I've had a handful of thoughts about language fermenting throughout this trip. These thoughts revolve about stereotypes, realities, experiences, and stories that attest to what we know and what I've learned about the Japanese, and Pam and me as partners and travelers, and language, in no particular order.
First, a teensy story from yesterday afternoon. We'd just returned to Kyoto from three days and two nights in Tsumago, and were still in the massive, modern Kyoto Railway Station. The station was teeming with travelers: It is both Kinro kansha-no-hi (Labour Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday and 3-day weekend) and the tail end of peak fall colors in the region. Pam had to use a rest room in the big Isetan department store (all ten floors of which occupy one small corner inside the station). I waited for her in front of a display window just outside the main entrance, and did not move an inch, so she could find me amidst the mob.
So there I parked myself, loosely supervising our bags. A chunky, slightly rough looking guy sidled up to me, holding a small open bag of something. We nodded towards one another in recognition that we were standing together in a crowded, bustling place. He said, "Samui." It's cold. I said, "Hai." Yup. He gestured an offer of whatever he was snacking on from his bag -- looked like croissant ends or pieces of donuts. I held my belly and smiled no with a little wag of my head to express that I was already full.
He said, "Doko?" Where you from? I said, "Seattle," pointing at the emblem on my Mariners' cap, then added, "Ichiro." "Darvish" he said, and grinned a friendly grin, as if he'd just one-upped me. Then his cell phone rang. He answered, "Doko?" Seconds later, wagging her phone, his girlfriend swooped in, their rendezvous complete. With a quick exchange of smiles and nods, they disappeared into the crowd. [If you need explication of the Ichiro/Darvish references, you're out of luck. Just believe me when I tell you that it was a clever bit of repartee, which I lost, but it was all in fun.]
Ah yes, on language. Prior to our trip Pamela and I both studied Japanese. It was her goal to become modestly competent at navigating her/our way through the basics necessities of travel -- etiquette, directions, reservations, toilet finding, money, counting, etc. Pamela studied really diligently (how else?), and took many more classes than I did. After our first five or six classes together, it became clear that she had an enormous cultural/familial head-start on me, and that my goal had morphed into knowing enough Japanese so as to not be a complete boor. It would suffice if I was able to communicate such minimalist concepts as, "Hello." "Goodbye." "Me hungry." "Me thirsty." "Where." "Where toilet." "Thank you." "Please." "How much." Both of us succeeded in our respective fashions. Pamela's success was not to her satisfaction but was, nonetheless, impressively accomplished when she wasn't too tired -- poised, elegant, and sufficiently well spoken as to confuse many Japanese when they first heard her speak. (One of her pre-departure tutors warned her to "dumb down" her presentation of the Japanese for "I'm an American so I don't speak Japanese very well." She was told that her accent was so good that Japanese listeners would assume, quite reasonably, that she was just being modest.) Bottom line: We were never once bulls in a china shop . . . nor cows in a Japan shop. We've done remarkably well, with my essentially nonexistent Japanese and Pam's remarkably adequate and resourceful version.
Contrary to stereotype, at least in the four main towns/villages we traveled (Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Tsumago and Magome) and points in between, lots of Japanese speak some English, usually adequate to assist with the transaction at hand, often with negligible accents, and frequently surprisingly well. Sure, on occasion we were compelled to resort to sign language, or we were clueless about everything available in restaurants without romaji menus, or we couldn't quickly figure out which bus to take. But with Pam's basic Japanese, her knowledge of Japanese food, and ineffably sweet disposition, and my own only occasionally fallible gifts of direction, ingratiation and capacity for presenting myself as a likable fool (hey, I can bow and scrape with the best of them), we managed to muddle through pretty much any and all situations with a degree of grace.
For those who labor under the misapprehension that Pam and I travel in a saccharine-infused bubble, let me straighten you out here and now. We argue, squabble, and bicker. We disagree about how, what, when and where. We tire and pout. Each of us is certain of our rectitude . . . until proven otherwise. And each of us is proven otherwise somewhat more often than we're comfortable discussing.
This is to set up a contrasting scenario -- and here comes a bald-faced stereotype -- concerning not any Japanese ethos (which I can't pretend to explain with any hint of authority), but simply what I've observed in shops, stores, on trains, in buses, in museums, and on the street. People are nice, honest, helpful. Four little illustrations:
In America, after experiencing a traffic delay from a construction zone on a highway, you might see a sign that says something like "End of Construction, Thanks for your patience." In Japan the prevailing such message is conveyed by a clear, highly stylized, sign showing a construction worker bowing to you, the inconvenienced traveler.
While in the historic, restored village of Magome, I was in need of a cup of coffee and Pamela needed to rest her legs. We found a handsome little gallery cafe, where the setup included two glasses of water, and two napkins.
We ordered my one cup of coffee; Pam didn't want anything. While I sipped my coffee Pam patrolled the gallery; she found many nice things, but nothing we wanted to buy. We both used the restroom. When I went to pay the bill I was astounded to discover that I owed 1120 yen -- about US$14. (By way of comparison, a Starbucks double short latte runs about $4.90 in Japan.) Politely, but with a hint of exasperation, I held up one finger and pointed at the bill which, with most pertinent details printed in kanji, appeared to show two somethings, each at 560 yen, totaling 1120. After perhaps two polite go-rounds, I relented, plunked down 1120 yen, smiled, and we left. For the next quarter hour we wandered up a steep pathway through the village, poking our noses and camera into various passages and side lanes. At some point I heard a rather insistent "Sumimasen" -- "sorry" or "excuse me" -- and turned to face the young woman who had been our waitress. Amid what I took to be repeated apologies she ceremoniously handed me 560 yen. The woman at the cash register had been mistaken.
On the day we left Tsumago to return to Kyoto, we had first to catch a train at the nearby Nagiso Station. Service from Nagiso to our mainline transfer is not frequent, so we had to be sure to catch the scheduled train. As we waited at the Tsumago bus station, time was growing short -- we were down to about 11 minutes before the train was to leave, and the Nagiso bus hadn't shown up. We went over to the taxi stand, woke the slumbering driver, and asked him to take us to Nagiso. No, he said, take the bus. Less than half the price. We insisted. He insisted. The bus came, and we caught the train with at least two minutes to spare.
And then there was today's charming, if not downright zany, occurrence. A twofer, if you will. Many days earlier, at a restaurant where the staff spoke very little English but was truly friendly and solicitous, the chef and waiter showed us a "point and choose" food book -- a Japanese/English visual dictionary of food. It was very well done, and we wanted to buy it. As I was out and about today, I stumbled into a large, three storey book, CD, DVD, software and electronic gaming store. In addition to sales, they also rented DVDs. I asked where the English and travelers' book collections were, and was sent to the second floor. When I found the English language book collection, here's what I actually found: about 60 feet of shelves housing books in Roman script -- mainly but not exclusively English -- arranged absolutely randomly. Spanish computer manuals next to Dick Francis mysteries next to children's books, with the occasional Cyrillic volume tossed into the salad for extra spice. I threw up my hands and walked away. But not before having another moment of inspiration.
On our Singapore Air flight to Japan we saw a surprising little jewel of a movie, a quirky Japanese "art" film called, in English, "Rent-a-Neko" (Rent-a-Cat). In this film, a young woman has set up a business renting out her cats, which she hawks from the back of a little wagon, calling out through a bullhorn, "Rent a Neko." Yes, in English and Japanese -- Rent a Neko. In picaresque fashion the film then tells a little story about each rental. Pam especially was charmed by it, researched its availability in the U.S., and was discouraged to discover that it didn't appear anywhere other than the IMDB website. Says I to myself, hey, why don't I buy it in this store, and gift it to her. Surely I'll score some points for that.
This little blog entry began with my confession that my Japanese isn't, shall I say, very good. So I walk up to what I take to be the video rental desk and, by voice and sign language and pointing, explain that I'd like to buy a DVD called "Rent-A-Neko." Confusion ensues. After all, this store neither rents nor sells nekos. The clerk said as much -- "no nekos." I explain that this is a DVD, and I don't want to rent it, I want to buy it. The staff huddle and confer with one another. They break their huddle; a clerk approaches me. "No nekos here," she says. A bit wild-eyed, I suppose, I start to pick up nearby DVD cases, point at the title lines and exclaim, "Rent A Neko." "Rent A Neko." Is it possible that my voice has become louder each time I repeat "Rent A Neko?" The clerk takes me over to a shelf, and points up and down at about a thousand DVDs; all the titles are in kanji. The situation is clearly hopeless. In the U.S. I would have been inclined to give the clerk a pat on the shoulder, or even a cursory hug, apologize, and leave. Here, I could only apologize, and retreat from the store.