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Making Out in Japanese: An Oral History of a Seminal Text
A repost of an interview with the creators of a hugely influential guidebook series.
I ran this interview before switching over to Substack, so the content will be new to most of my subscribers. Stay tuned for more new content later this week!
In 1988, a new kind of text arrived for learning Japanese, quickly emerging as a go-to resource for students of the language: Making Out in Japanese. To set the stage, the US was locked in a trade war with Japan, few Westerners visited the country for fun, and Japanese classes were few and far between. A 1980 Washington Post profile of my high school’s Japanese language program, one of the only in the nation at the time, called Japanese “one of the world's more difficult and less useful languages.” Japan’s reputation as an exotic slayer of American industry did nothing to dissuade my studies, for I could have cared less about politics. I was possessed of a singular obsession: deciphering anime and manga, which at the time were not widely available in translation. Unfortunately, the textbooks then being used did little to prepare us for the way Japanese was actually spoken outside of a classroom.
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Where academic texts daintily demurred, Making Out in Japanese stripped off the gloves, and pretty much everything else. Its sample sentences were written in the clipped, idiomatic speech of the sort that friends and family used. This was useful and welcome enough. But where the book really shone was taking things down a rung, often several. If you needed to win a screaming match, provoke a fistfight, slink off for a one-night stand, or survive a tearful break-up, authors Todd and Erika Geers had your back. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the distinctive white and pink front cover of the book and its sequel, Even More Making Out in Japanese, were omnipresent in the dorm rooms of my fellow language learners.
They had only been out for about five years by that point, but already seemed like legendary, forbidden texts. They felt authentic, passed from student to student, dogeared pages that were practically newsprint, illustrated with charming little sketches, and filled with all sorts of situations that sensei didn’t want us knowing about (or at least talking about in class.) In school, sample conversations inevitably centered on topics like greeting a boss or going shopping. One of the first in Making Out featured two men waiting for a woman who never shows, ending in the memorable ano ama! (“that bitch!”) It was certainly the first place I learned of phrases like yokei na osewa! (“mind your business!”), namen ja ne yo (“don’t fuck with me!”) and cheesy pick-up lines like issho ni asa kohi nomanai? (“do you want to drink morning coffee together?”)
This was thrilling stuff to teenagers yearning for adventure in the streets of cities they’d only glimpsed in movies like Black Rain. Ironically I never had an occasion to deploy any of these phrases even after making it to Tokyo as a college exchange student. I spent far less time in the red-light district than I did in toy shops, electronics stores, and video-game arcades. Then again, without those geeky hangouts where would Pure Invention be?
The Making Out in Japanese books, for all their naughtiness, were authored by a wholesome-looking young couple whose smiling picture adorned the back cover. Todd Geers and Erika Aoki have since gone their separate ways, but we spoke over email, where they recounted the story of how the books came to be. (Special thanks to Elisha Geers for her help in making this interview happen!)
Todd Geers: I was in the Navy and stationed in Japan from 1984 to 1987. I met Erika in 1984 and we married in October 1985. Shortly after I started taking Japanese language classes on base. The texts I used at the time were classic works. My favorite was a 3-volume set by Eleanor Hartz Jordan. I also studied on my own, and of course would use those new skills interacting with Erika’s family in Yokohama.
Erika Aoki: I remember that the words Todd was learning and practicing were very old-fashioned, such as ware-ware for “we,” and I told him that no one talks like that. I thought the words and sentence structures in his textbooks were too polite, or too long. I wanted to help him to learn Japanese as spoken between family or friends, with shorter, easy to memorize sentences that would motivate him to continue to study.
Todd: Jordan’s style was to present the many -- seven, I think -- politeness levels as used by peers, subordinate-to-superior and vice versa, formal speech, and even super high level, like what the emperor might say. I distinctly remember the day when I conceived the idea -- not so much for the book, but rather that what I was learning was useless! We were at Erika’s family house, sitting around the kotatsu with the quilt on top (must have been winter), eating oranges. I would use a phrase from Jordan’s text, and expect an answer along the same level. But the family always replied differently, with short, condensed, abbreviated responses. I realized they were speaking slang.
Erika: Todd and I talked about it, and the idea of creating a book to help others emerged, and we were very excited since there were no other books like that at the time. We came up with the ideas for the situations in the book by sitting down, brainstorming the possible situations of dating and its process, and role-playing.
Todd: At our tiny little apartment in Yamato-shi, near Atsugi Naval Air Facility, I started a notebook of everyday phrases and expressions, to catalog the common-place slang. I remember Erika and I sitting at our little kitchen table, acting out scenes and scenarios. “OK, Erika, we are at a disco. And if I say this to you, what would you say back?” And the book unfolded in that manner. Soon those notes took shape into what I thought of as “A Sailor’s Night Out on the Town.” Meaning expressions a typical American sailor might use or hear when leaving base, heading to town, dining, meeting a girl, or interacting with her. Soon chapters started to evolve. At some point we decided to convert the notes into a book.
Erika: The more we discussed, our ideas expanded to focus on helping foreigners, especially active military members stationed in Japan, to meet Japanese girls, make conversation and develop relationships easily and effectively.
Todd: I bought a small electronic typewriter. Back then it was cool to have one, but they were super limited in power. The one we used had an LCD screen that showed, I think, eight characters at one time, and the entire memory was one page of the book. So, we hammered out the book, eight characters in review, one page at a time. We’d have to print each page and delete it before starting on the next page. Any later revisions were painful.
Erika: I remember that I started to draw pictures to avoid having to find an illustrator and pay them.
Todd: As the manuscript took shape, Erika with her awesome artistic skills, started making the cute drawings that you see in the book. Whatever she thought was appropriate for that section or the words around that part of the book, she made a drawing.
Erika: I have not had any artistic training, or illustrated anything else since. I always loved drawing and painting, but illustrating the book was just to save us money.
Todd: When the manuscript was complete, I walked down to the nearby 7-11 and used the Xerox machine there to make six or seven copies. Then I went home, opened all the various Japanese textbooks I had, copied the names and addresses of all the publishers, and sent copies of the manuscript out. Over the next few weeks, I heard back from a few, thanking me but: “No thanks.” One publisher, cannot remember now which one, wrote back saying how detrimental this type of book would be to Japanese-US relations, how the concept is so taboo, raunchy, or whatever they said. Ha! Then, Charles E. Tuttle wrote to us. It was basically like, “How quick can you two come to Tokyo?!” That was the most expensive part of writing the book, our trip to Tokyo – train, lunch, and taxi.
Tuttle loved the book. At one point, they asked if we actually wrote the book. Of course we did and said yes, but being the honest guy I am, I also mentioned that I had someone proofread it for me. I was an aviation electronics tech in the Navy at that time and was friends with some of the pilots. One of my good friends was a helo pilot and Naval Academy grad with a degree in English. When we went to sea, I took the finished manuscript with me, and I asked him to proof it. I paid him $35 in five dollar bills and an overflowing handful of Double Bubble bubblegum.
Erika: I met people, especially on military bases, who bought and used our book to meet partners and eventually ended up being married.
Todd: I saw people around the world with the book in their hands or back pocket. Or saw the book in bookstores in different places around the world. Being as young as Erika and I were at the time, it was a thrill to know we created such a needed book. It was fun and an honor.
Erika: I gave my autographs multiple times to people. But I realized that our book was connecting to people outside of the military when I saw our book was mentioned by celebrities, such as a well known Japanese actress. Later, I heard it was used in making the American movie, “Lost in Translation.” Of course, I was surprised and excited.
Todd: Bill Murray had a TV interview where he raved about the book. But I doubt he hooked up by using it. Ha. The sequel, More Making out in Japanese, was the publisher’s idea. We also wrote a third book, Tokimeki Eikaiwa, that was entirely our idea. This was in 1991–1992, I was in flight school in Pensacola, Florida. We had just received our semi-annual royalty check, and I noticed at least half the sales were in yen. The Japanese were using the first two books “backwards,” to learn slang English. So, we wrote the third book with them in mind.
Erika: Later, I worked at a dental clinic at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. I put a copy of “More Making Out in Japanese” in the waiting room. I received a complaint from one of our patients saying the words in the books were too sexual or dirty.
Todd: I think the one thing I am most proud of is that we started a new genre of language books. If you go to, say, a Barnes & Noble today, you will see all kinds of slang language guides. Before Making Out, all you had were the awesome but boring Eleanor Hartz Jordan and her contemporaries. Our book was a catalyst for huge changes in the language book world.
Erika: Personally, I see the books as a big success. I don’t say that for financial reasons, but because we reached out to people who could benefit, and enhanced their lives. I feel like we made a difference in people’s lives!