Cool tools

Park Char Afflicted

Learning kanji involves lots and lots of writing by hand. I haven’t been in the habit of doing a lot of handwriting in, oh, thirty years–not since I convinced my elementary school teachers to let me hand in typed homework. And typing in Japanese is extremely simple (and fun) on any modern computer or smartphone or iPad.

But kanji can really only be learned by hand. (Actually, it can probably be learned by writing it with your finger on a touchscreen, but I’m too old for that to feel natural.) Right now I’m almost exactly one-third of the way through learning to write, from memory, the 2,100 “daily” kanji literate Japanese are expected to know. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say I’m one-third done, since at any given time I’ve forgotten about 20% of them, but at least I keep remembering 80% of a larger number.

In a couple of days I’ll share some of the agonies involved in writing kanji, but today I want to talk about the pleasures: the gear.

Because I spend an hour a day writing kanji, I wanted a good pencil and a good pen: a pencil because I make loads of mistakes that I want to erase, and a pen because modern kanji is very much in touch with its calligraphic roots, and sometimes it’s just more fun to write it with the proper pen. (As Alex Kerr notes in his book Lost Japan, doing Japanese calligraphy is a lot more fun if you have a drink in front of you.)

When I went to my local Kinokuniya branch to shop for writing implements, I found myself in a classic paradox of choice situation, faced with over a hundred mechanical pencils to choose from before I even stepped into the pen section. It was exactly like in the book Millions of Cats: each of the millions and billions and trillions of pencils seemed to be the prettiest. Do I choose based on lead thickness? Ergonomic gel grip? Cartoon mascot?

I bought a $3 pencil (because it was purple) and went home to do more research by visiting, which specializes in Japanese pens and pencils. That’s where I discovered Kuru Toga, the very definition of an obscure modern convenience you didn’t know you needed.

Kuru Toga is a spring-loaded gearworks that slowly rotates your pencil lead while you write. Follow the link and you’ll see a very Japanese comic explaining why you would want this. In short: you get a more consistent line and less lead breakage. It really works, and more important, you can see it working through a clear plastic window in the pencil. It’s not even that expensive: the model I linked to is the one I bought, for less than $10.

For when I’m in a swoopy calligraphic mood, I picked up a brush pen, another item I never knew existed until I went looking for it. It’s just what it sounds like: an ordinary-looking pen with a paintbrush tip.

There are three or four different types of strokes used for writing kanji. When you write with a pencil, you can be pretty lax about using the right kind of stroke and no one but the most fastidious Japanese language teacher will ever know. With a brush pen, there is no room for error. This is frustrating but also fun. The pen I bought, which was less than $5, has a brush on each end: one large, one small. (The caps nest, so you can pull the cap off either end and stick it onto the other end while you’re writing.)

Those kanji at the top of the post are a few I wrote with my brush pen. Feel free to make fun of them.

Particulate matter

(Again, I’m going to use a lot of romaji in this post.)

English is what linguists called a SVO language, for subject-verb-object. Macduff killed Macbeth. (Sorry, spoiler alert!) You can move the pieces around a bit (Macbeth was killed by Macduff), but most of our sentences take this form.

Japanese is often called an SOV language. And the first phrases students learn to say in Japanese seem to confirm this. For example:

Watashi wa Matthew desu.

We can break this down into three parts: “watashi wa” = I. Matthew, that’s me. “Desu” (the final U, as usual, is silent): “am.” I Matthew am. Macduff Macbeth killed. SOV.

Easy: English puts the clauses in one order; Japanese flips two of them around. The problem is, it’s nowhere near that simple. Japanese is not an SOV language. It can be SOV, OSV, OV, or a variety of other contortions, because parts of speech get marked with special tags and are allowed–within reason–to float around inside the sentence.

When you put together a sentence in Japanese, the verb goes at the end. That, as far as I can tell, is an ironclad rule. Before you get to the end of the sentence, however, you may lay out an array of parts in a variety of orders, much more freely than you could ever get away with in English.

Let me try an analogy involving everyone’s favorite purveyor of disassembled stuff, IKEA. When you bring home IKEA’s revolutionary flat packaging, you open it up and there are a bunch of parts and an instruction manual. Take one of the C bolts and use it to stick parts A and B together. If you do the instructions in the right order, you will end up with a Billy bookcase. Do them in the wrong order, and you’ll end up with a pile of fiberboard and a headache.

The IKEA way is like English, where the word order helps determine what part of speech a word represents. If we say “Macduff killed Macbeth,” we know Macduff is the new sheriff in town and Macbeth is plant food, because of the order of the words. Reverse it, and you get “Macbeth killed Macduff,” the Philip K. Dick version.

Now, let’s say IKEA tries something new. In the box you get a bunch of identical pieces of wood and some sticky labels that say things like “shelf” and “backplate.” As you put the sticker on a wood slab, it changes shape and becomes whatever is printed on the sticker. (Did I mention they have magic in Sweden?) You can assemble the bookcase in any order you want as long as you apply the stickers beforehand correctly.

This is how particles work in Japanese. A particle is a short word that always appears immediately after the word or phrase it modifies, and its purpose is to tell you what function that word serves in the sentence. For example:

Watashi wa QFC ni ikimasu.

This means, “I go to QFC.” Ni is a particle. It means, among other things, “the destination of a journey.” Wa is also a particle, but let’s not get into that just yet.

Now, wait a minute. This sounds an awful lot like English so far. We just say “to” instead of “ni.” We can say “I go to QFC” or “To QFC I go.” The latter sounds stilted, but it’s not wrong, and the meaning is clear enough.

But particles aren’t just prepositions by another name. There are dozens of particles. The object of a verb is marked in Japanese with the particle o, handily enough. So:

Macduff wa Macbeth o koroshimasu.

Hmm, there’s that wa again. It looks like it marks the subject of a sentence. It doesn’t. But that’s a story for another day.

Here’s what I find odd about Japanese sentences. Learning the particles and how they’re used is not terribly difficult, although some of them are easy to confuse (wa and ga, ni and de especially). Any sentence much longer that “Macduff killed Macbeth,” however, becomes like the beginning of a concert. The players appear, each marked, in turn, with a particle. So the guy with the long hair ambles on stage and sits behind the drum kit. Then the woman in the tight t-shirt comes in and picks up the guitar. And so on. You don’t know what song they’re going to play until all of the band members are assembled. In Japanese, you don’t know what all of these particle-marked actors are going to do until the verb comes in at the end.

You don’t even know until the very last syllable whether the verb will be affirmative or negative! This is not a matter of flipping a couple of words around. It gives Japanese a grammatical flow very different from English. It’s also kind of fun. After the verb, you can finally exhale.

A day at the museum

On Super Bowl Sunday, we took Iris to the Museum of History and Industry, the Seattle history museum largely devoted to the salmon canning industry. They would hate me for saying that, I’m sure, but it’s true. Iris loved flinging stuffed salmon onto a fake boat and operating the salmon cannery simulator, with ball bearings standing in for salmon.

The museum devotes considerable space to commemorating the first mechanical salmon processing machine, designed to do the work done by Chinese butchers before the Chinese Exclusion Act. The machine, I am sorry to report, was called the Iron Chink (this was not its nickname; it was cast in metal on the machine). The museum struggles desperately with this; there’s a brief acknowledgment that “Iron Chink” is horribly racist, but then they use the term a dozen more times.

So I was pleased when I wandered into a different section of the museum where they’d put out some Post-It notes and invited patrons to answer the question, “What makes a livable city?” People wrote down obvious things like parks and sidewalks, and some, of course, took the opportunity to be mildly obscene. One person, however, had written “Chinese people.” Amen to that, right? I smiled. Then I freaked out and yelled for Laurie to come over right away, because I realized the note didn’t say “Chinese people.” It said:


Best thing I saw all day, except for the 1992 Mudhoney/Nirvana ticket donated by my friend Rob Ketcherside.


Kanji study proceeds apace. (I’ve always wanted to say “apace.”) I’m about 10% of the way through Remembering the Kanji, the book that helps you learn Chinese characters by weaving their components into goofy stories.

For the first few hundred kanji, the author, James Heisig, provides you with a suggested story. For example, the kanji for “spring,” 泉, is a combination of “white” (on top) and “water” (on the bottom). So you imagine a bubbling mountain spring, with the top of the water white and frothy.

That’s an easy one. They get much, much harder as you go along, and at some point Heisig stops spoon-feeding you stories, and there’s only one set of footprints on the beach, and that’s you on your own, sucker. You have to write your own stories.

I haven’t gotten that far yet in the book. But the person who previously owned my used copy of Remembering the Kanji did, and they left a note sheet in the book. It included these gems:

撃 (beat): After the perp dented the man’s car with a missile, the man beat him with his bare hands.

怪 (suspicious): Data finds it suspicious that, after all his unitards were sewn shut, he found a spool in Riker’s pocket.

隻 (vessels): The shipper’s vessels at the marina are novelty boats shaped like the skipper himself, but with turkey heads. (Business is not good.)

Whoever you are, thanks for being awesome, and I hope you learned all the kanji.

Calling Tokyo

When I was a kid, if anyone in the family wanted to make a long distance call, we had to wait until after 5pm. Then the Sprint/MCI/AT&T wars came, raging throughout Thursday night primetime and beyond, pushing down the price of long distance.

I was curious how much long distance cost back when I was obliviously watching the Cosby Show in the mid-80s. According to the FCC, in 1986, a ten-minute coast-to-coast daytime call cost about $7.50 in today’s money. And an international call? Over $8 for three minutes.

Anyone prone to reminiscing about how cheap things were in the old days is not thinking of long distance service, although the carriers have certainly found a way to keep us sending a big check every month. (Today’s current AT&T vs Verizon commercials are basically identical to the old MCI/Sprint commercials, with less embarrassing haircuts…for now.)

Where am I going with this? Japan, of course. Last night I made a three-minute call to Tokyo, and it cost less than ten cents. I’m easily impressed by cheap phone calls. Less so by my language skills.

I was calling a Tokyo bakery to ask a couple of questions for a dessert-related article I’m working on. The conversation, translated into English, went something like this.

Me: Hello. Does anyone there speak English?

Bakery: Not really.

Me: Um. OK. I saw dessert on web site. You have, yes?

Bakery: Not right now.

Me: You have, uh, summer?

Bakery: [couldn’t understand response]

Me: I understand. Sorry to bother you. Goodbye.

This was discouraging, but it could have been worse. I think my accent was okay. Since it costs nothing to call Japan, maybe I should just call a couple of random businesses every night and ask stupid questions.