Friday, February 11, 2011

On Japanese: Great beauty, great difficulty

The closest I’ve come to learning Japanese is the few classes that I managed to attend when I was working in Madras, over 10 years ago. That’s also pretty much the closest I’ve come to Japanese culture, unless you count the few days spent in the company of my friend and a few of his Japanese friends when we all travelled to a small town in Rajasthan to attend a third friend’s wedding.

Since my lack of Japanese was total, and their lack of English was nearly total, the only way to communicate was through my friend with whom we went to the wedding. (Okay, the groom spoke good Japanese too, and he might have assisted by interpreting/translating, but he was just too preoccupied with his wedding to manage more than a few minutes here and there – understandably enough, I suppose, if I must be charitable.) In other words, I would not be exaggerating if I said that I didn’t really manage to have deep and meaningful conversations with them about the intricacies and nuances of their cuisine and culture.

Anyhow, I've never eaten anything authentically Japanese, although I have a Japanese cookbook for beginners which was a wedding present from a dear friend who’d spent a lot of time teaching in Japan. I’ve read that book from cover to cover more than once, but not worked up the courage to try a single recipe in 9 years of owning the book. Not even the (very few) vegetarian recipes in it. And not even this blog-pal’s simply-described, knowledgeable and funny posts on home-made Japanese vegetarian dishes are likely to overcome my cowardice (check out her latest post here).

I’ve heard that Japanese cuisine is about freshness and simplicity - and lots and lots of fish. Raw. Maybe that’s why it frightens me so much. Or maybe it's the fear that comes from complete ignorance of the food and the culture... but if I’m honest, apart from inexperience, the main reason I'm intimidated is the Japanese focus on beauty and perfection in everything. Not only does the food have to be beautiful to the palate, it also has to be beautiful to the eye, with balance in texture and flavour and colour and looks. (I'd find that pretty worrying even without the stress of trying a completely unknown recipe – especially knowing that it would be eaten by others!)

Talking about beauty with edibility, have you seen Japanese bento boxes? (And read about the fierce competition between Japanese housewives and mothers to give their kids the most beautiful lunch box contents/arrangements possible, every single school day? I’m SO GLAD I’m not a Japanese housewife/mother. I’d be the human equivalent of what a belly flop would be to an Olympic diver!) If you haven’t, check out this link, and despair – and also admire: Beautiful bento.

I know first-hand that the Japanese are aesthetically oriented. I had got into a three-way conversation with my friend and one of the Japanese guys mentioned earlier, and Hamachan was showing me how to combine symbols to make a compound word in a third script (called kanji). The same symbols could be combined in two or three ways to mean the same thing, but what got me was when he pointed to a particular combination he’d written/drawn, and said “This is a more beautiful word, but that is not”.

I couldn’t at first get his drift, because after all both kanji had the same meaning. Hamachan tried to explain further, and finally it dawned on me – the first kanji was “more beautiful” in the sense of being more aesthetically pleasing in the way the symbols were combined. The others were more awkward, in his eyes, and therefore not perfect in their beauty. Right there, right then, I felt a huge despondence within me – what hope did I have of learning to read and write this incredibly complicated language? I would have considered it an achievement just to put the correct syllables together... but they were looking for “beautifully put together” as well??? What chance did a semi-creative non-perfectionist like me have? That was a humbling moment, allright.

I should explain that it wasn't cowardice that made me discontinue my nascent Japanese lessons... it was because I kept missing classes on account of work commitments, and found it impossible to catch up. Have I said it is NOT an easy language to learn, especially reading and writing? Still, I have always regretted it.


Anu said...

Ah so desu ka!

Nice post. You must read about Richard P Feynman's (Nobel Prize winning Physicist)attempts to learn Japanese and the time he opted to stay in a authentic Japanese hotel.

He eventually gave up on Japanese because of it's emphais on ensuring that the person you address is trated with superlatives - even in the field of Science.

e.g. Can't just say "How do you solve the Dirac Equation"

It has to be "Kindly bestow upon me the deep and sacred knowledge that thy esteemed self has about the solution to Dirac's equation"!


Anu said...

P.S. Sorry for all those typos :-)

Shammi said...

Anu: Yeah, I know there are manymanymany nuances to spoken Japanese, and manymanymany levels of politeness. Exhausting, I say! :) Have you learnt Japanese? The only thing I know to say is "watashi wa indo-jin desu" - and that's not even strictly accurate any more because I'm Indo-british-jin now :)

Anu said...

Nope - not a word except for "Sayanora"! Remember that cheesy song from "Love in Tokyo"?

ummon said...

not too much into japanese food... and hey at the nelson manickam road place? r and i went too... zilch came out of it.