A quick note before we get started. I’m confident that when I write about Japanese, I will make occasional (probably frequent) errors of fact. Please let me know when I do, or if there’s a topic you’d especially like me to cover.
For a shallow person like me, part of the frustration of learning a language is knowing that there are millions of people—not especially smart people, just regular people—who are better at this than I will ever be.
A few years ago I taught myself to sharpen knives. Knife sharpening is a great skill to acquire if you’re a showoff. Anyone could learn to do it with a couple of months of study, but almost nobody knows how to do it already. So with a little time and money, you can become the amazing knife-sharpening neighborhood superhero. Complete with jumpsuit, if that’s your scene.
Language learning is so entirely the opposite. Even if I exceed my own wildest expectations for soaking up Japanese, I’ll still be lapped by throngs of children.
Oh, I had my chance to get an early start. In sixth grade, my best friend Alex, whose mother was Japanese and made exquisite homemade potstickers, taught me to say ohayō gozaimasu (good morning). That was 25 years ago.
Even before that, in fourth grade, my class spent several months studying Japan for Social Studies. Every student had to write a paper on some aspect of Japanese culture, and I somehow ended up saddled with textiles, probably because I had no idea what the word meant and figured it probably involved robots. We were also forced to taste sushi, which was disgusting, and threatened with the fact that Japanese has four different writing systems, and if we were Japanese kids we’d be learning all of them. (Plus, Japan had the gall to make better cars than America. The nerve, right?)
I came away from this believing that Japan was the world’s most annoying country. Since then, my relationship with Japan has followed the classic romantic comedy progression. That country is so annoying! Why can’t I stop thinking about it? Probably because it’s just so annoying. It’s not that I like Japan or anything.
So why am I studying Japanese? Yes, I enjoy the mental workout and the potential to read menus at places that don’t cater to foreigners. But on top of those good reasons, I think, is a more absurd reason.
Before Iris and I went to Japan in 2010, we had a draft list of future dream vacations: Thailand, Rome, Hawaii, Sweden (mainly because we might run into Robyn or Peter Bjorn & John). Japan just happened to be at the top of the list. Once we got back, however, all we wanted to do was turn around and go back to Japan. Those other places? Someday. Maybe. Who cares?
I think about Japan every day, especially about Tokyo and how the city seemed like a funhouse built just to delight us. If you’re in love with someone, or some country, of course you make an effort to learn their language. What kind of jerk wouldn’t make that commitment?
Next up: Let’s get our hands dirty with a bit of hiragana, writing system numero uno.