Learning a language, knowing a culture

I. Phases of Language.
As I write to you today, I’m only a few days shy of my first six months as an apprentice at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya, Japan. I’d like to start off this month’s writing by briefly discussing the language component of living and working in Japan. With regards to speaking Japanese, I didn’t know exactly what to expect before I arrived. I studied basic phrases and familiarized myself with the phonetic alphabets of Japanese (Hiragana and Katakana, not Kanji!), but I truly underestimated the commitment it takes to learn a language so fundamentally different from English as an adult.

PyracanthaIt turns out that my Oyakata (master/teacher, literally “way of the parent”) communicates really well in English and understands almost everything. Between my minuscule Japanese speaking abilities and his skill in English, we have had very few miscommunications on the work side of things, but personal life is a little bit different.

At the very beginning of my time here, I felt completely confident stumbling through conversation and butchering every word. If that didn’t work, I’d try gesturing. I was slightly stunned to learn that I couldn’t just gesture my way through basic activities like shopping or transportation around the city. I would try to point at things I wanted at the store, or give a thumbs up sign to show my approval. Well, I also learned that pointing is pretty rude, and the “thumbs up” sign doesn’t mean anything here. There’s so much more to understanding language than just vocabulary. As another example, the Japanese word for no (ii-eh) is considered harsh, and is pretty rude and too forceful. Instead, it is better to say the negative form of the statement or question that has been posed. So to the question, “Do you want a cookie?” One should respond “I do not want a cookie.” You can imagine how challenging and awkward it was trying to get around town given my language inabilities.

cool pine 1. before.

After my bumpy start, I took a step back and began to merely listen and study, not try to speak so much. However, at the end of the day, I am here to partake in a bonsai apprenticeship, not a language learning program. Sometimes I get conflicted about how to prioritize my time, but I think I am beginning to see the important connection between the language and the art form. Not to mention, embarrassment, frustration, and desperation are great motivators. There’s no way I will leave this island without learning to speak Japanese confidently!

Now, at six months in, I am finally starting to feel like I am settling into the language. It has felt like a slow process for sure. For the first three months I had no idea what was being said. Then around the four month mark I started to hear words as opposed to only sounds, and I began to recognize the structure of sentences. I still can’t fully understand each word, but I can usually tell what’s being talked about, and in what sense they are referring to it, or what is going to happen.

Cool pine 2. before. arial viewIt has been said that language is a reflection of its people’s culture. In that case, the better I understand the Japanese language, the better I understand the art of bonsai. Some days I feel like I’ll master it next week, and other days I feel deeply discouraged. In the end, all I can do is ganbarimasu (do my best) and trust that consistent study will eventually reward me.

II. The Art of Thinking
One big difference between a Bonsai Nursery and a Bonsai Museum is that at a nursery, dealing with customers is essential. Oftentimes people will buy trees but leave them with us at the nursery for a fee. This happens for a variety of reasons such as lack of space, skill, or location availability where they can be looked after properly. The nursery also conducts house calls to maintain personal collections of trees, as well as the surrounding garden and yard. This includes weeding, cleaning, sweeping, cutting back any out of shape shrubs or trees, etc. At our most recent house call, I even found myself cleaning the neighborhood parking lot at the behest of the customer. It had become overgrown with weeds, leaf litter was piling up, and there were overgrown vines on the fences. The majority of the time though, we are weeding and assisting Oyakata or a sempai (mentor) with specific tree work.

Cool pine 3. AfterIt rains a lot here in Nagoya. Pair that with a bit of sun and you get an incredible amount of weeds. During the rainy season and into summer we were going to some customers houses roughly once week just to try and stay on top of all the weeding. One of my sempai told me that pulling weeds will show you what kind of person you really are. I thought he was kidding (and he was little bit), but like all good jokes, there is usually a kernel of truth.

At first I relied heavily on music to help keep me motivated during all day weeding projects. I would make a killer playlist lined up with my favorites tunes to keep me pumped up for the duration of the day. After a while though, music really loses its punch. And we often have to leave quickly, making it easy to forget little personal items like earbuds.

One of Aichi-en’s customers has quite a large yard, full of beautiful Niwaki (garden trees) and tons of lush green beautiful sugi-goke (long fibered moss). “Lawn” is not really a thing here. It’s either moss or hard, compacted dirt. As lovely as moss is, it gets weeds just like everything else, but can’t be sprayed with weed killer because it’s too sensitive. Weeds must be pulled by hand. This particular customer asked that we use tweezers to pull each weed because he felt there was a better chance of the full tap root coming out that way. He was right, but that means that instead of a half day of pulling weeds, we spend two full days pulling weeds each time we go there. As of lately I have really started to embrace this bittersweet time of pulling weeds, and I can’t really bring myself to listen to music anymore. It feels like I am not embracing the task at hand. I’ve realized that once you push past the boredom threshold, you really start to think deeply and it becomes quite an enjoyable time to reflect – either that or maybe I need to drink more water and buy some new cd’s.

III. Infinity staircase
Everybody answers to somebody. As deshi (apprentice), the relationship most common is the sempai-kohai dynamic. This hierarchy does not go away, ever. I will forever be less than my sempai and he will always be above me. This means he can talk casually to me, use slang words, perhaps be more opinionated, but I am always to speak politely and use respectful language with him. Granted, I am a foreigner, so I am given a lot of slack.

These rules also apply to my teacher. My Oyakata finished his bonsai apprenticeship at Daiju-en Bonsai Nursery roughly 20 years ago, but still quite regularly his teacher or a sempai will call him and say, “I need help with something, please assist me” and it’s his duty to oblige. This means that while I answer to my teacher, I also answer to anyone who is above my teacher hierarchically. The apprentice family tree is rather large, and even extends to cousin apprentices, if that makes sense. For example, anyone that has studied at Daiju-en, or learned from anyone that completed an apprenticeship at Daijeun or Aichi-en, they are my sempai so long as they started learning before me and finished their program.

Nagoya Castle show. General.From my observations thus far, this type of structure seems to be ingrained in Japanese society. One is always speaking up to someone higher up in society, and talking down to someone lower than them. There seems to be very little level ground, only staircases. Interactions at the local convenience store continue to fascinate me. The employees always greet customers promptly, and use extremely respectfully and polite language. They use the same phrases every single time someone comes in, but the customers rarely speak to them. If the customer needs further assistance, they state what they want and leave.  I have not overheard many hellos, goodbyes, or thank yous.

IV. Show season

As I am writing today, we are in the tail end of summer/beginning of fall, which means show season is just around the corner. Nagoya castle, Meifu-ten, Taikan-ten, Sakafu-ten, and probably the most famous of the Japanese Bonsai exhibitions, the Kokofu-ten, are all coming up. Today we prepped trees for the Nagoya Castle show in downtown Nagoya. After a summer of what seemed like mostly pulling weeds and watering, it’s been so nice to change things up and work with great care doing things like bleaching deadwood on coniferous trees, mossing soil surfaces, and focusing in on the specific aesthetic points of refinement,  as opposed to general maintenance work. The show is only up for a short time, but it was a great experience getting to prep and set up/break down the exhibition. It is also great to be able to display trees in such a visible location. Nagoya Castle is a pretty big tourist attraction, and many people, both Japanese and foreign, like to visit and enjoy the grounds.

Nagoya castle. JuniperBefore coming to Japan I thought bonsai was a well-known art form that many people were familiar with. I did not think everyone grew their own trees, but for whatever reason I thought the name in Japanese was self-explanatory (Bonsai: tree in a pot, potted tree, etc..), and that everyone at least knew what they were. Well it turns out that many people are NOT familiar with bonsai here in Japan. My Oyakata estimates that roughly 10% of Japanese people know about Bonsai, and notes that “it’s an old man’s hobby.” However, the times seem to be changing and slowly but surely, more and more young and old people come by the nursery to look around, shop, or just ask questions.

V. Pine work

Pine work. BeforeThe tail end of summer was spent doing a variety of things around Aichi-en, from fixing tables and old benches to cutting back field growing Japanese Black Pines, to some late season Trident Maple bonsai work. Over the last month or so we have made the transition into needle pulling season. In a nutshell, we use this time to completely pull off old needles from any and all Japanese black, red, and white pine bonsai. The primary tool we use for this job is pair of pinsetto (tweezers), but hasami (scissors) and te (hands) come in handy as well.

Pine work. AfterI was warned about this time before by some of my sempai and other people who have done apprenticeships. The fall season and into winter are when time seems to move completely differently. I won’t pretend to already know the full extent of this work, as I am only six months into my apprenticeship, but I’ve certainly gotten a taste of this strange feeling. Working on a micro-scale day in and out, using a pair of tweezers, takes a strange toll, one that I’m not sure how to describe. I’ve touched on this in some earlier writings, but details really start to fade away. The time, what day it is, what you’re going to do later, what you did earlier. To avoid sounding hokey,  I’ll just say that it’s a unique experience. And as a Bonsai nursery that has a strong proclivity for Pine trees…we spend a lot of time pulling needles.


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