I had my own language troubles living in Japan. One evening after work, I was having drinks with the ever so sexy Sumiko, who we met back in Girl(friend)s. Japanese has a similar distinction between “many” and “much” as English with the words “ikutsu” and “ikura”. However, the division of things and ideas between the two is different. Two concepts that fall under “ikutsu” in Japanese might be in English be divided between “many” and “much”. As I was chatting up my lovely companion, I tried to ask her “How many” she was, shorthand for “How old are you?” I got my words muddled and instead asked her “How much?” Which means pretty much what it sounds like.
Fortunately she laughed.
Unfortunately she then said “More than you can afford.”
At ICI where I taught English my second year in Japan, students could buy tickets for the conversation room where they could practice their English in freeform conversation with native speakers. Each teacher took a shift in the conversation room. Most of our students were not advanced enough in their English to initiate and guide conversations on topics not in their textbooks, so a common dodge all the teachers used was to tell stories about our lives in our home countries and then ask the students about their lives in Japan. I often told stories about my family. At least a dozen different students said, after I told a story about my mother, “Oh, your mother sounds like a very easy woman.”
This is an obvious error of translation. Most words have many meanings. A word in one language might be properly translated to a matching word in another in one instance, but not in another. This particular gaff happened so often that I made up a little chart that I would write up on the white board whenever someone said my mother was an easy woman. I would work my way through the chart, adding each phrase as I explained.
amai kyandi ---> sweet candy
yasashii onna <--- sweet woman
yasahii tesuto ---> easy test
yariman <--- easy woman
Yariman is a very coarse word for a woman of negotiable virtue. I always got a good payoff as I wrote the last word on the board and the offending student realized what he or she had called my mother. It’s amazing how low some people can bow.
Don’t ask about the pretty little girl in the white, frilly blouse, knee-length skirt, and Mary Janes who always introduced herself, “Hello. My name is Yuko Tanaka. I am a Kinki University Student.”
With the end of my funds in sight, I stopped travelling and started to look for work. I found living quarters in what was then the north edge of Kyoto in an old building run as a flophouse for foreigners. Around thirty of us lived there: Africans, Arabs, North Americans, South Asians. There were no East Asians other than the landlady and her brother. Odd, now that I look back on it. The landlady’s brother was an aspiring fabric designer. I think she found him more of a burden than her varied clientele. The building was long and narrow. Traditional Japanese construction, I think it had begun life long before as a farm building of some sort. Working farms still existed just across the road. The rooms were floored with tatami, and all the doors were sliding shoji screens. Each sleeping room had two or four bunks and space for private belongings. The ceilings were high and the windows small. At night you could hear other tenants walking along the hardwood floors to the common toilet facilities; the squat toilet—which I had now mastered. Occasional unintelligible arguments drifted through the corridor until stopped by the landlady’s arrival and sharp words. She could scold and demand rent in many languages.
The other common spaces were a shared, Japanese style bath and a long room that served as our dining room and recreation area. Our landlady provided a simple breakfast and dinner, which were eaten at the determined time. No earlier. No later. In the evenings the air was humid and thick with coarse cigarette smoke as the rough, poor crowd of tenants smoked harsh cigarettes, drank cheap booze, and played card and board games until lights out. Disputes over rules were complicated by our lack of a common language. Heat came from a kerosene space heater in the corner, the daily ration of kerosene placed beside it each day.
A small TV that may or may not have seen better days provided more entertainment. Every once in awhile the picture would slowly roll. One evening as we set in to the usual after supper carouse, the man flicking through the channels stumbled upon the opening of Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). None of us knew the movie. None of us spoke Japanese well enough to understand it. But we were all captivated from the first. Thirty rough characters from around the world spent the evening glued to the small image on the TV; cheering, laughing, maybe even sniffling a little.
Great movie. Watch it.
I was staying at Burakujiyakushi-do near the center of Shikoku on the Yoshino River. The temple is home to the Smiling Jizo and the youth hostel was known as the Smiling Jizo Republic. The temple had a series of trials for guests of the hostel to undertake. One of these was to climb Mt Kajigamori across the Yoshino River. One morning, my feet still massive blisters from Yo-San-Kyu, I set off to conquer the trial. The kitchen provided me with rice balls for lunch and I crossed the river via the foot bridge.
The path laid out for the trial quickly left the main road and wound through the terraces of Higashiionotani. Soon enough the farmland ran out and I was hiking through woodland up steep scree slopes that often approached 45˚. At the top of one slope, the designated path ended in a sheer rock face at least 10 meters high. A huge crack ran through this cliff about 15˚ off the vertical. I scrambled up this chimney to find gentler slopes and sparser trees. A band of woodland ahead blocked any view of the summit which was so clearly visible when back on the other side of the river.
I entered the thick woods. After a no more than a dozen steps, I came out into the open again, into a field of bamboo, on the summit of Kajigamori. As I walked through the waist high bamboo, lost in the views of the valleys spread below me, heavy snow began to fall.
I ate my lunch of rice balls before hiking back to the temple.
I trudged along the side of the road through a heavy downpour just outside Tokushima, the collar of my wool overcoat turned up to meet my longshoreman’s cap. Drenched. Cascading water from my shoulders and pack. A small white car pulled to the side of the road just in front of me. The driver’s window rolled down a few inches. (Right side, dear reader. We’re in Japan.) A hand thrust a rolled-up collapsible umbrella toward me. Startled, I took the umbrella. The hand withdrew. The window rolled up. The car drove off.
I opened the umbrella and trudged along.
After my night under the overpass with the winos, I decided to leave Tokyo. According to my guide book, ferries ran from Tokyo to points south. I found the ferry office and booked passage to Tokushima on Shikoku. I hailed a cab and after several circuits around the docklands and two stops to ask policemen for directions, the cabbie dropped me off at the correct quay. The ship had staterooms but I had booked second class passage. Second class was a large common room at the rear of the ship. Long distance truckers had a similar room on the next deck down. They had a large bath. We had shower cubicles. The common room was floored with tatami mats. Linoleum pathways divided it into three sections. There were no seats. One simply sat on the floor and watched the ocean roll by outside the large windows. Or watched the strange foreigner inside. At night you could rent a blanket for ¥100. Many people rented an extra blanket to make a pillow. Two young girls rented two between them, using one as a pillow and sharing the other.
Food service in second class consisted of a cart with rice balls, tea, canned drinks, and packaged treats. It was a three day voyage to Tokushima, so it was inevitable I would have to use the facilities. The facilities consisted of a squat toilet. My guidebook had warned me of squat toilets. They are basically a toilet bowl set into the floor. You face what we would consider the back and squat over it. I had even practiced at home before setting out for Japan, squatting low with my feet a toilet bowl width apart. Up to this point I had only encountered western style sitting toilets which were quite common. Now I faced my first squat toilet. On a ship. Rolling in heavy seas. With the walls just too far apart to brace myself.
I leave you to finish this story on your own. It’s still just too traumatic.
[Note: I have decided to devote weeks 13, 26, 39, and 52 to short subjects. I will post a very short piece each day for seven days. This week we are going to Japan.]
I landed at Narita Airport late on a Saturday afternoon in mid-winter. I had my guide book, my work-holiday visa, a list of youth hostels, and a lot of traveller’s cheques. I did not have my friend who had been to Japan before. He had decided not to come. I was nineteen. The currency exchange in the airport was closed because it was after 5 p.m. on a Saturday. I managed to find the train station inside the airport and caught a train to Tokyo. This task was fairly easy as Narita was the end of the line. The only direction you could go was towards Tokyo. I found one of the youth hostels listed in my guide. It was halfway up an office tower. They accepted traveller’s cheques in payment and I had one bunk in a room with twelve bunks in four stacks of three. I was told when I checked in that I could only stay one night. Monday was the day every high school senior in Japan wrote their university entrance exams at their university of choice. There was no space available Sunday night.
I spent all day Sunday wandering around Tokyo trying to find a place to sleep that night. No dice. Every single bed in every single hostel was booked. I asked the desk clerks to direct me to alternatives. Every capsule hotel was booked solid. Every single reasonably priced hotel had multiple students in every room. As night fell I was wandering the streets of Tokyo with a map in a guide book and my knapsack on my back. I spoke not a word of Japanese.
I walked through the deepening night. It was getting cold. I identified the occasional landmark on the map in my guide book, but in between I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know if I could sleep in a park. I didn’t know if it was safe. I didn’t know what the law was. I didn’t know where a park was. It was getting colder. It started to rain. Hard.
Eventually I was passing through an underpass that sheltered several bums. They were dirty and smelly and they were drinking cheap liquor. They hailed me boisterously. I had no idea what they were saying. A few words sounded like they were trying to speak English, but with the slurring it was hard to tell. They offered me some of their cardboard to sleep under. So I spent my second night in Tokyo sleeping under a bridge with a bunch of winos.