Archive for June, 2010

Currently reading

I recently had an epiphany.

It’s an epiphany about how to read Japanese. And it boils down to this: skip anything you don’t understand.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons that I don’t update this blog very often is that I’m trying to use all my free time learning Japanese. Although I live in Japan, I don’t actually use Japanese at any point in the day unless I force myself: I spend all day teaching and correcting English, and all evening conversing with my wife in English because she refuses to speak to me in Japanese.

So instead, I try to create a Japanese environment by myself. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be.

Although my wife still insists on watching the occasional movie or TV show in English, we generally watch Japanese telly at home. When I’m out running, or on my walk to work I listen to Japanese music (Supercar, Candies, Perfume, Judy and Mary, Chara and Puffy, in case you’re interested), or listen to Japanese podcasts or audiobooks, or even movies that I have ripped to my ipod (like Omohide Poro Poro, for example, because I found the Japanese subtitles here).

But it’s taken me a while to get into reading Japanese books. That’s because when I started trying to read Japanese books, I was hung up on understanding every single word of whatever I was reading. So I’d encounter a word I didn’t know and I’d stop and look it up in a dictionary, and then carry on. It felt more like reading a dictionary than whatever novel I was trying to read.

But actually, that’s not how I read in English. When I was at university I came across plenty of words and concepts I didn’t understand – ‘prepuce’, for example, or ‘burghal hidage’. (I guess that was half the point, right?) And I still encounter things that are full of words and concepts that I don’t understand. When I read Blood Meridian, for example, it seemed to be about 90% words I didn’t know. Before Malcolm Gladwell came along and wrote about ‘tipping points’, I’d never heard of one. But when he did come and along and start talking about them, that hitherto unknown phrase didn’t terrify me enough to stop reading English.

When I read in English, I just skip over things that I don’t understand. I fill the gaps in my knowledge from context or further reading, or I forget about them altogether. Sometimes I might even look something up in a dictionary, but that’s usually a last resort.

Now that I’ve learnt to do that in Japanese, it has made reading Japanese books much easier. And so I recently finished reading ‘Parallel World Love Story’ by Higashino Keigo, and started on another of his books, ‘Graduation’. Neither of them would be the sort of thing I’d read in English, but as fairly trashy suspense thrillers, have the virtue of being easy to understand page turners, which is perfect for exercising my Japanese.

I’m also reading a couple of manga series. The first is a shoujo manga (ie. pretty emo) called Nodame Cantabile, set in a music school. It’s basically about a brooding but handsome would-be conductor, and a girl who has a crush on him, but it’s handled with a superb lightness of touch, and in many ways it reminds me of a lot of medieval literature, a bit – the way it presents such implausible scenarios with a disarming frankness; the way the world beyond the characters’ emotional experience is drawn with such vague strokes; and the way unnamed minor characters provide commentary and comic relief. (The reason I’m reading it, by the way, is because my wife has just been watching the live-action drama, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.)

The other manga that I’m reading is Azumi, because I know the name from the movie, and because I got it cheap from my local Book Off. It’s a bit more gruesome than Nodame Cantabile, featuring about one decapitation every other page, with the occasional rape thrown in for good measure. But it’s also pretty fun, charting the gradual emotional awakening of the eponymous heroine a naïve young killing machine who occasionally gets her tits out. There’s actually quite a lot of expository dialogue that I don’t understand, about military campaigns and early modern Japanese politics, but there’s also plenty of more simple stuff to sink my teeth into.

And that is what I’m reading at the moment. There are still times when I read Japanese with a dictionary – especially when reading newspaper websites. But now that I’m no longer terrified of not knowing things, I’m reading, and enjoying reading, a lot more Japanese.

Although I guess that’s pretty boring if you’re one of my relatives who only checks the blog to see how I’m enjoying Japan. Sorry Mum. (Only joking. My mum doesn’t read the blog at all.)

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Reverse Culture Shock

I’ve just been to London. It felt a bit like I was visiting a foreign city. Which, I guess, I was. Even so, having spent less than a year in Japan, I’m surprised by the extent to which I experienced reverse culture shock while I was back.

Sitting outside Baker Street tube station, watching pedestrians ignore the lights at the crossing, and the drivers trying to run them over, it felt like I was far from civilisation. Paying to use filthy toilets. Listening to braying toffs. Watching braying toffs flopping their fringes while wearing ridiculous, random arrangements of colour AND NO SOCKS. Watching everyone else slobbing around in what seemed to be their gardening clothes – presumably to cover up the Brobdingnagian folds of flesh that enveloped their bodies. People bumping into each other! Paying 21 pounds sterling for a train ride that would cost 200 yen in Japan. Paying 80 pounds for a couple of kebabs and a bottle of house red. Walking through filthy, polluted streets. It felt like I was far from home.

After we got married my wife and I honeymooned around eastern Europe. We enjoyed it immensely, but I couldn’t help feeling that everyone was wearing clothes that were out of date, and that everyone was a little bit ruder than I was used to – I felt a bit like one of the over-privileged toffs from Seven Go Mad In Peru, complaining about how the little Amazonian rainchildren are so ungrateful that they couldn’t even form an orderly queue to receive their Union Jack stickers.

And that’s how it felt going back to England. Having become used to the carefully dressed fashions and general cleanliness in Japan, going to England was like travelling round eastern Europe (and Turkey – specifically the driving and the filthy toilets. Oh, and the squits). It was nice to visit, but I didn’t want to live there.

The first thing I did when we got back to Yamanashi was to take a leisurely walk along the Arakawa, taking in the distant view of Mount Fuji; being constantly surprised by the reflections on the surface of sunken rice fields; and watching ducks, geese, herons, cranes, brightly coloured carp, and even turtles (or maybe terrapins). It felt like I was home.

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