Ask Sensei: February 31st Edition

Although it has not escaped my notice that, by and large, February has only 28 days, I am pretending for the moment that it does not, so as to seem to have made my deadline. If only the month had a few more days in it! Probably we all think that at times, in any given month of the year.

This time, we have two questions that came to us via Facebook. Joshua Rubley asks: How much of the Japanese language did you get from anime when you were a beginner? After learning Japanese in Japan how easily were you able to understand Japanese anime without subtitles (or barely looking at them)? How often is grammar broken or ignored in the Japanese in anime?”

Before anything else, Joshua-kun, I think you’re greatly overestimating my Japanese proficiency. I am nowhere near ready to watch anime without subtitles, and in fact I have pointed out the disturbing lack of subtitles in general when in Japan. (Aren’t they just supposed to appear in midair?) But as to how much Japanese I picked up from anime right away, I’d say the answer is “Far less than I thought I was picking up.” Sure, one notices Nan da to? and Kawaii! after merely watching an episode or two of anime in its original language, but this isn’t even the beginning of the beginning yet. I’ve chosen to think in terms of the long game in learning Japanese, which is to say that in many ways I haven’t given my Japanese learning the priority I should have. But one thing I want to say in no uncertain terms is that you can’t fully learn Japanese merely by watching anime. Increasingly, what I’ve come to terms with is that to learn any language, you have to interact with native speakers. True, anime does contain some real Japanese (more on this in a moment), but since you can’t interact with the characters, you can only get so far. I have probably reached the point that I will only make significant progress if I find a regular conversation partner and risk sounding stupid and making mistakes. Which sounds terrifying, if I were completely honest.

As for how often grammar rules are broken in anime, the answer is All The Time. Except for those times when a character is in a position to use standard Tokyo polite Japanese with the desu/masu forms, you can pretty much count on the Japanese you’re hearing to be of a sort that you shouldn’t imitate unless you want to draw raucous laughter from native speakers. Indeed I have done some of that on purpose, often pretending to become angry at my American travel companion this past January, and snapping at him using language like Jama da. Deteike! (“You’re a nuisance. Get out!”) much to the amusement of his Japanese friends.

None of this is to say that you can learn no Japanese from watching anime, only that you have to be very careful in your listening, and that you must bear in mind that you’re mostly hearing very informal Japanese as it’s spoken casually amongst young people. Of course, if one’s goal is to speak Japanese like a bratty 15-year-old boy, or a cute girl doing cute things, then that’s another story entirely!

And Edward JadeEyes wonders, “Why has Christianity had such a hard time taking root in Japan?” I very much wonder the same thing myself, Edward-kun. (Hold up. Edward-kun? THE Edward-kun? It’s such an honor to have you in my little column. I’m your biggest fan, or at least your oldest fan. It’d be a thrill if I could get your autograph!)

Of course, a quick web search informs me that Christianity and Christian missionary work in Japan go back at least to the 16th century, and certainly there are important Japanese historical figures who were Christians, including some 20th-century prime ministers. But such figures are relatively few, and have had little impact, that is if their impact is to be judged by the number of Christian believers currently in Japan (which is by no means necessarily the case). The native Japanese people to whom I’ve spoken are very well aware of the important Christians in their history — and show almost no interest in Christianity for all that. Christianity probably doesn’t bore them, but to me it comes across more like boredom than offense. At any rate, it seems to me that the typical Japanese person thinks he or she already knows everything about Christianity that’s at all important.

In the end, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the answer lies in the Japanese culture itself, where religion is a very different thing from what we Westerners are used to, a thing inseparable from family and national identity. But those Japanese who take any religion seriously unto itself, or so it seems to me, are in the minority. I can end with two stories from past trips to Japan that might interest you. About four or five years ago, I was wandering around Ikebukuro with a former BTT staff member, where we were more or less accosted by Buddhist missionaries. They were kind and polite, and made much of our broken Japanese, but little as we wanted to visit their temple (I had already seen several Buddhist temples in Japan, and my friend five times as many I’m sure), this young man and woman simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. Of course we wouldn’t participate in their religious practice like they wanted, but we were polite in return for about fifteen minutes until we could extricate ourselves. And then, this past January, what I could only assume was a church group had set up with megaphones and big signs right by Shinjuku station, and my aforementioned travel companion and I saw them several times during evening hours. My Japanese isn’t good enough for me to have understood much of what they said, though I could tell they were urging people to repent and come to Christ; while their signs (as far as I could tell) proclaimed things like Eternal life is in Jesus Christ! and Believe the Word of God! While my friend is by his own admission not very religious, he seemed to understand how surprised I was by this display, even if he didn’t share the encouragement I received.

It seems Sensei has almost written his own textbook here, so I will end by wishing all of you a restful spring break. Please stay safe and warm. And if that really was THE Edward-kun, I was serious about the autograph.

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