Sunday, October 19, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - I

A Kyoto yakitori chef prepares a meal.
I have been engaged in (interested in? consumed by?) the Japanese language for a long time. Although I doubt I will ever return to Japan, I continue to meet weekly with a Japanese conversation partner and continue to learn slowly, slowly the characters with a goal of eventually being able to read a magazine or newspaper. I will never be fluent. I cannot, for example, understand a news broadcast. But my spoken Japanese is good enough to function as a traveler in Japan.

Because I have been learning and using Japanese for a long time, and because I find the language so interesting, I plan to write about Japanese and some of my experiences with it in a series of periodic blog entries, this being the first. I hope that if you have observations or questions, you will take a moment to comment.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, I was disoriented when I got off a troop ship in Yokohama harbor years ago and discovered that, while Japanese shops, posters, and billboards were a riot of writing, I was entirely illiterate. I might also have been deaf and dumb because everything I heard was only noise. On the one hand, it seemed impossible to learn enough to, as a friend said, "exchange ideas." On the other, Japan is filled with children who have learned the language, so it cannot be impossible.

Indeed, I learned almost immediately how to say "hello," "thank you," and "how much?" As a GI, I didn't need much more; the Japanese I came in contact with spoke (some) English. While the Japanese education system requires several years of English study (and did so right through WWII)—and I have a story about English instruction in a moment—in my experience, few Japanese are comfortable in English and appreciate the foreigner who has bothered to learn some of their language. The Japanese are not, generally, language snobs unless or until you gain native fluency, which will never be my dilemma.

The story: One time in the 1950s was on a train somewhere in the countryside. At a stop, a group of schoolboys and their teacher came into the car. I was an American in civilian clothes, fairly unusual at that time and place. The boys crowded around me and dragged their teacher over to sit across from me. He was clearly embarrassed by what the boys insisted. Because I spoke virtually no Japanese, I could not help him much. Finally, by consulting the pocket dictionary I always carried and the dictionary he had in his brief case, were able to establish that (a) he was the boys' English teacher, and (b) I was the first person he had ever met for whom English was his native language.

While I know that the level of English-language instruction in Japan has improved dramatically in the last 50 years, I also know that for many Japanese English is a trial and a burden. An American who is able to speak some Japanese, even poorly, therefore has an enormous advantage in gaining access to the "real" Japan, whatever that is.

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