Lots of my students have been asking me why I decided I wanted to come to Japan. I haven’t got any particularly clear reason, and sometimes I even find myself questioning it a little. If anyone has been desperately hoping for an answer to this question, or if you’re simply looking for help answering the standard ALT/Eikaiwa interview questions, today is your lucky day. Hopefully, by the end, I will have produced some kind of a sprawling, semi-coherent digest of my life in relation to Japan along with some little bits of advice. I will also include links to my recommendations and review pages for those interested.
As most boys would agree, swords are pretty damn cool. From a very young age, you pester your parents for that shiny plastic sword from the medieval fair, costume shop or other pseudo-educational event, just as all your friends do. Sometimes you meet up and hit each other with them too. This often ends in some kind of pain somewhere: damaged ego, damaged sword, damaged body. I know which is the worst for me. I had lots of plastic swords when I was younger, and they almost all broke eventually from the wear and tear of constant heroic manoeuvres, usually ending up with me in a heap on the floor and my opponent crying with laughter. I’m not sure that would count as a victory in an actual fight. In a moment of slightly bitter, grown-up hindsight, I feel the only victor is China’s economy.
When I was slightly older and plastic swords weren’t quite so cool, ‘The Legend of Zelda’ games fuelled my swordplay fantasies. I was of the generation of ‘Ocarina of Time’ and ‘Majora’s Mask’ – for anyone remotely interested in games, you will no doubt agree that this is the absolute golden era. I frequently ‘made’ my own cardboard weapons, shields and utilities to mimic those in-game, found oversized t-shirts for tunics and paraded round the house like the Hero of Time himself. I looked the bee’s knees, but probably more literally than I would have hoped.
Although it may not be quite as popular now as it once was, cowboys are also pretty damn cool. The Clint Eastwood films were what really got me excited about cowboys. There was something about the heroism, the simply amazing action and, most importantly, the freedom of those horses across the landscape. For me, the idolisation of the cowboy took me horse-riding more than once, and also provided me with further merchandise in the form of cap guns, holsters and hats. Not so many of my friends were into cowboys, so this was mainly a solo adventure, as a lone wanderer perhaps.
Imagine my excitement just a year or so later when I discovered the samurai films of Kurosawa Akira. A perfect blend of swords, cowboy-style horse-filled landscapes, action, heroic deeds and epic armies. The locations include a complete mixture of different environments including dusty hills and plains, grassy hills, forests, streams, trampled bogs and clay slopes. The sheer diversity of the scenery is possibly one of the most incredible things about these films, if not the humungous cast of extras for some of the biggest film battles seen outside of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and assorted other CGI-enhanced genocides. The music is a strange blend of traditional Japanese court music, or ‘gagaku’, and modern Western film-score style. The voice acting is historic, unique and simply irreplaceable. If you do watch any of them, please don’t do the film a disservice by watching a dub. Watch a subtitled version (or learn Japanese)! I can recommend a number of his films including ‘Ran’, ‘The Seven Samurai’, ‘Throne of Blood’, and a personal favourite, ‘Kagemusha’. See more here.
Beyond the enjoyment of the films as individual pieces of art, I also found a huge amount of pleasure in hearing the language and seeing it written on various scrolls and plaques. Maybe as a language aficionado I am slightly more sensitive to it, but I think it really is an amazing language. (I think I will talk about this more in a future post.) The sense of space in indoor scenes is also hugely attractive, and I can confirm that some of it carries over even to modern day apartments in Japan. Despite my shockingly low door-frames, which I’m probably going to knock myself out on one day, the ceilings are very high which makes the room seem larger and more spacious than the floor area might suggest. The costumes are period and thus not daily attire in modern Japan, although the Japanese have a tighter grasp on their history and tradition than we do in the UK. Perhaps the incredible preservation of huge swathes of ancient buildings, shrines and temples among high-rise buildings and apartments is the best example of the mixture of old and new in Japan.
I started watching anime during my first year in university, mainly as part of a general process of educating myself in everything I come across. At first it was just a couple of episodes of ‘Naruto’, but something about the huge overarching plots made up from shorter story arcs captured my imagination. The amazingly rapid way in which character relationships are introduced, matured (and sometimes then brutally destroyed) is somewhat addictive for me. The fantasy worlds created are also slightly dizzying for someone like me who has stupidly neglected reading for so long. However, I think anime as a whole is possibly a bit like marmite. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people only like particular anime series and hate the rest. Personally, I’m open to trying lots of new ones, but despite it being hugely popular, I really can’t get into ‘Attack on Titan’ for example. Here‘s my list of recommendations!
This sudden anime revelation was the first thing to make me seriously consider learning the language. Up until this point, I hadn’t really even considered that it was a possibility, but little by little, I was recognising patterns of speech as I watched. From here, I started learning numbers, days of the week and basic vocabulary from some random website. I had no clear goal at this point except for dipping into the language, and beginning to get some understanding. I then bought my first book, ‘Let’s Learn Kanji’, which was very interesting, but really not the correct way to go at all. It explores the creation of kanji, how to guess the meaning, pronunciation and stroke order of unknown ones. One night, after realising I could actually visit Japan, I booked flights. Apart from the excitement of the holiday, I also had a language goal in mind, and pursued a proper textbook. There are several different ways of attacking the Japanese language and there are recommendations for all kinds of different ways. Once you start, however, I feel it is best to keep using your chosen method. The textbook I chose was ‘Genki I’, which has a sequel and also an extension book. It worked for me, but for most self-studiers, it might not be the best!
When it was finally time for my holiday, I was prepared for most basic communication. It was a very good holiday (see my ‘done-it’ map of Japan), and I saw a lot of the things I was hoping to see. History, tradition, language, gardens, robots, anime-themed places, kabuki, mountains, forests and rivers. It totally lived up to my expectations, and even exceeded them mostly, so maybe this contributed to my desire to return. I also wanted to see the other things that I hadn’t seen yet, and living in the country is the easiest way to do it all.
So what can I say now I’m here? Why did I want to come here? If the previous 1,000 words didn’t persuade you of my legitimate interest, I only have one more piece of evidence. It’s a strange feeling, and one hard to describe. Something about the names of some places in Japan fills me with a strange, almost chilling, excitement. I would guess it’s mainly so-called rural places. (‘So-called rural’ because a city such a Himeji with a population of 550,000 and more than two big department stores counts as rural somehow.) Maybe it’s simply the possibility of adventure and freedom, maybe some kind of obsessive desire for completion and seeing everywhere in a country, or maybe it’s a part of my unshakeable nostalgia and those first Kurosawa films I saw as a child.
Top Image: Sakura at Himeji Castle