Kawaii! Americans immerse Japanese in conversations from cartoons

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Kristin Hart was surprised when her daughter started calling her Okaa-san.

It’s ‘Mother’ in Japanese, and it’s one of the words Aimee, 12, has been using more and more at home since she started watching anime—Japanese cartoon shows—including “My Hero Academia,” a television series about superheroes in training.

Aimee says she became addicted to the series and used YouTube to learn more about anime and Japanese culture and language. “I remembered the sounds and the subtitles and started telling my friends,” she says. “They wouldn’t understand, but I thought it was really funny.”

Afterwards, Okaa-san also got hooked. Ms Hart, a 39-year-old New York office manager, says she finds herself exchanging words with Aimee such as sumimasen (“excuse me”) and music (“the girl”). Aimee says she likes to joke around with her mother using Japanese words.

Aimee Hart, 12, dressed as the anime character Tanjiro from “Demon Slayer.”


Photo:

Kristin Hart

A growing fringe of Americans like Aimee and her mother are watering nihongo in conversations, inspired in part by the popularity of anime and manga, Japanese comics. Many find the language harder to learn than expected, and some of the slang they learn in cartoons isn’t always appropriate for polite conversation.

One incentive for Ms. Hart to keep up with her Japanese is when Aimee tries to pull off a quick one. The mother now understands when the daughter says things like urusai– basically, “shut up”.

Japanese was the fastest growing language in the US and UK last year among Duolingoit’s

users, according to the language learning society’s 2021 language report, beating Italian to fifth in the world.

Duolingo credits younger generations’ interest in anime and, more broadly, Japanese pop culture through fashion, food, music, and travel.

It’s different from others Duolingo has seen, says Cindy Blanco, senior learning scientist at the company. Duolingo typically sees spikes in language interest during major sporting events or cultural moments, such as the spike in Korean after Netflixit’s

release of “Squid Game,” the hit South Korean television series, she said. “I think the Japanese case is really different because it’s been going on for a lot longer.”

Many of the new Japanese language learners are between the ages of 13 and 17, she says. For the 18-29 age group, Japanese follows Spanish, English and French. At the Rosetta Stone language learning service, the average monthly number of people learning Japanese in 2020 was 80% higher than the average between 2015 and 2019 and the growth has continued, the Rosetta Stone spokesperson said. , Eric Bates. Japanese is now the company’s fifth most popular language.

Andrew Li, a chemical engineering student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, started learning Japanese after watching “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” an animated TV show about teenagers who fight demons with swords, during the pandemic. . “I thought it would be great to know what they say,” he says.

The 22-year-old found learning the language helped him better understand Japanese pop music and find more authentic ramen recipes using broth made from tonkotsu, or pork bone. A Japanese-language recipe put her skills to the test when she asked her to grind pork bones with a blender.

Worried that his young Japanese might cheat on him, he checked out a ramen chain on the Discord messaging platform. The recipe for the noodle dish indeed required grinding soft bones.

The enthusiasm is especially strong among young people, says Ramona Handel-Bajema, program manager at the Japan Society, which aims to connect Americans and Japanese through culture. When Ms Handel-Bajema was learning Japanese in the 1980s, she was mostly surrounded by students with a connection to Japan or learning for business purposes, she says.

Tanjiro in a “Demon Slayer” movie.


Photo:

Aniplex/Everett Collection

Today, she attributes her students’ Japanese pronunciation to their knowledge of the names of cartoon characters and their catchphrases. “All these kids love anime and manga,” she says. “We don’t need to convince them to learn. They are already eager to learn.

Colloquial Japanese words passing from cartoons for use by American teenagers range from kawaiior “cute”, for bakawhich means “idiot”.

Eddie Stemkowski, a 42-year-old stepfather of two who says he started watching anime at age 13, began studying the language in college. He says he realized that some of the words he often heard the protagonists shout in the action anime were largely meaningless outside of the series.

The characters from the animated series “Dragon Ball Z” – about a monkey-tailed young boy and a teenage girl who are in search of mystical dragon balls that grant any wish when brought together – shout “Genki dama!” when using a technique to generate a powerful energy sphere.

Outside of the show, genki-dama basically means “ball of energy”, a phrase not often used in real life in Japan. That didn’t stop Mr. Stemkowski, a digital marketing manager in New York, from shouting it out to his Japanese friends while raising his right hands like the main character Goku does in the series.

A balloon of “Dragon Ball” character Goku at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan last year.


Photo:

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

One challenge for anime-obsessed students is to navigate real-life Japanese with words from their beloved anime, as 17-year-old Andy Puebla, from New Jersey, discovered. He was thinking Okay simply meant “heartbeat” when he heard it in a Japanese animated romantic television comedy, “Girlfriend, Girlfriend”.

He was close. Doki-doki is onomatopoeia for a beating heart – with anticipation, say, or fear. The technical term for heartbeat, he found, was the least amusing shinpaku.

Julian Murray, 24, started learning Japanese two years ago in hopes of figuring out what happened in an anime series, “Vivy -Fluorite Eye’s Song-“, even though he missed a subtitle. Mr Murray says he thinks the jokes and puns in the show’s subtitles – in which a singing autonomous artificial intelligence tries to save the world – and anime in general make more sense if we understand the language.

Mr. Murray, a parcel handler in Maryland, says he uses his language skills on apps to practice with Japanese friends. He found Japanese more difficult than expected because certain phrases he had learned from watching cartoons were not appropriate in polite conversation.

Kuso was a word he often heard anime characters use. He looked it up before using it and found it translated as “shit” and an expletive of the same meaning. He later saw in YouTube videos that the word was rude if addressed to others, and characters would often mutter it in low voices of frustration. He decided not to use kuso with other people.

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