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.