Tuesday, 31 March 2015


During my high school exchange, I saw some people online talking about the first Iron Man movie, which had recently been released. And my first thought was, “Iron Man? I don't even remember seeing trailers for – oh, right.”

Similarly, in a once-recent post by Stupid Ugly Foreigner, he laments the disconnect from English-language popular culture he suffers while living in China. This phenomenon is exemplified in Pharrell's “Happy,” of which he was utterly unware until long after it had already become entrenched in our cultural constitution. Now that I'm back in Canada, I'm facing kind of the opposite problem, and when I get back I'm going to have to relearn everything.

An example: The first time I heard Kyari Pyamu Pyamu's seminal "Pon Pon Pon," it had already been popular for months. In fact it's almost strange to me now to think that there ever was a time when I'd never heard it – it's so clearly ingrained in the cultural landscape of its era. To not know at least that much was to have no idea what a certain type of Japanese person was listening to at the time, and that shit was important to me. I leaped aboard that particular ship as soon as I saw it, and then throughout the rest of the year I managed to catch everything new as it bubbled up into the cultural consciousness of Japanese young people. Unfortunately I've now effectively lost all knowledge of what's trending back there, and it's going to take time to get back up to speed.

I can use the Internet to keep abreast of the latest vicissitudes in television and idol gossip, but that's a poor substitute for everday immersion because it's all through my own filter - limited, not "off the street," not necessarily bearing any relation to what's actually popular. Metroid, for example, is more popular outside Japan than within it. In the Korean's account of his tour of the South by Southwest music show in Austin, I read that he saw a relatively new Japanese loli group called Starmarie, who were supposedly the most popular Japanese singers going. Except that my immediate reaction was “Who the hell are Starmarie?” Sure enough, it turns out that they are indeed a popular Japanese idol group – in America.

So what, you may say. It's just movies and music and other meaningless bullshit. You might have a point. A mild de-syncing with cultural developments that will no longer be relevant a year from now might seem like a fairly minor loss. But remember that anime and music and dramas and everything else are all things I have a certain dependency on, because they're my primary means of studying the language. I am constantly on the hunt for new material to consume, integrating its knowledge into my biomass, mining it for not only new vocabulary and grammar but cultural tidbits and talking points. Without the constant, effortless exposure you get in Japan, I am forced to subsist on what I can scavenge from YouTube or d-Addicts.

Access to this stuff also affects my studying habits. I've always been a proponent of self-motivation – that is, if you really want to learn another language, you just do it, every day, or else adjust your expectations. That means that on a day when you come home from work or school, exhausted, depressed, and without the slightest desire to study, you clench your teeth and do it anyway. So it'd be idiotic to say that lack of access to Japanese pop culture adversely affects my study regimen, but easy access to it does positively affect it. You should always be able to force yourself to study, but a spoonful of heroin makes the medicine go down.

Also, though I have no pedagogical training, I feel like all the studying I do while in this “engaged” state is more effective. Perhaps I am simply more receptive at such times, and thus better able to absorb new vocabulary and constructions. Or perhaps even more simply, I just pay closer attention when I'm interested. Or maybe it's just my imagination. Anyway I'm not going to stop.

Finally, a big part of a country's contemporary cultural identity either stems from or is resolved in its media trends. I don't think that's too grandiose a statement. The plot twists in big TV shows get people talking. Artists use their media to communicate a deeper message. People will resort to the refrain of “relax, it's just a movie” for as long as movies continue to be made, but that's utterly and obviously wrong. Our art, even our for-profit art, is both informed by our shared cultural experience, and adds to it. It's important. It's not World War II-level historical significance, but you can't just discount it.

And again, for me, soft culture is a part of how I connect with Japanese people - knowledge of what's trending in their pop music and television is often a good ice-breaker. And how many friendships are born from mutual interests? The early conversation of practically any first encounter is spent searching out common ground. Obviously don't hinge your identities on what anime you like, because if you want to be interesting you have to be interesting in and of yourself. But I can't count the number of times I've inspired shock and delight for merely having heard of something Japanese. If nothing else it shows that you're receptive.

On the other hand, I guess if not being quite up on the latest moves and grooves is my greatest concern, as compared to somebody arriving with no knowledge of Japan or Japanese, maybe I'm doing all right. There'll be a brief period of adjustment, but in no time I'll be slinging timely observations and relevant pop culture references like anybody else. Now all I have to do is find a job, win the lottery, or earn the favour of the yakuza, and I'll be good to go.

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