"You have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature, Christians are the most forgiving, understanding, and thoughtful group of people I've ever dealt with. They never assume the worst. They appreciate the importance of having different perspectives. They're slow to anger, quick to forgive, and almost never make rash judgments or act in anything less than a spirit of total love . . . No, wait--I'm thinking of Labrador retrievers!" David Learn, 1998

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My secret fear


     I have been invited to speak at the dedication of my mother's memorial. Fifteen minutes, including translation, they said. (They also said they expected my talk to be the highlight of the hour-long ceremony. To pull this off, I have to forget I know that.)
     I wrote out what I would like to say. I had it translated and intend to read it in Japanese (which means I have the full 15 minutes). The sentence at the top of this post, which I am including in my opening, is a speech I had to memorize when we first moved to Japan. (I was seven.) I thought it was the longest, hardest thing I'd ever struggled to learn. I didn't understand the individual words then. Now I know it means,

"Today, everyone with together gathering thing possible, very happy."

     There are three alphabets used in Japanese. Two, called kana, are not formed of letters per se but sounds, consonents with one of five vowels--ah, ee, oo, eh, oh--attached. So you can have kah kee koo keh koh or sah shee soo seh soh. But they have no "k" or "s" by itself. That's why Japanese struggle to pronounce English correctly. They want to put a vowel after every consonent: Disneyland becomes Dee zu ni ra n do." ("N" is the only sound without a vowel attached.)
     My advice to Japanese learning English (or anyone learning any foreign language) is to let go of the words and sounds you are familiar with and mimic exactly what you hear. This means for English you have to stick out your tongue a little when you say "th." Japanese are always embarrassed to do that.
      Anyway, my name would be transliterated "Jeh-shee-ka" in hiragana, the first of these two alphabets. But since my name is a foreign word, it would actually be written in the second alphabet, katakana. Either way, my name would be pronounced the same but in order to be recognized as a foreign word, it would be spelled with alphabet #2.
     The third alphabet is kanji. Kanji are the pictographs from the Chinese. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of kanji. I think I can safely say nobody knows them all. Some are simple pictographs, like three vertical lines for "kawa" (river) or a two-line stick figure of a man (hito). Some are combinations of other pictographs. There is a symbol for animal, for instance, so when you see any kanji with that symbol along the left side, you know it stands for some kind of animal, even if you don't yet know what animal it is.  
     Way before history was written down in most cultures, when it was still being passed from father to son orally, the Chinese captured history in their pictographs. For instance why would the combination of "boat" plus the number "8" over the hollow square meaning "mouth"--eight mouths--form another kanji  for "boat" unless the combination of ideas tells the story of a particular boat which held eight people, that is, Noah's ark?
     Similarly, the Chinese language not only succinctly depicts historical events but divine teaching. "Righteousness" is "lamb cover me." What a powerful summary of the book of Romans! Or really, of the whole Bible.
     The numbers 1-7 (if you play Mah Jongg, they are on the kanji tiles) depict what happened on each of the days of creation. "One" is a single horizontal line; on the first day God created heaven and earth as one undifferentiated entity. "Two" is two horizontal lines; on the second day God separated them. . . "Six" looks like the little man you see on the "Walk" sign at intersections; on the sixth day man was created. And "seven" looks like a figure sitting; on the seventh day God rested.
      Kanji are usually the noun or verb in a sentence, with kana as endings, conjunctions, and all the peripherals. In the sentence above, there are ten kanji. In general, kanji stand out as the more complex characters.
     When I first asked to have my remarks translated, I had Hiroko Shibuya, the translator, write it all out normally, just as it would appear in a newspaper, that is, with kanji interspersed with the simpler kana--but also translating each kanji into the kana equivalent so I had the full manuscript in kana. I thought I could read the kanji I knew and cheat on the ones I didn't know by reading the kana in the parentheses which followed.
     So that's what she did--and it increased the length of my remarks from 1-1/2 pages to 3-1/2 pages! The above sentence now looked like this:


     At one time I knew about 1,000 kanji, almost enough (1,200) to read a newspaper. Now I think I'm down to around fifty. In my talk I'm going to be using all kinds of words and phrases I don't know in Japanese, like "Monument Committee," "meditation," "controller of the universe," "nuclear energy" and "DNA." (Actually DNA, being a foreign word, is written in katakana, "Dee eh-nu eh-ee."). The text bristled with kanji and that intimidated me.
     So I thought, Since I have the whole thing in kana anyway, I'll eliminate the kanji and just read it in kana, like a first grader. So I cut out all the kanji. The sentence above now read,

きょうは、みなさんと いっしょ に あつまることが できて、たいへん うれしいです。

     This was much easier for me to read but when I tried it aloud I was afraid I'd panic and my mind would go blank. What if I got mixed up and read "neh" instead of "noo"? My mother taught me kana when I was seven or eight as we rode a train up through the middle of Japan to visit friends in Sendai. She used verbal pictures to help me remember each symbol. (I can't really call them letters.) "Neh" is for "nezumi" (mouse) and "neh" looks like a mouse with a curled tail. But I can't take the time, while I'm speaking publicly, to figure it out that way. It needs to flow. I needed a fallback position I couldn't get wrong, wouldn't even have to hesitate on.
     So after reducing it all to kana, I further reduced it to romaji, or anglicized letters, which feels more comfortable in a public setting. Now it reads,

"Kyou wa, minasan to issho ni atsumaru koto ga dekite taihen ureshii desu." 

     I think I can read that fluently and with expression.  Now I am confident, even if I don't understand what I am reading, my Japanese audience probably will.
  I have taken 30 units of Japanese language--reading, writing, and speaking--at  International Christian University, a top bilingual college in Tokyo. But that was half a century ago. All I have left is really good pronunciation--which gets me into trouble because it makes people think I have an extensive vocabulary and accurate grammar behind it.
     What I'm afraid is, I'll read it so well, I'll sabotage myself. Afterwards, the media will expect me to be able to answer all their questions in Japanese and I'll just have to stand there looking stupid.


  1. "What I'm afraid is, I'll read it so well, I'll sabotage myself. Afterwards, the media will expect me to be able to answer all their questions in Japanese and I'll just have to stand there looking stupid."

    Well, put as part of your speech - intro or ending - that you received a lot of help, giving thanks for assistance, because your Japanese is rusty even tho you remember the pronunciation from childhood. Maybe that will short-circuit the chance of embarrassment later.