My experience with literacy is not relatable to most. My story, unsurprisingly to those who know me, is about Japanese. To a large majority of the population, Japanese characters are nothing more than scribbles and circles, and to an extent they are. But, to those who don’t understand, consider how our writing system is exactly the same way. Reading, simply put, is a way to decipher these scribbles.
Yoshi, my classmate and friend, began teaching me Japanese sometime before winter break - my freshman year of high school. Originally, I had no intention of learning how to write in Japanese. Yoshi would spend hours or often times a full 45 minute physics class explaining a single letter to me, and even after these long, tedious sessions, I wasn’t able to properly write or remember the character I was trying to learn.
After a week of learning one of the three alphabets in Japanese, I could identify maybe six characters, and could only write half of them. I felt hopeless. Luckily, Yoshi’s eraser case caught my eye. While looking over the information on the back, I was able to understand one out of the sixty characters. I didn’t have the reading ability of a one year old Japanese child but I felt like Aristotle.
Thankfully, Japanese is phonetic. This means characters make the same sound regardless of what word they are in, or where they are placed in the word. With this phonetics, I became the Sherlock Holmes of Japanese. With my arsenal of five or six characters I could interpret words, generally wrongly, and attempt to decipher their meanings. This became very important to my success. Each day I tried to learn a new character. That idea didn’t last long so it took me about a year and a half to fully learn hiragana, the first of the Japanese alphabets.
This past summer I lived in Japan for three months. Thankfully I had Yoshi to translate when needed or else I would have probably died within the first week. Just before my trip had ended, my mother and father came to Japan. We spent a few days taking the bullet train to various cities and popular tourist locations. The signs in the subway and on the lines of the bullet train were littered in Japanese. My parents would have full conversations about the sign, and then after I had a good laugh, would explain the true meaning
Reflecting on it now simply reassures me of the significance of literacy. You could be a genius or an idiot, it doesn’t matter. When tasked with the challenge to translate symbols you don’t know, you will always make a fool of yourself.
More than anything else, Japanese has given me a new outlook on education. I am learning how to read again. Without the ability to read, daily life in Japan last summer was a struggle. My learning experience is far from over. I know now one of the three Japanese writing systems, one of which I will never stop learning, as it is comprised of almost 40,000 characters. How will I do this you might ask? Perhaps I have way too much free time on my hands – or perhaps I have a deeply ingrained curiosity and appreciation of the importance of literacy.