“I am not American!” — on speaking English to the French in Japan

Probably one of the most frustrating things about being a westerner in Japan is that people see you, notice you’re white (or not Japanese/Asian), and assume you’re a tourist/outsider, that your stay is short-term and temporary and thus you have not learned Japanese. Even once they find out you’re a student of Japanese, they still probably assume your Japanese must not be very good. (Because Japanese is such a special and esoteric language that it’s almost impossible to learn for non-Japanese! Of course!). Their next assumption is that you are a native English speaker, and based on that most people will avoid you because they are shy, ashamed of what they perceive to be their poor English (despite studying it for years in school–but speaking is the skill least emphasized there so many are weak at it) and don’t want to have to speak English with you because they might be embarrassed. Or, although this is a minority, they do want to try speaking English with you to improve their abilities so you are accosted for free English conversation practice/lessons.

To throw a personal anecdote in here, once I attended a fall festival with my host mom and sister where my host mom was performing with her gospel choir (I know!). After the performance, she introduced me to some of the other ladies in the group, most of whom were older, like 40s-50s. Several of them were the type to pursue English as a hobby, and evidently wanted to speak to me in English, so they did (even though it had already been established by that point that I had come to Japan to study abroad, studying Japanese, and they had heard me speak Japanese). This was maybe one of the first times this had happened to me, and I didn’t know what to do. What I did know is that my brain was in Japanese mode. I had been speaking nothing but Japanese with my host family for a day or so by that point, and I was enjoying the immersion. To just switch to English because some older ladies wanted to practice their English with me–because I’m non-Japanese and different!–seemed ludicrous to me at that time. So, I responded to their English questions in Japanese. I wasn’t trying to be rude; I just honestly didn’t know what to do, and I was in Japanese mode, so I spoke Japanese. Maybe they did think I was rude because their interest in me seemed to fade after that point.

Thinking back on the whole situation makes me feel crappy, because–did I do the right thing? If not, what should I have done? I feel like I was rude by speaking Japanese to them when they wanted me to speak English, but if I’d spoken English it would have negated the whole reason I came to Japan–to practice my Japanese! As the person spending the money on the abroad experience as opposed to the person who is just taking advantage of free opportunities from home, shouldn’t I get to dictate the terms? Or is that just typical American selfish thinking? I really don’t know. Maybe I will write a Japanese entry on lang-8 about this and see what kind of responses I get from Japanese people. In any case, as my story demonstrates, it’s sort of a lose/lose for you as a westerner in Japan (whether you’re avoided or too-eagerly approached as a presumed speaker of English), especially if you do want to interact with Japanese people and speak Japanese with them.

It couldn’t possibly get worse unless… you’re non-Asian and yet you’re not even a native English speaker… and you may not speak English very well at all! I suspected this might be the case for nationalities like French; I figured many French people had visited Japan only to meet with the expectation that they speak English when many do not (let’s be real, largely out of that French-language-superiority pride). It’s often occurred to me to consider answering anyone who insists on speaking to me in English instead of Japanese with, “あ、フランス人です [Oh, I’m French]” and see if that gets them to switch to Japanese (sometimes people are so flustered by the sight of a foreigner that they will answer your Japanese query in English). (This could backfire if the Japanese person turns out to also be fluent in French, but those chances are slim, and besides I do speak French, more or less, just am obviously not a native speaker.) I was curious to see if I could find French people complaining about this phenomenon happening to them, so I did a Google search using some key French terms… and I hit paydirt! I uncovered some really interesting stuff. We don’t read a lot about this in English because, naturally, those it happens to (non-English-speaking non-Asian-appearing people) are not going to write about their experiences in English. I thought it would be cool to translate some of it so all can enjoy the French perspective on the assumption that all westerners in Japan speak English. Naturally, there’s a lot of complaining!

First I found this thread (active from 2006-2007) on the France-Japon forums. In a subforum entitled Japanese Society, someone started a thread called The Japanese and English. (I translated the below into English.)

I have a little problem sometimes in my relations with Japanese people – or I should say in my meetings with Japanese people, as this doesn’t happen anymore with those that I know.
There is a reflex deeply implanted indeed in the Japanese consciousness: when they see a foreigner, they start to go off in English. That irritates me, that irks me, it puts me off and that’s only the beginning: I am NOT AMERICAN!!!!!

For some reason I’m ignorant of, but which is maybe linked to the American occupation after World War II, the Japanese developed a complex which borders on paranoia about English and that makes some of them particularly aggressive. As a foreigners, we find ourselves approached like this by two types of people on the street:
– those who will ask the time with no Japanese on hand…
– those who will try and get free “English lessons” through contact with a foreigner.
The second category is – by far! – the largest.
And it’s incredibly exasperating when English is not our mother tongue and when, like me, you speak it very badly. One time, fine, two times, okay…
By the 150th time in 3 months, you start to want to take swipes – which have escaped from me the few times I’ve reached my limit…

Again – I am sure of this – for those that speak Japanese easily while not speaking English, these “approaches” by Japanese in search of English teachers can give way to friendly meetings and eventually continue as friendship. The problem is that the aggression about English is so developed that these people will fall all over you until they understand that you don’t speak English well and, in any case, it’s exhausting for them to make the effort to come practice it regularly with you (this has often happened to one of my Filipino colleagues).

This morning again, there was one who came up to give me his little spiel (hello, how are you etc. I am sooooooo happy to see you… I want to speak english but…), and it almost took my entire cup of coffee before I contented myself with asking him if he knew how to speak Japanese. Like always, that stunned him for one whole minute, then he asked me where I came from, a little polite conversation for 10 minutes and goodbye…

This attitude isn’t flattering to the Japanese or to the foreigners. I’m aware I have an all too French perspective on this, but I find it particularly depressing to see Japanese people self-destruct in the way they “stoop” to speaking English to any old foreigner. As if the Japanese didn’t value their national language in any way and as if it were normal for a foreigner to live in Japan for 2-3-5 or 10 years without learning to speak the first word of Japanese (and there are some like that!).
In France we wouldn’t imagine for a second that someone would come to live more or less long-term to work or study without learning at least the basics of the language. But the Japanese seem to find that natural.

Moreover, their attitude is so simplistic compared to the outside world, which has been reduced to an English-speaking country. You really get the sense that in the Japanese mind it’s “outside Japan, it’s America, and if it’s not really America, it’s the same because outside Japan the whole world speaks English (that’s a fact)”.
See how that’s not flattering to Japanese culture (there was even one – just one, I’ll emphasize – who asked me if France was in Europe) and is particularly insulting to the Russians, Arabs, Greeks, etc. who are not necessarily seasoned English speakers but who have a separate language that is also worth studying!

[…]

My “problem” is that I speak Japanese or Arabic or Italian but not English (or a little…), so it has a strange effect on me to be categorized as “English speaking” just because I’m white. Especially because the opposite is false, when I was in France and I saw an Asian person on the street, I didn’t really think he was Japanese. He could have just as easily been Chinese, Korean or Indonesian and would not really have appreciated it if I came to speak to him in Japanese!

Of course, it’s relatively innocent but it’s still very urusai!!!

[…]

What I find shocking is that the Japanese find it normal for a foreigner, even one living in Japan for 5 years, not to speak Japanese and they beat themselves up because THEY don’t speak English in their own country. I would understand that attitude from a Japanese person who lives in the US or even in England but I don’t really see why English should be “THE” language in Japan.
I’m not talking about tourists, they won’t invest in learning Japanese for a 15-day vacation. But in my office (and this is just an example!) there’s one guy who’s worked there for more than 5 years and, except for “konnichiwa” and “chotto matte kudasai,” he doesn’t understand the first word of Japanese. It turns out that this guy has two school-age kids and he berates the teachers because they don’t know how to speak English. I swear, any French person in the same case would throw this idiot out, but since they’re Japanese they apologize, saying they’re sorry, and go out to accost the first foreigner they see to try and improve an English they don’t have.

[…]

A guy comes and speaks to me in English, so I explain to him gently (this was at the beginning of my time in Japan, before it bugged me) that I am French and that I don’t speak English. He keeps going in English, so I repeat myself, insisting that “eigo ga dekinai,” I ask him if he understood and he answers “I understand” and continues in English – which must have been very good or very bad because I didn’t understand a word of his speech!
If his English had at least been at my level, somewhere between bad and passable, or if he’d spoken to me in his language or in mine, maybe we would have understood each other. But there was nothing to be learned like that….

Responses in the thread range from “true, but what can you do?” to “English is THE language of international communication, and the Japanese know this” to “this has been happening to me for 25 years, and it doesn’t bother me! Then I give them a lecture on how appearances can be deceiving, because I’m not a foreigner even though I look like it!” — and someone even proposes a humorous “counter-attack” that entails speaking Chinese to Japanese tourists in France!

Someone else chimes in:

Yes, let’s not confuse “foreigner” with “Westerner” at least! The vast majority of foreigners in Japan are Asian and the languages most spoken by foreigners are Chinese, Korean, and certainly Portuguese and Spanish, rather than English…

Yes, it’s true that they automatically speak English to us. Whether in thinking that we’re actually American, or in simply thinking that we naturally speak English. Even worse, there are even people who come talk to me (in Japanese) about this or that random fact about the USA for 5 minutes without even asking me if I come from there…

To me there are two reasons:
– They think that Westerners in Japan don’t speak Japanese (and they are unfortunately often right!)
– They think that all Westerners speak English

I don’t know more but I read someone who said he’d answer, when someone spoke in English to him automatically, “And would you like it if everyone spoke to you in Chinese when you were abroad?” I think I’m going to test this argument some time… 🙂

And again, we are rather well served being French. Everyone knows France, and most of the time people really LOVE the country. I have friends who are asked if their country is really found in Europe, if “that’s a country?!” etc…

I can’t conceive either how you could live in a country without trying to learn the language.
But we also have to tell ourselves that it’s also a little our French culture that makes us have this reaction: in France, for us it’s inconceivable for foreigners to emigrate without learning French. But in other countries there isn’t really the same implicit “requirement.”
Let’s think also of all the immigrant communities in the USA where only the second generation speaks the language – when they do speak it…!

Another perspective:

I don’t think it’s worth getting upset over, let’s give them a good image of France by keeping our calm and our good manners! And by doing so, that will make several more Japanese aware that not every foreigner speaks English.

I would add that the French have the reputation of not liking anything but their language, and of refusing to employ English out of loyalty. I’m not at all like that, as I love all languages, English included, but I didn’t know that we have a reputation for also being narrow-minded.

The French are, on the other hand, very inclined to confuse Japan with China, when you return to France, your kids will automatically be labeled “Chinese.” And when you go to Spain it was “Chinos”!

The OP responds to that:

There, I am absolutely in agreement, last year when I returned to France for my brother’s wedding, I wore a kimono for the ceremony. All my family congratulated me on my elegance but on the street between the church and city hall, I couldn’t count the “Ooooh, what a pretty little Chinese costume.” I tried to explain to several of them that the outfit was Japanese and not Chinese but I was hit with indifferent looks and “Ahhh, it’s all the same!”
It may be, moreover, that the French become unbearable in the eyes of foreigners by their refusal to speak in English, but as I am French myself and totally schooled in the language, I have a little trouble realizing it. We need the perspective of a foreigner who lived in France.

In my case, they find that I really don’t speak English well, so I have to say “sorry” again when someone bumps into me on the street, that’s not a big deal, what exasperates me is the number of people who, after having chatted for 2 minutes, ends by saying to me “pliiiiiiiize, teach me english.”
The cherry on top was this winter in the Hiroshima region. It was really cold and I was struck with a desire to go in an onsen. I get to a hotel and ask the man I see at reception (in Japanese) to tell me where the baths are. And he answers me “nanakai, second floor.” Stunned, I ask him again, because I’m really bad at English, I understand “second floor” anyway and I get the same response. Assuming he spoke better Japanese than English, I found the baths quickly enough on the seventh floor but what to say to him then about forgetting English…
I heard it said – but I don’t know if this is true – that the Americans never went to the baths, maybe because they were being directed to the wrong floor at the same time!

And someone else hits the root of the issue right on the head:

What I don’t really like is when I’m put in a box right away, a stereotypical category (whether American or French) I would just like to be taken for me, with my level, my body, as a human being, to be able to exchange natural things from everyday life, to adapt as much as one can from one to the other in order to evolve based on that. But for that, their image of the foreigner would have to change, and apparently that’s not happening tomorrow.

The OP also says:

If by chance I run into a foreign tourist in town (which never fails to happen in summer), instead of going to talk to a Japanese person that everyone knows doesn’t speak a word of English, he will come talk to me just because I’m white! That’s happened to me many times and I hated it, but not more or less than if it had been a Japanese person…

Initially, and this is why I started this debate, what stunned me was the Japanese complex towards English. The French, totally known to be monolingual, the majority of the time had no reason to know or speak English in daily life. While a Japanese person, even if he finds himself in a professional and personal situation in life that will never ask him to use English daily, will have nightmares at night because he doesn’t know how to speak English. I’m exaggerating a little but I don’t think it’s far from the reality in which I see them coming towards me, desperate and pleading “teach me english”…

On the contrary, in France if a foreigner comes to stay 5 years to live and work in France, the average French person will not imagine that this person doesn’t apply himself to French. The average French person will find it totally normal that all the administrative documents be in French (and in the case of “This is France, you understand” it’s likely you’ll get it!), the butchers won’t know how to speak English and the school delivers diplomas in French and not in English or Moldovan (something that might change – at least I hope – with Europe and you’ll maybe have a choice between European languages).
On the other side, the basic Japanese person, so quick to say “ここは日本だから” at every turn, will find it normal that a person who lives and works in Japan for 5 years doesn’t even know how to say konnichiwa, goes to help him every year to renew his visa, every month to pay his electricity bills, and every day to his classes saying it must be “tsurai” for this poor man!

When it comes to English, there’s no more “nihon dakara,” it’s “sumimasen,” “gomennasai” and “shippai.” There are many ways to answer – or not answer – when you are spoken to in English and you don’t like that. In French is one and returning “nihon dakara” to them is another. College kids ask me often why I speak Japanese and I answer that it’s for the same reason as them. They are always very disappointed because I think they were anticipating very elevated, Zen philosophical reasons (but maybe I’m kidding myself, I haven’t had a lot of success yet in closing in on the problem).
You can also not answer if you’re tired, as far as with people you’ll never see again. But if it’s teachers at your kids’ school or your gym buddies, it’s worth the pain of explaining once and for all, right?

This remark was also very interesting:

In the end, you will also realize to what point the Japanese person is an American colony from a cultural point of view. It’s something harmful, as you would like for them to declare their independence, but there are certain Japanese who don’t want it and others who can’t. Those must be taught the idea of patriotism in a cultural sense.

(Also in that thread, hilariously, a French person calls a Québécois out on bad French! Damn! Typical French bluntness, I love it.)

I also found a Japanese who speak English thread on another forum, Forum Japon. But I think it says mostly the same things as above, so I’m not going to translate excerpts.

Then I came across this: Je ne suis pas Américain ! [I’m not American!], a journal essay by one Alain Delon accompanied by a drawing.

For most Japanese, France is an American state somewhere between Kansas and Idaho, and French people in Japan are inevitably American. Usually American tourists.

It’s very hard to speak Japanese with a Japanese person.
Believing it will please you, and too happy to be able to put to use two patient years of night classes with Nova, a Japanese person will always do what he can to respond to you in English. Don’t bother telling him that you don’t understand anything Anglo-American, he will be totally lost. But tell him you’re French, and maybe things will start to clear up. “Sasuga furansujin!” (“Just like a French person!”) he’ll say, “Amerikagirai!” (“Anti-American!”).

What’s never occurred to any Japanese person is that if the French balk at speaking English, it’s not because they hate the United States or England, which are their allies, but very simply because they love their own language. What the French refuse at the core is very naturally what no English speaker has ever accepted for himself throughout the world: to change languages like you change shirts.
Also, how could the French be able to hate the English, since England doesn’t exist…

But French speakers don’t just love their language, they also love all languages. A Frenchman in Tokyo, if he’s enlightened, will want to speak Japanese above all, and French on the side (despite all there are some lying dormant, and I know a certain number of French-Japanese couples who persistent in loving and fighting in English… It’s very sad).
The Japanese, for their part, well, they clearly make less of a fuss: you can count today infinitely more Anglo-American words in the neon signs of Tokyo than German phrases on the walls of Paris during the occupation, and the announcements of certain train lines, like the Toei Mita, are in Japanese and English (but the New York subway announcements are maybe in English and in Japanese?).

In short, this is not the time to be French, Italian, Greek, or Swedish living in Japan. To do it well, you’d almost have to be able to wear two T-shirts nonstop: one “Boku wa kankôkyaku ja nai! Nihon ni sundemasu!” (“I’m not a tourist! I live here!”) and the other “Boku wa beikokujin ja nai!” (“I’m not American!”).
With a little luck, the face of your interrogator will clear up: “Naruhodo! Aran Doron ni niteru!” (“I see! He looks like Alain Delon!”). This will signify that the message is passed, that in their eyes, finally, you are not just a mere American in Tokyo!

I also want to say that I really enjoyed discovering my ability to read these French forum threads and understand the vast majority without once consulting a dictionary! I also learned some new words and phrases that amuse me, such as abbreviating c’est à dire [that is to say] with c.à.d. — hee! (Those cute colloquialisms are always what I love learning best, no matter the language!) I can only credit this to completely throwing myself into French spring 2007, reading only in French, doing my best to talk to my host family and express myself as best I could (even though I failed miserably so many times). I arrived in France only a month after leaving Japan, so in many respects I was experiencing culture shock not from the U.S. but from Japan (such as wanting to continue to have totally impersonal shopping/dining experiences, whereas in France it is extremely rude not to greet people in the service industry with “Bonjour” when you first come up to them–something I unfortunately didn’t learn until after I left), and I missed my wonderful experience there terribly especially when my time in France began shaping up to be not as ideal. Nevertheless I did my utmost to immerse myself and the fact that I can still read easily in French today is proof that it was worth it. I do enjoy many aspects of French, and learning and reading about the relationship between France and Japan, in any of those three languages, is one way to keep my interest in it alive despite my need to focus the majority of my attention on Japanese, the language I’ve finally chosen as #1.

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Pre-immersion

Ahhh. Future plans are starting to come together more and more. I need to pay the rest of my summer program fees (never came off the waiting list for the scholarship, but financial aid still covered half the cost), and we’ve also been sent literature that makes it all feel a little more real. We have to sign a language pledge vowing not to use English (or any non-Japanese language) except when strictly necessary (this basically means when communicating with family, and in my case boyfriend) and that includes reading English. Um, yikes. I mean, I knew all this going on, but it’s just hitting harder now. I read tons of things daily, and I’m going to have to give all that up. Checking a multitude of blogs throughout the day, Facebook, Twitter, webcomics at night, sometimes a fic or scanlated manga or two, reading from a library book before bed–none of that. Do you know how much media we take in every day, and how much that eliminates when anything in English is completely out? This means no progress on my to-read list, falling behind on celebrity gossip and my favorite blogs and webcomics, not being able to chat daily with my friends on Gchat and Skype, not getting to read my friends’ tweets and family’s status updates OR post any of my own… including on this blog! It’s going to have to lie completely dormant from mid-June to mid-August. This also means listening to music in English (or any other foreign language, for that matter!) is out, so I am going to have to reconfigure my iPod and music library to only hold my Japanese music, and only listen to that for two months, which is going to be hard because sometimes I feel like a particular style of music and the language is not Japanese. My guided relaxation recording, which helps me de-stress when I need it, is also in English and would technically be out. I was also planning to get my yoga teacher’s DVD and do yoga to de-stress as well; obviously her narration is English. But, this just occurred to me, they let you go to church and stuff if you’re religious and obviously those services are going to be in English. Perhaps I can consider yoga and guided relaxation my religion, and therefore the English is okay? Ha, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need all the sanity-saving techniques I can get; it’s a year’s worth of study crammed into two months, and I can only communicate in Japanese. All of this is going to be hard.
(Yes, no one is going to be checking my iPod or what I read/look at on my computer in the privacy of my room–except my roommate but I doubt she’ll be out to tattle on me–and anyone patrolling is mostly going to be checking to make sure I’m speaking Japanese to the other students and teachers, but I do want to get the most out of this program and I’m interested to see how well this full immersion thing actually works. Even if I get to attend the intensive program in Japan, there will be a language pledge when at the center with other students but no restrictions outside those walls, and I can just tell you now I’m not giving up non-Japanese music and literature for 10 months. So this is probably the one time in my life–including the times I spend living in Japan!–when I have the opportunity to live in a completely, fully immersed Japanese-only world. It’s two months, not forever, so I’m really going to try to stick to it as much as I can even though I know I could easily get away with less than total commitment. I’m going to try to make the extent of my English maintaining communication and my relationship with Kirk, as well as staying in touch with my parents–maybe my sister and I will start emailing in Japanese instead–and let that be it. I just don’t want this to be like the language house in college, which was supposed to be immersive but I can tell you we only spoke nothing but Japanese when we had to, mostly because we were all lower intermediate level and it was just too hard.)

I am sort of excited though to put as many computer programs as I can (including my laptop itself) into Japanese… my iPods are already in Japanese so that’s done… and I have several Japanese books, magazines, and manga I can bring with me to read, although it’s going to be hard as several of them are translation projects and I quite obviously won’t be able to translate into English. That’s another thing–no translating. Just like reading and consuming media in all forms, translating is something I do at least several times a week, and not doing any (and thus not updating my website) for two months is going to be hard. I’m just glad TV shows will naturally be on hiatus over the summer so I wouldn’t be tempted to watch those. There will be TVs with access to Japanese programming there so I’m looking forward to catching some dramas. They also screen Japanese movies weekly and I’m guessing there will be newspapers and stuff too.

I really am looking forward to a lot about the program, not just the fact that it means I can quit my job and not have to work. It will be fun to live on a college campus and in a dorm room again. Meals are totally covered and we all eat from the cafeteria buffet, so for two months I don’t have to worry about buying and/or preparing food, which sounds like such a luxury to me now. Although until I find a group to sit with–and learn who I want to avoid, because I’m sure there will be some–going to meals is going to be nervewracking. There are a couple summer festivals, so I’m going to bring my yukata and geta. There’s a lot of interest clubs you can (okay, pretty much have to) join, and while most of them revolve around things that have always bored me (tea ceremony; calligraphy) there are a few I’m interested in checking out. I can tell you I’m going to arrive at the program and immediately seek out the other people who speak fluidly with good accents to be friends with, as much as I can. Hopefully others will feel the same way about  me. I do hope I can make some good friends there, and I also hope I get a roommate I can deal with who won’t hate me. I have only shared a room for two school years, and the last time was in 2005-2006. I also only had to share a communal (not attached/en-suite) bathroom for one of those years, so that’s another thing I’m not thrilled about. Shower caddies! I got rid of mine because I thought I’d never need it again; how wrong I was! Actually, I’m not excited about all the typical dorm room furnishings we have to bring when I’m flying there from halfway across the country. It was different when I could jam-pack my car and drive an hour north with all my crap; not so easy when I’m boarding a domestic flight with a giant-ass suitcase that will incur charges. I will probably have to ship a big box of extra stuff to myself too (and then back home at the end), which is not going to be fun since big boxes are not cheap to send! Also, from what I understand the campus is more or less in the middle of the ghetto and I won’t have a car so I won’t really be able to make emergency runs for any supplies I  need, so I have to make sure I have everything I’ll need with me when I start. Fortunately, however, an old classmate from Japanese and someone who went on the January Japan trip with me lives in that city now, and I’m hoping at the very least he can give me a ride from the airport to campus.

In many ways I’m sort of preparing for this as if I’m about to join a convent and take a vow of silence. And I guess in some ways, I am! At the same time I’m going to miss my boyfriend and my cat terribly. I will miss my friends and family too, but I’ll miss those two the most. I love that my cat sleeps right next to me every night, sometimes even sharing my pillow. I love that Kirk lives here now so I can go over to his place pretty much whenever I want and see him often, and I am giving that up (temporarily!) with this.

As for what I’m doing after the program, it is still not ironed out, and at this point I’m just trying not to think about it so it doesn’t cause me more stress. Program scholarships will be awarded over the next month or two, and I can’t make any decisions until I know those results (soooo worried though). In the meantime, I now have two English teacher job offers to choose from, although I have to accept or deny one soon or lose it (the one I interviewed for last month–glad I got an offer out of that!)… and I have no idea what to do there. We’ll see. It does look like one way or another… by hook or by crook… I am headed for Japan in the fall like I’ve been planning, which is good because I’d hate to quit my job, do the summer program, and then have nothing! But until I have a plane ticket, it still doesn’t feel real; it’s like it could be snatched away from me at any moment. At least the summer program is very real and becoming imminent.

With all of these thoughts comes an increasing sense of senioritis and impatience at work. I have about five weeks left and I’m ready for the end–although at the same time I want to maximize the time I have left with people here, so it’s hard! Conflicting emotions! As we saw when I tried to change jobs and hated the new job more than my old/current one, it’s not that the work itself is bad or hard. I don’t just want to quit and find a new job in the same field because there’s no guarantee it would be any better; chances are it would probably be worse. As spoiled as it sounds, I still just don’t want to be here anymore! I’ve been here so long now, seen so many people come and go, and if I wanted to I could probably keep doing it until the company folds (something I see as an inevitability) which is a thought that’s terrifying in and of itself.  But really the thing that’s gotten me through so much until now has been the thought of my pursuit of my next career awaiting me at the end of all this. If I didn’t have that in front of me it would have been much harder to deal with stuff like coworkers trash-talking me over perceived (imaginary) slights, almost everyone else in my department leaving including my mentor, ridiculous policy changes, getting lectured by someone not even in charge of me for not doing every little thing perfectly, the realization that I don’t respect or believe in what the company does… even the constant toilet issues in the upstairs women’s restroom (apparently we’re too cheap to buy new toilets which are like $100 each!). The thought that something better or at least different is waiting for me after I’m done putting in my time here has propelled me through all of that. I can’t possibly imagine staying here indefinitely, but I also know there’s a limited number of (non-teaching) jobs in my city for someone with just an English writing/editing background, and not many of them are appealing to me as something to do for the rest of my working years. I also know that I never wanted to graduate college only to end up right where I started. These are things I have to explain many times when people ask me why I want to do this.

It’s funny how long this post-grad journey has gotten, and how many times my plans have changed over that period. First it was teach in Japan (just to be there and pick up the language by osmosis, apparently–I hadn’t really thought that plan through beyond “get to Japan”) with Kirk, then it was go to Japan by myself to study, which led to the discovery of the 10-month program which now seems like the only and best way to do this. In some ways I wish I’d had it all figured out sooner so I could have planned for this since age 15 and made much better, more informed choices. But I can’t deny I’ve had so many great experiences along the way, and of course met some people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, while I’ve been working it all out and waiting. I’ve reconnected with my high school (and earlier) friends, I had a fabulous time being roommates with Aro (the night we stayed up until 4 a.m. inadvertently and had no choice but to go out for freshly made doughnuts will go down in history), I’ve dealt with my anxiety/OCD issues that cropped up, and Kirk and I have built an extremely solid relationship foundation that means I can leave without worrying (too much) that our connection will fall apart with the distance. It’s all been worth it, though just a little vexing when I think about how long it’s taken. I’m impatient for the rest of my life to get started.

Translating “hanami”

It’s the time of year for hanami in many places–the cherry trees at our local arboretum bloomed last month, but Japan’s are now in full bloom, or will be soon, or just bloomed depending on where in the archipelago–and I am simultaneously happy and deeply jealous of everyone taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, while I know all about it, I have never attended hanami. It is absolutely something I want to do and will do as soon as I can, but I have never been in Japan in the springtime and somehow have always missed opportunities to participate in any of the makeshift hanami events held near me stateside. My senior year of college the Japanese TA and some Japanese students held a faux-hanami under blossoming (not cherry) trees on campus, but it wasn’t quite the same and I didn’t attend it. This year I was planning to go to a combination hanami-3/11 commemorative event under our local cherry trees, but it got rained out. Next year it’s happening though–my first hanami, in Japan, will take place! And it will be great! Because what’s not to love? Hitting up the conveni, then drinking and snacking under a canopy of gorgeous cherry blossoms. Ostensibly contemplating the transience of life, but more just enjoying a fun time with friends (perhaps coworkers). I love the whole idea of hanami and it is sooo frustrating that I haven’t gotten to do it yet.

Since I can’t discuss my personal hanami experiences, I’d like to talk about how we commonly translate the word hanami into English… and, okay, why I think that way is wrong, and my suggestion of an alternative. Also, the other possible -mi events/actions! I find them all pretty fascinating. For example, I may not have ever been to hanami (yet!!) but I have been to tsukimi, many times.

The word “stargaze” first set me off on this path. It’s interesting but there’s no word for “stargaze” in Japanese; apparently everything else can be looked at and get a special term–the moon, cherry blossoms, even plum blossoms–but not the stars. In any case, wouldn’t you say this is our go-to term in English for an activity centered around looking at something? “-gaze”? So why shouldn’t we translate the 見 (mi; look) in 花見 (hanami), 梅見 (umemi), 雪見 (yukimi), and 月見 (tsukimi) as “-gaze” too? Blossomgazing, snowgazing, moongazing? I know it sounds a little strange, but so does “flower viewing” or “snow viewing” or “moon viewing” to me. “Viewing” just seems too much like a dry literal translation. I also don’t like “flowers” instead of “blossoms”; in this context 花 (hana) refers directly to cherry blossoms, not flowers in general. I vastly prefer what I’ve come up with… even if I’m the only one who chooses to use it! Yes, I’m stubborn; see how I chose to write conveni instead of conbini because it’s more accurate to the English word it came from. I do what I want!

There’s also an interesting phrase that applies when it comes to hanami: 花より団子 (hana yori dango). This means “the dango more than the [cherry] blossoms” and refers to when people attending hanami care more about the dango and other snacks and drinks than looking up at the blossoms, the reason the event is happening. (It’s also a figurative metaphor admonishing those who value practicality, the food, over beauty, the blossoms–or, if you prefer, championing practicality over beauty.) I think we’re all probably guilty of enjoying one (or in my case, the thought of one) more than the other. It’s also interesting that the dango is a traditional snack for these sorts of -見 events; there are tsukimi-dango just as there are hanami-dango. Mmm… dango. When I do finally get to attend hanami in Japan, you can bet I am going to buy some hanami-dango and some sort of hanami/cherry/spring-centric-flavored canned chū-hi and do it right!

My little sister is currently an ALT with JET in Kyūshū, and I got to see some of her pictures of her local park covered in drop-dead gorgeous cherry blossoms; she also had a hanami there with friends in a nearby park. I can’t get over how beautiful it looks!

I wrote this as part of the April 2012 J∙Festa!

Upheaval

Not much to report; I’m currently in “waiting for results/on pins and needles wanting to plan my future” mode. Also, “hoping money would magically rain down from the sky” mode. Doing a couple Japanese textbook lessons every weekend, some Read The Kanji every day, and translating a lot in my free time (neverending pile of things to translate). I’m happy though that translation has gotten so much easier and faster since I increased my level. It’s amazing! But I’m also having to work hard to get my fitness levels back to where they used to be before I took my studying break. It’s like I traded increased Japanese ability for decreased muscle/strength/endurance. But, super worth it and I’d do it all over again.

(One small note about gym stuff… remember how I said I probably wouldn’t still be doing Pilates if not for my amazing instructor? Yeah, well… she quit! The gym changed up the times for the classes I had with her, and took away a few others I wasn’t attending, which really pissed her off and made her feel unappreciated (she protested, as did many of her regular students myself included, but it didn’t help)… plus attendance dropped since all the changes made things more inconvenient… and I guess it wasn’t worth it for her gas/time-wise with less classes to teach a day… so she quit this location! Nooooooo. I totally understand her decision but I still hate it and I’m mad at the gym’s stupid management. I hope they’re sorry now. I got to have one last class with her, which I didn’t realize would be her final class here, and then the next time I went there was a sub, and there’s no permanent replacement yet. I’d like to say I’m still going to go, but… probably not. However, I’m trying to change up my weekly workout routine to compensate for it, and still get in some ab work on my own every week anyway. And at least I’m going to yoga 2-3 times a week. But–sigh. I’m going to miss her!)

First, a little follow-up to my entry talking about how hard it is to make and keep real Japanese friends in Japan, instead of just sticking close to the other foreigners/ex-pats there. Right after I wrote that I came across an article Debito Arudou wrote on the subject, and the follow-up piece with readers’ responses. Not a real fan of Debito Arudou (especially the fact that he makes a point to call himself by his naturalized Japanese name instead of his birth name; I just think that’s stupid even if it is his legal name now) and in general he’s a fault-finding whiner but in this case he’s more or less got it right. It’s an interesting read in any case.

Thinking about how irritating it is that in Japan you’re often considered more of a “foreigner” representative archetype than an actual human person, I’ve noticed there are some parallels when it comes to, of all things, feminism/sexism. One of the points there is to get men to view women as whole and complete people, humans, not “women.” Don’t ask “how do I talk to girls”–just talk to them like you would any other human being. They are people, not a monolith representing “women.” It’s the same with how many Japanese view foreigners–you’ll always get asked where you’re from (what’s your nationality), it will be assumed that you speak English (and you will either be avoided in order to dodge the possibility of having to speak English, or you will be accosted for free English conversation lessons), and many conversations will revolve around your country and the differences between it and Japan (with many subtle reminders of how Japan is unique and better–four seasons, anyone?!). For once I would love to see a Japanese person just ask a foreigner, “How’s your day going? What have you been into lately?” instead of, “Today is so cold/hot, I bet it never gets this cold/hot where you’re from!” and making almost every conversation about your differences instead of your similarities as humans.

Anyway! I had shabu-shabu recently with some friends and friends-of-friends; the dinner conversation should have been entirely in Japanese considering the four Japanese people there and three of us able to converse in Japanese, but everyone wasn’t spread out well so it wasn’t as immersive as I would have liked. The shabu-shabu was delicious though, of course, and I got to try out a new restaurant which is good but a little too far for me to want to go again. I also noticed something that bothers me: the advanced Japanese learner who nonetheless has a terrible speaking accent. Terrible. Just horrid. He can express himself quite fluidly, call on the vocabulary he needs easily, but his pronunciation is unbelievably awful. It hurts to hear. I seriously don’t understand how anyone can get to that level and never think to put serious time and effort into fixing your accent. Maybe I’m just biased because it comes easily to me, I mean I do know how hard it is to improve an accent (hello, French), but at least try. It gives the rest of us a bad reputation.

A friend also turned me on to this article and, by extension, Michael Erard’s book Babel No More where he studied hyperpolyglots, people who have studied 10-50 languages. (She sent it to me with the note “This is you! He should have interviewed you!” but I fall pretty short of those criteria!). I really have to disagree with that approach. If you haven’t mastered a language, to me, it’s not really worth it. Don’t say “I know [x]” if you couldn’t actually hold a real conversation with a native speaker. Because I feel like these people really aren’t mastering the majority of these languages; there’s just entries on a résumé. So to me that sort of thing really isn’t as impressive as it seems to people who don’t study languages, who only have high school French under their belt. As I said here, it’s really not that great to be a jack of all trades if you’re not a master of at least one. I’d rather focus on complete fluency in one of the most difficult languages to learn as a native English speaker, thank you. That’s what should be truly worthy of admiration.

What I really want to discuss though is the recent changes at my job. There’s been a lot of upheaval and weirdly I’ve emerged from it as the most senior person in my department in terms of longevity with the company–but I’m not the boss! That’s okay though, I don’t want to be. When I quit my other job to come back to this one, I was excited to work with my boss/managing editor, who had been such a great mentor for me since 2009 and also just a wonderful, warm, and sweet person. She was also eight months pregnant when I returned. We only worked together in the office for a few weeks before she had her baby and went on maternity leave. She swore to us she’d be back in December… then it became January… then on the day she was supposed to start back, we got an email instead letting us know that she had decided to make her maternity leave permanent (though still do freelance work for the company, mostly PR stuff) and as her replacement we were going to bring back my former co-editor, who had quit to go work somewhere else about a month before I did! Who was also someone I had grown close to as we’re pretty similar and we had gotten together a couple times since she quit. So it was very much a situation where the good news canceled out the bad news, even though we were all sad about the bad news. (It also turned out this had all been planned since Christmas!!)

I wasn’t upset at all at that my boss didn’t approach me about replacing her. When I was re-hired, I found out that she had also been in touch with this same girl, who had turned them down (even though she was unhappy at her new job just like I was), so they re-hired me instead. I’m fine with that. She’s an excellent editor and writer and she has a master’s degree in journalism, so it makes perfect sense that she’s the person they would pursue first. She is further along in her career than I am and it doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. It was the same here; she’s the much better choice for the job. It was also sort of a direct hire situation where my old boss went straight to her (“If I quit, would you consider replacing me?”) and they worked it out amongst themselves; no one else was considered for the position. And also, I don’t want that job, I don’t want to be the boss. I’m only 26! I’m very happy right where I am.

So that happened, she started in January, and things have been great with her in charge. Then, in February, another co-editor made an announcement: she and her husband were very likely about to adopt! This was someone who had been hired to start the same day as me, and had worked part-time (three days a week) ever since. When I came back we became office roommates and as the person with the most longevity in editorial she acted as interim managing editor during my boss’s maternity leave. It turns out that after years of trying for a baby, they had decided to go the adoption route at least to start. So very soon everything worked out and a pregnant girl chose them and they adopted her baby; she went into labor at the end of February and just recently we found out that my coworker’s maternity leave is also going to be permanent. We had hired a replacement just in case anyway, so that’s another full personnel replacement. Fortunately, I really like the new editor we hired and I think she’ll be a great addition to the staff.

And as if all that weren’t enough, we had another change: someone got fired. Well, it needed to happen. This was someone who was hired a couple months before I came back, to replace both me and the other girl who left (who’s now managing editor!). At my boss’s baby shower in September, I asked her how the new girl was doing. Her answer: “She’s good… she’s okay…” in an optimistic but not enthusiastic tone. After she went on maternity leave, it fell to me and the other editor (the one who adopted and left) to read and review her editorials after she wrote them. I quickly noticed several glaring red flags. It wasn’t that she was a bad writer… but there were a lot of details she wasn’t getting right. Consistently. I’d point them out one time, they’d pop back up the next. And sometimes the way she put the editorial together just didn’t make logical sense and I’d be moving around chunks of text to rework it. She would also frequently send me the wrong file, the wrong attachment, or no attachment. There were lots of mistakes to revise, constantly. It took time! I tried to remember my recent experience and give her positive feedback too. But it was hard when she needed so much work, and when she couldn’t remember to implement the changes we were asking her to absorb. (She also missed a lot of work for what I felt were trivial reasons, and this was after she’d taken time off shortly after she first started to get married and go on her honeymoon! I kept thinking, “You’re already on thin ice, why are you damaging your standing at work further!”).

She sensed that she wasn’t quite getting things, and cornered me one day while I was proofreading to ask if I thought she was doing a good job here. I told her I was too busy to answer her, and hoped she wouldn’t ask again. I also didn’t really like her on a personal level. She was nice, but also the type to talk big and never follow through, and the type who seems to make bad decisions in general (like deciding to foster a very needy adult dog–sorry, but you’re never going to get rid of that dog! Or telling me she wants to lose weight and then grabbing fast food for lunch every day), and I always lose respect for people like that. She also radiated insecurity and neediness, the type whose problems can easily transfer onto you, and I can’t be around people who are going to contribute to my anxious tendencies when I’m trying to be as relaxed and anxiety-free as I can in general. (I often have to tell myself, “Other people’s problems are not your own and you can’t make people behave the way they should. Don’t sink your mental energy into issues you have no power to change.”) I pointed out my misgivings about her professionally to my co-editor, and I pretty much knew she needed to go and wanted her gone, but we sort of agreed there wasn’t much we could do until our managing editor got back. Then she never got back, and I wondered if the new managing editor would notice the same things. I hoped she would, but I had pretty much given up on thinking it would happen when one day it did. She got let go, and it was messy–I heard her bawling loudly in my managing editor’s office. She left in tears.

Weird things have come to light since she left. She was 30, and this was her first full-time job (that probably explains all the absences). She had ADD and wasn’t taking her medication. She left an unacceptable amount of unwritten profiles, meaning she was way behind on her work and had been wasting a lot of time every day. In the end she benefited quite a bit from lacking a true supervisor for a long time. She probably would have been gone much sooner if that hadn’t been the case. So I’m glad she’s gone, since I wasn’t fond of her personally or professionally, but I do feel terrible for her–this happened the week before her birthday–and I have a feeling she’s going to be unemployed for a while and I just truly pity her. I’m full of conflicting emotions about this, but I am very happy that my managing editor recognized the same things I did and made a very tough but right decision. She also hired a replacement who starts next week.

So since October when I re-started here, the composition of my department has completely changed until I am the only one left who has been here the whole time! Ha, just a little ridiculous. But all the changes have been good, or good-but-sad, so it’s all right. Just, wow! No wonder I’m a “senior editor” now (got a promotion in name only).

Practicality

First off, results came in today and I didn’t get the full ride scholarship I had been desperately hoping I could somehow beat the odds to receive. I was overlooked for academics who will likely waste their useless degrees working retail, not becoming esteemed professors and authors of valuable books on Asian culture. Yes, that sounds petty. But I don’t get it. I want to do something practical and useful, I’ve done many things to distinguish myself and I’m active in my local Japanese community–the president of our Japan-America society even wrote one of my letters of recommendation–and I’m passed over for people dabbling in nothing at all of any good to society (for the most part). Aside from the Ivy League names dotting the list (which begs the question, why do these people need funding again?), a lot of the successful recipients sound more like indecisive dilettantes, picking up one degree and then another in a totally different field because they can’t figure out what to do with their lives. How, exactly, are all these master’s degrees and Ph.Ds and detailed research proposals in Japanese ceramics in the 1600s and so on going to be used in concrete careers? Is that really behavior and life choices that should be rewarded and funded? Well, whatever, enough bitterness. I had suspected I wouldn’t be chosen for those reasons and I was right. I am just sorry they couldn’t see what a great candidate I am and how much choosing me would have enriched their foundation. Maybe that sounds narcissistic and entitled but I truly believe that. So, back to square one, back to worry over whether I’ll be able to do this. I really need funding.

Moving on… a side effect of resolving to read more Japanese new articles has been increasing pessimism about Japan and, by extension, my desire of basing a future career around Japanese products/goods/language. Besides the fact that all eyes are on China these days to outstrip Japan as the major Asian superpower (so I should really be learning Mandarin instead, but I took two weeks of it and really wasn’t feeling it–I love Japanese instead!), Japan just seems headed downhill. Soooo many cultural problems that those in power are sluggish at best (disinterested, close-minded, stubborn, and inactive at worst) about fixing. For example, if something could be done about women in Japanese society, I feel like so many problems could clear up, including the declining birth rate (because it seems to me that many Japanese women want to stay independent and not virtually enslaved to a husband and family, so they are choosing not to marry and procreate. So if you want the birth rate to go up, take measures to make marriage and motherhood more appealing to those women). Maybe I’m just going to sound like a presumptuous foreigner here, but I’ve been reading up a lot on this lately and I haven’t come across anything to disprove this. If society’s perceptions could change to accommodate viewing women as capable of pursuing careers independent of marriage/children–and to accommodate views of men as doing “women’s work” like shopping at the grocery store, cooking for the family, caring for the children, and doing the housecleaning; just anything to shake up these staid prescribed roles–that would do so much good. My sister teaches English and reports that so many girls, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, don’t dream very big: “Preschool teacher” and so on. No one wants to be a scientist, an engineer. Girls don’t want to stand out in class, either, and let the boys take all the attention for getting answers right. At companies it’s the norm for women to do administrative work and for men to do all the real professional jobs. I wish that would change so much! It would benefit society immensely to show women that career and marriage/motherhood are not mutually exclusive, that you can have both, and that you can dream as big and be as smart as men. And I look at the Diet and I just can’t see that group of old-fashioned fuddy-duddies doing anything that would help that.

It just seems like Japan is stuck in a rut and things are going downhill and it’s going to start affecting its position in the world soon, and it keeps seeming like not the best idea to align myself with a country and a language whose star is not so much on the rise. Also, exchange rates are absolutely ridiculous at this point in time, making an already expensive venture even more so. It just seems like everything is telling me, “Don’t go, this isn’t wise.” And yet… I just can’t listen. It’s what I want to do with all my heart, and my current career is not enough to sustain me forever, and I’ve delayed it so long already that to wait any longer would probably drive me crazy as well as make everyone around me roll their eyes and lose faith in my ability to follow through on what I say I’ll do. I have to try and it needs to be now. But I wish I could feel better about it; I wish there were better news coming out of Japan. I would love to be wrong about this but I don’t think I am. I also look back on my 2006 self who first went to Japan and I just feel embarrassed; so much I didn’t know even though I thought I knew everything.

On the bright side I’m learning a lot, so that part of my resolution has been successful.

Japanese-wise I keep having it confirmed that all my frantic studying has paid off and I really did launch myself into the next stratosphere of the language. I can read better, for one, and maybe I can listen better too. It feels pretty good. I’ve been able to crack open previously illegible books and find that I can read them pretty easily now. As an example, when I first visited Japan I bought a random volume of BL manga at a bookstore, just because I could. I’d been a BL fan for a long time (still am! Holla). I chose it purely because the art on the cover was good; it was shrink-wrapped (as most Japanese books in stores are) so I couldn’t look inside. When I could open it, I discovered the art inside was nowhere near as good as that on the cover. Shocking! I mean, I know now that everyone knows not to trust the exterior art, but I didn’t know better then. Anyway, so the art inside was bad and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to read it and figure out what was going on; I only had three (easy) semesters under my belt when I bought it. The other night I was sorting through things in my room and I came across it; I opened it up and finally I could read it. So I read the first chapter. It’s crap. I don’t want to own this anymore. If I wanted to buy BL in Japan just to say I did, I should have done my research and actually gotten something good by a vetted author, not a random book off the shelf. I have a lot of Japanese manga I don’t need anymore (most sent to me by TOKYOPOP while I was rewriting them) and it looks like the best way to get rid of them is going to be to take them to Japan and resell them at a Book-Off or something, even if I get peanuts in return. Seems cumbersome but I doubt there is going to be a market for them here and it seems weird to just throw them away.

That little episode–and the larger act of sorting through my possessions for what to keep and what to sell–reminded me to double down going forward on selectiveness in what I acquire. What seems worth paying full price now may be a regretted purchase years down the road as I bring it to Half-Price to get literally pennies in return and have to face the fact that I threw money directly down the drain. I always think I have this in mind and that I’m only buying what I really want to keep for good and then come across all these things I somehow need gone. The worst is when the item is no longer functional in any way but you have a sentimental attachment to it that prevents you from putting it in the trash can.

On another note… my sister is really good about finding things I’d be interested in and sending me links. The other day she pointed me to the (Japan-based) Society of Writers, Editors & Translators and I’ve been going through some of the fascinating articles posted online from their newsletter. I’m enjoying the articles, although groups like this just make me feel intensely desperate and envious, remembering that I’m not a part of that world yet even though I am dying to be. Although I am already a writer and an editor, just not (currently) with anything related to Japan/Japanese.

Anyway, I enjoyed the review of Globish, since the notion of English as the world’s dominant language has interested me ever since my French host dad mentioned, while my mom was visiting Paris and we were having dinner with my host family–and speaking in English for her benefit, some of us less fluent than others–that many French people have/had grown up with the idea that the dominant language in the world is French. Because for centuries, that was true. And it’s very hard for them to adjust to the fact that it’s pretty much English now, hence why a lot of French people (somewhat stubbornly) don’t speak English and expect your French to be very good or they are impatient. Anyway, I took particular notice of this, which begins with an excerpt from the book:

For centuries Japanese was remote, mysterious and separate. But this special linguistic inheritance does seem to have made Japan proud of its culture, as it did in Britain. Paradoxically, a nation that is assertive in business and commerce is unconfident in language and culture…Ever since Commodore Perry’s appearance off the coast of Tokyo in 1853, and long before Hiroshima, there had occasionally been suggestions from leading Japanese that the country should adopt English, or even French, as the national language. Many older Japanese, Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, for example, are fluent in French, and well versed in French culture, a hangover from colonial days.

This is all either misleading or just plain wrong. As those of us who live here know, the Japanese are second only to the French in taking loving care of their language. Those on the masochistic margins who have denigrated it are arguably no less enamored of it than the linguistic nationalists who have extravagantly extolled it. The first part of McCrum’s last sentence here is incorrect, and the final phrase is baffling.

Ha! First of all, I completely agree, but moreover it made me think: It’s interesting to me that the two languages I’ve focused on the most are also ones highly prized by their native speakers–indeed, arguably some of the most highly prized languages in the world. I certainly don’t hold English in such high esteem or feel as much pride for it as Japanese and French people do about their mother tongues, and I’m not alone. Everyone looooves to repeat that joke about English beating up other languages in alleys and taking their syntax, grammar, vocabulary, etc. If English has to be the dominant language in the world–no matter how convenient it is for me as a native speaker of it–I wish it could be a better, more ideal language. It has so many flaws. And most of us are uneducated about it; I’m still amazed every time I come across someone who believes English is a Romance language (I guess because when learning SAT words, the Latin roots of many are emphasized, so maybe people think that Latin-based vocabulary = Latin-based grammar and syntax as well; it does not and English is Germanic).

I also came across two more articles that address the rise of machine translation and how it threatens translators today, which of course is a topic I am very much interested in. Fortunately, at least in the opinion of the author–someone who also happens to be a California-based J->E translator, AKA my dream, so I’m definitely jealous–the outlook is favorable, which is reassuring.

Still, I just feel like there are so many obstacles keeping me from what I want to do and feel I need to/should do, and sheer desperate passion/fervent hoping isn’t going to make them disappear… I wish I had money!

Catching up culturally too

Well, the Japanese ability screening test I’d been studying for is now over, so I no longer have to spend every minute of my free time studying (or feeling obligated to study). I can get back to my full gym routine (and just in time too–muscles are weakening! Anxiety levels are increasing!) and I can get back to work on song translations and updating my website. I spent the past weekend doing that almost exclusively, and I’m not done yet (I was already behind though) but I hope to catch up soon.

How did the test go? Hmm… I was told it would be post-N2 level, hence the frantic studying, and I’m not sure if it was quite that bad. The test’s difficulty ranged from “super ridiculously is-this-a-joke easy” to “ooh, that’s kinda hard.” I feel pretty confident about the majority of my answers, but I’ve also completely lost faith in my ability to predict if my answer will be the correct one. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m “whaaaat! How is that not it?!” wrong. It’s also difficult to know how you did on a test you’ve never taken before. With JLPT you know what to expect, but this was a test created by teachers I’d never encountered before. It was also strange in that for the listening and reading sections, the texts/dialogues were in Japanese, but you answered in English. It was that way for some parts of the kanji/vocab section too. This made it easier in some ways but it was also a little confusing/unexpected. I don’t feel like I bombed it or anything, but I feel like there might be a lot of answers I thought I got right where in reality they were looking for something totally different. Hard to say! Frustrating.

It will be a little while before I know if I did well enough for my goals… right now I am in a waiting period. And I hate it. I want to know so I can plan and announce, and I won’t know for a bit longer, and I’m worried, worried, worried the outcome won’t be what I’m hoping… it’s not fun. It will be this way for about the next month. In many ways this next month will be huge.

I’m not sure how much of my energy to dedicate to Japanese study from here on out… before this, I would try to dedicate at least a few hours of one weekend day to self-study at home with my textbooks, and usually I’d succeed. Last spring I tried taking the Saturday morning Japanese classes offered in my city–and then there’s a study group that meets at a nearby cafe afterwards, I went to that a few times–but it was too far away and I had a hard time motivating myself to go and to spend the gas. I promised myself I’d get serious about self-study if I wasn’t going to attend the classes, and I’ve definitely kept up with it the past two frantic months (I think my level has progressed quite rapidly and sort of launched me into the next stage of Japanese ability from where I was before, which is good–for the first time I feel like I’m solidly in the thick of N2 and just need to master it) and now I’m not sure of the best way to keep going now. I guess just keep reviewing and making progress in my N2 textbooks, but I also feel like I need more practical reading and listening practice. I’m considering downloading some raw drama episodes and just watching those. I have a lot of things I can read, although with that comes the urge to translate instead of just simply read. I’m also trying to find good reading sources online; my sister turned me on to a blog that’s been pretty interesting. I’m trying to read as much as I can without consulting Rikaichan but sometimes there are just words I haven’t learned yet. The frustrating part about reading is having to consult the dictionary so often, and feeling discouraged because of that–and also not knowing if it’s better to consult it for every unknown word or just press on. As for listening, I think I’ll go with dramas… maaaybe some variety shows I can find online. Dramas based on manga I read/like would be a good place to start, as well as those with theme songs sung by my favorite artists (that I’ve probably already translated). For a while there will be things that go over my head, but I’m hoping over time I’ll understand more and more. I’m not a huge drama fan, I’ve seen a couple series but that’s it, but this will also be good cultural education.

Because in the meantime, I’m trying to get my Japanese cultural knowledge up to speed by reading Japanese news and Japan-centric blogs. I was only there in 2006 so in a lot of ways I’m behind the times. I always scoff at people who focus on Japanese culture over language (because it’s obvious they’re doing it because they find the language too hard) so in some ways this makes me feel like I’m taking the ‘easy way’ out (especially because I’m mostly reading up in English–I plan to move to Japanese after I feel more knowledgeable overall, because news in Japanese is pretty hard) but I have to remember it’s just as important. One thing that’s particularly interesting for me is each year’s top slang/buzzwords. I’ve found 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 (one and two), 2005, and 2004. What struck me when reading those–aside from recognizing which have become such a permanent part of current vocabulary that it surprises me to learn their origins here, and which would be considered so passé by this point–was remembering the ones we’d covered in the conversation classes I took spring 2006 and spring 2008, as well as the ones I picked up living in Japan in 2006. Of course, that very fact reinforces that since those are the ones I know, it means I definitely need to get myself caught up to present times. So from 2007’s I recall KY [空気が読めない] for sure, as well as どんだけ — which doesn’t surprise me that it originally came from Shinjuku Nichoume. I was also struck by this one:

Oubei ka! [欧米か!]: Oubei ka! (“You’re not a Westerner!”) is the catchphrase of comedy duo Taka and Toshi. In a typical skit, Taka acts as if he were an American or European, and Toshi tells him to stop acting silly (like a Westerner) by saying “Oubei ka!” The humor apparently lies in the fact that they are both obviously Japanese, and not from America or Europe.

Wow. That just sounds super racist. Could you imagine if two white comedians went onstage and one pretended to be a different race, speaking with an exaggerated accent and mimicking other stereotypical behaviors of that race, and that was the “joke”? Good lord. As if it isn’t hard enough as an obvious foreigner in Japan, you have to make fun of us too? Unbelievable.

I mean, a definite side effect of reading all these blogs, personal accounts, etc written by westerners in or about Japan is remembering all the bad parts, like how difficult it is to fit in, and how socially you don’t really associate with Japanese people all that often–how most of the time, westerners stick to others in their own foreign bubble, because that’s honestly what’s easiest to do. When I studied abroad I had a lot of Japanese acquaintances who hung out with us because they studied at the colleges we took courses at, and also a lot of them were studying English [and were very good] and wanted to practice with us, but almost no true, close friends. Yuuho is my only close Japanese friend I can think of and it’s only because we’re making an effort to communicate now–we didn’t then. It’s hard not to look down on westerners in Japan who say “I don’t have any Japanese friends/I don’t have any good Japanese friends” (or at least any they hang out with and talk to on a regular basis) and think that they must be lazy, but it’s really not the case–it’s just that it’s inherently so much more difficult to try and really be a part of Japanese society. There is a wall there, for sure, and you get fed up and don’t even want to try anymore. I see why it so often happens that foreigners stick together, especially when you’ve come over with a bunch of other people from your country so your urge is to stay near them instead of venturing out. Despite all that, I really don’t want it to happen again. I still want to try my hardest to make and keep real, close Japanese friends instead of hanging out with only other westerners. Not just because it will give me increased Japanese practice but because I think it’s pointless to come to another country for a limited period of time, with the goal of language mastery, and not do your utmost to become a part of it, even if you’re handicapped from the start because you look different and you’re not fluent and you’re viewed as temporary and a lot of adult Japanese people don’t venture out socially much anyway. I know it will be so much harder and in some ways almost impossible, but I still want to try.

But just in case anyone was worried that I’d end up tempted to live there forever, I don’t think so. Long enough to become as fluent as I can, yes; forever, no. While, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about the culture that I do like, it really is true that for me it’s the language that’s the draw.

The problem with translation

I love translation (I mean, obviously, considering my career goals). I don’t want to admit it has any problems; there are too many common oppositions to it already out there. I always want to defend it with all my heart against those who say translations are inherently flawed. After all, you can’t have a translation that’s both beautiful and faithful, can you? It’s gotta be one or the other. Actually, I don’t believe that at all. I believe you can have both, and that’s the philosophy that guides me as I translate. Some people dismiss translations as ultimately imperfect no matter what you do–and maybe use that as license to get lazy–but I believe a translation can surpass that, and that you can create a definitive, Platonic, close-to-perfect translation. (Some would say this is naiveté. I will still strive for it.) To that end I try very hard to achieve a balance between beauty and accuracy, in search of the close-to-perfect translation, and if you must lean more to one side than the other, I think that it’s better to have a slightly less beautiful, more accurate translation than one that’s slightly less accurate, more beautiful. There are those who would disagree with me on that point. But while I prefer both, I would choose accuracy as most important any day.

But there is a big issue with how translations are published. Accordingly with my beliefs outlined above, most of the time I disagree with translations made by other people. If I’m just reading it, I might think, “Oh, what good writing, what good English–this flows so well. This person did a great job!” and judge it solely on those merits. And I wouldn’t be alone in that thought. But then… I’ll compare against the original. And just about inevitably I’ll discover all kinds of things left out, embellished needlessly, mistranslated, and so on. Sometimes I can even tell when those things exist just from reading the English. I’m even noticing it in 1Q84, a major work translated 2/3 by a Harvard professor of Japanese! (One example, a character says something like “I felt like children in a Dickens novel, abandoned” and I believe it should have been a singular child–Dickens only wrote about one abandoned child per novel pretty much. In Japanese you often have to figure out based on context if a word is singular or plural).

But here’s the thing… unless you know the source language, you’re never going to discover that bad translation. Knowing only English, you will judge the English, as it’s all you can judge. And if the English sounds good, you will assume–and have no choice but to assume–that the translation must be solid as well. But that doesn’t mean it is! Often it’s not–at all! But well written English is covering that up.

Likewise, a translation could be extremely accurate and faithful, but if it’s not written well, people will judge it a bad translation, and call it clunky and so on. (I’m guilty of this too–I dislike stilted, dry academic translations; the ones of Kokoro and Snow Country stand out to me, though I believe Snow Country contains mistranslations as well. I haven’t re-read Kokoro since learning Japanese so maybe it does too.) That’s absolutely a problem as well; beauty is still important in translations. You simply have to try very hard to get both.

But the real problem is that the publishing house’s editors, same as the readers, are incapable of judging a translation’s accuracy–only its beauty. I saw this all the time at TOKYOPOP. There, freelance translators were contracted to complete a translation of a volume of manga and create a script. Then, a freelance rewriter came along to polish up that English from the translation and make it sound natural. So step 1 was translation (accuracy), step 2 was localization (beauty). (However, this second step wasn’t spelled out to the translators as clearly as it should have been, as many of them–at least the ones I worked with–took it upon themselves to localize as well, when they should have provided nothing more or less than a neat, non-embellished, accurate and faithful translation.)

And that’s all fine if the translator can be relied upon to produce a good–beautiful and accurate–translation. But that’s not always the case. Even professional, experienced translators can screw up–but if there’s no one to catch those mistakes, that’s not good. As the rewriter looking over that manga translation, I’d routinely uncover tons of mistranslations. Tons and tons. But as I was often the only other one in this entire process who knew Japanese, no one would have pointed them out if not for me! Of course, a few TOKYOPOP editors were more or less fluent in Japanese. But it wasn’t a job requirement; it wasn’t a necessity, so many weren’t and things just went over their heads. I firmly believe that if your regular job involves working with translations of [x] language, you must be fluent in [x] language in order to do that job. To this day I don’t understand why this isn’t valued more; why people like me, who can do a QC on these translations, are not in higher demand. I believe anyone who wants to be or is already a manga editor should be fluent or highly advanced in Japanese. It’s just an absolute necessity in my mind.

I imagine it’s the same with publishers of translations of Japanese-language novels like 1Q84, or really any publisher of translations in any format (but it’s probably worse if the publisher puts out translations coming from multiple source languages; the editors can’t be expected to know all those). The only one who’s in charge of the actual translating is the translator, and if you don’t know the language (and most editors don’t), you have NO WAY of knowing if their translation is actually good; if their language skills are actually that good. No way! No way of knowing. That is frightening. All editors can do is judge the quality of the English, which doesn’t equate to the quality of the actual translation. Even if the translators initially pass a translating test–judged by a speaker of that language–before coming on board, they can still make mistakes in the actual job, and no one will be there to catch them. Certainly not in the case of a 900-page behemoth like 1Q84.

So I think one of the worst aspects of the published translation industry is this complete lack of quality control. There is no one to check over a translation once it’s made, and to me that just seems totally reckless and dangerous.

The only solution I can think of to this problem, even though it’s a small one, is to offer myself as a recourse: as someone who will translate with an eye to both beauty and accuracy. At my current job I regularly call owners and founders of various types of businesses and ask them questions so I can write about them; I usually ask about how they decided to get into their industry and start their business. One frequent answer: “I wanted to provide a level of service and quality that I wasn’t seeing in my industry at the time. The lack of it was frustrating to me as a regular customer in search of those services, so I decided to step up and offer it myself.” In other words: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

I can’t transform the industry all on my own but I hope to at least make some small contribution to the world of beautiful, accurate translations. Unfortunately, translating is also very subjective; what seems both beautiful and accurate to me may not seem so to someone else. That’s probably the reason why I’m not able to ever think someone else’s translation–even one made by pros and experts–is as good as one I could make myself. Which is a problem–I’d love to have a translator I wholeheartedly admire, but I currently don’t. I’m just too picky. But hopefully that’s a quality that will make me a good pro translator myself.

In any case, if you don’t know the source language you’re not capable of judging a translation as “good” just based on how well its English flows.