Language Barriers

Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  ,
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

It seems impossible to believe that I have now been in Japan for nearly three months. I guess they are right when they say that time flies. However, those three months have seen only modest improvement in my Japanese ability. I am fully aware that this is entirely my fault as I have been a poor student since I arrived. But in a country where very few people speak English fluently, this can cause some difficulty.

Of course, such occasions are not without their funny side. As with any language, I suppose, the misplacement of a single sound in even the simplest of words can cause great confusion. When struggling to get my computer to enter Japanese kana symbols in an email recently, I attempted to inform a Japanese friend that I was being stupid. I confidently spewed forth in hiragana:

Watashi wa baku desu.

Feeling rather pleased with my progress, I strode away from the computer. Upon my return I was greeted with a reply from a confused Emi, who wanted to know how I had managed to turn myself in a tapir (baku). It turns out that baka was in fact the word for being stupid or for a fool. Even the most detailed examination of the photos below will probably fail to unearth the differences between the two, so I am sure you can understand my linguistic muddle.

My ineptitude can also make meeting people something of a haphazard adventure. Imagine the roller coaster of delight and dismay when one meets a beautiful Japanese girl whilst out on the town, only for one to then inform her that "I am not the Japanese language". This stunning revelation has a tendency to end the fledgling relationship forthwith, and to cause severe psychological trauma to said woman, whose dreams of meeting vocabulary and grammar incarnate are cruelly shattered.

Still, the good news is that I am picking some things up, and I am now in a position to afford language lessons. I am also making Japanese friends, which by all accounts is quite a difficult thing to do. Many of these friends put me to shame with their English abilities, but actually gaining some degree of access to the culture here probably requires at least some conversational skills on my own part.

Japanese would be especially useful for teaching kids, whose education I now have the dubious pleasure of contributing to. To be fair, they are a lot of fun, but I now truly understand the old saying about a teacher having to have eyes in the back of their head. Getting instructions across can be a thankless task and I often have to rely on probably being the largest human being they have ever seen for authority in the classroom. The lessons themselves involve a lot of repetition and a lot of singing, so I can at least claim that my disturbing recent flirtations with karaoke carry some professional merit.

There are many differences between children here and back home. Most strikingly, I have noticed that kids in Britain rarely enter classes speaking fluent basic Japanese, a damning indictment of our school system that our finest educators need to address immediately. Another difference is that, even if they can be little monkeys, with little intention of responding "It's a t-shirt" to my deeply brilliant and subliminal "It's a t-shirt, what is it?", Japanese kids are infinitely better behaved than their council estate-dwelling brethren in the UK. Here in Japan, I am glad to report, I am not greeted by a shower of "f... off", nor am I presented with a burning tyre when I enter the classroom. Indeed, the worst they keep calling me is "tapir"...

On a different note, I managed to catch my first glimpse of Fujisan (ie Mt Fuji) on Monday. From spring onwards, this elusive icon of Japan is rarely visible from Tokyo, in no small part due to the vast amounts of pollution created by 34 million energy-hungry inhabitants. But on the clearest day I have yet seen here, there it loomed over the southwestern portion of the megalopolis. It is a curious sight, so unexpectedly "there" where previously there was only a grey smudge. It rekindled my intentions to climb the mountain, which hopefully I will manage soon.

I should have seen Fuji a few weeks ago on a 2-day trip to Hakone, a couple of hours to the west of central Tokyo. Sadly, our arrival there coincided with non-stop rain and very low cloud. This was a real shame because Hakone is renowned as one of the most impressively scenic places in Japan. Our visual experience was thus limited to railway and cable-car journeys entirely engulfed in thick cloud. Perhaps the only transport from which we could actually see anything was the wonderfully tacky "pirate" ship that crosses one of the many lakes in the National Park. Unfortunately, it might have been better if it had been a plain old ferry, as I got a little carried away with the ambience:

Perhaps Hakone is best noted, however, for people sitting in very, very hot baths, or onsen. These are natural hot springs, bubbling up from the ever-present volcanic maelstrom just below Japan's fragile crust. Custom dictates that they are strictly single-sex communal affairs and that, moreover, you must remain naked while you soak. Cue three lads with eyes and heads fixed rigidly on a respective chosen point on the wall, refusing with the utmost resolution to so much as hint at turning around or looking down until after we were all safely back in our Yukata (see below). This really is an unnatural way of communicating, but I have to admit the onsen itself felt great and was probably the highlight of the trip. But the frolicking noises our two female travelling companions were making in the nearby ladies' onsen... well, I am yet to find out just what did happen there.

In truth, I had a great time in Hakone, irrespective of the weather. I am hoping to better that in a couple of weeks when I am due to visit Kyoto for four days. As the one city left largely unflattened by World War II, it carries a huge chunk of the remaining visible Japanese history, so I am very much looking forward to going there. Until then, I might have to put in some serious time with the Japanese study. After all, the last thing I need is to mistake myself for a rather unusual animal and further complicate my identity crisis by asserting that I am, or am not, a language. That would be baku.

* Many thanks to Duke University for putting a picture of a tapir on their website. I could not have done it without you. Well, I could have chosen another one, but I just really liked it. If any over-zealous university official decides that I have breached copyright laws in North Carolina or indeed anywhere else, please be placated by this serene image.

Look at the gate. Hmmmm, peaceful...

** For more information on tapirs, please visit The Tapir Gallery ~ "The World of Tapirs"
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