The Frequency Problem

A few weeks ago I re-started my Japanese classes that I used to attend about 2 years ago when I was a “full-time freelancer.” I stopped going to the classes (or, rather, I didn’t to sign up for the new session) when I was hired by that satanic magazine back in April 2017. When the magazine adventure ended in a fiery explosion of disappointment last January, I once again had a free enough schedule to start the classes again but for some reason it took me months to work myself up to re-starting.

I was pretty impressed when the woman who originally signed me up ages ago (I think her name is Tamura-san?) remembered me instantly. That isn’t the only or even main reason she’s my favorite volunteer, though. Pretty much without exception all of the volunteers are kind and encouraging. But Tamura-san is the only one who really talks to me like a human. The other volunteers look at me with smiling attention as we chat, their bodies bent forwards and their eyes widened and roaming over my face as they try to catch any bumps in my comprehension. I know why they do this, too. It’s because they’re nice and gentle and anxious about my comfort. I’ve come to terms with this by now. I’ve also almost come to terms with the fact that no matter how irritable you are you’ll never get a barista or store clerk to engage with you — they flat-out refuse to meet you halfway in your rudeness and so give vent to your unrelated anger. They’ll continue being obliging, deferential, and accommodating no matter what.

This isn’t to say that Tamura-san is rude and I like her for her realness. She’s also unfailingly gentle, but she doesn’t talk to me cooingly, like a pet who just got home from the animal shelter and is cautiously exploring the terrain of the living room carpet for the first time.

At our class last week, during the “tea break” from 11-11:25 a new volunteer I had never seen before made an announcement for a seminar on navigating medical services in Japan that was going to be held at an upcoming festival the language school was putting on. Her announcement was all in Japanese but she handed out some multilingual brochures to the students, all of whom, excepting me and the other 4 students in my “advanced” group, are Japanese beginners. Much as I like to brag that I’m in the advanced group, the group itself is a humbling experience. Of the 5 of us, one Korean girl is almost flawlessly fluent and one Chinese girl is a good deal better than me. Another Chinese girl has a decent vocabulary but atrocious pronunciation, which I think gives me a leg up into 3rd place in the group. The last student is a friend of mine who I recruited for the sole purpose of setting myself off at his expense. Just kidding. His Japanese is actually way better than I expected and amazing for the length of time he’s studied it.

Anyway, Tamura-san and I started looking at the medical seminar brochure together and I asked her if the seminar would be conducted in Japanese or English and, to my great surprise, she said Japanese. Which of course seems to defeat the whole purpose of the seminar — which is to guide foreigners through the experience of seeing a doctor in Japan. I pointed this out to her and she kind of nodded and agreed. And then she went on to lament that so many Japanese people have no idea how to adjust the pattern of their speech to make it more understandable to non-native speakers. And even while in her very words she’s acknowledging that she, for one, carefully adjusts her speech to assist my understanding, there’s nonetheless such a naturalness and normalness in the way she talks to me. When the other volunteers chat with me about the class or where I live or whatnot there’s a supreme consciousness of the medium of our communication, like this whole conversation is really just an exercise in improving my Japanese. The content itself doesn’t seem real and is beside the point. Ironically, the content of Tamura-san’s speech is this meta-reflection on the medium, and yet it still feels like the content itself, the Japanese ineptitude she’s complaining about, is the real point of the conversation. So only with her does it really feel like a human talking to a human and not some kind of playacting in human conversation.

Her complaint made me think of something that happened to me a week earlier — a very specific anecdote that I had already related to about 4 different people. I barreled through the would-be dramatic preamble (my friend was really sick last week and I took her to the hospital) and landed on the Japanese story I wanted to relate. It happened a few hours into the hospital visit. A female doctor (who my friend and I had uncomfortably mistaken for the nurse for the first hour and a half) was asking more questions about my friend’s medical history while we waited for some of the test results to be processed at the lab. And she kept using this word kaisu. Kaisu kaisu kaisu. Such a short and simple word, only 3 sounds (ka-i-su), and I couldn’t place at all what it meant. Finally I just pulled out my Google translate app and as I punched it in several suggestions for the kanji appeared, and the doctor told me the kanji of the word she’s using is 回数. Before the app had even translated it I immediately knew from the kanji what it must mean. The first character — 回 “kai” — means “times” so like 10回 means 10 times. The second character — 数 suu — means number. So together “number of times” aka frequency.

A couple of things strike me about this 20-second interaction with the doctor. The one that I related to Tamura-san was how incredible it is that the doctor couldn’t think of any easier way to express the question she was trying to put to me. If she had just said “how many times a day” instead of “what’s the daily frequency” I would’ve understood. And the doctor really wants me to understand her. She’s not refusing to accommodate me because, to her mind, I should just be better at Japanese. If anything I would bet she feels slightly embarrassed that she can’t speak any English and wishes it was more in her power to make all of this easier for me and my friend. But it genuinely doesn’t occur to her that “how many times a day” is an easier phrase to understand than “what’s the daily frequency.”

The second thing that strikes me is that Japanese is kind of a pain in the ass. There seems to me a great, unacknowledged fallacy built into the structure of the entire language.

As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, Japanese is composed of 3 alphabets: 2 phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and one pictorial alphabet (kanji). Katakana is used for “loan-words” as they call them, meaning foreign words. So like the Japanese version of hamburger (hambaga) is written in katakana (ハンバーガー). Pretty much everything of import is written in kanji, with hiragana coming in to modify and tie together all of the pieces. So for example the verb “to go” is iku in its casual, dictionary form, and it’s written 行く. But the more polite version of the verb is ikimasu, written 行きます。The past-tense casual form is itta (行った) and the past-term polite form is ikimashita (行きました). You’ll notice how that first character (行) never changes, but the following ones do. That first one is kanji and it means “go” (obviously) and the ones coming after it are all hiragana, used to change the version of “go.”

Since the English alphabet is all phonetic there’s more of an onus put on the language to construct different-sounding words, since sound is pretty much our only means of distinguishing words. But through kanji, the burden of making different-sounding words is totally removed.

Take these words, for example, which are all pronounced exactly the same — “iru” — 入る, 要る, 射る, 炒る, 鋳る. They mean, respectively, to enter, to need, to shoot, to roast, or to mint. But there’s no issue distinguishing them because they all have completely different kanji.

Except, of course, for all of those inconvenient times when you’re talking to someone and there aren’t Japanese subtitles rolling under the person’s head. Most Japanese words are short and simple sounds with no more than a few syllables. And pretty much every word has literally hundreds of other words or parts of words that sound exactly the same.

This always seems to me unbelievably short-sighted on the part of the original language creators. Who cares if different symbols can be used to distinguish homonyms if you’re never looking at these symbols when you’re talking to someone? Was this language somehow conceived as a written language? What kind of idiot language creator goes about creating a written language?

When I told my sister this anecdote (as I said, I’ve been telling this story to a lot of people) she didn’t enter into my sympathies at all but instead almost sighed in admiration and said “This is why Japanese sounds so pretty.” Which, unfortunately, is undoubtedly true.

A French guy I was on a date with (aka the third person I told this story to) asked how Japanese people understand what word the person is using in conversation if so many of them sound alike. I kind of hesitated before I responded because I had worked myself up into what seemed to me like such a well-articulated argument until that point (leaning a bit on his ignorance of the language). But I had to admit that Japanese people have virtually no problem with this system. While the sound kaisu might have hundreds of different meanings, a Japanese person has all of those meanings stored in the endless rows of vocabulary filing cabinets in their brain. Based on the context of the conversation, they’re able to light on the correct one. The only problem arises for someone like me who doesn’t have that particular word in my filing cabinets yet, even though I have both of the kanji that comprise it in my kanji cabinet.

Really, Japanese isn’t a “written” language, it’s a context language. The most glaring difference, it seems to me, between a native speaker and a non-native speaker is the native speaker always says less. They’ll let their gestures or the context of the conversation speak for itself and dial back the pressure on their own words and language. The exception to this would be when using more formal Japanese. Formal Japanese is flowery and augmented unnecessarily, but both extremes (casual and formal) circulate around the same principle: letting the context speak for itself.

Maybe this is why it feels so especially unnatural, even a little pandering, when the other volunteers speak to me. Their preoccupation with my comfort leads them to really hone in on the words and language of our conversation to the exclusion of everything else. But in real Japanese it’s just the reverse. The context is key and the words are all secondary — just these pretty sounds bending towards the other person on the backs of our unspoken mutual understanding.


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