Immerse Yourself in Japanese Films

When it comes to learning a language, the best way is to immerse yourself in it. Now for me I live in America and while there are plenty of Japanese, Korean, and otherwise Asian families living here, it’s really difficult to immerse myself in the Japanese language when there a very few people who speak it. That being said, I had to find another way to be able to get my daily dosage of Japanese. Radio and TV are a great way to really surround yourself in a culture that you can not directly interact with. In a very awkward, but interesting, turn of events I found a very interesting blog post by a gentleman who speaks multiple languages. He talks about that very topic, and focuses on the use of film as a way of immersing yourself in a culture, and names his top 10 Japanese films. He does an excellent job of explaining the concept of the films and I have decided to take them up on my “watch list” which I will be posting within the next week. That being said, below is a copy of his post, as I cannot directly share it due to the nature of how his website is being hosted and lack of WordPress share option. Enjoy!

Film is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a foreign language from afar, giving you valuable cultural and linguistic insights from the comfort of your couch. Below you will  find my top ten favorite Japanese movies of all time, divided into three categories: 1) “Samurai & Fighting Flicks” for those who enjoy epic hero tales and aren’t squeamish of violence, 2) “Windows Into Japanese Culture” for those want to see different facets of life in modern Japan (some good, some sad), and 3) “Lighthearted & Humorous Films” for days when you need a good laugh. Limiting my list to ten movies was no easy task as Japan is home to prolific filmmakers and some of the best directors in the world.

Samurai & Fighting Flicks

1) Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai, or Shichi-nin no Samurai (七人の侍・しちにんのさむらい) as it is called in Japanese, represents the late KUROSAWA Akira’s (黒澤明・くろさわあきら) best known film, and was the first Japanese movie to gain international acclaim. The film stars a number of leading stars of the day, including SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし) as SHIMADA Kanbei (島田勘兵衛・しまだかんべい), the leader of the samurai group, and MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) as Kikuchiyo (菊千代・きくちよ), an unpredictable wannabe-samurai who ends up being the real hero of the film.

2) Yojimbo

Youjinbou (用心棒・ようじんぼう), which literally means “Bodyguard” in Japanese, stars MIFUNE Toshirou (三船敏郎・みふねとしろう) of Seven Samurai fame as a “masterless samurai”, or rounin (浪人・ろうにん), who uses his cunning mind and warrior arts to help a town riddled with the violence and corruption of two warring clans. The heads of both clans end up hiring him for protection, unaware he is playing both sides.

3) Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

Representing KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武・きたのたけし) largest commercial success to date, Zatouichi (座頭市・ざとういち) portrays KITANO as a blind masseuse roaming town to town. Not to spoil the story, but he is in secret a Robin Hood-esque hero with serious sword skills. When he comes across a town being bullied and extorted by powerful yakuza gangs, he shows that he doesn’t need the power of sight to bust heads. Despite the film’s blood and guts, it won the prestigious “Silver Lion for Best Director” award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.

4) Hanabi

Literally meaning “Fireworks”, Hanabi (花火・はなび) is held by many as director-actor-comedian KITANO Takeshi’s (北野武・きたのたけし) masterpiece. Like most of his films, Hanabi portrays KITANO—who is also known quite aptly as “Beat Takeshi” (ビートたけし)as a violent tough guy. In this case, he plays a former police detective who borrows money from the yakuza to help pay for his wife’s leukemia treatments.  The film bears many similarities to his earlier (and also well-regarded) film Sonatine.

5) The Twilight Samurai

Tasogare seibei (黄昏清兵衛・たそがれせいべい, lit. “Twilight Seibei”) is set in 19th century Japan, just prior to the Meiji Ishin (明治維新・めいじいしん, “Meiji Restoration”). The movie centers around IGUCHI Seibei (井口清兵衛・いぐちせいべい), played by SANADA Hiroyuki (真田 広之・さなだひろゆき), a frugal accountant who forgoes luxuries like bathing and presentable clothes to help care for his senile mother and daughters after his wife died of tuberculosis.  But what he lacks in grooming, he makes up for in bad-ass katana skills!

Windows Into Japanese Culture

6) Ikiru

Meaning “to Live” in Japanese, Ikiru (生きる・いきる) is a touching KUROSAWA classic about death, living for a purpose, and the absurdities of Japanese bureaucracy. Having worked for the Japanese government, I assure you the portrayal is spot on!  The film stars SHIMURA Takashi (志村喬・しむらたかし), of Seven Samurai fame, this time portraying a stoic bureaucrat instead of a stoic warrior.

7) Departures

Departures is known as Okuribito (送り人・おくりびと) in Japanese, a word which usually refers to someone who sends someone else off (e.g. at the airport). The story centers around a young cellist in Tokyo who moves back to his rural hometown with his wife after his symphony is shut down. Taking a complete change of course in his life, he takes a job at a sougiya (葬儀屋・そうぎや, “funeral parlor”) and finds himself handling dead bodies instead of expensive cellos. The movie won “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2009 Oscars, and “Picture of the Year” at the 32nd Japan Academy Awards. The film is directed by TAKITA Youjirou (滝田洋二郎・たきたようじろう) and stars YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (山崎努・やまざきつとむ), HIROSUE Ryouko (広末涼子・ひろすえりょうこ), and MOTOKI Masahiro (本木雅弘・もときまさひろ).

8) Nobody Knows

Though it’s one of the sadder films I have ever seen, I highly recommend KORE’EDA Hirokazu’s (是枝裕和・これえだひろかず) 2004 film Daremo Shiranai (誰も知らない・だれもしらない, “Nobody Knows”). The movie follows the daily trials of four children left alone in a Tokyo apartment for months (and eventually years) by their less-than-motherly mother. Sadly, the film is based on actual events.

Lighthearted & Humorous Films

9) Tampopo

I love this movie.  A tour de force of Japanese cuisine, this Japanese comedy ties multiple story lines together in an almost Tarantino-esque style, with every sub-story involving the love of food.  The movie is claimed to be the first “Noodle Western” (a play on the term “Spaghetti Western”).

10) Kikujiro

Though Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏・きくじろうのなつ, “Kikujiro’s Summer”) may be light on character or plot depth, the film more than makes up for it with beautiful views of Japan, amazing piano music by FUJISAWA Mamoru (藤澤守・ふじさわまもる, a.k.a. “Joe Hisaishi”), and plenty of Takeshi-style comedy.

If you’ve already started using films as a way to help yourself learn Japanese, you’ve probably found that they are extremely difficult to use as a learning tool. The language and the speed make it difficult to understand and learn from. Without backup (transcripts, questions, explanations, etc.) a commercial film is difficult to easily use for learning purposes. My suggestion here would be to watch films subtitled in Japanese (or English if you are a beginner and can’t understand what is going on) and enjoy them first as a film. Try and get a feel for the overall rhythms and speed of dialogue. Then return to scenes and try them without subtitles. For words you don’t understand, use context clues to help fill in the blanks.

I’d also recommend TV series and more everyday themed films as the dialogue has more of a chance of being natural. Don’t try to understand everything if you’re not at that level yet. A very useful skill is being able to figure out what is going on when you don’t know everything that is being said.


Moving Past the Infatuation Stage


(Ohayou minna. Genki desu ka?)

Happy Tuesday everyone! I am starting my professional work day with hot tea, thin mints, and a bit of Japanese review. Over the summer the university tends to slow down due to faculty being on vacation until August. With all of the extra time I thought I would write up a blog post about a pretty interesting topic. When it comes to things that are foreign to us, people tend to be really finicky. Many foreigners view Japan as some marvelous dreamland of technology and culture; a place where crazy is the norm and embracing fantasy in everyday life is acceptable. We read anime, we watch Japanese television, we listen to Japanese music and assume that is the sole representation of life over there. Eventually some us get to go, and we are hit with the cold hard reality that it is not everything we imagined it to be. Some people find after visiting Japan that they are no longer enthralled by the idea of Japan and lose motivation. How do you motivate yourself to continue practicing after the infatuation stage?

Like most people I fell in love with Japanese after seeing my first Japanese cartoon. For me it was あしたのジョ (Ashita no Jo) and ブルーシード (Burū Shīdo). A very literal translation of both of the title’s are “Tomorrow’s Joe” and “Blue Seed.” Between the two, Ashita no Jo was probably my favorite. It was serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine, not to be confused with Weekly Shōnen Jump, in the late 1960s. The actual animated series didn’t air until the early 70s. At a time when considerable economic and social upheaval was transforming Japanese culture, Joe was the tragic hero who represented the struggle of the lower class citizen. Joe is a deadbeat. He is a troubled orphan who chooses to abandon his orphanage in an attempt to find his own way of life. After encountering a drunkard, he ends up in a scuff with members of the local gang. The drunk is impressed by Joe’s instincts and fighting ability. It is revealed that the drunk is Dampei Tange, a former boxing instructor, who vows to straighten up and fulfill his dream of creating a world champion in Joe. As a side note: バクマン (Bakuman) is one of my more recent favorites, and when Moritaka-kun states his favorite manga is Ashita no Jo you can probably imagine my excitement lol) Burū Shīdo, instead of being a reflection of the Japanese people, takes it’s origins from Japanese mythology. It is a representation of the tale of the Shinto god スサノオ (Susanoo) and the eight-headed, eight tailed, dragon ヤマタノオロチ (Yamata no Orochi). As excited as I was, over time my excitement dwindled.

At this point in my life I had already committed myself to learning Japanese though, and once the excitement of a foreign culture died so did a bit of my motivation to learn the language. This happens to a lot of us. We are so excited about the idea of something that once that excitement is gone, or if the something does not meet our expectations, we no longer like wish to continue with it. Why is it then that after the infatuation stage I can still continue to practice and enjoy it? For me it started with taking a moment to meditate on my reasons for liking the language and the culture. Did I only like the culture because I enjoyed the cartoons? Was it only that I liked the sound of the music? Was it only that I liked what Japanese television looked like, or was there something more behind my desire? It was then that I truly realized why I liked the culture so much. Why I liked those cartoons despite not being able to understand the language with subtitles and why I loved those songs. It was because the translation and meaning behind those songs were powerful; more pleasing to listen to than American music which had and still is full of foul language and suggestive images. It was because I could relate to those animated characters more than I could in my own country. There was and is more meaning in those images than in the ones I grew up with here in America. In my opinion the people who have a deeper reason than just what we see in the media are those who continue to enjoy something after the infatuation stage.

I recently read an article by a gentleman who went by the name N. Matt who speaks on his experience in Japan. While I have not been to Japan as of yet, one of his reasons stuck with me – courteousness, politenesskindness, and friendliness. After speaking to a lot of my American friends who live in Japan and American friends who go to Japan frequently they confirmed his statement is true. Below is his statement:

Last month, I toured Japan for three weeks with G Adventures. As you know, I was very excited. I had high expectations for a country that I had for years dreamed about seeing. And when you have high expectations, you can be easily disappointed. But Japan didn’t disappoint—it exceeded my expectations. I loved Japan. Loved it beyond anything I expected. The food, the people, the architecture, the culture—it was bliss.

He then goes on to talk about how polite and friendly the Japanese are, even in the way their culture and language is structured.

I couldn’t get over how amazingly polite everyone was. People went out of their way to be helpful. While getting lost looking for my Couchsurfing host, a guy walked me all the way to the address to make sure I got there. A security guard who spoke no English just walked me to the ATM because he couldn’t explain the directions. There was always an offer of helpfulness at the slightest indication of confusion. There was always an apologetic “sorry” and even the signs, when letting people know something was not allowed, began with “sorry.” There is simply a courtesy and helpfulness that permeates the soul of Japan.

The woman who ran out of her house to talk to our tour group. The man who let everyone take 1,000 pictures of his dog. The college students to whom I gave English lessons. The owner of the noodle shop who spoke no English but wanted to have a fake game of baseball with me when I told him I was American. The old couple who just smiled at me while I ate at their sushi restaurant and gave me a thumbs up every time I said “oishi” (“delicious” in Japanese). The man who helped me place my order in Japanese and was shocked when I knew the names of fish in Japanese. Everyone was just helpful and genuinely friendly.

My love for Japan was deeper than just what I experienced on the surface. I had more of a reason than just “everyone else is doing it” or “that [the language] sounds cool.” My feelings were genuine, and so I continued to practice with newfound enthusiasm. It is important that you are doing something for the right reasons. It is especially true when it comes to language because it is so time consuming. You may hit walls, you may lose your motivation, and sometimes you may feel like you truly aren’t learning anything. In order to overcome those obstacles you need a strong motivating factor. If you are teaching yourself this is doubly important.

Remember, Japan is just a country with normal people going about their normal everyday lives. Let’s love Japan for Japan and not the idea of Japan.

It Never Happened

So I wanted to take a moment to share this post from Chelsea at Rookie Notes. Her post speaks very strongly about the use of technology in our lives. More specifically the use of social media in our lives. There used to be a point where people were simply happy interacting with each other in person. We would grab our spiral cord landline phone, place a call to a friend or relative, and make plans to go hang out with each other. Even if people weren’t hanging out with each other, they found themselves content to merely talk on the phone. Those days are apparently a thing of the past.

With the introduction of social media into our lives it not uncommon for friends, family, and even lovers to engage in internet activities for more than half of the day. How many people do you know who message each other through Facebook despite sitting right next to each other? Maybe you know someone who is constantly updating their Facebook status? I can name several people, my fiancé included, who spend 50-70% of their time on some form of social media outlet.

I’m not a social media guy so I might be one of a few, but does anyone else miss the days where people would talk to each other on the phone? Where people would take photographs on a Kodak and get them developed at the local photo shop. I am by no stretch of the imagination against social media, especially since as the graphic designer for a university I am responsible for all post and social media marketing campaigns. I just think there needs to be a good balance between the two.

How do you balance your time between social media and other activities? I would love to hear from you!

Japanese Writing Systems – Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

Learning a foreign language can be extremely difficult. Specifically teaching yourself a foreign language. For some people this comes extremely easy, and for others it takes a lot of work and when you are teaching yourself there are various other factors that come into play as well. Are you certain you are teaching yourself appropriately? Is the information you are learning outdated? How does one stay motivated to keep practicing? Learning Japanese can be significantly harder because unlike English there are three writing systems you have to use, and you have to be able to distinguish between those systems and when necessary to use them. You also have to take into consideration a multitude of other factors that can be the difference between communicating effectively, or completely confusing your listener. In order to prevent this from happening, you have to become familiar with the independent systems and grammatical structure. Fortunately, finding out where to begin when learning a new language is easy. Start with the alphabet. When learning English the first thing we learn is the alphabet. When then use the alphabet to form words. Those words then become the sentences with which we speak. So it stands to reason we would begin learning Japanese with their alphabet.

As I stated earlier, The Japanese writing system is made up of three main written scripts. They are: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana is the main writing system used to represent every distinct sound in Japanese. Because of its phonetic nature, you can use Hiragana to also learn how to pronounce all the sounds in the Japanese language. Next is Katakana, which represents the same sounds as Hiragana and it primarily used to represent words from other languages with no Japanese equivalent (this definition will vary depending on who you speak to, but the important information is still here. Katakana = foreign language words). The third and final script is Kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese use and are heavily used in writing. There are no spaces in Japanese so Kanji is necessary in order to separate the words within a sentence. According to Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese: “Kanji is also useful for distinguishing homophones, which occurs quite often given the limited number of distinct sounds in Japanese.” The best way to learn Japanese is to start by learning how to recognize and pronounce Hiragana. There is also another writing form called Romaji, which I will touch on briefly later. Below is the chart I used when I first started.


This is a really good chart because it also shows the proper stroke order for writing out characters. It is very important when writing out Japanese characters that special attention is paid to the stroke order and the legibility of the characters. For example, let’s look at “Sa” and “Chi” on this chart. They look very similar except the “chi” character is flipped horizontally. The character being turned the opposite direction turns one character into another.  Let’s look at another. “Ru” and “Ro” are very similar as well, except “Ru” has a small loop inside of itself where as “Ro” does not. That small loop is the difference between spelling “Ruku” (るく) and “Roku” (ろく) which have very different meanings. Once you learn Hiragana, you can then move on to Katakana. Just like the above chart, I used a similar chart to teach myself Katakana. I have provided the Katakana chart below as well.


Even after years of practice, because Japanese is not my native tongue, I often find myself reviewing these two scripts to make sure that I still know the characters. Don’t feel embarrassed if you find you have to do it as well. It’s not a bad thing at all. Writing 5 characters from each set a day should help with learning the characters. Let’s say on Monday you worked on the first column in each chart. That’s a total of 10 characters. If you continued this method for a single week. You will have learned 70 characters. 35 from the Hiragana chart and 35 from the Katakana chart. Learning languages takes time, so I wouldn’t dare say that is even remotely possible, but depending on how good your memory and recognition skills are you will have made a lot of progress in a short period of time. I wrote each character about 40 times a day as I was learning them to help commit them to memory. After I learned all of them I just did a daily review before I started working on other aspects of the language.

(Shot of my Katakana practice. I know, my handwriting is horrible lol)

It’s not going to be easy, but spend some time writing out the characters repeatedly. You want to be able to recognize the characters at a moments notice. It will also help you to stay away from associating the characters with their romaji equivalent while you are learning the characters. Romaji is a writing form in which Japanese sounds are written in romanized characters. As an example, るく is Hiragana and “Ruku” would be the romaji equivalent. This is not a form of writing that is widely, if at all, used in Japan. I found in my studying that American learners end up becoming dependent on associating characters with romaji because we are used to seeing romanized characters everywhere else, even in other foreign languages. I think our first step as language learners is to adapt a way of learning that is consistent with how native speakers use the language.

So just to review, here are examples of each of the writing forms:

Hiragana: わたし
Katakana: ワタシ
Kanji: 私
Romaji: watashi

If you want to use a book to learn the language, I highly recommend Genki. Though it is a paid book that you can pick up from most retailers, it is a very good resource and I feel that most people who are learning Japanese touch this book at least one time. The book is updated from time to time as well which makes the information extremely trustworthy. If you are struggling financially but still want to practice using a sound book, then A Complete Guide to Japanese Grammar by Tae Kim is a fantastic free resource. Most of my Japanese speaking friends recommend Tae Kim’s guide as well. Whichever resource you use, try and stick to it. You don’t want to read multiple books which present information differently and then confuse yourself. Once you learn the basic principles you can always refine the information later.

Work hard everyone!

A Step in the Right Direction

I would like to start this post by saying thank you to Monica. She runs a blog called The Beauty of Existence and has been a huge inspiration to me for the past few years. If you get the chance you should take a look at her blog. It’s very informative, especially regarding foreign languages. I’ve spoken with her a few times in the past and speaking with her recently made me realize what I want to do with my blog. There are other people who helped me as well simply by talking to me, but Monica has probably had the most impact on my decision.

So when I first made this blog I had a lot of visions for what I wanted to do with it. I thought about making it a Graphic Design blog because I really love what I do and do not have enough people to talk to about it. This idea is still there, waiting for me to do something with it. Eventually I will, but that day is not today and might not come for a long time. I also thought about a simple “slice of life” blog so I could talk about whatever I wanted. I have tried this, and I don’t feel like I am talking about anything specific. My post end up being all over the place and sometimes, to me, aren’t coherent. I disliked this, but I didn’t know what to do about it. There were times when talking about current events was an option, and I made a post about “The Colbert Report” a few months ago. There is a lot going on in the world that I could talk about, but it doesn’t make me feel as if I am actually saying anything. That is important to me.  I have grappled with what to do with my blog for quite some time, and I honestly had no idea. At one point I was going to just let it die. Recently I spoke to Monica and another friend called Devo who runs a blog called The Twisted Rope and realized that the reason I don’t feel like I am saying anything is because I am being extremely broad with my blog. After thinking about this for some time I have decided that I am going to speak specifically about learning Japanese, Japanese culture, and my own journey to find out who I am and the things I believe in. I will continue to speak about other topics (not that I was saying much to begin with :)), but I am trying to narrow down what I talk about to the things I care about the most. Hopefully this will help me confirm some things about myself.

The Astral in my Life

I’ve been away for a while. The combination of having three jobs and trying to have some semblance of a life is preventing me from being able to write on here the way I would like to. It seems like I’m always writing a lot for a few months, and then disappearing for more than that. And personally I just felt like I didn’t have much interesting to say. What would I talk about? I’m not really into politics and I don’t really follow current events. I am still struggling with finding a practice to follow, and even then my religious views are up for debate. Work is going well, and I have a job interview for a full-time Graphic Design job at my current place of employment. See? Nothing really to talk about. It would be nice if I could get this job though.

Working at a University I have learned all sorts of things, but being here part-time and working two other jobs which are not in my field is cutting into my time. It’s very difficult to schedule vacation time when you work at three places because the days you need off at each company to make an entire one week vacation may not necessarily be there. It’s also just annoying to be going to work every day of the week but Sunday. I normally like to go to my local card shop on Sunday but I’m running around so much that I don’t even want to leave the house on Sunday anymore. Now that would change if I could get this job. I wouldn’t have to work more than the one job to support myself and TG for starters. She’s still in school for nursing if you’re curious, however her health has been deteriorating for about a year. It’s not so bad that she will die from it, but it is affecting her ability to live a comfortable lifestyle even inside our own home.

We had a neurology appoint a month ago to discover what was wrong. The neurologist was nice, though she had us schedule an overnight electroencephalogram (EEG). For those of you who may not know, this is a test that detects electrical activity in the brain using small electrodes attached to your scalp. Your brain cells communicate via electrical impulses and are active all the time (and I do mean ALL of the time). This activity shows up as wavy lines on an EEG recording, and based on the movement of these lines the doctor will be able to tell us what is wrong with her, or what they think is wrong, so that we can begin trying to treat the problem. If you know anything about TG from reading her blog, it’s that she hardly (I love you sweetie 🙂 ) does anything immediately when she’s asked to. Now her health insurance is gone until about the middle of June maybe early July, which means we can’t schedule the EEG anyway because we can’t afford the cost without insurance backing us. It would seem that we are “up the creek without a paddle.”

In other news though, I think I am becoming more and more confused about religion and practices in general. I started reading up on Shintoism and have still been fiddling around with Kemeticism; and I use fiddling loosely because I am still trying to figure out what exactly it means to be Kemetic. I’ve been having some thoughts that just don’t add up to me. For example, a while ago while at work I randomly zoned out and I was in something like an alter/castle/empire thing. I remember feeling like I was imagining it purposely because I wanted to find some sort of clue to what I was supposed to be doing, but I’ve also learned just because I feel like I’m thinking about it on purpose doesn’t make it the case and just because I am thinking about it on purpose doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Either way I am standing on this alter/castle/empire (yes, it did look like some combination of the three) thing and suddenly I forget why I am standing there and how I got there. So now I’m standing here baffled about what I am doing here and not at work. Everything then fades and my zoning ends, at which point I’m in my office.

As another example right now I am at work typing this blog post and my mind keeps wandering off to random places. First it was a thick forest. It is very very dense with a small clearing. In this clearing there is a sparkling pond. I remember this place as my “comfort” zone in the astral. I don’t mean astral as in spirit work though. I mean astral as in whenever I am sleeping and something dangerous is happening, whenever I am stress in real life and meditate, or whenever I simply need somewhere to go and not be bothered this is often where I end up. This makes sense, as my house as been very stressful as of late. I invited my cousin in my space because he would have been homeless otherwise. His fiance is there as well. She is fine. He is driving me insane. I won’t stay on this too long, but just providing it as cause for why I have been ending up here a lot lately.

As a completely separate example, while I was typing that sentence just now, my mind wandered off back to this alter/castle/empire place and as I noticed I was “drifting” away from my physical body I shook my head and came back down. There are times at work where I feel elevated from my body because I am stressed or dizzy, and other times I feel that way for no explainable reason at all. There is probably a reason for this. Maybe it has something to do with why I haven’t seen or cannot connect to my fox spirit? I will mention her in another post. After all I am still at work 😛 My brain rambles a mile a minute regardless of what I am doing and sometimes it is hard to keep up with my thoughts and so I’ve learned to get them out while I can still comprehend my own messages. My plan is to ask Aine for some suggestions, but I’d also like suggestions from people with more experience than I. How do I know when something is a sign with respect to religion and the astral realm and when I am simply causing something to happen because I am overly concerned with it?