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Part XVIII Language and other barriers

January 28, 1999

OK, Japanese is hard. I mean, I'm sure you hear horror stories from your friends studying Apache or Hungarian or !xhosa (pronounced "[click]-osa"), but I'm here to tell you that Japanese, in my experience, is the hardest language that I am now studying. Sometimes it's downright absurd, in my opinion. Akeru, Ageru, and Agaru are three verbs meaning, respectively, "to open," "to give to a 2nd or 3rd person," and "to rise or ascend." Ageru actually has two meanings, the other one being "to raise or elevate." Now try to hear the difference when someone is talking full speed. Double and triple meanings are the worst. Mata means a) yet, b) not yet, c) fork, d) crotch. I am not making this up. So, when I ask a question and someone says "mata," I am not sure whether they need a minute, whether they are hungry, or whether my fly is open. Kekko desu means both "no thank you" and "yes, that's fine." The word is it's own antonym! Fuku means both "to blow" and "to wipe." The mnemonic I use to remember this is "Fuck you (Fuk-U)-- how the hell am I supposed to know what you mean!?!" Unfortunately, most words are not candidates for such an effective mnemonic.

Can you tell I've been studying? Well, no one here can, I'll tell you that. They think it's cute when I sit at my desk in agony. Today one guy taught me tongue twisters. "Tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kuu kyaku da" means "the next door neighbor's guest is eating a persimmon carefully." Kaki, by the way, is persimmon, so now I can say truthfully that I have eaten kaki.

I think to lighten up my studying a bit I will start using a small book that I found in Tokyo entitled "Making Out in Japanese." I mean, how am I supposed to communicate effectively without such useful phrases as "I love you but I can't marry you," "you need to drink more," and "bite me." My favorite, and once again I can only assure you that I am not making this up, is "if you really love me, you'll stop asking me to eat sushi." (honto-ni aishiteru-nara, "sushi taberu?" -tte kikanai de) Every phrase includes a mark denoting whether it is supposed to be said by a boy or a girl. If you can't figure that one out for yourself, I think you need a different book.

 The thing is, even when there is not a language barrier, there is a cultural barrier that often gets in the way of useful conversation. For example, people in Japan will rarely volunteer information. I don't know why -- sometimes it is as bad as the old jokes (think of any joke whose punch line is "Why didn't you tell me?" "You didn't ask.") Getting a complete answer to a question is like pulling teeth at times. For example, I was in a large city (Matsumoto) in a neighboring prefecture (Nagano, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998) and I went to the tourist information office. The woman working there spoke beautiful English, and she was very helpful in finding a room for me and Jeff at a nearby inn. No problem.

 In fact, she was so helpful that the next day on our way out of town we stopped by again to get more information. I went in alone, and here is a summary of the conversation:

 Rafi: Do you have anything about Nagano prefecture in English that might help me?
Woman: No, I don't think so.
R: Really? You don't have a map of the prefecture?
W: Yes, we do. Here.
R: Uhh, do you have one in English?
W: Yes. Here.
R: Do you have anything else that might help us? Information? Brochures? Anything?
W: No, I don't think so.
R: For example, do you have a list of youth hostels?
W: Yes, here.
R: In English?
W: Yes, here.
R: Anything else that might be useful? Anything at all?
W: No, I don't think so.
R: Nothing about local attractions?
W: No.
R: What about Komikochi? (a local attraction)
W: Yes, here.
R: In English?
W: Yes, here.

 As you can imagine, I was a bit awestruck at the seeming thickness of the woman's skull. I left at this point, but who knows how much more stuff she had! She didn't think a map would be useful? What? Keep in mind that this was not some random encounter -- this was at the tourist office of a city of 200,000 people, the second biggest in the prefecture. I pity the fools who walked away after the first "no."

 I have encountered this attitude innumerable times, as have many of my colleagues. I can't count the number of times I have had to ask about something that should have been explained to me at least a week before. More commonly, however, the problem is that getting information is like playing the game 20 questions -- only one-word answers are allowed. There seems to be a national tendency to stay quiet unless asked a direct question, and sometimes even that isn't enough, as you can see above.

I should probably have a second anecdote here to further back up my point, but a) no single incidents stick out because it happens every day, b) you probably believe me anyway, c) you need to get back to work, and d) it's Rafi's bed time.