grasp about Japanese. Unfortunately, it’s also a very important concept: the Japanese language demands the use of “wa” and “ga”, and knowing when to use which, all the time. The concept is sufficiently complex that there are whole chapters, and even whole books, written on just the subject of how “wa” should (and shouldn’t) be used.

A somewhat similar example would be the Japanese phrase “mita hito” (見た人), which could mean either “the person who saw (it)”, or “the person who was seen/the person whom I (or someone else) saw”. In Japanese, to modify a noun by a phrase you simply drop the phrase right before the noun: “saw-person”. This makes it pretty clear what is being modified, but it doesn’t provide any clues as to whether the modified noun is the subject or the object of the modifying phrase. The astonishing thing, though, is that it generally doesn’t need to: since you never say either “the person who saw it” or “the person I saw” without having already been talking about somebody having seen something, in actual use you would never be without the context that explains which is meant. So there isn’t actually any need to distinguish between them: if the previous sentence was “I spied an old friend when I went to the store today”, then the meaning of “saw-person” in a following sentence, “The ‘saw-person’ was Tommy Jenkins” is obvious. Similarly, if the previous sentence had been “I think somebody saw you when you were chewing out Susan”, then “saw-person” in a following sentence would be in reference to whoever witnessed the scolding.

Of course, when context is insufficient or missing, then one can resolve ambiguity by rephrasing or clarifying. There’s nothing wrong with saying “sono koto o mita hito” (the person who saw that taking place) or “watashi no mita hito” (the person that I saw) when the need arises; it’s just that such phrases are fairly rare, precisely because they’re unnecessary when context provides enough information for us to know which was meant, without explicitly saying. Similarly, if by “Mary wa Jon ga suki desu” we mean that Jon likes Mary rather than the reverse, and the context doesn’t clarify this, we can explicitly say “Mary is liked by Jon”: “Mary wa Jon ni suki desu”.

Note: so far, the best explanation of wa versus ga that I’ve read, is in Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You by Jay Rubin; but I also feel that he makes some fairly extreme statements. In particular, I think his explanation could tend to scare someone off from using “wa”, and that despite his attempts to say otherwise, the reader is left with the general feeling that “wa” should only be used in special circumstances, which is far from the case. In the end, the best way to understand wa is to be exposed to a lot of Japanese sentences where it is used (and practice making your own), to find good textbooks that give useful explanations of how it affects emphasis and meaning, and to avoid grossly oversimplified descriptions such as it being the equivalent to English “the”, or expressing the real gramattical subject in intransitive verbs.

The second part to this set of articles continues here.

13-Year-Old Girl Strip-Searched on Suspicion of Possessing Prescription-Strength Ibuprofen

Here it is. Found via Slashdot. I’m simply dumbstruck.

13 years old. Strip-searched. Ibu-friggin’-profen.

I don’t care that they have a zero-tolerance drug policy at the school, if all you suspect (incorrectly, as it turned out…) is ibuprofen, how is a strip-search, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, warranted?

(The story itself is not new; the actual news is that it will be heard by the Supreme Court. The incident itself took place 6 years ago, and the girl in question is now 19. But hell, it’s the first I’d heard of it…)