Friday, December 21, 2007

Some thoughts on the series "Lost," how to brighten a Japanese salaryman's day, and how learning Japanese can get you fewer dates

I've caught the "Lost" bug, and am enjoying watching the series on DVD here in San Diego. One interesting aspect of the show are the sub-plots involving Jin and Sun, a Korean couple who are marooned on the island. Since the husband doesn't speak English, there are large swaths of dialogue in Koran, which makes me think I'm back in Japan with my wife watching Hanryu Dorama or the South Korean soap operas that are so popular these days. Although Japanese and Korean have a similar grammatical structure, with "particles" that mark the subject and object of a sentence, and similar word order, the two languages are quite different. The only words I can pick out of Korean are Chinese-derived words, like "promise" "goal" "air current" and so on -- not nearly the level of ability to read Chinese that I get for "free" by leaning Japanese (about 20%).

When I came to Japan in 1991, I was extremely motivated to learn Japanese, which was a good thing since the idea that you can learn a language through osmosis just by living in that country is flat wrong. I took advantage of every opportunity to advance my studies, listening to JPOP music and watching anime and Japanese dramas, which helped me get lots of vocabulary input. When I encountered a Japanese person, I'd engage in a brief "language battle" with them to determine which of us had the higher language skills, and thus which language I'd speak with that person -- and I hated to lose. Then one day I was in Tokyo, looking for a coin locker to put my bags in, and a middle-aged salaryman who was clearing his out said "Please use this one" to me in English. I thanked him in fluent Japanese, but after that I realized that I'd done him a real disservice. This man would probably have only have a few chances to use his English each year, and yet I had stubbornly refused to oblige him. Since that day, I've resolved to speak English to Japanese people more, which usually causes their face to brighten just a little. And if you really want to make a Japanese person's day? Compliment them on their English and ask if they've studied in the U.S. or England. It's usually pure B.S., but they'll be happy all day long.

One thing gaijin who attain fluency in Japanese can attest to, though, is that the more you learn Japanese, the more some doors close. Japanese often think of foreigners as fun to be around, and part of that fun flows from both sides not being able to understand each other perfectly, which somehow makes us more "exotic." If you go out to karaoke with Japanese, they'll enjoy themselves more if you sing a ridiculous version of "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire than if you're able to belt out the latest enka hit by Daisuke Kitagawa. At bars and clubs, too, foreigners who don't speak much Japanese can find themselves more popular with Japanese girls than gaijin who can read all 1945 characters of the joyo kanji (the characters designated for "general use" by Japan's Ministry of Education, which defines what it is to be literate in the language). Foreigners who learn too much Japanese might find the dating scene to be somewhat different, too, as some girls who might be interested in the exotic feel of a "real" gaijin might be turned off by our extensive knowledge of the late Edo and Meiji Restoration Periods (stuff that the average Japanese never cares about). Of course, I wouldn't want to go out with a girl who was turned off by me having too much interest in her country and language, and all people are different -- my wife was interested in me specifically because of my fondness for memorizing odd Japanese proverbs.