THE ADDICTIVE LANGUAGE / Risako Tominaga

 

“If you ever start speaking Tokyo-Japanese, that’ll be the end of our friendship!” That was the first thing my friend in my hometown, Osaka, jokingly said to me when I told her that I had passed the entrance exam for Sophia University in Tokyo. It sounded to me like she not only did not want me to leave behind the humor and atmosphere of our dialect, but also that she worried I could lose a part of myself in the large, metropolitan city. Perhaps she saw me being swallowed up by the glaring neon lights and the never-ending maze of trains, crowded with people from all over the world who chose this city to make their dreams a reality. “Don’t worry. It will never happen,” I swore.

After a few months passed in Tokyo, I saw a TV program showing some people who argued that those from Osaka should stop speaking their dialect once they started living in Tokyo. A few of them said that people from other areas should adjust to the new environment, and others claimed that dialects are a tool some use to intentionally sound “cute,” with their unfamiliar but playful sounds that evoke a sense of rural friendliness and closeness. I was shocked, because to me, hearing and speaking my native dialect was the only way for me to feel at home, while to others it sounded as if I was speaking a foreign language. When I speak in my natural dialect, I am actually most comfortable with the place and people surrounding me. One day, I tried to speak to my hairdresser as Tokyo people do, only to discover that using the dialect made me sound like a completely different person.

People from Osaka have a strong attachment to their dialect, which can sound too strong and peculiar to those who speak the more formal, standard Japanese. Because our language has an intense up-down intonation, it sounds funny, and we enjoy speaking it. As we grew up in such a comedic environment, outsiders always expect us to have amusing responses in daily conversations, and I have come to find it difficult to adopt Japanese dialects spoken in other regions.

In my linguistics class, I heard the professor say that while immigrants speak English with many different accents in America, their language is regarded not as Japanese-English or Indian-English, but simply as English. Because invisible conflicts exist between different Japanese dialects – mostly due to the strong sense of pride we associate with our respective dialects and hometowns – the situation in America sounded very peaceful to me.  We Western Japanese have an obsessive idea that standard Japanese lacks a sense of humor, while our humorous one sounds too informal to those from Eastern Japan. It is interesting that Japanese people have set cultural – even stereotypical – images of each dialect and accent, which become even more distinct as they veer further away from the standard.

When I was a high school student, I went to Canada to study English for ten months. Before leaving Japan, I read books written by authors who had experiences abroad. In order to be successful in foreign countries, the authors commonly advised people to be themselves. Being myself – behaving and speaking in my own special way – would help anything go well. That was good to know, but it took me a long time to comprehend what that truly meant. I never analyzed how I spoke to others, as I was too dependent on people already familiar with who I was. Through my life in an English-speaking environment, I naturally found that it was nearly impossible for me to give the same impression of myself as I did in Japanese, because it was my dialect that expressed my humor and personality. Therefore, I was lost when I jumped into the English world for the first time, and in order to find my own way of speaking, I sometimes tried to speak as native speakers do, but it was just a detour.  I indeed learned that if I pretended to be someone else, someone who spoke and thought and felt differently even if it would make things easier for myself, I would become invisible. Having gone through that dilemma once, I believed that when the time came for me to open a new chapter in Tokyo, I would be prepared to part with my home, where I had lived since birth and had uncountable memories with my family and friends. I would still be me, proud of my home and origins while slowly, surely, learning my way in a new world.

And I remember that lesson now. The people on that TV program may not want me to bring a rural atmosphere to Tokyo, but I would like to ask them to let me be myself, because from my experience, it would take me a while to find myself in a new language. Once I have grown into my new self, I might come to speak this Tokyo-Japanese someday in the future. When that day comes, I would tell my friend that is also who I am.

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