There is a certain type of person with which you are probably acquainted. If you know me, you certainly are. If you’re getting your toes wet with a popular show that you may not even realize is an anime (this was Pokémon, in my day), you may be converting soon without even realizing it.
That’s right, I’m talking about the otaku.
“Otaku” is the term used (in Western culture) to refer to those annoying geeks who basically do nothing but watch and read anime and manga. I’m talking about those nerds with all of the buttons and plushies, the ones that randomly insert Japanese words into conversation (Sugooooiii~! Kawaiii!). In Japan, the term apparently carries a much more negative meaning (apparently arising from the honorific form of “house,” implying that people of this type are “reluctant to leave their houses“), but that, of course, doesn’t dissuade the Westerners who adopt it, declare it, literally live it.
Why do I bring this up? Because often otaku become Japanese learners and, less rarely, vice versa. I am one of the few in which this mutation occurred backwardly—I began as a simple student of many languages and, as I honed in on Japanese, mutated into the kind of person who screams “kawaii” at pictures of anime couples.
(You think I’m kidding. 90% of my “abnormal” Japanese vocabulary comes from anime—I can tell you how to say “Hey, hey, Papa, can I have some wine?” [ねえねえPAPA、ワインをちょうだい？] and “Equivalent Exchange” [等価交換], but not something simple, like, for example, “Chemistry is magic.”)
My friends will readily tell you that I easily fall within the category of “otaku.” I have entire playlists dedicated to Japanese music (in fact, I used to go to sleep with the Fullmetal Alchemist soundtrack playing in the background); I’ve planned multiple cosplays and actually staffed a convention, and fangirl simply being in the same room as a person from Japan. Since returning to campus, I have been to multiple events that have brought tears to my little otaku eyes.
The first was a Japanese movie night hosted by our Japanese department. My professor and his wife (also a professor) screened 「ダーリンは外国人」(My Darling Is a Foreigner) in a lecture hall. All sorts of people showed up, with all levels of Japanese skill—several 101 students, some 201 students, and even native speakers gathered round to drink sweet tea, eat matcha ice cream, and watch a romantic comedy together. We laughed at Saori’s long, shrieking cries of “Toniii!!” together. We cringed at Tony’s friends’ complete cultural incompetence together. There was something enchanting about the experience, the experience of all of these aspiring language learners and speakers gathered together to giggle over bad jokes, that reminded me what my goal is in the long run.
The second was a visit to the Japanese table, a group of people that meets every Friday in our cafeteria to casually converse over lunch. A good number of native Japanese speakers show up for this, including exchange students and my professors, as well as a lot of undergraduate (and even some graduate, I believe?) Japanese learners. I visited the table last semester briefly, as a humble 101 student with little but “hello” and “goodbye” under my belt, and was turned away by the feeling of oppressive incompetence. However, I decided to give it another go, and I was not disappointed.
I took my seat by my professor from last year, who smiled warmly at me and greeted me and then promptly began speaking to a 201 student beside her in Japanese. I picked at my food and attempted to interject myself whenever I was able, agreeing to statements such as “Kanji are hard” and “I understand more than I speak.” At one point the man sitting beside me, a fluent speaker, asked me why I decided to learn Japanese, and I responded brokenly (or at least I hope I did) with an overenthusiastic, “Because I love it!”
I sat for a good hour, absorbing, laughing occasionally at jokes that I understood (no, sensei is not a vegetable, teehee), before I gathered my dishes and slipped out the door with a “Sayounara!” tossed at me and a “Ja, mata!” tossed back in return. I felt positively ecstatic, having sat between two native speakers (the other was a girl who had said, “Keep practicing your Japanese! I’m still learning, too” and who had earned a round of laughter from my professors before she corrected it to, “English, I mean!”) and actually understood some conversation. Everyone had been so pleasant, and everyone seemed to be friends, and it didn’t matter how terrible you actually were, because, hey, at least you were trying.
I had gotten so engrossed that, when I ran into Clara (who speaks fluent Mandarin and Japanese) in Starbucks, I responded to her, “Just come back from lunch, June?” with a fervent, “Hai!”
Right, I went through all of this effort, all of this setup and defining, to tell you that I really love getting tastes of my greater goal of fluency. What’s the big deal?
I don’t know, maybe nothing, for most people. Still, for me, a person exceptionally determined to speak Japanese (it will happen, it’s just a matter of when), it was inspiring and encouraging.
Moral of the story? Learn a language. Learn a language you love. Then go out and use it, darn it, no matter how American you sound, because people are great and communication is beautiful and the language barrier is something that can be torn down.
I think I’ll go mess with Textfugu now.
A bad idea, considering I have a bio test Thursday?
You’re probably right.
(I guess, right now, I shouldn’t do what I want.)