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Who Knows What is Right? But What is Wrong is Clear…

0403

Temporary Coronavirus wards erected in Manhattan’s Central Park

The Coronavirus is spreading far and wide throughout the globe. It is not clear what the best way to deal with it is, but it is obvious that some things that are being done are just plain wrong. Number one on that list is the way the US government has been dealing with it. Imagining that it can be dismissed with a wave of the hand is ridiculous. But that is just what the Trump administration has been doing. Trump predicts that everything will be fine and dandy within a month! And Wall Street is buying it! How stupid can people be?!

Incidentally, here in Japan, where the Coronavirus has been taken seriously from the start, there have been a total of 1926 cases, with 68 new cases on Sunday, which was the highest number since the start of the pandemic, and 66 deaths. Please understand that these figures change daily and do not reflect the latest information.

I came down with the flu when I first came to Japan last October. I did not think too much about it, but it was strange for me to be laid up in bed for a week when the flu usually lasts only a day or so with me. I just thought that my body must have been overstressed by the long flight from the US. And the symptoms were not severe, just a cough and slight fever. In my mind, that was nothing. Years ago I was in a car crash where I broke both my legs. THAT took six months to recover from. What I was dealing with now was almost nothing in comparison.

I am in prime physical condition. I exercise every day and eat a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables. Lately, I am also consuming a lot of soup, and with the cold and rainy weather we have been having in Tokyo (and a few days ago it snowed!), that helps to keep me warm.

So it is plain to see that I am taking care of my health in the best way possible. It would be comforting to know that the American government was doing the same to look out for the welfare of the rest of the country. But that is one thing that is definitely NOT clear.

I had been gearing up for the Olympics this summer, but then one nation after another declared that they would not be sending their athletes to Japan. So the International Olympic Committee postponed the Olympics for a year. What a disappointment! Now I have to go back to translating full time to keep myself busy.

But something that I have noticed is that there are many foreigners in Tokyo who speak fluent Japanese. That is surprising. Perhaps the reader wonders if I feel threatened by the potential competition. Not at all! I welcome it! If anyone can read and write Japanese as well as I do, more power to them!

When I first started studying Japanese back in the 1970s I was called by Japanese "hen na gaijin," or a "strange foreigner," even though THEY were the strangers in America and I was just studying the Japanese language.

But the fact is that at that time there was no reason to study Japanese. The Japanese economic miracle had not occurred at that point, so objectively speaking there was no reason to study the language. It was felt by many people (including my parents) that it could not lead anywhere.

My friends also wondered why I should study Japanese. I told them it was a mental exercise. I memorized the 2,000 kanji, or Chinese characters, that all Japanese students are required to learn as part of the standard curriculum in the school system. It takes discipline to do that. That, at least, could be respected. But why the Japanese language?

I was working in the aircraft leasing business in those days. I used to fly around the United States ferrying aircraft from one location to another. Then I would take a commercial flight to get back to my base in Los Angeles. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in airports or sitting in seats on aircraft.

People sitting next to me on planes would see me studying textbooks and ask, "What is that language you are studying?" When I would answer, "Japanese," they would be intrigued and follow up by wondering, "Isn’t Japanese a dialect of Chinese?" That is how little people in America knew about Japan. (Or China, for that matter. But don’t forget that China was still recovering from the effects of the Cultural Revolution. That country was still in a lot of turmoil.)

Today, the number of foreigners who speak fluent Japanese is amazing, even to me. I suppose that if they would really be put to the test their Japanese would not stand the strain, but I would not be so sure about my own skills when it comes to that! I can articulate virtually anything in Japanese, including jokes and anecdotes, but when it comes to complex matters, such as legal or official documents, I still need to consult dictionaries. A friend of mine turned 65 and had to submit documentation to the Social Security Administration in the US in order to receive benefits, so I had to translate her birth certificate and other documents into English for her. However, I had to enlist the help of an accredited translator in the Los Angeles Court system to certify my translation. My translation was fine, but legal procedure necessitates court certification. So my friend, a certified court translator, provided the service for my client (for a fee, of course).

Getting back to the amazing number of people who speak Japanese these days, I see them on television every day! Some even have their own programs! It is great to see!

And yet, although it is right that this should happen, it is wrong that it is being done incorrectly. Let me explain what I mean.

In Japan, the typical English language lesson is conducted in the following way. The student is given a model sentence, then it is broken down into segments and explained. Then the student is asked to repeat the sentence. End of lesson.

How many visitors to this website remember English lessons in school? Were they anything like that? Or were grammatical points, indicating subjects, verbs and objects focused on? Can English really be taught ignoring those things?

In school, Japanese get solid grounding in such matters, so perhaps the producers of such programs feel that it is not necessary to repeat such information. Fine. But present material in a manner to stimulate students, not put them to sleep!

What would I do? I live in Los Angeles, where News Radio says, "Give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world!" How about that? As someone is driving, how about putting that on the speakers, rather than music? Hearing that looping tape of the news should give anyone a clear grasp of well-articulated English, as the material is repeated again and again.

But here is another idea. I bought a friend a DVD of the movie, "L.A. Confidential." I wanted him to see this outstanding film. But I also wanted him, as a Japanese man, to understand it. So I also got a transcript of the film and gave it to him. In that way he could read the transcript and watch the film as it was playing. Then, I gave him a copy of the novel so that he could see the original work and compare it to the rest of the material.

Another friend of mine has been living in Los Angeles for fourteen years. It might be imagined that her English would be fairly good by now. But no such thing. She still has trouble articulating her words. So I gave her a copy of Neil Simon’s collected plays. Plays are the easiest material to read, because they are made up almost completely of dialogue. The plays can be read, then the movies made out of them can be seen. Even better, a live staging of a play can be attended. In Los Angeles, professional actors often perform in stage plays. It is interesting to see actors who play parts on television or in commercials act on the stage in such productions.

When I was married, I spent a lot of time trying to help my wife improve her English. I gave her a copy of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. That is a short novella with a story that everyone knows. My wife underlined words that she did not know and looked them up in a dictionary. The first page of the novella was filled with underlined words. Even in such a simple work! But my wife got discouraged and set the book aside. She couldn’t imagine going through 65~70 pages and learning all the new words there.

But that is what has to be done if one wants to learn a language. I did it myself when I was learning Japanese. I still make efforts to learn new words. Recently, I watched "Rashomon" on television here in Tokyo. This is a masterpiece from 1950 that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It starred two of the greatest actors in Japanese history, Mifune Toshiro and Kyo Machiko, and was directed by Kurosawa Akira, a genius in his own right. "Rashomon" was also written by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, whose name is on the award for the best Japanese writer every year.

In the beginning of the picture there was a notice saying that colloquial words and back country language is used in the film, so the viewer should be prepared for it. I have seen this film a dozen or more times, but I learn many new things every time. It is highly recommended that the reader seek the film out. It is a classic and a treasure of cinema.

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