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The Uplifting Company of Crows

Sometime today it hit me, as it usually does when I'm in Japan for a while: that wearing down of confidence that comes with the slow accumulation of little failures. When working in a foreign language--particularly one at which you used to be more fluent--the most basic of things becomes difficult. As any reader will find obvious from a quick examination of my work, I enjoy speaking and writing in a complex and overly-florid manner. In Japanese, this is simply beyond me, and yet I've not managed to reign myself in. I want to say, "I think The Last Samurai was a horrible parody of Japanese history. The Scottish and the Japanese should probably form an army and invade Hollywood by force." But by the time I could formulate how to say that, let alone actually pronounce it, any listener's attention would--rightly--have wandered. Instead I should just say, "I didn't like the movie. Japanese history wasn't like that," and be done with it. But even when I remember to restrain myself, it's frustrating to only show this simple side to yourself.

My reading hasn't suffered so much in the time I've been away from Japan: I read the Nihon Keizai Shinbun last night at an Irish pub while celebrating Bloomsday by downing a pint of Guinness. It wasn't that difficult, though I needed a dictionary for a few words. But I'm also trying to read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a page or two every night. Given that it's five-hundred pages, I begin to wonder how I will ever read the other works of literature on my 'must read' list.

Still, lawyering is a vocal vocation, and not being able to speak perfectly shows up badly against those who are erudite. Every error, such as a a bad episode of stage fright in an introductory speech, just brings back memories of other memories of dire failure, like when I completely froze in trying to speak Japanese during an interview last spring. One failure breeds the next.

I seem to have left behind the Japan of gentleman-amateurs, where the half-fluent managed amidst a mix of newbies and the very skilled. Or maybe it's just that when you're working at the level of a law firm, the gentleman-amateurs are elsewhere. Anyway, I keep reminding myself that I don't have the advantage of having lived in Japan for the last ten years, and the other things I've learned instead of building my language skills mean something. After a while that rings hollow.

This all sounds very negative, but it's not. The moments that inspire change are very often those of dissatisfaction: one exercises harder when one starts to gain weight, one works harder as the deadline approaches. Today I went back to a bookstore and picked up some lighter reading, something I can chew over slightly more quickly between attacks on Murakami. I actually spent the time I'd set aside for studying with a phrasebook. And while the simple gruntwork is sometimes tedious, it pays off.

Like when this evening, I sat out on my veranda looking across at the park, smoking a pipe and staring at four-character compounds. Somehow the pipesmoke had annoyed a crow which had been perched overhead, and it squawked at me angrily before flying to a nearby power line. All of a sudden a mini-revelation hit me: Tokyo has crows, not pigeons. And then the big crow in the opening credits of Serial Experiment Lain made a sudden, strange sense. Shortly following that, I remembered that I knew about the crows in Tokyo, that I'd walked hand in hand with a young lady who commented about how she so preferred them to the pigeons back home. Karasu. That's it.

At the good times, it's like getting little pieces of your mind back. And the rush of memories and associations, of places you've not seen in ten years, or smells you've not tasted for half that: it's maddeningly addictive. I'm sure it will be hard work, and I'm not looking forward to all of it, but this slow remastery is certainly worth it.


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