Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dealing with Leeches

We've all been in situations where we find ourselves confronted by a language leech, one of those people who appear at a time inconvenient to you for no other reason than to practice/show-off their English skills. Often, it's hard to be rude at their gall as their approach could easily be misconstrued as "friendly." This is just one weapon from the arsenal they each have at their disposal for ensuring you remain a complicit and willing host for their blood sucking activities. But it doesn't have to be that way - the weapons of the enemy are equally effective with you in control. Read on for some practical tips on ensuring your life blood isn't drained, or in the case of those of us that don't teach English for a living, to prevent an irritating itch from spreading.

Skill #1: Beating them to the punch

We've all had long one-sided conversations that start like this:

Leech: "Excuse me, but where are you from?"
You: "「どこどこ」出身ですが” ("I'm from [insert name of country here]")
Leech: "Oh, it sounds like you speak Japanese very well. It must be very hard for you to learn."

To the untrained ear, this sounds perfectly acceptable and polite, but don't be fooled. Anybody that's been on the island for more than a few weeks and has picked up any linguistic skills will recognise the real purpose of this opening, that being to establish the alpha male. An approximate translation is as follows:

Leech: "My foreign language skills are superior."
You: "No, MY foreign language skills are superior."
Leech: "Then I shall condescend you into submission."
You: (Rolls over exposing soft belly)

The subtle politeness of the condescension weapon conceals its true offensive potential, making a counter-attack seem almost... inappropriate. How can you show anything but gratitude to somebody that's just paid you a compliment?!

As it turns out, that is exactly the mindset we must turn on our opponent if we are to defuse this situation before it even begins. Beat them to the punch, putting them at the disadvantage. Observe the following example:

Leech: "Excuse me, where are you from?"
You: "「すごい!英語お上手ですね!難しいでしょう?” ("Wow! Your English is really good! It must be terribly difficult for you to learn!")
Leech: "あぅ、え〜と、そうですね。ありがとうございます。" ("Oh, um, sure indeed. Thank you for your kinds words.")

Quite a different result don't you think. The underlying power struggle translates roughly as follows:

Leech: "Observe and behold my superior language skills."
You: "Then watch me use MY language skills to condescend YOURS."
Leech: "Cock it! Run for the hills!"

Problem solved, or so it would seem. Don't relax yet though. Professional leeches have a little more in their arsenal than just that. At this point, they may employ one of the trusted counter-attacks that are near guaranteed to have you groveling in submission before they're even finished vocalising the final period. Amongst these, the most potent at guard busting ugliness is "the natto paradox."

Under normal circumstances when dealing with thinking, feeling, humans, a sure way to get out of conversations you don't want to be in is to choose the least inspired answer to any topics raised so as to bore your opponent away. The so called natto paradox has been keenly designed with exactly that in mind. The question in its purest form can only be answered one of two ways, and whichever way you answer, you will suddenly be thought of as in some way extraordinary. Before reading the two examples, note that the natto paradox can be about non-natto-related topics too, but of key importance is that under no circumstances will there be ever be any context. It will always be out of the blue, when natto (or whatever) is furthest from everybody's minds. Read on:

Conversation 1:
Leach: "Do you like natto?"
You: "Sure, yeah, I guess."
Leech: (Volume increases by 70%) "Wow! That's amazing! You're foreign... and you like natto! I've never met a foreigner that liked natto before, not that I asked."

Conversation 2
Leech: "Do you like natto?"
You: "Not particularly, no."
Leech: (Volume increases by 70%) "Of course you don't. Silly asking really. You're foreign, and foreigners don't like natto. That's a fact, and you've proved it. Only we, the unique Japanese can appreciate its slightly salty and sticky taste you see, banzai banzai long live the emperor or something, I wasn't paying attention."

You might be thinking at this point that simply saying you've never tried it will suffice. This merely evades a single instance of a chain attack, and mark my words they will relentlessly try and try again without mercy until they find something, anything, that you like, or dislike to any degree.

As it's impossible to answer this question without having an uncomfortable scene caused, the trick to defusing the situation is not to answer. Or more specifically, to avoid answering without your opponent noticing that this is what you've done. This is the verbal equivalent of pointing in one direction, saying "look over there," and then running in the other. Two highly effective techniques are the Babbler and the Connoisseur.

Skill #2: The Babbler

Leech: "Do you like natto?"
You: "If you mean 'do I want to eat natto, right now?" then that's a definite NO! I'm absolutely stuffed! At the MOS* round the corner, they've got a two for the price of one special on with their chilli-tomato cheesedog burgers, and I just ate three, a double three, six. With a double helping of fries. I don't think I'll be eating for another week, but it's a very kind offer... Mr... what was your name again?"
Leech: "Um... Suzuki."
You: "Oh, Suzuki, like the fish. And you live round here do you?"
Leech: "Um... Yes?"
You: "Then you should really try out that MOS special they've got on. WoooWeeee! How old are you by the way? Are you married?**"

* Take care when choosing an establishment. Any hint of "unique Japaneseness" or "unique foreignness" will be spotted and exploited, rendering your defense ineffective. Sushi and McDonalds are good examples of ones to avoid.
** Try to turn it into a one-sided Q&A session if at all possible, before they get a chance to. This is the very nature of using the weapon of the enemy.

Skill #3: The Connoisseur

Leech: "Do you like natto?"
You: "I have to say my experience has been really a very mixed bag, as a quick perusal through any supermarket refrigerator section will bring you an awful lot of chaff for even the slightest hint of wheat. Though that's not to say there aren't some gems out there though. Generally the type that employs an artificially induced starter of bacillus subtilis natto will give a consistent but often uninspired result. You take your chances with straw, but it can certainly be argued that the benefits outweigh the risks, if chosen carefully. What particular kind did you have in mind?"
Leech: "Gosh, you know natto very well. Much more than Japanese people.*"
You: "So you mean the cheap kind then. You get what you pay for I suppose. Might I suggest Hama-natto. It's not for everyone, but if you can find some locally I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."
Leech: "..."

* Note the strained attempt to turn the situation round by condescension. Under no circumstances should this be acknowledged.

That's all we have time for this week. Next week, we'll be looking into dealing with chopsticks related compliments made while you're actually sitting eating with them, some more hints on the natto paradox including the "you eat bread with every meal of course?" and "have you ever been to a Japanese onsen?" lines of enquiry, and as a bonus, how to enjoy the full paralysing effect of my current favourite answer, "I'm here to bury my father." Watch this space!

Sushi Damacy: Reading fish

Ever wondered what the readings are for all those fish-based kanji you see at sushi-ya and fishmongers? The Kanken DS software has a bonus game dedicated to learning (or more specifically, testing) exactly that. Make one mistake and you have start again from the beginning, and the order changes each time. Only those truly possessing the soul of sushi stand a hope of answering all 45 correctly.

Although there's no actual time limit, I did it as a speed run. How many would you have got?

Note: There's no sound in the above video.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I hate VLOGs

Video camera: check!
Nothing worth saying: check!
Want people to think you're great and send you stuff: check!
Why not have a go at VLOGing?! And that's exactly what I did.

Now I could make up some excuse like "I freeze up in front of cameras and that's why my Japanese sounds so shyte," but truth be known, I do freeze up in front of cameras but my spoken Japanese sucks elephant cock anyway. I only managed to get it sounding reasonably OK in front of the camera by doing multiple takes... That being said, I'm getting bored just thinking about VLOGing again, so I can't see any repeat performances in the pipeline. At the same time though, I can't say it's something I regret.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Remembering Kanji Stroke Order

Anybody that's ever purchased a basic kanji guide (not including the faux-kanji snake-oil guide by Heisig) will have been merely whelmed by how simple the basic stroke order rules are as outlined in the opening chapters. Once you learn the basic patterns, the kanji practically write themselves it would seem. Why is it then that even native adults continue to cock up some of the simplest kanji on a regular basis then? Fact is there are sufficient inconsistencies in the rules to warrant an entire chapter dedicated to this particular topic. I don't have a chapter, so here are some of the more obvious ones.

We'll begin with the deceptively simple "hand" element comprising one horizontal stroke (left to right) and one near vertical stroke (top to bottom-left). Which stroke comes first depends on the character or component being constructed. Thankfully, there are only 5 to choose from, those being 左, 右, 友, 有, and 布. Out of these:

左 and 友 are written horizontal → vertical. This also applies when the character is used as a component of a more complex character such as 佐, 惰, 抜 etc.

右, 有, and 布 on the other hand are written vertical → horizontal. Likewise, these also apply when components of more complex characters such as 若, 堕, and 希.

石 is written exactly as you'd expect - horizontal → vertical.

Next we come to the similarly deceptive element 厂. From the outset,this seems fairly simple - horizontal → vertical under all circumstances e.g. 原, 厘, 振. Add an apostrophe and the order remains the same e.g. 麻, 庭 etc.

However, when the horizontal stroke is either hooked (虎), crossed through (成) or both (皮) then the order changes to vertical → horizontal.

Additionally, watch out for slightly diagonal horizontal strokes such as found in 斤 and all compounds therein, such as 近, 浜 etc. - the horizontal stroke is drawn first from right to left followed by the vertical stroke, as two separate strokes.

Next comes 王 and variations of. In its two main forms 王 (全, 球 etc.) and 玉 (国, 宝 etc.) the stroke order is consistent - top horizontal → centre vertical → centre horizontal etc. and the apostrophe always comes after the final horizontal stroke in 玉.

In the case of 金 (鍛, 鑑 etc.) however, the order changes from top horizontal → centre horizontal → centre vertical. Again, the two apostrophes come after the final horizontal stroke.

And speaking of apostrophes harshing our respective mellows, look out for these in groups underneath 人 shapes such as 大 or 夂. With groups of one or two apostrophes, the direction of the stroke should match the final preceding stroke of the 人 element e.g. 太 or 冬. When there's three apostrophes, the direction switches to oppose the final preceding stroke e.g. 参, 修 etc.

Finally 匚 vs 囗. This is very simple and consistent, but it's easy to slip into bad habits.

In the case of 囗 such as used in 国, 図 etc., the left vertical comes first followed by the top horizontal and the right vertical as a single stroke. The inner content is then drawn, with the bottom horizontal drawn last.

匚 on the other hand, as used in 医, 区, 欧 etc. starts with the top horizontal stroke, followed by the content. The left vertical stroke and the lower horizontal stroke are drawn together in the shape of a capital "L" as the final single stroke of the component. This may feel awkward if you're used to writing it another way, so get used to it.

This has barely even scratched the surface, but hopefully will go some way to showing that even the inconsistencies have some consistency to them, and that mastery of the kanji should be that much closer to being within reach.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Woman Wars, aka Women: the unfairer sex

While I'm in the habit of openly ripping off other people's artistic styles, here's my new abridged script of the Japanese TV drama "Fushin no toki: Woman Wars" released last Autumn, in the inimitable style of The Editing Room's Rod Hilton.



KEN ISHIGURO approaches the audience to preface his tale.

I am the male protagonist of the piece, and despite my having an illegitimate child with YUKI MATSUSHITA, who is both older and less attractive than my apparently infertile wife RYOKO YONEKURA, not to mention a second illegitimate child from a former transgression which is never really delved into, I represent the most sympathetic character in this charade. I just hope my wife doesn’t find out.

Find out what? That you had a son/daughter with the older and less attractive YUKI MATSUSHITA? Thankfully, I am already determined to beat the odds and have my own child out of sheer spite, destroying your life in the process, because of a single drunken throw away comment you made some years back that wasn’t directed at me and I may have misinterpreted. Consequently, I find it hard to really be any more annoyed with you than I already am.

Yes, it would certainly be a double standard for your husband’s philandering to be the soul source of your annoyance. I’ve seen the way you look at my calligraphy brush.

Naturally, I won’t mention that you’re the infertile one until after you’ve burned your bridges with YUKI MATSUSHITA, and started to form a relationship with my child who you had also assumed to be yours.

Me? infertile? How could this be?

The doctor said.

But I already have one, or possibly two other children – I wasn't paying attention.

The doctor said.

Then I shall take you at your word. This does not bode well. How could my life possibly get any worse?!

Phone rings.

My wife just left me and took all my furniture. Women are all bastards!

Sorry, who is this?


Are you sure this boy/girl’s mine? You see I’m apparently infertile which brings my fatherhood into question. My wife RYOKO YONEKURA told me the doctor said so, and despite her harbouring a long term grudge, having a supposedly sperm-bank child out of spite, and being determined to destroy my life by all means at her disposal, I have no reason to disbelieve her nor to seek a second opinion over something so apparently trivial.

How dare you even suggest such a thing. Just for that, I shall blackmail your company costing you your job and the pension fund you spent your entire adult life accumulating.

She does.

Piss! How could my life possibly get any worse?!

KEN ISHIGURO goes into a coma and dies.

Oh no! I care slightly!


Well, the important thing is that I’m left with the business I established using money extorted from a man who can now never come after me, I have my very own trophy son/daughter minus the inconvenience of a male partner, and am generally happy with the way things have turned out. Life has never been better!

I too am in the same situation, but strike “business established using extorted money” and replace with “two storey detached suburban dwelling, twenty five remaining years of mortgage payments, and no visible means of income.” Life indeed has never been better!

And I shall be back from the grave next season to exact my imaginative revenge upon the living.

Everybody wins, except the brow-beaten husbands who had been made to sit through the entire series by their overbearing wives.