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Sunday, July 18, 1999


Becoming a black belt in things Japanese

When foreigners arrive in Japan for the first time, they are full of wonder. Many of us aren't familiar with the Japanese language or kanji and have only read about Japanese culture in magazines or books. We all start out with a "white belt" in things Japanese.

You earn your yellow belt after you've experienced Japan up close by living here a year or two. You've studied enough Japanese to be able to read the kanji for "bookstore" and you can even carry on a half-way decent conversation with a Japanese person, as long as he or she speaks fluent English. You've read some Lafcadio Hearn and Basho. You have a big collection of Japanese trinkets people have given you, such as fans and origami paper you don't know how to fold. Some people you hardly know took you to see kabuki or a noh play. You haven't seen them since.

You've considered taking a class in martial arts or traditional Japanese culture such as tea ceremony, calligraphy or flower arrangement. You're beginning to watch sumo on TV.

By the time you get your purple belt, you've had a conversation with your neighbor about the weather and you probably even sleep on the train. You've resigned yourself to language teaching and along the way have learned that to teach is to learn. You've read a few books about Japan written by "gaijin" and you're thinking of writing a book yourself.

You've dabbled a bit in one of the martial arts or one of the traditional Japanese arts and you've learned lots of useless Japanese related to these arts. You've purchased some lacquerware or expensive tea bowls. You can read the kanji that says your bicycle is going to be hauled away if you don't move it from that illegal parking space. If English wasn't your first language, it is now. You planned on leaving Japan last year but didn't.

You're still irritated by shrieking Japanese high-school girls at McDonald's and gangs of high-school boys who shout "Hello, Hello!" to you from across the street.

Getting your green belt involves a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and language. You've attained a certain level of expertise in things Japanese such as "shochu" and mahjong. You find yourself reflecting on past mistakes and you realize the importance of lying, even though you were taught to never, ever tell a lie. You've learned the advantages of "tatemae" and even forgot to bring your "honne" back to Japan with you the last time you visited your home country.

Newcomers to Japan start looking to you for guidance and direction. A new sense of responsibility emerges as you cultivate an image of authority on things Japanese. You take more Japanese classes and you read more books about Japan written by gaijin. You think, "I'm definitely going to write a book about Japan." You buy new toilet slippers.

You know you've earned your brown belt when you have a closet full of recyclable "omiyage." You've also eaten sea slugs, sea anemone and fish sperm and raved about how delicious they are. You've even made your parents and friends eat them when they came to visit you in Japan. You promised your parents you'd leave Japan five years ago but still haven't left.

You've continued those martial-arts classes and you have a broken nose to prove it. You've started teaching others about Japan and you've even taken part in some public forums or debates. You've read all of Natsume Soseki's novels. You know about "burakumin" because you've read "The Cape and other stories from the Japanese Ghetto" by Kenji Nakagami. You started The Tale of Genji" but never finished it.

You've warned children of "kappa" who live in the rivers and you never swim after Obon. You finally wrote that book about Japan but can't find a publisher.

You've earned your black belt when you've been in Japan so long that you've become an "obaachan" or "ojiisan." You live the Japanese way at a superconscious level. You are no longer separate from things Japanese -- you have embodied them and become them. You keep large stashes of cash in your drawer and you've dyed your gray hair purple. You can hustle a seat in the train faster than one can say "silver seat" and you've seen "hitodama" (spirit lights). But most importantly, no one messes with you.

And you're still looking for a publisher for that book of yours.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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