I am employed at a Catholic high school here in Shizuoka. It’s really cool because we have everything from kindergarten all the way through high school right here on one campus. One good point about that is that kids can start school at age 3 or 4 and go all the way to graduation without having to change schools. The down side to it is that I’m busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest. Although I am employed at the high school, I teach them all. I am the only teacher in this school that has taught every single kid in here at one time or another. The first grade high schoolers were just tiny first grade elementary students when I started here. I consider myself fortunate that I’ve been able to watch these kids grow from small children into young adults. It really is amazing…..but really doesn’t have much to do with my point today….other than I was trying to set the mood for why I go to my car to eat lunch. You see, I teach so many lessons each week that I just need that time to myself. I can go out to my car, kick back, watch a DVD on the navigation system, eat lunch, smoke, and take the occasional nap.
Yesterday I was out at my car, as I usually am, having lunch and catching up on the tweets that had piled up that morning. I came across a tweet by one of my favorite YouTubers, Hikosaemon, that piqued my interest. Sitting here right now I can’t remember the exact words of that tweet, but, it was in the neighborhood of how he learned Japanese from singing karaoke and watching Japanese TV dramas. I thought it was interesting because I could totally relate to it.
I first came to Japan in 1991. I’d like to be able to tell you that I was here for a short while, returned home, then came back here many years later after a yearning in my heart for the land of the rising sun. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. I came in ’91 and never looked back. I passed the 20 year mark in February. Of course, when I first got here, I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. I was a little scared of moving to a non-English speaking country, because I had never studied any foreign languages, but I felt that I’d be able to adapt. When I landed in Narita, and was walking through the airport, there were signs and announcements all in English so that settled me down a lot. I was like “Whew, maybe this won’t be so bad.” Then I hopped a train and headed for Tokyo. When I arrived in Tokyo I quickly noticed that the announcements were no longer in English, but there were still plenty of signs….and plenty of foreign faces. At that I was like “Ok, that’s a blow to the system, but as long as I can read, and there are others like me…..” Then I hopped a Shinkansen for my final destination, Shizuoka. When I got off the train there…..no announcements, no signs, and I was the only round eye on the platform. I literally felt like I had stepped into a poor episode of the Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling was there, and instead of giving me a “You’ve unlocked this door with the key of your imagination, to another dimension….” he was more more like “Dude, you’re fkkt!”
I think it’s safe to say that I was lost beyond comprehension my first few months here. You have to remember, this was 1991, in Shizuoka. I rarely ran into another foreigner and when I did we would definitely stop and chatter away like we hadn’t seen another living soul in decades. A lot of times, if you’re away from home, you can at least console yourself with a little TV. Not in 1991 Japan. There was hardly any English programming. What little stuff I did get was usually relegated to early mornings. I remember watching the old soap opera Santa Babara, Ben Casey, and The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. Those were my 3 shows. One evening I came in and went into the living area and my host parents were watching some comedy show with these guys called Kato cha Ken Chan, that was actually the name of the show too, I think. Anyway, I reluctantly dropped down on the sofa and started watching. What happened next was probably the biggest door that ever opened for me, as far as learning Japanese goes. This was a comedy show similar to Saturday Night Live. Skit comedy. Even though I had no idea what was being said on screen I was getting an idea of what was going on just by watching. And, I can honestly say that some of the stuff nearly had me in tears laughing so hard. With that kind of entertainment I couldn’t stay away from watching it each week. Over time I began to pick out words here and there. The first phrase I recall learning was “Nani ittendayo omae” which I found out meant “What in the hell are you talking about?!?”
One thing I’ve never been is the type of person that can sit down with a book to study. I just don’t have the patience. Through copious amounts of TV, and really bearing down on the listening, I began to pick up things here and there and eventually was able to incorporate them into my daily life. I’ve always looked at language like this, a 3 year old child has never opened up a textbook and dissected a sentence. They learn from listening and parroting what their parents say. In my opinion, learning a language is so much more difficult if you break everything down into vocabulary and parts of speech. Just listen and copy what you are hearing. Why do you use GA here and HA (wa) here? Who cares? Just do it because that’s how it’s done. I try to keep this alive in my own teaching. Granted, I have to hit on grammar points, but I steer clear of them as much as I can. If a student asks me why we say ” a big, red coat” instead of “a red, big coat” I give them the standard answer of “because that’s how you say it”. Because in all fairness, there is no rule to that. You can say those in any order you feel like. Whatever floats your boat. But let me warn you, you’re going to sound strange if you do.
Back on topic here though, learning Japanese from TV. I have one more story for you that you might think is kind of neat, or a total waste of reading time, I don’t know. Anyway, back in the day I came across a TV drama titled “Okane ga nai” which directly translated means “No money”. The show was about a young man whose parents had died, and he was left to raise his 2 younger brothers, who were like 6 and 10 years old. In the opening show they show him arriving at work on payday to find out that his company had gone bankrupt and everyone was let go. So here is is left without a job and 2 young boys to raise. As sad as that sounds this drama was actually a comedy. Anyway, I was fascinated by this show. I hardly understood anything that was being said but I just enjoyed watching it. I had someone there to help me out in the really difficult parts. So, I watched that program every day and after the final episode, there are 12 episodes in that one, I found myself longing for more. I had picked up so much vocabulary and I was beginning to understand really basic things that were being said. Flash forward about 3 or 4 years and I’m in the video rental shop. I come across that drama and was so excited that I rented all 6 VHS tapes. I sat down to watch and found that I was understanding about 40% of what was being said. Fast forward a few more years and I came across them again, and of course rented them. This time I found I was understanding about 70% of what was going on. 70% is plenty to follow along with the flow of the program. I was so happy to see that my Japanese had improved so much. Flash forward to this year and guess what? I found the DVD box set on Yahoo Auction and snapped it right up. I now have my own copy of the program, on DVD, that I can watch anytime I want. Nowadays, I understand about 90% of it. My problem lies with the job he gets. He gets hired at an insurance company. I have absolutely no experience with insurance and the vocabulary they use so I still come up blank on a lot of that talk. Still quite a bit of stuff I don’t understand when they’re in meetings etc…, but overall, I can follow the show.
I guess over the years I used that TV drama as my own little test. I don’t need to take any Japanese proficiency tests. I think they are a waste of time. The testing of my Japanese ability faces me each and every day when I’m out and about on the streets of Japan. For the most part I have very little trouble conversing with people. I’m fine with that. Is my Japanese perfect? Nah, I don’t think so, but I can handle my own. My knowledge of kanji is horrible though. I’m not totally ignorant, but then again, maybe I am. I can’t read enough to sit down and even read a comic book. This all goes back to me not being able to sit down and study too. I think to master kanji you really need to put the effort forth and I just don’t have it in me. My wife is Japanese and all my friends are Japanese. Hell, I’m in Japan, everyone around me is Japanese. If there is something I can’t read I just ask someone.
Y’all come back, I’ll leave the light on for ya.