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Japan Journal

Learning Japanese

Aikido, reading, and learning Japanese are the main ways I try to understand the complicated cartography of being Nikkei. I’m now enrolled in the beginner Japanese class at the Miyagi International Association here in Sendai. We all seem to be “false” beginners since most of us can read hiragana, katakana, and even kanji. As is usual in Japanese classes here, there are a lot of Russians, Koreans, Chinese, a Mongolian, and a Thai woman, most of whom are married to visiting researchers and scientists and Japanese men. There’s also a handful of us English teachers. In our class of 18, five are men. Our excellent teachers are Onodera and Uetsuki-sensei.

We meet four times a week in a Miyagi-ken train station, a nice 15 minute walk from my house in Kitayama. We meet 10 a.m. to noon, Tuesday to Friday. Learning Japanese is an important part of my education which I’ve woefully neglected over these past two years. Now, after the first six weeks in class, tough, pieces finally seem to be falling into place and I am learning, glory be! Upon my arrival two years ago, I immediately enrolled in an intensive beginner course, which proved to be disastrous; the class was already three months into the course. I couldn’t read hiragana or katakana and kept falling further and further behind. I eventually dropped out.

I continued to study, though. I can read hiragana and katakana pretty well and am learning kanji. My progress has been slow. I haven’t learned systematically and have a few people to practice with. There are so many stumbling blocks; well intentioned friends who continue to translate everything are an annoyance (one friend gets so caught up in translating for me that even when there is English for me to read, he reads it for me!). People can’t get past the idea that it is possible for you learn Japanese. The process is a frustrating one.

I don’t know what connection there is between being Nikkei and learning Japanese, but it seems to require a fantastic effort. Writer David Mura talks about his experience in Turning Japanese. Nikkei who don’t learn Japanese as children seem to go through similar difficulties learning as adults. We have similar stories to tell.

By not speaking Japanese we’re more disconnected from our roots. I could never speak with my grandparents, but I remember Italian, French, Ukrainian, Chinese, and Jewish friends speaking to their parents and grandparents in their languages. Why was my family different, I used to wonder?

All sorts of Japanese dictionaries, manga, and text books are scattered about my four rooms: Japanese For Busy People 2; Situational, Functional Japanese; Modern Japanese; and the text I’m using now, Shin no Nihon go kiso 1. I listen to tapes on my Walkman. For the past six months, I’ve even seen a volunteer tutor, Tatsu Nambu, most Thursday evenings when we spend most of the time speaking English. (However, he’s been an excellent cultural advisor.)

Over the past two years, I haven’t had the opportunity to seriously study Japanese. As I mentioned before, trying to learn Japanese as a conversation school teacher ain’t easy…my work environment is entirely English and most of my friends, Japanese and gaijin, speak good English… OK. I’ve finally become tired of the excuses too!

Unless we come here with blinders on, Nikkei who come to Japan are seeking some other sense of themselves. I can’t think of many other ways of thoroughly reinventing oneself than by learning a new language. Language has transformative powers. My gaijin friends change when they speak Japanese. One friend who speaks Japanese well is interested in keigo (formal speech). Even with his big red beard he often speaks with more formality than most Japanese do.

This morphing process might seem to be a more natural process for Nikkei to undergo, but this isn’t always so. By becoming “something else” I’m trying to create new possibilities; it’s an attempt, perhaps to put a deep sense of dislocation into a quiet corner. In another way, I’m beginning to understand that Nikkei isn’t quite it or enough either. I’m beginning to learn that in order to understand my Japanese self, I have to continually peel back unwanted layers of myself and rebuild. In a real sense, Norm Ibuki and Ibuki Masaji (my Japanese name) are in a constant tussle. This is a dangerous process since once it begins, it sets off a whole chain reaction, like a domino effect, going deeper and deeper; where it stops, nobody knows?

At the school’s Ohanami party (cherry blossom viewing party) at Nishi Koen (West Park) the other month, I spent most of the evening talking with two teen-aged girls: one spent three years studying in Ireland, the other, one year in Indiana. They both want out of their culture. Mika intends to study at a University in England and Mamiko is studying for the TOEFL test which is necessary to enter any American university. Both are from privileged, traditional Japanese families where their fathers have certain expectations of them. Mika’s dad owns a private medical clinic. As is common in her situation, she feels pressure to follow in his footsteps but doesn’t want to.

Mamiko boastfully says: “I don’t like Japanese boys. I like blond, blue-eyed boys.” She has ambitions to live in the U.S. one day. I remind her that as a Japanese woman she would face similar difficulties as those relating to her image of what is “good-looking American,” which is painfully WASP.

Learning Japanese can be a way of breaking through invisible barriers, a means of achieving a more intimate relationship with one’s surroundings, Eric Meader, 33, my co-worker, from Davis, California, is studying in the same class. His mother is a sansei with family connections in Fukuoka and Kyoto. He lived in Sendai for two and a half years before returning again last October. Of course, not all foreigners feel this need to speak Japanese. One American friend has been living here for eight years and is married to a Japanese woman with three kids. He speaks almost no Japanese. For some, learning another language is a means of escape, a way of stealing into another culture; for others it’s a way of finding the necessary perspective to see oneself in a clearer light.

I have a theory that learning Japanese is so hard for Nikkei because those before us so effectively erased their steps back to Japan. Even though most of us have grown up with Japanese “stuff,” culture, and language, the keys to understanding Japan were usually omitted as if they would hurt us. Of course, Japan puts up its own barriers between us and it too. We also carry cultural baggage that other students of Japanese don’t. Most tangible links were broken, but several ethereal ones remain intact. Although I marvel at the ease with which natural dilettantes of language learn, they don’t always quite get “it.” There are subtleties, words between words, disguised in pauses, “un-uns”, and hesitations, where Nikkei may have some intuitive advantage. The sound of the language, like growing up listening to scratchy enka records over and over and over again; incomprehensible, but ingraining something indelible on regions of the self that are as enigmatic as the looks in old family photos.

In the struggle to learn Japanese, to define my Japanese self, I often wonder how my life would be different if I had learned as a child. The grammar that now takes so long to drill into my head, I imagine would have slipped in with ease. But, perhaps like French, I might have resented having to learn something that at the time seemed to have no tangible connection with my life. Who knows?

The global push for cultural monotony is something I’ve become more keenly aware of in Japanese class too. One Mongolian exchange student, Suye-san, talks about the Chinese push to dominate Inner Mongolian culture. She showed the class pictures of her fantastic homeland, a place where people in the countryside still wear traditional clothing and ride horses to get around. Although not as well known as the plight of the Tibetans, Mongolians are also fighting against the Chinese government’s efforts to weaken them by repressing their culture. Similarly, the West’s greedy single-mindedness in its regard to China as a cheap labor pool and tantalizing marketplace is disgusting.

“Our culture is our way of life. For us it’s something sacred, like religion,’ Suye-san says thoughtfully.

As with learning anything new, there are breakthroughs and confidence building each time I express something new in Japanese. My relationship with people around me is noticeably changing too. I’m beginning to interact on a plane, a level they aren’t used to seeing me on, but it’s a place that feels good.

I try not to let the Korean and Chinese students frighten me too much. (The Korean grammar system is similar to Japanese. The Chinese students are often more adept at kanji than the teachers.) The studying I’ve done over the past two years is paying off. I am actually keeping pace with them. I’ve never been a very good student of languages, so I will continue to learn at my own plodding, fumbling, confusing those damned particles, slowly, ever slowly, moving forward.

I’ve never really been interested in seeking culture other than my own ambiguous one, I’m ever more acutely aware of the core of this process I’m involved in: trying to realize the creation of an elusive something that somehow feels more whole.

*This article was originally published in the Nikkei Voice in June 1997.

© 1997 Norm Ibuki

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About this series

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.