Turning to Japanese, a language that speaks to me

Polly Barton on her fascination with Japan and its language, subject of her new book

peko-peko: the sound of endlessly prostrating oneself, or the personality-chicken and culture-egg, or not talking to the band because you are a coward, and why?

A year and a half ago – which is to say, six months before crowding into a small venue with a hundred strangers from as many different households to bathe in each other’s sweat and drink in the long-range saliva particles emitted by the people standing on stage as they screamed and shouted became a sick and criminal act – I went to watch Melt Banana in Bristol.

For the uninitiated, Melt Banana are a Japanese grindcore band who play tracks of mind-bending speed usually under two minutes in length. In their current incarnation, they are formed of just a singer and a guitarist, who stand on stage with a wall of amps separating them.

The vocalist, Yasuko Onuki, clutches a handheld trigger for the drum machine covered in crayon-box coloured buttons which she whirls and raises and lowers as if in accordance to some cosmic principle. The guitarist, Ichiro Agata, wears a surgical mask, because the frequencies routinely cause him nosebleeds. There is something about their unpretentious eccentricity in combination with the way they are so patently all about their music that makes them cool in a way that threatens to render all previous uses of the word hollow.

That much was known to me, before the gig. I’d found out about Melt Banana’s existence before I first went to Japan 15 years ago, because the boy I had a crush on in my first year of uni had a black-and-white hand-drawn Melt Banana poster on the wall of his room, and it had struck me from the moment I saw it as something that existed on an alternate plane of rad, a plane that wasn’t accessible to me at the time.

The same went for their music, really. It always seemed like stuff I would have enjoyed listening to for hours on end if I was cooler, harder, more radical, but in my current warm and squidgy incarnation found a little bit much.

So I suppose I went to see Melt Banana in part for the spectacle, and in part out of a kind of solidarity. It was only a few minutes into the show that I started to realise I was witnessing something that wasn’t just cool but extraordinary. That in addition to the spit and sweat and screams, the room was filled with an energy that felt weighty and weightless, neon and berserk and healing, and totally all-encompassing.

The tracks I’d heard on mix tapes and streaming services didn’t bear comparison. The sense of too-muchness was gone, and in its place, I felt the earnest desire for the night to go on forever. By this point, I’ve met up with someone I knew in the crowd, and between tracks we exchange remarks. He isn’t as surprised as I am; he’s been to see them before, 10 years ago, in a venue of a similar sort of size. “That’s amazing,” I say, “They’re amazing.” I keep grinning. I feel buoyed by it all. Awed, enamoured, giddy.

Before their final song, Melt Banana announce they’ll be selling t-shirts and records at their merch desk. I’d spied them there before the concert, but now, they say, they will return, drenched in sweat, one presumably bleeding behind his mask.

“Hey, you should go and talk to them in Japanese!” the man I’m standing with says in my ear. “I bet they’d be delighted.”

“Haha, yeah,” I say. I don’t sustain the possibility for very long, but even that brief glimmer seems awful enough to me that my laughter is semi-genuine.


“No way.”

“Why not?” And now the man looks at me with a face of pure incomprehension. It’s so untainted, I feel like I can read the words off it. You’ve got an incredibly niche super-power, it reads, which you’ve taken years to acquire, and now you’re passing up the perfect opportunity to use it with a band that you are patently smitten with. Why would you do that? There’s something about the simplicity of his bewilderment that makes me really wish that things were simple-at the very least, that I was capable of offering a simple explanation.

But I’m not, and everything in my head is convoluted when it comes to this kind of thing. It’s genuinely difficult for me to peel apart how much of my reluctance is to do with Japan, and how much is just me. I have what feel like cellular memories of endless conversations based on this “Hey, you should do [act involving conversing with strangers]!” model that run as far back as early childhood, and so I know that this sense of it being a bad idea not just personally but objectively predates all contact with Japan.

Yet I have also spent sufficient time in Japanese-adjacent contexts to know that there is a whole other level of things at play there. At play in Japan, full stop, but especially with non-Japanese people speaking Japanese, which is still such a socially marked event. I have watched enough Westerners proudly unleashing their flawed Japanese and seen the various kinds of social awkwardness and emotional labour that it causes for the people they unleash it on; I have experienced, myself, several thousand different iterations of the conversation where an unspoken rule determines that the first thing discussed has to be the level of my Japanese.

This rule is universal enough that it is the subject of a standard joke among non-Japanese Japanese speakers: the “your Japanese is so good” compliment as dreaded othering mechanism, and, ultimately, as insult. If your Japanese was native good, runs the logic, then you wouldn’t be complimented. In other words, the endgame of Japanese conversation is not to be complimented on one’s Japanese.

Except I think I’ve gone a step beyond this – or backwards from it, or most likely, off to the side. Ultimately, for me, the endgame has become just not to converse wherever possible – to recede from notice, so I don’t have to go through the humiliation of being found wanting, of not being one of the clan. Particularly when it matters, and there are feelings involved. I think back often to an off-hand comment made by a native Japanese speaker friend, about her ambivalence about teaching Japanese to the children she had with her British partner: “I mean, it’s better to speak no Japanese at all than to speak it imperfectly, right?”

I felt the sharp edge of this go slipping through me, as she knowingly or unknowingly invalidated a lot of what I was doing in my life at that point, and yet I also savoured the sting of it, because it confirmed so much that I’d been feeling. Why I feel it, how much of it is me and how much Japan, I still can’t tell. But I guess what I can say is that as time goes on, I’m starting to suspect that these two things are more interlinked, more of the chicken and egg order of things than I initially considered possible.

Not too many weeks before Melt Banana, I’d been in my local Buddhist centre talking to one of the order members, who was telling me about the years he spent setting up a centre in Venezuela. “I think you develop different personalities in different languages,” the order member said, because “languages have different souls”. Learning Venezuelan Spanish had been good for him, he suggested; he was freer, warmer, less uptight when he was out there. He fell in love with a Venezuelan woman, and that was a big part of the whole experience.

It would be surprising to me, honestly, if there are any linguists out there who haven’t run into this “different languages have different souls” hypothesis on numerous occasions, and my guess is also that a fair few of them find themselves, like me, struck with both the irresistibleness of its truth and the strong desire, nonetheless, to resist the cliche of it all.

And yet there’s something about the order member’s lack of pretension as he says all of this, something that combines with the general calm that I feel in this place and enables a thought to formulate itself in my mind with unprecedented simplicity: some loosening up was probably what I needed, too, back then.

I remember then, as I occasionally do, that my initial plan at university had been to teach English in Bologna, and I wonder what would have become of me if I’d gone through with that. Instead I went to Japan, and I developed a soul that feels even more uptight than my British one. I say this to the order member, and we laugh, and even as I laugh I feel myself blushing furiously, painfully. I blush because a part of me that knows this wasn’t a coincidence, even if factually it almost was. I went to Japan, I stayed in Japan because really where I feel comfortable is bowing to other people’s authority, surrendering my autonomy and swallowing whole the system of another.

I don’t mention to the order member that there’s a perfect sound in Japanese for this doing exactly this: peko-peko, the sound of bobbing one’s head repeatedly. It’s only now as I go to write this – wow, language is a funny thing – that I notice the English association that has been there for me the whole time (which is very possibly why I deem it “perfect” with such conviction) and that’s the link with the verb “to peck”.

The image I have accompanying peko-peko is a short man in a suit bowing his head repeatedly, with a motion that resembles that of a chicken, pecking at the ground. In the way that Japanese mimetics often do, this usage of the word means both the specific act, and the more general state associated with it; both the sound of dipping your head repeatedly, and the wider palette of the obsequious mind-set and its associated behaviours: pandering, smiling, nodding, showing deference in a hundred little ways.

Ways that, for the record, I was good at mimicking. Whatever struggles I had with the Japanese language, I had little problem with pretending to be Japanese with my body. I don’t think for a second that such gestures are particularly complex to master, but I do feel that what mastery requires is some kind of desperation. And I guess in some way I have always felt really desperate to fit in, in a way that I know from experience being in Japan exacerbates.

Desperate not to stand out, and not to make people feel uncomfortable. Not to feel the discomfort that hangs in the air, and doesn’t know from which party it comes, but grows and grows, and pecks and pecks. If possible, I’d have liked to just stand in a corner, pecking away for all eternity, and often times, that’s what I try to do.

I’d be lying if I said that I had no desire to be the type of person who would go up and speak to Melt Banana in Japanese – who wouldn’t find their words lost in a flurry of deferential impulses, who really wouldn’t care that they stood out, or could potentially be seen as showing off. More, I suspect if I was that kind of person, then my joy at speaking to Melt Banana and telling them how wonderful they were would find its way across, and Melt Banana would, genuinely, be delighted to have me speak to them. But then I also suspect that if I was that type of person, I might not have gone to Japan in the first place.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

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