I. Ohisashiburidesu. Long time no see. I whisper this to my Japanese notebooks as I swipe away the dust decorating them like faint snowfall. Buried in a box in the back room of my parents’ house, these notebooks truly haven’t felt my touch for a long time.
I settle down cross-legged into my childhood bedroom’s sand-hued carpet and smile in remembrance as I flip through them. Lists of nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Little cartoons depicting conversational phrases. Sample sentences for verb conjugation and particle usage. I am proud that I can still read my sloppy hiragana and katakana, but disappointed that of the nearly two thousand kanji I learned, only a handful are still recognizable to me. Thankfully, in my notes, I added furigana to each one. I laugh aloud as I spot the notes my Japanese classmates scribbled in the notebooks’ margins. Yoro suwagu sanzen (our choppy translation of the infamous Internet phrase “YOLO swag 3000”). Keitai dame (a phrase our sensei used to constantly yell at us, implying “don’t use your phone in class!”). Inu ga suki desu (“I like dogs”; what my classmate Erica blurted out nervously when asked to introduce herself to Japanese transfer students).
Fond memories of my time spent studying Japanese fill me, as does a bittersweet nostalgia. I miss all this. I miss practicing verb conjugations and kanji writing late into the night. I miss belting out SMAP, GReeeeN, and anime theme songs with my classmates at the tops of our lungs. I miss griping about the difficulty of honorifics, counters, and onomatopoeia during our group study sessions. I miss studying, struggling, and succeeding together. I miss learning this language I love.
II. Nibbling on squid jerky (it’s actually really good, trust me), my best friend Iris and I stretch out on her bed’s pink comforter in front of her laptop for a night of anime watching. At eleven years old, we’ve outgrown Sanrio and Rilakkuma, but are still too young to be interested in more mature J-Drama. Therefore, anime is our current obsession, and every weekend is spent binge-watching our favorite shows.
“‘Bleach’ or ‘Fairy Tail’?” she asks, her mouth full of dried squid.
“Ehh, how about ‘Shugo Chara’? ‘Lucky Star’? Ooh, or ‘Vampire Knight’!” I suggest. (As a preteen, shounen was never my cup of tea, but now it’s my favorite genre).
Iris wrinkles her nose. “How about ‘Death Note’?”
“You’re never gonna get me to like those creepy shows.
‘Kaichou wa Maid sama’?”
“And you’re never gonna get me to like that romantic stuff.”
After more debate, we decide on “Fairy Tail.” Enough action to garner her attention, but enough magic and romance to satisfy my more girly tastes. As we watch, I scribble down Japanese words and phrases I can make out, and Google the ones I can’t. I’ll review them later tonight, as I always do after an anime binge. While this leisurely activity of watching anime by no means qualifies as true Japanese study, it was the genesis for many, many years of language learning that were to come for me.
III. I’m a freshman in high school, and Japanese is my first class of the day. Early as always, I take a seat in the front row and eagerly inspect the classroom decorations. A map of Japan next to the whiteboard. Student-made oni masks and nengajou adorning the back wall. Stacks of zabuton in the corner. I smile at my sensei and say, “Ohayou gozaimasu,” trying to appear calm but secretly boiling with enthusiasm inside. Once everyone is seated, sensei motions for us to stand. “Kiritsu.” Once everyone is on their feet, she continues. “Ki wo tsuke. Rei.” She signals for us to bow, then instructs, “Chakuseki.” We all sit, excited at the experience of an authentic Japanese classroom.
This kiritsu ritual of starting and ending class would be done every day in sensei’s class. While it would soon become as mundane as washing my hands after using the bathroom, on that first day, it was novel and thrilling for me. It was the beginning – of the class, of the day, of my Japanese career.
IV. Claire, Anna, Maya, and I giggle as we rush to Sapporo Esta, the steam of our breath freezing into crystals on our numb faces. The snow carpeting the ground is so thick that it mutes our footsteps; in Tokyo a faint crunch marked every step, but here in Sapporo our strides are silent. We, along with 21 other students from our high school, are here in Hokkaido, Japan as part of the Kakehashi Project’s exchange program. For two weeks, we will be fully immersed in Japan’s culture and lifestyle. It’s our fourth day, and we are energized by the enchanting thrill of visiting a place we have spent so many years learning about. We hurry to reach anywhere indoors; it’s two degrees Celsius outside, and the howling wind slapping our cheeks signals an approaching blizzard. We duck into a konbini to thaw the ice crusting our hair and eyelashes, and then run the last few blocks to Sapporo Esta. Ah, heat at last.
V. My five years of rigorous Japanese study was fraught with many triumphs and many more failures. I was continuously mixing up causative and passive verb forms or transitive and intransitive verb pairs, confusing “in-group” versus “out-group” addresses, completely forgetting the kanji for certain words, struggling enormously with honorifics. There were times when I felt so overwhelmed and frustrated that tears decorated my notebook pages along with hiragana and romaji. While some of my classmates dropped out of the
Japanese program, I never once considered giving up. Yes, Japanese was incredibly difficult. But I loved it. I loved it more than anything else I had ever learned or done. Dance, literature, horseback riding, poetry, physiology, film analysis – none of my other interests even came close to winning my complete dedication and preoccupation. And for every struggle, there was a success: memorizing and reciting “Neko no Sara” without a single mistake, acing several tests I spent weeks vigorously studying for, finally being able to correctly don and tie a yukata without my sensei’s assistance. I worked hard and was proud of that.
On our last day of sensei’s class, after our last kiritsu ritual, some classmates and I all shouted, “Sensei, arigatou!” Thank you! Thank you for teaching us authentically, patiently, and thoroughly for all these years. “Okagesama de, takusan naraimashita.” Thanks to you, we learned so much.
VI. Steam dews on my bare skin and fills the small bathroom like a dense morning fog. Relaxing in the comfortably hot ofuro, I feel like I am inside a warm cloud. My host mother Akiko’s delicious nabe has filled my stomach and the laughs I shared with her son, Yuusuke, have filled my heart. I am content.
Later that night, lying on the futon in the small bedroom Maya and I are sharing, I ponder a question Akiko asked me over dinner. “Alicia-san, doushite nihongo wo benkyoushiteimasu ka?” “Alicia, why are you studying Japanese?” This question makes me think: why am I studying Japanese? Why am I here in Japan? What is it about this language and culture that fascinates me and motivates my studies?
This question returns to me five days later, as I stand under the gargantuan hanging lantern of Sensouji in Asakusa, Tokyo. With fire-red paper and bold black kanji painted on it, both its size and the aura it radiates dwarf me. To this massive lantern, I leave no impression, and yet to me it has quite an impact. Suddenly, the answer to my host mother’s question dawns on me. To a country with as many millenniums of rich history as Japan, I, a young adult simply interested in the language, do not matter. But this beautiful country and complex language influence my everyday life. I will never be even a minuscule part of Japan. However, my study of Japanese is a large part of who I am, both as a student and as a young adult, choosing my own interests instead of having them chosen for me.
As I continue up the steps of the Kaminarimon, toss my saisen offering, and join my hands in prayer silently, I am grateful for the opportunities I have been blessed with. While I know that the Japanese language may eventually fade from my memory, I treasure my time spent learning it. The knowledge, the memories, the simple joy of doing something I love. That is what I am grateful for.
While saying “thank you” at a time like this is cliché, that’s exactly what escaped from my lips. “Arigatou gozaimasu.” Thank you. Thank you so much.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.