Oct 292015
Toji-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli-3

Toji-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli-3

Connecting through language


Learning languages is supposed to be easiest as a kid, right?  But what happens when you are no longer a child…do you resign yourself to the languages you know or is it worth learning another language as an adult?

Growing up, we spoke English.  Like many American households, English was the common ground between my roots of Dutch, English, and Italian.  Like many other families, my family aimed to be American.  And while I can’t entirely fault my grandparents generation for this desire to fit in, I took an interest in culture at a young age.  After years of futile study of French, I committed myself to learning Italian as an adult.  It is part of my heritage and even more so, I really enjoy spending time in Italy.  And while there are plenty of younger people in Italy who speak English, if I wanted to talk to the older generation I needed to learn Italian.  And I did.

Silver Pavillion, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli-2

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli-2

My Italian is by no means perfect, but it works.  And unlike my Swiss friends who easily switch between five languages, I’m happy to have English, Italian, and a little French under my belt.  But my Japanese is an entirely different story.

Toji-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli

Toji-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli

When I travelled to Japan for the first time, the language barrier seemed impossible to penetrate.  For those who are not family with any Japanese, other than being a bunch of cool looking tattoos, there are three main alphabets: Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji.  Additionally there are older characters mixed in.  Last year, while in Kyoto I purchased a few woodblock stamps, simply for their graphic beauty.  I asked the shop owner what they meant and he said,

  • The first one means rice.
  • The second one is an emblem for a high school.
  • The third means number 2 (a little obvious, as there was an actual 2 above the character)
  • The last one he said…hmmm, “…it is an old character, I don’t know what this means.”
Japanese stamps © Adam Marelli

Japanese stamps © Adam Marelli

I must admit, the idea that there are words and signs in plain sight that people can’t read intrigues me.  It speaks to the age of a culture.  It is amazing.  In a way its a bit like seeing Latin on buildings in Italy.

Noren at Hosoo © Adam Marelli

Noren at Hosoo © Adam Marelli

Last year, my goal was to add three new words to my vocabulary and here’s what we came home with:

  • Noren (暖簾) are traditional Japanese fabric dividers, hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways, or in windows. They usually have one or more vertical slits cut from the bottom to nearly the top of the fabric, allowing for easier passage or viewing. Practical understanding:  Noren are hung when the shops are open.  It’s a funny game of hide and seek that can be played with a noren.  When the shop is closed, the noren are taken inside.  When it is open, they hang out front and offer visitors a wonderful opportunity to get all tangled up and confused.
  • Tsugi means “next.”  Now why on earth would I learn the word next?  If you recall, last year I had an exhibition and presentation at the Leica Store Kyoto.  Much of the audience for the presentation were locals.  The talk was translated into Japanese as I went along and “tsugi” allowed everyone to know we were going to the next slide.  Not exactly high level language skills, but the one word went a long way and got a few giggles out of the staff.
  • Toriaezu birru, this represents the fullest extent of my Japanese language skills…a staggering two words, side by side and as you can guess “birru” means beer.  The expression is used when deciding what everyone will drink and it a bit like “alright, let’s do beer.”  It came in handy more than I expected and it has a touch of added humor when delivered by a guy from NYC with a beard.

For some of us, language is something to be mastered.  It is a field of study, a part of daily life, or just a goal that needs to be accomplished.  Whatever language means for you, consider that it is a worthwhile addition to your photography.  In fact, a little effort in language will get you much further than any lens or camera.  So next time you visit a new place, spend a little time asking the locals for a few catchphrases.  The willingness to learn a bit about their culture and connect on a new level is bound to open doors that were once closed.  When you get back, be sure to share the pictures and the stories with everyone else.
And living by my own words, we are off to Japan on Monday for two weeks and two workshops.  I can’t wait.  For those of you who will be joining us, I look forward to seeing you and those who could not make it, we will see you next year!


  5 Responses to “Three words I learned in Japan”

  1. I spent about 2 years, on and off, learning some Italian for the Venice workshop. While most people spoke English, it was great to have short conversations in Italian. The last place I stayed in, the woman spoke as much English as I did Italian. It was the best place I stayed and mostly because of the language.
    Now the challenge to find a new country and language to work on.
    The workshop was fantastic, the more I internalise it the more I feel I have, and want, to learn.
    Ciao for now.

    • Hi Terry,

      Well said that she spoke as much english as you did italian. I can totally relate to that feeling. Glad you had the experience.

      It was wonderful that you joined us in Venice…and Stacy and I did enjoy the Wolf Blass : ) before we went to Florence.

      We will see you again soon!


  2. Dear Adam, I’m a reader of your blog and site who enjoys your articles. As I live in Japan, I was intrigued by the “unreadable” kanji and I decided to look it up myself (for my own education as much as anything). It turns out to mean “rejoice” and, if the site can display it, it is written 懽

    The Chinese-derived reading is “kan”, and the Japanese-derived reading is “yorokobu”. It does indeed seem to be pretty old; even searching Japanese dictionaries online doesn’t give us many examples of its use. It has probably been superseded by a modern variant.

    Anyway, just thought you might find that of interest!

    Best regards

    Mark McDonald

    Nagoya, Japan.

    • Dear Mark,

      My sincere apologies for the late response. Thank you first the the kind words on the site.

      Living in Japan must be a fascinating experience. It seems like in 10 lifetimes one might
      not be able to fully wrap their head around the cultural complexities and nuances.

      We all appreciate you doing the research on the kanji and sharing your discoveries here.

      Arigatou gozaimashita


  3. Spent some time in the Azores, got a lot of mileage out of “Nao possa dizire muita cosa” (I can’t say much). The standard for I don’t know Portuguese is “Nao faolo” (literally: I don’t speak).
    Very much worth a visit!

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