Nihongo: An Embodied Journey of Learning

This will be the first of several periodic reflections on my process of engaging the Japanese language in preparation for my trip to the country next February. I urge all of those who take time to read my posts on this topic to exercise caution and your own judgment. In no way do I purport to be an exemplary model of how to go about learning a language as complex as Nihongo (Japanese). Take what you find helpful from my experiences, go about your own studies, and be sure to seek out more experienced speakers from whom to learn and test your proper comprehension.

With this first post I merely want to provide some backdrop or an ethos of sorts for all of the learning that I have begun to acquire and hope to accumulate.

Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potatwatomi History Pamphlet
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Over the past three years I have been making the slow and careful journey back into the center of the living tradition of my tribal heritage. I am part of a small band of Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi) known as the Nottawaseppi Huron. We are indigenous to the lands of southwestern Michigan. The specific story of my direct ancestors has come to the surface in drips and drabs over these years, and it is a story of slow dispossession. As my lineal descendants were uprooted and forced to assimilate into the settler communities that encroached upon our lands and territories, our family rather quickly lost touch with our language, our relationship with the land, and the practices that brought that relationship to life on a daily basis. We were Anglicized and urbanized.

As our band reconstitutes itself and attempts to rebuild its traditions, language recovery and practice are at the center of the many programs and services being developed by our elders and tribal citizens. Native languages and vocabularies are more than signifiers of cultural maturity or currency between two or more parties, they are literally doorways into our cosmologies and lifeways–our ways of thinking, knowing, and being. How we speak, when, and to whom, materializes and embodies our realities.

Dylan Miner Art Exhibit
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

As I journey down this slow river of language recovery for the sake of my own understanding and for the sake of breathing fresh life into my tribe for its future, I acknowledge the power and sacredness of both the written and the spoken word, as well as the specific ways in which we communicate (and don’t). Silence and non-verbal communication are just as imperative, if not more essential, to grasp and abide by than is cultivating a deep vernacular of many words.

There are not so much right and wrong ways to approach learning a new language–everyone learns very differently. There are simply good and better ways of going about it. Sometimes finding those better ways can be a profoundly discouraging uphill climb and a grasping at loose roots with which to pull ourselves up. Though we may slide back down the hill many times it is important to continue climbing, searching for a strong handhold.

With Japanese I have tried many approaches, all of which in and of themselves (and even practiced together), are valid and essential. I have subscribed to and made use of language learning programs such as Rocket and Memrise. I have attended local conversation groups. I have ordered textbook upon textbook. I’ve spent countless hours watching Japanese language television shows and anime with subtitles. I’ve practiced writing and re-writing Hiragana and Katakana, and soon will be taking an entire introductory online course on Kanji. Each of these I hope to give some individual attention in future posts–spotlighting the elements of their exposure to the language that I have found most helpful.

Anishinaabe translation for the word Humility (ehd-buh-sehn-do-wuhn)
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

But for this first reflection, what I really want to highlight is the importance of simply stepping back and appreciating that when one begins learning another culture’s language we must do so with a deep humility and sense of sacred care. The people of Japan use their language in very specific formal and informal ways. Even as a foreigner (gaijin), though I may never be expected to grasp the exact proper usage, my sincerity to make an effort is essential. Again, learning a language is not merely an exercise in dropping a stepping stone in a moving stream so that we can get from the bank of ignorance and anxiety to the bank of fluency and confidence. It is wading carefully into the current and allowing oneself to bravely find a foothold. To adjust to the cold temperatures as the water level approaches our chest. To pause in the eddies and lose yourself in the swirl.

There is no question that Japanese is one of the more complex and intimidating languages for an English speaker to learn. Aside from the highly-nuanced formal and informal usages, the grammatical orderings and verb forms are markedly different, and the three distinct but intimately intertwined written scripts (Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji) require time and mastery. To make matters worse for myself, I absolutely did not give myself nearly enough time to prepare. I have admittedly spent the bulk of the past year  frantically snatching at loose roots and throwing down stones rather than patiently digging in my heels and wading in slowly.

Hiragana for So
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Recently my friend and coworker, herself an advancing speaker of Japanese, kindly reprimanded me and urged me to stop treating the learning process like a job and to find a way to connect my learning to something like a story. To immerse myself in the language on creative and imaginative levels. To make it personal. As it turns out this is exactly what I needed to hear. Rather than a system to master, I needed to open myself up to each session of listening and script writing practice as an encounter with a new worldview and a new way of thinking and being. I also needed to begin elevating my understanding and appreciation for the many embodied and non-verbal ways in which the Japanese people communicate with one another. Bows, hand gestures, the etiquette of ryokans, queuing up for the Shinkansens–all just as, if not more, important than being consistent with sumimasen (excuse me), onegaishimasu (please), and arigatou (thank you).

Within tribal societies the proper use of our Native language by non-Native peoples is a signifier of respect and deep consideration. Not in every case, but certainly in many, if care is not taken with our languages the relationship can be put at a distance before it has even had a chance to begin and even severed altogether depending on the intention. This is because of our long history of cultural genocide. It speaks to the deep value that we place on language as a bridge to our ancestral ways of knowing and being. We guard it preciously. And even though I have been assured that the Japanese people are not nearly as threatened by misuses and misappropriations by foreigners, I nonetheless intend to carry my education in the language forward with a deep respect for its sacred function in binding together the cultures of its peoples.

Japanese Gate
Image courtesy Flickr user Trevor Dobson (

So take from that what you will. I feel like I am off and running with a much better spirit of discovery. In a future post on the topic of learning Japanese I’ll say a bit more about how my propensity for visual and graphic learning became something of a temple gate for better understanding. The real point is that you have to make it personal. You have to step through. The journey starts with you.


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