Sunday, February 25, 2007

Learning Japanese.

No poetry today. I have been spending every waking moment studying Japanese, preparing for my trip to Tokyo later on this month. When I went to Japan last year, I couldn't speak a word and I felt completely lost.

I have determined that this time will be different. I will not have so much trouble with what is on the menu. I would like to have a conversation with Takaaki's friends over sashimi. I want to make sure I can order enough katsu. I want to book train tickets to
Hakone. I think it would be nice to be able to say more than "please" and "thank you"—although you can get pretty far in Tokyo, I have noticed, if you can deploy onegaishimasu and domo arigatou with the right amount of dexterity. These are magic words in Japan. They open doors—shoji.

Even so, Magic is a difficult art to practice, in any language. But I think it may be hardest to master in Japanese. There are three 'alphabets' in Japanese: the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, and kanji—the imported Chinese characters adapted for Japanese use in the Middle Ages. Right now, I can read my blue shampoo bottle—that part which says shampoo, anyway, in katakana— and I can understand snatches of lyrics in a few Japanese songs. I watch at least one hour of Bleach a day, and I am getting better at distinguishing phrases. But it is hard. I am more or less at the hiragana and katakana stages of development. This would probably place my mental age at about 4 or 5. I can count to 13 in Kanji—on very good day.


Still, I don't give up. Japanese literature has always been something of a hobby with me. Mishima Yukio was my introduction to that. The book was Confessions of a Mask, I purchased it in June 9th, 1992, at 3:43 pm, at Glad Day Bookstore, on Boylston St, in Boston. Very often I use receipts for bookmarks, and the receipt remains with the book as long as I own it. It is a very convenient technique for marking your place in Time, and for constructing a mental history of yourself, should you ever be asked to do so by the Authorities.

I think my eye was initially drawn to Mishima's Confessions for one very particular, but very superficial reason: the torso featured on the cover—a samurai version of the
St. Sebastian motif.

We all know what happened to poor St. Sebastian, and what Mishima did to himself, but I am less sure what happened to me when I read that book fifteen years ago. I think it was then that something about Japan first began stirring in my imagination.

It can take years for the effect of words to sink into your imagination. And with some authors—most authors—the words never do. Most words are dropped again as soon as they are picked up off the page. You hear something beautiful you hadn't noticed before—perhaps the furnace ticking on— and you forget where you were in the last paragraph. At least, that is the case with me.

I think Mishima more than Godzilla was my introduction to Japan. And after Mishima, I moved on into the mysterious world of Akutagawa, Murakami,
Lady Murasaki, and others. Then I met Takaaki.

My favorite Japanese author is probably
Soseki Natsume. There is something very funny and very dark about this man's sense of humor, something sinister. There are times that I feel like his stories were specifically crafted to entertain me, which is preposterous.

Kokoro is Soseki's most profound work, I think, and Botchan his most congenial, but I think my personal favorite is I Am A Cat. Half Tristram Shandy, and half I, Claudius, and altogether Japanese, it presents a cat's eye view of the world, from the birth of one lonely kitten until his untimely death.

Don't get me wrong. I do not enjoy I Am A Cat because I especially enjoy the company of cats. I am not really a cat person. In fact, I think my relationship with felines bears an
eerie resemblance to my relationship with men—Mankind, I mean. I am allergic Him as a collective presence, but I intensely love individuals.

That must be why we get along so well, I think.

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