The Japanese Language in a Small Boat

Takako Arai

Translated by Malinda Markham

I write poetry and teach Japanese to international college students studying in Japan. Japanese is not the native language of about half the people I talk to each day. Pausing there at the border between Japanese and another language, they often teach me how interesting Japanese is, and I use that to feed my poetry.

When I teach Japanese, students complain loudly, first of all, because there are three writing systems: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. After they memorize hiragana, which has 46 phonograms, they have to learn katakana, where the same 46 phonetic syllables are written differently. And then kanji is waiting for them. Kanji are ideograms, and the number of characters is endless. A few students yell, "How many of these do I have to learn? This is driving me crazy!" On the other hand, some of my students are fascinated by kanji. Most come from countries which use phonetic alphabets. They seem especially enchanted by the kanji pictograms and try to research the origin of words in detail. Many students also like to choose kanji for their names, looking for characters that sound like their real names and have interesting meanings. For example, an Italian woman chose three kanji to spell out "Franca": one meant "wind," and the other two together meant "orchid blossom." A Thai man named Luang picked two kanji that meant "stay" and "safe." And a German, Axel, chose kanji that sounded like his name but meant "bad monkey." They’d pore through the dictionary and very naturally start to have fun with the ideograms.

In a Japanese language class, each written character has its own meaning, and that, by itself, can shock people. I’ve written several poems about Amenouzume, the goddess of dance. In one of them, I change the kanji character for each of the syllables a-me-no-u-zu-me many times, which was probably influenced by my students.

When I stop to think about it, written languages composed of ideograms and phonograms are quite rare. Kanji sprung from East Asian soil, mostly in China, and originated in the endlessly growing world of pictograms. Hiragana and katakana both come from Japan. As a voice crosses the horizon of the island called Japan, they are like a sophisticated weathervane that indicates the direction and tone of the breath.

Occasionally, I find myself chatting with a student who’s suddenly become very good at speaking Japanese. I’ll hear him say, "Samui wane" (Gosh, it’s cold), or "Ashita mo isogashi no" (I’m busy tomorrow). But when I say, "Hey, did you find a Japanese girlfriend?" his face turns red. In the Japanese language, there’s a fairly clear distinction between women’s and men’s speech. So when a man uses verbal patterns that he has learned from his girlfriend, he suddenly sounds like a woman. The reverse is true, too.

Gender differences also show up in the written language. For example, since ancient times, men have used more kanji and words of Chinese origin, often for official documents. Meanwhile, women mostly used hiragana, which has become deeply connected to words of Japanese origin. Hiragana has been used more for diaries, stories and traditional poems. So, whether it’s written or spoken, I think the Japanese language is closely linked to gender. Starting about a thousand years ago with Ki no Tsurayuki, a male poet who used a woman’s writing style to compose a literary diary, Japanese authors seem fairly conscious of gendered language when they write — regardless of their own sexuality. Many literary works are written by men, but looking only at the language of the text, the author seems to be a woman.

When I write poetry, I sometimes play with gender. For example, if I come to a standstill in a poem, and no words come to mind, I’ll suddenly switch the speaker’s gender. Then, a new direction starts to open up, a road I hadn’t seen, even though I’d wracked my brains. This is why there are poems using the male form of the pronoun "I" scattered throughout my work.

When I’m teaching, I also encounter cases of mis-interpreted homonyms. For example, once a German student was giving a speech about the village where he grew up. In that village, boys had a custom of expressing their feelings about a girl they liked by secretly planting a small fir tree in front of her house. So my student gave his first love the gift of a fir tree. When he finished his speech, I said from the back of the classroom, "Sorede anata no hatsukoi wa seikou shitandesuka?" (So your first love was a success, right?). Suddenly, two male students turned and looked at me with their eyes glittering in a way I hadn’t seen before. What? I thought. Then I suddenly realized — when I said "success", which is "seikou" in Japanese, they probably heard me say, "sexual intercourse", which is also pronounced "seikoou" but uses very different kanji. To them, their female teacher had just said something wildly inappropriate in broad daylight. Even I was a bit shaken up. The student giving the speech simply answered, "Unfortunately, no. The relationship failed." So everything worked out alright, but...

By now, the story has become an amusing anecdote I tell, but it reminds me that the Japanese language has a lot of homonyms. As a result, people who aren’t used to the natural flow of the language tend to get confused sometimes. For example, if someone says the sentence, "shitai wo sousaku suru," even a Japanese person could understand it as meaning either "search for the dead body" OR "compose a poem". (We don’t say "poem style," so I don’t know what else to say besides "poem." Is that okay?) Both are pronounced the same in Japanese, but the kanji is different. A linguist once said that Japanese is better suited to TV than radio. In other words, if you only hear the language — with no context — its hard to understand. You have to see the kanji to understand the correct meaning. This is especially true when the content is highly abstract. In standard, modern Japanese — that is, not in dialects or old speaking styles — there are relatively few variations in sound. For example, English has about 20 vowel sounds, including diphthongs, while Japanese only has five. So for foreign students, words are easy to pronounce, but there are many homonyms.

Among my poems, I have a series of what I call "line-changing poems," where I turn this feature of Japanese on its head. I wrote these poems by pairing two lines that sound almost the same. So, read stanza by stanza, the lines are homophonic (or nearly so), but the meaning is absolutely different. If I read one of the poems out loud, the lines sound almost identical, but from the meaning, it’s clear that there are actually two separate poems, juxtaposed. In Japanese folklore, foxes are mysterious animals that can assume a human form. As such, they’re an object of religious belief. Hoping to write a poem that disguised itself like a fox, I ended up writing a poem using a fox as the speaker.

I didn’t write any of my poems after calmly thinking about my experience teaching Japanese. Instead, while crawling through the darkness of the creative process, not knowing which direction to go, I finally managed to grab at a slender rope. When I later asked myself why I wrote poems like these, I realized that tiny incidents in the classroom had developed quite a bit of potential strength. They were like small boats, floating on the border between Japanese and other languages. I think that looking at the world from this perspective might have made my ideas about language just a little bit richer.

It’s very interesting to me that these poems have been translated. The poems, which are deeply connected to the characteristics of the Japanese language, have bravely jumped from the small boat into the sea of English. I wonder how well they’re swimming. Some might drown, but to me, that would be brave, too, because I believe that when two languages collide, it gives birth to newness in poetry.

Takako Arai

Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women (Litmus Press, 2006)

Audio recordings from the Festival of Contemporary Japanese Women Poets on PENNsound

Review of Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women at American Literary Translators Association Blog

1 comment:

Murat said...

This is a fascinating essay, for me, jumping in all sorts of directions.

First, an anecdote. Twelve years ago, I was traveling in China with my family. I saw a yellow tee shirt with a poem in Chinese written on it,which I liked a lot. I began to wear it during the trip, which I sensed evoked smiles from quite a few people. Finally I asked someone. It seems the poem on the tee shirt was in the style of a woman. For the first time, reading Ms. Arai's essay, I understand what that meant. I assume Chinese has a similar convention.

Her essay towards the end, amazingly, brings out the theme of animism we already talked about.

Turkish and Japanese are two of only three or four agglutinative languages in the world. Turkish also has a very narrow sound range, due to vowel harmony. As a result, in Turkish syntax also, reinforced by suffixes, words with similar sounds often cross each other. This quality is constantly exploited by the poets of Eda, giving the poetry an implosive (Sufi) power. The poetry of Ahmet Güntan, from whose poem "Romeo and Romeo" I quote in my first entry to this blog, is a good example of it.

Ms.Arai says that the visual dimension (looking on the page) is necessary to understand clearly a Japanese sentence. Here again,there is a fascinating difference/ similarity from/with the Turkish language. In Turkish, the clarity of meaning is achieved through cadences. The absolute flexibility of word order in Turkish gives a tonal clarity to the most ambiguous, denotatively chaotic sentence in Turkish (I write about it in detail in the introduction to Eda anthology).

On the other hand, the tonal clarity has a visual dimension; simultaneously, it is a weave, a movement of the mind, taking place in space. At this point, sound (a music of the mind) and the visual join - the music within an ideogram.

In my view, this deep link between the visual (eye) and sound (word) is the most important thing East can offer West in poetry.

I wonder if Japanese grammar has gender distinctions expressed in pronouns, if the literary tradition of masculine and feminine poetry Ms. Arai writes about is imposed upon a grammar, in itself, devoid of such distinctions. Turkish has no gender distinctions. Turkish poets exploit this quality to write a series of gay or gender-bending works. Ms. Arai also talks about similar transgressions, not necessarily sexual but against mental restrictions.