Photo of Yokohama, by Norikazu Yamaguchi
On the Coming of English to Japan
While riding on the train the other night, trying in vain to crane my eyes over to discreetly look at my neighbors interesting Manga, I realized that I had something of a bone to pick with the JR Corporation. They have too many signs in English these days.
Anybody ridden the Yamanote line lately? Instead of just announcements in Japanese, they have the voice of a well known NHK instructor of English, politely intoning, “Next station, Ebisu. Please change here for the Hibiya line”. Where’s the challenge in that?
Now about this point, you are probably thinking that I have taken leave of my senses. How could increased use of English be anything but a positive development? Any thing that makes the stations easier to navigate, takes the fear out of missing ones’ stop and makes life easier on us poor foreigners has to be useful. Maybe…. However at the same time, it is taking some of the well earned sense of accomplishment away from those of us who have been here for a while.
I’ve spent a lot of yen, doing battle with the Japanese language, trying my best to learn it and overcome it. My Japanese spouse probably would tell you it is a wasted effort…My spoken Japanese is still quite simple and very child like. I’ve given up hoping I will ever sound natural. So much for my dream of replacing Pat-kun on NHK some day.
I can understand what other folks say to me reasonably well though. About a week ago I was able to understand fully when the train engineer came on the announcing system, and told all of us that, because some bonehead had run a train signal and caused an accident, I was going to get to spend an extra 20 minutes squished up between 3 drunk salary men. (And I still can’t see their Manga—damn the luck.). In spite of that, I was feeling pretty proud of my self. Like I had accomplished something. Something that just 5 years ago I never would have imagined I could do. I thought about it all the way home.
Many of us can remeber those first days we came to Japan. Huddled on the train, English train map in hand counting the stops and hoping we counted correctly. Of being afraid to fall asleep on the train, for fear of sleeping through our stop. And when we did, being gently prodded by the station person, informing us that , “OKyakusama, Sakuragicho shuten desu. Hayaku dete kudasai” – A truly ignoble end to a big night in Roppongi.
Or running up the platform and hopping on the train knowing it was going to Shinagawa, because all the trains on this platform go to Tokyo; the sign on the platform said so. Only to get that rude awakening when the train started rolling through unfamiliar scenes and the little voice came up to make our mistake complete --by saying, “ Tsugi wa Totuska de gozaimasu---You are now on the train to Atami” Oh the humanity!
However over time, those mistakes stopped happening. We learned certain key words like mamonaku (soon) and wasuremono nai yo ni, and Shuten ( terminus). We stopped being unsure and slowly but surely became seasoned Japan veterans. As my knowledge of the language grew I was ready to face down that surly Eki-in ( station employee) and buy my ticket on the Shindaisha(sleeper train). (Or as the first time I tried it….the neru densha….the lady at Shibuya station thought that was funny).
Because I think one of the real joys of living in Japan is the ability to overcome its challenges. To realize that it’s very different here than Europe and it’s a lot tougher to fake your way through language wise. At least in Spain you can sort of read the signs. Not here. To thrive in that environment and adapt, as you realize that you are not in Kansas anymore. This not just adapting an air of doing like the natives…..its full all out war with a world very different than the one Dorothy lived in.
So as time goes by, and we each win our own little victories of a “system” that our Japanese neighbors don’t think twice about because they grow up in it, confidence and a feeling of achieving something grows. At least it did for me. Now the folks at JR are depriving a whole new generation that feeling of frustration and accomplishment. As I said, while probably good in the long run, I weep for the new breed that will never have to experience it.
Now if they would just get the salary men to buy Manga in English……..
by Marty Church