Monday, September 20, 2010

Chapter 9: Ignorance is NOT bliss: Risto's Struggles with Illiteracy

Well, despite memorizing hundreds of kanji, learning hiragana and finally mastering katakana, i still am totally illiterate in Japan. For the non-Japanese bloggees (readers of blog):  hiragana are phonetic symbols of syllables used in Japanese language so "yama" mountain is "ya" + "ma". and there are an equal number of pictograms for foreign words that are taken into Japanese so "salad" becomes "sa" + "ra" + "da". then, these same words can be written with kanji. So there is a simple symbol for "yama" and once memorized you can forget about the "ya" + "ma". but, there are well over 3,000 such kanji which takes all of elementary, junior, and senior high school to learn, so without that, you cannot read a paper or read an important sign like "watch out, large chasm ahead, take detour".  you would think that Japan, which has thousands of tourists coming each year, would at least provide the phonetic hiragana for tourists and for its young children who do not know kanji, and you would think that, at least, in Tokyo, this would not be an issue. But, it is really surprising how frequently you find nothing but kanji in Tokyo.  Sure, some of the busiest subway stations and lines have hiragana, even English romaji, but many do not.  Niko and i had a really tough time getting to Shinjuku once as we were on the hunt for manga (comics) at a large bookstore, Kinokuniya or the knock-off shop, Book Off.  We changed at a station, smack in the middle of Tokyo, and then we were confronted with the reality that we could not figure out at all what to do next.  Luckily, we could ask the station manager in Japanese, but we really wanted to do this on our own. What if we spoke neither English nor Japanese?  We knew some Kanji so I knew the Kanji for Yoyogi, and knew there was a single stop between Uehara-Yoyogi and Shinjuku, so I pointed out the Kanji to Niko on the subway map, said "memorize that kanji" and we ran to find it on another map to try to get to the right place. You may be reading this and thinking, "big deal" but it is. There are hundreds of people rushing in all directions, and there you are looking up at this monster puzzle, no name of any subway stop recognizable, and no idea what line is what. Here is an example from this morning, at a subway stop en route to a visit to Niko's school.
and if that is not helpful, here is another one:
yes, that certainly clears it up for me.  What is wrong with this picture? Everything. No hiragana, no English names, no nothing to help the tourist. And these two examples are benign compared to the maps in stations like Shibuya which are so much bigger and just as confusing. You need a PhD to figure this stuff out. Normal Japanese have a devil of a time just getting around.

How else is it a problem?  Well, buying electronics for one. There are all these forms to fill out, and there are kanji on our address so i did not have Komaba memorized, and so I cannot write where I live, and without that, you cannot buy the stuff.  Nor do i know Mari's first name in Kanji yet, so i could not write to whom this should be sent. You cannot just do this in English, not at the discount store. The form is all in Japanese knaji. It would take hours to get a clerk to do it with me, translating into English, the forms to fill out, and there are many. So, that task i could not do.

Then there is the doctor's visit. What is great about Japan is its health care system, which was recently ranked the world's best. Mari, as a Japanese, and Niko, too automatically get health care. They have cards, and it is really inexpensive.  You can go as often as you like. The typical Japanese person sees a doctor 15 times a year. Visits are free.  Niko went once for a pre-school physical. It was great. You just go to the local doctor's office. There was a minimal wait. Done. You would have had a three month wait for an appointment in Vermont and a ton of paperwork to deal with.  Niko had a wart, and I had to take him to the doctor on my own as Mari had to work. Scary!  I can understand close to 80% of Japanese spoken at normal rapidity, but that 20% is crucial.  We went to the doctor, and we had Niko's card, but there was another card that we should have had with us.  I could not get one sentence right, so I turn to Niko who translates the whole conversation into English. The shamefulness of it all, really. I felt like some bad illegal alien. Now, at least, i know how they must feel in America not knowing any English and heading off to an ER. with a translating child in tow.  Then the nurse said to call my wife, which sadly i understood all too well. Reluctantly, I did, which was equally humiliating like yes, i am clueless, let my Japanese wife handle this, i am just the gaijin child-porter taxi service....well, they saw Niko right away. Visit and medicine, free! Mari even gets money from the Japanese government for having produced a kid!  Once i am registered formally under Mari, papers are being processed, i get free health care too when i am here since i am a part of her official family registry. This is the one great thing that all expats talk about who marry a Japanese then move here to live. They all are unanimous in their love of the Japanese health care system. They are the envy of their friends back home in the states. Well, that rant ends on an upbeat note, so last blog coming shortly.  And, if energy allows, an epilogue question and answer session.

Chapter 10: Final blog: The Jewel in our Neighborhood Park

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