I’ve always been fascinated with the subject of bilingualism, of how the brain adapts to thinking in two languages, and I watch this process in my kids whenever I can. The other day I caught an interesting exchange between my son and daughter, who both speak both Japanese and English, but with different areas of expertise. For some reason, they were having a fight, and Rina (whose pronunciation of English is excellent) asked teasingly, “Kazuki, can you say the word ‘perfect’?” This word, like “girl” “jewelry” and “It’s the rich aroma and full body of Excella that wakes the morning all around the world” (from Meg Ryan’s Nescafe commercial), seems to be difficult for Japanese to say, and my son has a complex about having a “katakana” accent when he speaks English. Kazuki knows a lot more vocabulary than his sister, though, and fired back, asking if she knew what “condensation” meant (a word he picked up in his science class). He scored a victory when she didn’t know the word. I was having great fun eavesdropping on their “English wars.”
When I was studying Japanese at SDSU, I enjoyed hunting down and learning a certain kind of phrase that exists in Japanese (and Chinese) called yomoji jukugo 四文字熟語 or four-character idiomatic compounds. Similar to the concept of idioms in English, these phrases are always written with four kanji characters, and Japanese people usually don’t expect foreigners to know them, which makes them extra-fun to learn. The phrase happo bijin (八方美人, ha-POH BE-jeen) literally means “eight-direction beautiful person” and describes someone who tries to be liked by everyone but is trusted by no one. Next, nana-korobi ya-oki (七転八起, na-na koh-ROH-bee yah-OH-kee) could be translated as “fall down seven times, get up an eighth” and is similar to “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Jigo jitoku (自業自得, ji-GOH ji-TOH-koo) is written with kanji that mean “self-enterprise, self-profit,” and the phrase corresponds to “you’ve made your bed, now sleep in it” or “it serves you right.” One of the most famous 4-character compound words is the slogan of the Meiji Restoration, when pro-Emperor reformers worked to overthrow the Shogunate and “restore” the Emperor to power as a monarchy, sonno joi (尊王攘夷, sone-NOH JOH-ee), or “Respect the Emperor, expel the foreign barbarians” (just like our T-shirts). Finally, there’s a word I like a lot, issho kenmei (一生懸命, ee-SHO KEN-mei), which literally means “risking your only life” and corresponds to “trying hard with all your might.”
Almost all Japanese study six years of English by the time they’re done with high school, but there’s a question with no official answer: do they study American or British English? The Japanese have always had great respect for England, a brethren island nation with a strong culture, and have patterned much of their government after the U.K., right down to NHK, which is essentially a clone of the BBC. Still, the Japanese tend to study American pronunciation and spelling (“color” not “colour”), as a general rule, in part because of the long influence of the postwar occupation but also because of the “Hollywood factor” — the cumulative effect of all those rented episodes of ’24.’ I’ve got a singer friend named Chaka who went to Australia and was told she had an “American” accent, which really surprised her, since she never thought much about what kind of English she was learning.
J-List is hiring! We have a full-time opening in our San Diego office that involves packing orders, working at anime conventions and assisting printing of T-shirts and hoodies. If you’re in the San Diego area already and are interested in helping us spread our brand of Japanese pop culture to others, we hope you’ll consider applying. For more information and an application, see this page.