But, why Japanese?

I often get asked why I went to Japan or why I chose to study Japanese. I honestly wish I had a better answer to that question than the truth itself. In the 1970’s people got interested in Japan if they were artists, or if they were drawn to Bukkyō. At the very least, you’d expect someone to have an interest in Ajia if they were undertaking a study of Japanese.

Not me. I got to Japan because I was lazy and hot one late August day.

Kansas in the summer

In the late summer of 1975 I was scheduled to enroll in classes for my sophomore year of college at the University of Kansas. I’d had a pretty good freshman year, but had not yet come to terms with the foreign language requirement. I knew I had to deal with it that year, since two years of a language were required for graduation. I supposed that I should do what others did—that is continue with my high school language. But I hated Furansugo and did terribly. I just dreaded spending two more years with it. And I apparently did not have an aptitude for languages. I had reluctantly decided that my best bet, i.e. easiest one, would be Hebrew. I could go into a first year class and maybe something I’d learned in Sunday School would help to make up for my poor language aptitude, as my French teacher had labeled my ability. I wasn’t enthusiastic, but rather simply resigned.

Registering for classes meant going to the cavernous Allen Fieldhouse. It wasn’t air-conditioned, and this was hachigatsu in Kansas. I cannot stress that enough. Each department of our huge university had a table. You had to locate the table, and then pick up a card for the class you wanted to enroll in. There were always lines, and sometimes you got to the front of the line only to find the section or class was already closed. You could take another section, and then figure out your schedule all over again—and hope that it would work out. The list of classes offered was printed out in a huge handbook that looked like a big city telephone directory, but was even flimsier. Nobody liked this process. Freshmen and sophomores needing to enroll in required classes were always at the bottom of the heap and had the longest lines for classes.

Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas – imagine it filled with tables and students

Departments were arranged in alphabetical order around the fieldhouse, but also by Colleges. So you walked in circles… literally… as you looked for them. You needed a sakusen. You would want to head for the most popular ones first. You needed a pencil with an eraser, because your first plan never worked. It was hell. I knew the line for Hebrew would be shorter than the one for French, though, and that perked me up a little.

The only problem was that I could not find the Hebrew table. It wasn’t where it should be alphabetically. I did another round of the Fieldhouse, but I still wasn’t seeing it. It must be under another department. I tried Middle Eastern Languages. Nothing. I went to the Religion table, but I didn’t see it listed there, either. No, it did not occur to me to ask someone. Hebrew wasn’t that popular. I didn’t think anyone would know. (Really, they wouldn’t have.) I was dead tired and hot. I had all my other classes and I just wanted OUT. Maybe I should just give in and do French. I started to walk over there, when I saw the sign for Japanese. Not a single person was waiting in line!

That summer I had met some Japanese students when I worked in the dorm cafeteria. One of them had even helped me fix a flat tire on my jitensha. I’d gone to one of their association events. What the hell. They’d probably help me study. They were all very nice. The class would probably be small. And I was just too hot to stand on any more lines. I just wanted to leave. Propitiously, Japanese 101 fit with my schedule though it meant M-F 8:30 – 9:20 and a lab on Tuesday and Thursday. I took my card and got out of the heat.

Japanese Association Tanabata Party – 1970s

This is the true story of how I ended up studying Japanese in college—which ended up having not an inconsiderable effect on my life at all!

And as for the mystery of where the Hebrew table was? It turns out that the Hebrew Department was so small that it was located in the Linguistics Department. That is what I should have been looking for. Oh well.

  • Bukkyō – 仏教 Buddhism
  • Ajia – アジア Asia
  • Furansugo – フランス語 French language
  • hachigatsu – 8月 the month of August, i.e. 8th month
  • sakusen – 作戦 plan or strategy
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle