7 Similarities between Japan and Slovenia

Japan and Slovenia…similar? Yeah right.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Japan and Slovenia have absolutely nothing in common. After all, on the surface, the two nations appear very different.

Japan is an Asian island nation, Slovenia a European continental country. Japan is an ancient land of 127 million people; Slovenia a new born, with just 2 million inhabitants. Japanese culture is a subject of global fascination, Slovenian culture is unknown to most of the world.

However, having myself lived in rural Japan, as well as Slovenia, I have discovered a surprising number of similarities between these two great countries.

  1. The Landscape

The most obvious similarity between Slovenia and Japan is the natural landscape. Both countries are blessed with green, mountainous terrain, interspersed with flat field-land. Looking out from my balcony in Ljubljana, I gaze upon a landscape of green fields, woodland and mountains.

 

It’s very much like the view from my balcony in the small town of Ono, Fukui. Whilst Japan’s crop of choice is rice, and Slovenia’s is wheat, barley or corn, the scenery is very simlar. Indeed, two friends who also lived in Fukui – Colin and Chris – recently visited and both independently commented that the landscape in Slovenia ‘could be Japan’.

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Fellow former Fukui-ites – Colin and Chris – agree that parts of Slovenia ‘could be Japan’

  1. The Language

Japanese and Slovene as languages, share nothing in common. They have no grammatical or structural similarities and knowing one will not help you in any way to learn the other. But there are traits that the two tongues share.

Firstly, both Japanese and Slovene are thought to be foreigner-proof by the locals. Both nationalities remark how difficult their native tongue is for foreigners to learn and are therefore both surprised and pleased when foreigners attempt to speak it.

Indeed, the Japanese believe that only those possessing Japanese DNA are equipped to speak nihongo. Uttering the simplest phrase in Japanese – for example ‘Watashi wa Igirisujin desu’ (I am English) – will undoubtedly trigger the ‘Ehhh! Nihongo jouzu!‘ (Wow! Your Japanese is excellent!) response.

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Likewise, as I recently discussed in my post Struggles with Slovenian: 6 Months of learning Slovene, most Slovenians do not expect foreigners to bother to learn Slovene, and hence when you drop a phrase or two, they too are pleased and surprised.

The owner of a café in Bohinj once waived my coffee bill, simply because I asked for it in Slovene. It’s a show of respect that someone takes time to learn another’s language, especially when that language is not easy to learn, and this effort does not go unnoticed by the Japanese or the Slovenes.

  1. The Climate

Though Japan stretches over several climatic zones from sub-tropical Okinawa, to sub-arctic Hokkaido, I spent my two years living in Ono, Fukui, which is half way down the main island of Honshu, and the climate there is very similar to that of Slovenia’s.

Both countries have four, very defined seasons; cold, crisp winters with oodles of snow  (ideal for snow-lovers such as myself), a pleasantly warm spring season; hot, sunny summers (though Japan’s is more humid), and a beautiful autumn with spectacular colour changes in the mountain forests.

And both have big, warm, tropical-esque rain storms, after which the scent of the earth is divine.

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Autumn colours, Jezersko, Slovenia

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Slippers

Most people know of Japan’s strict ‘slippers only, when indoors’ policy, which is well documented. Indeed, even in schools, kids and teachers must leave their outdoor shoes at the door, and switch to slippers for class. But I was surprised to find that Slovenia has a very similar custom. Just like in Japan, every Slovenian home has a stash of slippers at the door for guests, and walking into a home in your outdoor shoes is most certainly a faux pas.

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Copati (slipper) shop, as seen in Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Gardens

Both the Japanese and the Slovenes seem to take immaculate care of their gardens. Although in Japan where space is far more limited lawns are rare, plants, trees and bonsai are kept perfectly pruned, watered and even trussed up come winter to protect them from the heavy snowfalls. In Slovenia, grass is kept neatly cut, flower boxes perfectly arranged, and vegetable patches weeded and watered. Both nations seem to have a deep connection with their plants and the love of tending for them.

 

  1. A Fever for Festivals

Japan and Slovenia both love a festival. Slovenia has the saying ‘a festival for every village’ and I think the same could be said for Japan. Neither nation needs much excuse to dress up, play music and parade, and even the smallest towns have found something to celebrate.

Japan has the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival); Slovenia has its Snow Castle Festival in Črna na Koroškem. Japan has its Festival of the Steel Phallus, Slovenia has its own fertility festivities in the form of the Kurant Festival. Japan has numerous sake festivals, Slovenia has numerous wine festivals. The list goes on…

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Japanese sake festival

  1. Pride in Regional Dishes

Both Slovenia and Japan have great pride in certain foods that come from certain regions of their countries. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Slovenia boasts numerous specialities that hail from certain areas, and there is strong regional identity, for example Jota from Istria or Kranjska klobasa, a sausage that has caused political fighting as Slovenia and its neighbours – Croatia and Austria – battle over it.

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Klobasa (sausage) as served by my lovely neighbours in Koroška, Slovenia

Similarly, Japan has built a whole industry around food tourism, and almost everywhere, from whole prefectures right down to the smallest villages, has at least one special dish that it claims is completely unique to the area. Thus people will travel a long way to sample the firefly quid of Toyama prefecture or the Ishikari nabe of Hokkaido.

Echos of Rural Japan

With so many similarities between my experiences of rural Japan and Slovenia, it’s really no co-incidence that I was drawn here. My two years living in rural Japan were deeply formative; I was struck by its rural beauty. I loved living life outdoors, roaming mountains, paddling rivers, exploring lakes, trying to learn a new language, and feeling like everyday was an adventure into the unknown.

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Exploring deserted lake, Fukui, Japan

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View from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

When my time in Japan came to an end and I returned to live in the UK for the next ten years, I could never quite get Fukui out of my system. I was always searching for a life like that again.

When I sit outside on a hot summer evening, look out over the layers of mountains, and listen to the crickets chirp, I hear echos of rural Japan.

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Early morning mountain mist, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Afternoon haze, Mount Peca, Koroška, Slovenia (pic: Benito Aramando)

It took me 11 years to make it a reality, but I think I finally found what I was looking for, here in Sloveina.

ForFukuisSake

If you’d like to read more about life in rural Japan, For Fukui’s Sake is available from Amazon

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Struggles with Slovenian: 6 months of learning Slovene

Having been living in Ljubljana for six months, it’s high time I talked about my experiences of trying to learn the local lingo: slovenščina.

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Many Slovenians are surprised that I am bothering to learn Slovenian at all. Indeed, the reaction of one of my colleagues when I first told him I was taking Slovenian classes was a mirthful “Why?!”.

After all, he and all my Slovene colleagues speak excellent English, so why would I trouble myself with this little-known language of just 2 million speakers, that everybody tells me is “very difficult for foreigners” and another summed up as being “pretty hard and not that useful”.

Indeed, I have met several expats who have been living here for years, have Slovene partners, yet don’t speak Slovenian at all. In Slovenia, and especially Ljubljana, it’s easy enough to rely on the locals’ excellent linguistic skills and spare yourself the trouble of tackling mind-twisting grammar when it’s quite possible to operate in English alone for the vast majority of daily life. (Although you can still run into problems, as I discovered at the uprava enota…see: Battling Bureaucracy: A Taste of Red Tape in Slovenia).

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Tools for the job

But I don’t want to become another foreigner who never bothered to learn the language of the country in which they reside. The British already have a reputation for being lazy when it comes to languages so I want to learn as much of the local lingo as possible. Not only will this help me understand and operate better here, but it’s a matter of manners too. Taking time to learn your host country’s tongue opens the door to cultural insights and shows a level of respect and interest in your adopted country, which I think is important and worthwhile.

I’m not completely alien to language learning; I have an intermediate level of French, I lived and worked in rural Japan for two years so banked some nihongo, and I even (reluctantly) attended Russian classes at school.

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Where’s Spot? High brow Slovenian literature

It’s true that Slovene is not the easiest language to grasp for non-Slavic speakers. It’s grammatically complex, with an annoying number of ‘cases’ (sklon) which mean that you have to constantly modify the endings of words depending on the context of the sentence. For native English speakers, this is an ongoing trip hazard. I rarely get the endings of all my words right, although for the most part, the meaning of my sentence can still be understood.

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My least favourite aspect of Slovenian: ‘cases’ which mean you must constantly change the endings of words, depending on context

Slovenian also has something called the ‘dual plural’, a rare, archaic feature which has all but died out in most other languages, if it ever existed at all. But the dual is something that Slovenian has held on to, and of which Slovenes are very proud. This means futher changes are required when you are only talking about two things or two people (as opposed to three or more). And of course the word endings change again depending on whether it’s two male things, two female things or two neuter things.

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This is more my level of Slovenian litertature

Just when you think you’re beginning to get a handle on all of that, your teacher then casually tosses another Slovenian hand grenade into the classroom which explodes in a fireball of ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ verbs (akin to perfect and imperfect tense). And as you’re reeling from shock and awe at their very existence, there’s the ongoing struggle of Slovene’s tongue-twisting nature.

For the uninitiated, trying to pronounce seemingly vowel-deficient words like pospravljajo (they clean), vprašajta (a question [dual form]) or nahrbtnik (backpack), requires highly dextrous mouthparts, the likes of which only a native Welsh speaker could appreciate.

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On my reading list. Kids books are a good way to learn

Perhaps the biggest challenge with any attempt to learn a language is motivation. Knowing myself, I decided that classes, rather than pure self-study, would be the best option for me. So I signed up for courses offered by the Univerza v Ljubljani, Filozofska fakulteta. These were very good, and I now know a hell of a lot more than I did before I begun. These classes have now ceased for the summer, so I’ve reconnected with my old Slovene teacher, Valentina Zupan from LearnSlovenianOnline.com, to continue my twice-weekly classes, in the hopes that I’ll keep the SLOmentum going.

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Our masterpiece Slovenian poems, as published in the department magazine

Despite all of this, I sometimes feel that the top of Mount Speak Slovenian, is a very long way off, and that I am only a few steps in to the journey. The fact that most Slovenians speak such excellent English, means that despite living amongst them, I don’t speak much Slovene on a day to day basis.

When I lived in rural Japan, the farmers and fisherman that surrounded me spoke no English. So I was forced to (try to) speak Japanese daily, and speaking a language, no matter how badly, is the best way to obtain and retain a language. But here, seemingly everyone, from my 12-year old neighbour, to the cleaning lady at work, speaks English fluently.

I always try to order in Slovenian at bars and restaurants; sometimes the reply comes in Slovene, but half the time, my accent or my failure to use the accusative case correctly betrays my foreignness, and the waiter replies in perfect English before handing me an English menu.

It is when I am in Koroška, at The Kingdom of Breg House, that I find I progress most. It is here that I can really practice speaking Slovenian with no fear of my neighbours switching to English, as most of them don’t speak any at all. It’s here that I feel I have actually made some progress, as I stumble through, somehow, actually communicating in Slovene. Albeit sounding like a troglodyte.

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In Slovenian, Sam-I-Am is Jan-I-Am

I know learning a language is a long road and one filled with frustration. Some days I feel like I’ve made progress, others I become angry at Slovenian’s audacity to be so tricky and annoyed at my constant mistakes, and my inability to remember words I really should know by now.

Nonetheless the SLO must go on. It will be an up and down ride, but I hope, malo po malo, I will improve, and one day, mogoče, I’ll be able to read the Slovene version of Where’s Spot? (recommended for ages 2-4), all by myself.