The Japanese way

2018-10-24 (6)_LI


Why do some Chinese and Korean people speak English well while almost all Japanese don’t speak English at all?

I will tell you a story.

Long long ago, humans invented fire.

Fire had so many uses. One of them was making the food safer and more palatable. People called this process cooking. The entire world caught on with this new ‘cooking’ fad. Even the most secluded islands such as Nicobar or Hawaii didn’t take very long. The only place which was a little skeptic was Japan.

Then came spices. They made the food more flavorful. So people started using them in their cooking. Again, although it depends on the place in terms of which spices were used, most of the world quickly adopted spices. Except Japan. Japan was skeptic as usual.

Fast forward many millennia:
Japan had several disasters including minamata disease, curry explosion, WW2 and earthquakes. But nothing could dent the spirit of the Japanese. While the rest of the world has become degenerate and degraded, Japan still has the uniqueness of a delicate, fine palate and enjoys ‘fresh’ fish more than anything else.


Note: This is historically very inaccurate, but I hope you get my point. In any case, also read the quora question which inspired me to write this.

Moon-uncle (and Telugu kinship system for dummies)

I remember Khal Drogo from A game of thrones referring to the Khaleesi as ‘my moon’, she using ‘my sun and stars’ in return. If you grew up reading English novels, it will sound natural. After all, sun and stars shine on their own, moon does not. I couldn’t ever digest it completely for two reasons. One, the inherent sexism slipped in stealthily. Two, sun and moon are male for me – and stars female.

‘చందమామ’ (moon-uncle­­­) is how we refer to moon in Telugu. Our relationship with moon is a playful one. Moon-uncle is famously a patient listener. Full-moon also takes the place of the prince charming that young maidens are supposed to wait for, and tales of their longing involve talking to moon-maama. But wait, maama is not equivalent to uncle – a girl can marry her maama and girls used to lovingly call their mates maama in old times. In order to fully understand the word maama, you need to understand how Telugu kinship works [see bonus material below].

‘చక్కని చుక్క (good-looking star)’ refers to a beautiful girl. And then there are the love stories of moon and night-lilies. Even if you take the religious-Sanskrit based imagery, moon and sun are planets and all planets are male; Stars are predominantly female – Arundhati, Revati, Krttika, Aswini, Rohini, Swati are all still used as girls’ names. The only male stars I can think of are Dhruva (Polaris) and the seven sages (Ursa Major).

But my confusion doesn’t stop there – there are many other English metaphors that didn’t make any sense to me until I was 20 or so.  For instance, take the weather-metaphors.

Bonus material: Telugu kinship system

telugu kinship.png

Rule 1. On the Telugu-land, all your relatives can be placed into two buckets – one is a brotherly/paternally related (A) and the second is spousely/maternally related (B). You can marry only someone from B, despite being closely related or of different generations.  So you are typically flirty-teasing with opposite gendered people in B and playful with same gendered ones in B.

Rule 2: The family structure is totally patriarchal. Once a girl gets married, she belongs to her in-law’s family.

Rule 3: Generation/age difference doesn’t really matter in love. Girl is usually younger but that’s not a rule.

Rule 4: rule 2 has to be kept in mind when categorizing your mother’s relatives into A or B.

Rule 5: If two sisters get married, their in-laws’ families are now brotherly to each other.

We’ll now see an example. Your mother’s brother falls into B. Why? Because your father married someone from their family. Your father’s brother is in A. Your mother’s sister’s husband is A, your mother’s sister’s son/daughter is A. Your mother’s brother is B. Your sister’s son/daughter is B. (Get why?) Okay this is getting complicated – let’s try graphically. Look at the picture above.



  1. I am aware I should be considering a trans moon, but, we are only talking about traditional paradigms in language.
  2. The system is extremely patriarchal – I know. Sad thing.

Tropical weather-metaphors

Weather metaphors of English are dominated by the fact that warmth is desirable and cold is not. Since I come from the tropics, reverse is the case. The equivalent of a warm heart in Telugu is challati manasu (Cool heart). A typical adverse setting for a folk-tale hero beginning his quest in English would be “In a dark, cold, and windy night…” as opposed to Telugu “kakulu doorani karaduvullo… (In a forest so dense that crows can’t squeeze in…)” Here are some more examples which differ drastically from the English imagery

RAIN IS A HAPPY THING. For heaven’s sake – stop associating rain with sadness – first result on google search  tells me rain is bad. In the movie inside out, rain is the favorite time of the character sadness. This video on composing movement tells me Akira Kurosawa uses rain invoke a sad mood. Hell, no! Rain makes me happy, invariably. Even a storm. It’s not just for kids stomping on puddles, mind you – take one of the most famous Telugu movies – Indra (ghallu ghallu mani sirimuvvalle chinuke cheraga (rain comes 3:45 or so in the video) = (as the raindrop reaches down, singing like a jingling anklet)) – or the Hindi Lagaan (Kaale Megha, Kaale Megha Paani To Barsaao = (O dark cloud, O dark cloud, won’t you let the rain pour?)). Rain invokes so much happiness in both these moments to the point of tears.

Snow does not mean Christmas – it is just a magical, distant thing that you’ll only see images of. (And of course, Christmas does not mean snow either – it means loud meetings and lame word-to-word translations of Christmas carols.)

Twilight (masaka masaka cheekatilo), fog (manchu kurise velalo), breeze (pillagali allari), cloudiness (mabbe masakesindi le), chilliness (chali chaliga) are all stuff of romance and mating and all the words are used extensively in love songs (linked to in parentheses) – not crime and fear as in English novels.

There could be many more.

Also excuse me for taking the chance to link to a hell lot of Telugu songs.

How to fake a fluency in Japanese

Disclaimer: The following is to help you fake a fluency in a short interaction. It neither helps you forever, nor comes to rescue when actual proficiency is needed.

Having lived for one year in Japan, I have frequently been in situations where I was complemented on my Japanese being good. No, that’s not the testimony to my skill, that’s more of a courtesy. Based on the response of the native listener, you normally can be placed into three levels 1. At this rate you’ll learn Japanese very soon (read: you don’t know shit) 2. Nihongo jouzu desu ne!! (literal meaning –Isn’t your Japanese good!!) (read: Damn, I hate your half-knowledge. Just stop trying already) 3. (Does not comment on your Japanese skill, but proceeds speaking naturally) (read: Your Japanese is actually good)

I had some, but very few of those level 3 moments that I am totally proud of. Here is how I may have gotten there. (I only have a year of experience, so take it with a pinch of Tata salt).

First, the summary.

  1. Be confident
  2. Think before you speak
  3. Get your tone right
  4. Filler words, incomplete clauses and conjunctions
  5. Express and exclaim
  6. Mumble only where you should
  7. English main words – Japanese grammatical elements

What to do:

Native speakers do not necessarily use extensive vocabulary. For most common purposes, they use a limited set of words. It is the ease with which they form their speech that matters. Haven’t you met a native who excessively uses filler words like ano…., eto…, ….ne, …sa…., anone…., anosa…., ….darou ? Use them at will – the catch is – try not to parrot only one or two of them. Eventually you will end up developing your own mannerism anyway. Also be very expressive in the tone. Emphasize the words that need to be, lengthen the sad parts, and sharpen the happy parts. Just be careful the intonation rules are not the same as that of your language. For example, if you want to emphasize the word ‘big’ in English – you’ll say it’s a biiiiiiiiig cat. But in Japanese you rather say biggggu neko da. Also use a lot of incomplete clauses (though in your native language you’ll naturally break them into many sentences) and start ridiculously unconnected new sentences with connecting conjunctions – like <><><><><><> kara, <><><><><> node, <><><><><>, tte, <><><> tte, <><><><>tta. Dakara…. <><><>. ‘kedo’ is actually your best friend when you uttered the first part and cannot translate the rest.

How to do:

Most important thing is confidence. Be at ease, have an upright posture, look into the listener’s eye (unless you are talking to a superior when you may want to look at your toes), make subtle, natural-feeling but not exaggerated hand gestures, speak neither high nor low, neither loud nor hush. In order to get this right you have to truly believe in your heart that you are a fluent speaker (even though you are not).

When to do:

Native/fluent speaker think as they speak. Often, the proficiency lets them even change the sentence midway. Beginners cannot afford to do that. Do not ever begin a sentence until the thought is fully formulated and you have translated the noun and verb to Japanese. Grammatical elements should come to you rather naturally, though. Practice thinking in Japanese rather than thinking in native language and then translating. For example, when your coffee is cold, you don’t want to think of the word ‘cold’ first. You should think of ‘tsumetai’ (used for coffee) first, or else you risk saying ‘samui’ (used for weather, but a more common occurrence) instead. Give plenty of pauses between units of thought and few midway. In fact, take more pause than necessary in between sentences. Also your overall slowness has to be explained by something other than your fluency, so pretend you are dumb, uninformed or confused. Do not fake a fluency with someone who you’re likely to meet again, it will definitely lead to more embarrassing situations.

What not to do:

One of the most common newbie mistakes is to over use …ne!! and …yo!!, which can potentially make you sound dumb. You should know when not to use them. When the other person does not understand something, raising your voice does not help AT ALL. I have no idea why so many people do this. Another common mistake is to mumble when you shouldn’t. It is totally okay to say <mumble><mumble>mashita in place of arigatougozaimashita (in fact it sounds better), but it is not okay to say Indo ka<mumble><mumble> in place of Indo kara kimasu. When you don’t have a Japanese noun or verb ready, feel free to use an English noun/verb/adjective, but never use English words for grammatical elements. You may want to exclaim often and effusively. Longer you drag the eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee……, more natural your next sentence will sound. Observe, observe, observe. Yourself and the native speakers. Pick the subtle things that natives do, use them and be the king of fakes. Or better, fake it till you make it. Ganbaro!

Scientists can love too

So I came across this beautiful poem love is reckless; not reason  by the famous poet Rumi[1]. Here it goes…

Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit.
Love comes on strong,
consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died of self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give it back again.


When Rumi says, Reason seeks profit, my reaction was like that of a minion saying whaaaaaat? Whatever Rumi meant and how it got translated is one thing. The sad truth we all have to accept is that religion and other forms of delusion have hijacked the word ‘love’ for themselves. Using love as a beautiful Trojan horse, these delusions have spread their roots into us so deep and wide, that today the world is full of people who refuse to live in the reality. Fanboys/girls, lunatics, religious fundamentalists, bigots, chauvinists, generalizationists[2] and the most stubborn of them all – the romantics. If love is so much the opposite of reason, why do some people love reason? There are just too many examples, from Socrates to Stephen J Gould, from samkhya philosophers to Samaram and his siblings. Did they all not ‘love’ reason? Did they not dedicate lives for their cause? And what about all our delusional people madly in love with something or the other? Do they all not have an end-goal they pursue, be it human company or god’s – in a way, don’t they all seek a profit? Love selfishly seeks profit as much as reason does. I am not just contradicting Rumi for the sake of it, but we need to understand – reason and love are not so separate from each other. Reasonable people are not unromantic, nor is romance unreasonable. We have to de-brainwash ourselves from all the mad love fairy tales. Love is not mad. Period.

In this context, let me rewrite Rumi’s poem here, interchanging the words, ‘love’ and ‘reason’

Reason is reckless, not love.
Love seeks profit.
Reason comes on strong,
Consuming himself[3], unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Reason proceeds like a millstone,
Hard-surfaced and straightforward.

Having slaughtered self-interest,
He gives away everything and asks for nothing.
Reason tears apart every gift God bestows.

Without reason, we came into being,
With reason, we shall move forward.


[1]Okay, I admit I didn’t find it that beautiful, but I am very likely prejudiced against love-coating religious submissiveness. Also it is written by Rumi, so it is probably taboo to call it not beautiful. Also I cannot read Arabic so I don’t know if the original word he is used for ‘reason’ is mistranslated.

[2]Am I being one right here? One crime I most frequently plead guilty to, is being a hypocrite.

[3]I am aware that personifying love as ‘herself’ and reason as ‘himself’ is very sexist in nature, I just want to give it a wholly contrasting emotion to Rumi’s, so that seems unavoidable here.

Padma award preferences of political parties


I let the numbers speak. Though not a strong correlation, it seems BJP encourages science a little more and congress art/literature a little more. All the more reason why we should keep shuffling between the governments?

Image source: Top part from screenshot on 13 Sep; Bottom part rough timeline of which party the PM belonged to, data from wikipedia.

Itoshima charm – part 1

Two things fascinate me with their sheer magnificence – mountains and seas. I am one of the most egotistic persons you’ll ever see, yet when a landscape humbles me into being a mere human, I feel nothing but delight. Lucky me ended up in the right place. This little suburb had a surprise package for me– hills and seas right next to each other, facing the sunset together like lovers.

First time, it was unlike most other days when out of nowhere I had this strong urge to go out and explore the rural part. An hour before sunset means golden light gleaming through thick foliage and the weather was so perfect it made a thousand merry dragonflies hobbit-dance. The vast paddy fields were sleeping like babies, or pretending to sleep, content with the motherly caress of the breeze. It looked like this, somewhat


Paddy fields of Itoshima

And then when you hike one of these hills – say Kaya-san, you’ll fall in love with the panorama there. I guess a picture is worth more than any words I can write about it. The list is endless though – enchanting marshes, beautiful skies, serene beaches, you name it.


View from kaya-san


Random marshes near a random itoshima beach


The beach closest to Ito campus

The catch is, words or photos can never be enough. You have to be there and experience it.

What I like and dislike about the Japanese bow

Positives first – Suppose you run into a person you know but never talked to in a long corridor. You can totally imagine the awkwardness that ensues. While trying to behave as gentlemanly as possible, you either turn out to be rude or weird. So what do you do? If you’re in Japan, it is simple – take a bow, from any distance you like. Somebody has been staring at you for more than two seconds? Want to make them conscious and embarrassed? Take a bow, even if you don’t know them. Your poor Japanese language ability means the Japanese word for that particular greeting doesn’t hit you instantly? Take a bow, even if your facial expression is neutral. Want to talk about how hot the sun today is with the next person at the bus stop, but you’re chewing three candies together when they make eye contact? Take a bow, just after a sigh-filled look at the sky. Want to avoid that person ambitiously distributing irrelevant pamphlets to every passerby? Take a bow, before they stretch their hand out completely. You can communicate unbelievable amount of information in just one bow.

So this super efficient communication also has its downside. The Japanese bow works as a visible marker of (thereby reinforcing) the power imbalance in the society. How much you bend, whether you bow first, whether you end your bow first, whether you briefly stop walking for the bow, whether you bow at all, whether your pose is submissive or not, and may be many more all indicate the power relation between two people. For example, Lawson clerks, office cleaning staff and Izakaya waiters/waitresses almost never have their bow returned, while your boss’s boss’s bow to you is ever so slight and invisible. It doesn’t stop there. The Japanese bow also conceals as much as it communicates. It is like an impenetrable stone wall that you hide your emotions behind. You can never know if the other person is really admiring you or effortfully restraining themselves from killing you, or simply don’t give a damned f*** about you. On top of all this, it is almost always an obligation. And I hate socially constructed obligations.