This morning I went with my new friend Lee-san to the Minato-ku city library for a Japanese language class for English speakers. My friend has recently come here from South Korea, and her husband works with my husband. Lee-san knows a little English, and some Japanese and Chinese. She definitely knows more English than I know Japanese or Korean! We struggle a bit to communicate… We ask each other questions, and sometimes we understand and answer each other (hopefully) correctly. We try to keep the conversation simple.
The class we attended meets once a week for 2 hours, and costs 500 Yen (a little less than $5.) It is a short walk, and in fact, I can see the building from my apartment window. There were 6 students in the class today, from several countries. I was the most beginner, and (again) the only American in the group. Today we talked about useful phrases for when we go to a store or restaurant. It was a good class… an interesting class… if somewhat overwhelming. My husband and I will be starting another Japanese class later this week. Our goal — and I am not kidding myself into thinking that I will ever be fluent in Japanese — is to be at least somewhat conversant in the language by the time we leave here in two years.
One thing that makes learning Japanese such a challenge is that they use different characters. I am trying to learn the syllabaries now. Basically the Japanese language is represented by three systems of characters: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. The Kanji are based on Chinese characters and each represents a thing or an idea. There are estimated to be over 8000 Kanji… and most college-educated Japanese can identify about 3000 of them. The Kana — Hiragana and Katakana — are the syllabaries. Each character represents a syllable of a word. Hiragana are used for Japanese words, and Katakana are used for foreign words that have been added to the language.
Most (but not all) street signs and subway signs will have the Japanese — which can be a mix of all three character systems — and the “Romanji” (English alphabet) representation of the word. On the subway, most trains will flash the Japanese name in Kanji and Hiragana AND Romanji… so usually it isn’t too much of a problem finding our way around. For instance, Tamachi Station, the station closest to our home, is shown as 田町 in Kanji, and たまち in Hiragana. I am starting to recognize some of these symbols for the stations that we use frequently. My favorite thing to do while riding the trains, is to watch these signs, and try to remember the symbols I see. It is a daunting process. Also, reading is one thing… and writing, I have found, is even more difficult. It is hard to make sense of all these symbols, but it is even harder to reproduce these symbols so that they look like what they are supposed to. Remember the writing workbooks we all had in elementary school? Where you would write the letters over and over and over until the teacher said you got it right? I need one of those for Hiragana! I even bought a notebook marked off in a square grid so that I could try to get my Japanese characters to look right. It is way harder than you think!
Anyway… the message in all this: Yes! We are feeling more comfortable and at home in our new city, but we still have a very long way to go to really be a part of this place. For now, we sort of walk along the fringes watching, and stumble a lot when we try to get in there and be a part of it all. Baby steps every day, and eventually we will get there, I hope. We are amazed at being here, and endlessly fascinated by our surroundings. Yes… sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it all, and sometimes we long for the familiar and the comfortable. There is a reason that most Expats live in certain areas of this city. They like to be around things that are more familiar to them. Lol… we don’t live in that area. I can go days without seeing another non-Asian person. Really.
But… I am glad we chose to live where we do. I like it here… and I am getting used to that feeling of being a conspicuous foreigner. People are nice… friendly… helpful. Life is good. Oh… and the title? “Do you know Japanese?”