How I Learned Japanese: Putting the Language to Actual UseCulture
An Accidental Journey
I first went to Japan by accident. Near the end of my time as an undergraduate, studying Western history, I realized I needed to find something to do next. So I went to the careers’ office, where I happened to see a pamphlet saying “teach English in Japan.” This seemed like a good idea—a chance to do something different and put off decisions for a while.
I applied, stumbled my way through the interview, and a few months later I found myself at a commercial high school in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, teaching English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.(*1)
It was a wonderful two years. When I first arrived, though, I could hardly speak a word of Japanese. I picked up a textbook or two before getting on the plane, but to all intents and purposes I was functionally illiterate and more or less mute. This wasn’t a serious problem in the classroom; I was blessed with excellent colleagues, in Iwakuni and beyond, who acted as intermediaries with the students and protected me from my own worst mistakes. But once I left school, at the end of the day, I was on my own. And so I had to learn Japanese.
The problem was: I’d never been a very good language student. Even more than most things in life, learning a language requires a good deal of patience. And I had never been very patient. Furthermore, being in Asia for the first time, there were more interesting things to do than pretend I was giving directions to a beauty parlor, as my textbook wanted to suggest. I could practice sport with various clubs, visit friends in other cities, travel around the islands. Not to mention exploring the wonders of Japanese food and drink.
In the end, it was the last of these that saved the day. If you’re trying to learn a language, immersion is painful, but effective. And from 8:00 to 5:00 every day, I was surrounded by teachers and students speaking Japanese. Soon enough, I realized that in certain situations, they’d use a particular combination of sounds, which seemed to produce a certain response. And so, gradually, copying my dad, who was a great mimic, I’d begin to use the same sounds, which seemed to have the desired effects.
In the classroom, though, I was a bit cautious. Practicing basketball or jūdō made things a bit easier, but it was in the evening that the barriers seemed to melt away. If I wanted to order food and drink, to chat to the people behind the bar, to learn about my town, I had to speak Japanese. And so I did—with a tiny vocabulary and terrible grammar, though after a couple of beers it didn’t seem to matter. At least (I thought), my pronunciation was acceptable. Even if I made no sense, I mused as I sipped my sake, perhaps it sounded like Japanese.
Learning by Doing
Two years later, I left Iwakuni with my textbooks still unread. But I’d realized that I wanted to study Japan some more and to do that I’d need to improve my Japanese. When I finally started taking real Japanese classes, first in Tokyo, then in Seattle, I found I still wasn’t a great student. The combinations of sounds turned out to mean roughly what I’d assumed, though often I was using yamaguchi joshikōben (the local schoolgirls’ dialect in Yamaguchi). But memorizing grammar and vocabulary still wasn’t very interesting. I was a bit better, but still not very patient.
In the end, I managed to learn Japanese by doing, as I had from the start. In Seattle, I read short stories by Murakami Haruki and translated Murakami Yasusuke.(*2) In northern California, I tackled historical sources, from the familiar newspapers of postwar Japan, through the strange hybrids of early Meiji Era (1868–1912), all the way back to the sōrōbun,(*3) documents of the Kamakura government (1185–1333). Soon after that, I was back in Japan, using the libraries and talking to the colleagues who continue to support my work today.
Two years ago, the JET program celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a symposium in Tokyo. I’m not quite sure why, but I was invited to participate, which also gave me an opportunity to go back to Yamaguchi and thank old friends. I’m still not as confident as I should be when I’m trying to speak formal Japanese. At the symposium, I had to read from a text translated by a friend. Back in the izakaya (Japanese pub), though, I was in my element. In both places I think I sounded ok. Perhaps I even made some sense.
Title photograph is taken at Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki. Lockyer wrote about Okamoto in relation to the Osaka Expo in 1970.
(Written on May 10, 2013.)
(*2) ^ A renowned Japanese economist (1931–93). At his death Murakami Yasusuke was director of the Center for Global Communications at the International University of Japan.
(*3) ^ Traditional Japanese literary language, which is completely different from the Japanese spoken language.