Joseph Anderson


We get on the plane for a three-week trip to Japan at 1:50 am on May 19! The planning and thinking and imagining as we get ready for this big adventure has been fascinating and powerful.

When we made the decision to do this a few months ago, I set myself the task of “learning some Japanese”. I don’t think I had illusions about how much I could learn in a short time (well, we always have illusions, don’t we?). But I am so deeply humbled and in awe of the richness, complexity, and depth of the Japanese language, far more than I ever anticipated. And it has been transformative in some very specific ways that I wanted to share here.

I have been listening to audiobooks in my car (using the fancy-sounding Pimsleur Method, which is actually very helpful, it really is a good system based on learning through your ears alone). What better time, while talking about Japan, to quote a poem by the ancient Greek writer Callimachus (from Pure Pagan, translated by Burton Raffel).

All the shining perfumes I splashed on my head,
And all the fragrant flowers I wore,
Soon lost their scent.
Everything I put between my teeth
And dropped into my ungrateful belly
Was gone by morning.
The only things I can keep
Came in through my ears.

And that’s how I feel about learning some Japanese through the Pimsleur Method!

I’ve been studying with some old-school Japanese-101-type workbooks (which haven’t been very helpful at all). I’ve been learning the two syllabary “alphabets” (harder than I would have thought, but through a couple of iPhone apps I’m doing OK). But most powerful has been working with kanji, the Chinese characters that are a challenging and essential part of the written language.

I discovered a marvelous program called Anki, a Spaced Repetition System (basically flashcards on steroids, it works really well), loaded up 3000(!) kanji flashcards, and started in. The cards are based on the mnemonic system developed by James W. Heisig, which involves creating vivid stories to associate with the basic meaning of each character. Some of the stories can be rather straightforward (such as adding primitive elements for “stone” and “little” to yield the meaning “sand”) but in many cases the associates are quite bizarre: (the kanji for “sell” includes the primitives for “samurai”, “crown”, and “human legs”, so I imagine a scene where a penniless samurai is selling wind-up toys with crowns running around on little legs).

And this is where my experience started to get interesting. I was able to add about 10 new characters to my repertoire daily. But more importantly, doing what was essentially a daily visualization practice started to shift my brain and feel, really, quite shamanic: imagining these stories and associating them with the complex and cryptic characters was in many ways like going into a trance and journeying to other worlds.  So in essence reading the language (or the limited bit I’ve been able to do) is an entirely different (and, I would say, a richer and more evocative and even spiritual) experience than reading a text written in alphabetic characters.

Then things shifted in an even more interesting way: on January 10, after doing this for about three months, I fell and got a concussion (long story, perhaps to be told at another time). The first realization that I didn’t just have a headache was when I fired up my flashcard program and noticed that I couldn’t grasp the characters I was looking at. The memory was essentially gone.

I had to stay home from work for a couple of weeks as I recovered. I didn’t have the wherewithal to think about kanji or really very much else. But somehow, kanji study combined with concussion yielded…poetry in English. There was some new and interesting spaciousness in my brain, created, I think, by the intersection of these two experiences. About two days after my fall I picked up a pen and started writing verse, reams of it. Some of it is actually pretty good! And writing many ideas for blog posts, and much else. I have recovered fully from the concussion; I continue to write with reasonable fluency; but honestly I miss the precious experience of those few weeks when my brain was in that interesting, kanji-soaked, concussion-induced place.

It did take me a number of weeks to even start looking again at my kanji to see what was left of my memory. And I’m sad to say that quite a bit of it has gone away. I’m doing some work to reconstruct what I had learned, but at this point (with 30 DAYS TO GO!!!) I’m more focused on practical matters like ATM machines and itineraries and packing lists.

And that’s OK – I’m so deeply grateful for the experience of kanji study, the way it has shifted my brain, the way it opens up pathways between shamanic consciousness and the roots of Japanese and Chinese writing. After all, both China and Japan are cultures deeply influenced by shamanism, so it’s really no surprise.

And I do hope that I can keep exploring kanji (and maybe some Chinese! and certainly Chinese and Japanese poetry, which has also been opened up to me by the process), for both practical and impractical uses, long after this fabulous trip is over.