Learning Japanese

by Ena Selimović

Over the past ten months, I’ve been learning Japanese. I had little knowledge of the language when I started, but I can point to two general reasons that prompted me to begin.


The first was an obsession with all things meticulous: literature (this can’t be a surprise), lace crochet, woodwork like yosegi and wood block prints, writing and rewriting by hand—


Yes, please.


It was enough to know that this planet's best writing utensils are engineered in Japan. At the start of fourth grade, before I grew reckless enough to speak my thoughts aloud in English and consequently give my new classmates an opportunity to compile a full dossier of evidence that, yes, perhaps I was a freak, they could simply gesture toward the gorgeous stainless-steel mechanical pencil that I all but shined before tackling our “language arts” assignments for the day. Apparently my obsession was weirder than my deskmate’s, whose inspected treasures were also within finger’s reach but more—biodegradable.

Could I add here that I’d also developed a dependence on tuna onigiri?

The second reason presented itself a few years ago. I briefly visited Tokyo with my spouse after realizing I’d never been a tourist in what I thought was the conventional base sense of the word: a person who visits new places (and for fun, even). In other words, I’d only ever traveled back. Mostly back to Bosnia, to visit what was left of my extended family, who would lay out fresh pajamas for me the night I arrived. Who would welcome me with krompiruša or baklava or soka od ruže or patišpanja in Tokyo? I also traveled back to Turkey, where I hauled the frustration of no longer knowing the language in which I’d read my first books or made my first best friend or entered my first classroom. For crying out loud, I’d been sınıf başkanı (class president)! Did that mean nothing?! (In short: yes.)

For all the enthusiasm—

The trip to Japan went awry. The pull to learn more followed the same course. As though I’d initially grabbed onto a rough twisted rope that left calluses on my hands and burned them as my grip failed. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t quite work, but all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and stay in our rental. I realized something crucial about myself when it comes to travel (or, stepping outside of my front door): I am a bad tourist. I am not good at being in new places. I am not good at not knowing any of the languages of the places I find myself in, and to me it seems worse to default to English as someone marked a “foreigner,” as someone who will perpetually hold an “alien number” in the States. I will always carry the history of being a child in “ESL” classes (for “English as a Second Language, now “ESOL,” or English Speakers of Other Languages). As a refugee (or, “sexier,” exile), English and Turkish were both languages that were differently imposed upon me, and I feel uncomfortable imposing any languages on others.


And here I am, learning Japanese. A language that carries its own complex imperial history. Part of the reason it’s much easier to commit to learning Japanese than, say, any of the thousands of minoritized languages in the world, is precisely because it is an imperial language. For its learners, it offers tons and tons of resources (an uncanny word in this context!).

But until I began to learn Japanese, I didn’t know I would be learning Japanese. The decision came unexpectedly: I had been in the process of relearning Turkish but kept hitting a (PTSD-sized) wall. Latent traumas resurface in the languages we relearn. Long story short, the more I learned Japanese, the more I found myself aided by my knowledge of BCMS (Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian) and my familiarity with Turkish. For example:

火山 (かざん) – kazan – means “volcano.” In Turkish, “kazan” is a boiler or cauldron.

女 (おんな) – onna – means “woman.” In BCMS, “ona” is the third-person singular pronoun her.

かばん – kaban – means “purse.” In Turkish, “kaban” is a coat. In BCMS, “kabanica” is a raincoat… Okay, this one really messes with me.

下げる (さげる) – sageru – means to lower something. In BCMS, “sagnuti se” means to bend down, hence lower yourself.

Sabrina, Mirgul, and I have since talked about these similarities and the controversy about the Altaic language family. The reading list is growing at an alarming rate. Currently I’m reading Renée Worringer’s Ottomans Imagining Japan and her edited volume The Islamic Middle East and Japan. And I wish I could get my hands on [an affordable copy of] the Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages!


All of this reminds me of what Mary Louise Pratt concisely calls “contact zones.” You never know what languages you’ll actually be learning. Stay tuned, friends.