Mind-Altering Manga (Part 2): Broadening Horizons
Last week we brought you the first installment in this three-part series aimed at English speakers who wish to learn Japanese but are adverse to the typical textbook and “talking parrot” approaches to language acquisition. In this second installment, JZ editor Tom Fallon shares some Japanese comic books that helped him along the way to fluency in Japanese and why he found them to be so valuable. So, without further adieu, lets dive in head first with the continuation our narrative lollapalooza into linguistics: Mind-Altering Manga Part Deux!
Let the Fun Begin
Honestly, it’s been my experience that studying Japanese can be thoroughly enjoyable. If you are willing to walk to the nearest Book-Off or manga cafe, you will find a seemingly endless selection of reading material for any level student. For the rest of this article I’ll be talking about the Japanese comic books, otherwise known as manga, that have helped me along the way. I don’t claim to be the best at speaking Japanese. If life has taught me anything, it is that there is always someone better at the things I think I’m good at. Whether it be my native language of English, or my adopted language of Japanese, I meet with reminders of my linguistic inadequacies daily. But, I feel comfortable enough in my conversation and reading abilities to pass along some advice to newcomers who are timidly pioneering the challenging yet rewarding world of the Japanese language.
I’m going to discuss the manga that I’ve read chronologically; in order of what I discovered first, up to the young reader novels that I’m currently enjoying. I assume you will find selections which are more suitable to your personality as you explore the options available, but in the meantime perhaps my suggestions can get you started. The key to these comic books is that they all use furigana alongside the kanji. As previously mentioned in last week’s installment, kanji by itself is not phonetically legible. Furigana are phonetic symbols written next to the kanji, making it not only easier to pronounce, but also exceedingly easier to find in a dictionary as well. As for study advice, always have a pen, a dictionary, and a notebook close by. Also, perhaps most importantly, keep your mind relaxed and malleable. If ever you begin to feel sleepy, close your eyes and take a short rest. There’s no sense trying to read while you sleep.
The first Japanese comic book series that I read was Dangerous Jiisan (Dangerous Grandfather). I initially picked up this manga because it looked silly, and it didn’t disappoint. This comedy series, or gag-comic, follows the adventures of Mago (grandson) and Jiisan (grandfather) as they encounter silly situations with a cast of crazy characters including Koucho-sensei (Mago’s school principal), Saikyo-san (the strongest man(?) in the world), and Chamurai (a cute failure of a samurai who is always crying). Each comic book is broken down into some twenty or so chapters that are usually non-sequential and non-sequitur.
In addition to the general wackiness of the characters and situations of this fist manga, one thing that I found surprisingly invaluable was the author’s use of colloquial Japanese. This is something that you’ll never learn from a textbook, and you’d be hard pressed to find a professional classroom here in Japan that would dare teach anything other than keigo or other polite forms of conversation. Dissecting these colloquially written phrases was a nightmare at first, but through persistence – and some really abstract creative thinking – I was eventually able to get my head around all those mysterious words that had left my dictionary dumbfounded. And furthermore, when successfully utilizing theses colloquialisms in conversation, native speakers’ eyes just about pop with amazement. As the English saying goes, it’s worth it just to see the look on their face!
Urayasu Tekkin Kazoku
After my interest plateaued with the first comic book series, it was time to move on. And that’s when my eyes were opened up to the truly awesome experience that is Urayasu Tekkin Kazoku (The Steel Reinforced Family of Urayasu) by Kenji Hamaoka. I was first introduced to this manga series by a former conversation school student of mine. Some of my students were quite impressed that, unlike the majority of my English teaching colleagues, I was actively trying to learn their native language. So, when my birthday rolled around, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that a few of my students had all chipped in to buy me a small assortment of Japanese comic books. Come to think of it, this was where my idea to learn Japanese through the study of manga initially originated. At the time, all of the comic books I had received were well above my reading level. However, the students who had chosen the manga for me were particularly emphatic about what a fun series Urayasu Tekkin Kazoku was. Thus, I vowed to give it my best try, and it became an absolute joy to read as well as an amazing study tool.
This ingenious comedy series follows Kotetsu (Little Steel) and his family, as well as his misfit crew of elementary school friends, as they live their hilarious lives in the not-so-quiet Tokyo suburb of Urayasu – coincidentally the home of Tokyo Disneyland. This is a seriously funny manga series. There were times while reading on crowded subway cars that I was just laughing out loud at the antics of these characters. The Japanese who looked up to see what this odd foreigner was laughing at were most often taken aback to realize that I was finding such hilarity in a comic book full of kanji. Again with this series as well, the use of colloquial Japanese was of amazing benefit to my understanding and speaking of the language.
Now, I’d like to introduce the Godfather of Japanese manga culture; the esteemed Tezuka Osamu’s scalpel wielding virtuoso surgeon, Black Jack. In the course of my first year here in Japan, I had been taken to a Tezuka Osamu exhibition by my then girlfriend. Not understanding the culture and the stories behind the character creations of this iconic comic book author, I had spent most of the afternoon shuffling from exhibit to exhibit with no more than a passing interest in any of what I saw. But, when I came to the posters of a certain mysterious scar-faced character, I had paused a little longer and allowed my eyes to linger. My girlfriend, ecstatic that I had taken a genuine interest in something, hurried over and quietly exclaimed, “He’s Black Jack! He’s a doctor! He’s kakkoi!”
I tried to find out a little more about Black Jack, but my language skills at the time were overwhelmingly limited. The wheels of curiosity had begun to turn, but I had not yet put in the grunt work necessary to slog through the phonetic hiragana and katakana; let alone attempt to get my head around the kanji vocabulary and grammatical acrobatics that an unlicensed genius surgeon, i.e. Black Jack-sensei, would be inclined to use. But after wading through grammar exercises and theories, flipping through enough vocabulary flash cards to premier a full-length stop-motion movie feature, and building up my confidence via the previous two manga series, I was at last ready. I was finally at a place where I could not only glean entertainment value from the dark surgeon’s artfully woven Dr. House-esque personality and the myriad life and death situations whose urgency is on par with the non-stop pace of the television drama 24, but the challenging material proved to be a boon to my acquisition of fluency in Japanese as well. Like most manga series on bookstore shelves, Black Jack is topical. It is a medical drama, and thus it is loaded with kanji vocabulary related to disease diagnosis, human anatomy, pharmacology, and other such areas of interest for the intelligent reader.
Tune-in again next week for the conclusion of this series on learing Japanese via comic books and literature. I will discuss the young reader novels that have helped to improve my understanding of Japanese grammar, as well as offer some suggestions on how to choose materials that are suitable for you. Until next time, yoroshiku onegaishimasu!!
By Tom Fallon