Sayonara, Japanese

February 23, 2017 § 27 Comments

Bicycling is a great way to meet people from other cultures and learn that yours is inferior to theirs. I still remember the time that I went over to Joe Vessowaite’s apartment a couple of weeks before I left for Japan the first time, in 1987.

Joe had graduated a couple of years ahead of me and worked in the accounting department at UT. He had a negative outlook on life that was exacerbated by being mostly right.

“What are you going to Japan for?” he asked with contempt.

“I was invited by my aunt who lives there and teaches English so I thought I would check it out.”

“You’ll hate it.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Yes, you will. Everyone there speaks Japanese. You won’t understand anything.”

“I’ll learn Japanese.”

“No, you won’t. Only Japanese can do that. You’re too old and too white and way too tall to ever learn to speak Japanese. And your hair is the wrong color.”

“You’re a narrow minded monolingual Texas bigot,” I said. “And what’s worse, you like football, which might be excusable if you didn’t like the Cowboys.”

“Whatever,” he said. “You’ll still never learn Japanese.”

So of course the first thing I did when I got to Japan was to learn Japanese, and what better way than by cycling with Japanese people? I met Ken Iijima and Miki Yamamoto and a bunch of other people and they only spoke Japanese and after a while I did, too.

Then I got married and had kids, not necessarily in that order, and lived there for ten years and published briefly a review of Japanese law that I translated from recent appellate decisions, and I could read the newspaper and understand the TV and listen to the radio and order stuff on the telephone and carry on every kind of conversation I ever needed to carry on, in Japanese, with Japanese, and to the Japanese, for the betterment of our two great nations and can I date your daughter please?

But I always had the sneaking suspicion that Joe Vessowaite was right. No matter how I tried, and no matter how many decades I made my wife speak to me in Japanese, and no matter how my kids all spoke it fluently, deep down I suspected that my Japanese was for shit.

I noticed that even though people would speak to me in Japanese, it grated on them. In fact, my Japanese bothered them a lot more than someone who could only speak a phrase or two, such as, “Please put more soy sauce on my hair,” and etcetera.

Why was it that my high level yet error-filled Japanese was so repellent? Surely it couldn’t be my personality or my breath … could it?

Anyway, the nagging suspicion that my Japanese really sucked was confirmed when my daughter married a Japanese man and the whole family ganged up on me. They would be chattering away happily in Japanese about whether to buy pork for dinner at the grocery store, or about whether the fifteen-cent discount at Marukai was better than the full price at Nijiya because Nijiya was closer, and everything would be waaaay harmonious, or “Wa” as they say, and then bam! I’d enter the conversation and everything would become a mishmash of Japlish or Englinese even though I would beg them to stop playing mix-and-match with the village idiot.

“Would you just pick one language?” I’d say. “I don’t care which one, but pick one and stick with it, for dog’s sake.”

And they emphatically wouldn’t. My presence was the great wa-killer, and I noticed this on bike rides, too, where our sizable Japanese contingent would avoid me like a genital sore out of fear that they will have to speak to me in Japanese, possibly upsetting their wa for days, if not years, compounded with the haji of getting their legs ripped off on the Switchbacks.

After a while I figured it out. English is a language that everyone must speak, trillions of people, and they speak it badly, horribly, ungrammatically, they butcher it beyond recognition and that’s just in Kentucky. When you show up as a TA to a course in physics at MIT it’s practically required that no one understand anything you say, it’s a rite of passage for the students and a job requirement for the TA. I’ve even seen their job applications:

Please check the applicable box:

  • My English is horrible.
  • My English is terrible.
  • Me English terribly.
  • Wakarimasen.

There is only one correct answer, of course.

What I’m trying to say is that English is a language that no one speaks properly, especially Australians, and we accept their mispronounced babble as something that, if they muddle through, gesticulate a lot, and wear a condom, things will turn out mostly okay.

The other end of that spectrum is Japanese, where speaking it incorrectly actually causes brain damage to the listener. Swapping out your wa with your ga, transposing your ni and your de, mangling your syntax and hacking to death your honorifics will earn you the most vile insult imaginable, which involves having someone, usually a lovely lady dressed impeccably and smiling while giving you a small gift of diamond-encrusted teacups, say to you, “Your Japanese is so very good,” when what she means is “You are killing a language, which is already an inanimate object.”

Japanese doesn’t have any particular characteristics that make it harder or more exacting than English, it’s just that no one speaks it except those who have read and signed off on the official EULA, and so whereas we’re used to quaint phrases like the British MP who railed against the Trump state visit as “Pimping the queen,” Japanese has no such analogues, except perhaps “Yes, Your Majesty.” It is a language accustomed to being spoken a certain way, and therefore speaking it otherwise marks you as a wa-killer.

So whether I’m on the bike, at the kitchen table, or trying to make small talk to some wanker fresh off the Boeing who’s about to get ground up into twisted little meat strings on the Donut Ride, I’m done with this language. I’ve tortured it for more than thirty years but will butcher it no more.

Joe Vessowaite, that sorry sonofabitch, was right.



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