Tag Archives: Japanese

Can You Speak Japanese?

The other day I was pondering the question, do I know Japanese? I mean, if somebody back in the states asked me, what would I say? 

A little? 




Most times I lean towards the latter. And it’s not because the Japanese cultural value of false modesty is rubbing off on me. It’s because most of the time I don’t FEEL like I know Japanese. 

When I arrived in this country 25 months ago I thought that, with some hard work, after a few months I would have a pretty decent idea what was going on. I don’t think I ever would have guessed that at this point, a month after I originally planned to leave, I would still be this out of the loop. I still can’t track with most conversations. I can’t follow the baby talk of the preschoolers who ride my bus, the slang of the junior highers I teach, or the thick rural accent and dialectical words of the elderly locals I pass as I walk through town. It’s discouraging! I feel stupid, a lot. 

In my better moments I give myself more credit. Years of Spanish and German meant I was once conversational in both. I didn’t know every word in either language, but I could talk about almost anything I wanted. Just, sometimes I had to take the circular route to get there. If I didn’t know the word for “pregnant” I would say a woman had a baby in her stomach. Not accurate, but it got my point across. 

The thing is, I almost never spoke to native speakers of either language. I never had to deal with rapidity and slang and thick accents. Even at my peak, I couldn’t track movies in either language if they didn’t have subtitles. I was good at both languages, but I was never thrown in the deep end of the pool in the way I am here in Japan. 

Japanese. I’m still not as good at it as Spanish or German. I can often get my point across, but there is still a ton of stuff I can’t say. Every once in awhile, however, I see glimpses that I’m not as incompetent as I think. 

Today, for example. One of the new responsibilities I’ve taken on these past few weeks is doing some translating for my coworkers. Teaching plans for the elementary schools show up and it is my job to decipher them and communicate the information to the people who will be teaching at that school. And I can do it. Right now I’m taking it slowly and double checking by typing it all out into a translator. But I’m learning that most of the time my guess as to what the sentence said was correct. And even the fact that I can type it in is a win. It means that I know at least one pronunciation of a good chunk of the Chinese characters (most of the characters have at least two if not more pronunciations), and for those I don’t know, the method of looking them up is done by knowing components of the character and knowing how the strokes would be made. And I know those. It takes me time, but I can translate these papers. 

Can I speak Japanese? I’m not sure. But I’m getting there. And hopefully someday I’ll give myself the grace to say, “yes”.

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My junior high decided that once a week for a series of weeks the seventh and eighth graders would join the local sixth graders for an activity. They make crafts or cook or learn to play a traditional Japanese instrument, and they do the same activity every week. I don’t know what the point of it is in the Japanese mind, but in my mind it forms a bonding opportunity with next year’s seventh graders and provides a few hours of alternate education, with a kind of Montessori vibe. 

The hierarchy system in Japan dictates that decisions are often made for me, with a quick check to see if I have any objections. This year it was decided that I would go to yoga lessons. If someone had bothered to ask my first choice, yoga would not have been it, as I have a minor issue with the potential spiritual undercurrents that any given leader may introduce and a major issues with flexibility. With the spirituality I decided I could spend most of the two hours praying and inviting the presence of God into the room, thus countering any other spiritual entities who might try to show up. There isn’t much I can do about the flexibility, however. 

My completely amateur and non-academic assessment of people’s flexibility is that people seem to fit into four categories: athletically flexible, flexible, athletically unflexible, and unflexible. 

A. Athletically flexible people are those whose sport calls for them to be able to bend into various shapes, so they spend a good chunk of their day stretching: gymnasts, dancers, divers, figure skaters etc. I honestly believe some other people fit into this category too. Kickers on football teams, for example. And others who practice sports not requiring flexibility but who themselves prize it and therefore craft it. 

B. Flexible people – you know, the people who don’t seem to stretch on a regular basis but just seem to be really flexible. Not like a contortionist, but flexible. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.

C. Athletically inflexible – these are people who have spent a great deal of time building up muscle for one or more sports but who did little or minimal stretching. Because there is a mental correlation many people have between flexibility and athleticism, these people become the brunts of jokes when others realize that these great athletes are worse than many nonathletic people when it comes to basic flexibility. 

D. Inflexible people – I’ve met some who just can’t bend hardly at all. I’d describe it more, but on the rare occasions when I meet them it seems rude to stare so I look away before I can craft an accurate mental assessment of exactly how far they can bend.

I happen to fit in category C. Nevermind that I haven’t run in a month, I have permanent thunder thighs from decades of serious running (and I’m awfully proud of them, by the way). Now, there are specific spots in which I am still more flexible than average, areas where I worked the muscles over the years for one reason or another. For example, psychosomatic back pain as a teenager meant that I did a lot of lower back stretches. Consequently while I still fall short of a gymnast, my chiropractor’s assistant used to accuse me of showing off when she measured my flexibility on a monthly basis. And because the Achilles heel really is the Achilles heel of runners, I’ve worked that thing out so much I need to stand on a step to get the angle necessary for a good stretch. Furthermore, a consistently itchy back as a kid really means I don’t have that one spot on my back I can’t reach. One way or another, my right arm can reach every inch of skin on my back. My left arm is a different story. But most people don’t ask to see if I can itch my back or stretch into a back bend. Most people just notice that I can’t get even close to touching my toes. 

What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m the person in the circle who looks EXACTLY like that one comedy you once saw where someone is groaning and grunting and can’t get past mid-shin in the toe-touch. The saving grace – sort of – is that one of the P.E. teachers was in the room too. She was worse than me, though she also didn’t try as hard, demurely shaking her head and giving a small smile when urged to try harder. Sometimes I still am that kid who makes a joke out of everything. Other times, like at yoga, I just am the joke. 

Naturally, the whole session is in Japanese. Every once in awhile I catch a word I know: “Left,” “Sri Lanka,” “Ceylon,” “difficult,” but most of the time I just watch to figure out what I’m supposed to do.  Sometimes I think I understand, but I wonder if it could possibly be right. Yesterday I heard, “Now [something, something, something] baby, [something] mother [something, something]” and we all assume the fetal position and rock back and forth. Then we were supposed to kick our legs around in the air. I tensed my torso and mimicked the indignant flailing of a baby that has been put down for a nap against its will. The three seventh grade girls next to me pealed into laughter.

But last week was far funnier. As the leader tried her best to speak in soothing tones, I was sure I heard her say, “No birthday cake arimasu.” That would translate, “There is no birthday cake,” though if I WERE to try to translate, “There is no birthday cake” into Japanese, it would be closer to, “Birthday cake arimasen” or “Birthday cake nai.” What she was trying to say in Japanese, I’ll never know, but for the next two hours, at some of the quietest moments I would think to myself in a soothing voice, “There is no birthday cake” and burst into giggles that I managed to stifle into silence, but which still rippled up and down my torso.

After yoga I asked the five sixth grade boys what their names were. They’ll be my students in April, I might as well learn their names now. I already knew Takumi, for he was in my group at the English program we did last October. Of the other four, two of them were named “Yu.” “‘Yu’ and ‘Yu’?” I verified in Japanese. Takumi grinned and said very clearly in English, “Double Yu.” 

Yes, that’s right, the pun is alive and well in Japan.

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The Linguistics of Cuss Words

On Fridays my junior high’s academic schedule is a little more laid back than the rest of the week, meaning there is time at the end of the day to visit the table tennis club before my driver arrives. A couple Fridays ago I chatted with the seventh grade girls who were there, then borrowed a paddle and began volleying with Misaki. After a little while Chihiro and Mao made their way over from the other table. They had a question about English: how does one spell “oh my God” and what does it mean? 

This didn’t completely take me aback. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, taking the Lord’s name in vain is some of the only English students in rural Japan know. They offer it unprompted and unaware of its offensiveness to my faith. Discussion with my teammates has yielded only the theory that some popular comedian or television personality must use it. But we often suspect the students don’t know what it means. Chihiro is one of my brightest students. If she doesn’t know what it means, none of them do. 

The words both “oh” and “my”, have appeared in their lessons already. “Oh, my net!” the character in the textbook exclaims while engaging in a carnival game of scooping goldfish. In this game, which appears at most festivals, the customer purchases a certain number of special nets. Any goldfish he or she manages to scoop up and into a plastic container is theirs to take home. The catch is that the nets disintegrate after about 25 seconds in the water. And of course fish are very skittish things. Nor are they guaranteed to live through the night. Still, as long as one is strategic and isn’t too attached to the pet, it can be quite exciting. 

In other words, the seventh graders around me knew the first part of the sentence and how to spell it, but not the third word. I carefully explained the spelling to them and then translated the word. Then came the tricky part: how to explain the nuances of the word. 

See, in Japanese, they don’t really have swear words. In America we somehow invented some. In other parts of the world they insult people with curses. My Arabic teacher once told us that the worst thing you could say in Arabic was, “May your house be utterly destroyed.” My employer in Amsterdam told me that as a Dutch person he is far more offended by the vernacular of “damning” someone than he is by the words that merit censoring in American films. And a friend once told me that the worst thing one could say to a Japanese person was to tell them to disappear. In Japan, at least, because of this absence of swear words, they don’t seem to have a grid for what the concept is. Once last fall I heard a kid use the “f” word at lunch, but once I strictly told him not to, he said okay. A minute later he asked me in Japanese what the word meant. About a month later I watched a kid raise a certain finger to the turned back of a teacher. In the States I would have hauled him to the principal’s office. Here I gave him the benefit of the doubt and sufficed with a look. Upon realizing I had observed the gesture, he quickly put his hands together in penitence, bowed his head, and said “Sorry, sorry” in English. But he had a grin too, full blown during the gesture and twitching at the corner of his lips during the apology. He wasn’t acting in anger. He literally had no idea of the full meaning behind what he had just done. 

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good translation for most of the cussing. My default has been to explain that the words are rude, for being rude is a big deal in this culture of honor. The “f” word, I said to the boy at lunch, is the rudest word there is. To my seventh grade table tennis girls I said that many people in the United States use this expression to express frustration, but it is rude towards God, so Christians don’t use it, and as a Christian I don’t use it. I am fully well aware that this is an oversimplification of the issue, but even explaining that much was challenging. The girls didn’t know the word, “Christian,” and I couldn’t remember the Japanese, so I called myself a “church person.” In the end I was able to make Chihiro understand, and she in turn explained it in normal sentences to the other two. 

It isn’t just me that has a hard time translating these words for the Japanese. Once I was watching the movie The Darjeeling Express with some friends, some of whom were Japanese. Therefore, we opted to watch it with Japanese subtitles. At one point a character emits the “f” word in a stand alone capacity, not enveloped by a sentence. I immediately glanced down to see what the words on the screen read for this. ”ダメ” they said. In English letters that is “dame”, with the “da” pronounced to rhyme with “pa” and the “me” pronounced like the fifth month of the year. “Dame.” I knew this word. It simply means “bad.” We use it when students are misbehaving. Once last spring I noticed a student picking all of the beans out of his salad at lunch, and I asked him in Japanese, “Do you like beans?” “Beans are a little bad,” he replied in Japanese. It was that same word. It doesn’t carry anything close to the connotations we have for cuss words in English. 

So, cuss words or curses, which would you rather have? Personally, though I don’t cuss, I believe it is wrong to speak in anger, and I try to avoid those who do, I am rather grateful to be from a country that has ceased to employ full out curses. Recently I’ve been reading a book on the power of blessings. Blessings are all over the Bible, from the patriarchs of Genesis to the salutations of Paul’s epistles. Speaking a blessing over someone carries. I believe this and have committed to speaking blessings over people in my life. But it stands to reason that if words have that amount of power, curses can be terribly destructive. They too are words spoken over someone, a prayer for destruction, woe, and sorrow. I’d rather have cuss words tossed at me than have curses spoken over me. 

How about you? Thoughts?

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A Tale Of A Japanese Geography Test

The Prequel

It all started as a joke a few days before Christmas. Well, in all honesty it started my first year here when I opted to learn the 2200 basic kanji. Kanji, for those unaware, are the Chinese pictographs that Japanese has adopted from Chinese. Japan uses about 2200 of them and throws in two syllabic alphabets to round out the grammar. Occasionally a more obscure kanji will pop up in a name, but for the most part it is just those 2200.

Before I began my time in Japan I sensed that learning of kanji was something I wanted to pursue. The Chinese pictographs have always fascinated me, but I’d never had an excuse to devote the necessary time to learning them. The way I think, the way I pray, the way I hear from God often manifests as pictures and analogies, and the intricate pictures formed by this alphabet were something that appealed to a deep part of both my brain and my heart. I twiddled around with a book for awhile, and then found a program to dive into. Learning the 2200 kanji took me about seven months. I know a person who did it faster, and I know a person who did it slower. But for the most part, I know people who either started and then gave up around 700 or who never even tried. Completing that program is something I am immensely proud of. In some ways I’m more proud of it than my high school, college, or master’s degrees, for I never doubted I could finish those and there were many, many days when I wasn’t sure I could complete this program.

Nevertheless, that program ended 11.5 months ago. Since then I haven’t been reviewing the words consistently. I’ve poured my time and energy into learning other aspects of the Japanese language. A lot of the kanji I can’t come up with a meaning for just by looking at, but they are all in there somewhere, and that is relevant to what happened next.

And so it begins

A few days before Christmas I was reviewing the computer flashcards that contain the kanji. That day the word for “lagoon” popped up. I missed it and was dutifully sketching out the character so that I would remember it when it cycled back around in a few minutes. The Japanese English teacher whose desk is next to mine saw me sketching.

 “Are you studying for the prefecture test?”

“Excuse me?”

“That kanji is in one of the names of the Japanese prefectures. After Christmas the students will take a test of all of the prefectures of Japan. Because you are studying that kanji, I thought maybe you were studying for the test too. I was making a joke.”

“That would be fun. Are there any extra materials?”

“I will get some from Hiroko-sensei.”

“Thank you!”

 So a moderately surprised Tami-sensei asked the social studies teacher if there were any extra copies. They both glanced at me. There was a little admiration and a little shock in their eyes. I didn’t care. This sounded like a wonderful challenge.

It also sounded like a win-win-win situation. The past few months I’d been thinking about studying some Japanese geography. Years ago there was a question on Jeopardy!! which asked the contestants to name two of the four islands of Japan. At the time all I could say was, “Okinawa?”, and while that ignorance was permissible back then, I’d feel pretty sheepish if I lived here for three years and still couldn’t name the islands. This challenge was one greater, learning not only the island names but also the prefectures, their capitals, and the regional names (roughly equivalent to learning “mid-west” and “deep south” in the U.S. The difference is that these are official names, and the exact nuances of U.S. regions is a hotbed of contention among American citizens). What’s more, it would be an excellent kanji review. I miss studying kanji, as I find it to be incredibly fun. And even if I could only answer a few questions correctly, because most Japanese people don’t believe non-Japanese can write kanji, ANYTHING I wrote would impress them. It felt like I couldn’t lose.

I studied here and there for a few days, but I opted not to take the materials home with me over Christmas. I’m not in the States all that often and I wanted to enjoy my vacation. What’s more, I knew my brain needed a break from all Japanese, even the fun stuff. Once I got back I had every intention of studying before school started up again, but a sinus infection zapped my energy and I didn’t pull out the paper until the first day of school, Wednesday, January 8th.

Crunch Time, part 1

On Thursday, January 9th I asked when the students’ were taking the test. The eighth graders, I was told, had already taken it that morning. The ninth graders would take it on Friday, and the seventh graders on Tuesday (Monday was a national holiday). To buy myself some time I asked if I could take it the same day as the seventh graders. Then I began studying in earnest.

Japan has 47 prefectures. Plus the capitals, that’s 94. Six regions makes the test an even 100 points. 29 of the prefectures share their name with the capitals. In that respect, this test was easier than learning the 50 states and their capitals because none of those are identical. But, while everyone in the U.S. has grown up hearing the words, “Mississippi” and “Idaho” and “North Dakota” even if they can’t find them on a map, I hadn’t grown up hearing these names. Okay, thorough coverage of WWII in U.S. history courses means I knew Okinawa and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everyone knows Tokyo, and I live in the Fukushima prefecture. Since coming to Japan I’ve learned a few more names, as Aomori, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Sendai are all places I’ve visited. Other names I know because family names often mirror prefecture names. Miyazaki, a famous film maker, shares his name with a province in the south. And Miyagi (Karate Kid, anyone?) is the prefecture just north of me. Recognizing names helped a little, but not entirely. Remember, I wasn’t writing Nara, or even, なら. I was writing 奈良. I could learn the pronunciations, but if I wanted to take the same test the students did, I was going to have to learn the characters.

Two problems immediately presented themselves. The first was that handwriting does not look like typing. I learned kanji from a book with clearly typed strokes in 256 point font. In contrast, I could identify some of the characters neatly penned by the social studies teacher, but not all of them. For this I turned to the Internet. I found one map that listed the prefectures’ names in the English alphabet and a Wikipedia page for Prefectures of Japan that listed the English alphabet names next to the kanji. Between the two of them, I was able to figure out what I should write. The second issue is that I’d forgotten a fair amount of the kanji, or only remembered a general meaning instead of a specific one. I’m not much for memorizing an unconnected series of strokes. Kanji works in my head because each one means something. Once I figured out what the kanji looked like, I had to go back and look a lot of them up.

Why Kanji is Fun: An Interlude

So far I’ve told you the challenges I’ve faced in this process. What I haven’t explained is how much I enjoyed this process. This wasn’t just about personal enrichment; it was downright fun!

There were 100 entries. 90 of them were composed of two kanji, 9 were of three kanji, and one does not posses a name in kanji, only in the syllabic system. Each of these combinations came together to form a picture in my head that turned into a story. One city’s name translates to “Pine Creek.” Isn’t that lovely? Japan also has “Pine Mountain,” “New Lagoon,” “Big Harbor,” and “Thousand Leaves.” For some of the kanji I utilized stories. Occasionally these were true (“Bird Catch” really is a prefecture where people initially made their living catching birds) and other times they were entirely made up. But the latter were often more fun. “Bear Origin” lends itself to all sorts of tall tales. And “Briar Castle” just begs for a Sleeping Beauty analogy. Occasionally I used prompts that only make sense to me. One prefecture is called, “Loved Beautiful Woman” and the capital, “Pine Mountain” was also the last name of the most attractive and popular teacher at my school last year. Clearly the Loved Beautiful Woman got married to Mr. Pine Mountain. I mean, that only makes sense!

One of my favorite pictures was the one I associated with “Love is Known.” “Love is Known” is a prefecture whose capital translates to, “Name Old Roof.” Well, it just so happens that at my alma mater people have the option to ring a bell in an old tower to announce their engagement. Once or twice I went up to celebrate friends’ engagements and up in the eaves hundreds of couples have scribbled their names on the beams and rafters.

Some names were hard to remember: “Mountain Shape” and “Three Heavy” for instance. For others I made wild presumptions. On the north central side of the main island lies three provinces. The southern one is called “Blessed Well.” The middle one is “Rock River” and has a capital of “Gold Swamp,” while the northern one is “Wealthy Mountain.” In my mind, there is gold in those mountains. That gold started in the north and trickled it’s way down a river full of rocks, got sifted out in a swamp, and finally ended up in a well. I now have an assumption that that part of the island is full of pretentious rich people, but at least I know the prefectural names.

Crunch Time, part 2

Sunday I took a break, but Saturday and Monday I spent significant stretches of time studying. I had a bad cold and didn’t really feel like going anywhere or doing anything anyway. I ran several mock tests throughout the week and watched my score steadily increase. Then it was time for the big rodeo.

Tuesday morning I missed my alarm and woke up at 7, just 15 minutes before I had to be on the bus. At school we had our weekly teachers’ meeting and then I had three classes in a row. It was fourth period before I had a chance to take the test, but I knew I was ready so I just sat down and took it.

Did I answer perfectly? No. I had a couple of those, “I know I know this but I can’t think of it” moments, and one capital I only came up with after some fervent prayer. Tests like this are a rush, which is both exhilarating as well as a detriment to my cognitive function.

A bigger stresser for me was whether or not my handwriting was legible. I scribble kanji all of the time but since no one is required to read it it isn’t inherently legible to a Japanese person. What’s more, I’m used to writing in the 268 point font and now I had to attempt the 14. I deliberately made the strokes, but still, I wondered. I knew I had made that bottom stroke, but would the social studies teacher know? But by the end of the period it was time to turn in my sheet.

The immediate feedback was positive, “Segoi,” the social studies teacher called out as I handed it to her, which roughly translated means, “Cool!”  She beamed at the tiny characters. Well, at least she could read them.

It was lunchtime, so the teacher put my test aside and left to eat with her homeroom. Suspense hung in the air. I immediately checked my master sheet and knew I had missed two of them. But that wasn’t awful.

In the rest time after lunch, when teeth are brushed and students chat in the halls and salesmen visit the teachers’ office peddling yogurt and insurance, the social studies teacher called Tami-sensei over to her desk. It turned out I had missed four. Stupid mistakes, all of them. If I were to retake the test I could probably answer those correctly. But I might make a mistake somewhere else. All in all, I was very happy with my grade. And for some reason – maybe partial credit? – I was given a score of 98.

The 3:59 Mile

One of the contradictions that forms my identity is that I am both extremely open and an intensely private person. I will tell a curious stranger or an interested acquaintance the deepest parts of my heart but I will also keep secrets from even my closest friends. As I left school on Tuesday, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell anyone. I had accomplished my goal and that was enough. But after thinking about it for a little while, I decided to go ahead and mention it. About 20% of that is because this is something I am really proud of and really excited about and I wanted to share that joy with others. The other 80% is because what I did most people think is impossible.

Years and years ago I read that the reason Japan whips the pants off of the U.S. when it comes to math is because of different mentalities. In the U.S. we think, “Calculus is really difficult and can only be understood by a few very smart people.” In Japan they think, “Calculus is challenging, but everyone except a few especially stupid people can master it.” I think of that analogy all of the time here, only here it relates to kanji. Most native English speakers think it is impossible to read, much less write, any more than a few of the most basic kanji. Earlier in this post I wrote that I know one person who completed the program faster than me and one who completed it slower. I didn’t misspeak. I personally only know two other people who have learned all 2200 kanji. When I first decided to learn kanji I received a lot of backlash from past and present members of my team. Sometimes I was outright told it was a foolish idea. More often I just saw the disapproving looks similar to those one gets while throwing a tantrum in a public place. I embarked on that journey and had very little support along the way. So when it came to this project, I didn’t tell people I was studying. I didn’t need people telling me not to, or making fun of me if I failed. After I succeeded, I wanted to tell them. For one day, for just a few minutes, I wanted to plant a seed within them that maybe the Japanese kanji isn’t an impossibility. If they don’t learn it, okay. But they are making a choice not to learn it, not succumbing to the inevitable.

If native English speakers are skeptical, however, Japanese are even worse. They believe that as a white person I can’t write kanji, and scribbling a single one on a chalkboard has repetitively brought genuine exclamations of surprise. The seventh graders at my school knew I was studying because Tami-sensei used the information to try and motivate them. After lunch on Tuesday they eagerly asked what my score was. The presentation of my test sheet to them was met with a few congratulations and more exclamations of dismay. I don’t know what most of their scores were, but a passing grade was 80, and four of them hadn’t passed. I didn’t understand all of the chatter, but I caught enough to understand the gist, which followed the usual refrain: “But, you’re an American, and I’m a Japanese person. How can you do better than me on this test?” It’s a good question, and I don’t have answers for it. Except that I have an advantage over them because I learned all of the kanji last year, and they have yet to do so. And I’m thirty years old and have a couple of degrees. I’ve learned a few things about study skills along the way.

I embraced this challenge because it was something I loved. I could have told no one and been just as delighted. But afterwards I feel like what I did became a minor protest against racism. At the bottom of my heart I hope these people whom I dearly love learn to see me as someone who isn’t stupid, and, more importantly, that they will stop viewing white people as those who can’t master Japanese. It’s a difficult language, but my failures are because I’ve only been studying the language 21 months, not because my biological heritage dictates the endeavors to be impossible.

Japanese Geography Test 001


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