JOK Notebook

Beginner's Mind

Last week I said I might blog more about fans today. However, I've decided to make the new essay on fans completely free. Essay 1492 on 扇 (fan) contains everything I would have included in a blog about fans, so there's no point in presenting a few gleanings here. 

It's not every day that I offer essays for free. The last time that happened was when Joy o' Kanji launched at the end of 2011. All these years, I've made two essays available at no cost—essay 1028 on 猿 (monkey) and essay 1335 on 芝 (lawn grass). But I've felt for awhile that my essay content has evolved beyond what I used to include, so although I still stand by those two essays, they don't seem entirely representative of what I now do in essays. I'll explain more about that in the newsletter that goes out on June 30. At least I think I will. Perhaps I'd better stop making promises I can't keep!

Anyway, I hope you'll be a fan of the fan essay. I've been immersed in fans for two days, so in this post I'll happily focus on something else.

Recently I exchanged thoughts with two friends (both studying Japanese) about the perils of arrogance as a learner, of feeling that one knows everything. We weren't critiquing this quality in ourselves but rather in others! 

Grandosity is annoying, but that's not the end of it. One friend made this point in an email: "I also think that arrogance is bad for the arrogant person himself. It's impossible to improve yourself if you think you have nothing to improve. Learning is constant self-improvement, so anyone who is 'perfect' has no ability to learn seriously beyond the point of supposed perfection."

Fortunately, I don't have the slightest delusion of that sort when it comes to Japanese!

If I ever felt even a momentary bit of confidence in my translation abilities, encountering this book title certainly eroded that sense:


Ah, there's a fan (扇) in that title, just when I thought I'd changed the topic! Actually, this content used to be in essay 1492, but I removed it because it was so hard. 

Anyway, here's how I initially understood the vocabulary:

能 (のう: talent); 彩る (いろどる: to paint, decorate);
扇 (おうぎ: folding fan); 世界 (せかい: world)

Working from this, I couldn't figure out how to weave 能 (talent) into the translation. I turned to my proofreader and heard this: "No, the 能 means the Noh play."

What?! How do you Noh?! 

He provided this translation:

The World of Fans Coloring Noh Plays

Honestly, I can't look at 能を彩る and see anything but "to paint fans"! Instead, it's Noh that's being "colored." Oh, how difficult!

The next sentence similarly tripped me up before I removed it from a sidebar in essay 2111 on 頬 (cheek):

His foolish face makes me sick.

あいつ (he); ばか面 (ばかづら: foolish face);
嫌気がさす (いやけがさす: to make one sick)

I'm forever stymied by words that start with hiragana and continue with kanji. I mean, that's like putting your clothes on inside out! With that mental block firmly in place, I didn't even consider that ばか面 could be one word. But it is. And it means "foolish face."

Speaking of faces, I didn't know what to do with this sentence either:

How can you show your face after saying such a thing?

言う (いう: to say); どの面下げて来た (どのつらさげてきた: How can you show your face?)

It was hard for me to perceive どの面下げて来た as a set phrase, partly because it starts with hiragana and partly because I'd never heard of it before! The 下げる means something along the lines of "to bring, carry," and た means "came," so どの面下げてた directly translates as "Which (what kind of) face did you dare to bring here?" 

Even a sole kanji can prompt massive confusion:

京 (99: capital, metropolis; Tokyo; Kyoto)

This kanji can mean either Tokyo or Kyoto! Check this out:

京 as "Tokyo"

京浜 (けいひん: Tokyo and Yokohama)
上京 (じょうきょう: going to Tokyo)
滞京 (たいきょう: staying in Tokyo)      

京 as "Kyoto"

京阪神 (けいはんしん: Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe)
京女 (きょうおんな: Kyoto woman)
京大 (きょうだい: University of Kyoto)

Just comparing the first term in each section could make you go crazy! Well, that's my take on it, but my proofreader doesn't see what the big deal is. He figures that because Yokohama (represented by the 浜 in 京浜) is much closer to Tokyo than to Kyoto, the 京 in 京浜 has to mean "Tokyo." And because Osaka and Kobe (respectively, the 阪 and 神 of 京阪神) are much closer to Kyoto than to Tokyo, the 京 in 京阪神 must mean "Kyoto."

This confusion developed because 京 primarily and essentially means "capital." Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, so 京 came to represent not only "capital" but also "Kyoto." Just because the capital moved to what is now Tokyo doesn't mean that 京 was fully drained of its earlier associations. 

I've been cautioned by multiple people that showing the difficulty of kanji will only scare off potential learners, but I refuse to believe that. I think we gravitate toward challenges (as long as we're not already feeling overburdened and exhausted by other demands in life). If not, why would any of us study Japanese in the first place?

I think it actually helps to remember that kanji are hard (as that makes it much easier to forgive ourselves for mistakes) and that, in a sense, we're always beginners when we confront this inherently confusing material. It's not such a bad thing to feel that way. After all, a learner can enjoy the experience of passing through the gate to knowledge. That's what we find in most definitions of this word:

入門 (にゅうもん: (1) entering an institution; beginning training; (2) primer; manual; introduction (to))     to enter + gate

By contrast, look at the meanings of this term:

極める or 究める or 窮める (きわめる: (1) (esp. 極める and 窮める) to carry to extremes; go to the end of something; (2) (esp. 究める) investigate thoroughly; master)

In a sense, mastering something isn't far from going to extremes and losing perspective. Thank goodness I have plenty of perspective! 

Have a great weekend!


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