A bittersweet afternoon at Powell’s bookstore

By | May 15, 2019

Powell’s Books is considered to be the largest independent bookstore in the world, with their “City of Books” location in Portland containing over one million books across over 1.5 acres of space––a venerable labyrinth of books that is a must-see place for any book lover.

With all the Japanese culture in Oregon, it’s no surprise that Powell’s has a very large section of used Japanese books, ranging from manga to novels, along with a wide range of textbooks.

Earlier this year I was exploring their Japanese books section with my family when an asian-looking woman came and returned a book to a nearby shelf. She exchanged a few words with my wife in Japanese, which confirmed my guess that the woman was Japanese.

She said something like “最近、漢字が読めなくなってますから。。。” which can be roughly translated to mean that she has been having trouble reading Japanese kanji characters lately, with the implication that it makes it hard to enjoy Japanese books.

Hearing this, I smiled and softly said, “漢字は難しいですよね” (“Kanji are certainly difficult”). She seemed a little surprised and said (in fluent English), “Oh, are you Japanese?”

At first, her comment surprised me––I don’t look Japanese at all, nor do I think my Japanese is perfect (at best, I have a minor, but noticeable accent). It doesn’t make sense as an way to compliment me, since she could have just said something more straightforward like “日本語、お上手ですね”.

But half Japanese (ハーフ) people don’t always look Japanese and, depending on their upbringing and other factors, aren’t necessarily fluent in the language. So I realized that she honestly thought I might be at least part Japanese.

In any case, it somehow felt good to be called Japanese, but at the same time I felt the irony of this situation, particularly regarding kanji knowledge.

Despite the fact that native speakers use kanji to a large degree in their daily lives, I can imagine how living in an environment where there is little exposure to kanji in daily life can cause one’s knowledge of kanji to gradually degrade. Even forgetting a fraction of common kanji can make reading troublesome, especially if you are not used to looking up words or don’t have the resources to look them up handy. On the other hand, active study of kanji (despite it not being a necessity of daily life) can gradually improve kanji knowledge to the point that dictionary lookup is rarely needed, at least for certain genres.

This makes me wonder what would happen if I moved to Japan and lived there for a few decades, speaking only Japanese. Despite English being my native language, I’m sure I’d gradually forget English words, grammar, maybe even pronunciation.

This was a memorable afternoon at Powell’s Books which reminded me of the truth of the adage “use it or lose it”, and how even the most ingrained knowledge can be lost, given enough time.

By the way, at Powell’s bookstore we found two books (both related to Japanese culture) that we considered purchasing. But when we checked on Amazon, they were both significantly cheaper online (one was around $20 cheaper). We asked at the information station if Powell’s did price matching, to which they replied in the negative, so we ended up not buying any books that day (we did get some stuff in the cafe, however). It was a very ironic way to end our time at Powell’s.

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3 thoughts on “A bittersweet afternoon at Powell’s bookstore

  1. J.a.

    I live in Portland now and I am impressed with their wide selection of Japanese books.

    I lived in Japan for over 12 years from 24 to 36 years old.i always tried to focus on grammar and pronunciation.

    My vocabulary became fairly good but there are a lot of gaps of common words I somehow never picked up on. But while in Tokyo I would refurbish old Japanese apartments, geshiku kana…

    I would call ahead to their version of Hone Depot to verify they had tools or hardware or raw materials before I made the hour long trek to the store.

    Sometimes when I arrived or when I gave my name to preorder or have products set aside, I surprised many who then said they thought I was Japanese or possibly thought I was nekei-jin.

    It was a great feeling to know that I handles the nuances of a request or the semi-formal process of conversation greetings and endings.

    Once while in Hawaii I was sitting on a park bench and a clearl lost elder Japanese man walked straight to me asking for directions in Japanese.

    I was perplexed because I am of Swedish decent and looked as a typical american tourist would.

    I’ve thought about this for years and still wonder why he chose me over the dozens of other people to ask.

    I believe that it must have been the eye contact or some other subtle hint that Ibwas willing to help.

    These subtle traits can not ever be taught in any school or found in any book. It is usually through immersion or longterm familiarity of Japanese culture.

    I believe Japanese people are very observant and very aware of their surroundings I believe. At the same time they also are very good at not giving away the fact they are absorbing their surroundings or staring at others. I think this must come from the cultural standpoint that the feelings of others should be considered, especially in public. I ran into similar situations in Tokyo and the countryside.

    I’ve so found that Japanese behavior and culture rarely crosses the ocean. It’s as if Japanese culture really only occurs withing the country. That’s a whole other subject. But many other foreigners have quite large groups which associate with their home country. Yet Japanese tend to quietly assimilate into the US.

    True there were neighborhoods such as Little Tokyo and others. But for the most part their outward connection to their homeland doesnt continue.

    That might be because of their deep use of words expressing outer and inner such as Gaijin. Or Tonai. Et al.

    Centuries ago Japanese fishermen were put to death if they returned to Japan after being stranded in a foreign place for a long period. Even children of diplomats who were partially educated abroad are placed in special schools and generally not allowed to attend regular public schools. The point being that outside influences are not to be mixed with the general public. There are probably semi-logical reasons for this such as unfair advantages some children might have over others but I believe it to be very direct. Outside stays outside. Inside stays inside. Therefore Japanese culture stays in Japan and outside culture becomes somewhat adopted yet still rigidly considered foreign.

    The show Man in the High Castle had a Japanese version of the West Coast of the US. US culture was hammered down as much as possible.

    I feel this is a good correlation to how true Japanese culture does not really transcend into other nations. It’s either all or nothing. There is no mixing because Japanese culture has limitations on outside influence.

    No matter what, I think you were given a great compliment.

    Cheers, J.A.

  2. BK

    On a random note, your interaction reminded me of Ken Tanaka and his old video about the waitress who couldn’t “talk” to non-Japanese-looking people.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Hello BK, thanks for the comment. That was a funny video!

      I was surprised how fluent their Japanese was, but felt better when one of them said he was born in Japan (hoping that was true).


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