No-one could speak Japanese ... at first

Gordon Bateson

ニコニコの船上音楽家 (メキシコの変装)    I came to Japan on a boat. A very big boat. In fact it was a cruise liner. At that time, I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese but that didn’t matter because we had some very good translators on the ship and besides I was a musician, so all I had to do was play my saxophone.

    However, one day I met a very pretty Japanese girl who was on the ship as a passenger. She had a twinkle in her eye and I thought she was just charming. I saw her looking at me during one of the evening shows, so in the interval I went over and asked if she would like a drink. That was how I met my Japanese girlfriend.

    It turned out that she was not very confident speaking in English. We had to write a lot of words down on the paper serviettes and look up phrases in her dictionary. I tried to learn some Japanese, but the sounds were so strange to me then that the words just didn’t seem to stick in my mind. I asked her how to say "Please," and she said it was "o-negai shimasu." "Quite long compared to the English word," I thought. I asked her how to say "Thank you," and she said it was "arigatou gozaimashita." Gosh, that’s even longer than ‘o-negai shimasu’," I thought, but I didn’t give up. Instead, I said to her, "You’re always smiling. How do you say ‘smiling’ in Japanese?" She said it was "niko-niko," and that was the first Japanese word I learned.

    A few days later the ship came back to Japan and we had to say goodbye. That was a very sad day. She asked me, "Will you come back to Japan?" and I replied, "I’ll do my best." To tell the truth, I had no idea how I would be able to come back to Japan, after all, I was just a poor musician, but I knew in my heart that I really wanted return and I decided there and then to find a way.

    I had to go back to the UK for a few months and work to save up enough money for a ticket to Japan. Musicians are not good at saving money, but one way or another I was able to get sufficient funds to buy the cheapest ticket from the UK to Japan. It was a flight via Sri Lanka and the total journey time was about 36 hours. Although it was a tiring journey, it all seemed worth it when at last I found myself back in Japan.

    I soon realized that the biggest problem I faced was that I could not speak Japanese. I could only say "niko-niko", so every day I studied and practiced and studied some more. I spoke with my girlfriend each evening on the telephone and tried out my new Japanese phrases. For me, Japanese was the language of romance, so I had a great motivation to learn quickly. Then one day, I remember it very clearly, I was able to complete the whole telephone conversation in Japanese. Wow! I was really happy.

    Well, one thing led to another and eventually I was transferred to an English conversation school in my girlfriend’s home town of Kanazawa. The school had a policy of "No Japanese. No silence," so I couldn’t speak Japanese at work, but as I was still young and single in those days, I often went out in the evening to downtown Kanazawa. Sometimes I played saxophone in some of the jazz clubs in Katamachi. Music is a great way to communicate and make friends and after playing I would often sit and talk in Japanese with people who had heard me play.

    Nowadays I know enough Japanese to be able to get by pretty well in Japan. I can go shopping, chat to my neighbors and understand the news on TV. I enjoy surprizing people by using specialized words that Japanese might not expect a foriegner to know. Some of my favorite Japanese phrases are "chiku-nou-shou" (sinusitis) or "sei-ten no heki-reki" (out of the blue) or "ko-mimi ni hasanda" (a little bird told me). However, I want to study more. In particular, I need to practice reading and writing Kanji. I would really like to pass the 日本語能力試験一級 next year. Then I would be really "niko-niko" and so would my girlfriend, who by the way, is now my wife.

Comments are closed.