Last week I really felt I had made much progress in learning Japanese. After dedicating an hour to language skills each day, I had improved enough to be able to speak some sentences to my very confused dogs. Alas, it was a short-lived confidence. My new lesson demonstrated the infinite complexity of Japanese. For example, the language does not have any words for “a” or “the”, so when you refer to an object, you have to use the words for “this” or “that.” Sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch! The word for this or that varies depending on both what the object is and the distance of the object from the speaker. I am doomed!
At the very least, I am comforted knowing my struggle to learn the Japanese language won’t cause me to starve in Japan. A devoted sushi eater (a rare trait for a native New Englander raised on meat and potatoes) since a friend dared me to eat a piece in college while we were both slightly inebriated, I can rattle off sushi orders in Japanese at light speed—ebi, unagi, tekka, hamachi, etc.. Whether I’ll be able to understand anything beyond a menu in a sushi restaurant once I get off the plane in Tokyo remains to be seen.
Actually, there is a beautiful symmetry to the Japanese language that as I writer I find very poetically appealing. In Rōmaji, a Japanese spelling based on the Roman alphabet, the vowels dominate and the resulting sound (when pronounced correctly) resembles a song. True, it’s a song I can’t understand, but as any fan of opera knows, you can appreciate the music even if you have no idea what the words mean.
While I am on the subject of songs, if one more person starts singing that annoying Styx song from the 80’s when I tell them I am going to Japan, I might get violent. (A close second is another bad tune from the 80's: "Turning Japanese.") First, since I graduated from high school in 1987 I had to live through the awful music of the 80's, so enough is enough. Second, your best response at demonstrating your knowledge of the Japanese culture is quoting bad music? Even just informing me you drive a Subaru would be an improvement.
One last thought: Maybe someone in Japan will know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation.