|Maiyim Baron considers herself a henna gaijin |
and runs a site by that name.
When I first got to Japan, I said to myself:
Well, I may be strange, but I'm not foolhardy. I've just had a small-island nation experience in England, which was pretty intense. No need to charge head on into another one straight away. Besides, only a glutton for punishment would embark on such a difficult language right after getting out of grad school. I'll learn just enough Japanese to get by, no more.Famous last words, as it were. When I first went to England, I resolved not to pick up a British accent: thought it would sound even more pretentious on an American than it does on a native. Little did I envision visiting my hometown one day and being asked: "Are you from England? I love your accent!"
In Japan as well, my initial resistance to going native gave way to a preoccupation with absorbing what the 16th-century Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier nicknamed the devil's tongue.
In retrospect, I think St. Francis Xavier had it right. Who but the devil could have seduced me into dabbling in Japanese for so many years, knowing full well I would never reach fluency? Not only that, but since leaving Japan, I've been possessed by the need to persuade ALL English speakers to give it a go, for these four reasons:
1) Everybody needs a supreme challenge, and assuming you're not about to climb Mt. Everest, studying Japanese is the next best thing. Once you've embarked on the adventure, it becomes all consuming. You're in pain, you're exhausted, you're under stress, your brain is swelling, you think you're on the verge of getting lung disease (Japan is a smoker's paradise) — and it turns out you've only reached base camp, where you can say a few basic things like "Kore wa pen desu ka? Hai, kore wa pen desu." [Is this a pen? Yes, it's a pen.]
|Mt. Everest, courtesy Wikimedia Commons|
Pretty soon, though, you can't cram anything more into your poor addled brain, and you take a rest. By the time you resume, it's clear you haven't got a prayer of so much as glimpsing the summit. Even then, you refuse to give up, loathe to relinquish the bragging rights it gives you with your expat friends in Europe.
"You think that learning Spanish is hard?" you say to your friend who has been in Madrid for a couple of years. "Try Japanese!" As long as you're learning Japanese, you'll always be the most macho person in the expat room. In fact, you now see your earlier self as a wimp for complaining about learning French in school. At least it's in the same family as English, for pity's sake!
Japlish, the "almost-English" that is plastered on tee shirts, adverts, stationery and the like — "I feel Coke" being a notorious example. Given my predilection for the Queen's English (as professed in Part 1 of this post), I have only one thing to say to the perpetrators of such trends: "We are not amused."
Rather, I refer to the many comical expressions the language contains, which not coincidentally are also the lifeblood of Japanese comics, or manga. Does art imitate life or vice versa? In Japan, one is never quite sure ...
At one point during my stay in Tokyo, I was the only non-Japanese in a Japanese office. Whenever we were facing a tight deadline, my colleagues would use the expression giri giri. Even though no one told me the literal translation, this expression, technically known as an echo word, became imprinted on my brain. It perfectly described my inner state of panic while also providing some light relief. If something is giri giri, it's hard to take it too seriously.
onomatopoeia — words that replicate voice or sounds, known as giongo: e.g., guu guu (stomach rumbling), kusu kusu (giggle), pachi pachi (hand clapping), and kin kon (ding dong of a door bell). There is even a word for the sound of breaking big sticks, such as an elephant makes when ambling through the forest: baki baki (see visual). How silly-sweet is that?
|Courtesy Think Geek|
So, do Japanese people use and pronounce our words the same as we do? You've got to be joking! Typically, they alter our words out of all recognition. For a start, Japanese have shown no hesitation in chopping up our words and recombining them. Sometimes they come up with a brilliant new compound: aircon, for instance. But what if I told you this discussion was ofureco and you can't use your dejikame? Pretty clear, right? (Off the record; digital camera.)
And, while we English speakers have no trouble saying "judo," "sushi," and "anime" (this last is actually a reborrowing), Japanese speakers will modify the pronunciation and/or meaning of our words to suit themselves. Let's try another test. What if I said I was trying to find the mochibeeshon to ridusu? Maybe, just maybe, you'd understand that I'm trying to find the motivation to reduce. But reduce what? As it turns out, ridusu refers only to cutting down on the amount of garbage I create, not my weight.
And that's just the half of it. To make matters worse, many Japanese are offended — the cheek! — by English loanwords. While some people think they sound cool, many more fear their overuse has debased the native tongue and led to no end of communication problems. (The natives, too, frequently get lost in the labyrinth of Katakanago, confusing grin piisu [green peas] for Greenpeace, for instance.)
Woe betide the individual who laces his speech with too many English-derived words. He will be told he has a foreigner's complex (the ultimate put-down being bata kusai: literally, reeking of butter). The nation's sportscasters recently set a good example by developing an alternative lexicon for baseball (another Western import). Now, instead of proclaiming shinguruhitto, they say tanda.
Which brings me to my final point:
4) Believe it or not, English and Japanese have something extraordinary in common. Both languages developed in the shadow of an imperial language: for us it was Latin; for the Japanese, Chinese. (Note: This item relates to Part 1 of this post.)
a scholar who traveled to China in 716
Similar to the role of Latin in Medieval Europe, Kanbun (the written form of Kango) became the language of statecraft, scholarly literature, and Buddhism (another Chinese import).
But even while borrowing heavily from the language of Imperial China — over 60 percent of Japanese words are derived from Chinese (similar to the percentage for Latin-derived words in English) — ancient Japanese were at pains not to let these borrowings take over. They still used their native words, known as Wago, for describing uniquely Japanese feelings and beliefs. An example is the Man'yōshū, an 8th-century collection of poetry exploring themes at heart of Shinto (Japan's native religion).
While on this topic, let's give a shout-out to the Japanese women who kept the native lingo alive during the Heian period (794-1185), when an alternative writing system emerged, consisting of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) for representing Japanese words with no Chinese equivalent. Aristocratic women, who had not been trained in Chinese like their male counterparts, took up the brush for the first time. They went on to produce some of outstanding early works of literature. The most illustrious example is Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari, or Tale of Genji, reputedly the first novel ever written.
|Written text from earliest illustrated handscroll (12th C)|
of Tale of Genji, courtesy Gotoh Museum
Methinks George Orwell would have approved. And he might have been gratified that English and Japanese, despite having so little in common, are united in the robustness of their native tongues. As a general rule, an English word derived from Latin/French roots corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Wago equivalent.
Question: Have I convinced you to try studying Japanese, or have I merely proved that I have the chops of a henna gaijin, and a demonic one at that?