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 It's Japanese to Me

December 28, 1999
Narita, Japan

So, as I sit here on my way to Japan thinking about the possibility of writing a piece on air plane culture -- not the air port, but the actual flight and the customs that surround individual air carriers. I pause to open the Japanese version of the Northwest Air magazine, World Traveler, and flip to a page about Seattle.

Since Seattle is my home I'm drawn to the familiar sites set amongst unfamiliar symbols the Japanese call characters. I studied Japanese in high school so I know they have three alphabets, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Kanji, is the oldest and most complicated of the three. It's used not only in Japan, but in China and Vietnam as well. These three countries have completely different ways of sounding out Kanji characters. So, they may be able to write to one another but they can't speak to one another.

Kanji is a huge alphabet. There are over 10,000 characters in Kanji alone. And not one single person has memorized all the characters. I helped confirm this fact by asking the Japanese couple beside me.

When I inquired as to the sum of all the kanji characters they looked at me with a blank stare, as if they didn't understand what I was saying or wishing I had asked something a little more intelligent. I had previously asked them if they spoke English so I think they were thinking the latter.

"Do you think there's over 1,000 characters?" I asked.

"Oh, no," The wife said, more to her husband than me.

Okay, I can be smarter, I thought. "More?" I said.

"Yes, many more."

"10,000?" popped out of my mouth.

The husband put his hand on his wife's knee before she was about to shove her chopsticks up my nose. "Yes. Maybe more." He said and nodded his head, closing the book of the conversation.

You see much of Kanji is old, sort of like the English spoken in Britain in the 1600s, but much, much older than that. The people of Asia began writing Kanji over 6,000 years ago. If you think about the fact that most of the western world is celebrating the year 2,000 now, Kanji has been around for quite some time.

The characters decorating the pictures of Seattle were arranged up-and-down on the page not left-to-right like the writing you're reading now. I knew from my years of study that Japanese is read from the left to the right, as well as from the top to the bottom. So, with all this knowledge and feeling fairly familiar with this aspect of the culture, I turned the page. Seattle disappeared. Instead colorful market places of foriegn cityscapes cluttered the page. What happened to Seattle? I flipped the page back, Seattle. Forward, no Seattle.

I sat there with my chopsticks, eating my lunch of soba noodles, contemplating airline culture and something as obvious as a magazine that not only reads but also turns pages left-to-right. Has it always been like this? I asked myself. I couldn't remember having learned this detail, and I wasn't about to ask my neighbors. I came to the conclusion that, yes, it had probably been like that for some time. Maybe I knew it once and now had forgotten.

The stewardess picked up the trays, "Sumi masen."

"Domo arigato." I replied, handed her my tray, and opened up my book to read.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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