Kokoro no Kotoba (Words of the Heart)

In my first early drafts of this thing I actually considered not writing anything in Japanese or mentioning it, then I realized that would be like telling the story of Martin Luther King and failing to mention the fact that he was black.

I say that I didn’t do and remember much during those lost years, but that isn’t entirely true. I studied Japanese. And I studied it the way that I loved video games – with the all-consuming, white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Among my other linguistic feats, I memorized the dictionary. Ok I exaggerate a bit. It wasn’t actually the dictionary but a guide to the most commonly used Japanese characters taught in schools at that time. That’s still 1800+ characters that I spent weeks and weeks looking at.

Why Japanese? I must have answered this question at least a thousand times in my life. To play video games and watch anime of course! You see, back in the 90s, there were many MANY untranslated video games that I wanted to play. There was no such thing as fan translation. The industry passed over many JRPGs because they wouldn’t meet the demands of the US market. Starting with Phantasy Star 2 and Final Fantasy 4, I LOVED JRPGs. I think I’ve made this very clear by now!

Why study Japanese…why not? When everything is falling to pieces around you, you have to have something to cling on to. I had wanted to study it when I came back to Singapore and even before the depression I was slowly learning some of it. Some people have God (I’m told that that is actually a far more common option than Oriental languages and Japanese cartoons) But for me I picked the latter option. I bought a textbook called Japanese for Busy People and read that like fifteen times at least.

Back before the depression really hit, there was also a great website called Learning Japanese Through Anime. I owe that website a great deal, because it’s probably how I learnt all my colloquial Japanese – which you couldn’t find in ANY textbooks at that time.

Back then in school you couldn’t take a third language unless you did well enough in your second one, and you are probably more than aware of my problems with Chinese at this point. All my teachers were like “your Chinese is horrible and you STILL want to do a third language?” Yes, yes I did. So I studied Japanese not just as something to do as the depression hit, but as an act of teenage rebellion as well.

This was also at the same time I dropped out of school AND had depression AND had my self-esteem torn to shreds, so I clung to whatever I had in my life at that time like a drowning person to a life buoy. I got WAY too attached to the language. It was rebellion, meaning and everything else at that time rolled into one. For years I felt a chill and shudder go through me when I didn’t know a word or I couldn’t translate something in double-quick time. I had to remind myself that it was just a mistake or something I didn’t know, and not an indictment of my self-worth.

I got quite good at it, and would refine my skills further and further over the years, playing game after game, and watching anime after anime. It was fun! I started off motivated by nothing but a burning desire to understand the text on screen but over the years I learned to love the language itself. It has become and probably will remain a huge part of my life. If you’ve never learnt a new language before, I do encourage you to try at least one. The experience itself is very enriching and will definitely expand your worldview.

What stands out from the early days of Japanese to me (besides rows and rows of game menus) is the stuff that no textbook I’ve ever found anywhere will teach you. Like how to say words like “whoa!” (otto) and calming a baby down with “there, there” (yoshi, yoshi) I don’t know how “normal” people and “normal” Japanese courses teach this, but I learnt them the same way I learnt almost everything – through video games.

There were funny questions too, like all the boys at my school wanting to know how to say “fuck” or “fuck you” in Japanese – I’ve answered this question multiple times over the years, and it still tickles me when with a straight face I reply “what is your social status with regard to the person you are saying “fuck you” to?” (I’m not kidding, this is actually a relevant question that has to be answered – Japanese is nothing if not a strange beast of a language.)

The girls wanted to learn how to say “I love you”…there’s some social and gender commentary there, but I’m not going to go into it.

And so I studied. And studied. Anything to keep the pain away. My initial blitz into the language lasted about three years, and then I slowed down somewhat.

At the tender age of seventeen or so I tried my hand at translating games. As it so often the case in my life, I picked the hard things (in this case, Front Mission 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics) and was utterly crushed when I had no success at them. I had to content myself with some slapdash menu translations and hints.

I eventually got wiser and tried my hand at easier material. I think I read some manga? I can’t remember – this is during the suicidal period and like I’ve said, a lot from there is a blur.

But I did get REALLY into FAQ-writing. You know the website Gamefaqs? One of my teenage dreams was to become the most read Japanese game FAQ writer there. Forget Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid and all the boring and mainstream games, I would write for all the weird and obscure PS1 titles that didn’t have any FAQs for them. I mean, if I didn’t write about them, who would? In those days (1997-1998 or so) there weren’t that many Japanese speakers around, let alone those who played games and wrote about them.

I never wrote as many FAQs as I wanted to (goddamn depression) just like I never wrote as many stories as I wanted to. But I did do quite a few, and I honed my nascent translation skills in that way as well. I even got my first job through FAQ writing!

I loved and still love Gamefaqs a great deal. The community there is great, and so is the content. Throughout the years more and more content has been added to it, and the interfaces have changed somewhat (gotta keep up with the times!) but its core has always been the same – FAQs for games.

A little known fact is that a long time ago when Gamefaqs was first expanding, (it used to have that totally ghetto logo with Sonic, Mario, Ryu and Ken all cavorting around) CJayC (the creator of the site) sent out a series of emails to the most valued contributors (about a decade or so before there was even a Most Valued Contributor section) to the site, asking for our opinions regarding its subsequent direction. I was one of people to receive a mail. So yours truly was one of the people who was instrumental in the development of Gamefaqs. It’s an achievement that warmed my teenage heart and one I still treasure till this day.

But back to Japanese. I continued to study it over the years, steadily improving. I mean, with the sheer amount of games and anime in the language that I was exposed to (not to mention music and even X-rated material) it would be a miracle if I DIDN’T improve.
Linguists talk about how people have different personalities depending on what language they are speaking and that’s very true. Given the time and context in which I learnt it, Japanese will always be more emotional to me than English. I often refer to it as the language of my heart, (English being more for reason) and that is still very true.

For the longest time I actually couldn’t shift out of Japanese when I got very emotional, and I would get stuck sometimes (due to not knowing a word or how to say something) and get terribly frustrated with myself. I also used to automatically switch to it whenever I was angry, but after years of therapy I don’t have to do that anymore.

It’s interesting being bilingual. It confers a lot of advantages to you that are quite invisible at first but become more apparent as you grow older. Switching the languages sometimes gives me a different view of any given situation – I try thinking about it in English, then Japanese. If I can’t say something in one I switch to the other. It helps with writer’s block as well – once again, just switch when stuck and see if that helps.

The day I started using Japanese in therapy was a HUGE breakthrough. In the beginning I translated everything I said back into English, and then I realized after a year or so that hey, I didn’t need to. I just needed to express myself freely in the best way possible, in whatever language was comfortable to me.

Another simple and previously overlooked fact occurred to me in the editing of this book…my parents don’t speak Japanese. Kind of obvious right? Well, that also means that they couldn’t understand what I said, and I could vocalize freely without my mother picking up on any words and later using them against me. We need to be safe to grow, and I think that I instinctively turned to what I loved and gave me meaning as protection against the harshness of my living conditions at that time. My second language became for a long time safe harbor against the English that was used to criticize, the Chinese that I was made to be feel ashamed of, and the Hokkien that was used to scold.

I’ve accepted that I’m not perfect. There will always be words that I don’t know. I’m good, but I don’t think I could be a United Nations translator or give university lectures in Japanese or something. I do often expect myself to express myself as perfectly and with as much facility in my second language as in my first one but I also tell myself that I shouldn’t push myself so hard. Once in a while I still feel the sting of criticism and insecurity but I have to remind myself that is just my past speaking.

I started my study at about fifteen and eighteen years later I’m still at it. There were times that I sort of took a break, but I don’t think there has a week in more than a decade that I haven’t looked at or sung or spoken SOMETHING in Japanese.

Today I sometimes think in Japanese. I sing in it, I write in it, I even pray in it. I never thought that that little kid, studying because he had nothing else in his life, would come this far. Mi mo kokoro mo mohaya sono kotoba no iro de somete ita. (My form and heart have both already have been dyed the color of those words.)

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