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.
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.