Japanese Language Classes


Here are Mei, Satsuki, and Totoro waiting at the bus stop in Miyazaki Hayao's Tonari no Totoro (となりのトトロ)

The Art of "Playing" Japanese

Of the many haiku poems that I have learned, the following poem by Issa (1762-1826) remains one of my favorites. In this poem, Issa remembers his lonely childhood and creates a scene in which a small boy watches all the other children enjoying new clothes and gifts at festival time. In his worn and tattered clothes, the boy could hear the children singing "you can tell a motherless child anywhere, because he stands by the gate and bites his fingernails." But the notices a small sparrow also looking lost and forsaken, as if it had just fallen from its nest, and he turns to the sparrow and says:

Come here
And let's play, little sparrow
You're an orphan, too.



やの ない雀

(ware to kite / asobe yo oya no / nai suzume )

Learning a language requires a lot of individual grunt work. No one can learn a language for you. But it helps to have friends with whom to converse and practice; it helps to have friends with whom we can share our failures and our mistakes. Humbled but undaunted, we can come together and "play" with Japanese and see how this language can transform the way we think and feel about the world around us.

As Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens, the classic text about play and culture, and more recently, as Diane Ackerman writes in her book Deep Play and as Wayne Booth comments in his book For the Love of It, Amateuring and Its Rivals, learning a language is all about our willingness to "play." We need to learn how to "play Japanese" in much the same way as we learn how to "play an instrument" or learn how to play tennis. In Japanese, the word for play is asobu (遊ぶ). And while the word "play" in English may indicate frivolity and a lack of seriousness, the Japanese verb celebrates "play" as an essential and important activity. Indeed, while the English words "earnest" and "serious" tend to exclude the idea of play, asobu requires serious and earnest effort.

I encourage "genuine play;" that is, I urge you not to participate in Japanese language learning in a "half-playful" way; in a manner that the Japanese derisively call "asobi-hanbun" (遊び半分). In English, we often tell people not to be "half serious;" in Japanese, we tell people not to be "half-playful." You must be willing to learn and play "wholeheartedly;" to play with seriousness and commitment; to play just for the fun of it. Come join me, then; and together, whether at the Tekisuijuku or in the new tea and class space in Olin East, we will "play" in the garden of Japanese and discover the joys of seeing and sensing the world with new words.