Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Losto in Translationo- From Kathakali to Katakana

"We have to do a Gap Analysis on the previously done Requirement gathering and ....................."

The boss froze.. "Earthquake???"

"Is it, I didn’t feel anything!!" I asked and also stopped unconsciously tapping my foot against his chair.
“I’m sure I felt something !!” He insisted….

We both listened for a minute and he concluded it had stopped quaking.... Of course, I didnt move my foot again either :-)
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Another day in Sushi land, and I have hardly felt those famed earthquakes yet, a couple of times I was sure there were tremors but others felt it was just a strong wind or too much alcohol in the bloodstream.


But well, this post is not about earthquakes, but it is about the greatest threat to life in Japan for any foreigner......... ie: the Japanese Language !! The squiggly figures of Japanese language and their implications are the greatest mysteries to anyone who lands here. Whereas you can survive here even without knowing a single word of Japanese, there are often moments of immense frustration where you desparately construct Japanese words adding "o" or "u" to the English, Hindi or even the Malayalam words i know. There are guys who used soap powder instead of salt in the curry , or aji-no-motto instead of sugar as the shopkeeper didnt exactly understand the requirement.

Me too used to be a part of the clan till recently , but then wait, its been 6 months here in Tokyo for me; and "Times,they're a-changing.....!!!" Here I'd like to say that the days of elaborate dumbcharades (Kathakali as Mallus would put it) to explain even something simple like "I didnt order this weird dish with strange things floating in it, and can I have a sandwich instead mebbe " – are slowly getting over.

The reason?? Japanese lessons.Yes, I'm beginning to be enlightened!! The cheapest way to learn Japanese in Tokyo is to join one of the classes offered by the City Ward offices. And of course that’s what I did. At just 7000 yen (Rs 2500 odd) you get 20 odd sessions @ 2hrs a class and 2 days a week.

Each class of Learning Japanese is like an episode of "Mind your Language" what with students from varied nationalities. There is a shavenheaded Turkish artist who looks like Bollywood villain Bob Cristo, a trio of un-smiling Myanmarian family with rhyming double first names like Myint Myint, Rin Tin etc , a Norwegian photojournalist who has traveled 55 countries, an English pantomime artist who might strike a pose mid-class, a Serbian Babysitter, a dreadlocked Brit DJ who is a fan of Amritanandamayi, a few Filipino beauties, An English teacher from NY, an Iraqi Telecommunication engineer who never learnt any Japanese despite being here for 15 years , and the usual Indian software guys slogging here for their Japanese bosses.

And together we do to the Japanese language what the Japanese do to English :-)

Absolute Mayhem !

For example last day someone exclaimed "Kono air-con wa warai desu" (that airconditioner is laughing!!!) (ok cant blame him ,"Warui"- would have meant That a/c is bad"). And " Watashi wa kyo terebi sutte to omoimasu" I think I will smoke a TV today....

Everyday I'm learning new words. Just last day I learned that Jiten-sha was not just a Gujju name, it means " bicycle" hereabouts. Also "Sumimasen" though it sounds like Srinivasan's brother ,is the essential "Excuse me". And kuruma does not need a prefix "veg" and instead could use Toyota, as it means car!!!

You might have noticed already; these guys are pretty convinced on having hardcore Japanese names for just about anything. But then; you ain’t seen anything yet. Can you guess what a plasma TV is called in Japanese? A “ Kabekake-ekisho-terebi”!! Even when you have got enough money to buy a Plasma TV, you have to actually say it to buy one. And a dishwasher is a shoki-jido-senjoki. Would you rather wash dishes by hand or learn that up?

Writing the language is another story. It is a mix of 3 sets of alphabets which makes the task real complicated. At the current speed, a page of a Japanese newspaper could provide me enough reading material for a month!!! I mean the 30% of that which I can read.

Well, the funny thing is Japanese could have been entirely written with the series of alphabets called Hiragana - but then they weren’t content with that. They devised another set of words called Katakana to write all the words derived from English and other foreign languages. Now that makes a total of 110 odd alphabets which is still conquerable with a bit of effort. Well ahem, It took me just 2-3 weeks to master the same. Though I struggle with writing a bit, I guess I manage reading pretty fast. Alas, the story is not over....

Displaying an incredible propensity for masochism they use an elaborate Chinese derived series of pictorial symbols called Kanji numbering around 5000!! Although they say only 1000 odd are in common use, learning even these is a really tough task. It works this way- when kids start learning they write everything in Hiragana and as they learn more kanji, they substitute the Hiragana with Kanji and become sophisticated. It is supposed to make things easier, by pictorially representing some alphabets but then again sometimes I see there is a entire long word which is substituted by a couple of Kanjis, but then there are other times when a wee little word is written via 2 or 3 of these complicated heiroglyphics making you wonder what is the point of the entire exercise. To add to the conundrum each of these Kanjis has two or three sounds associated with it as well as 2 or 3 meanings. And so, if you ask me, for all the atrocities Japan has done in China; this seems to be root cause !!!

Apart from the communication part, the biggest concern of an Indian techie coming to Japan is the prevailing notion of incredibly long working hours. The image of an average Japanese salary man is one who is in office by 8 am and leaves only by 11 pm!! The Indian techies working for their Japanese bosses also often have to follow the same timings. Once I met a very Japanese looking guy in a lift who suddenly smiled and asked "Hi, Kahan se ho?" !! Turned out he was a techie from Delhi but as he hadn’t left office for 2 days ☺ his eyes looked quite Japanese,. This part usually depends and as far as I’ve seen, the conditions in MNCs are usually better….

Talking of busy people I have seen only group of people who are absolutely relaxed in Japan. That would be the local police. I guess if they ever made a police series in Japan in the lines of NYPD blues or COPS it is going to be the most insomnia-curing series ever telecast. There seems to be hardly any crime around and probably a NY Cop sees as much action in one hour as a Tokyo cop would do in his entire career. I’ve hardly seen a police car here and an average Japanese cop is a slight bespectacled guy on a bicycle who may not hurt any one even in a video game. Even the people in Wanted posters look so gentle like well , everyone else.....

And this brings me to that eternal question which I’m fed up of being asked by friends back in India; and I suspect, is asked to whoever going to China, Japan, Korea and so on. And that of course is “ How do you tell the people there apart? Everyone looks exactly the same!!” And so the last time I answered “Precisely!!! Here’s how they solved it in Japan being so technologically advanced. Everyone has a barcode assigned to himself/ herself and has it tattooed on their arms. Everyone carries a bar code reader too. So in case you don’t recognize someone, you hold the barcode reader against the other person’s arm and beep all his details appear on your reader”

Honestly, people!!!!!! ;-))

Leaving you now with a clip from the movie “Lost in Translation” (after which my travelogue posts are named) which shows the “What the hell was it…??” sort of feeling experienced by an American actor (Bill Murray) who has come to Japan for shooting a Whisky ad. This clipping is one of the most hilarious moments from the movie....