Razing Tokyo


My son, standing before me dressed as Tokyo’s epic monster, refuses to speak his first language, Japanese. Koun and I try to engage him again and again, but he balks: “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English or French.” Boy likes rules. Some rules. I want to point out the irony to him—his costume selection, his random-but-unshakable embracing of black-and-white edicts. But I know he’ll just tell me how it is again. Canada. English and French.

This attitude of his puzzles me. He can spend an entire day changing costumes—Godzilla to Batman to tiger to Spider-man to fairy princess to Mr. Fixit to witch (and back again). This is a kid who gets—really gets—the concept of multiple selves. And perhaps that is part of the difficulty. He knows that “self” is all about context.

For a couple of months now, Koun and I have been struggling with this conundrum of how to keep up our kids’ Japanese—especially in the case of Boy, who is so far along linguistically. We’ve tried various ways to keep the language in our lives, but when Boy reacts angrily or even violently, followed inevitably by Girl’s mimicked reflex, it’s hard not to feel that maintaining bilingualism is a punishment, maybe for all of us.

When we first arrived here in Canada, we eagerly planned to join a local Japanese expat group. Our aim was to maintain some connection to the language and culture for our bilingual children, especially—as well as some tangential connection for us. At the first gathering, though, it was obvious that we were gaijin (“outsiders”) there, as we were in Japan, and I got to thinking a lot about how the part of my son that is culturally Japanese recognizes that “different” is not really a desirable status. There he was, fresh off the plane from Kumamoto, yet he spoke not one word of nihongo in a roomful of nihonjin. Something in him must have known. “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English…or French.” Maybe he was just aiming to fit in; maybe he was being Japanese.

I don’t want my son to forget his first language. I love that rich and fascinating part of him that is Japanese, and I believe that having two very, very different linguistic perspectives has the potential to add valuable dimension to his life. I so want that for him. To me, this was the gift we gave our children by living abroad for so many years. It was what I most wanted them to keep. But maybe this is just me, my own ego, my own hopes and dreams. I don’t know.

I will say that I’m not quite yet ready to give up. There are little things, linguistic echoes reminding me that Boy’s Japanese self is still there, beneath the surface. A few days ago, sporting a red cape and well-worn Superman shirt, Boy paused dramatically at the open door of our home and shouted in pitch-perfect katakana English: “Burasutofu!” (“Blast off!”) And away he flew to vanquish, to redeem.

13 thoughts on “Razing Tokyo

  1. I love that you and Koun are so thoughtful about the cultural and linguistic issues your children are facing.

    Perhaps if you two speak Japanese to each other *without* addressing the children, it will pique their interest?

    Speaking as a Canadian, I hope your son, in time, comes to see that “In Canada, we speak English and French–and OODLES of other languages that we’re very proud to speak.”

    I hope you can find some other gaijin (i.e. non-nihonjin) children that speak Japanese, as that should stir things up, too.

    I know that as an adult, I’ve tried to keep my Japanese up since I left Japan by watching Japanese films. Maybe media will be a good, easy, fun tool for your children, too.

    And maybe they’ll just lose their Japanese. As someone who has fought to acquire second languages, I’d hate to see that happen, and I’m glad you’re looking at ways to take care of the children’s immediate development needs AND hopefully preserve their language skills. Most of all I’m happy for them that hey have such aware, loving parents.

    Ganbatte kudasai!

    • Many thanks for your thoughts on this, Shaula. I appreciate your ideas and perspective. . . and the recognition that our kids might just lose their Japanese. We will indeed do our best!

  2. Give them every opportunity to keep the language. If they let it go, my bet would be that in a few years, their interest will arise again, and it may be a bit dusty, but their early training won’t leave them. The first time another kid thinks that Boy’s early life is awesome, and the fact that he can speak Japanese is cool, he’ll come around.

    My boys are dying to learn Japanese, to the point that they are constantly “teaching” themselves new words. I sometimes dither about pointing out that their Japanese almost certainly is utterly incorrect, but I don’t want to snuff out that fire. Apparently, we should get our kids together…

  3. Your post deeply echoed. Two different linguistic perspectives are essentially two parallel life streams connected, and jumping into and following them closely is to get to the core easily. This seems to be a recurring theme in Mr.Franz’s essays on fluency,’entering other’s space’, or student-teacher relationship, but in a slightly different perspective. Thanks for this noble piece.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post. My oldest daughter was born in America but my family and I have been in Germany for some time. Keeping up her English is a challenge, even though so many Germans speak at least rudimentary English. When she speaks English, no one understands her, so of course she speaks more German. What has been strange for me is that she is picking up the local dialect, a dialect that I often cannot understand. Elmo has become a genuinely helpful source of English. I do not have a bad conscience when she watches yet another episode of “Elmo’s World”; it’s incredible how many words and phrases she picks up.

    Best of luck to you in this endeavor.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with this, Gavin. Funny you should mention Elmo–we also found ourselves embracing that little red monster while living in Japan. Sesame Street, in general, proved to be a great way to encourage some English in our home.

  5. Insightful post Tracy. I hope you don’t mind the perspective of a formerly bilingual kid now monolingual adult. French was my first language, and I grew up surrounded by English, save for my parents, and later my French immersion school. But French made sense. We spoke it at home, and all my friends were learning it at the same level I was. But when we moved to a small town, even though it was mostly French/Ukrainian, the working language at home, at school, and in the community was English. I didn’t want to be the odd one out. I wanted to be able to sing O Canada in English, to not speak with a French accent, to be like everyone else. So I stopped speaking French. And while bits of it are still there, allowing me to sound slightly more French and less like an English-speaking person speaking French badly, it’s mostly gone. Gone because it was not and is not a part of my daily life.

    I feel your pain. I’m angry now that my parents didn’t fight harder to keep French alive in our household, I feel that loss of language and culture more deeply now as an adult, which I really didn’t appreciate as a kid. But how to keep your kids speaking Japanese in a place where virtually no one else does? And how to do it without them resenting it? I don’t know that there is any easy (or difficult) answer to that one.

    You talk about boy and his love of superheroes and shifting identities…the other thing to remember there, is that many of those superheroes do their best to blend in with their community so they don’t stand out. Maybe he’s doing the same by embracing his English identity (maybe he wouldn’t be opposed to a French one either!). Maybe he enjoys the fact that he doesn’t stand out as different, as gaijin, in his new home. He’s like everyone else now. I don’t know. But I really do hope you can find a way to make things work.

    • Speaking of boy’s love of superheroes, have you all seen Zebraman, written by Kankurô Kudô & directed by Takashi Miike? It’s a wonderful movie with a lot of love and subtextual messages that speak to the situation that boy is in now. It’s also not a movie “for” kids so I don’t know if it would hold boy’s attention or not at this age, but I suspect you and Koun would enjoy it anyway.

      I also just had a thought: do you or Koun plan to teach Japanese language classes? There’s a big difference between being the odd man out and being the expert or hero. If you wound up teaching, especially one-on-one or small groups, not only would you wind up with other people around speaking Japanese, but I wonder if it might be good for boy’s morale to see others struggling with something that comes so naturally to him and to be the “helper” when you teach.

      • Wonderful–thanks for the film recommendation! I’m not sure about the teaching, but that is certainly an excellent idea. Hmmm. You’ve given me another fine idea to think on. . .

    • I love hearing about your multi-lingual experiences, Rachelle. Thanks for sharing this. I think you neatly hit on something that keeps coming up for us again and again: identity and context.

  6. I’m nisei — 2nd generation Japanese-American. My parents spoke Japanese to each other, my mother spoke a mix of Japanese and English (but mostly Japanese) to me, and my father practiced his English on me. And sometime around 9-10 yrs old, I started speaking back in only English. In retrospect, I wish my parents had enforced a Japanese-only rule like some of the other Nisei kids’ parents, but my parents were under the impression that since we’re in the U.S., I should speak only English.

    … As a linguistics major in college, I realized how silly that was… how so many cultures and languages have died off because of that very reason. We already have to speak in the language of the majority in the outside world… And children, especially, are really good at learning multiple languages.

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