Nihongo wo hanasenai [I can’t speak Japanese]

In Gupter Puncher/Oli Johns on June 12, 2010 at 2:28 pm

The first eighteen years of his life, Oli never learnt a language.

There was French in high school, but that was accidental. Or not accidental, mandatory, but that wasn’t really it.

He never understood why he had to learn another language. He had a friend and a sister who learnt the grammar and the perfect and the irregulars, but he couldn’t ever imagine doing that.

The French teacher said one time, ‘the key is…to think in French.’

His sister said one time, ‘You’re stupid if you can’t do it.’

His friend said one time, ‘I wanna fuck a French girl.’

And there was German too, but that was cold. Way too cold for him. Yet, he thought later, there are, what, seventy million people in Germany who feel comfortable using these words.

But at the time, in those first eighteen years, he couldn’t understand how to do it. And he did wonder sometimes if he was stupid. And then counter-wonder if other people like his sister and his friend wanted him to think he was stupid. And most times, the counter wonder was dominant.

‘I’m not stupid. I got an ‘A’ in History. I wrote a story called J F Quaye. That’s not stupid,’ he would say to himself on his bed.

But it was never definite.


At University he met a Spanish guy and they became friends.

Sometimes they would be eating lunch in the Union and his friend would pick up his phone and start speaking in Spanish. At least he guessed it was Spanish, as to him it was just noise. And as he waited for his friend to finish, he would reason it out:

How can he make sense of that noise and I can’t?

Is it difficult vocab he’s using?

Would it take me long to learn?

I want to learn Spanish.

Go to the book shop, buy a textbook. Talk to Stu every day, ten minutes a day at least, in Spanish.

Is he better than me?

He can speak two languages, I can speak one.

And the friend would end the call and switch straight back to English, and Oli would think, how the fuck does he do that?

‘How do you do that, man?’

‘Do what?’

‘Switch from one to the other…you know, Spanish to English, so fast. How?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t really think about it.’

‘There’s no, like, click or anythi-…’

‘It’s natural, I guess. Just a natural kind of change.’


And after lunch Oli would think a little more about learning Spanish and buying that textbook and speaking ten minutes a day, but like many things in his life, he never did.


At Uni there wasn’t only a Spanish friend. There was a Chinese guy too. And some Japanese people. And Koreans. Greeks. Italians. Dozens of them all walking in and out of shot, making Oli feel a little bit worse about himself.

It’s just luck though, he told himself. They grew up learning two, I grew up being told not to.

He remembered his History teacher telling the class how pointless it was to learn French.

‘In real life, which is what we live in every day, is there really any necessity to learn this…language? Will any of you go and live in France? Ha, and would you really want to? It’s full of French people. Full of cowards.’

And the class laughed, as most fourteen year olds do when someone slaughters something that isn’t them.


In his bed, in his fourth year of Uni, after a night watching the Chinese guy talk to the prettiest Chinese girl he’d ever seen, and talking in that noise he could never understand, he thought of his history teacher again.

He got out of bed and walked around his room and started speaking, telling the history teacher a few home truths, telling him how limited he was and how shit his life was and how…how limited he was. Then telling that racist prick to go fuck himself.

It always came like this. In bursts.

And then for the rest of the time he forgot about it all.


In Japan, he was determined.

Walking around Fukuoka, seeing signs he couldn’t read, hearing that noise again, everywhere.

Fuck it, this is a chance, he thought. This time I’ll learn.


The first night in the new apartment he met his housemate. A huge guy, British, arrogant. A cultural imperialist.

Kieran asked him a few things and then explained his position on not learning Japanese.

‘Some people do,’ he said, ‘but not me. I mean, I could if I gave time to it but…’

Oli waited for the rest.

‘…you know, but you don’t have to here and…you don’t have to learn it, everyone speaks English. And that’s not an endorsement of the…the, you know, cultural hegemony of the…of Western culture but…it is what it is. Right?’

Oli didn’t know. He’d only been there one day.

‘See, people don’t want you to speak Japanese to them. Yeah, seriously…it sounds strange but…sounds like a lazy man’s excuse, I know, but…it’s true, they want you to speak English. No, more than that, they are…they’re almost offended if you don’t speak English.’

Oli nodded and went to his room and got out his textbook and looked at a few Hiragana characters and ignored everything the cultural imperialist had said.

Fuck you, he mumbled, and fell asleep.

A few months later and Kieran had a different explanation.

‘See…if I’m honest…if I just tell it like it truly is…which I can, I can do that…and…you know, the thing about the Japanese is…the thing, the reason why I don’t learn…’

He paused, got up, went to the kitchen counter and grabbed the bottle of whisky and came back.

‘What was I saying?’

‘The thing about Japan-…’

‘The Japanese, yeah…see, the thing is, the reason is…I’m scared of failure. Up front…no hiding from it, I am scared.’


‘And the thing is…I know I’m intelligent. I know that. I mean, no offense, but I look around at work and here and all the…all the guys I know, all the western guys and…I know I’m smarter than them.’

More whisky.

‘Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I’m smarter than you too actually…and it’s not boasting…I’m not being cute or egostatistical or whatever you’re sitting there thinking…and I know it sounds that way but…the truth…the truth is I’m one of the smartest people I know…if not the smartest. And that’s the objective…the objective thing, you know?’

He paused again and closed his eyes.

‘So you’re scared of looking stupid?’ Oli asked.

But it was too late for questions, Kieron was asleep.

Only he wasn’t.

The next morning Oli came back into the living room and he was in the same position. And his eyes didn’t open. His mouth didn’t breathe.

The cultural imperialist was dead.


In Yokohama, after getting a transfer to another school, Oli met up with an old friend from Uni. The friend had been two hours away from him in Kyushu, in a town called Oita, in an apartment full of western teachers who were prettier than him.

‘It’s good to get away, brother. Different city, blander people, I can make my mark now,’ Jay said.

Oli didn’t know if he was one of the blander people, but he didn’t mind walking around in Jay’s shadow. And he didn’t really know why either.

But maybe it was this:

‘Let him make his slash, let me make the real mark.’

Was that it?


At first they were in different apartments.

They would meet up a lot, but the distance between them at night allowed Oli to continue with the Japanese study, and Jay to do…whatever he did.

And Oli was eager to study.

His evaluation of his own Japanese ability was like this:

I’m somewhere between beginner and intermediate. But really, if someone asks, I could say intermediate. It wouldn’t be a lie. I am close.

Then the negative:

If tested, I regress. If other people are listening, I turn to stone. I can’t understand what people say to me. They speak too fast.

And the reason:

It’s not the speed, it’s my fucking brain. I can’t focus. I panic. I hear them talking and everything becomes reflexive – they are speaking the noise and it’s not natural to me and I have to focus to understand, to pick words out, but I can’t focus because I’m too busy telling myself to focus.

And the cry for help:

Am I really the only fucking person in the world this happens to?


A couple of months in Yokohama and Jay was having trouble with his housemate. Turned out the guy was a nut. And had a seventeen year old girlfriend who was also a student at his school. And didn’t like the idea of anyone else seeing his girlfriend or talking to her.

So when Jay ran into her in the kitchen and asked how she was doing, it was the final straw.

This was a message sent from the nut after the kitchen incident:

‘We could’ve been okay, Jay, we could’ve got on fine, but you didn’t respect the rules. I told you, don’t talk to her, and you talked to her. You crossed the line, Jay, and you crossed me. And you don’t cross me, Jay, cos I will make your life a fucking hell. You break my rules, I break you. Comprende?’

A few days later Oli went round to help Jay move his stuff over to his place. The school had granted his request for re-location, although they didn’t get to hear about the ‘crossing of the line’ and all that shit. It wasn’t really important, Jay said.

So, Jay moved closer to Oli, and pretty soon he found the textbooks.

‘I didn’t know you were hardcore about this, Ols.’

‘Not really hardcore…just a little…’

He picked up one of the books and asked if he could borrow it.

‘I kinda need it…’

‘Are you using it right now?’

‘Not really…kinda…’

‘I’ll be one week, brother. I just wanna pick up the…what do you call it? The Katagana?’

‘Hiragana and Katakana…’

‘Yeah, that one. I’ll be real quick, man. One week.’

‘One week?’

‘Big time. I’m the don with languages…I know German too, did I tell you that?’


‘Yeah, I used to read Herman Hesse and Brecht and shit like that in German. Seriously…’

He looked at the cover of the book again.

‘This shouldn’t be too tricky.’

And before Oli could really stop him, the book was his.


A week later and just like he said, Jay had picked it up.

Every day they were together Jay would point to a sign and read it. Every restaurant they went to he would read out the menu until he got bored.

To Oli, this was very fucking annoying. He knew the same thing Jay did, but ever since Jay had learnt it, things seemed to get a little cloudy in his head.

In his room, reading the same page of the book over and over and not retaining a fucking word of it, Oli would think of Jay and whether or not he’d try to take things further.

‘He’s not gonna try and speak it too…he can’t,’ Oli said to the book.


But in bursts, Jay would try.

At the supermarket he would try to talk to other shoppers.

At the gym he would ask the staff how to say certain things.

In bars he would say what he knew.

And all the while, Oli would watch and say nothing and think, don’t panic, he doesn’t know more than you. You know everything he says, and a lot, lot more. And then he would go back home and study harder and look at more complicated grammar like relative clauses and conjunctions so he could make his own sentences longer, and denser topics like politics and philosophy, so he could talk about things Jay couldn’t, and in his head he figured it had to be making a difference.

And sometimes Jay would ask Oli how to say certain things in Japanese.

And, grudgingly, Oli would tell him.


Then one time Jay asked him how to say ‘if’.

They were in the sauna and Oli was hot and tired and suddenly being asked something like that, something only someone who was aiming for intermediate would ask, made him snap.

‘I’m not telling you.’


‘No, I’m not telling you. Go read it, find out for yourself.’

‘Brother, are you serious?’

Oli sat up and breathed out. He could stop now and just tell him, or…

‘Man, I know it’s weird…and I don’t care. I’m sick of telling you everything…it’s not fair. I learn it and study hard and you just come along and… ‘brother, what’s this word? What’s this mean?’ …and it’s not fair, man.’

‘It’s just one word…’

‘I don’t care. I’m not telling you.’

‘Just one ‘if’…’


And Oli left the sauna and went up to the changing room and dried himself and thought about how stupid he’d been, and how he hadn’t wanted to be that stupid, but suddenly there it was, the stupid, and he couldn’t stop it coming out. And there was a realization:

‘I’m scared that he’s better than me.’

But really, it was no realisation. It had been realised a long time before.

‘You’re stupid if you can’t do it,’ he remembered.

And that night, at the apartment, Oli tried to think of a way to claw back the power he had given Jay, but there was no real way to do it without being honest.

But he couldn’t quite do it, so he compromised:

‘Sorry about before, man. It’s just…I get a little frustrated sometimes. You know, I do all the hard work and you just get the answers from me.’

‘Yeah, brother…’

‘It feels like you get to take all the shortcuts, that’s all. Does that make sense?’

‘Sense and sensibility, man. Don’t worry about it.’

Oli paused and then just spat it out.

‘’If’ is ‘moshi’…in Japanese, it’s ‘moshi’.’

‘Ha, I know.’

‘You know?’

‘Yeah, that guy in the weights room told me. What was it? Moshi gym ni kittara…motto…motto tsuyoi ku nata… deshou.’

Oli tried to work out what Jay had just said. If you come to the gym…tsuyoi…what was that?

‘You know what that means?’


‘If you come to the gym, you’ll get stronger.’

‘Yeah, I know that…’

‘That’s what he told me. He taught me some other stuff too…decent guy, that one.’


Jay stretched out on the sofa and put his hands behind his back.

‘Looks like the race is on, Ols…’

‘What race?’

‘The race for the Japanese grail, brother…’

Oli thought about walking out of the room and punching the wall, but he didn’t, he stayed.

‘There’s no race…’

‘You’re just feeling the heat, Ols. There’s always a race. Everything’s a contest. Capitalism, brother.’

‘Man, come on…you learnt one phrase. I’ve been learning for over a year. I’m way ahead…’

‘Doesn’t matter, man…’

‘…I mean, you can’t even make sentences anyway…you can’t even say ‘I want a drink’…’

‘Sure I can…’

‘What is-…’

‘Nomitai, brother…’

Oli paused.

‘Yeah…nomitai…okay, but that was too easy. You can’t say…something like…I don’t know…the world is a small place and…and some people in Japan never go anywhere.’

‘Shit, man…’

‘You can’t say it, can you?’

‘Of course I fucking can’t…it was about a mile long.’

‘Well, there you go…now you know…’

‘Can you say it?’


‘Can you say that line?’


‘Seriously, no bullshit. You can say it?’


‘Ok, shoot. But know this, brother. I’m taking notes, and I will check.’

Oli thought it out in his head.

‘Okay…what did I say?’

‘The world is small…’

‘Okay, world is…sekai ga chisaii desu…’

‘And some people in Japan never go anywhere…’

‘Some people…hito…no, Nihonjin…’

‘You can’t say it…’


‘Ha, one line, Ols…you can’t fucking say it can you?’

‘Just…shut up a second…sekai ga…sekai ga chisaii desu…some people…some people…ikuraka  no nihonjin…what was the rest of it?’

‘Never go anywhere…’

‘Never go…zen zen ittenai…’

A moment of silence.

‘Really, brother?’

‘No, wait…anywhere…dokoka…zen zen ittenai.’

‘I’m still gonna check.’

‘That’s it. Really.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘I told you I could do it…’

Jay didn’t write down any notes. He just smirked and said Oli could say anything and he wouldn’t know either way, and it didn’t matter because the race was still on.

And for the rest of the night it was awkward.

But then the next day things were better, and the next week things were forgotten. Jay didn’t seem bothered with racing anymore, and Oli wasn’t stupid.

But it was always there.


One night, a few months later, another teacher, who’d arrived a couple of weeks earlier and was dead set on learning Japanese, had bought a listening comprehension tape and was playing it in the kitchen.

Oli and Jay were playing Mariokart in the corner, when Jay had an idea.

‘Test-o, brother. Let’s see who’s the best.’


Jay got up and told the other teacher what was gonna happen then turned back to Oli and said the race was back on. And the race was like this:

We play the tape and listen to one of the tests. The tape says ten sentences and we write down what we hear. At the end, we total it all up and then we’ll know once and for all who the Japanese master is.

So, Oli, Jay and the other guy sat there and listened to each sentence on the tape, and when it was done Oli started making his disclaimers.

It’s not really a fair test.

If I don’t know some words, and you do, then it’s not really a reflection of anything.

The tape wasn’t very clear.

The sentences were too easy.

And a few more that came to mind.

And as the answers were read out on the tape and everyone totaled the others’ results, Oli knew right away he had fucked up.

And the results were:

The other teacher had five out of ten.

Jay had eight.

Oli had seven and a half. And even the half was generous.

‘From the horse’s mouth, brother. We have a new champ!’ Jay half-sang.

And this time Oli could barely say a word. All he did say was, ‘It’s not fair’ over and over.

‘Probably the most naturally gifted language learner in this town…in your apartment, right now…show me a language, any language, and I’ll knock it out of the park. Out of the fucking park, brother.’

And as Jay continued, Oli got hotter and hotter and hotter until he couldn’t take it anymore and he stood up and threw his paper down and spat out, ‘you’re lucky, man, it’s just luck…another hundred times, another million tests, you wouldn’t win…you wouldn’t even get a mark…it’s bullshit…this is all fucking bullshit…’

‘Brother, it is what it is…the results are-…’

‘No, I don’t care, it’s bullshit…you just guessed…you just got the lucky…the luck…or you saw the tape, I don’t know…you heard the tape before so you knew everything…’

‘What? The tape that isn’t even mine?’

‘…and…yeah, that tape…it’s not the only fucking tape in the world…you saw a different one…I don’t know, or you got lucky…you got lucky…it’s not like it means anything…it’s not like you’re better than me…you do know that, right?’

‘Eight out of ten, brother…that’s all I’m saying…’

‘No, but you do know it’s wrong, right? You know it doesn’t mean anything?’

‘It’s a test-o, an authentic, authorized test-o…’

‘Fuck off, Jay…it’s a fucking test, not test-o…stop trying to speak the fucking language when you don’t-…’


‘…when you don’t have a fucking clue.’

‘Come on…it’s just a-…’

‘Fuck off…test-o…’

And Oli left and went back to his room and lay down on his bed and tried to banish the test from his memory. It never happened and if anyone asked, he’d deny everything.

And as he tried to sleep, he heard his sister again.

‘You’re stupid if you can’t do it.’

And he tried to banish her too.


The next year passed and the test was forgotten. Or maybe not forgotten, but it receded a little, and things went back to normal.

But it was always there.


After the year was done Jay left Japan, and Oli could breathe a little easier. Never again would his friend touch the language, and never again would he allow himself to be challenged. Not by anyone.

But soon after Jay left, another teacher came. A teacher who did challenge him.

Not directly challenge, but it happened like this, very fast, very simply:

They were out drinking with other friends. It was time to go home. They got into a taxi and there was a problem with the driver; he didn’t know where to go. Both Oli and the new teacher started to explain at the same time. The other teacher spoke formally, Oli spoke casual, and the other teacher managed to get the tighter grip. The driver listened to him, nodded then drove them home.

And all the while Oli was trying to understand what had gone wrong.

Here’s what he thought:

I wasn’t polite enough.

The other guy wasn’t accurate.

I knew what he said, and it was wrong.

The driver humoured him.

He had a louder voice, that was all.

I’m a coward, I didn’t challenge him.

I’m not an asshole, I let him speak.

I’m a fucking coward.


A couple of weeks after that Oli left Japan.

He went back to the UK and told the first people he met he could speak Japanese. They asked him to say something, and he did. And when he played it back later, he realized he had said it wrong, but it didn’t matter. They hadn’t called him on it, they couldn’t. He was safe in the UK.

Back home he told his friends he could speak two languages.

In response some of them tried to speak some Spanish or some French, but Oli had learnt a little more of those too, so he could correct them.

‘Nah, I speak two as well, mate,’ one of them said.

‘Yeah? Then I speak four,’ Oli replied.

And the friends had no real comeback as they had never lived anywhere else and had no knowledge of other languages beyond the few words they could remember from high school. Which was shit, really.


A year later, in Hong Kong, after leaving the UK for reasons that weren’t really connected to this story, Oli sat at a Barbecue with both English and Japanese friends.

The English friends knew nothing about Japanese, so Oli could say a few lines and feel comfortable, even though he knew as he spoke that he was making mistakes, that he was forgetting everything.

But the Japanese people wouldn’t say anything, and the English friends wouldn’t know, and there was no one to challenge him anymore.


Then for the next three years things went wrong. They went very, very wrong in ways Oli had never thought possible before. But the things that went wrong weren’t really part of this story, so there’s no real need to detail them.


So after three years, Oli met a woman. A decent woman who said she knew Japanese. And although he liked her a lot and felt his heart come back to life, and was relieved that he wasn’t completely what he thought he was…a wretch, a pathetic asshole, a sociopath…he was still a little anxious.

He didn’t know why at first, but after thinking about it more and more he realized he did know why, and as soon as she said she knew Japanese, he knew he was in trouble.

‘You’re stupid if you can’t do it,’ a voice said every time he was around her.

And when he wasn’t with her he would get his notepad out and try to write out sentences in Japanese, using words he hadn’t thought about for a long time.

He would write out summaries of films, and then pretend he was saying them to other Japanese people in front of her.

This was what he wrote about ‘Greenberg’:

Hanashi wa…hanashi?…hanashi wa…

Ben Stiller wa tomjibitsu desu…tomjibitsu…main character?

Ben Stiller wa…at the start of the film…start…hajime de…hajime no eiga de…

Start again.

Hajime de, Ben Stiller wa…mental hospital… Sheishin byonin ni itta…went to? Or left? Sheishin byonin ni detta…



But none of these summaries ever got said in public. And it was a good thing too as he could never get past the first sentence.

And at night he would lay on his bed, like he did in Japan, like he did at Uni, like he did back home, and he would wonder if he really was stupid.

And if she really was better than him.

And pretty soon it just so happened that they were tested, Or he was tested. It was unclear what she thought about it all, though he had his suspicions.

But the test, that happened like this:

In a bar, three Japanese women sat at a table next to Oli, the girlfriend, and two of his friends.

One of the friends, an American who liked oil companies and hated Obama, started talking to the Japanese women in the hope they would buy him a drink.

They didn’t, but he did guess they were Japanese.

And straight away Oli, who was a little drunk, dived in.

‘Doko kara kita no?’ he said.

And the women were surprised, and Oli had another line ready,

‘Bikurishta no?’

But before he could say anymore, the girlfriend was talking to them. And they were talking back to her. And the American was talking to Oli, so he couldn’t hear what they were saying and he couldn’t intrude, and he desperately wanted to intrude and show what he could say, what he was capable of, but there was no way…there was no way in.

And as he talked back to the American who loved oil companies and hated Obama, and listened to his girlfriend talk and talk in Japanese, he thought of three things:

Three years of living in Japan and she’s better than you.

If you can’t do it you’re stupid.

I want a Japanese brain.

And he didn’t know what to really think about any of them.

  1. Life’s ubiquitous series of crushing humiliations of varying strengths. That’s all it is, really, life. Give it three years and you won’t give a shit either way.

    Bravo. Seriously.

  2. Three years starting from now?

    I don’t know, this particular thing seems to stick with me. Maybe I should try a language that no one else is touching…?

  3. Oli’s problem is not Japanese. It’s Oli. Oli can’t speak Japanese because Oli’s brain is too busy being worried about not being able to speak Japanese. I’d expect Oli to have the same problem with any other language he tried to learn, and with other skills as well. Your brain just doesn’t have enough energy to worry about everything and do it well at the same time.

    Oli comes through this as though he would seriously benefit from talking with a therapist. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way; I can relate, and I feel bad for Oli. I’d say Oli’s got depression, but it’s hard to tell through the web, you know? Certainly some social issues there, some self-worth questions, ne?

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