A veteran plumbs his path to Japanese fluency


On a trans-Pacific flight to Narita several months ago, I struck up a conversation with a passenger who was upbeat about living in Japan. After six months, he told me with a self-satisfied grin, he had “just about got all the hiragana down pat.”

“What’s taking him so long?” I grumbled (to myself) in mild annoyance. At the risk of being branded a crotchety old man, my university term began with 45 minutes of dictation drills in hiragana every morning, and we were expected to be able to write out all the characters by the end of our first week in class.

My point is that while some types of knowledge can be acquired through osmosis, language study at its initial stages calls for intensive efforts, and a lack of pressure usually produces haphazard results.

And this is not to say that old timers like myself don’t have major blind spots. Just browsing the local hardware store, I am reminded of a whole world of implements and objects whose names I am at a loss to express in Japanese. At best, I can recognize a 鉋 (kanna, plane) and 鋸 (nokogiri, saw). And I am intrigued by the word 蝶番 (chōtsugai, hinge) — literally “butterfly joint” in kanji. Foreign loan words aren’t always any easier to learn. A スポイト (supoito, a plumber’s helper, i.e., a rubber suction cup on a handle used to unclog blocked toilets), originated from the Dutch spuit.

I do somewhat better in the store’s kitchenware department. Quick, what’s the word for those flat wooden or plastic paddles for scooping steamed rice? A 杓子 (shamoji)? Good! A cutting board? That’s a 真魚板 (manaita). How about the gadget for making 大根おろし (daikon-oroshi, grated giant radish)? That’s easy. It’s also a daikon-oroshi — unless it’s an electric one, which is a 電動大根おろし器 (dendō daikon oroshi-ki).

Headed home with my purchases, my daily Japanese lesson continues. Signs bearing the kanji 銀行 (ginkō, bank) are ubiquitous. But what is a 信用金庫 (shinyō kinko)? The characters literally mean “trust safe,” but a dictionary says it’s a credit union. What about signs on shop doors? Some say 営業中 (eigyōchū) and others say 商い中 (akinai-chū) — modern and traditional takes on “open for business.” Then there are tongue-twisting signs reading 誠に勝手乍ら、本日休ませていただきます (Makotoni katte nagara, honjitsu yasumasete itadakimasu). English lacks such honorific forms, and “Sorry, we’re closed today” fails to express the same eloquence.

Even after decades in Japan, dealing with life’s necessities is akin to doing the daily crossword puzzle. Is there any way, I wondered, to streamline this process? Then a light bulb went on in my head. I recalled that Lynne Riggs published an article titled “Qualifying as a Translator” in 1991 in the newsletter for The Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators. Riggs, an active SWET member, focused on how to prepare for a career translating, but her advice serves just as well to fast-track those following me into Japan’s language labyrinth.

Riggs’ list of must-dos included several years’ residence in Japan, living alone or with Japanese, and a degree in Japanese studies (history, literature, art, music, sociology, Chinese philosophy, history of Asia). In addition, and I concur on the basis of personal experience, she named regular practice of at least one traditional discipline, such as the tea ceremony, a martial art or a musical instrument.

“When I began taking classes in the tea ceremony years ago,” Riggs wrote, “I never thought that it would help me become a better translator, but it proved an unparalleled chance to learn things it’s difficult to pick up by rote: the impact of the 家元 (iemoto [family school]) system on individuals and groups, the context and use of honorific language, the feel of traditional architecture and the accouterments of an extremely refined culture, the meaning of difficult-to-grasp aesthetic concepts and social values.

” . . . where a dictionary may fail the translator,” Riggs argued, “experience can come to the rescue. These highly hierarchical groups can be hard for a Westerner to adapt to, but they are very accessible microcosms of Japanese culture.”

Also helpful is membership in SWET, a thriving international group that turns 30 this November. It has been immensely helpful in my own linguistic endeavors.

Finally, another great way to bolster your language studies is to peruse works in English about learning Japanese by my respected 先輩 (senpai, seniors). My bookshelf includes Herbert Passin’s “Japanese and the Japanese: Language and Culture Change,” Jack Seward’s humorous “Japanese in Action,” The Japan Times columnist Roger Pulvers’ “The Japanese Inside Out” and Andrew Horvat’s “Japanese Beyond Words: How to Walk and Talk Like a Native Speaker.”