Botchan (Penguin Classics)

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My First Book: Adventures in Learning to Read Japanese

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I don’t remember reading my first book. From the memories of my childhood there is only a vague list, incomplete and out of order, of the books I have read but not necessarily the specifics of where, or how, or why.

Gone with those memories, too, are the ones of what I did when I didn’t know a word or came across a particularly complex sentence. I don’t remember using a dictionary. No one read to me. Only, there was a time when there was a lot I couldn’t read; now, there isn’t a lot that I can’t. What happened in between?

It took me six years of study to finish reading my first book in Japanese. That book was Rui Kodemari’s Kokoro no mori (Heart’s Forest), a fifth-grade novel I found in the Japanese elementary school where I teach. The plot, somewhat fittingly, follows a Japanese boy in the sixth grade who moves to America without knowing any English.

Though Kokoro no mori was the first book I finished, it certainly wasn’t the first book I tried to. In the last couple years of studying Japanese, there were plenty of times when I picked up a volume intending to diligently go through it, looking up every new word or grammar point if necessary, and close the book both triumphant and possessed of an automatic near-fluent grasp of the language. First there was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I’d read in translation before picking up the Japanese version at a used Book-Off in San Diego. I got through five pages, laboriously checking every new word and writing it down in a notebook before getting hopelessly bored at the slow pace. I already knew what was going to happen, after all. A year later I tried the first volume of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, because I’d read that he wrote an easier, non-traditional Japanese that was closer to English. But that, too, proved to be a bust. After that there were e-books of Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro and Botchan, a volume of poetry by Shuntarō Tanikawa, and a short story collection by Yōko Ogawa not yet translated into English. I fingered them furtively in the aisles of used bookshops or in aisles of the school library that no one ever went to. I bought them with my eyes lowered, not exchanging words with the cashier, afraid they’d assume a competence in me I hadn’t earned. One by one, I opened them, got out my dictionary or smartphone app, muddled through a few pages, and then, inevitably, gave up.

When you first start learning a language, it’s easy to make a lot of progress: You go from knowing nothing at all to being able to read a new alphabet or make a basic dialogue in a couple of months. In the early stages, there are a lot of benchmarks indicating concrete advances in your language proficiency, like saying hello, asking for directions, listing your hobbies, writing your first paragraph. But in the intermediate and advanced stages, progress is less obvious and painfully slow, if not invisible altogether. I spent one unit in my intermediate Japanese class reading a dialogue about a college student who spent a summer working in a fish cannery in Alaska. “When the hell,” I thought to myself, “am I ever going to need to know the word for fish cannery?”

It was around this time I started picking up Japanese books, but never finishing them. For two years I lingered at a learning plateau; I was pretty good but not, to my mind, good enough. After moving to Japan, I could give instructions to my students and understand most of what my coworkers said, but I got by with what I had without feeling any sense of improvement. And the knowledge of how much more there was still to learn was overwhelming. Though I’d come a long way, the level of fluency required to read a book or become a translator — one of my ambitions — seemed paradoxically more achievable and still impossibly far.

Then came the fifth-grade classroom and Kokoro no mori. I opened the book idly during a lunch period. The first sentence — Who are you?  — was so short, direct, and easy to understand that, without thinking about it, I immediately read further.

And it was easy. Or rather, it was easier: I got through the first page without a dictionary, though there were a few places where I stumbled. I found myself on the second page in less than five minutes. I brought the book home with me. Three weeks later, after starting, stopping, and starting again, I turned the last page and shut the book with an odd sensation: So that was it? I’d done it?

Though of course, that wasn’t it. I’d finished the book, but along the way, I had to shed the hubris I unwittingly carried when reading English. I was so used to being able to pick up whatever I wanted go through it, if not always quickly, at least with some measure of ease, that I carried that over to reading Japanese. It was no surprise I was easily frustrated.

Now, I was forced to relearn all my old techniques: I had to go slowly, I couldn’t skim. Sometimes I stopped over a particularly long sentence or involved description and parsed it out on a piece of paper. Sometimes, I just skipped it.

Sometimes I read holding the book open with my left hand and the dictionary with my right. A lot of vocabulary I guessed at, or took from context. Tsuga, I knew, must be a type of tree, but what kind? Imori was some kind of animal — but which one?

I had to start looking at each sentence holistically — to look at the text to see the forest, not the trees. If there was a word or phrase I was stuck on, sometimes I just had to let it go. Rather than fixating on how the verb was conjugated or the choice of one adverb or adjective over another, I had to ask myself if I even understood what was going on. Often, I didn’t; there were many times when I had to go back, rereading a passage the meaning of which, later passages showed, I had completely misunderstood.

I couldn’t use most of the critical apparati I had developed, the tools and skills of close reading I’d been trained to apply. For instance, I couldn’t decide if the prose in the novel was good or bad, if it had a voice, if there was good pacing or flow. I didn’t know whether the dialogue sounded natural or if there were clichés. I had nothing to compare it to. Even the book cover was humbling — I didn’t recognize the first word in the title, which was printed in a round and curly font. I assumed it was a kanji character I hadn’t learned. Then a couple of second graders who saw me reading one day read the title out loud: “Kokoro no mori.” I gripped the book and felt foolish — kokoro is one of the easiest characters there is.

When it came to Japanese, I had none of the confidence I had when it came to English. More than anything, Kokoro no mori made me a beginner in reading again.

But being a beginner has its own particular pleasures. No longer complacent about my ability to understand, whenever I did get a sentence or new word down, I felt a sense of achievement in a way that I hadn’t in years. I relived the excitement and pride of learning how to read when I was a child; piece by piece, I was unlocking the story, the language — and by extension, a whole new world.

I had my first instance of critical pleasure when I read about the three American friends Hibiki makes at his new school: Tom, Jack, and Bob. He refers to them as a collective: “My American friends, Tom and Jack and Bob” — those three names, always together, always in that order. They tell Hibiki about American holidays, play ball with him in the park, and that’s it. Throughout the entire book they never appear on set or even interact with Hibiki. Ultimately, they are simply cardboard cutouts — typified, generic “American friends.”

This is what it must be like, I thought, when a Japanese person runs into a character named Tanaka who only likes to eat sushi. There they were: my first stereotypes. It became a private running joke between me and the book.

All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed.

When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once.

Now on the other side of my first book, I can safely say that I am still not very good at Japanese. I don’t know much more than I did when I started, except maybe the names of some trees and how to say turkey.

But at the same time, something has changed. The longer I read, the more I fell into the cadences of Japanese. Rather than simply following the rules, I started feeling a deeper instinct for the language. I felt more confident in discerning what sounded natural and what didn’t. I started adapting to Japanese more.

After I finished the book, I went back to school; I handed Kokoro no mori to the teacher I’d borrowed it from. Then I went to the library. Hesitantly at first, then a little more boldly, with a growing sense of anticipation, I started browsing the books on display at the counter. They were still a little daunting, but they looked friendlier.

The first book is not special only because it’s a sign of progress. The first book is special because it holds a promise: there will be books after.

Surprise Me!