Not ready to tiger Tokyo: tweets from Japan

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At the very hour when, a few days ago, Victor Mair was posting his piece about Valentine's Day in Japan (I Tiger You), I was at ground zero for the event: the candy section of the biggest department store in Tokyo's Ginza district. I have never seen anything like it. Excited young women by the thousand buying up all the chocolate and other candy that industry could pack into pink and white heart-bedecked boxes and bags. What an incredible coup the candy manufacturers have made out of this celebration of girlfriendhood and boyfriendhood. The ratio of refined sugar and teenage girls to oxygen had reached danger level in the confined space of the department store basement, and I fled from this stampede of candy lust, escaping into the cold afternoon air. I'll tell you a secret: I simply cannot bear Tokyo.

Sorry, but it's not my kinda town. I am not ready to {heart} it, {tiger} it, or {chocolate} it. It is a concrete nightmare turned movie. (Ridiculous to say this when in fact we have had the privilege of staying in the wonderful Four Seasons hotel in the gardens at Chinzan-so, I know that; but the cross-town freeways and skyscrapers began to oppress me after the first few days.) And as regular Language Log readers will know, in addition I have a horror of becoming illiterate, and I become illiterate the moment I arrive in Japan.

My schedule here is a busy one, and the Twitter format seemed like a sensible one for the very few linguistic and cultural insights and observations that impress themselves on a simple and illiterate man like me. So the snippets that follow are all 144 characters or less. [Prescriptivists: don't tell me that should be "144 characters or fewer". When it comes to my native language, I'll be the grammarian here, OK? But I accept that I got the limit wrong: texts are 144 but for Twitter it's actually only 140.]

  • Tokyo indescribable in human language: Atlanta concrete and freeway density, super-Manhattan people density, only Blade Runner gives hint.

  • Could disastrous Japanese writing system be left here by aliens to make sure human development is held back by a few centuries?

  • Friends in Kyoto report counting system also unsuited to human cognitive powers. Numerals vary by what is being counted, and with location of use.

  • Neat phonology evidence from monolingual Japanese: "Yahoo!" comes out [yafu] (bilabial [f], unrounded [u]) due to well known allophonic rule.

  • Speech act distribution very different here. US sports stars & politicians reluctant to apologise; Japanese do it every few minutes.

  • Disaster: took wrong 11:29 Shinkansen train. There were 2. And me illiterate. Went 100 miles in wrong direction. Missed appointment.

  • Shinkansen ("bullet train") quiet, smooth, incredibly fast. Best train on planet. Shame about platform signs written mainly in Klingon.

  • Am beginning to BLAME the Japanese for brain-damaged 3-layer unlearnable excuse for writing system. Turning into an orthographic racist.

  • School visit to see English class. Not allowed in with shoes. Given slippers 65% length of my feet. Shuffled around like a mental patient.

  • Went to Korean restaurant for dinner last night. Menu in Japanese, monolingual staff, no pictures. Could not order anything. Left.

  • Got dinner in backstreet ramen/donburi shop. Pictures of food to point to. One guy spoke a small amount of English! Turned out he was Korean.

  • Being here is one long sequence of difficulties, mistakes, and small humiliations. NOT THEIR FAULT. Must volunteer for adult literacy.


  1. Russell said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

    This may may upset hangul fans everywhere (including me), but after having been completely acclimated to Japanese orthography, [Don't brag, Russell. Nobody likes a gloater. —GKP] I find it rather difficult to get used to native, Sino-Korean, and western loan words all written in the same system. I mean, I devoted all that time to learn several thousand characters; I think I deserve to have it pay off for me in Korean, too!

  2. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    Limit comments to 144 characters please. My discipline should be yours too. And be sympathetic. Osaka today. Must find right train.

  3. John Lawler said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    IIRC, Geoff Sampson suggests in his book Writing Systems that Japanese orthography was in fact elaborated in its present form by medieval Japanese courtiers with way too much time on their hands and no motivation at all to make the system reasonable; au contraire, they found the complexities amusing.

    That is, Japanese orthography was made difficult on purpose, like the QWERTY keyboard. But now they (and we) are stuck with it, just as we've stuck everyone on the planet with English spelling.

  4. Gavin said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    Speech act distribution: great observation. Tried to put my finger on the reason/name for this for years.

  5. greenlight said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    Sounds like you're stuck in spoken/written language mode. Now learn gesture language and you'll get along alright. I have 26 characters left…

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    Now that you're posting off-Twitter, can you tell us if "[yafu] (bilabial [f], unrounded [u])" means [jaφy]?

    [No, it doesn't. But that's a nice try. The pronunciation I heard was [jaɸɯ]. That's Lower-case J, Lower-case A, IPA Phi (not Greek phi), Turned M. In articulatory terms, voiced palatal central approximant + open unrounded vowel + voiceless bilabial fricative + close back unrounded vowel. —GKP]

  7. Martin Ball said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    I assume it means [jaɸɯ]. [Exactly right. —GKP]

  8. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    Hiragana has only 46 base glyphs, many with easy English mnemonics, and a straightforward system. Learning can't hurt, might help?

  9. Alex Case said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    What Russell said. I find that after learning kanji, reading hangul or Japanese kids' books just in kana is a lot slower.

  10. TB said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    The difficulty of Japanese is exaggerated. Tokyo is the best city in the world. My opinion is unpopular on LL.

  11. Supergrunch said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

    Learning Katakana will help, and lead to more fun with mangled English. Everyone should have a love/hate relationship with Japanese orthography.

  12. Brad said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    I went to Japan for a year as a student vacation, and as someone only semi-literate in Japanese, I shudder at the thought of what complete illiteracy in Japan would be like.

    Surely if you went alone you had some passing knowledge of the spoken language?!?

    [Much of the time I have been very nicely looked after by Japanese hosts, and I have often had the company of my partner Barbara in trying to figure things out. But I tried to make one solo journey from Kyoto to Kobe for an appointment, and the result was a disastrous afternoon of long-distance travel in the direction of Nagoya. (Neither I nor the Japanese friends who had given me my instructions knew there were TWO 11:29 Shinkansen express trains leaving the same station at the same second three platforms apart, and I had only seen the sign regarding one of them. I couldn't take steps to inform myself because I didn't know there was something else I needed to know. It is what Donald Rumsfeld once quite perceptively called the problem of unknown unknowns — the things you don't know, and you don't know you don't know them.) And no, I have not even a smattering of spoken Japanese. Nothing at all. And they return the uncompliment by hardly ever having even a smattering of my language. It's been a tough week. —GKP]

  13. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    Spent 3 weeks in Japan on honeymoon, got by with phrasebook, never took wrong train, ordered food fine. Expectation adjustment needed?

    Sorry, I'm going to ignore the limit now (Twitter's 140 anyway).

    The faintly distasteful meme you seem to be looking for is "moon language" (if you are old school) or "moonspeak" if you are a n00b, and it's pretty played-out at this point ( ).

    Much better to, if possible, learn the kana using your method of choice. I'm a visual learner and a method where they were overlaid with silly shapes with related English sounds worked well for me, plus writing them out in some related familiar word. But at any rate, all I could do when I went was recognize some kanji from prior Chinese studies, and use some phrases from phrase books, and we were fine.

    I also found that Tokyo was not that bad once I was able to spend a little time there, because it's very neighborhoody. Passing through might be traumatic, I suppose, particularly if you were given to orthographic panic.

    If you were one of my students, even given some hyperbole for the enjoyment of writing tongue-in-cheek, I'd say you sounded like you were experiencing accelerated culture shock.

    Of course, you're my better, not my student, so I'll quit tsking. I do hope some aspects of your trip have been marginally endurable, though.

    [Better than marginal. Superb cuisine; astonishing aesthetics and architecture; best high-speed trains; politeness and courtesy; honesty, safety, and security; possibly best hotel I ever stayed in (the Granvia, above Kyoto station). I hope you don't think I writing about hating Japan. I'm writing about hating myself for not being anywhere near able to cope with Japan because of my orthographical handicap. —GKP]

  14. David said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    Tokyo is fantastic. But of course tastes differ. However I didn't expect this kind of exasperation at not being able to speak English in every corner of the planet from a _linguist_.

    [You seem to have missed the point of Geoff's posting completely, probably by reading into it what you expected to hear. Geoff was saying that he viewed his illiteracy in Japan as a dire failure on his part, not on the part of the Japanese setting. It's humbling, and distressing, for a linguist.

    The advice that, well, if you're going to go to Japan, you should first learn to speak and read some significant amount of Japanese, is scarcely helpful, especially if you're going to Japan on a short business trip. (When I was in similar circumstances a few years ago, I had the advantage of being taken around Tokyo by colleagues and former students who were Japanese speakers.) —AMZ]

    [Listen to Arnold, David. Arnold is wise. Arnold has read me carefully. He knows when I am expressing humblement and distressitude. What did you think my last tweet meant? —GKP]

  15. Ian Preston said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    Caught trains in Japan last year. All directional signage in Japanese and Roman characters. Wd need bialphabetic illiteracy to catch wrong one.

    [It is true that if you watch the platform signs closely for long enough you will see them pop into romanization for 7 seconds every minute or two. But my hosts had failed to tell me what the final destination of my long-distance express train would be (I asked, but we were not at the station, and they did not know). So I knew only that I should catch the 11:29 and sit in seat 6E of coach 5. And I did not have a map of Japan with me, so I could not determine there is no such thing as a train from Kyoto to Nagoya that goes through Kobe on the way. And I didn't know that elsewhere in the same station there was a second 11:29 train: on platform 12 the sign showed only platform 12 trains. I had correctly found the platform for the (wrong) 11:29, so I was watching a sign that said the 11:29 was coming soon. It did not report all the intervening stops. Everything seemed like it was going just fine, until I was inside, where the rolling LED display eventually gave me a list of the upcoming stops in romanization… But as I saw that, the doors locked, and the two 11:29 trains rolled out of the station simultaneously, with me on the wrong one. —GKP]

  16. Steve Harris said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    I first visited Japan immediately after having taken two years of classes in Japanese (I'd been dating the instructor and was with her for part of my trip, but some of it I was on my own). I was appalled at my illiteracy; I knew the kana and a few score kanji, and that was much too little. Still, I figured that a sign placed on a yard, including a kanji with a "not" meaning, meant "Keep off the grass"; and all the transport facilities I came across, in-city (Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa) and inter-city, had quite adequate romaji signage.

    My informal take on this: Two years' classroom study of Japanese is about like one year's study of an Indo-European language (for an I-E native speaker).

  17. Van said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    Agree with Clarissa and David. Japan forced/motivated learning the language. Was a "good culture shock". And signage in the native language/character set seems fair.

    [What strange things you people say. I'm not claiming that it is UNFAIR for a country to put up signs in its own language on its own railway station platforms! Everybody seems to be trying to take my words and squeeze some sort of critique out of them, whether it is there or not. This post is about ME and my bumbling efforts to cope. It's not about international fairness in signage policy. —GKP]

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    Since Japan is a "new-calendar" jurisdiction (i.e. the old Lunar New Year celebrations were relocated to Gregorian Jan. 1 during the Meiji Era reforms), I would think the 2/14 festivities would not have been unduly tiger-themed. Is that correct? [Ask Victor Mair about that. —GKP]

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    FWIW, when I returned to the U.S. from Japan at age 11 (after 3 years there) I knew both sets of kana cold but was at about the level of a slow second-grader in kanji. But I've retained most or at least much of that smattering of kanji over the subsequent decades while losing virtually all of the kana.

  20. Army1987 said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Taking wrong train possible even from own home town. Happened to me TWICE. Stochastically-changing platform for same train each day to blame.

    [Thank you, Army1987, for your sympathetic remark. I am not a total doofus; I look at everything that might be relevant, and figure out what I can; but one can board the wrong train once in a while. Trouble is, one station the wrong way on a Shinkansen is not like one wrong stop on the London Underground: at the first stop you are in a different region of the country, so far away there is no saving the rest of the afternoon. —GKP]

  21. goofy said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    I am one of the few who love Tokyo. even learned enough Kanji to read subway maps. but turns out maps are all bilingual.

  22. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    @J. W. Brewer Yes, Japan celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Tiger on 1/1, but there are vestiges of lunar celebrations (and there are "Chinatowns" in Yokohama and other areas). Couldn't say what in particular this is referring to, but …

    To AMZ: Initially, I read this post as embarrassment, but as it kept going, what the writer chooses to focus on seems to mount up into something rather different. The only person who speaks English isn't even Japanese? Platform signs written in an alien language? (Where was he that they weren't also romanized?) Oh, the "alien" reference is in there twice. Mm, dehumanization. Etc. [Clarissa, you are really losing the plot. If I see some sign in a writing system I cannot understand and I remark that it is "all Greek to me", I'm not saying the people who wrote it are like Greeks. —GKP]

    I wouldn't normally suggest learning kana before a business trip, but if not doing so going to cause this degree of distress and inability to enjoy a place that so many completely non-Japanese-speaking travelers have enjoyed, then yes, I think memorizing kana and bringing a phrase book is worth the effort. (Not to mention any decent travel guide, which would have advised only going into restaurants with plastic models outside if you can't read Japanese.)

    If it weren't for the well-reasoned approaches to language and culture usually prevalent on Language Log, the whiff of "moonspeak" about this post by one my favorite writers wouldn't have touched such a nerve. In the regular news media, I wouldn't have batted an eye.

    Anyway, better luck next time.

    For the record, though, I took the subway the wrong way in NYC, and wound up on (in?) Long Island. Oops.

  23. IrrationalPoint said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    I've also made trips to countries where I neither speak nor read the language, and also found it confusing and disorienting, but never as distressing as what you describe here. Rather, I like that it forces me to pay attention to extra-linguistic things I'd usually take for granted to figure out what's going on. It means I notice and learn things I'd ordinarily miss altogether. Sure, it also means I mess stuff up, and get lost a lot (which can be frustrating, especially if you're supposed to be somewhere — I once missed the first thee days of a new job, because I couldn't figure out the trains booking system through the language barrier in the place I was staying, to travel to the place I was going to be working, so I empathise. Fortunately my employer was understanding), but that too is an opportunity to see things I wouldn't otherwise see.

    For what it's worth though, while I sympathise with the disorientation, like Clarissa above, I was also a bit bothered by the somewhat dehumanising use of "aliens" holding back human development, and looking like a "mental patient" like that's the ultimate humiliation.


    [And I'm a bit bothered by the combination of careless reading and humorless political correctness that is displayed in some of the above comments. The aliens (read the second tweet again) were, in my imaginative speculation, from elsewhere, and left behind a writing system that would hold back the brilliant Japanese humans to delay them, since they were clearly clever enough to take over the universe. And the Klingon orthography on the station sign is my uneducated brain's impression of meaningless marks. Are you seriously tell me you think I see my Japanese friends as alien beings from another galaxy?

    As for the mental patient slippers… Well, I really think you need to spend a couple of hours, dressed in a smart suit and tie, being introduced to principals and vice principals as a famous visiting professor, while being forced by the half-length slippers to shuffle toward them like a wounded zombie… If I have not managed to convey to you the hilarious incongruity, it is because I am not gifted with the verbal arts, and I can only regret my inadequacy. But do me a favor. Put on a dark suit and a power tie, and then force your feet into a small child's backless slippers that don't extend as far as your heel, and try striding confidently toward a full-length mirror in a dignified manner, presenting your business card with both hands and saying "Konnichiwa". Just do that for me, will you? And tell me whether you break down in a fit of helpless giggling. Because I need to find out whether the Klingons have stolen your sense of humor. —GKP]

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    That is, Japanese orthography was made difficult on purpose, like the QWERTY keyboard

    An urban myth. Whilst it's true that the Dvorak keyboard was designed to be the fastest, and is, the QWERTY keyboard was not designed to be deliberately slow. Indeed it actually won some speed competitions.

  25. Dan Bloom said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    Wow, sir, sorry to hear you don't cotton to Tokyo. I lived there for five glorious years in the early 1990s, and loved every single second. Your inability to enjoy Tokyo and Japanese culture says more about YOU than it does about Tokyo. But to each his own. I hope it's not racism on your part…..

    [And I hope it's not stupidity on your part that causes you to miss the entire point of my post. My little essay is entirely about how it all says more about me than about Japan or my Japanese friends. —GKP]

  26. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    I must admit that I am getting a teensy bit tired of being obliquely admonished for alleged racial prejudice by people who are not capable of reading and understanding a simple text. I offered a humorous reflection in fake Twitter mode (recall Roland Hedley?) on the way the world looks to someone who is illiterate. Nobody seems to have noticed my last five words at all.

    Did you ever think about what life must be like for someone who has to get around and deal with life without being able to read? I think about it a lot. While some of the commenters above seem on the very edge of implying that perhaps my problem is that I can't deal with Asians for racial reasons (!), almost everyone seems to miss my actual focus.

    My late father-in-law, crippled by extreme dyslexia, managed to get through life, and found and manage 29 businesses, and raise a philosopher daughter, without ever being able to read. He kept the balance of every one of his bank accounts in his head, and bluffed on menus (order the hamburger; they always have that). But he was an angry and frustrated man sometimes. No wonder.

    It wasn't racism or inability to appreciate other cultures that made him grumpy. The maddening experience of never being able to take advantage of the wonder of writing, though, must have bugged him quite a bit. I have begun to have some insight into what it may have been like for him.

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