a few reasons to learn japanese, or, why the heck am i doing this?

Short answer: manga.

I am certainly not the first person to fall in love with the literature of another culture enough to go learn the language so I can read it in its original form.  But in addition to that, there is  a ton of manga that just isn’t available in English at all.  Or it might be, if I wait long enough (either through licensing or by fan scans), but that’s like knowing there is a giant buffet of marvelous food, right on the other side of this wall, only they won’t let me in the door.

Pisses me off.  How do I get into this club?

And man, waiting for the English is an iffy game.  For example, Est Em, a terrific mangaka had—yes, HAD—several titles in English officially available through JManga, a digital-only site, including The Apartments of Calle Feliz, which I was really looking forward to after reading her Age Called Blue, which is dynamite. Est Em does all kinds of literary moves in her works, time jumps, telling stories backwards, interlocking stories, troubled characters who do the opposite of what they say, complex relationships.  She makes you work a bit more and the pay off is worth it.  I love her stuff. But then JManga goes out of business!  Just this month!  And I didn’t get a copy of Happy End Apartment in time!  Now the only version available is in Japanese.

I’m so annoyed about this.  Annoyance is a big motivator for me.

Or, say, there is this lovely shojo title Taiyou no Ie by Tammo, about a make-shift family of smart, funny, grumpy, tsundere-type young people who have lost their parents through death or abandonment and are making a go of it together in this big rambling house.  I’ve read some of the scans and really liked it, but they only go far, and it isn’t licensed in English.  If I want to find out the ending, or pay the mangaka, I’ve got to buy the Japanese.   You see where this is going.

Another good one, The Heartbroken Chocolatier by Mizushiro Setona, an award winning shojo manga about a guy who becomes a chocolatier to seduce the girl he loves, even if she’s a two-timing bitch who is married to someone else.  Ha!  I love the warpedness of this guy.  The part I’ve read is bitter and sweet, just like the gorgeous, mouthwatering chocolates the main character is constantly making and eating, oh my god, get me to the chocolate store NOW.  Can we say CHOCOLATE PORN.  But only the first bit of this story has been scanned.  I would dearly love to read the rest….

Jillions of people on this planet can read both English and Japanese.  It can’t be impossibly hard or anything.  Why can’t I be one of them? 

A final example: Yoneda Kou, an amazing, amazing storyteller, flawed only in her apparent tendency to leave stories hanging—her title list is littered with abandoned series that just break my heart.  One of my favorites, The Songbird Doesn’t Fly, I’ve written about here.  But only one, ONE title of hers is officially licensed, No Touching At All, a really strong, complex, interesting love story.  Great stuff.  I bought that one—digital only, as the English is out-of-print (!!!)—but I want to have more of her work to pour over as a writer, just to figure out how the heck she is doing what she is doing with these characters.  But the only access I have is spotty fan scans.


And in her case, I don’t just want to read her stories in Japanese because of a lack of available English version, I also would really like to read her stories in Japanese because that’s how she wrote them.  Listen, Japanese is a language that is all about context—Japanese leaves out vast swaths of stuff you say explicitly in English.  Kou’s characters are like that, too.  I’d really like to see how they speak in their own language.  The thought gives me a bit of chills, actually.  Does that make me an otaku?

PLUS, if you have any kind of book fetish at all, you would love the gorgeous way they do book design on some of these Japanese manga.  I mean, wow.  I go to the local comic shop with its tiny two shelves of manga and I just…fondle.  So preeeeetty!!!!  I don’t know if you can tell from this photo of the front and back of Songbirds, but the cover is impeccably elegant.  There is an obi, a paper band, around the bottom, see it?  And the texture of the paper is sumptuous, with the gorgeous caligraphy-style kanji and Kou’s beautiful, disturbing artwork.  Makes me want to forswear digital.  Except the convenience/cost wins in many situations….

Anyway.  Obviously, I need to know Japanese.  Right?  This is not a crazy mountain I have decided to climb, but a mere roadblock between me and my drug of choice.  Lots of people do this.  People learn languages all the time.  And hey, I’m at 1100 kanji and halfway through the kana.  Plus, I find the more I learn the more into it I get.  This is doable.  Maybe.

Okay, I will probably run out of steam at some point and that will be okay.  But I have this idea that if I can get “reading in Japanese” up and running even a tiny bit, the whole project will become somewhat self-feeding.  I mean, I learned English so well largely because I read copious amounts of the stuff.  If I can read even the simplest of Japanese, that leads to reading more, which scaffolds one up into reading even more….seems like the same path might work for me again.  Just have to get over the first hump….

In summary.  A few reasons to learn Japanese long answer: Yoneda Kou.  Chocolate porn.  Tsundere families.  Happy endings.


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