07 December, 2015

A Poem More or Less About Borrowed Words, but Not Really

The Japanese Have Words

Words as tangled line art, words
to describe the queerest things — ideas
Western thought cannot or won’t
dignify by naming. English speakers, we’re
cozy with taxonomy, clinical verbosity, and,
if need be, eponymity (think:
the tidy indictments that are
Asperger’s syndrome,
Freudian slips,
and Crohn’s disease). But, as though ashamed
to invent our own, we ripped off
German Schadenfreude — a patch
to mend our holier-than-thou-ness.
No new offense. More recently
it took savoring Asian tongues and lips
to bring umami to the States.
O friends of the East! Tell us
crude convenience-whores
just what we’re placing in our mouths.
And clarify, if you please, our desires. Destigmatize
these private yens with your hentai and
with yaoi. The culture of otaku, too.
Here long taunted, bullied, jock-jerked into lockers
but bearing the indignity with oft-bespectacled calm, nerds in Japan
command a reverence, an almost fetishistic awe. There’s
mainstream celebration of shy organic chemists,
all-night PC programmers,
and pale-as-mushroom manga-reading shut-ins
whose barricaded doors define
hikikomori, the antisocial acme.
Gaijin may call them sad.
But me, I’m confessing that I envy them,
those vitamin-D deficients
with their honest hermetic hearts, free
to be the monkish keepers
of the true, unspoken language of the world.

* * * * *

A note on the terminology: Schadenfreude is the uniquely German term for pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. It’s use in English is common enough that you can now find it in most dictionaries. Umami refers to the fifth category of taste, in food (the others being, of course, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter), that of savoriness. Probably thanks to the ubiquity of cooking shows on American television, its use is also quite common in English. Hentai is an overtly sexualized subgenre of manga (comic books focused on sci-fi or fantasy themes) and anime (TV programs and movies focused on same). Yaoi is female-oriented, usually female-authored, fiction involving homoerotic (typically young) male relationships, and enjoys a surprising popularity in contemporary Japan. An otaku is a young person, usually a male, who is obsessed with computers or very specific aspects of pop culture, to the detriment of his social skills. The increasingly prevalent phenomenon of hikikomori in Japanese society has many sociologists stymied. It refers to the abnormal, extreme avoidance of social contact by what are, more often than not, adolescent males. Lastly, gaijin is the pejorative Japanese term for foreigners.

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