They say you should always open with a joke, so how about this one: a music journalist with only conversational Japanese writing for The Japan Times’ Bilingual Page. Try not to laugh too much, though, as I’ll be sticking to what I know: music.
If you go far back enough, the reason I ended up living in Japan lies with Osaka band Shonen Knife. Back in 1997 or ’98, in my native England, a copy of their breakthrough album “Let’s Knife” fell into my hands. At first, the sound of these foreign girls singing Ramones-esque punk songs in broken English seemed absurd. But somehow kitsch gave way to cool, and I fell head over heels for the first time with a Japanese band. Between then and now, hundreds more followed, and a passion for the music eventually led me to Tokyo.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The point is, my first encounter with Japanese was not in a classroom but with the two-way dictionary of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m pretty sure the first Japanese I learned was iko (let’s go), as in, “Iko, iko! Everybody, let’s go!” from Shonen Knife’s song “Riding on the Rocket.” Much like Daniel-san waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car in “The Karate Kid,” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first Japanese lesson. Helpfully, the line contains the word followed by its translation, presented as an easily memorized singalong melody and repeated several times.
Moreover, I was learning an excellent example of everyday Japanese. While a teacher might proffer the more polite ikimasho ka (shall we go?), iko is a street-ready conjugation pitched for use among peers (which for me means music fans, musicians and drunks). And when Yuki, the helium-voiced singer with J-pop band Judy & Mary, bellowed “Isogo! (Let’s hurry!)” in the song “Kujira 12 Go (Whale No. 12),” she was, unknown to me at the time, reinforcing the same o suffix, which roughly translates as “let’s” or “shall we?”
In this way, music acclimatized me to casual Japanese.
Perhaps the first full sentence I learned in Japanese was “Kyokasho ga mitsukaranai! Gako ni ma ni awanai!
(I can’t find my textbook! I’ll be late for school!)” from the song “Gako ni ma ni Awanai” by humorous folk band Tama.
On the face of it, I grant you, it doesn’t seem so useful. But swap kyokasho in the first sentence for zubon, for example, and you’re suddenly able to say, “I can’t find my trousers.” And as someone whose work often involves staying out way past bedtime, “shigoto ni ma ni awanai (I’ll be late for work)” has come in handy countless times. Plus, with this lyric I learned the negative suffix nai, and was introduced to the particle ga.
In this way, I began to get used to Japanese grammar.
I didn’t learn English from a book or blackboard: I learned by hearing it all around me. In a similar way, I was able to gain a basic but vital grounding in Japanese by immersing myself in the language through song. Sure, before moving to Tokyo I had informal lessons from friends, but invariably, what stuck in my memory most were phrases I could put to a tune.
Whenever I hear the word ganbare (do your best) I can’t help but think of The Blue Hearts’ track “Hito ni Yasashiku (Being Kind to Others)”; the song’s aggressive, upbeat delivery makes it all the easier to remember that the re suffix turns the verb ganbaru into a direct order.
The mushy Spitz ballad “Cherry” taught me that ai shiteru means “I love you,” although Okinawan hardcore band Bleach rammed the lesson home somewhat harder by repeatedly screaming the phrase in their song “Bakuon Dashitai A-77 (Explosion Party A-77)” — or literally, “I want to make an explosive noise.”
The soaring vocals of edgy singer-songwriter Natccu taught me that replacing the suffix nai with nakute helps you to follow a negative statement with a positive one that balances it.
J-pop duo Puffy taught me that in Japan, Asia is pronounced Ajia. Pop-hop teens HalCali offered punchy onomatopoeia such as girigiri (just in time) and norinori (in the groove). And electro-punk band Polysics’ “Kaja Kaja Goo” taught me, well, a load of nonsense.
In this way, I grew to understand expressive Japanese; good pronunciation; and phrases that would help me feel comfortable at gigs or bars, interviewing bands or hanging out with friends.
For sure, taking private lessons after moving to Tokyo helped put all of that stuff in its proper place — there’s only so far you can get reading from a lyric sheet. And if there is a downside to my music-fueled study, it is the number of great songs that were ruined for me when I figured out their rubbish lyrics. But then, as ska-punk band Yum!Yum!ORANGE might say, that all comes down to “suki kirai (personal taste).”