When I asked Otosan how I was to survive without Japanese, he told me not to worry
When I was seven I was certain my dad was crueller than everyone else’s. For one, I wasn’t allowed to call him Dad. He went by Otosan, which was old-school, imperial, even in Japan, where everyone called their father Papa. Two, he didn’t believe in celebrating birthdays. He thought that I should drop the idea of a Cinderellathemed party and meditate instead. The heaviest cruelty, though, was that Otosan was sending me to Japanese School. This was no extracurricular language class. No, Japanese School was run by the far-distant Japanese School Board, the Monbusho—the name had Mafioso overtones. Japanese School was an outpost, a place to cram the Japanese curriculum into Japanese natives living abroad, one torturous Saturday at a time.
I was not a Japanese native. My parents, my brother and I lived in a small, un-updated Victorian house in Point Grey. We kids played He-man and watched Tom and Jerry. At the dinner table we ate Yorkshire puddings, chip butty, egg and soldiers, and spoke my mother’s tongue: a self-deprecating British English. My ticket into Japanese school was Otosan himself, who taught grade 3. When I asked him how I was going to survive without Japanese, he told me not to worry. All I had to say was wakaranai.
“Wakaranai,” I repeated. He assured me it could be said in every circumstance. “To anything?”
What a magical word! I thought, and I felt a little less afraid.
My first Saturday morning I climbed down out of my top bunk and allowed my mom to brush my knotty, half-blood hair into curving pigtails. I left the house feeling important, armed with Otosan in his
suit. And with something else, too: the magic word.
Japanese School didn’t look like Queen Elizabeth Elementary, my regular school. Absent were the colourful alphabet banners and soft carpets where we did show-and-tell. I was given a seat in the first row. Around me the walls were bare, mint-green cinderblocks. Switch our desks out for gurneys and the place could have been a morgue. A middle-aged woman with fat curls stood at the front, wearing a skirt suit and tie. Koike Sensei— our grade 3 teacher. I guessed that at home her kids called her Okasan, rather than Mama.
She said my name. A flow of Japanese words followed. The class turned to appraise me. I smiled into the pause. Was I meant to speak? “Wakaranai,” I said. Koike Sensei didn’t exactly smile, but she acknowledged my response as appropriate and turned the class’s attention away from me to the board. It works. I celebrated silently. It really works.
Throughout my first long, deskconfined day everything I received was entirely in Japanese. Worksheets, quizzes, maps. I had taught myself to read early, staying up during my nap times to read Frog and Toad. Not being able to understand the symbols in front of me was as foreign as the chatter and faces of my new classmates. They must have math class, I comforted myself. I would recognize the numbers. But when math period came, Koike Sensei passed out a quiz with double- and triple-digit numbers linked by dots and lines. It may as well have been Japanese to me.
At this point in my childhood I was still deeply invested in magic. Over the previous summer I’d hidden behind our cottage and repeatedly jumped off a rock, secretly hoping I’d fly. How amazed my family would be when I took to the air from the power of pure belief! In this same vein, I spent the remainder of my first day at Japanese School believing I would suddenly understand Japanese. Just before the dismissal bell, however, that hope quickly bled out. I had my work returned to me. I’d got zero out of ten, zero out of twenty, zero out of thirtyfive. I gave a shuddering sigh, careful to reserve my tears for a friendlier place.
Otosan was unfazed by my zeros. He brought me to the kitchen table after dinner on Sunday to start on my Japanese School homework. It landed on the table with a thud. A pile of black and white photocopies, enough to deliver a week’s worth of the Japanese curriculum. I took one look at the pile and began to cry. Otosan looked out the window at my brother and his friends frolicking in our backyard apple tree. He really was the world’s most heartless dad.
Otosan had to drag me down from my bunkbed on Saturday mornings. By the ankles. I clasped my Raggedy Ann curtains to make the job harder. Strangely, our new, antagonistic dynamic did not stop me from seeing Otosan as my saviour when I encountered him at school. If I saw him in the hallways, I sprang out of the stairwell where I hid during break times and ran toward him, grabbing his legs, his waist, any part I could reach, before he shook me off like I was a berserk squirrel. Japanese people do not hug.
Meanwhile, back at Queen E., I was getting my first taste of academic glory. Regular schoolwork became a breeze.
Like walking on land after walking through water. Like running freely after participating in a three-legged race. It was the inverse of Japanese School— ten out of ten, twenty out of twenty, thirty-five out of thirty-five. I wanted to laugh at the readers our teacher had set up, covers facing the room, in a little wooden display case. Read in my own language? Take 3 away from 7? Please! It was child’s play.
One day, late in the school year, I wrote a short composition in Japanese. How short, I can’t recall. Nor can I tell you how this was accomplished. Otosan admits he may have had a hand in it. I wrote something along the lines that when I was at Japanese School I was happy to see my dad in the halls. This piece of writing made it into the school newspaper.
The day after the paper came out but before I knew I was a published author, a group of my classmates cornered me in the stairwell. They may have asked me why I’d written it or how, or why I thought I deserved the honour. I didn’t understand what they wanted. Backed up against the cinderblocks, all I could say was wakaranai. My year of using the word had led me to believe wakaranai meant, “I don’t understand what you’re saying” and/ or “I don’t understand Japanese.” That day, the native Japanese grade 2s took their questioning to a place they’d never gone before. Maybe they were jealous. Maybe they finally understood that it wasn’t shyness, but rather that I had no Japanese beyond wakaranai. They asked me what my name was, how old I was, if I was a boy or a girl, if I had two heads. I don’t understand, I said. I don’t understand, I don’t understand. They laughed. It was in the forge of this humiliation, as I repeated my only Japanese word, that I realized wakaranai encompassed also, “I don’t know.” It indicated all levels and kinds of ignorance. The details of my ridiculousness came into focus. I didn’t even know if I was a boy or girl! But hold on, did I just understand that jab? Yes. Yes, I did. Magic, after all, in this unlikely, uncomfortable place. I was understanding Japanese.
Over a decade later, during my time in university, I enrolled myself in Japanese language classes. Thanks to my time in Japanese School, my pronunciation was good enough to disguise me as the real thing, a Japanese native. A happy exchange to a prestigious Japanese university followed, complete with a life in Kyoto, a gorgeous Japanese boyfriend, and conversations with my wise, monolingual grandmother.
But back in the summer of ’86, before I could become one of Otosan’s grade 3 students, my parents sold our home in Point Grey and we moved to a Gulf Island. We left because someone other than me had also had a bad year. I didn’t know it then, but Otosan had been unable to make progress on his thesis and my parents’ marriage had nearly dissolved. Otosan ultimately dropped out of his master’s program. He would be the only son of his professor father not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Wakaranai had applied to me more than I knew.
In moving to the country, my father moved away from the heavy expectations he’d put on himself, and he lifted them from me as well. He bought me a pony, and although he’d never held a tool before, he built my pony’s barn. I danced around Otosan, shouting out how it should look, as he measured the foundation, nodding. We watched it rise, a castle of pale new cedar, a home we imagined and built together. Hanako Masutani’s fiction and poetry has appeared in publications such as Grain, the New Quarterly and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is working on her first novel for teens.