Japanese poet Noriko Ibaragi (1926-2006) learned Korean in 1976, when she was 50 years old. Ten years later, in 1986, she recorded her experience of learning this new language in『ハングルへの旅』.
『ハングルへの旅』is a beautiful story about learning a new language and a new culture. I heartily recommend it to everyone interested in language learning, or everyone learning both Japanese and Korean. As a language learner, I kept smiling at Noriko Ibaragi’s anecdotes, most of them I had experienced myself. And for someone who is interested in the relationships and history between Japan and Korea, seeing Korea through the eyes of Noriko Ibaragi back in the 1970s/80s was fascinating.
I kept finding similarities between Noriko Ibaragi’s experience with language learning and mine. Right from the beginning, I felt an immediate bond with the author. She opens her book talking about the answer she would give when people asked her why she was learning Korean. She says that this question annoyed her because there were all kinds of reasons that would be too long and complicated to explain. In the end, she ended up saying 「隣の国のことばですもの」.
『ハングルへの旅』is full of anecdotes that any language learner can relate to. For example, when visiting a tourist attraction in Korea with a friend, Noriko Ibaragi says that they chose to follow the guided tour in Korean rather than Japanese, even though they could understand only one third of it. Who hasn’t done the same? Reading this book made me realise that, even though learning a language has become much easier today than it was in 1976, the experiences we make as learners have remained the same.
『ハングルへの旅』also allowed me to learn a lot of interesting facts about learning Korean in Japan at the time. I learned for example, that Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan would often refer to the Korean language as 朝鮮語, but it sounded pejorative to Koreans, and South Koreans associate 朝鮮 with the North. When NHK launched a Korean class, instead of choosing between 朝鮮語 and 韓国語, they called it ハングル講座.
It was also captivating to read about the ethnic Koreans of second or third generations (在日), who once grown up, would start learning their 母国語 again. I like how Noriko Ibaragi does not talk about her experience only, but includes her classmates, friends and people she met along the way.
Noriko Ibaragi does not shy away from mentioning the two countries’ common past, even noting her own blunder when she complimented a Korean poet who was around her age on her excellent Japanese. She realises too late that this Korean poet belonged to a generation who was forced to learn and use Japanese at school during the Japanese rule of Korea . 「ハッとしたが遅く、自分の迂闊さに恥じ入った。」
She compares some features of Korean with Japanese and talks about her travels to Korea, things that surprised her and the conversations she had with strangers met during her travels. Whenever she talks about the differences between Japanese and Korean culture, language or customs, she always keeps an open heart and finds beauty and appeal in Korean particularities that are different from her country.
You don’t need to know or speak Korean to read this book (she gives a translation and reading for everything written in Korean), but you will find this book even more interesting if you do. There are chapters where Noriko Ibaragi talks about Korean words she finds interesting, Korean pronunciation, what she finds difficult in learning Korean, and so on. I think that these chapters could feel abstract if you are not particularly interested in the Korean language. That being said, 『ハングルへの旅』will remain a fantastic read even if you skip these parts.
I was bracing myself for a difficult book to read in Japanese, but 『ハングルへの旅』was not that challenging. There were some passages that I found difficult, but overall, it was a smooth read. I would say that I found this book more difficult to read than most mystery novels that I have read so far, but it was very engrossing, and constantly coming across things that I could relate to made the reading easier.
This is an extract to give you an idea of the Japanese level and show how the author adds Korean words into her text (what I wrote in brackets was furigana):
いつか百貨店 [べっくワジョム] で、小さな木版画を買おうとしてあれこれ見ていたとき、からすとも、かささぎともみえる鳥二羽を指さして、
I am sure that this is an experience any language learner can relate to! But if you are also learning Korean, maybe you can sympathise even more with her difficulty to get the 濃音 right…
Amidst all the tensions between the two countries, the 反日 movements in Korea and the 嫌韓 books or articles published in Japan, reading 『ハングルへの旅』was heartwarming. I have read one of those 嫌韓 books last year, out of curiosity, and I was shocked by the way the author constantly mocked or belittled Korea. 『ハングルへの旅』was written in 1986, but it is great book to read today.
Further readings: Noriko Ibaragi talks about Takumi Asagawa (浅川巧), a Japanese who worked in Korea during Japanese rule, and fell in love with Korean culture. He is buried near Seoul. Noriko Ibaragi mentioned that she read the book 『朝鮮の土となった日本人―浅川巧の生涯』(1982) written by Historian Soji Takasaki (高崎宗司). I am interested in the life of Takumi Asagawa, and I think that I might read the shorter『白磁の人』(1994) by Takayuki Emiya (江宮隆之).
2020 Reading challenge!
First step in completing my reading challenge for 2020!