A rose by any other name?? / 始めを振り返って

So now that I’ve written around 10 articles specifically on language, I’m starting to feel better about writing in both languages. I’ve confirmed that there’s definitely some aspect of my cognitive process that’s driven by the language I’m using.

At first, I felt more comfortable writing in English because I had a nagging awkward feeling while writing about the same things in Japanese.  I had thought that this was because English is now my dominant language, but that doesn’t quite explain the writer’s block I get in Japanese. What I’ve come to realize is that the root of the awkward feeling is my perception of taboos in Japanese culture.  In fact, there was at least one entry I didn’t finish because I freaked myself out.  It was about an unpleasant encounter with a jerk, and I had no problem ranting about it in English when I knew it could potentially be public. When I sat down to write in Japanese, “NO, NO, NO”, my brain kept saying.  “You’ll be slaughtered, crushed!”, my brain said.  I mean, who’s really going to come after me because I complained about one jerk? Somehow, an insane fear to overexpose my feelings came over me.  I couldn’t even write a full paragraph in Japanese even though I had written about it in English minutes before.

Is it cultural?  Yes, certainly.  Is it driven by the language?  YUP.  Same topic, same person, same timing, but while I had a cohesive thought in one language, I couldn’t keep it together in another.

Japanese did not allow me to write in an expressive way without sounding like a totally crazy jerk myself while English allowed me to be a silly jerk.

I’ve noticed that in other random Japanese blogs I’ve read.  I can’t say I’ve read too many, but here’s the impression I got. You have to be either super pleasant, or sound like a total judgmental scumbag.  I just find it hard to believe that these super pleasant people exist in real life.  Their blog is a pleasant image they present, but not the actual person. Yeah, I’m a suspicious New Yorker, so what? Everyone sounds good on their resume, but how often were you surprised when people showed up for an interview?

What was even more surprising was the fear I felt. Ranting about an event in English, I knew I sounded like somewhat of a jerk, but I wasn’t that concerned.  I started writing in Japanese and I was shaking in my boots from fear that a group of Japanese men in suits were gonna show up in my bedroom and silently crush me to death.  Really, I felt like I was messing with taboo and karma.  The event really wasn’t that deep, but the fact that I tried to write about it in Japanese was somehow a taboo.

I also had the same stomach wrenching feeling when I wrote about my family. All I did was give some linguistic background (if you can even call it that for a three year old) but it was terribly difficult to write about my own kids in Japanese.  In fact, I think it took me more than double the time to write the same post in Japanese.  I was writing some private things, exposing my family to the public eye, I even used their names!  I finished it, because it was crucial I have that information as part of this blog, but it was a huge struggle.  I couldn’t even decide if I should use my children’s names in the post.  Is it too much?  Should I use initials?  Should I share the Chinese characters?  Should I mention their age?  Will the men in suits take them away if I do this?  Marc and I thought long and hard about our children’s names and we are proud of them, but I felt ashamed to mention them in a Japanese blog. I felt like I would be judged that “Mila” wasn’t a typical “good” Japanese name.  None of this ever even occurred to me until I was writing in Japanese.  Such a strange sense of resistance to sharing basic, basic information.

In retrospect, the two taboos that worked against me regarding names are these:

One is comfort in anonymity. Japan is a country known for its uniformity, and for a long time, it was indeed true. Not standing out was usually considered a good sign. There is a saying in Japanese, 「出る杭はうたれる」 or “A nail that sticks out will be beaten down”.  This was an accurate description of what would happen to you if you were to have your own opinion that diverged too much from the public’s.  Anonymity was your only protection from being put into your place.  Exposing my children’s names takes that anonymity away from them.  This blog has a lot of my personal opinion, some may agree and some may not.  Even though that’s OK with me and I’m open to other opinions, I’m afraid of the cultural beat down that I could receive from a Japanese audience.

The other taboo is the social stigma of not having a “normal” name.  DQN names, and the criticism of them, have become a social phenomenon in Japan.  A DQN name is a name that is designed to stand out, a name that is difficult to read.  A name that sounds foreign is sometimes also included in this category.  The most well-known American DQN name would be Pilot “Standard” Inspektor, son of Jason Lee.  There are many online discussion forums on this topic in Japan and people are quite obsessed with making sure their child does not have a DQN name.  “Nina” is a fairly “normal” Japanese name, as well as English, Spanish, Russian, and several other languages.  This was one of the reasons we chose it.  “Mila”, on the other hand, is a perfectly good name in English, Hindi, Russian, and several other languages, but not quite a traditional Japanese name. “Mila” can be pronounced in most languages, which was also important to us, and the pronunciation is perfectly acceptable in Japanese.  However, her Chinese characters, “実良”, which mean “good harvest” (since she was born in autumn), are a bit different.  There are not many Chinese characters that can be read as “la.” For “la”, we used the character “良”, which is not typically read that way.  The normal way to read that character is “ryo.” Here’s where it gets complicated.  There are many  many cases in Japanese where Chinese characters are read differently just for names.  For example, the character for the number nine, “九”, is generally pronounced “kyuu”, or “ku”, but in very rare cases, it can be used in a name and read “hisashi.”  Also, the Japanese family registry where you register your child’s name allows you to register any Chinese character with whatever name pronunciation you want.  It allows for all kinds of funny names.  Anyways, the character “良” has been used in last names as “la” in some cases.  I happen to have a childhood friend whose last name was “平良” and read “Taira (la)”. So for me, using that letter came pretty naturally.  But for many others, it could be an illegible DQN name.  In fact, sometimes, I’ve had people ask me to clarify how to read her name.  Having a confusing name can lead to criticism of the parent’s intelligence, personality, credibility…until there is no humanity left.  Again, her name is not half as weird as Pilot Inspektor, but in Japan, diverging from the norm can come with great backlash.  DQN names have become a cultural pet peeve for many, but the point at which someone starts to qualify a name as a DQN name is pretty different from person to person.  Since I couldn’t gauge the reaction to my child’s name, I was afraid to put it out there.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the name “Mila”.  Marc and I spent months thinking about it, and we decided on the name with love and confidence.  However, there’s still fear associated with the potential unreasonable allergic reaction.

There are many more taboos in Japanese culture than in American culture, and language is an effective implementation tool of that culture. Japan is a strong culture of the royal “We”, a culture of “You are one of us or you are not worthy”.  Worthy of what?  I don’t know.  Who’s the “us”? I don’t know.  I suddenly understood why it was so difficult for Japanese people to simply say “No”.  YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED if you use our language correctly.

Speaking in Japanese, I don’t really feel this way, but when I sit down to write, expressing anything about my private life or a simple perspective is so difficult.

My children, on the other hand, may learn Japanese, but will not likely be exposed to the culture the language is associated with as much as I was having two Japanese parents from Japan.  So my current hypothesis is that even if my children speak Japanese, they will not have enough cultural ties with the language for it to affect how they think.  We’ll see if this is actually true….in about 20 years or so.





もう一つは今の日本でのDQNネームに対する考えかな。日本に住んでいない私でさえ知っている、DQN ネーム、まるで社会現象みたいに増えていて、しかもそれに対する大勢の人達のリアクションが恐ろしい。新菜は結構普通の日本名でもあるんだけど、実良は当て字なんですよね。私は小さい頃の友人にタイラさん、という子がいて、彼女の名字が平良だったので、私の中で”良”は”ら”って人名では使える字だと思ってたんですが、それって、一般常識ではないんですよね。つまり、漢字では、読みにくい名前の部類に入っちゃう。私達は、名前を着けるとき、どの国でも発音しやすい名前、漢字をちゃんと考える事、季節関係の名前にしたい、と考えていたので、新菜は冬産まれなので”新春”との意味をこめて、実良は秋生まれなので”良い実り、充実”と言った意味を込めてつけたんですが、当て字なのと、ミラというのが余り日本での典型な名前でない事は事実で、そこのところを突っ込まれそうだな、と。別に突っ込まれるのはまだしも、オンラインで何か言われるのはやだな~、と。ちなみにNinaは英語だけではなくて、スペイン語、またはロシア語、等でも名前としてあるし、Milaもヒンズー系、ロシア系とその他色々でもある名前です。マークも私も名前としては、両方ともとても気にいってるんですが、どの程度をとって、DQNネームというのかというのがはっきりとした定義がない以上、しかも日本の今の風潮として、DQNネームを付ける親は毒親、と言われる中、自分たちもそれにされてしまうのか、という恐怖感は英語で書いている時には思いもしなかったのに、日本語で改めて子供の名前を書く時には、色々と考え込んでしまった。考えかた自体が完全に言語に左右されてたんですね。




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