Why Do I Learn Japanese? (Part 1)

When someone finds out that I can speak Japanese, they often wonder how I came to pick that language. It all started with a college roommate introducing me to a samurai cartoon.

Why Do I Learn Japanese? (Part 1)
Photo by Galen Crout / Unsplash

When someone finds out that I can speak Japanese, they often wonder how I came to pick that language. It all started with a college roommate introducing me to a samurai cartoon.

It was the year 2009, the summer after graduating high school. I had arrived at college a couple of months before the semester started, in order to join their work program. I didn't know what to expect, and was nervous as I headed towards the dorm room I was assigned. Mounted in the door's name plate was a photoshopped printout of 2 Japanese anime characters in fighting stances, with the names of my new roommates typed beneath: Tex and "Ace". I felt strangely relieved, and a little excited. I could tell that my roommates were going to turn out to be pretty cool. Little did I know how my life direction was going to unexpectedly change course as I stepped through the door.

My plan was to work through college to pay my tuition, and graduate with a degree in computer science. I was certain of this path, because I loved computers, and got into programming in high school. …

My roommates turned out to be welcoming second-year students. Tex was from Texas, and was proud of it. "Ace", as he liked us to call him, was someone I later learned could be described as an "otaku" (Japanese word for "geek", often referring to those who thoroughly enjoy Japanese animation and pop culture).

Ace often talked about his favorite anime shows. He enthusiastically explained to me their basic story plots, like how this one ninja had a 9-tailed demon fox sealed inside him when he was a baby. Or about a pirate who ate a special kind of fruit that caused his body to permanently take on the properties of rubber, making him practically invincible, but at the cost of losing the ability to swim, making the ocean a dangerous place for the pirate. Ace referred to the dozens of characters by their Japanese names, and described their amazing powers. It sounded all very foreign to me, yet entrancing. Ace had me choose one of those characters as my avatar for the dorm door's name plate.

Of important note: this was a strict Christian college. Movies were not allowed on campus, and going to the local movie theater was grounds for expulsion. One of Ace's friends in another dorm room had snuck in a collection of anime video files to hook him up. But they were in a conundrum about how to transfer them across laptops. So I offered to let them borrow my USB external hard drive. After the exchange, and I got my hard drive back, I noticed they hadn’t deleted the files. I decided to take a peek, and see what all this hype about anime was about.

The first anime in question was Samurai X (Japanese title: Rurouni Kenshin). It was a story about a wandering samurai who had changed his ways from "Hitokiri Battousai", a legendary manslayer, to going around helping people with chores in exchange for a place to stay. His iconic weapon was a reverse-blade katana, making a promise to never kill again. The show was dubbed in English, but the unique elements of Japanese culture during the time period this took place when samurai were dying out intrigued me. The mature, in-depth story arcs that spanned multiple episodes were a new experience, very different from the American comedy cartoons aimed towards kids that I was used to.

After that, I watched the anime Fullmetal Alchemist. This was my first time using English subtitles and hearing the original Japanese voices. I binge-watched the entire show within a couple of days. When I went to sleep afterwards, my dream was all in pseudo-Japanese. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood the meaning. My brain was starting to process the language.

I wanted more. But the college had an internet firewall stricter than China: no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or even Wikipedia. URLs containing words like "dance" or "anime" were also blocked. I knew I was going to have a miserable semester. (In fact, within the first few days that I was on campus, when I discovered the limited internet access, I cried in front of my parents. They probably thought it was due to the shock of living on my own for the first time. But it was the feeling of virtual isolation that scared me.) Well, I eventually found some proxy sites that had slipped through the filter, which allowed me to bypass the restrictions and watch all the anime I want. It came to the point where I wanted to watch and understand anime in the native Japanese, without English subtitles. So I decided to seriously study the language.