I feel like I haven’t even brushed the surface of Japanese culture. And I haven’t, really. I don’t have Japanese friends and I barely know my colleagues; I don’t participate in any clubs or anything (yet). So I feel like there’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t understand 95% of what’s going on around me.
But then I stumbled upon some notes I wrote last winter. Things like this:
Possible placement requests? Okinawa is warm, with beaches and lots of Americans. Nara is a popular request; not sure why.
Learn the alphabets first. “Hiragana” is easier, usually taught first, though “katakana” may be more useful.
And so on. I had no idea what any of these places or things were. I had never heard of Nara or Okinawa, let alone Fukuoka, Kyushu, Kurume, or little old Chikugo I now call home. These places didn’t exist to me.
And language? Well, I never thought to learn Japanese. Why would I, when probably only a few million people speak it, right? I didn’t even know the population of Japan before applying to JET. I figured it was about the size of a small European country, not 150 million people strong.
Moreover, I had never experienced a language as different from English as Japanese. No definite or indefinite articles at all?? (a, the, etc.) You don’t pluralize anything? Conjugating adjectives instead of verbs? What the hell is going on??? I still don’t know, but at least I know that it’s possible, that it exists. I see the connection between a culture that prizes subtlety and indirectness, and its language that puts the verb at the end of every sentence. And I see how diametrically opposed both the language and mentality are to Western culture and Romance languages, and I am astounded by the fact that we manage to interact at all.
Yet we do. And I am beginning to make sense of all this, like millions before me. The geography and culture map of Japan is unfolding before me, slowly, the same way the geography of Spain did when I lived there. I will not leave without gaining some understanding of Japanese history, of how the regions of the country differ and interact and how they came to be that way, and ultimately, of how all of this impacts Japan’s interactions with the rest of the world.