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Book me a Train Trip


I went into downtown Tokyo the other day, a trip I don't make very often these days. My printmaking work is all done in my home, so there's no commuting, and most of my shopping is done locally here in Hamura. But there is one kind of shopping that I can't do here in this neighbourhood, and a few times each year, when my 'stock' is getting low, I have to make the trek downtown for replenishment. My stock ...?

My stock of books! You see, although there are literally dozens of bookshops here in Hamura, and in every town right across this very literate country, they aren't much good to me. They aren't much good, because I'm still pretty much illiterate. Even after nine years living here now, I'm not yet able to pick up any book at random and read it. Now I say 'illiterate', but perhaps that is being a bit too tough on myself ... I can indeed read quite a number of 'kanji', the Chinese characters, but 'quite a number' doesn't really go very far, not when the total in daily use is nearly 2000! If the topic of the written material is something close to home, such as woodblock printmaking, then I can usually acquit myself honourably, but ask me to read an average newspaper story ... and I will run out of steam very quickly.

The random nature in which my reading ability is being acquired causes quite some confusion among people I meet. For example, a short while ago, I was describing my printmaking project to an interviewer, and as part of my explanation, I showed him the newsletter I produce, which is bilingual - Japanese and English. Now, I don't do the translations from English myself, but after they are finished, I do all the input into the word processor, in both languages. I then proofread everything, print it out, and paste it up for the printer. Hearing me describe this process apparently gave him a certain impression of my level of Japanese literacy, and he was shocked a few minutes later to find that I couldn't read very much of a sample of his magazine that he showed me.

Perhaps the best way to describe my Japanese ability is to imagine a huge mosaic picture, made up of many tiny tiles. In the beginning, these tiles are all hidden, but as one learns characters and words, one by one they become visible, until finally the complete picture stands clear. I am learning Japanese in a pretty much random fashion, picking it up bit-by-bit here and there, and as a result, the 'tiles' I have learned to date are scattered thinly all across the entire surface, with only a few clumps here and there where some particular topic has interested me. I can see only the vaguest form of the overall picture.

Someone like my daughter Himi on the other hand, who is learning Japanese at school in a highly structured step-by-step fashion, can see nothing at all of the upper part of the picture, but has completely 'filled in' the lower portion. And of course, her knowledge is expanding upwards year-by-year until it will eventually encompass the entire 'canvas'.

Just three or four years ago, she used to come to me frequently while doing her homework; "How do you read this character?" she would ask. Those days are long gone, and it is I who now ask her, "Himi-chan, please ..." I have been grappling with Japanese (I can't honestly say 'studying') since just about the time she was born, and my knowledge has progressed slowly, slowly upwards since that time. But although she started years later than I, she is now leaving me far behind.

The only excuse I can offer for my sluggishness is that I am 'busy' making a living. I don't have time for studying. Actually though, that is not true. It's simply that I don't like studying. I would much rather learn Japanese the same way that I learned English; by drinking in whatever written material passes in front of my eyes, and trying to figure out what it all means. I don't remember those days at all, but my mother tells me that when I was very young, I used to try and read the cereal boxes and milk cartons on the table at breakfast time, and that anytime she took me out for a walk, I would try and read the signs on the buses, etc. I think it must have been an exciting time for me, faced with that vast puzzle ... what do all those squiggles mean? And I'm sure there was a burst of pleasure each time I was able to successfully 'decode' something. How can I be so sure of that? Simple. Because I'm living those times again, right now! Now, at age 43, I'm living again the life of a wide-eyed curious three year old. What do all those squiggles mean? And the pleasure that I feel when I successfully decode a new one and add it to that slowly developing 'mosaic', is very real indeed.

Because I don't spend any time at all in formal study of Japanese, at the rate I'm going, it will be a long, long time before I can feel comfortable in the local bookshops. And that's where those occasional trips to Tokyo come about. Up on the third floor of an office building near one of the main train stations, is a used book shop with a difference ... the shelves are all full of books in English. I don't have to wander along the rows, slowly decoding characters one by one, searching for something that looks like it might repay the immense effort it will take me to read it. Instead, I wander along, head turned sideways reading the titles (I sure wish we could easily write English vertically ...), and usually find that, perhaps due to my months of 'isolation' since the last visit, everything looks interesting.

I keep choosing until I've got enough to fill my backpack, then pay the exhorbitant bill and struggle off homewards, of course dipping into the bag while on the train. This load will keep me going for a few months, until the 'not yet read' shelf starts to get bare again ...

So I live in the best of both worlds ... I'm a literate adult, with plenty of interesting reading material always on hand, and yet at the same time, I'm a wide-eyed three year old, enjoying the feelings of infinite challenge and accomplishment that come with exploring the new world of language.

There's just one thing missing. Back in those early days, my mother sat together with me, and read out loud while tracing the words in the books with her finger. I think that this was an essential part of the learning process, and I'm sure that we spent many happy hours together that way. But who is going to do that with this (forty) three year old ...?