It’s true: I am deeply, utterly conflicted.
Alas, that which I completely and utterly love is also that which fills me with irreconcilable anxiety.
Yet as much as my insides churn with angst, I can’t stop myself from indulging. It’s very much a part of who I am. The itch I must scratch. The elixir I must drink. So I continue to bring it into my life, despite the perils to myself and others.
The source of my strife, the bane and boon of my daily life, is this: katakana Japanese.
Those of you who have been to Japan or studied Japanese know that the language borrows a lot of words from western languages. They actually use a special syllabary for those words, called katakana. End result, the word is no longer foreign: they’re adapting the word into their own language (like we adapted “maneuver”, for example). So when you say the word in Japanese, you say it using the katakana syllabary way, and you’re technically speaking Japanese.
This should be distinguished from broken Japanese often spoken by tourists, which would be a sentence like “Would you kitte kudasai” where half your sentence is English and half is Japanese. That’s adorable and a little sad, but ultimately can get your point across — but it’s not Japanese.
Again, katakana Japanese words are actual Japanese. They are a regular part of Japanese communication, used by newscasters and teachers and doctors and everything.
Now, the katakana syllabary, like the rest of Japanese, is a series of sounds. A consonant followed by a vowel (with very few exceptions, like the “n” sound can stand alone — every other consonant pretty much ends with a vowel sound). McDonalds is the example that is commonly used to describe how this translates. Japan doesn’t have a fast food chain called “McDonalds”, although you’ll see those golden arches all over the place. They have Makudonarudo. This is because you have to put a vowel sound after the consonants. Mc becomes “Ma-ku”. Donalds becomes “Do-na-ru-do”. Ergo, you don’t go to McDonalds — you go to Makudonarudo.
And I frickin’ love it. It’s charming, sing-songy, allows me to instantly understand like 20% of what people are saying on Japanese TV shows, and whenever I can’t think of the right Japanese word when I’m speaking that language, I can always try to “katakana-ize” it and maybe a third of the time, it’s actually the right word! It is so much fun.
But I feel anxious about it, too. Growing up I was taught not to stare and not to say a word “wrong” in a stereotypical foreign-accented way around someone who is from that foreign country. It’s insensitive and offensive, considering they are simply trying their best to speak my language. So when I use katakana Japanese am I coming across as offensive? Does my Japanese seem like mockery? Or is it OK that I am enjoying speaking this fantastic part of Japanese, because it’s part of the language? At what point does a non-Japanese speaking katakana Japanese become racist?
It’s a pickle.
So what does all of this have to do with Graceland, you ask? Not much. Well, maybe a little.
You see, there’s this running gag in the first act of Jim Jarmusch’s film “Mystery Train” where the two visitors from Japan debate who is the better musician: Elvis or Carl Perkins. A substantial portion of dialogue is devoted to this argument, which consists largely of one word repartee – Elvis. Carl Perkins. Elvis. Carl Perkins. Each person saying the name of their choice, as though the power of the name is sufficient. Of note: both names are changed to katakana Japanese. She says Erubisu, and he pushes back with Karu Pakinzu, to which she says Erubisu … and so on.
My partner and I love, love, love, love, LOVE pretty much everything by Jim Jarmusch, I love nearly all things Japanese (especially katakana Japanese), and he’s a sucker for the lore of Elvis, so this movie is kind of our perfect storm of awesome.
So of course when we traveled to Memphis, specifically to Graceland, we found as many opportunities as possible to re-enact that scene. Because we’re nerds. And because Erubisu just rolls off the tongue. Seriously, it’s one of the best katakana Japanese words in the katakana Japanese dictionary.
And did I get quiet and shy about it whenever we passed a Japanese tourist? Sigh. Yes, yes I did.
Then did I start doing it again when they’d wandered far enough away? Guilty. So, so very guilty.
Whew. Thanks for letting me get that out. I’m not sure I solved anything, but I feel a little better now.
Oh, and for those who were wondering: did we also recite the iconic lines from This Is Spinal Tap? Did we sing “Heartbreak Hotel” in homage to their rendition?
Come on, we’re nerds, remember? It was a goddamn moral imperative.
All photos shot on Google Pixel 3.