Studying Japanese

How I Learned Japanese: Television and “Manga”

Society Culture

Iranian-born Shirin Nezammafi arrived in Japan in 1999 and won her first award for Japanese fiction seven years later. In this essay she acknowledges her debt to two important teachers—television and manga.

Language breathes and evolves like a living soul. It expresses the transition of the times and gives rise to new emotions. Since language is constantly transforming to meet the needs of its users, not even a trained linguist can really say he or she has mastered a language in its entirety.

This applies no less to one’s native language than to foreign tongues. My first language is Persian, and while I have no trouble reading books and magazines or conversing in Persian, the minute I start reading poetry the words suddenly become unintelligible, and I find myself deeply discouraged over my inability to grasp the meaning of words written in my own mother tongue. 

In addition to being in constant transition, languages have multiple faces. Japanese has the literary language of the classics and the modern slang of Japanese schoolgirls; the four-character aphorisms originating in classical Chinese and a host of loan words and neologisms derived from English; the honorific forms of polite speech and the wordplay of the office punster. Each is a rich and dynamic idiom in its own right, and fully mastering any of them is a huge challenge.

This is why I cannot claim to have mastered Japanese. I did, however, learn to accurately communicate my thoughts and ideas to others using Japanese as a foreign language. Here I would like to write about what helped me the most.

The World of TV Subtitles

Television played a huge role in teaching me verbal communication. What proved most useful to me were neither dramas, documentaries, nor news broadcasts but Japanese comedy-variety shows, with their continuous stream of informal banter among the comedians and other personalities, often competing in a quiz or other competitive format.

The Japanese variety show has a number of unique features, not least of which is the fascinating comic interaction between the traditional tsukkomi and boke, or “straight man” and “funny man,” characters. Still, the most interesting aspect of these programs from my viewpoint was their use of graphic subtitles to display what the performers or contestants were saying on screen. Having always thought of screen subtitles as something used only in foreign-language films, I was fascinated by the dynamic, creative use of Japanese captions in variety shows. Words popped up out of nowhere, changing color and shape, sliding crookedly down the screen, dissolving, even exploding into fragments. At the beginning, I enjoyed these subtitles as one might appreciate some interesting new art form, but somewhere along the way I realized what an impact they were having on me.

I noticed first that the colors, forms, and movement of the captions corresponded to different reactions and moods: amusement, disappointment, laughter, the humorous misunderstanding of the boke, the annoyed retorts from the tsukkomi, and so forth. With the help of these cues, variety shows gave me insight into distinctively Japanese reactions and displays of emotion that were foreign to my culture.

At this point my brain was still unable to comprehend Japanese properly. First my eyes reacted, noting the visual changes in the captions. Next my ears recorded the sounds, noting the speaker’s tone of voice. Eventually, my brain was able to put all these cues together so that I understood what circumstances gave rise to certain words. 

The captions can also serve to clarify the meaning of the spoken words in large part because they are written in kanji. Japanese has a great many homophones that can be hard to distinguish from one another by sound alone. But the written language uses ideographs that have their own assigned meaning and clearly distinguish one homophone from another. Over time I was able to memorize a great deal of Japanese vocabulary from variety shows by seeing the kanji in the captions first, then matching the kanji with the reactions of those who were on the show. I learned countless words and idioms this way, including quite a few inappropriate expressions that made me sound like an entertainer or announcer. Thanks to frequent corrections by my Japanese friends and acquaintances, my understanding of Japanese common sense gradually caught up with my vocabulary expansion.

Kanji actually make everything easier once you know them. Reading is faster because you can grasp the meaning visually instead of reading letter by letter. This is why you can drive past a Japanese supermarket and instantly acquire all the information you need from the banners flying outside, advertising half-price specials on milk or rice or eggs. And since visual memory is so much stronger than auditory memory, it makes sense that the variety shows’ kanji captions served as a highly effective aid for my language learning.

The Spell of Manga

Television played a major role in teaching me how to express myself and to understand what others were saying in Japanese. But when it came to reading and writing, my most important aid and encouragement came from manga.

With their unique blend of pictures, words, and imagination, manga create a special world that is almost irresistible in its appeal. They are also a powerful learning tool. Even as a small child I adored comics, just as I loved the animated programs on TV. The comics I read were not museum-quality Japanese manga, with their fine drawing, vivid evocation of movement, and varied, creative layout. For the most part they were European comic books, characterized by simple drawings but engaging storytelling. They were an integral part of my childhood reading experience, which included reading the entire series of the Adventures of Tintin, by the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, and Asterix, the French series written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. 

This affection blossomed into a love affair after I arrived as a student in Japan, the manga capital of the world. Many were the times that I wandered into a manga coffee shop to browse and ended up staying eight hours to finish an entire series. With their skilful storytelling technique, their dynamic, closely observed art, and their playful spirit (including the use of comical caricatures interspersed with more realistic drawing), Japanese manga quickly ensnared me in their spell.

While it was captions in Japanese variety shows that illuminated the path to effective verbal communication, manga acted as the muse that drew me into the world of Japanese fiction. All in all, the process of learning Japanese has been an exciting and fun experience, filled with new discoveries brought to me by some unusual teachers.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 7, 2013. Top photograph of a man between shelves of manga by Aflo.)

manga Iran Japanese television subtitles