Reading in Japan

Japanese are voracious readers. The literacy rate of the country is among the highest in the world, and for good reason. The school system is based largely on the teaching of kanji and with so many years of practice I can’t help but think that Japanese people take that love of reading (or at least looking at) Japanese and carry it through their lives.

Reading is a big part of Japanese culture. It’s not abnormal to witness droves of young men and teenagers at the convenience store on a Saturday night standing around doing nothing but reading magazines and comics off the shelves. As I am writing this I am in a Starbucks and the bookstore is full of people standing around reading. It’s Saturday afternoon and it would seem many young people have nothing better to do than stand around in a small bookstore and read.

As you may have seen even Japanese TV has not escaped this aspect of the culture. Almost any Japanese show has subtitles throughout. These are part of the program and there is no way to turn them off. Imagine watching the nightly news or your favorite reality show with giant English subtitles and no way to turn them off. I feel like this would drive many of us crazy.

What do Japanese people like to read? Many young people tend to like manga. For men this may or may not wane as they get deeper into their 20s and older. Women seem to outgrow manga sometime around the college years or shortly thereafter. That’s not to say no adults read manga; however, I’ve always gotten the impression Japanese people view manga as something for kids. Adults tend to like novels, magazines, and biographies.  Many times I get the feeling people just want to read something and set about reading whatever they can.

Despite being such prolific readers Japanese people have not adopted the e-reader as a fixture. I’ve never seen one here. They only just recently started selling the Kindle and it’s such an unpopular item it retails for almost 50% off what Americans pay. As I’ve mentioned many times, the stereotype that Japanese are much more technologically ahead of the curve has been completely to the opposite in my experience. They are about 10-15 years behind in most things; e-readers are not an exception.

So, when in Japan grab yourself a book and get to reading.



Language Peculiarities

There seems to be an interesting phenomena in Japanese. The division between “young people” speak and “not-young people” speak is an important aspect to know if you want to learn the language.

I have no proof of this and I’m sure many people more advanced in Japanese, and almost certainly the vast majority of natives themselves, would disagree with me on this. However, I feel there is an arbitrary break in the many cases in the language that aren’t actual breaks in the language but more so based on culture and psyche.

That’s not to say there are no such distinctions because there are. However, I think the extent of the distinction is highly arbitrary.

Here’s an example: The word “yabai” can generally be thought of as something akin to “terrible” or “troublesome” (however, it’s very recently started being used in an ironic fashion to mean something good). In a recent Japanese journal post I used the word and received a comment that said yabai wasn’t a very polite word; it’s mostly used by young people. This is not an isolated incident.

First, the idea that a word is not polite and a young person’s word is a strange concept to me. Are these two really mutually exclusive? These seem like such an odd pair. Young people say polite things all the time, as do many old people say impolite things.

Second, the second part of this isn’t really correct. Sure, I don’t hear people over the age of 50 say the word very often, but I do hear it. I certainly hear it frequently enough for it to lose classification as a “young person’s word” from the 25-49 age bracket. As with most words, it’s the context that counts.

To me these speak much more about culture and psyche than the language (yes, I understand an argument can be made that these are the same thing).

Japanese people tend to think of politeness as a set of habits one does to keep harmony with others. Young people lack this ability. So, you get a lot of “adults do x” or “kids do x” type of talk in Japan. If you’re late to work, you won’t get a lecture so much about being a bad employee, but you will get lectured about being an adult and not a kid anymore.

The link here, then, is that adults are able to function in a polite manner, children are not. However, that doesn’t seem to me to indicate that something is a word reserved only for young people. Imagine your grandpa watching a video and he suddenly says “that’s dope!” After your laughter subsided you might think to yourself, “was what grandpa said wrong?” There’s the question. He just used a word generally used only by young people. A word, nonetheless, not generally regarded as a polite word or one you’d want to use at an interview. Still, does that mean he shouldn’t say it? Is this word strictly only in the domain of the young person? Was his English bad here? Or was it perfectly fine? If you were an English teacher and heard this would you correct it?

The second part here is the fragile Japanese psyche. I’ve heard words I’ve been told are only for the young used by older people all the time. Still, if informed of this you often get a “only children say that”. This is a human thing but I seem to see it happen more visibly in Japan. People are very touchy about seeming other than they want to be seen, namely, as a well-oiled, fully adapted member of societal norms. Of course an adult would never use this word, it would be “impolite”, and therefore not in accordance with societal norms. Except they do use this word, albeit less frequently than their callow counterparts.

This extends out beyond language but we’ll try to stay on topic.

As a Japanese language learner I am never in short supply of being told I’m using young words. My favorite example of this happened last year. The Vice Principle said something to me using the phrase “mecha mecha” (meaning “very”). This is, roughly speaking, a “young person” term. Still, there was my Vice Principle, a 50-60 year old guy in a position of authority using it. In my replying sentence I used the same exact phrase and was chided by the woman next to me. “That’s a children’s word! Don’t say that!”

WHAT!? The V.P. just said it! He’s older than I am and presumably in a position further removed from such ghastly language. It would appear that no, in fact, only children don’t use the word.

Sometimes I make a game out of this. At some point you get a handle on what qualifies as “young person” talk and what doesn’t. If I hear an adult say something which typically does, I like to repeat it to someone else. I try to pick a target like a supervisor, older person, etc. Invariably I am told not to use such language. The joke is, I’ve simply repeated a sentence I heard another adult say.

The frustrating part is that I tend to be fairly well spoken in English and I try to be in Japanese as well. I’m not a very slangy person outside of doing it for effect. It’s difficult to copy good habits when you’re constantly told natural speech is, in fact, not good to copy.

Isn’t this peculiar? How is it that such division exists, yet it is still not followed?