Learning Japanese at 50: Looking at the Past

Politically and socially, Japanese leaders adopted Chinese political structure by placing the emperor, already considered a god, into the center of politics and governance.  To represent that ideal, a great capital was established in the model of Chang’an…a formal design of the city of Nara that placed at the north, central part of the city the emperor’s palace.

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A View of the city from Chang’an Map

More importantly, the emperor and the court around the emperor adopted Chinese language.  One of the more brilliant language adoptions in the world happened in Nara Japan.  Japanese scholars took Chinese characters, kanji, and learned the spoken word associated with the character.  Then, the Japanese associated spoken Japanese words that they associated with the Chinese characters.

Then, these scholars taught court officials and other folks associated with the court how to read and write these characters.  The transformation was something to behold; writing exploded in the city.  Historians, poets, court officials, all wrote extensively about Japanese history, culture, the value of products, and life in the court.  Two important documents of history and culture included the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki.  These first national histories told the story of Japan’s origins from the religious, legendary past through the Nara period.   Also, the Man’yoshu was an anthology of poems collected and published in a single, handwritten source.

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Nara City Map

Chinese written language was both a practical development in Japan, having a consistent writing system useful to governments and officials, and a means of communicating important ideas from History to Poetry to architecture.  As you can imagine however, the language was an awkward fit for spoken Japanese.  Listen to a Chinese sentence and then listen to a Japanese one.  The differences in spoken language are striking as are the significant differences in grammar and sentence structure.  Making Chinese hanyu fit into the Japanese was an act of sheer will to make the fit work.  The fit was clearly awkward.

After years of working with the Chinese, a group of women in the Imperial court developed a writing system that extracted the basic structure of Chinese characters and simplified them into a very elegant written language.  These characters were closely aligned with the sounds of Japanese language….much in the way that Roman letters are associated with a sound, these new characters represented a sound, or actually a set of sounds, that formed the spoken language in written form.  These characters, called hiragana, were a way for women, who were not allowed to study language, to communicate through an alternative system that more closely represented the spoken Japanese.  Hiragana, literally meaning “simple”.

Folks who want to learn Japanese often began, like I did, to study the hiragana.  At times, during my study, I often just stopped and wondered about the people who developed the writing system.  These women, who realized that the Chinese written system was an awkward fit, came up with a way to represent Japanese language that allowed someone to voice the language by learning the written syllable or spoken word.  Incredible.  Have you ever created a writing system? One that represented sound?  Why not try it?

When I started learning Japanese, I mean really learning Japanese, I started with hiragana.  My iPhone became my best language friend.  I downloaded a series of apps and tried each one…first the free ones (usually not very good at helping with the kind of drill and memorization necessary to remember the sounds and characters) until I settled on Japanese!.  This app includes a clever method for remembering the sounds as characters by randomly quizzing you on the sounds once you begin to learn them.

Learning Japanese is a lesson in patience.  Not patience with the language but with yourself.  You must abandon traditional measures of success; in fact, you have to abandon the success model of learning entirely.  The whole idea of accomplishment is the idea that once achieved, you have accomplished, known, possessed some knowledge.  Like a product that you developed on your own and can now show everyone how great that thing is.

Studying Japanese cannot be a success-focused type of study.  Learning Japanese is a layering process.  In some ways like creating a structure, a scaffolding to support your next stage of understanding and development.  In 2006, visiting Shanghai in March I saw these massive high rise buildings surrounded by bamboo scaffolding, wrapped around the growing structure.  I sometimes think of those bamboo structures: they are flexible, organic, and move together, linked by rope, and wood to surround a edifice.  Learning Japanese is very much like that; a flexible support for your study of the language, a organic artiface as a means of holding up your tenuous language building.

One first step to learning Japanese is to practice those hiragana and to grasp the sounds.  Interestingly, the sounds are familiar to English-speakers.  The sounds are similar enough that learning the hiragana characters becomes a kind of memory game associating the characters to the sound….a sound you may have heard before.

In fact, I think that is why I settled on Japanese over Mandarin and Tibetan.  In Japanese, I found a familiar set of sounds that were not in Mandarin.  Mandarin, a tonal language, puts the sound of the syllable at the center of language….a very slight deviation from the correct rising, falling, rising and falling, or neutral sound and the word is completely different.  The famous example of this is the sound ma.  Spoken one way ma means horse, in another ant, in another number, all just based on inflection!

While there IS inflection in Japanese (more on that later), the system is much more restrained and, from my perspective, the rules easier to manage.

Again, why did I choose Japanese as my language to learn?  A complicated question.  Anyone who has read recent Japanese history knows about the ugly recent past; the invasion of Korea and China and southeast Asia.  The abuse of Korean people, comfort women, the Mukden incident, the Marco Polo Bridge fabrication, the horror of the rape of Nanjing, and the Bataan march.

If we are honest, however, my own country of origin has the same kinds of horrible acts of violence and destruction.  Salem witch trials, Native American genocide, the Ludlow Massacre, the Haymarket Riots, African slavery, and on and on.

These historical incidents raise a serious set of questions about our role in human society; What role do we play as folks living years after some horrible historical event? How do we rectify past deeds or help to understand the crimes committed by earlier groups of people? Many societies have approached these situations head on like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa or the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The list goes on: the Geneva Conventions, or Germany’s decision to allow one million migrants into Germany in 2015.  Those cultural decisions are a meaningful starting place.

OK, but what about me?  My grandfather was in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II fighting the Japanese.  Throughout his life, he never spoke badly of Japanese people and said, in fact, that war was war and what happened during war is something that we cannot forget and we can forgive.

What would Fred Gentry say about me learning Japanese?  He’d probably say something like, “Great job you old rooster!”  He pretty much said kind things to everyone.

The question, though, comes back to why Japanese?  A few years ago a young man had climbed Everest and was traveling around the country talking to school groups about the climb and preparing for it.  He made a comment that captured my attention and imagination: “Find your Everest and Climb It.”

My Everest was learning Japanese. At 50. In New Mexico.  Here was an Everest that meant something to me….a decision to learn about the language and culture of Japan.  To dig in deep and accomplish something that I can be proud of for myself.  Not for anyone else.  (In fact, more than one person has said WTF…but I digress.)   Learning Japanese at 50 is my Everest.

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