Failing to communicate: An encounter in a Kyoto bar

Warning:  This long post starts as a ramble, then degenerates into a stumble through wilderness, before tailing off, ignoring its long departed audience to talk to itself for a few minutes.

Sometimes I think I can speak Japanese.  I suppose compared to a frog at least, my Japanese speaking level is pretty fluent.  Sadly not many Japanese chat with frogs nowadays.  The most relevent comparison of my Japanese level is to native Japanese.  And 10 years in, I am still well short of fluency.  On top of a Devon accent and blundering grammar, last night I also found out I have a lisp.

I learnt about my lisp from Kota, a 32-year-old native of Kagoshima.  Two years younger than me, he addressed me throughout our conversation as Tom-san.  But he refused to let me call him Kota-san.  Adding –san would suggest he was in someway senior to me.  This rigid attitude towards language usage was beaten into him at his old status-conscious hockey club at school.  Hockey club? Yes, hockey club, innocuous sounding guardians of the samurai spirit. 

Kota was quite a character, I met him in a crowded Okinawan standing bar in Kyoto.  He stood upright but rosy-cheeked after a long session drinking glasses of clear shochu, the distilled liquor of choice in his Kagoshima home.  Shochu is the only alcohol he drinks – all taken with choimizu (a little water).  He had a good sense of humour.  He told me he realised his pregnant wife was the right girl for him when one day he asked her if the unborn baby inside her was really his, and she simply replied: Maybe.

Despite his insistence on using deferential language, Kota spoke with surprising bluntness.  In front of strangers he openly ridiculed my Japanese pronunciation.  His direct criticism was painful but helpful, it felt like he was pulling a stubborn splinter out. 

Foreigners are rarely openly criticised.  Perhaps we could do with a bit more.  When raising children, one of my English students in Ibaraki told me it was good to shikaru (tell off) a child 7 times, and homeru (praise) them 8 times.  Right now my ratio is about one criticism for each million compliments.  I must have a hell of a bollocking waiting for me.

Too much politeness can be cowardly and not always helpful.  I am too weak to want to swap all the flattery for criticism, but the odd word every now and again might help.  A word of warning though, for all those willing to criticise me, please email me first.  I will forward you my booklet of Rules and Regulations regarding Criticism Directed at Tom-san.         

Kota told me my lisp was at its worst when I made the sounds: sa shi su se so.  He said I pronounce them more like: sha shhi shu she sho. From then on, every time I said sumimasen (excuse me), he laughed out loud, mocking my lisp by saying shhhumimasen. 

Of course, my mistake is to think of the sounds as sa shi su se so.   Changing the サ シ ス セ ソ Japanese characters into English is deceptive.  The Japanese cannot be shown in English without suggesting the sounds are the same as English.  You end trying to play a song written for a violin on the piano.  It is impossible.  The instruments make different sounds.

Now I need to make my mouth into a new instrument.  First I need to retrain my tongue.  Kota told me in order to make the   サ シ ス セ ソ  sounds, I should keep my tongue at the bottom of my mouth.  The Japanese language does not require much use of the tongue, it is kept fresh for licking green tea ice-cream.

For ten minutes Kota practiced the equivalent of the ABCs with me.  I was humbled but grateful.  Mastering the fundamentals is something the Japanese do perhaps better than anybody.  An archer is not given an arrow until he can hold the bow correctly.  Footballers never play games until they have practiced the basic skills. 

The basics alone are not enough.  Knowing how to pronounce toilet in a foreign language does not help you understand directions to one.  Being able to kick a football with both feet is not much good if you do not know where you should kick it.  But ignoring the basics won`t get you far either.

So today I have gone back to the beginning, gone back to chapter one of the language textbook. Earlier this afternoon I walked down the street mumbling sumimasen to myself.  The pronunciation sounded much better to me.  Sadly I am not the ideal judge, and most of the 128 million Japanese who are qualified for the job are just too polite to offer candid criticism.  I might have to wait until another tanked-up hockey player from Kagoshima comes along.

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2 Responses to Failing to communicate: An encounter in a Kyoto bar

  1. Anonymous says:

    One of the best yet Tom-san!!!

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