I used to be able to read and write Japanese. Now, I can’t. I have lost a part of myself, and a part of Japan is lost to me.
I used to be able to read, haltingly, 10th century Japanese poetry. Now, I struggle to decipher the list of ingredients on the back of rice cracker packets.
What happened? Circumstance and carelessness. I live and work in an Anglophone world. The less contact I have with Japanese, the shakier it gets. The more confidence I lose, the less likely I am to seek out Japanese and Japanese people.
But words are important to me, and so my muteness stings. I open my mouth, and only English comes out. The air I breathe is somehow thinner. I have lost the names of things, and I can no longer see those things for which I now have no name.
I look at kanji, and I see pictures but no meaning. Japanese exists in 3D, each kanji fat with possibility. I miss the solidity of kanji, grounded in representations of the world, but also their openness, concepts unlocking outwards like a sideways etymology, teasing out more riches. My own name, Akiko, three syllables, two kanji: child of light, daughter of the sun and the moon, happy and bright.
Not everything can be translated: that’s a lie, I’ve found. When I read my favourite authors in translation, Oe Kenzaburo or Endo Shusaku, there is still somewhere almost a memory of Japanese, perhaps a false one, which enables me to sense when a sentence doesn’t feel right, when they haven’t caught the truth of it. It’s more than words or grammar. It’s a different way of seeing and telling the world. It’s not just that translation is an approximation. When I translate, I lose the Japanese-ness of the thought. And so it isn’t just words I have lost, it’s a way of being.
I remember writing haiku and tanka in Japanese, and a weekly sakubun (essay) for my Japanese Saturday school. How I hated it. Learning kanji was desperately hard because there was no context outside of the books I was looking at. I would force an English thought out of joint, and stare at the monstrosity I had created on the page. I had to move to Japanese in my head, and write from that place, but because I loved and hated Japan, and only knew it from a distance, it rarely worked. For me, the ellipses were wrong, the sentence was upside-down, the idea was developed in the wrong way and was too polite, too conciliatory, too harmonious. I longed for punchiness and grit, and I never saw the knife hidden in the folds of elegance. I miss fighting with Japanese.
My position, always tenuous and liminal, the ‘half’ Japanese person who stands on the margins, has moved even further backwards. I’ve always been told I don’t understand Japan and that it isn’t my country. I think this is true. But I’ve lost the tools to even try. I can only look at those who venerate it, sell it, fetishise it, and say- you’re wrong, this isn’t Japan. But neither can I articulate what it is.
I only speak Japanese to my mother now, and as my Japanese world has atrophied, so has my vocabulary. It’s almost as though I can only form simple clauses with one syllable words- child, food, now, with no building blocks left for feelings or concepts.
I can’t even say ‘I love you’ in Japanese. Aishiteiru. It sounds wrong. Is it agape, is it eros, is it something which is neither or both. I can’t say to my children ‘I love you’ in Japanese, I cannot tell my mother I love her. In Japanese, you express your love through other tendernesses. You make words softer, shorter, more gentle, you diminish them until they fit into the palm of your hand. You speak your love through positioning and space, moving from honorifics to familiarity, a delicate dance of elevation, deference and ease. It is infinitely better than ‘I love you’, because it is in the turn of phrase, the gaps, the suggestion. I can find words in a dictionary, but how do I learn what doesn’t need to be said?
Sometimes, Japanese feels to me like the dream I try to catch a few moments after waking up, losing its solidity the more I try to hold on to it. I have memories, almost a homesickness, for a country that was never mine and never will be. The hiraeth nags at me, it lies to me, it’s calling me back when this was never my land, and I never understood it.
Thank you to the participants at my workshop at the 9th World Hearing Voices Congress in Boston in 2017, who helped me develop my thoughts on this.
This article was first published on the Family Language Policy blog.