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Saturday, May 5, 2012
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
The word of words
Sometimes students will ask me, "What's your favorite Japanese word?"
And thus you, in turn, might ask, "Favorite Japanese word? Geesh. Why would they ever ask that?"
And so now I must ask you back, "Why would you ever ask what they ask? Geesh. This is Japan."
And as any teacher here knows, there is typically but one reason and one reason only why any student would ever ask a question . . .
Because they've been told to.
"OK," my line starts, as I face a room of 20 students, with the lesson almost complete. "Everyone ask me a question. Any question. And then today's class will be finished."
And after a minute of bone dead silence, my line continues . . .
"OK, ask me a question, any question, or we will stay here all night. I do not care that you have club practice, dates, part-time jobs or empty stomachs. For I have none of those. As well as no other life. So I do not mind camping here until the next ice age. In fact, that sounds better than riding home in a train full of sweaty commuters."
And so . . . slowly . . . the hands fly up. All the usual suspects appear:
"How old are you?"
"Do you like Japan?"
"What's your favorite color?"
(Sigh. If students were cats and could be killed by curiosity alone, then some might live forever.)
The initial volunteers have it easy. But sooner rather than later the old standby questions are all consumed. Slower volunteers endure the pain of having to think.
And so sometimes the question comes . . . "What is your favorite Japanese word?"
Of course they expect me to say something either romantic ("ai" or love), positive ("yume" or dream), indulging ("Ganbare Nippon!" or Go Japan!) or off the wall ("aisu kuriimu" or ice cream). And when younger, I may have reached for any of those quick kills.
But not any more. For now I have a Japanese word that I adore. One that I love so much I never miss any chance to hurl it into the void. Here it comes. Look out!
Which means . . . Um . . .
In disarray? Goofed up? Botched?
Any of which might please my editor, who was perhaps cringing in fear that I might choose something more four-wordish.
Yet it is not for the meaning alone that I am smitten by mechakucha. Although the meaning does suit me rather well.
For my teaching style is clearly more mechakucha than Socratic. And any newspaper column that sinks half its length into its lead — like this one — is also certifiably mechakucha. The word thus fits my life like day-glo spandex on a Barbie doll.
But putting that mechakucha simile aside, the bigger reason I love this word is its sound. Say it slowly and listen . . .
Isn't it beautiful?
The beauty results, I feel, from the rhythmic mix of vowels and consonants. Two lyrical "cha" sliced by a crisp "ku," and topped off by a delicious "me," pronounced, "may." Serve it with coffee and it's almost a desert and not a word at all.
Mechakucha rings like the magic name of a doe-eyed princess, hiding deep in a fairytale forest. Or like the hearty toast of two Elfin kings as they clack together frothy mugs of ale. Or like the bucolic musings of a harmonic woodchuck, pondering just how much wood he might chuck if only he could chuck wood.
Oh, if only Shakespeare would have had this word at his disposal, what further works of wonder might have flowed from his quills! "Alls Mechakucha That Ends Mechakucha!" "A Mechakucha Night's Dream!" And so on.
Or Poe! Think of how many more bodies he might have bricked behind walls if only he had had mechakucha as an adjective.
What is more, mechakucha is almost impossible to mumble. To make a proper mechakucha demands full enunciation. The entire facial anatomy must be employed — the lips, the cheeks, the jaw, the tongue. Mechakucha is a term that can only be propelled with passion.
The word is a four-syllable workout. Say mechakucha correctly 1,000 times a day and you might drop five pounds.
True, most people don't need to lose five pounds from their face. Keep it up and you might develop a head like a doorknob.
Hence mechuakucha is a word that should never be abused. And instead applied sparingly, reserved for those precious moments of total disorder for which only one word truly fits.
Which, in my case, happens to work out to about once every hour. Which is another reason why I adore this word of words — familiarity.
And so when students ask me my favorite Japanese word, I look them straight in the eye, weigh the balance of all the other mindless questions, and boldly say . . .
There can be no other Japanese word for me.