Learning Japanese as a Second Language #1
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
We do not choose the language that is to be our native language. Circumstance does. The circumstances into which we are born are given to us without any consultation. However, we do have a choice when we select the language we want to learn as our second language. The reasons I chose to learn the Japanese language include being born a Japanese-American in Hawaii and being captivated by modern Japanese literature.
When people emigrate to another country, they take with them their culture, and of course, language is part of culture. My four grandparents, the issei, were no different. Two arrived in Hawaii from Kumamoto with their local dialect. The other two were from Kanagawa with their dialect. These Japanese citizens never became Americans, and they were never able to speak English without an accent. In fact, my grandmother on my mother’s side could never speak in English sentences, which meant that I never had a conversation with her. Their children were the “in-between” generation, the nisei. Their first language was the Japanese dialect of their parents, but as soon as they had contact with the world outside the family, they had to use a language which others could understand. In Hawaii, this meant Hawaiian Pidgin English, a creole language still used in Hawaii by many people for everyday conversation. However, when these children entered school, they were confronted by the standard American English spoken by their mostly white or, as they are called in Hawaii, haole teachers. These nisei actually had to cope with three very different “languages,” and the result was that they never spoke any of these languages well. The children of the nisei born in Hawaii, the sansei, did not have the problems faced by their parents. They were quite certain that their native language was English, for everyone around them spoke a kind of English, mostly creole English at home and standard English at school. Some were forced to attend Japanese language lessons after school, but they never learned to speak Japanese well. As a sansei, born after World War II, I thought of myself as American, and English was of course my native language. When I began to learn Japanese after I entered college, it was a way to try and make a connection with a culture I never knew.
As a teenager and high school student, I was fascinated by the foreign novels section in the tiny school library, especially the Japanese novels. It was probably because the media in the 1960s were still populated by white “American” faces. TV meant Ben Casey and Mission Impossible (with its token African American). Movies meant Psycho and The Sound of Music with their very blond heroines and tall, handsome heroes. What I found in the Japanese novels were people who lived in a world I knew very little about and who looked very different from the people I knew from American novels, magazines, and newspapers. There was the Meredith Weatherby translation of Shiosai (The Sound of Waves) and Donald Keene’s Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, which contained excerpts from Higuchi Ichiyo, Natsume Soseki, and Kawabata Yasunari. These glimpses into the world of Japanese literature meant my appetite was stimulated, and this led to wanting to read more and more.
The accident of being born a sansei in Hawaii and the love of reading were what brought me to the study of the Japanese language. It was not by any means a straight and narrow road. However, it seemed natural to be interested in my “roots” when people in the United States were being awakened to their ethnicity.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）