Being Illiterate in Japan
Japan is a complicated country and I have complicated feelings about it. One of the things I wholeheartedly approve of is Japan’s reading culture. Japan is among the most literate countries in the world, and is second highest in terms of newspaper circulation. This isn’t accidental either. Reading is actively fostered at Japanese schools to an extent I haven’t seen at any of the schools I attended as a child.
The junior high school I work at has twenty minutes of reading time at the start of the school day. While the teachers have the morning meeting in the staffroom, students sit at their desks in their classroom with a book. Most students bring a book from home or that they’ve personally borrowed from a library, but there is a shelf in every classroom with a selection of books from the school library that students may read. Browsing this shelf during quiet times in class, I’ve discovered my students like mysteries, sporting guides and biographies and romances in roughly that order. Cookbooks, particularly those featuring snacks and desserts are also a favourite. The only rule? No comic books.
The book can reappear throughout the day. Unless they have PE, music or another subject that requires the use of a specialized classroom, students stay in their classroom and teachers come to them. In the ten minute break between classes, a surprising percentage of students reach for their book. Some students also take out their book during classes–not encouraged! By making reading the first thing students do at the start of the school day, Japan keeps it foremost in the students’ minds. One of my students, when she graduated, was announced to have borrowed over two thousand books from our school library!
The other neat thing Japanese schools do is give their students access to and a choice of newspapers. My school gets eight newspapers delivered everyday. They are laid out on a table in the foyer and the student responsible for the newspaper picks one to take back to their classroom. The two leftover newspapers (we have six classes) go to the teacher’s room–after the students have had their pick. That, set against the rigid hierarchy of Japanese schools and the respect with which teachers are held, says a lot about the importance placed on allowing students access to newspapers. There’s even one newspaper aimed at fifth and sixth graders, which rewrites current news stories in vocabulary and Kanji the students have studied and keeps the subject matter appropriate for a younger readership.
I arrived in Japan speaking a little Japanese, and reading none. I went from graduating University to being functionally illiterate. Talk about whiplash! So what is it like, being illiterate in an extremely literate society?
When I first got to Japan, I kept hearing English everywhere. It wasn’t that people were speaking English. It was that my brain was so desperate to impose meaning on the voices around me, that it made the Japanese I was hearing sound like English words. After a period of time, my brain got exhausted, and instead of trying to figure out the background noise, tuned it out. A similar thing happened with Kanji. Because at first I couldn’t ready anything, for the longest time, I didn’t perceive individual Kanji. I saw an indecipherable mass. My ego took a direct hit. To cushion the blow, I decided that I just wasn’t good at languages, that it was too hard, that my anti-social tendencies were an active obstacle to me learning another language. Really, I was trying to protect myself from the knowledge that a Japanese kindergartener could read books that I couldn’t.
Fast forward a few years. I am back in Japan, older, somewhat wiser, and ready to do this properly. Japanese is no longer an impossible barrier, it is a challenge. I bought myself a Kanji textbook and taught myself in my free time. Fortunately, the book I bought started with the high visibility Kanji used on signs. Once I learned to read ‘forbidden,’ I saw it everywhere. Parking forbidden. Smoking forbidden. Littering forbidden. This constant repetition woke something in me. I could read again.
Well, not read exactly. It was more like putting together puzzle pieces. Even now when I ‘read’ Japanese, it is a matter of picking out the bits I know and extrapolating the rest. I am making educated guesses. My guesses have improved over time, but they are still guesses. I have mad respect for anyone learning to read in English without the pictorial context clues of Kanji–I know how difficult that must be! And that brings me to perhaps the most interesting part about my experiences of not reading in Japan. The lack of judgement.
Experience has hardened me, but I used to feel extremely conscious of being judged. This was mostly internal. I was my harshest critic. I’d always read ahead of my age-group at school and prided myself on that fact. However, most foreign English teachers don’t spend more than a couple of years in Japan, so there was an expectation that I wouldn’t even try to learn Japanese. My efforts at studying, no matter how paltry, were praised energetically and held up to my students as a model by my co-teachers. My students were less impressed, but still encouraging. Most understood that Japanese was as hard for me as learning English was for them, but occasionally–very occasionally–I’d run into students who equated my inability to read Japanese or speak perfectly with a lack of intelligence. Out and about in the wider community, I was helped by the stereotype of foreigners being completely unable to understand Japanese. No one expected me to be able to understand anything, so my grasping attempts to make myself understood were warmly received.
You may be thinking that this an odd topic for an author with a book out which is neither set in Japan nor features reading. In fact, two of the three main characters in Morgen Curse can’t read. They live underwater. Books would not survive. But this is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot recently. With all the talk about e-books devaluing publishing and piracy, it’s easy to get side-tracked by monetary value and forget that reading opens up an entirely different world. Or worlds. A new one in every book.
It takes a lot of effort for me to read in Japanese. A chapter of a comic that takes my students fifteen minutes to read at the most can take me anything from an hour to three hours. But that’s okay. When I first started reading in Japanese, one of those chapters took me eight hours. That teaches you to really value reading. Even when I read in English now, I appreciate the experience in a way I didn’t before Japan–a way that I hope I will keep even after I leave Japan. In these times of uncertainty in terms of the publishing market, the reminder that reading–and by extension, writing–has incredible value all of its own is a powerful antidote. And just in case I forget, well, I have a Japanese mystery novel that should remind me. In two hours of reading, I didn’t make it past the first page.
About the Book
Author: Gillian St. Kevern
Title: Morgen Curse (Deep Magic: Book Two)
Release Date: May 30 2016
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Pairing: HFN M/M (no sex)
Length: novella/35000 words
Cover Artist: Bree Archer
Blurb: Ieuan is a young morgen in a lot of trouble. The storm he sung up to soothe his broken heart attracted the attention of the Cursed One, an underwater sorcerer exiled from the morgen group for a terrible crime. But the Cursed One wants Ieuan’s help to save a life — that of Zane, a sailor shipwrecked in Ieuan’s storm. Ieuan finds himself drawn into the Cursed One’s impossible task against his better judgment. But as his morgen kin mount a search for him, Ieuan’s help might be all of their undoing.
A sequel to Deep Magic, a free novel written for the 2015 M/M Romance Groups Don’t Read in the Closet event, Morgen Curse explores what happened to the morgen who left the Llŷn Peninsula. Morgen Curse blends elements of Welsh mythology and magic with the harsh environment of the Antipodes Islands.
Ieuan frowned. “Why would you bring him here?”
“The same reason I brought you.” The Cursed One released Ieuan with a flick of his hand. “To save his life.”
He had one chance. Dive now, make for the tunnels and take his chances in the dark. He might not know where he was going, but Ieuan sensed that Cursed One would leave him to take his chances in the darkness. “Why?”
“Because it pleases me,” the Cursed One said flatly. “Give me your promise.”
“I want your reason first,” Ieuan said. “Your real reason.”
There was a moment in which the water between them was still, moved only by the departing tide. “Why does it matter?” the Cursed One asked.
“I was not born when the humans cast us from the land,” Ieuan said, brushing his hair back from his face. “I do not remember to grieve what we lost. But you do.” He peered at the murky shadow that obscured the Cursed One’s face. “You have no reason to save this man.”
“No.” The word was almost a sigh. “None whatsoever.” There was a glint of bone-white as the Cursed One smiled, and Ieuan uneasily remembered that he was alone in a predator’s lair. “And yet…” The Cursed One spoke briskly. “The storm was sudden and unusual. It roared with a powerful fury. I made up my mind to see it for myself. I was there when the boat smashed against the rock, and I delighted in the wreck! I searched the surf for any survivors, thinking to drag them down into the deep, feel for myself the moment of their death. But when I saw him—” The Cursed One faltered, his voice growing uncertain. “His arm was broken, and there was no hope of rescue. Yet he clung to the wreckage of his boat like a man who very much wanted to live.” The water stirred as the Cursed One drew his hair around him, gathering it into a single rope.
What is so remarkable about that? Ieuan opened his mouth, but he caught a glimpse of the Cursed One’s face, the part of it that remained.
The right eye was downturned beneath delicate lashes, the fine brow creased as the Cursed One continued. “It has been long… so long since I felt any interest in living that I have forgotten what it feels like to want to live,” he said slowly. “Since I lack it myself, I wish to preserve it in him. I cannot kill him.” He looked up, his undamaged eye meeting Ieuan squarely. “Do you understand, Ieuan? The man must live.”
Ieuan swallowed. The weight he felt had nothing to do with their depth in the water. “What would you have me do?”
The Cursed One breathed out, releasing his rope of hair. “There is water—fresh water—in a container of metal I took from his boat. Help him to drink.”
Ieuan nodded. “That should not be difficult.”
“Talk to him gently so that he does not agitate himself,” the Cursed One continued. “If you succeed, he may eat. I have placed what supplies I could recover within reach. If he will speak to you, ask him the extent of his injuries.”
“Injuries?” Ieuan looked to the surface above them. The man was not visible, but remembering how still he lay and how slight his movements, Ieuan felt a moment’s pity. The Cursed One is wasting his time! The man will die.
“His arm appears the worst of his wounds, but it is possible he has other injuries. If he responds well, have him tell you who his friends are and how they will seek him.”
“Friends?” Ieuan tilted his head.
“Men have learnt—as they should have centuries ago—to fear the sea,” the Cursed One said wryly. “He will not have ventured out alone in a vessel without telling someone of his plans. There will be someone searching—”
A pebble slid down the slope above them, soon followed by a scattering of loose stone.
“He stirs!” Ieuan started towards the surface.
The Cursed One snatched him back by his ankle. “Ieuan, what do you know of man?”
“I know enough.” Ieuan kicked his foot free of the Cursed One’s bony grip.
The Cursed One followed him towards the surface. “We morgen came here in secret to live apart from man. The people of these waters are entirely ignorant of us, and we must keep it so. Ieuan, he must think you a man.”
It never changed! Whether it was Ieuan’s mothers, Howel, or even the Cursed One, everyone thought they could tell him what to do! Ieuan sliced cleanly towards the surface. “But that is simplicity itself!” Men were just like morgen after all, except they drowned.
About Deep Magic
Where does magic end and love begin?
Oliver Evans spent his youth spinning one tall tale after another until it got him over his head in trouble. Now he has returned to his grandmother’s cottage in Aberdaron, determined to put his past behind him and settle down. But the misty Llŷn Peninsula hides dangerous secrets and Olly is torn between the Longing, a powerful force driving him away from the only home he has ever known, and the growing conviction that the prince of his childhood make-believe is real and in need of Olly’s help.
There is more truth in Olly’s stories than he realises. If he is to have any chance of righting past wrongs and rescuing his prince, Olly must navigate the truth in his old stories and discover the magic right in front of him. But Olly has a powerful enemy on the Llŷn, an ancient king who would like to end Olly’s story-telling permanently.
Written for the M/M Romance Groups 2015 Don’t Read in the Closet event, Deep Magic was produced with the support and effort of members of the M/M Romance Group. You can find out more about the event and discover hundreds of other free stories here. Cover art by Bree Archer. Deep Magic contains adult material.
Deep Magic is available for free in a variety of formats from the M/M Romance Group’s official site here.
About the Author
Gillian St. Kevern is the author of Deep Magic, The Biggest Scoop, The Ugliest Sweater and Thorns and Fangs. Originally from New Zealand, Gillian currently lives in Japan and has visited over twenty different countries. Her writing is a celebration of the weird and wonderful people she encounters on her journeys.
As a chronic traveller, Gillian is more interested in journeys than endings, with characters that grow and change to achieve their happy ending. Her stories cross genres, time-periods and continents, taking readers along for an unforgettable ride. Both Deep Magic and The Biggest Scoop were nominated for Best LOR story in the 2015 M/M Romance Groups Member’s Choice awards, and The Ugliest Sweater is an ARE bestseller.