Travel Diaries #19 - JSL (Japanese as a Second Language)

It can be difficult trying to make your way around a foreign country, learning whatever scraps of the language you can while you go. Despite the futility of it all, you must still do what you can.

Welcome to my newsletter. Subscribe now for free regular updates with essays and stories about travel, the outdoors and stuff that’s good for your general well-being.


“Irrashaimase!”

“Yokoso o genki desu ka!”

At this stage I know exactly what the staff behind the counter mean, even if I don’t know what the literal translations into English are. But I know what I should do when I hear them, and generally I repeat a word back to them, even if I don’t really understand it, or much else of the language it comes from. 

The chorus of chirpy greetings means I’ve just walked through the door of yet another 7/11, or Lawson’s, or Family Mart – Japan’s convenience stores that are so ubiquitous (in cities like Tokyo and Osaka you’ll find one on literally every main street) and wide-ranging in their provisions as to feel like they’re a state-run service, like the post office (which is one of the services they offer, now that I think of it).

I’ve gathered that one of them means something like “Welcome”.

The other one remains a squeegee of noises and sounds and high-pitched gurgles and giggles until I eventually look it up, as I know I’ll never be able to understand it or respond to it without seeing it written in the dictionary.

“Konichiwa!” I respond, or “Konbanwa!” in the evenings, if I respond at all.

Walk into a conbini (convenience store) anywhere in Japan and the staff acknowledge your existence with the same phrases like a radio jingle, in every one, in every city. So automatically observed that they sound like they’re pre-programmed, though there’s a warmth and a whimsical quality to the language and its attendant mannerisms that makes it feel genuine, even as their voices overlap in the air like a kid has pushed the buttons on all the toys in the nursery aisle one by one and scampered off around the corner.

Sometimes I’d open the door and wait before entering to see if it set off the chorus of greetings, like the automated chime on the door. Or sometimes I’d step inside and quickly leave again to see if they’d repeat the process when I came back in again (they would). I visited a lot of konbinis when I was in Japan, and despite the fact that I instinctively hate these kind of establishments in pretty much any other country, every time I entered one in Japan was like visiting a Japanese Disney-World, a miniature capsule of modern Japanese culture, where you can pay for bits of the rides and eat them.

Enforced enthusiasm is soul-destroying, especially if you’re forced to do it as part of your job. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a book called The Managed Heart – The Commercialisation of Human Feeling. He’d studied airline attendants and found that all the time they spent being perky, enthusiastic and with a smile on their face left them feeling depressed, empty and emotionally exhausted. Not just that, but confused – suffering from crises of identity as the enforced emotionality requires them to adopt perhaps a wholly different persona to their usual one. I’ve seen it before – I’ve done it before, for work and otherwise – though for some reason I just always felt a sense of warmth and genuine helpfulness from staff as I wandered around Japan.

Perhaps, in reality, they hated their existence.

“Konichiwa!”

I’d say when I meet someone or go into a shop, as if I had the slightest clue of what I was saying. As I’d learned over the years of travelling and having little or none of the local language, it’s easy enough to learn off a few questions; it’s a lot harder to learn the answers, as starting a conversation leads to an infinity of possibilities. You find out as soon as you enquire in a shop with an old lady about the price of something and she rattles on at length about god knows what as if you were born and bred in the surrounding hills, and just continue on awkwardly with the one other phrase you’d learned that morning in the hostel: “Thank you thank you thank you!” Elders don’t care if you don’t speak the language. In fact, they’ll generally adopt the assumption when dealing with outsiders that theirs is the only language that exists.

Sometimes you could feign expertise though, like you weren’t just walking past through hundreds of thousands of people, functionally deaf to the dribs and drabs of human conversation which you’d always taken for granted but that help to ground you in the bearings of the world you inhabit for most of your normal existence.  

“Sumimasen”.

I’d stroll into a place, at this stage a dab hand with this particular phrase I’d learned by heart – which looks straightforward enough but was harder than I thought it’d be – the frequency of vowels in Japanese (every second letter tends to be a vowel) makes it tricky as your mind always second guesses and confuses and reverses which ones go where.

“Excuse me”. Or ‘Sorry’. Kind of like the way we use ‘sorry’ in Ireland to say ‘excuse me’, or just as way of going around the place constantly apologising for everything you do, or for your original sins:

“Sorry there I’ll just scooch past ya there”

“Sorry thanks yeah”

“Sorry I’m off good luck”

“Sorry next there please!”

“Sorry congrats on your wedding”

And so on. In some countries such profuse apologising would be frowned upon, seen as a sign of weakness of character or of causing an uncomfortable fuss where none is needed. Not in Japan, thankfully, as they shared my own country’s native compulsion for apologising to the sky when shuffling along under it – “sorry there now” – or as a greeting for saying hello.

“Sumimasen”

A beautiful word though, it invites the customary bow forward through the solar plexus as you’re sucked into the middle of this soothing sequence of letters before retreating smoothly as you release its back end, as if expertly shifting gears in a luxury car, its soft syllables a cautious and reserved kiss:

Soo – me – ma – sen

Su-mi…

…ma-sen

Now say it quickly:

Sumimasen

I had few other phrases in my vocabulary. I did eventually learn off one very useful one, which made my endless traipsing around strange cities a bit more comfortable, allowing me to enjoy sampling the local food and drink that much easier. After much practice and failure and losing my nerve and sheepishly pointing at the thing I was looking for, I eventually had the whole sentence down, not just my accent but my entire manner becoming that little bit more Japanese as I reeled the sentence off with ease, giving the impression much of the time that I knew far, far more than I actually did.

“Toi-re wa, doku desu ka?”

They’d nod and smile politely – maybe even enthusiastically – and step aside to graciously usher me towards the restroom at the back of the building, Japan’s extensive vocabulary of phonetic loan words from English including the word ‘toi-re’ for ‘toilet’.

I’d gotten good at the soft ‘t’ when I was in Vietnam – the tip of your tongue rolling from the top of your mouth rather than touching your teeth – as you’d say ‘Lolita’ – encouraging a delicate ‘Asian-ness’ in your pronunciation. The ‘r’ in ‘re’ is likewise softened, somewhere between an ‘l’ and a ‘d’; and followed by a soft ‘e’ so it sounds like a Dub asking for the ‘toileh’ with a glottal stop.

Put it all together and practice it and it’s incredibly pleasing to say:

‘toi-re’

The Japanese wouldn’t quite enunciate the ‘u’ at the end of ‘desu’ – which I think is kind of the verb ‘to be’, followed by the word ‘ka’ at the end for a question, so it runs on together, almost like you’re whispering for someone’s answers in a test at the back of a classroom: psst

des’ka?’

Japanese is more or less all phonetic, so you can learn phrases off and bluff your way through (though just be careful not to mix up and trip over those vowels).

So pleasing to say:

“Sumimasen – toi-re wa, doku desu ka?”

“Gabh mo leithsceal, ca bhfuil an leithreas?”

“Excuse me, where is the bathroom?”

There were a few other things I’d learned to recite, though doing so always left me prone to someone assuming I could speak the language and cornering me with a barrage of words and noises and gestures I couldn’t even begin to decipher. And so, after the initial surge of enthusiasm that comes with learning and using your first words in a new language, comes the first great failures, when you realise the desperate futility of even trying, as it becomes apparent that there is no way you can possibly learn all of the words.

You have far too little time, and your trip is far too short, though I guess you have to do what you can while you’re there.

The only phrase I still remember now without recourse to the scattered notes I made across several months and notebooks is my go-to automatic response of

“Segoi!”

when someone tells me they’re Japanese - “Cool!”

Beyond that, I know nothing.


If you enjoyed this, then why not sign up for my free regular newsletter. Essays and stories about travel, the outdoors and stuff that’s good for your general well-being.

Or follow along on:

twitter – @gav_is_gone

instagram – @gav.is.gone


Leave a comment