Learning Japanese at 50: Flailing Badly

Of course, none of that happened.  I flailed.

Rewind to my studies of French and Latin in middle, high school, and college.  I studied French for years, making my way through conjugations and esoteric sentence structure.  I started Latin in 9th grade and loved the clean lines and very organized patterns of the language.  I continued Latin study in college to the point that I could, by graduate school, translate medieval documents in Latin (and get paid for it!).  While I was by no means fluent in either language, I had an affinity and grasp of what those languages were like and how to frame basic ideas and sentences.

In Mandarin and Japanese, the written forms of the language were daunting.  In Chinese, hanyu (the language of the Han people), the characters represent ideas or images or complex thought.  The characters themselves do not relate or refer to the spoken words that are associated with those characters.  Chinese characters can be read by people in China that speak very different dialects; for example, Mandarin and Cantonese and Shanghainese.

In Japanese, the written and spoken languages take on very different characteristics.  In the 5th century, Japanese and Chinese traders interacted and exposed aa striking difference between the groups; the Japanese did not have a written language.  Not having the ability to read in trade relations is a source of a series of historical conflicts; what is that person writing on a tablet or paper?  What is the information that is being recorded?  What does it mean?  We can experience a little of this sensation when listening to people speak in a language that we do not understand in front of us…or purchasing a product and seeing, written on the wrapper or box, words or symbols we do not understand.  What is REALLY in a HI-Chew and why is the product even referred to as Hi-Chew?  What is THAT?


But I digress.  The Japanese brought information about Chinese language back home and, at some point, someone said, “We have to learn this writing so that we don’t get ripped off!” or something to that effect.  Ministers from the Emperor, years later, were sent to study in China.  They traveled to the capital city, Chang’an, and met with folks in this great city.

Speaking of which, if you do NOT know about Chang’an, you should.  This remarkable center of culture, politics, scholarship, and religion was by all accounts an incredible place to visit, see, study, and work.  Set up in a grid pattern, the city was divided into districts that included markets, temples, palaces, humble homes and shops.  In the center was (and still is) a great Bell Tower that kept track of the time of the day.  Imagine, walking the streets of the city, swept clean by workers, wandering through shops that carried a wide variety of goods from as far away as the Mediterranean or Africa?  Caged lions and tigers, animals from all over the known world or people gathered from a variety of ethnic origins who traveled to the city to trade.  (I’m not advocating for caging animals; it’s representative of the influence of the city as animals are brought from thousands of miles away to be sold or traded in this center of Chinese culture).

As the Japanese emissaries arrived, they encountered not only a remarkable city but also a flowering culture and society led by some of the most remarkable leaders in Chinese history.  The Chinese (not really a monolithic group, by the way) emerged from a series of internal wars and conflicts and were slowly brought back together under the Sui dynasty and the Tang.  Chinese dynastic history is as interesting and remarkable study in the development of social and political institutions, AND the Tang dynasty is known as a kind of “golden age” of China.  Personally, I’d say every society and culture in the world has a series of “golden ages” and the whole idea of a “golden age” implies that things today kind of suck.  This whole “everything was better in the past” is, on its face, not true, but folks still ascribe great things to the past and crappy things to the present.

ANYWAY…the Tang dynasty was, depending on the year and the ruler, a remarkable time to be in Chang’an…in fact, the Tang made the city into the center of culture.  These Japanese emissaries were in Chang’an during one of the more important periods in the city’s history.  Sent to China by the Japanese emperor in Nara, the Japanese scholars and officials studied Chinese culture, politics, society, art, and language.  These folks brought back to Japan all of what they had learned and the ideas transformed Japanese society.

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