Speaking Japanese

For James Li

“Much of love is about asking, ‘Do you mean this? Am I correct?’ It is trying to find that particular lingua franca. How do you speak? Why do you speak it? How do we speak this third language together?”

—Jai Hamid Bashir


  1. How we brought ourselves to the feet of another language.

One of my friends, C, is also a Korean American who didn’t grow up speaking Korean. When I had dinner with her two Novembers ago, she had studied Japanese for a couple years. She was self-studying Korean to prepare for a year of teaching English in Korea on a Fulbright, but she didn’t know much more than the alphabet. We talked about what it would be like for her to learn Korean after learning Japanese—in a way, learn Korean from Japanese—because the languages are so similar that one can provide a foundation for the other.

Over fifty percent of Korean and Japanese words are derived from Chinese, meaning many words between the three languages sound similar. A few years ago, when I became friends with E, a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan, he was taking Japanese 102 and I was taking Korean 102. We talked about the word library.

Túshūguăn, toshokan, dosogwan.

E got his PhD in math and left for his postdoc in Switzerland last fall. He speaks English, Chinese, French, Spanish, Japanese, and a little bit of Greek. He has gotten really good at Spanish recently because he loves someone from Mexico. They met on the last day of 2022 in France, where they were both traveling alone. He spent last summer with her in Mexico City working at a ramen restaurant. He was a big help because he could translate a bit between Japanese and Spanish—sometimes he spoke English with patrons, too.

He is kind and funny; I admire the way he lives. So mobile, so secure in movement and affection, so serious and unserious. I think we kept each other alive and functional in the winter of 2022. And thousands of miles apart now, we text each other passages from books we like, mine in English, his often in French or Spanish.

Another one of my Korean American friends, S, has a Korean girlfriend she met while studying abroad in Seoul. S’s girlfriend is learning Japanese, which bothers S slightly. She accommodates her girlfriend by speaking Korean, which she isn’t fluent in, but her girlfriend doesn’t speak English. Her girlfriend is excited about learning Japanese but apathetic toward English.

Don’t you want to know me in my language?

Many Koreans speak Japanese. When my mom was growing up in Korea, they taught Japanese in some public schools the way they teach English today. An activist friend told me that in the 1980s, South Korean leftists were reading Marxist texts in Japanese or in Korean translated from Japanese. Later, in the 90s, there was a shift toward English.

Of course, the language you are studying, the language you are speaking in, the language you are forgetting are political matters. Language classes don’t really deal with that fact, nor are they responsible for it, but I have been acutely aware of it ever since I started learning Japanese in September. As a diasporic Korean, learning Japanese often feels like remembering a language I used to know, especially when I see a vocabulary list full of cognates or learn a grammar structure that parallels Korean. It feels like I can claim a certain relation—like that of exes with a complicated history of love and damages—to Japanese language through the fact of my ancestors’ colonization by imperial Japan, and I feel no reverence or responsibility toward the language.

My desire for agency and small joys in my postcolonial body brings me to Japanese. And these days, learning a language feels particularly significant and necessary. Learning a language: a small multiplication of life in a world of multiplying death.

In class today we practice casual speech, which is difficult because we learned polite speech first, which you use to show respect to people like elders, teachers, or strangers. Casual speech is for friends and family. Polite speech creates distance; casual speech closes the distance.

Korean is similar to Japanese in terms of the degrees of formality. I have memories of meeting people from Tinder in Korea, and an hour or two into talking, they would say Now that we know each other a little, why don’t we talk comfortably? Or, If it’s uncomfortable, you can speak informally to me—it’s hard to speak formally, right? Then I would tell them that polite speech was actually easier for me, because, like Japanese class, my Korean class learned polite speech before casual speech.

I like polite speech. To allow distance to exist in a conversation means earned, built closeness may also exist, somewhere down the line. To always end words in -masu or -desu in Japanese or –yo in Korean is to say I want to honor that I don’t really know you. Or perhaps more precisely, that we do not belong to each other in a close and casual way. We are not responsible for each other in that way. But we could be.

Shibata sensee calls on me to convert tomodachi to hanashimasu—I talk to my friend—into casual speech, so I change the last two syllables and say tomodachi to hanashiteru.

Shibata sensee says my pronunciation is totemo kirei. Totemo means very, and kirei means pretty; clean; neat.

A guy I met in Korea two years ago told me he knew a little bit of Japanese. We were having beer and dried squid and I asked him to say something in Japanese. He said anata wa kireidesu and told me to look it up later.

You can call a house kirei or a person kirei or the way someone says something kirei.

Shibata sensee’s praise means a lot to me. A lot of what happens in Japanese class means a lot to me. I don’t know if it’s because it’s what my ancestors were doing a hundred years ago—speaking Japanese—or because speaking with my classmates in the present is fun. So small and so real, this joy. Laughing. Asking about my classmates’ weekends. Conjugating verbs with classmates: most of them first- or second-gen immigrants, Chinese and Sri Lankan and Palestinian and Uyghur and Bengali.

How did we end up in Japanese class together? I have my own history behind me, and they have their histories—layers of migration and empire and language, media, and culture under empire—which brought all of us to the US, to Japanese class in Princeton, New Jersey. But I only ever ask the question in Japanese—doushite nihongo o benkyoushimasuka?—so our answers are very simple. I like anime. I like Japanese food. I want to travel to Japan. As we sit together forming single-clause sentences, I remember that language can be simple. And maybe the loss language always refers to can be simple, too. And maybe we can be simple.

  1. At the feet of memory, we tell each other again that we do not know.

Lately it has been hard to go to class. It is March and all I am is grief: grief for Palestine, grief for Korea, grief for all of us in the past and future. Getting deeper into my thesis—poetry about diasporic loss and memory—hurts, but I know it is good and necessary to meet my history in rage and grief. It is a good fire. And my suffering is small, I know—it is a single grain of sand—and it still injures my whole body. It is a good injury, I think, and tending to it brings me close to my loved ones. They teach me rage and resistance and poetry.

Japanese goes on as usual, but now the classroom is a space of grief. Japanese is the language in which we lost you. A language to which Korean, too, was almost lost, during imperial Japan’s campaign of cultural genocide and linguistic imperialism in Korea and other territories. The language hurts to learn these days. I tried to drop the class, but admin told me that I need to stay in it to be considered a full-time student and graduate in May. This language, its loss—I need some distance from it, and distance is impossible with class and new vocabulary and grammar points every day. But if I think of learning Japanese as a way to spend some time with you, to remember and appreciate you, the language feels safer. I remember that sometimes Japanese feels like remembering.

When people gathered the day after February 16th, we sat in a living room too small for all of us and sat in silence. Every once in a while, someone spoke, their words bloated with breath and grief.

Many people brought up your smile. Your orientation leader talked about making jokes to see you laugh and a photo she has of you smiling in a group photo. A classmate in your writing seminar mentioned how you sat at the same end of the table every class and how going back to that table would be difficult. My classmates from Japanese talked about how you talked about anime and gaming in class, where we frequently introduced ourselves and talked about our hobbies.

Someone said, I think the one word that characterizes how everyone is feeling is regret.

Is that true?

The word regret, perhaps because it deals with memory in ethically questionable ways—revising, revisiting, claiming responsibility without redressing—is strange to me. Its intention is to impose something from the present, which is already too late, onto the past, which has passed. It comes after the grief that gave rise to it. Grief, which feels like fact. Grief, which feels like the most honest thing we can offer to the public from our private selves.

Regret says, If only…; grief says nothing at all, not in any language, not in any universe.

If I have regret, it is that this body is too small for all the grief it would hold if it could handle it. Because if I could hold all of it, maybe I could also do something as massive in the opposite direction.

But the people I love and I are doing small things in the opposite direction of grief, and I think we are trying our best.

Sometimes I use past and present tense in the same sentence in class, and sensee corrects me. I do the same in English even though I know better. Can my body tell the difference between past and present when they are as blurry as two languages derived from the same other language? Can my body tell the difference between yesterday and today’s grief?

I would like to insist that tense is irrelevant as I write to you, even though I know that it is precisely the before and after of my time in Japanese class that brings me to write to you. Writing is only a representation of loss too large for me to see the beginning and end of, and languages are blurry, and my memory of you is not blurry, making past more present than the present, so what I mean to ask is: I can write to you in all tenses, yes?

When I think of you, there are two words which come to mind: kaerimasu and wakarimasu. I heard you say the word for going home, kaerimasu, a few times because when we were paired for speaking exercises, I asked you what you did over the weekend and what you did over break. Your home was close to school so you went home often, kaerimashita. You went home for winter break, kaette, and spent time with your family.

Rather than kaerimasu, which is present tense, I imagine you saying kaerimashita, past tense. In my memory you are someone who went home many times.

Wakarimasu, or I don’t know, comes to mind because I am bad at Japanese and I give up easily, so sometimes I asked you how to say things. Sometimes you told me, sometimes you said watashi mo wakarimasu. I also don’t know.

I also don’t know. I still don’t know.

Even now, I wonder if I am handling grief ethically. Am I entering collective memory responsibly? Do I represent it with care? I worry that I appropriate a narrative not my own for beauty, or for the sorrow I would like to make beautiful. Even when I am not writing, I wonder if I am remembering responsibly, in a way that is not just for my own desire to feel and narrativize. I wonder if that is something I owe to others. 

Our next grammar lesson is on present continuous tense, so it describes actions that are ongoing; things still becoming; things that live on after the sentence. The textbook reads,

Mr. Ishida is eating. Mr. Ishida is drinking tea. Mr. Ishida is reading. It is raining. The wind is blowing.

I wish to know you in present continuous tense, to practice with you in class tomorrow. We would take a quiz and I’d get at least a couple things wrong, and sensee would say ohayo gozaimasu. We would do some speaking exercises to warm up. Then sensee would explain the new grammar point and give us time to practice speaking in present continuous tense. And we would ask each other silly questions to practice language, to practice grammar we take for granted in this language, and we would say things to each other like,

Li-san, what are you doing?

I am eating. I am drinking tea. I am reading. It is raining. The wind is blowing.

Is that so.

Kim-san, what are you doing?

I am eating for you. I am drinking tea for you. I am reading for you. It is raining for you. The wind is blowing for you.

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