Daigaku Z: Let Me Say This To Start…

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

I’ll be the first to admit that, when I walked in late to the recitation session, my utterance of sumimasen was prompted less by a knowledge of the disruption my intrusion would cause and more by the fact that I had heard it as an apology in countless episodes of Kamen Rider.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

At the end of last year, due to a lot of different things, I lost my job as a Java programmer; though I struggled valiantly against the monster that is burnout, I realized that I couldn’t continue working in such a “disposable” field. I had been feeling the stress of my impending collapse for a few years by that point, but had soldiered on in the hopes that it wasn’t me, it was the environments in which I was working. After a four month job search that led to no offers being extended to me, I finally decided to take the advice of a dozen or so people and try to find another line of work.

As you might have noticed from my work on the OTDT podcast, I like to talk. A lot. Communications and dialogue are really important to me, and I’ve been fascinated by the Japanese language since time immemorial. Translation seemed like it was a natural progression from there, as if you can’t understand someone, you can’t exchange ideas with them. Moreover, my background in technology gives me an edge over other individuals, as it would allow me to more easily grasp the complex vocabularies needed for, say, translating internal documentation for software inside a major company.

So in May, I started the process of applying to the University of Pittsburgh, and was accepted in very short order. I’ve spent this entire summer waiting for this past Monday, the first day of classes, to come; and with each passing day I slipped back into the self-consciousness that appears to be common to every incoming collegian, regardless of age or background. Will people avoid me? Will I make friends? How will I handle the stress of balancing studies with earning a living? Is this even something I can do? As the end of summer approached, these anxieties grew larger and larger.

Part of it is due to the rather repressive stereotype that I sort of completely embody: someone whose Japanese vocabulary comes virtually solely from anime and Power Rangers, and whose desire to learn seemingly takes a back seat to the desire to be exposed to “Cool Japan”. I’ll even admit to a slight amount of chagrin when I wrote in my notes “At least I got here before the guy in the Evangelion t-shirt”. Of course, this is an extremely toxic attitude to take, and un-learning it will be as difficult as the idea is itself pernicious.

I felt something change, though, during that first recitation class, where twelve of us sat dumbfounded at Takabatake-sensei’s gesticulations and face-faults when we failed to understand her; when we chuckled at each other’s various mangled pronunciations; when we helped each other out in silent sympathy. The same thought ran through all of our minds: “This is incredibly awkward. I feel like an idiot.” Our self-consciousness was being brought front-and-center, and we had no choice but to address it with a polite bow and stare it directly in the eyes.

For one hour, in a room where only one person knew innately what was being said, everyone understood each other perfectly. And though we entered as strangers, we were all talking and chatting as we left. That’s what communications and translation does. It unites people, it bridges gulfs that are sometimes metaphorical and sometimes very real. It is not easy, and the first stumbling moments of that new world opening up are always going to be awkward and embarrassing.

But, it’s important to remember that at our core, humans learn best by repetition and installing automatic, rather than thought-out, responses. The incessant usage of catchphrases and common words in anime, manga, and live-action media is intentional– it’s meant to stick with the audience, to become that reflexive response. The awkwardness comes from the fact that, while we are learning, we may not use the language correctly. In a sense, we’re like infants who have learned their first words; we say them because they get a response from our teachers and elders, but we don’t have a firm grasp on the context of those words. It’s this kind of attitude which leads to the trope of the “weeaboo anime fan” who litters his or her speech with mangled and incomprehensible pseudo-Japanese. We see it as someone taking an obsession too far, in a childish and immature manner, and we have a great deal of shame about it.

So, I have to offer an apology to the fellow student who showed up on that first day of class in the Eva shirt. You may have been the only one in the room who had the right approach to the class. We, as students, are never going to learn the language if we are terrified of making a mistake. That’s precisely why the recitation classes are so small and compartmentalized: so we let down our guards and can allow ourselves to make those mistakes, and learn from them. We’re not there to “count up our sins”– we’re there to, in the long run, “make it showy”.