Статьи Скотта Гормана (Scott Gorman)

January 13, 2009

SAY IT LOUD: AKITAN AND PROUD

All my life, like many people, I have had to try to rise above prejudice.

My religion, or more accurately my cultural heritage, has often earned me dismissal, mistrust or even pure hatred for something of which I am proud but had no role in creating. But then I come from a group who sometimes call themselves “the chosen people” and wonder why anyone would be offended. The last time I heard that in a synagogue was the moment I walked out, many years ago, and I haven’t been back since.

That, to me, is just as prejudiced as labeling someone who thinks like you a brother and anyone else an infidel. Same root from the same diseased tree. Someone like Franklin Graham is badly lost in that copse.

But it is more than a little strange to suffer now the potshots and easy contempt that some people all over the world seem so expert at for being “from” a small prefecture in northern Japan, my present but temporary home in Kisakata, Akita Prefecture.

On a recent trip to urban Japan, I found some educated and cultured people I met loved the color and tone of Akita sounds like braying “maaay” like a lamb when something was delicious, rather than “oishi,” and saying a casual goodbye not with “ja mata neh” but with “shayba neh”

But some people not disposed to like me or not wishing to make me feel like an honored guest, as most did, clucked with disapproval. The retired school principal, for example, who took to calling me “gorilla-san” after we were warned about the nasty monkeys at Nikko National Park, looked offended at the words people from my beloved temporary home use every day, and the different sound of standard words. The waiter at the restaurant in Tokyo, who spoke impeccable classic Japanese, curled his lip in dismay when I said the meal was “maaay.” I meant “umai,” he said in a disapproving tone.

No, I didn’t. I know that word, too, but I had said what I meant. I spoke all those Akita words and made those sounds because I am proud of the people I live among, and being not really of them, being a foreigner who will be at least on the surface forgiven pretty much anything short of wearing my shoes into the bathroom, I can do so and not really suffer.

But the Japanese people who are actually from the north and are born and raised speaking the local dialect are not so lucky. They can be denied jobs, treated as inferior, taught to feel like dirt on the bottom of someone’s boots for their natural speech.

Like my friend Shoji-san, who was made to feel so ashamed of her dialect when she went off to Tokyo that it marked her for life; in her case it was a great awakening of how otherwise kind-hearted Japanese people can turn stone-cold, and made her a lifelong champion of the Ainu people, the indigenous peoples of Japan who to this day are either ignored or looked down upon by the seeming majority of people.

Or my friend Nakata-san, who was from even further north than Shoji, from Aomori Prefecture, and suffered from what he admits was an “inferiority complex” when he went to start a distinguished career in Tokyo many years ago and tried desperately to hide all traces of his origins.

It may seem an odd thing to use against someone, but we of course do the same. When Lyndon Johnson ran for President the first time back in the 1950s, a standard comment was that he must be dumb with that “hick” accent. Well, my friends, LBJ may have been many things, but not one of them was dumb.

You know the rest. A New England Yankee accent is employed only by cold and unfriendly people. A southern or Texas accent not filtered through a university is “uncultured.” A flat Midwest accent means you are gullible or hopelessly rural in nature. And on and on.

Once, in America as now in Japan, the idea was for everyone to lose whatever accent they had and speak a “standard” dialect, like the broadcasters of the period, or even worse, to make like a Brit and thereby attain high cultural status. That has changed. Now everyone is droppin’ “g’s” just to sound cool. Every pilot is from the south, somehow, because it sounded so casual and yet in command coming from the lips of the genuinely southern test pilot Chuck Yeager that everyone imitated him. Dan Rather, among others, strains to sound like the good old boy he once was, and Tom Brokaw drips Midwest with every word he says.

In a country that once made a pecking order based on your regional speech, with the east or the west at the front of the line, we have now had four southern-accented presidents in less than 40 years. Now, as initiated by 50’s hipsters, younger people so much want to avoid sounding whitebread that they often comically attempt to duplicate the highly influential African-American dialects they hear in popular entertainment.

It might seem silly, some might call it cultural expropriation, but at least it keeps people from being pigeonholed just because their parents and other members of their home communities made certain sounds with certain words as they were learning to talk.

But in Japan, to speak like you’re from anyplace other than a large metro area still seems to be strike one, and some people continue to work to rid themselves of their unique sounds.

This country suffers from bigotry and racism, just like my own. People whose families have lived here for generations but happen to have Chinese or Korean backgrounds are quite frequently dismissed as “sangokujin,” or people from third countries. The foolish nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishibara, used the derogatory term, which can sound quite sinister in the right context, in a speech warning of criminal riots in the event of an earthquake, to the Ground Self Defense Forces in April, 2000. Just last month, Shinjuku Ward Mayor Takashi Onoda used the same chilling term in speaking of crime in a seedy part of his home area, saying “70 percent” of crime is committed there by sangokujin.

It turned out he made up that figure, just as people in both Japan and the United States, and probably everywhere else, do on a regular basis to attempt to justify their knee-jerk prejudices.

Even here in Kisakata, prejudice abounds. I was walking on the beach one day and saw a man fishing, casually littering all around him. I saw him again the very next day, in the same place, and he gestured to the garbage on the beach and asked wasn’t it terrible that the Koreans across the Sea of Japan had so little shame that they would throw things in the sea and not care if they washed up on the shores of impeccable Japan.

The leavings from the sandwich he had eaten was probably still in his teeth, but the plastic it had been wrapped in yesterday and was resting by his feet was from Korea? Only if it left and came back by jet and was replaced there by hand. But he had no doubt.

So I speak Akita dialect because I can, and in hopes of making it fun and interesting rather than occasion for contempt for those living elsewhere. On this recent trip, in most cases that seemed to work pretty well, and by the time we said goodbye we were all merrily saying “shayba neh’. A small thing, but what else is there for a polite outsider to do against a mountain of prejudice but to strike it one drop of warm water at a time, with a smile, and hope erosion takes over and in the end lets in some sunshine.

As for the man who called me “gorilla-san”: Well, he is from an older generation, and the kids he despairs of try to speak like American hip-hoppers, which means you can’t tell the ones from Tokyo from the ones from Hokkaido. More power to them.

And that otherwise very nice waiter who speaks six languages and was provoked into a fit of lip curling by my dialect will have to be forgiven, for he has his own troubles. He is Nepalese, you see, and therefore even if he wishes, unless he can get to a politician with lots of money or is a great athlete, he can never become a citizen of his adopted nation no matter how perfectly Tokyo-like his dialect becomes.

Not “pure Japanese,” don’t’cha know? Pity. He was a hell of a good waiter.

Shayba neh!

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