Japan, Tokyo, 1977. I walk crowded streets and beautiful gardens where care is taken for spaces as well as things that grow. I struggle -- try to speak Japanese language but usually mispronounce "Key-Ray-Ee-Des" (It is beautiful) as "Key-Rah-Ee-Des" (It is dirty). I tip-toe through minefields of culture steeped in subtlety; lose huge chunks of flesh and karma with my thunderous, blunderous New York strides.
Shin-Ju-Ku: lights dim Times Square into grandmother's fruit cellar. Row on countless row of Japanese stare hypnotized at small vertical pin-ball game called Pah-Chinn-Koe. This bright hustle bustle hassle hides deeper subtlety, deeper calm, inside, beneath, where foreign eyes can peer not.
I enter Tokyo subway. Then -- SHE enters -- total stranger, totally beautiful, black hair, endless eyes. I, of course, having learned small little in my many minefield walks, look everywhere but at her. Better, SHE looks everywhere but at me. We ride, totally not looking at each other. SHE stands in middle -- nowhere to hold on to -- unprotected, beautiful, vulnerable.
Suddenly, train lurches. Simultaneously: SHE shoots hand out to only spot I can possibly reach while I shoot hand out to only spot she can reach. Our hands clasp strongly for instant and I save her from fall. Slowly, we release.
Next stop, she suddenly rushes out. But -- just before the doors bang shut, she turns -- looks straight into my eyes. "Kohn-bahn-wah" she says ("Good Evening") thus, Japanese beauty touches beyond body into very soul of clumsy Westerner.
The Japanese language is really a cinch to learn -- provided, of course, you are born in Japan and live there all your life. Even then, I suspect only a handful of natives actually speak Japanese, while the rest merely pretend. Naturally, those who really speak Japanese are too polite to tell anyone. English is the vice versa to them. I met a Japanese woman there majoring in English who had studied for a hundred and seventy years. "Please oh so hello you. Please English in you I speak too also..." Etc. You get the picture, I'm sure, and can probably vaguely imagine what my Nihongo sounded like to them. Perhaps a little more intelligible than the hum of a dragonfly -- but not by much. Nonetheless, in the seven easy lessons below, you will discover everything you really need to know in order to survive in Japan. (I'm assuming you already know some stuff like, "Don't pick a fight" and "Don't jaywalk in a foreign country.")
Lesson One: On Distinguished Asians
After having spent six thousand nine hundred and sixty-nine hours listening to Japanese language records, I knew not one shred of Japanese. However, I did memorize, indeed come to know as a dear member of my family, the poor unfortunate English chap whom so many untoward accidents and illnesses had befallen whilst traveling in Japan. For example, side 26, band 33 sounded like this. "Hello...hadjamamashita dozo yoru shik, kudasia, konbanwa...I've lost my wallet. Kudasiakudasia...Can you take me to a hospital? Shi. I'm lost. Hongohongohongo...May I have this dance? Karate-bonsai--kudasai. I have fever, hongohongo, chills, hongohongo, vomiting, hongohongo, a heart attack, hongohongo, the heartbreak of psoriasis, hongohongo." My trip to Japan was luckily not that misfortune-befallen. (Misfortune-befallen is a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon seldom used verb).
Thus, I began my serious study of Japanese on the plane to Tokyo. At 30,000 feet (and two double martini's later) Japanese suddenly began to fall into place for me. It made a Gestalt. I forget just now what that Gestalt was. Anyhow, Karma seemed to smile at me in thoses friendly skies because right there beside me sat an honest-to-Freud Asian. So! What luck! I could get some practical experience before I stepped the plane off too also please. I was a bit shy. I had forgotten how to start a conversation with a member of the same sex. Figuring a little compliment never hurt, I told him in my nascent Japanese: "Please hello ku-dah-sigh. Nihongo great country beautiful too also please. Productive very are too also, ku-dah-sigh." As it turned out, he was Korean.
I didn't actually mind the educational lecture that quickly followed about the numerous unprovoked invasions of Korea by the Japanese, thank you, or their enslavement of the Koreans or stealing the culture, ku-de-grace. The fellow documented the lecture with numerous photos and other visual aids. I admired his patrioticity. I mean -- how many Americans -- if mistaken for an Englishman on a plane -- could whip out a series of books, pamphlets, film clips, stage plays, and Barbie Dolls documenting the atrocities of the British and the reasons for the Declaration of Independence? Not to mention the complete biographies of every member of the Continental Congress? And this whole lecture -- very tightly organized and translated in situo, he managed to squeeze into a mere 46,800 seconds.
Not that I was counting the seconds. I counted the hours and multiplied later. I learned to do that little trick in elementary school. Remember those days? They used to have exotic subjects like "Math" and "Spelling" and "Reading." Nowadays, my kids learn more practical things like "New Math," "NU spelling" and "Advanced Ganja Meditation Practices."
Seven martinis and six revolts later we flew (I mean flew!) into Tokyo. NOT Toe-Key-Oh. Two syllables: Toe-Kyo. Equal stress. That is one cardinal rule for Japanese -- everything has equal stress -- seven days a week.
The plane landed and the flight attendant spieled out that little Koan they always leave you with: "...or, wherever your final destination happens to be." I hate that. I don't know what my final destination is. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else. But why do they remind you just when you're trying to orient yourself to a whole new world? And, why do they say it with a tone of voice that sort of laughingly suggests that they know full well where your final destination will be? Anyway, still pondering this imponderable, I strode out into the Land of the Rising Sun, and into a sea of people.
The most amazing thing about the Tokyo (No! Say it in your mind with two syllables; I already said that!) -- the most amazing thing about TOE-KYO is the TOE-KYO airport HAH-NAH-DAH. You think there are a lot of Japanese tourists in New York and San Francisco? Let me tell you - you have not seen anything! You should see TOE-KYO. Filled with Japanese! I was dumbfounded! They acted like they owned the place. Really. Even more amazing, they all speak --or, as I suspect, fake speaking -- Japanese.
Also -- everyone runs constantly -- or walks -- but walks faster than an Olympic sprinter sprints. And, I don't just mean the young. This includes ancient businessmen in identical business suits and ancient women in tight, identical dresses. What's even stranger, whenever you are in the presence of more than four Japanese (which will be the entire time you are in Japan), someone is always yelling, "CHO-TOE-MAH-TAY, CHO-TOE-MAH-TAY" which means "Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Can you picture it? Thousands of people in black business suits skittering everywhere at top speed shouting "CHO-TOE-MAH-TAY" at each other.
The second most common word in Japanese (after "chotto matte") is "HI" which means "yes." Only it doesn't mean "yes." It means..."yes." It's quite important that you don't believe the guide books that tell you "HI" means "yes." "HI" means, "Yes, I'm here. Yes, I'm listening. Yes, I understand you. But NO, I definitely and sure as hell did not agree to spend the night with you choe-toe-mah-tay also please thank you ku-dah-sigh, good-bye, so sorry."
Lesson Two: Learning the Alphabet (sic).
The key to learning any written language is learning the alphabet. Japanese doesn't have one. Or, actually, it has three. But one isn't an alphabet. But neither are the other two, really, so that makes things a whole lot simpler.
To learn the basic Japanese written vocabulary, you need only memorize Kata-kana (46 different complex arbitrary symbols that stand for 46 arbitrary sounds) and Hiragana (46 more complex, more arbitrary symbols paired with the same arbitrary sounds) and last, but not least, Kanjii. The Japanese Kanjii characters are borrowed (thank you) from Chinese. Sometimes the Japanese also borrowed (thank you) the Chinese pronunciations, but more often they prefer to select one of the two to fifty different Japanese pronunciations of each character. So. How hard could it be, really? Oh, did I mention that you need to learn about 10,000 Kanjii ideograms?
Did you think all that hari-kari stuff arose merely from messing up a few billion yen business deals? Partly. But, I suspect, mainly the Japanese people are predisposed to suicide from their early childhood traumas associated with learning to read. And, their school system does not take, "Oh, well, I'm dyslexic" for an answer. You will learn to read. Or die trying.
Any normal visitor to Japan would instantly perceive the futility of trying to learn to read Japanese, but if you think I'm normal, you haven't been paying attention. So, I decided that I would at least learn Hirigana and Katakana -- in one afternoon. I had a good memory back then. At least, that's the way I remember my memory being. Anyway, using very clever mnemonics, I did manage to memorize both the Hirigana and the Katakana characters in my book -- in one afternoon.
So, into the streets of Tokyo I strode, just itching to find some signs to read. Oh. One little problem. Seriphs. Seriphs? What are those, I hear you say. Those are the funny little fancy edges that typographers put on letters to show that they designed that letter style (styles are called "fonts"). In Engish, for instance, you can write a capital "I" as a single straight vertical line. But, in many fonts, you will see tiny little horizontal bars at the top and bottom of the "I." Can you see them? Well, guess what? Japanese comes in various fonts too! I had made up 92 cute little mnemonic stories about seriphs that did not exist in most of the fonts on the street -- only the font in my book. My advice? Wear dark glasses when you visit Japan and walk with a white cane.
Lesson Three. Polite Forms.
Politeness is everything in Japan. It's very important that you say "Ku-dah-sigh" after and before everything. "Ku-dah-sigh" just means "please." You'll get along fine. Be sure never to say, "Ku-dah-sigh" though which means,: "I challenge you, you son of a xyzzy to a fight to the death!" What's that you say? They look the same? Of course, they look the same when transliterated into English, you fool. But when spoken by the native Japanese (or, what's more important listened to by a native Japanese) there is a subtle, ineffable, but lethal difference. Good luck.
Sometimes, thank you, Japanese guide books give two or more forms for the same things. These forms are described as being more polite than each other. Since I was a stranger and don't like trouble (especially not after that first sword fight), I always chose the most polite form. Finally, after two weeks of this, my (truly beautiful) guide in Kyoto told me not to use such polite forms -- they were usually used by women. "Huh?" I queried. "Mean you Ku-dah-sigh, men these forms use not too also please?"
She: "Well, how shall I say. There are men who do use these forms. But I would not go out with them."
Me: "They are too polite for you?"
She: "They are not too polite for me."
Puzzled still, I said (having not learned the art of subtlety as the reader is no doubt painfully all too aware), "come again?"
"What?" "Ku-dah-sigh" "Coca-Cola" "Bonsai?" "Kawasaki" -- after a few more hours of this indirect verbal fencing, I finally discerned what she meant -- only gay men used these polite forms as I had. Great. So, I had been walking around talking gay Japanese for two weeks, thank you. No wonder the Japanese women had not beat a path, no thank you, to my door, please.
Chapter Four: ?Grammar what is in; Japanese! like it;
Take numbers, for example. In English, we count, "one, two, three, etc." (I never go beyond, "etc." these days, being an executive and all). Then, we say (cleverly) things like, "two spoons," "Two cups", "two people" "two frogs" "two wars." In short, we use that same word, "two" to count everything (with minor exceptions, true, like a covey of Qualye, a head of sheep, a head-count of human, etc.). Not so in Japanese. Their "system" is exceptions. There are fourteen different "systems" of numbers that you use to count different things in. One kind of numbers for paper, wood, pens, and spoons over six inches long. Another kind of numbers for pigs, cows, sheep, horses less than forty-six per cent black or brown. Another number system for minutes late on the Long Island Railroad. Another kind of numbers for combs, people, fish eggs, and CIA-approved wars only. Another kind for psychologists, rice grains and fish hearts (unless carved in the likeness of a maple leaf wafting in the wind).
Learning the fourteen number systems Japanese of part the grammar easiest is also please too, thank you.
Seriously, let's take a fairly ordinary sentence and put it in Japanese order. "I will not be going from Tokyo to New York on August 23rd." This becomes the more logical and orderly: "Now, I, New York, to, Tokyo, from, 23 day, eighth month, going be, will, not."
At the conference where I was giving a (truly beautiful) paper, there was a very nice (truly beautiful) assistant to the director. We got into a conversation (sort of) since she English better much than Japanese my was own. She me her boyfriend out to dinner would they later take both. At dinner, we were discussing the food. Then, we discussed the fact that she had studied French in France. Cleverly synthesizing my grammar, my vocabulary, the months of listening to the disastrous troubles of the poor English chap from Berlitz, I glanced at her boyfriend, smiled and asked her in monstrously mispronounced but perfectly understandable Japanese if she enjoyed going down on Frenchmen, thank you.
At the Institute where I learned a kind of therapy, they have what they call "Shame-attacking exercises." For instance, a client might irrationally believe that they don't just like other people's approval but that they absolutely must have it. Homework assignment: enter an elevator and face the rear. If the client is a serious case, we may also assign them to ask their co-riders to call out the floors.
The idea (and it often works) is to prove to yourself emotionally (not just intellectually) that you don't always need everybody's approval. This is a lucky fact for me because my life seems destined to be one long unintensional shame-attacking exercise. What does this bode, I wonder, about my final destination?
Lesson Five: Fish and Rice.
Fish and Rice. Japanese food provides clues to the language. Fish and Rice. Japanese food is the most beautiful food in the world. Fish and Rice. Every meal is a feast for the eyes, the mouth, indeed -- the soul. It is such a feast, it took ten days for my body to get through to my mind. My mind kept saying, "Wow! Look at this! It's beautiful. Key-ray-ee-des, wow." My body would try to break into this monologue, "Yeah, swell, excuse me, mister Mind, but uh...."
Mind: "Don't interrupt, I'm savoring the variety of exquisite texture."
Body: "Right. But, hey, Boss, I gotta explain, things is tough down here in bodyland."
Mind: "Look at that delicate carving of a temple on the raw fish heart. And look there! Those grains of rice are arranged in the form of the non-script of a Noh play. Wow."
Body: "Neat. But, can I have a word with you?" And so on.
And then after ten days, it finally hit me. Japanese food is fish and rice. Beautifully carved, cleverly disguised, exquisitely adorned, brilliantly choreographed -- all this is true, but it is still -- Fish and Rice. "CHO-TOE-MAH-TAY!" my finally awakened mind screamed. "I need some meat! I need some beefu-tekki. Ku-dah-sigh. I need a Hershey Bar! I'm not ready for my final destination!"
I staggered, halted, staggered again, reeling and cholesterol-starved through the streets of Kyoto drawn inexorably into the country's most Holy Temple in this Most Holy City. I nearly passed out right there in front of six camera stores and fell half conscious between a McDonald's and a Burger King. Could this be other than a mirage? Would they have a McDonald's in the Most Holy Temple? I struggled for something to say. When what to my wondering eyes should appear? The McDonald's was -- splitting! Yes, it was true. Where there had been a single McDonald's there now were two. So this explained how they managed to blanket the country-side -- and now, it appeared, world-side with golden arches. If I had been any less starved, I would have examined the biological (not to mention sociological and psychological) implications. But right now, I didn't care. I needed actual food -- and badly.
I tottered into the left McDonalds. Talk about fast food! A McDonald's is fast food in America. But in Japan, everything is faster. So it came to pass, that five seconds after entering the McDonald's, I found myself standing out front of it. A broken french fry dangled from my hand and I felt a few stubborn sesame seeds stuck between my teeth. What happened? I checked my wallet. I was 950 yen poorer. I must have (by inference) paid for some food. I could see again -- stand tall. I must have (by inference) eaten some actual food. But how had it happened? I vaguely recalled having been sped by conveyor belt to an ordering table while throngs of people all around me shouted "Hi, hi, hi, hi, cho-toe-mah-tay."
Did I actually order some food though? Had the hours of listening to the poor English chap's misfortunes finally paid off? Had I actually wah-kar-i-mah-sensed myself to someone? Was there free will? Would I finally be able to quit my analysis? These and a host of other questions perplexed my mind for a full three seconds before my attention, like a catfish hooked, caught onto a different golden truth. McDonald's was splitting again!
Lesson Six. Conversational Postulates.
Grice and Lakoff write about conversational postulates. These are the unspoken rules by which the language game we play. For instance, they include, "Tell the truth," "Tell as much as you need to tell but not more and not less -- and, for sure, not your spouse," etc. Although I never noticed Lakoff and Grice mentioning it, these postulates apparently vary from culture to culture. If we Americans had a culture, we would probably notice this right away. The Japanese, who do have a culture (or, at least did till we tried to export ours) have some interesting conversational postulates that we lack. For instance, "Regardless of whether or not your message actually gets across, most important the thing is to not, say anything which might be interpreted by a sentient being in any galaxy as a statement consistent with the possibility of an insult."
This presents a rather interesting puzzle for a "Westerner" (round eyes) such as myself who is struggling with the language anyway. Suppose I offer a stick of gum to someone. A foolish and thoughtless act in itself, doubtless you say. But, be that may it be also please, I did. To my truly beautiful guide in Kyoto. Now, let us further hypothesize, as was the case in fact to be to be, she did the gum want not. But, she couldn't say "no." So, what could she say?
Me: "Would you like some gum?"
She: "The leaves are beautiful, please, thank you."
Me: "Yeah, they sure are. Say, by the way, you want some gum, too, also, please?"
She: "Great things sometimes fall while little ones remain."
Me: "I've noticed that myself. Say, if you don't want the gam, it's okay. I won't feel insulted or anything."
She: "Rivers turn their own courses."
(Now, I have to admit, that last statement was a pretty big hint and a little inkling grew in the back of my head that chewing a piece of my gum did not head this woman's priority list, particularly since, by this time, it lay melting through the wrapper into my hand. But in some perverse way, I wanted to see just how far this little game would go.
Me: "Rivers do, but they also tend to follow the course of the land. Um, say, I'm going to go ahead and have a stick...would you like some? Going once...going twice...last chance." Here I popped the gum in my mouth.
She: "The twig of trees may bend in the breeze."
Me: (While extracting as delicately as possible from the gum in my mouth, the foil wrapper which I had forgotten to remove) "Would you like to have a ...hm...let me put it this way -- I think the front of the restaurant down the street has an interesting tiled roof."
"She: "Ah, yes. Though, sadly, the blossoms of the cherry have already melted from the black boughs."
Me: "Say, would you like some gum?"
I don't believe that the problem is that Americans are not trained in subtlety. It's really more that we are trained out of subtlety. In fact, the problem isn't even that Americans are trained out of subtlety. It's more like the problem is that I have been trained out of subtlety. In Corporate America, where I'm serving my debt to society, subtlety is effective in accomplishing goals. The problem is, you don't get any credit for it. No, to get credit, you cannot do anything more subtle than to parade around the room with a huge, green and red, hand-painted sign saying, "It wasn't my fault" on one side and "Give me the credit." on the other. It helps if you bang on your chest and play the trumpet while you do this. Then, people get the message that you are a mover and a shaker.
Lesson Seven. Good Evening.
Like many languages, Japanese has different words for "Good Morning" (Oh-Hi-Oh), "Good day" (Kone-Ee-Chee-Wah), and "good evening" (Kone-Bahn-Wah). Not quite everything that happened in Japan unfolded quite so clumsily. One right moment did grace me. If you are willing to be embarrassed or uncomfortable thirty-seven times, you can pretty much count on having one right moment. And, it's worth it.
I rode the train around Tokyo. By the way, I found it much easier to find my way around the Tokyo subway system, despite the Japanese signs, than I do finding my way around the New York subway system, which --. But that's another story. This particular summer evening, I rode the Tokyo subway. The door opened. Into the car, she walked. You know...she. She did not say a word to anyone. Or, look my way. If one, now trying to learn subtlety just a bit, were to have noticed carefully, she glanced furtively in every single direction except mine. But, how could I notice? For I glanced in every single direction except toward her. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I looked briefly at her hand holding the commuter's handle. In a flash I saw it all: the delicacy of the Japanese maple leaves! The temples, the language, the music, the whole history of the culture lay carved in the delicate shape of her hand.
The crowds swelled and she moved and I moved away from the door toward the center of the car. I was not looking at her, of course. And, she was not looking at me, naturally. Now, she could not reach any handle. But of course, since I was not looking in her direction, I could not have been aware of that fact. Just then the train lurched. Simultaneously: she lost her balance and started to fall; she shot her hand out to the one spot I could reach; I shot my hand out to the one spot she could reach. We held. We were. She regained her balance. Our hands lingered, dropped. We rode on in silence. She came to her stop and walked out the door. Before the door snapped our worlds apart, she spun around, looked straight at me with deep, dark, intelligent eyes, smiled, and said, "Kohn-Bahn-Wah" -- "Good evening." But, as she left, she turned, looked at me, and said "Kohn-Bahn-Wah." Although we met before and after in dreams, those were her only words. While leaving, she quite deliberately turned to me, smiled, looked into my eyes, my soul, smiled, and said, "Kohn-Bahn-Wah."
Despite the hundreds of little reminders on the subject that the airlines have given me over the years, I still do not know my final destination. But wherever -- and whenever -- it is, I think I should like someone subtle, someone with deep, intelligent eyes to turn to me, before the doors close forever, simply turn, smile, and say, "Kohn-Bahn-Wah." But if they don't, the memory -- the memory -- will suffice.
A Trip Delayed
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To contact the author: email@example.comLast modified: Sun May 18, 1997