About a week before traveling to Japan, I’d all but given up on learning a bit of the language. Wishing to avoid embodying the dumb gaijin trope, I downloaded Duolingo and flashcard apps to my phone, practicing every day for almost three months. Using just these apps as my guide, I studied these unfamiliar symbols while in transit, on the toilet or whenever else I found myself with a few free minutes.
For those unaware, the Japanese language consists of three alphabets. The two primary ones, hiragana and katakana, are each 46 characters representing vowels and vowels following a consonant (ka, wo, ri, mu, etc.). Each of these symbols can be modified with strokes and circle, which changes the consonant at the front of the sound. While learning these two sets of characters for the same sounds might seem confusing enough, the difficulty ramps up to a fiendish degree once the third script, kanji, is folded into the mix.
Kanji is a set of Chinese symbols (also known as ideograms) that represents either a combination of hiragana/katakana sounds or an entire concept like a number of a word. With more than 50,000 kanji symbols out there, and most Japanese students only learning about 2,000, it’s no wonder the beautiful but challenging script has become such a foreboding chore for both native and foreign Japanese students alike.
As someone who’s never excelled at rote memorization, the steep learning curve of kanji played a key factor in my Japanese-lesson burnout as I prepared to visit the country. Wondering if I’d be able to get by simply on the (questionable) strength of my hiragana and katakana, I shamefully decided it was time to throw in the towel on my kanji lessons as I boarded my intercontinental flight. Only then, after I’d resigned myself to being less capable a student than the average Japanese five-year-old, did I stumble upon a potential solution to my problem: Professor Poo.
Hoping to inject some levity into the excruciatingly dry chore that is learning kanji, publisher Shuji Yamamoto released a workbook series called Unko Kanji Doriru (translating to “poo kanji drill”) in March. The series, which includes the word “poo” in each of its sample sentences, was an immediate hit and has already sold just under two million booklets as of June 2017.
And who could be better suited to instruct these scatological lessons than Professor Poo, a mustachioed and bespectacled kawaii coil of crap, and the fecal face of the educational company?
It was just my luck that, right as I arrived in Japan, I learned that Unko Kanji Doriru was having a pop-up shop in Namja Town, a surreal kids zone of a Tokyo mall. Better still, a wide array of Professor Poo-shaped dishes would be on offer, each with a unique kanji flash card that was guaranteed to jolt some excitement back into my studies.
I decided, then and there, to give kanji one last shot and to place my education in the capable hands of the professor. Perhaps, by combining the visual stimulation of a poo shape, and the reward factor of food, I’d finally drill some of these ideograms into my long-term memory.
I made my way to Namja Town and became immediately self-conscious of the fact that I was the only adult on the premises unaccompanied by a child. Undeterred, I found Professor Poo’s headquarters, a vivid playpen of golden turds, flower turds, turd clouds and more, all in the familiar emoji-like silhouette of the professor. Excited children ran around the room, lining up for drills from the instructor staff, earning baubles for each correct answer.
It was immediately apparent that this room was far too advanced for me. I made a beeline to the food court.
I wandered around the various food stands until I finally saw the professor’s head peeking up from a tray of mousse and fruit cakes. I purchased one and collected my first flash card along with a helpful map that highlighted where I could find the rest of the Prof. P dishes.
As I’d already picked up something sweet (and wasn’t about to drop fucking $50 to collect the entire poo lunch card set), I decided to forego the ice creams and cotton candy and instead balance out my meal with ice-cubed noodles covered by a meat cut into a poo shape and the diarrhea-esque curry.
Once I’d assembled my feast, I sat down in a little nook meticulously designed to look like a 1950s Japanese living room, replete with a retro black-and-white TV and prepared to get cracking on my homework. With the colorful flash cards laid out on the table next to the meal I’d be enjoying as a bite-by-bite reward, there was nothing to stop me from parsing out the sentences.
Nothing, of course, except the lack of kanji characters I had committed to memory. My lack of innate knowledge had me staring dumbfounded at the 95 percent alien language while my hot food cooled off and my cold food warmed up. I was getting nowhere. Even once I’d caved and allowed myself an “open book” test and began using Duolingo and Google Translate to work through the cards, I still was only barely able to hash out nonsensical phrases like “the curry is attached to his trousers.”
It turns out that, no matter how great the art direction or reward, at the end of the day, the only thing that was going to teach me kanji was drilling through the individual characters ceaselessly until blood trickled from my ears and eyes.
I started eating my meal, crossing my fingers that the act of consuming Professor Poo effigies would somehow imbue me with his kanji mastery. Once I’d finished, I glanced at the flash cards again to confirm that, yes, they still looked like total gibberish to my ignorant eyes.
I was disappointed that I’d been unable to learn anything new. What I was not disappointed in, however, was the shockingly delicious poo lunch I’d just had. The curry was hearty and had a tangy kick, the icy noodles had an altogether novel maple and spice flavor, and the mousse dessert was sublimely refreshing on such a humid August day.
Though I’d failed his lesson, it seemed Professor Poo was not without mercy. And for that kindness, I offer him one of the few kanji phrases I do know by heart.
Thank you, Professor Poo.