Train Stories. February 10, 2010.  On the Chuo line between Yotsuya and Ochanomizu  Stations.  I was standing up, looking out the window at the passing scenery.  On this stretch of the Chuo line, the tracks run beside the outer moat of the Imperial Palace, a tributary of the Kanda River.  On the opposite bank a cluster of plum trees in various shades of pink were doing their best to imitate an impressionist painting, their budding branches all gradually shading into one another like feathery fans.

As the train pulled into Ochanomizu Station, an elderly woman sitting in front of where I was standing made moves as if she were about to get off, so I stood back to give her room.  As she passed me I just caught her English “Thank you,” whispered like a code word it would be wrong for others to overhear.  As I sat down in her vacated seat, I realized her pronunciation had been perfect.

For a native Japanese speaker, many English sounds are hard to make because they do not exist in the Japanese language.  Two of these troublesome sounds are present in the word thank: th and a The nearest approximation to tha one can make, without retraining the tongue, is the Japanese sa with a pronounced like the a in father. It is hard for Japanese mouths to form the a in thank  (pronounced as the sound ash and written as æ in the International Phonetic Alphabet).  For this reason, many people find it easier to say “thank you” in English by saying “3-9” instead.  The word for 3 is san and the word for 9 is kyu, thus san-kyu.

But this woman had not said “3-9.”  Even though she had whispered, what resonated in my ears afterwards clearly began with th and proceeded to nk via æ.  I experienced this tiny variation in the usual Japanese pronunciation of “thank you” as a kind of secret greeting.  It was as if she were telling me that hidden inside her thoroughly Japanese exterior was a history of intimate experience with the English language.  Perhaps she had once taught English to junior high school kids, or had lived abroad as the wife of a diplomat, or had traveled extensively on her own.  Or maybe she had just listened every morning to the NHK radio English lessons, repeating after the announcer, “thank you thank you thank you” until she got it perfect.

However she reached mastery of these troublesome sounds, the accomplishment admitted her to a secret unacknowledged society of Japanese people who speak English fluently.  Few of them advertise themselves.  While the English language is studied assiduously here, especially its grammatical and lexical aspects, there is great resistance to actually speaking it and making practical use of it as a tool of communication or an instrument of creative expression.  And one way to maintain and strengthen that resistance is to make those who can speak it well feel they are somehow odd or “un-Japanese,” effectively silencing them.   Thus,  I only learn from an essay written in the last class of a university English course that a student who has kept her mouth shut all year actually spent the first ten years of her life living in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Or, when I finally speak on the phone to a man for whom I do proofreading work and who always corresponds with me in Japanese, only then do I discover that his English is impeccable and far superior to the hesitant Japanese I’ve been using to explain an English point of grammar to him.

The other day I heard the plaintive call of a tofu-seller’s horn making its way around the neighborhood.  I hurried downstairs and found the young tofu-seller parked with his wagon on the corner.  Another woman was loading up on tofu, soy milk bread, and curried “bean curd refuse” croquettes.  When she was done shopping, she turned to me and asked if I were German, and when I replied no, she excused herself and hurried away.  “Where are you from then?” the young man asked in Japanese, and when I replied “America,” he switched to English.  “I used to live-a there!” he grinned.  “But I was-a born-a in-a Italy!” he added proudly.  I had found another member of the secret society, one who spoke not only fluent English, but fluent English with an Italian accent.

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Hai-pho Gallery

Shadows lengthen as

sunlight withdraws to the west

the moss grows greener


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