As many things do, it all started when I wanted to say I liked him.
He was Tomohisa Yamashita, but I knew him best as Akira from the J-drama Nobuta wo Produce. I was around eleven and I thought he was amazing. In my eyes he portrayed an amazing friend and was (is) my most favorite case of second lead syndrome. He had to know how great of an actor I thought he was.
This was the time when the internet was still gaining momentum, e-mail wasn’t as widespread as it was now, and social media was in its infancy. If you wanted something sent, you sent it as a hard copy. Pretty soon I was looking up his talent agency’s address for fan letters.
I was going to write a letter.
I was told, don’t be silly, he’s Japanese, if you write to him shouldn’t you write in Japanese too?
And I thought no big deal; my young brain still believed nothing was too far out of reach if I tried hard enough. If I had to write to him in Japanese, then I sure as hell was gonna write to him in Japanese. With a cheap dictionary and phrasebook in hand (the only ones I could find at the nearest bookstore) I went to work.
First I memorized hiragana, then katakana. I squinted through kanji characters under a magnifying glass because the printing was too tiny to make sense. I taught myself grammar from the phrase book until I could muster up the courage to clumsily letter out sentences in a sheet of intermediate paper, copying it out onto lined stationery. I sent out the letter after what felt like the longest two months of my eleven-year-old life. I even chose the tracking option, but never knew if his agency actually got it. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
When people ask me now: how did you get into Japanese? How did you learn the language, how did you get the will to continue studying? I don’t really know what to say. It used to be that I could just tell them this story, as I’m telling it now. I learned it to express myself, so I could talk about something I loved. And that would be enough.
But as time went on, I began hearing people say that it didn’t count because I didn’t learn it from a classroom. That it didn’t count because my reason for learning it was silly. Impostor syndrome hit hard. Without any formal learning and without any “practical” reason to study, to everyone’s eyes I was a fraud found lacking every time. And I, probably the most stubborn person ever, actually believed them.
So I dropped the whole Japanese “thing” when I got into university. There was no time for extracurriculars when the curriculars were out to get you. And since it “really didn’t count,” it didn’t make sense to keep going.
It wasn’t until after my graduation, in between the spaces of my first job, that I slowly, hesitantly took it up again. I had a favorite voice actor this time, but nobody was translating content of his that I wanted to read. So I took matters into my own hands. I still knew hiragana and katakana like the back of my hand, though I struggled with kanji at that moment. My grammar ebbed and flowed at random.
I changed biases a lot those first three years but it was then, when I did my first transcripts and fansubs and collected so many fandom firsts that I couldn’t even list them all, that I got thinking — hey, maybe this isn’t just a “thing.” Maybe I really do like doing this.
But at those moments, just as I had in the past, I’d always hear the exact same things, and in fandom spaces, of all places. All of them telling me that because I didn’t learn from a classroom — because I only learned for fandom reasons — that it didn’t count.
You can put your heart and soul into this but they are only ever just feelings and they don’t count. But, don’t they really?
Does it really not count when it makes you happy? It stopped mattering to me whether or not they thought I had learned enough. When an anon would cuss at me on CuriousCat, I would only think that I could just learn more.
It was with this mentality that, after around 10 years of on-and-off self-study, I finally decided to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).The JLPT is a test that non-native speakers take to figure out just how much Japanese they know. The test ranges from N5 being the most basic and N1 the most advanced. I was honestly terrified of it for the longest time.
Despite all the improvement I had over the years, the impostor side of me did the doubting. What would happen if I failed? Would it decrease the legitimacy of everything I worked hard on? Show that it wasn’t enough to do something just because you wanted to do it?
I passed the N4 level through the vocabulary words I learned from fan translating, and listening comprehension from voice actor talk radio. But the doubts I had before the test stuck with me for a very, very long time.
Japanese natives tell a foreigner 日本語はお上手ですね? (Nihongo wa o-jouzu desu ne? “Your Japanese is quite good, isn’t it?”) when a foreigner speaks as much as a lick of Japanese. Am I really as o-jouzu as they say, or are they just being nice because I’m actually not?
At around the height of me beating myself up over these thoughts, a Japanese voice actor’s tweet popped up on my dash, and I realized: that’s not what matters at all.
If I may be bold as to assume, what he said went something like this:
Whenever I’d read letters from people overseas, they’d always make a point to write “I’m sorry my Japanese sucks,” but…! None of you suck at all!!! You get your point across just fine, and the fact that you can write a letter in words foreign to you is really amazing.
In any case, even if your words aren’t textbook perfect, I can read them just fine! That’s what I’ve been working on. Thank you.
Translators, in fandom and business settings alike, know that it isn’t enough to know what a word means. It isn’t enough to know all the vocabs in the world if you can’t understand what people want to say. And as someone who started from fandom spaces, learning and translating the words of people I care about, this is something I know very well.
I take translation commissions now — something that I once told myself I’d never do. I’d used to tell myself that my work wasn’t good enough to be worth anyone’s time, believing in what scathing words I’d hear in the shadows. I used to think that they’d be better off looking for someone else.
Those thoughts still pop up sometimes, like annoying phone notifications. But I know how it feels to want to tell someone that I like them. Most of my commissions are for fan letters, probably much like the one I wrote years back. All of them saying: I think you’re amazing, and you need to know how great you are.
“You speak straightforwardly, it’s nothing like how Japanese talk at all,” my favorite voice actor told me once, the first time they read my mail on air. It was one of the few times a native didn’t default to telling me I was o-jouzu. “But you get your point across, and you’re frickin’ hilarious.”
I’m still learning, with every fandom project and commission I encounter. But I know that right now, here where I am, I am enough.
Trish Hejastro is a control analyst on weekdays, a grad student on weekends, and a freelance translator every moment in between. She has done freelance work for Japanese-based manga subscription sites Manga Planet and futekiya. Has had her biases notice her emails on-air in recent years and honestly secretly wishes they still vaguely recognize her name.
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