Sunday, January 25, 2009

In a grove - what's your version of Japanese?

Let a Ghost Dog Teach You Some Language Learning Tricks

A recent post on Rashomon by Jon got me thinking about the relationship between culture and language learning, and how inseparable the two are. Language does not occur in a vacuum, and often we forget to lift our heads up from the kanji cards and textbooks long enough to soak up the culture that is all around us.

One of my favourite movies of all time is Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog - The way of the Samurai", where Forrest Whitaker plays a hit man retained by the Mafia. Ghost Dog, despite being 500 years too late and on the other side of the world, sees himself as samurai and lives by the warrior code of Bushido. It is clear the reclusive Ghost Dog doesn't see the world in quite the same way that others do.

Rashômon (Cast)
Rashômon (Cast) by bluelephant, on Flickr

Do you face your daily study with a warrior's conviction?

Ghost Dog has given himself over to the way of the warrior, each day he faces death with the same sense of fearless conviction. The books he reads are therefore not just an aid to his study, they are his reason for it. His adopted culture forms a framework for understanding and responding to interactions he has with other characters in the movie.

When we are learning a second language, culture becomes even more crucial to making sense of things. Can you imagine learning Japanese without having any notion of kimono, samurai or sushi? Some people cringe when they hear about my love of natto, but can really say you've tasted Japan without trying it, or many of the other unsavoury foods you can find there?

Akira Kurosawa chose the old gate at the southern end of Kyoto, to frame his film Rashomon in the dim light of moral decay. Ghost Dog gives Rashomon and Other Stories as a gift to a young girl he befriends in the park. It is not well known that the plot for the film Rashomon was based on a short story, "In a grove" by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, in which seven unreliable narrators tell of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife.

Giles Murray has written an excellent translation of the story, accompanied by the original Japanese text and readings in Japanese in his book "Breaking into Japanese Literature".

"In a grove" may have been one of the books read by Whitaker in Ghost Dog. It's a classic of modern Japanese literature, that demonstrates how each person constructs their own version of reality. When I read it's multiple points of view, I get a chaotic and contradictory picture of what should be a simple crime of passion.


How do you immerse yourself in Japanese, especially authentic Japanese? Do you believe we construct our own version of reality when we learn another language? How so?

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