Monday, November 13, 2017

Mari Yoshihara on living in two languages

On the clear afternoon of March 11, 2011, I was about to start my jog around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The sun and the air announced the arrival of spring, as did the attire of many businessmen walking outside, but to my tropics-acclimated body—I was living in Japan during my sabbatical from the University of Hawaiʻi—it was still a bit chilly. As I waited to cross the street, I saw a big truck at the intersection shaking. Was the driver playing with the gear? Then I felt the ground move.

The quivering was bigger and lasted longer than any other earthquake I had experienced. But the Japanese are used to earthquakes. After the shaking seemed to stop, I crossed the street and went on with my merry jog. The realization that this was no ordinary earthquake came only gradually as I saw more and more people come out of the tall office buildings, many of them wearing emergency helmets. Back at the seventh-floor condominium where I was living, the upright piano had moved a few feet and the books had fallen off the shelves, though the earthquake-protection stoppers in the kitchen cabinets kept the dishes safe. 

I did not lose any family or friends in the earthquake or tsunami. I do not have children whose safety to worry about. Reduced public transportation did not affect me as I did not have a commute. Because I was living in an affluent part of the city close to government offices, the area was exempt from regularly scheduled blackouts. I was not engaged in any rescue or relief effort. I was not working in the traditional sense and thus was not even contributing to the economy. In short, among those living in Japan during that period, I was one of those who suffered the least and contributed the least. 

And yet, being in Japan on and after 3.11 changed my relationship to the country. Until then, with my academic propensity to question any evocation of “the nation” and my wariness about any sentimental notion of belonging, I would almost never have referred to Japan as “my nation” or the Japanese as “my people.” But in the weeks and months after the 3.11 earthquake, I was shocked to find myself using those phrases a number of times in my head. I felt in my gut the suffering of my people, and I seriously feared that my nation might indeed perish. And even as many of my friends in the United States suggested that I leave Japan—some even offered to let me live in their house for a while, as they knew that I had rented out my apartment in Honolulu until the end of the school year—I felt a strange, and perhaps utterly misplaced, need to stay, witness, and live through this national crisis.

At this point, I had spent just about equal halves of my life in Japan and the United States, and I was living a kind of life common to expatriates. Having just as strong connections to two places and almost equally comfortable in two languages, I had two lives, even as my body was only in one of those two places at any given time. For the most part, my two lives are compartmentalized. In terms of everyday reality, my life in one context is quite distant from my life in the other. Most of my friends in one place have little tactile understanding of my life in the other. Even in the digital age, people in my two lives not only inhabit different spaces and time zones; they also follow different media which report different news, and they read different books which depict different worlds. Over the years, I had come to accept my bifurcated life as such. 

But in the days following the 3.11 earthquake, I found a situation I had never experienced in my life. All eyes of the world were on Japan, and those eyes were following the events in “my nation” concurrently as “my people” and I were. “We” took up almost the entire front page of the New York Timesevery day! My Facebook friends in the United States—most of whom have no particular interest in Japan during ordinary times—were posting their thoughts and prayers about Japan and links to the articles they read about Japan all the time! Having spent the 1990s and 2000s in the United States, I had long felt the patent and rapid decline of Japan’s place in the global consciousness that pivoted to China. But suddenly, we were the center of the world’s attention. My friends all around the globe were closely following what was happening in Japan in real time, and thinking about Japan simultaneously as I was. They were finally taking interest in my life and my world here, not by reading Murakami novels or watching Miyazaki films but by following what was happening now, in real life. It felt like, for the first time, my two worlds were coming together, people in my two lives living the same life simultaneously.

But then a few days into this turmoil, I began to feel an uncomfortable dynamic in this sudden interest, not by the media, critics, or experts but, well, my Facebook friends. Many expressed serious concern for my safety and well-being, and offered to send things I or others needed. Not a few shared articles they read about the impact of nuclear fallout, perhaps thinking that I did not know about them, and sent me all manners of advice. 

As kind as these thoughts were, I could not help but feel uneasy at all of this. It was true that the Japanese government was far from forthcoming on the facts and projections about the nuclear fallout, and the reliability of mainstream Japanese media coverage was questionable. But I am bilingual. I read the New York Times and access CNN and BBC and other English-language media, just like my Facebook friends do, in addition to reading Japanese-language news. As much as I appreciated my friends’ concern, I was annoyed by the suggestion that those outside Japan somehow knew better, that they had information and insight we in Japan did not. 

The coming together of my two worlds, however illusionary it might have been, did not last for very long. Within a week, with the beginning of the military intervention by a NATO-led coalition, the world’s attention quickly shifted to Libya. Japan no longer dominated the front page of the New York Times or my friends’ Facebook posts. I felt like the world had moved on, leaving “my nation” and “my people” behind. The speed with which the global interest came and went felt jarring. The elusive and uneven nature of the imagined community was underscored by the distance between the world created by the English-language media and the life lived in Japan. The momentary synchronicity between the two made the distance seem all the bigger.

In her book of criticism, Fall of Language in the Age of English, Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura discusses the history of the relationship between local, national, and universal languages across the globe and the portent of the irreversible singular dominance of English shaping global discourse. Even in the age of globalization, the literatures written in English and those written in other languages, especially non-Western languages, do not exist on the same plane, she persuasively illustrates. Precisely out of the unevenness between English and “other” languages emerge “national” language and literature that can portray the particular temporalities and localities that cannot be communicated in the universal language.

Cherishing the power and promise of national language and literature written in it, in her own novels Mizumura captures the beauty, comedy, and tragedy of the “imagined community,” to borrow Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, created by mass print culture in national languages. In Inheritance from Mother, itself originally serialized in Yomiuri Shimbun, a tragicomic family saga is traced back to the day the protagonist’s grandmother begins to confuse fiction and reality, thinking that she is the heroine depicted in the popular newspaper serial. That a woman with little education and a less than respectable family background imagined herself as the protagonist of a novel read all over the nation—and thus became a national subject—illustrated the power of the print media, and particularly the novel. Two generations later, protagonist Mitsuki faces her own family and marital crisis while facing the project of translating Madame Bovary into Japanese. That a woman processes her own life by living through a novel written in another language in another country in another century, and contemplates translating the novel into her mother tongue, also illustrates the humanistic power of the novel across national borders and languages. Readers like these women—and many other characters in Mizumura’s works—come to live multiple lives simultaneously: a “real” life of the here and now, filled with the mundane challenges of the everyday, and a “true” life depicted in the world of letters, where their own selves are realized regardless of how big a distance lies between their lives and those of the characters. 

At the end of Inheritance from Mother, seeing the cherry trees that bloom almost despite themselves, Mitsuki gains courage to step into her “true” life, while also reaching resignation, realization, and acceptance that the “real” has been no less a life than the “true.” I too remember almost tearing up at the sight of the cherry blossoms when I finally felt the energy to go jogging again a few weeks after 3.11. For me, living in Japan in the day’s aftermath and continuing to read and write in Japanese as well as in English made me appreciate both the synchronicity enabled by the universal language and the here and the now of the lives lived by my people in my language. It made me cherish both of my lives in both languages as at once “real” and “true.”

Mari Yoshihara is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is a bilingual and bicultural scholar and author who has written on U.S. history, culture, and society; U.S.-Asian relations; and classical music. With Juliet Winters Carpenter, she co-translated Minae Mizumura’s Fall of Language in the Age of English.


  1. It's a rare blessing indeed to speak two langauages. My mother often encouraged me to learn more languages as it opens up a whole new world to us and broadens our perspectives. Thank you for such an encouraging article to not stop at the language we are born with; or the religion we are born with; etc. and go beyond.

  2. Hi Mari! I empathize what you had to go through in Japan. Been living in the Philippines for so long and experienced strong typhoon like Yolanda/Haiyan got us from every headlines in the US.