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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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My new favourite song: haru ichiban

Today, as a special treat, I thought I’d share my current favourite song, Haru Ichiban, originally released in March 1976 (two months before I was born!), by Japanese girl group Candies:

I only know of its existence because three of the female teachers at my school dressed up as French maids and performed it at a recent enkai – a Japanese word which roughly approximates to a work drinks party, but is, more precisely, a curiously formal way of getting smashed on booze and forgetting about formalities for a couple of hours.

When I arrived in Tokyo for my orientation as a JET, they gave us plenty of advice about how to behave at an enkai. They gave us so much advice, in fact, that they made it seem like life in Japan is just one endless round of enkais, and at the very least I expected my fellow English teachers to arrange some sort of drinks reception to mark my arrival. As the long hot summer rolled on, however, it became increasingly apparent that there would be no welcome enkai for me, and it wasn’t until Christmas that I experienced my first one. Since then, I’ve been to two more – one was a retirement party for my former principal; the other was the annual welcome party for the new teachers who arrive in April.

They’ve all followed the same formula: sit down, and drink.

And all that advice that they give you at Tokyo can pretty safely be boiled down to: do what everybody else does, smile politely, and don’t worry if you make a mistake. (Which, I think, is pretty good advice for pretty much any formal situation.)

Where enkais differ from western-style works parties is in the methodical extent to which the drunken chaos is organised. First, you’re given a seat number at random. After you sit down at your random seat, you might exchange some small talk or pleasantries on your table, but basically, at the enkais I’ve been to, you’ll sit and wait in near silence for proceedings to begin. Then you sit and listen to some speeches. Then, at the end, everybody raises a glass for the official ‘kampai’, at which point you’re allowed to start drinking and eating.

What then happens is (normally) two hours of speed-drinking madness. Since it’s considered impolite in Japan to pour your own drink, at some point you’re expected to grab a bottle and wander around the room, pouring drinks for other people (giving you an excuse to chat to them). For the rest of the time, you are being inundated with drink. And then, just as everyone else’s face turns bright red from the booze, and your vision starts to become slightly hazy, there will be a set of closing speeches and organized cheering led by the school ouendan, or cheering squad, who go through a series of hand gestures and banshee screams before everybody shouts ‘Banzai’ as loud as they can.

And that is what happens at an enkai.

(They’re normally followed by a second part but I have yet to be invited, so I’m still waiting to know what happens at one.)

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On the magic of language.

The last time I wrote about learning a language, I wrote a turgid, boring piece that was a crime against both the English and Japanese languages. I guess it captured some of the hard slog involved and patience required for learning a new language.

This time may also turn out to be turgid and boring, but my aim is to talk about the magic of learning another language – those heady moments, away from the repeating things over and over, where you get to use your skills out in the wild; those moments where a sudden flash of comprehension shows you how far you’ve transformed your world.

Once upon a time, in a former life, I learned a magic trick. My friend Simon and I were out gallivanting in Cannes, with half of the UK videogame industry – including UK rich list member Jez San, who taught us a trick that he’d learned from famous mindbender Derren Brown. The trick involves asking someone to hide something in one of their hands; then asking them to hold out both of their hands in front of them; and then, piff, paff, poof, pointing to the hand that is holding the hidden object.

Unlike most magic, there’s no real deception. Just some simple rules about human behaviour that most people aren’t aware of. That night, I felt like Harry Potter as Simon and I wandered the streets, hotels and bars of Cannes, shouting at strangers to hide a coin in their hands. It was like we’d been initiated into a mysterious new world – a world where the old rules no longer applied; a world unknown to anybody other than we lucky few initiates.

That’s what learning a language is like.

The other week, I went to a wedding, in Tokyo. It was pretty interesting anyway, because it was my first Japanese wedding: first we had a traditional ceremony in a temple, where the couple exchanged vows and sake; then we had dinner in a Spanish venue, because the bride was Spanish; then we had drinks at an afterparty, that was accompanied by live music and attended by lots of people with strange hair and big muscles, because the groom works in the music industry and the bride works for Cirque de Soleil.

But it was also interesting because I got to use Japanese. Normally, the closest I get to real Japanese is sticking sentences into Anki and then repeating them for an hour every day, so this wedding felt like striding out on to the pitch at Wembley after doing nothing more than keepy-uppys in the back garden. And yet, there I was, actually communicating with people – real people, using real Japanese, talking about real things, like that annoying woman off the adverts, or is this the end of the queue, or how do you know my wife, or do you remember that time we went to the yakiniku restaurant, or whatever else we wanted to talk about. It felt like I was part of a mysterious new world. It felt like the old rules didn’t apply.

(Although, it turns out they still do. A few days later, I was practising for a sports march that my school had asked me to take part in, and one of the teachers told me to remember to keep looking up, straight ahead. Except I thought he was saying that I must be cold in my short-sleeve T-shirt, so I told him I like the cold. Fortunately, it sounded like I was making a hilarious foreign joke so all of the other teachers fell about in polite laughter, instead of just puzzled confusion.)

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Cultural Exchange at the foot of Mount Fuji

My parents visited me during the Spring break. While they were over, I took them to Kawaguchiko to stay in a traditional Japanese Ryokan and to see Mount Fuji. While we were there we went up the Kachi Kachi Ropeway to get a better view. At the top, my wife asked another tourist to take our picture. Afterwards, she asked where he was from. ‘I’m from Singapore,’ he answered. ‘Oh, we have friends in Singapore,’ said Mum. ‘WE HAVE FRIENDS IN SINGAPORE,’ reiterated Dad, before adding: ‘HE’S GOT A SPORTS SHOP. DO YOU KNOW A SPORTS SHOP IN SINGAPORE, BOY?’ (He speaks in ALL CAPITALS when he talks to foreigners so that they understand, and he calls everyone ‘boy’ because he’s Irish.) After looking confused for a bit, this guy tentatively offered the name Transsports, or something. To which Dad replied, ‘WHA?’ So then *I* said, ‘he’s asking if the sports shop is called Transsports or something, does that ring any bells?’

‘Sure I wouldn’t know what it’s called, boy.’

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I hurt all over.

I had to play soccer the other day. The school had a ball sports day, which meant that the first- and second-years students spent all morning playing in a soccer tournament and the winning team played a teachers team in the afternoon. I was on the teachers team.

I was asked to be on the teachers team in the morning, when I arrived at school, the morning after my wife and I had decided to have an impromptu drinking session, even though it was a Monday. I wasn’t especially hungover, but I had drunk pretty much a full bottle of wine the night before, so I decided I better shelve my plans to check out the new McDonald’s California Burger as a nutritional precaution.

It was the least I could do. I haven’t played football for several years now, and the last time I did it was as the captain of a very makeshift five-a-side team which played for charity. I don’t remember ever winning a game except against a team of mentally handicapped players who could only run in straight lines. I don’t think I am besmirching the mentally handicapped players too much when I say that we were rubbish.

So anyway, I turned out for the teachers team in my running shorts. The girls all took photos on their phones while the boys all sniggered as I took to the pitch to play the winning team of first-years – who had (thankfully) already played about five games that morning. I think there were about nine players on each side, but I really don’t know because once the action started, I just concentrated on standing in the right-back position and standing in the way of the ball or the opposing players.

There were a couple of ringers on both sides. One of the teachers used to play professionally for the local team, although he didn’t play for the whole match because of injury. And one of the first-years plays for the same local team’s youth team – in fact he demonstrated his skill by scoring two glorious goals: one, a low drive from distance that snuck into the corner of the goal; the other rising to meet a sweet cross with a great header. (I was blameless for both, obviously.)

In the end, the game went to extra-time and penalties. When it came to the penalties, I skulked around trying to look inconspicuous, which worked until it went to sudden death and the spectating students started chanting my name. The next day one of the other English teachers displayed a charming naivety about the rules of football. “You played very well yesterday,” he said. “All of the students thought so – they were calling your name! Amazing!”

Except, of course, the reason the students were calling my name is because it was sudden death penalties and they were hoping I’d fuck up. I didn’t disappoint, belting the ball straight at the keeper. Fortunately for me, and the rest of the teachers, I hit it so hard the keeper spilt it over the line, and we won, a glorious victory of wisdom over youth – 30-year-olds over 16-year-olds. Take that students!

The next day, that English teacher wasn’t the only one to comment on my performance. The principal also came over to tell me that everyone thought I had played like David Beckham. By which he presumably meant, as my sister pointed out, that it looked like I’d just suffered a career-threatening injury.

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