I was recently asked if it is better to move to the countryside in order to learn real Japanese. My answer was, “Wakaran!” (“I don’t know!”) I moved to a small island in the Seto Inland Sea in the hopes of attaining Japanese fluency. And, yes, it does work — with some caveats.
I made the move to the Japanese countryside after living in the city for four years. My urban memories include spending hours hanging out in front of JR ticket windows and eavesdropping on Japanese people buying their shinkansen tickets in the quest to learn how to properly buy one myself. My loitering habits taught me to ask for a ticket according to the train name and number (not the train time), my destination, whether I wanted a reserved or non-reserved seat and, if the former, specifying which seat I preferred: mado-gawa (window) or tsūro-gawa (aisle).
As if that’s not enough to remember, you can tack on to the end of your request whether you’re buying a katamichi kippu (one-way) or ōfuku kippu (round-trip ticket). Only advanced Japanese speakers will remember to ask for the “no announcements” car.
This “Loitering to Learn” method became so second-nature that I was soon piquing the interest of security guards at train stations, banks and airports. So I decided to direct my loitering skills to the countryside, where I could not only eavesdrop on Japanese people conversing among themselves, but I could perhaps take part in those exchanges without arousing suspicion. I’d be able to listen to pure, unadulterated Japanese from people who don’t slow down their speech for a foreigner, and who refrain from over-enunciating their words and who resist overtly simplifying their vocabulary.
All of this proved true, which is why I couldn’t understand the locals for the first year or so. Add a distinct local accent to the mix, and I was typically lost most of the time.
Japanese at your door
With the Learning by Loitering method now failing me, it was high time for a new tactic. I decided to adopt a less aggressive stance by employing “Genkan Japanese,” an easy way to learn the basics by waiting for the language to come to me, via my genkan (front foyer).
Primarily a listening and reading exercise, the method was perpetuated by the everyday activities of my fellow islanders, such as the postman who sang out his daily greeting before entering my house to chuck the mail on the genkan step, or via the neighborhood kairanban, a circulatory leaflet brought my way to inform me of upcoming events. If there was a sudden change in the ferry schedule or a warning about an oncoming typhoon, a neighborhood elder would stop by to make sure I’d understood the public announcement (which, of course, I hadn’t).
Most importantly, the gracious and affable islanders would undoubtedly check in on me every day — as good neighbors do — presenting me with fresh-off-the-vine veggies from their gardens and home-cooked meals. All of this required some interaction on my part.
Another benefit to learning Japanese in the countryside is that it doesn’t even occur to the people living there to learn English. Who are they going to use it with anyway? Some foreign invasive species? An American short-hair named Marilyn? Additionally, the high concentration of elderly residents means most people don’t care to take up a foreign language, even if it’s just to say, “Buon Appetito!” before digging into their spaghetti Bolognese.
With the Japanese language literally at my doorstep, I also never had to deal with English learners approaching me to practice their phrases. Nor did I run into those who react to poor Japanese by responding in equally stilted English.
Since no one had any expectations that I would be able to speak Japanese, and there was no interest in speaking my native tongue, the low-stress vibe of the countryside allowed me to comfortably curl up with my cat and take the time I needed to acquire my new foreign language. After another year, I ventured beyond the genkan and engaged with my neighbors directly in traditional island culture.
Pontificating on wild boar
This is the charm of the countryside: The people who live there are very comfortable in their own skin. They don’t feel they need to learn, speak or use English, even if it is the most widely used language in the world. They possess no urge to pontificate on the virtues of Japan, the monarchy or the cultural differences. They don’t care if technology supersedes them, and they don’t send their kids to cram schools. When the morning news spews out political and economic fulminations, the islanders merely go back to eating their miso soup and rice. Living on the island is like living life without ever turning on the television.
All rather idyllic, isn’t it? But this is also why you may never learn business Japanese in the countryside. My Japanese is limited when talking about politics, fashion or pop culture. I seldom read newspapers or books in kanji due to the effort that’s required. Propounding the future of Japan using a vocabulary so heavily composed from stories of its rural past is difficult.
When it comes to debating the merits of compost and unraveling the salient points of separating garbage, I’m your gal. In fact, after 20 years of living on the island I can fluently explain how to properly cross a tatami-mat room (in stocking feet and without stepping on the embroidered edge of the tatami) and divulge the secret to cutting open a spiny sea urchin. I’m also able to relay the best method of capturing the eight-tentacled octopus and elucidate how to present fugu on a platter. I can measure the tides with an abacus while belting out the local folk song to appease the souls of the dead. Heck, I can even expatiate on the sex habits of wild boar!
I can talk about the topics that matter to the islanders around me: revitalization of the countryside, Japan’s aging society and the squandering of government subsidies. I’ve even given speeches on these themes in auditoriums full of people.
So is it better to move to the countryside to learn Japanese? Maybe. Wherever you go, however, it’s best to learn about what the people around you are interested in so that you can engage with them and become a part of their community. For me, that just turned out to be the mating rituals of boar.
Amy Chavez will be giving a talk at the Heritage and Tourism Symposium in Room 302 of the East Building at the Omiya campus of Ryukoku University in Kyoto on Nov. 8. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.writersinkyoto.com/2019/05/nov-8-heritage-and-tourism.