Friday, September 20, 2013

For The Love Of Japan: Inroads To Learning Japanese

Learning Japanese? Ii desu ne! Via.

Susan Berhane follows up her report from the intermediate Japanese classes at Japan Society's language center with a peek into the beginners' classes. An international relations student at Old Dominion University, Susan was a 2013 summer intern for the Society’s Communications Department.

Manga has been an essential part of my life since age 11. For each "A" grade I received, or good report card I brought home, my mother rewarded me with a new Sailor Moon of my choice.

Although it was another way for me to hone my reading skills, Sailor Moon meant much more to me. Beyond being part of Sailor Senshi battling the evil Negaverse, it brought a whole new world of art and literature.

Manga was the gateway to anime once I found Sailor Moon episodes on television. Japanese animation allowed my mind and imagination to go places I could have never dreamed as a child. Series like Dragon Ball Z, Ruroni Kenshin, Ranma, Sakura Card Captor, and Pokémon soon followed and fed my growing love for Japan. By the time I reached high school, I was devouring anything about Japanese history, religion, and economy. Discovering Japan's influence on industry in the U.S. paved the way to a college major in U.S.-Japanese foreign relations.

My first Japanese classes were in college. I had no prior exposure to reading and writing in the language. The courses at my university were extensive, and most students in my class had taken Japanese in high school. Needless to say, my first classes were extremely difficult, but my sensei and my classmates were all very supportive and encouraging. It was exciting to learn new alphabets, hiragana and katakana, and it became even more so when we were introduced to kanji. Learning a language like Japanese may seem intimidating, but the sense of accomplishment when being able to read or write a sentence the first time is exhilarating.

The key to learning any language is study. I repeat: study, study, study! Class time alone will not enable a person to breeze through their favorite manga or watch their favorite anime with no subtitles. Also, using class time well is vital. It is as much a time for review as a time to learn new things.

Studying Japanese requires time and dedication as well as the understanding that everyone learns at a different pace. Being in a class setting teaches you the formality that anime and manga won’t teach you. It also gives you the opportunity to practice and grow with other students who may also share your interests.

Being used to classes at a collegiate level, I was anxious when I observed the intermediate class at Japan Society, but my fears were soon allayed. When I observed a first-time beginners level class, there were many similarities, such as two sensei teaching, the use of colors to help organize and teach, and the enthusiasm and participation of the students.

The number of students was slightly fewer than  the intermediate class , and I was able to ask a few why they decided to study Japanese and what their experience at Japan Society's language center was like.

Just like at the intermediate level, the reasons for studying Japanese were wide-ranging, with inroads from anime and manga, classic literature and having to know basic Japanese for their job. Everyone I talked to praised the language center and told me they were planning to take the next level.

Luis, who discovered the Society's Japanese lessons on YouTube in the process of self-teaching decided to try classes here. "The best part [of the videos] for me was watching Miyashita-sensei. I was hoping to get her but I’m just as happy with my current teacher. All the teachers are amazing at Japan Society--so attentive and caring towards students. Japan Society fit my schedule, offers good prices, and makes me feel more comfortable in learning."

Sean, a businessman who lived in Tokyo for a time and discovered the Center through Yelp, also had some trepidation at the beginning. "I was scared at first because of my own ability--or lack of--to speak and comprehend at a decent speed. But I got support from friends and took the plunge. I was already a Japan Society member and liked the other programs [as an] avid attendee, so everything just made sense. I feel very happy with my decision and feels that I've learned so much already."

Amy, a filmmaker who is working on a project with Japanese themes and actors, discovered Japan Society through the annual summer JAPAN CUTS film festival. "I took classes before, but it had been so long I was afraid I couldn't grasp the materials again and that maybe I was too old to be a student again," she said, which obviously wasn't the case. "I also already liked Japan Society and thought it to be a very cultured place. All the events I ever attended had been held in good taste and I thought they promoted Japan well."

Maggie was also persuaded by the reviews on Yelp, and decided to share her experience. "Another reason why I chose Japan Society is because it fit my schedule and had good prices. I already had some Japanese knowledge but needed to fill in some gaps. Now after being in class for a while I feel good with my decision and very satisfied with what I have learned so far. I also convinced my friend to join with me!"

Maggie brings up a good point. Studying a language can be a lot more fun if you share the experience with a friend. It's like having a built-in study buddy. Of course, as I learned from my experience, the Japan Society language center is full of friendly and helpful students, with potential study buddies aplenty. When you start classes here, be fearless and introduce yourself to everyone right away. Just be sure to do it in Japanese!


--Susan Berhane

BONUS: Too shy to ask someone out? Try it in Japanese! 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

60 And Sitting Pretty: The 'Kanreki' Rebirth

Kitty in vestments. Via.

It’s been said that old age is a kind of second childhood. How about a second spring? Japanese tradition celebrates both of these ideas in the form of a kanreki, or sixtieth birthday.

The kanreki tradition stretches back to Japan’s adoption of the Chinese zodiac calendar and includes its own particular vestments for the occasion. Those lucky enough to reach 60 receive the traditional red cap, chanchanko vest, and seat cushion that mark them as having completed a full cycle of the twelve-pronged zodiac calendar. Achievements are celebrated and a lifetime’s troubles are forgotten as the celebrated individual enters a new stage of life with all the joy and possibilities of a newborn.

The red coloring of the vest and cap (available for humans and felines alike) is intended to promote a spirit of youth (the Japanese word for baby, akachan, is composed of aka, meaning “red,” and -chan, a suffix often used for children). Furthermore, many visitors to Japan can attest to the ubiquitous presence of the red-bibbed ojizosama statues, which are thought to protect the spirits of children.

In the past, reaching kanreki would have signified a person’s transition from a lifetime of gainful employment to comfortable dependence on the eldest son. In the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, Mary L. Dol describes the tradition:
The 60 year old man “retired” from active work and from the responsibilities of household representation and management. His successor, typically the oldest son, assumed control of the family enterprise and took care of his parents in their old age. The retiree’s wife… passed the rice paddle to her son’s wife to symbolize the transfer of responsibility for the internal management of household affairs.
In reality, many men and women continued to provide some degree of labor in the form of caring for children or carrying out household chores. Even today, a quick drive through the countryside of Japan and many other Asian nations will reveal a large number of spritely, aged individuals looking after gardens and crops.

Though some might think 60 years to be no more than middle aged in a country that boasts the world’s longest life expectancy, it’s important to remember that anything beyond 40 would have been considered long-lived a century ago. We can see this reality in the old Japanese concept of yakudoshi, or "calamitous ages," the most significant of which occurred at the age of 33 for women and 42 for men. The age of 60, on the other hand, was a positive yakudoshi signaling a return to the beginning of the zodiac calendar, and the other yakudoshi of age 70, 77, 87 and 99 would have involved some sort of celebration. One can only wonder how many Japanese men and women have gone on to reach the Dai Kanreki, a sort of kanreki-plus known in Buddhism as the Greater Kanreki.

Tonight Japan Society's Performing Arts Program launches its kanreki season featuring a spate of international cross-cultural collaborations, encompassing beloved encore performances, world and U.S. premieres, legendary performers and emerging artists. With the Program going strong after 60 years and over 600 productions, it looks like the Greater Kanreki is still very much within reach. Whether the caps and chanchanko vests will make an appearance remains to be seen.

-- Andres Oliver (additional research by Matt Jefferis)