May 24, 2019

Reflections on Reading, Language, and Identity

By Elai Kobayashi-Solomon

My mother often likes to remind me that Japanese was my first language. Born in Tokyo, I spent the first several years of my life immersed in Japanese cartoons, picture books, and TV shows. My mother, who grew up in Yamanashi, and my father, who was American but spoke fluent Japanese, wanted to raise me in a bilingual household and made a conscious effort to use Japanese in the home, and I am told that my first words were in Japanese.

Even after moving to the United States, I continued to use Japanese at home, and my mother made sure that I was exposed to as much Japanese content as possible. My favorite picture books when I was younger were all Japanese, and I grew up watching Chibimaruko-chan and Annpann-man instead of Sesame Street. By the time I graduated high school, I could comfortably engage in Japanese materials, whether conversational or literary. I was proud of my Japanese skills, and I think my mother was too.

After coming out to Portland for college, I’ve had very few opportunities to either speak or write Japanese, and I was forced to acknowledge my declining Japanese language skills when I flew home to the Chicagoland area during winter break. After landing in O’Hare and embracing my mother, I found myself struggling to carry on a conversation with her in Japanese. It was, of course, not as though I had forgotten the language entirely. But my the Japanese part of my brain just felt slower.

Embarrassed by my struggles, I promised myself I would work actively to regain my Japanese proficiency. I asked my mother for suggestions, and she recommended that I try working through several of her untranslated Haruki Murakami novels. I was quick to agree; Murakami had a special place in my heart, as he was one of the first authors whose novels I’d read in untranslated Japanese during high school. In the past, reading Murakami in Japanese had provided an avenue for me to deeply engage with both the Japanese language and my Japanese identity, and I hoped to recapture that feeling.

I decided to begin with ノルウェイの森—Norwegian Wood—and as I grabbed the copy from my mother’s bookshelf and flipped through the pages, I was reminded of my love of the written Japanese language. The kanji characters, so different from the English letters I was so used to reading in college, ran from right to left; the characters arranged not horizontally but vertically, making my eyes scan from the top to the bottom of the page. Each character was so intricate and complicated, entire concepts captured within the bounds of a single pictograph. There were, of course, many characters that I no longer recognized, and I found myself having to refer repeatedly to a Japanese-English dictionary I had downloaded on my phone.

And yet, the more I read, the easier it became, and the less I had to refer to the dictionary. It almost felt as though the characters were, one by one, leaping off the page and nestling themselves within the crevices of my brain, repopulating and reinvigorating elements of my Japanese self that had begun to dry up since going to Portland. Enraptured by Murakami’s prose, and excited at my rapid progress, I spent a majority of the break reading through one Murakami novel after another. Through engaging with Japanese literature, I was able to regain a sense of much-needed connection to my Japanese identity and past.

Since I’ve returned to Portland, however, I haven’t been able to keep my Japanese practice, but the more I reflect upon my experiences with the Japanese language, whether through Norwegian Wood, or the picture books I read as a child, the more I come to understand the central role in played in shaping the person I am today. Language, books, stories, an important avenue for me to not only engage with my mother, family, Japanese friends and community, but have also served as a crucial components of my identity growing up as Japanese-American. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life living in America, and, in many ways, I have very little understanding of Japanese culture, traditions, and customs. Nonetheless, I am Japanese; I am not Elai Solomon but Elai Kobayashi-Solomon.

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