Electron Dance
11Mar/12Off

Wa and Ga

This piece was written one year ago but I couldn't bring myself to publish it. With a bit of encouragement from Gregg B of Tap-Repeatedly and a re-edit, I've found the confidence to put it online today. Proceed as if this were published in March 2011.

HM appears in an edition of Liaison Magazine from 2001.

This has nothing to do with video games.

In Japanese, one of the hardest mysteries to solve was that of wa and ga. Both of these fellas can mark the subject in a sentence and the problem, as a foreigner, is trying to work out which one to use. One of the first English analogues you're fed is that wa is "the" and ga is "a". So

inu wa o-mise no soto de matteita = the dog waited outside the shop

inu ga o-mise no soto de matteita = a dog waited outside the shop

But then you get handed a sentence like

watashi ga pan wo nusundeshimatta = I stole the bread

which leaves you head-scratching as to why it's ga and not wa.

I remember being excited when I read that wa and ga can be viewed as the direction of emphasis in a sentence. Ga throws the emphasis backwards and wa forwards.

"Who stole the bread?" Ga highlights the answer to our criminal mystery- that it was I who did this (gasp!). Using wa pushes the emphasis forwards, and that would be more appropriate to answering a question like: "What did you get up to today?" I... stole some bread (gasp!).

The ongoing war with wa and ga was just one small ingredient of my five-year Japanese life. It was the minutiae, the seemingly irrelevant details that made up those years. Living as a foreigner makes every single thing you do extraordinary and stimulating. Cultural contrast can also make the most mundane conversation with work colleagues interesting. I felt more at home in Japan than I ever have in Britain and had to wrestle with the tears when I took the final journey on the Marounuchi line from my apartment at Nakano-sakaue.

My Japanese life has been over for seven years yet I still find myself mourning its passing, nostalgia dragging me back to the good old days in Japan. Good old days which will never return, even if I did move back to the country; some things are just of their time. I've done my best to bury these feelings because they are not helpful when I should be thinking ahead. But these feelings barged to the front of the mental queue this week.

I heard about an earthquake and its companion tsunami last Friday morning and I thought little of it. These things happen all the time and Western media have been hyping tsunami fears ever since the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004... but as the day progressed, it dawned that this was no ordinary event. I was at work and found it harder and harder to concentrate on monitors full of code.

I swear I've sent out more e-mails and Facebook queries over the last week than I have in the last year. Most of the people I have reached out to have replied. Apart from the smashed plates and broken furniture, no one I know has been hurt, although one person I worked with - not a close colleague - had moved to Sendai in recent years and it is quite likely he perished in the tsunami.

Still, everyone is affected and earthquake insurance is pretty much impossible to come by. The only upside is perhaps it will push Japan out of its savings-focused deflationary spiral, with many in Honshu having to spend on repairs and replacements.

Tokyo is not the same place right now. The average Tokyoite normally shrugs off fear of the Big One, inured to quakes through constant exposure to little ones. But the violence of the Sendai quake gave everyone a proper fright. The shops keep emptying, public transport phases in and out of operation, and the crowds are thinner than normal.

I've been glued to the television and the live BBC News feed. The state of constant fear the media has been pushing  over the nuclear situation at Fukushima has been driving me round the bend. Every day, apparently, is worse and more apocalyptic than the last. These are stories told by reporters that don't know what they're talking about - or choose not to.

And so it feels like something has happened to my native homeland not some faraway country; there's no Libyan revolution distance here. Like a next door neighbour I took for granted suddenly hospitalised.

I've struggled to apply wa to the sentence of my life to emphasize the future over the past. But sometimes a clumsy, reckless ga will come crashing in, and there's nothing you can do but stand there and gape at your disintegrating past.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

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  1. An amazing and heartfelt piece of writing, HM. To have such a close connection with Japan, and be forced to learn everything you wanted to know through the maddening focus of ignorant reporters and breathless news shorts must have been terribly difficult. I’m glad you published this… to me it doesn’t seem like a year away yet, and there it is.

    The past will rebuild, though the staggering cost of life in Japan’s earthquake isn’t a wound that will ever heal. You do your adoptive nation tribute by remarking on this.

  2. Touching stuff, must be tough to write. Don’t really have much to add to it but wanted to post and say that this is probably my favourite of yours in the last couple of months and Gregg was right to encourage you to post it.

  3. Thanks guys. The original version actually tumbled out pretty quickly but it was a tumble and (to me) was incoherent and just didn’t end, giving it a +5 on the self-indulgence scale. “I feel bad” without really going anywhere. I spent a whole Friday evening last March trying to work it into shape but realised I was going nowhere fast. One year on, as if by magic, a conclusion appears. (possibly because it was written post-The Last Dream)

    I don’t expect this to be a particularly popular post (PPP) but, hey, at least it’s out there now.

  4. Those are some great photos, too, by the way. These photos and the ones you took on that long hike with Mrs. HM. I’ve never been to Japan but I’d love to visit some day. And when I do you can be sure I’ll be grilling you for all the right things to see, say, and do!

  5. A very good piece. I hadn’t commented so far simply because I didn’t know what to say.

    It occured to me today that this kind of reminds of how I feel about Greece. I can’t go back, though in my case for purely bureaucratic reasons, and I’m stuck in this miserable country watching the landscape of my childhood disintegrate while ignorant reporters fill the airwaves with racism and stupidity.

    I try to always keep my eyes on the future, but the past catches up with you. It has with me, anyway, especially in the last few years.

  6. Despite the mood of the piece, there’s something nice about knowing that nostalgia for a place isn’t limited just to cotton candy at the annual county fair. I also enjoyed the photos- you should own a similar shirt, if not the same one. Forever.

  7. Beautiful essay. I’m grateful that you were inspired to share it after all this time. You weave the mundane and the significant together seamlessly. Because after all, the mundane is quite significant. Especially in retrospect.

  8. @Steerpike – I’d be happy to be grilled! But you must not be surprised when I cry through the entire discussion. Aside: I know I shouldn’t but, truth be told, I am feeling a little self-indulgent with two hard-hitting posts from Tap recently (MrLipid’s medical nightmare and the farewell to Finkbug).

    @Jonas – I totally understand. The reason I try to tuck these things away is that, well, I have a predilection for getting all melancholic and depressed. My “Japan crisis” came to a head in 2005 when we were evicted from our flat (landlord got repossessed) and it was the last straw: I had a crap job, a crap social life, I was already bored with the UK and now I was being evicted with two weeks notice. What the fuck had I done leaving Japan? This was the moment of real grief, a full year after we’d relocated. Which, of course, meant I was able to move forward at last. But I think you have a more difficult connection to Greece than I have with Japan. It doesn’t sound like something you can just put aside. I’m horrified at what Greece is going through right now. It’s inconceivable that such things could come to pass.

    @BeamSplashX – I think the clothes in these old Japan pictures are all gone. As well as… much of the hair. Actually not true. I think right now as I type, I’m wearing the same damn sweater as I am in the final photo! I did waste a lot of money on that tiny flat over the Japan years, but it had such a beautiful view of Shinjuku and was in a great location. I did look around for other, cheaper places but I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving that building.

    @Alex – Thank you for your kind words.


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