June 24, 2005

Lighthearted Ruminations on Japanese Words

In the process of applying for a 10-day intensive Japanese workshop, held in the armpit of southern Osaka prefecture in a no-man's land of strip malls and highway (it is known as "Rinku Town"...famous to Wakayama JETs for having Northface and GAP stores, though I have--obviously enough--never been there), I was required to compose an essay in Japanese, using no dictionary and no helper. The topic "Some Japanese women quit their jobs after marriage, and some continue their work. Which type do you agree with? Why?" As I wrote my answer, which was in the form of questioning the fact that many strictly human qualities--subjective, mysterious, and irreducible appurtenances--are "typified" in our culture of specializing, classifying, and labeling, I came across a word that tripped me up, fascinated me and struck me as odd. The word for "objective" (not as in a "goal," but the contrary to "subjective") in Japanese is comprised of two characters, 客観, or kyakkan. The first character, 客, means "customer" or "guest." The second character, 観, means "viewpoint, perspective, or understanding." So when one is objective, perhaps one is looking to another not as a subject, 主観, and "owner" of one's life and body, but as a customer, a guest, and temporary patron. In fact, that is why I am perturbed and disturbed by living so many days of my life as a customer, as someone without an identity, without weaknesses, strengths, thoughts and feelings that deviate from the script. It is fun to talk to people in stores in Japan not as a customer, but as a friend. Part if not all of the novelty is being foreign, but somehow I think, or hope, that these "friends" I make are not disturbed but a bit relieved to find something outside of the rote machinization of "いらっしゃいませこんばんは!”etc etc. Part of the downside of being in one school here is getting TOO used to my students, and then I start seeing them as customers, very unwilling customers, of the project of learning a foreign language. What I need to keep in mind is the fact that each kid has something different in their 言いたい箱 ("Things I Want to Say" Box), and probably very few of these are what I want to teach or am expected to teach. This is all going against my first impression of the students' thoughts from the fact that they write nearly identical essays: "My name is . I am 15 years old. I like to reading comic books and going shopping in my free time. I have few free time than my childhood. I have free time two hours day. English is very difficult. But I like English. I do one's best."

So where am I getting with all of these long, pointless, or poignant, blogs about things beneath the surface of life in Japan? Should I talk about actualities, things that really happen and are happening? Yu, a first grade student in 中学校, junior high school, threw her lunch and book bag into my bike basket today as I passed by her and her friends on the way to school. Not knowing if she was giving me her belongings or just utilizing my services as a transporter, I continued on my way, little Yu (think Wizard of Oz, and then imagine in Munchkinland a cute, scrawny, and precocious Japanese junior high student named Yu among their ranks) scurrying along after me. That was the only contact I have with students on test day, which is sometimes alright. At least I am not reading the script.


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