Most people gasp when I tell them that I’ve never been to Japan. It’s especially shocking since I’m 64 years old with a sister who’s a Japan travel expert who has led tours there twice as many times as my age in years.
There’s also the fact that I like to talk about what it means to be Japanese American and yet have no first-hand knowledge of the country of my ancestors. In six weeks I’m embarking on my very first trip to the country whose ancient name is the same as mine. (Yamato, an ancient province in Japan, is also the name of a WWII battleship — but that’s another story.)
I guess you could say that I’ve subconsciously avoided this trip for as long as I can remember. There was a time when I couldn’t afford such a costly way of “getting to know my heritage,” but then I realized several trips to Europe later that there was something other than expense holding me back. As a former English major with a big mouth and desire to communicate, I couldn’t stand the thought of people talking to me in my parents’ native tongue without being able to understand or talk back.
I think back to my first trip to Paris when a charming cab driver complimented me on my wonderful grasp of the French language, then overcharged me by 60 dollars as I fumbled to find the correct number of francs to pay him. With my beautifully enunciated French, I had not bothered to understand the exorbitant amount he was charging.
I remember being given the choice of what language to study in school. I thought Spanish too common, German too guttural, and Japanese too unpopular, especially in postwar America. I was born shortly after Japanese school was required by our parents and hated the thought of spending a Saturday to learn a language that nobody spoke except for my obaachan. Much as I would liked to have understood Baachan better when she told stories of growing up in Japan, I gave no thought to actually studying her language. Furthermore, the few words I did know seemed strange and out of place with the largely mixed-race friends I knew.
For whatever reason, I’ve always identified more with the American part of my heritage than the Japanese. In college, I studied great British writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and went on to become immersed in 20th-century American writers like Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. It was only a few years ago that I learned what the Japanese masterpiece “The Tale of Genji” was, even though I still didn’t have the inclination to read its massive 54 chapters. You could say that almost everything I learned in school came from English-language writers.
Since I decided to make this late-in-life trip to Japan, I’ve been trying desperately and hurriedly to catch up. I’ve been listening to Japanese language tapes to overcome my fear of language, but so far I’ve only managed to master the word “wakarimasen” (“I don’t understand”). I bought “The Tale of Genji,” but haven’t opened a page (yet).
Over the weekend, I went to see the film “Infinity and Chashu Ramen” and came to the conclusion I might as well give up on my crash course in Japanese. Though set in Northern California Japantown, parts of the movie featured Japanese dialogue with subtitles. Even though some of it was the familiar slang I knew as a child (I’d be willing to bet that most Sansei know what baka means), if two or more words were put together, I was immediately lost.
The film took an interesting turn when characters spoke to each other in several languages (Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese). Somehow, they all managed to understand each other, and even if they couldn’t, it didn’t matter. It was a depiction of multiculturalism at its best. Rather than feeling Japanese-deprived, I began to embrace the world in which we live: a world not separated by language or culture.
I’ll try to remember this lesson when I step off the plane at Haneda and need to figure out how to get to my hotel. In my best Japanese, I can ask “Hoteru Excel wa doko desu ka?” and when I hear the response I can always say “wakarimasen.” After all, finger-pointing always works.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo