Afrikaans sushi

Ek sal ’n oranje pet dra [I’ll be wearing an orange cap]” was how it sounded. The Japanese professor was telling me how to recognise him when he arrived at Johannesburg International. In Afrikaans.

A thought flashed through my head: was Takasji Sakura’s cap “oranje” as in the colour, or from Orania as in the Northern Cape? The latter was a real possibility: Sakura was visiting the Afrikaners-only dorpie on the banks of the Orange river as we spoke.

I didn’t ask because — probably based on my own stereotypes — I assumed there wouldn’t be too many compact, politely smiling Japanese academics flying in from Kimberley.

Co-writer of a unique Afrikaans-Japanese dictionary, 58-year-old Sakura was on his fifth visit to South Africa to receive an award from the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging (AKTV) for his contribution to the promotion of Afrikaans.

He finally flashed through the arrivals hall with a cap that met both descriptions: orange, and bearing Orania’s abstract symbol. I had to translate his out-of-breath “Ek moet Bloemfontein toe vlieg [I have to fly to Bloemfontein]” as it encountered a blank stare at the departure counter.

The professor’s route from the right wing enclave to Bloem via Jo’burg indicated his knowledge of Afrikaans is far better than his South African geography; a road trip would have been quicker.

We booked him on to a later flight to the Free State capital, where a visit to the Vrouemonument (Women’s Monument) was on his itinerary. Moving to a coffee shop for the interview, he ordered rooibos tea.

Before asking him about his “Boere-Jap” status and his visit to Orania, I asked: how did he become interested in Afrikaans?

Sakura handed me a speech, written in eloquent and grammatically perfect Afrikaans, which he had delivered to the ATKV.

“In 1973-4 I studied at the University of Bonn in Germany,” he explained in the speech. “I came across an unusual fact in a book that a Germanic language was used in Africa. It was unbelievable! The moment that I read that — I don’t know why — I fell in love with Afrikaans.”

To introduce the language to Japan, he needed a bilingual dictionary. “It became the aim of my life to compile one,” explained Sakura, himself the son of an English- language teacher. He achieved this in 2001 with co-author, the University of Port Elizabeth’s Ernst Kotze, spending a year at Rand Afrikaans University in the 1970s along the way.

So how was Orania? “They are very good people and I had a very friendly reception,” he said, insisting on conducting the whole interview in fluent, but heavily accented, Afrikaans. “This is an attempt to protect Afrikaans, which is under threat in a country where English is fast becoming the lingua franca.”

He found Orania “an interesting and unusual socio-linguistic experiment”.

But this linguistic romantic also showed some political sophistication. “It is also an attempt to protect a narrow Afrikaner nationalism. It isn’t only white people who use Afrikaans. If the people in Orania want Afrikaans to expand, they must throw away their Afrikaner nationalism.

“I am crazy about Afrikaans, but like black and coloured Afrikaans- speakers I will never be able to become an inhabitant of Orania,” he said. “The people there were very friendly, but I felt a distance between us.”

Orania’s museum featured photo-graphs of South African prime ministers only up to John Vorster, he said. The statue on a hill outside town of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was “an anachronism” and made him feel uncomfortable.

“Dis ’n dorpie van gister [it is a town of yesterday] … ’n klein dorpie op die plaas [a little town on the farm]. Information from outside is very limited.”

Will he go back to Orania? Sakura looks uncomfortable as he presses down the teapot lid. “I don’t know …”

Since 1994 nobody at the Meikai University in the Japanese city of Chiba, where Sakura works as a linguist, had described Afrikaans as the language of apartheid, he said. It had been much easier for him to visit South Africa for study purposes.

He has one student reading Afrikaans. “He speaks much better Afrikaans than me,” he chuckled. “He has more natural language talent …”

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Charles Leonard
Charles Leonard is a journalist, editor, broadcaster, DJ and record collector. For more than 30 years, he has edited and written for a variety of South African publications and broadcasters, including the Mail & Guardian, Business Day, SABC, Vrye Weekblad and the Sunday Times, as well as Channel Four News in the UK.

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