Japanese School Girls, Poetry, and Consciousness

by | 2019-07-12 8:07pm Asia/Tokyo

Japanese School Girls, Poetry, and Consciousness

by | 2019-07-12 8:07pm Asia/Tokyo

This week, I had an interesting English lesson in which I taught a Japanese junior high school girl about human consciousness.

I was at Mister Donut, sipping coffee and reading a heavy book called I am a Strange Loop when her mother called me. She said that her daughter wanted to translate a well-known set of a hundred Japanese poems into English. Since I’ve done a large amount of translation work myself, I knew that the innocent request from my cute little student was not so simple. It is monumental task that long-time professionals spend years and get paid highly to do.

So I said, “Sure, no problem.”


I am a meaning-creating machine.

I am a Strange Loop is a book about human consciousness. The author believes that human consciousness is strange because it appears that the abstract “I” has more power than the physical universe. Humans, thanks to our thinking abilities, appear to create meaning. The more meaning we create, the more we are able to manipulate the physical universe.

The author is especially interested in the fact that humans are reminded of things. We draw conclusions about seemingly unrelated things by analogy. When someone eats a piece of cake and says that the piece they are eating is disgusting, we draw the conclusion that the whole cake must be disgusting, too.

Sometimes, we use our ability to find so-called “hidden meanings”. Storytellers may have certain events happen in their stories that have a simple, level-1 meaning, but that event is meant to hint at a deeper, level-2 meaning. In fact, the truth that they wish to communicate is often the level-2 meaning which can only be understood by analogy.

However, as I said, humans create meaning. When a farmer looks at gray clouds in the distance, what does he see? Does he see something different from what his cow sees? Yes, he does. The cow sees gray blobs in the sky. The farmer sees future food. He “connects the dots” which he himself creates through simulations in his mind. After all, clouds don’t mean future food if you don’t plant seeds.

It’s that ability to create meaning from context that is very interesting to the author because that ability can be directed towards ourselves. The learning machine can direct its attention toward itself. The “I” is a meaning-creation machine that can look at itself and express its own meaning.

The important thing to understand is that the ability to find and create meaning from context is an essential quality of human thinking.

After struggling to understand the secrets of human consciousness and reality, I finished my donuts and coffee and went to help a girl translate a masterpiece.


Poems and card games

My student is a Japanese junior high school girl who enjoys Japanese literature. She especially likes a game called karuta. Karuta is a card dueling game. To win at karuta, players need to be extremely familiar with a set of 100 famous Japanese poems. Here’s how a karuta game is played:

  1. Two players sit on the floor and face each other.
  2. Between them are a set of cards from a selection of 100 Japanese poems, face up on the floor.
  3. An announcer recites a poem.
  4. At any point during the recitation, players grab the card with the poem on it.
  5. The player who grabs the most correct cards wins.



As I said, my student wants to translate those poems into English. At the beginning of our lesson, she asked, “Can we just replace all of the Japanese words with English words?”

Oh, if only that were true.

I explained that translating is complicated. There are several layers of meaning to words. Words not only express ideas, they also express feelings. They have a flow and rhythm. And as I said above, we often use words to express several layers of meaning. When translating any text, especially ones with several layers of meaning intended by the author, we need to be very familiar with the text we’re translating or we may lose important meaning in the process.

The freshman junior high school girl was understandably overwhelmed by even my simple explanation.

So instead, I decided to show her.

She pulled out a book of poems and opened it to the first one. We translated it together.

In a small shack standing on the edge of the autumn fields, the straw roof’s seams are coarse, so the sleeve of my clothing is getting wet from the trickling down night dew.

I asked my student to explain the meaning of the poem to me. She said that the author was an emperor who slept in a poor person’s house. The experience taught him the difficulty of life as a poor person.

During my lesson, I wanted to do two things:

  1. I wanted to draw attention to two sections: “the edge of the autumn fields” and “the straw roof’s seams”.
  2. I wanted my student to try to read and guess the meaning of some of the words.

For number one, in Japanese, the grammatical structure of the two expressions is the same.

The choice of using “edge of” and “roof’s”, rather than “field’s edge” and “seams of the roof” is mine to make. The alternatives express essentially the same idea. Well, at least at one level of meaning. But I’m not intimately familiar with the text, so it’s possible that one translation more accurately expresses the author’s intended meaning. Furthermore, this is poetry. The flow and rhythm of a poem may be just as important to understanding the meaning as the words themselves.

As for number two, the word I wanted her to guess was “roof’s”. I taught her the meaning of “straw” and “seams”. Given that she knew the meaning of the poem in Japanese, and given that I had taught her the meaning of the surrounding words, I believed she had a fighting chance of guessing the meaning of “roof’s”.


Learning from context with sudoku

To help her understand what I was asking her to do, I used another Japanese game as an example: sudoku. Sudoku is a logic puzzle game involving numbers. A 9 x 9 board is divided into 9 separate large boxes with 9 smaller boxes inside them. The puzzle begins with some of the squares filled in with numbers. The rules are as follows:

  1. The small boxes in each large box need to be filled in with numbers 1-9.
  2. The large boxes can only have one of each number. There can be only one 1, one 2, one 3, etc.
  3. Similarly, vertical and horizontal lines of boxes spanning across the large boxes can only have one 1, one 2, one 3, etc.



Following those rules, players need to guess which number goes in each blank box. They guess based on the numbers that are filled in at the beginning, the rules above, and logical rules of deduction. I showed her a sudoku board and I showed her how we could figure out the possible numbers in a box based on things we already knew (rules and the numbers already on the board).

Learning new words from context works exactly the same way. Grammar rules are like rules of the game. English is left to right, subject-verb-object, etc. Words you know around words you don’t know is context.

There is no end to the amount of vocabulary that you have to learn in a foreign language. Learning from context is absolutely necessary because we can’t constantly refer to a dictionary. And even if we could, it would be slower than learning from context much of the time.

Learning and making meaning from context is not only essential for language learning, it’s essential for life. We constantly have to make sense of things that happen in objective reality. We have to look at events large and small and answer the question, “What does this mean? Is it important?”


Combing through the wreckage

Unfortunately, my student couldn’t get the meaning of “roof’s”. But, what did she get?

  1. She learned that translating complex thoughts is an imprecise and challenging effort.
  2. She learned that learning from context is the essential quality of language study.
  3. She learned a bit about deductive reasoning.
  4. She learned about the many different ways words express meaning.

After a long journey, we ended with a bit of reading practice. When we were all done, she still seemed full of energy and ready for more. I look forward to helping her develop her essential human qualities through English.