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Understanding Japanese

Jiko Shoukai

By Sara Aoyama

Editor’s Note: This is a continuing column devoted to the basics of understanding Japanese. Questions are welcome. Please see the “Your Comments” input area following this article.

If you spend any time at all in Japan or around Japanese people, you may be asked to give a jiko shôkai or self-introduction. The jiko shôkai should be geared to the purpose of the gathering. So I thought I’d start out this new column with my own jiko shôkai of how I came to the study of the Japanese language.

I had my first introduction to the Japanese language over twenty-five years ago in 1975 at the University of Kansas. In 1975 we were still enrolling in our classes sans computer, by picking up registration cards and signing up for classes manually at department tables arranged alphabetically around the huge field house—the only place big enough to house this event. It was a sweltering August afternoon, and I was walking around the crowded field house searching for the table to enroll in Hebrew. I’d flunked French in high school and been told by the teacher that I had no foreign language aptitude at all. However, the University of Kansas had a language requirement to fulfill for graduation, so I was going to have to give foreign language study another try. I put it off during my first year, and then at the beginning of my sophomore year, reluctantly considered that maybe I’d be able to handle a Hebrew class to get this requirement out of the way. All those years of Sunday School had to count for something!

But try as I might, I could not find the table for the Hebrew Language Department. (Later I was to find out that the Hebrew language registration was handled by the Linguistics Department as there was no Hebrew department, but only Hebrew language classes.) And other languages that I could find had huge lines in front of them. I really wasn’t up for French again, either. After three times around the field house I found myself hot and exhausted and not wanting to wait on any more lines. I just wanted to get out of there. I looked up and found myself in front of a table that miraculously had no waiting line at all. The sign said Oriental Languages and Literature Department. It was 1975--before sushi and karaoke--and nobody in Kansas was all that interested in the Orient… yet.

That summer I’d met a few Japanese foreign students, who had been attracted to the University of Kansas due to the low tuition. They were a nice bunch and in what was one of those careless but pivotal moments that was destined to change my life, I thought to myself.. what the heck. Why not enroll in Japanese to fulfill the darned language requirement? Enrollment would surely be low, and I’d be able to get help from the teacher more easily than I would in a French or a Spanish class. The foreign students would probably help me with homework. So with little thought, other than to get out of the heat and be done with enrollment, I signed my name and sealed my fate. Truly, I did.

On the first day of Japanese class the professor looked at the 20 or so students sitting before him and stated with surety that only five of us would be left in June. This is the kind of remark that I take as a challenge. The professor was correct. By June there were only five of us who had made it through Elementary Japanese. And I was one of them, having fallen in love with the language along the way. The rest is history and includes a first trip to Japan in August 1976 as a member of the Study Abroad Program known as the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP). In 1978 I returned to Kyoto after graduating from university, having changed my major to Japanese Language and Literature along the way. Yes, totally hooked. Eleven years of life in Japan followed, and a life long bond was created.

My first Japanese teacher (or sensei) was the best teacher I had, though. He himself wasn’t Japanese, but he had a good understanding of both the language and the culture. He taught us that the proper answer to the statement Nihongo wa ojozu desu ne or “You speak Japanese very well” was always, Iie, heta desu or “No, I speak very poorly.” This seemed like a good answer to us as we were beginners in the language, but as we advanced we asked him, “But what if we become somewhat fluent after some years of study? What should we answer with then?”

Sensei told us that at that point we could say, Iie, mada heta desu or “No, I still speak very poorly.”

Being one to always push the envelope, a couple of years later I asked him, “Sensei, what if we end up living in Japan for ten years and we really are very fluent. Then what do we say when we are told that we speak very well?”

He answered, “Oh, in that case, if it has really been many many years and you really speak quite well you may say, “sukoshi shika wakarimasen” or “Oh, but I only understand just a little bit of the language.”

These answers have come in very useful to me and I still use the last one in answer to comments on my language ability, though I have worked as both an interpreter and a translator. To answer anything but this would prove that I really did not have any understanding of the language—which is so very connected to the culture—and this answer itself shows that I at least have a rudimentary knowledge of how to function properly within the constricts of Japanese society.

So, for myself I will say that it feels overwhelming and audacious to write a column on the Japanese language and the martial arts. Because I still only understand just a little of the language and far far less of the martial arts. But what I’ve learned little by little over the years is that there are some areas of the language that are fascinating to Westerners, some that are challenging, some that prove to be sure slip-ups for all of us, and some that are definite need-to-knows for Westerners studying the martial arts. And these are the things that I intend to share with you in this column. I hope that you will find some small use in what I write.

Yoroshiku Onegai shimasu!


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About the Author:

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate. Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei George Donahue and is also a student of Tai Chi Chuan. She is a freelance Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.


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