Archive for the ‘train stories’ Category

Flight Record

April 1, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011. 6:30 AM:  Leave home, walk to Nishiogikubo Station.  6:55 AM:  Arrive station.  7:01 AM:  Catch Sobu line.  10 other passengers in car; 3 people in the driver’s compartment.  Train moves along without delays, but something feels different about its movement, like walking on thin ice if a train could do that, as if every forward motion were tentative, as if the tracks in front of us might suddenly not be there.

7:17 AM:  Arrive Shinjuku Station.  Lights are dim on the platform and especially on the upper level which I pass through to transfer to Yamanote Line.  No elevators, few people for normally crowded Shinjuku, but after all it is Sunday morning.  Yamanote Line has more people but I can sit down.  7:45 AM:  Arrive Nippori Station.  More people here, lugging heavy suitcases, restroom not crowded but other users are foreigners like me.  Only short lines at the ticket windows for Keisei Skyliner express train to Narita.  I expected crowds here because the other routes to Narita, limousine buses and JR Narita Express are not running.  I get a ticket on the next train, departing at 7:58, and for a brief moment a small amount of all the panic I’ve been making an effort to keep inside spills out as I grab my ticket, glance at the clock and think I have less time to catch the train than I actually do.  I drop my ticket on the floor as I struggle to put away my wallet, keep track of my bags, and run for the ticket gate.

Upstairs on the platform everyone is waiting in orderly lines for the Skyliner to arrive, and I pull myself together and join the mass exodus of gaijin fleeing the Tokyo area.  Some young people, perhaps students from Korea or China, look as if they had brought with them all their possessions thrown together in a hurry into enormous backpacks.

7:58 AM:  Depart Nippori Station for Narita Airport.  Empty seats on train.  Pass Tokyo Sky Tree.  It’s still standing; unlike Tokyo Tower’s spire, it is unbent.  On its upper platforms stand four giant cranes, looking from this distance like giraffes displaced from the savanna.

7:45 AM:  arrive Terminal 1, Narita after smooth, careful ride through Chiba.  The platform is no more crowded than usual.  In my rush to catch the train earlier, I used my Suica (train pass) card to enter the ticket gate, forgetting to check the balance to see if it would cover the trip out to Narita.  Now when I tap the card on the electronic eye of the ticket gate, I am refused exit.  A Keisei employee wearing a white mask is standing at the gate and he waves me through.  After passport control, I glance back at the JR entrance and see that the fare machines, where I could have refilled my Suica card, are all shut down.  I guess that explains why the Keisei man let me through.

I am the only person on the elevator going up to the departure lobby.  The North Wing is busy but not crowded.  There are plenty of luggage carts, currency exchanges are open, and shops with food available.  All around me I hear a variety of languages or heavily accented English.  Other travelers are Americans, Europeans, or other Asians.  Just about the only Japanese people are the airport employees, and later a group of young people heading off on what looks like a study tour.  The check-in line is not long; the agents at Delta are pleasant, efficient, helpful.  The people at the currency exchange window and the baggage delivery service and at security are all smiles and helpfulness.  I am momentarily overcome with self-contempt for running away and leaving them to their fate.

At the currency exchange window is a box where you can donate cash to the Red Cross.  I ask the woman behind the window if this money will go to help the people up north, and she says no, just to the Red Cross generally.  Then she goes off and asks someone where I can donate to earthquake/tsunami relief, and comes back all smiles with directions to the special box set up to collect donations.  I find it next to the information booth at the entrance to the departure lobby.  The young women sitting there smile and thank me.  I turn away to hide my eyes and find myself face to face with a young Japanese woman pulling a suitcase behind her.  She looks at me in tears and thanks me in English.  It is all I can do to voice my heartfelt “You’re welcome.”

Unable to eat very much for the past few days due to lack of appetite, suddenly I’m hungry.  I’ve plenty of time on my hands since my flight doesn’t leave till 2:50.  So before going through security I visit a bakery/cafe.  While the shelves are not piled high with offerings, there’s plenty to choose from, and for ¥636 ($8.00) I get both breakfast and lunch:  one coffee, two small cheese rolls, and a ham/vegie sandwich.  A family of four comes in and sits next to me.  Are they French? I hear Bon? Bon! a few times, and “Fukushima,” but then the father sings, “Three is a lonely number,” and when they leave he says, Vamos!  They are replaced by a young woman who spills her coffee all over her coat.  I’m not the only flustered person around here!

10:30 AM:  Long lines at security.  In front of me are the young people heading off somewhere in a group.  Their families stand behind the barrier waving them off, all smiles—do they cover anxiety or express relief?  After a ten-minute wait, I am through security in seconds.  Shorter than usual lines downstairs at Immigration: takes only 5 minutes.

As my gate has not been assigned yet, I wander around aimlessly.  Only gates where departures are imminent are crowded, and there are plenty of empty chairs elsewhere.  On the departure board, several flights have been cancelled:  KLM, Vienna, Taipei.  My Delta flight is still on course.  Behind the departure board, a row of empty massage chairs, ¥200 for 10 minutes.  I sit down and get my legs squeezed and back pummeled.

Still three hours till boarding time.  The boarding area feels emptier than usual.  I drop by Doutor for coffee and to eat my sandwich.  Noon:  sitting in Doutor, suddenly the atmosphere changes.  People trickle in, and then more and more.  Pretty soon the coffee shop is full and bustling.  I leave and check the departures board.  My flight has been assigned a gate.  By the time I get there, nearly all the chairs are full.  Lots of young women with little kids, American military wives going back to the States, leaving their husbands behind on duty.

We board on time; the plane is full.  All airline personnel behave efficiently and professionally.  As we race down the runway for take-off, I finally allow the tears to flow.

 

Found Object: A Mad Tea Party

February 4, 2011

Here’s a Train Story from many years ago.  Sitting across from me on the Tozai subway line were an elderly couple who, judging from their rustic dress and sun-beaten complexions, were probably visiting Tokyo from the countryside.  The man was peering at a map of the Tokyo subway system.  I had one of those, too.  The complexity of the system for newcomers was bad enough, but even worse, the names of the stations, in tinily printed Chinese characters, even if you could understand them all, were nearly impossible to make out with the naked eye.

It was a warm summer day, and all the windows of the car were open because even though we were now underground, the Tozai line travels above ground at either end, and this must have been in the days before the trains were air-conditioned.  The man turned the map this way and that, mumbled something to his wife and then letting out a loud “humph!” tossed the map out of the window behind him.

So much for maps and directions in Tokyo.  And it’s not only the train system that can be so challenging.  Often while wandering the streets or the underground passageways of the subway stations, I’m reminded of a scene in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice, coming upon a crossroad of sorts, is confronted with a profusion of conflicting arrows, pointing every which way—including up.

There’s a spot in the Shinjuku San-chome subway station that illustrates this analogy well.  Six passageways converge here, and signs point the way not only to the three subway lines that run through the station (the Shinjuku, the Fukutoshin, and the Marunouchi), but also to the numerous exits (30 of them from A1 to E10) and to the entrances to Isetan Department Store, which occupies the space just above this spot.

The other day when I passed through here, I was surprised to find something new:  a mural depicting the Mad Tea Party from (this time) Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Close inspection revealed it to be an artwork by Yoko Yamamoto,  a mosaic constructed of tesserae of what looks like painted pottery.   The posting of the wall art is sponsored by Isetan Department Store, but there is no mention from either sponsor or artist of the relevance of the location to the theme of the art.  Is it possible that they did not notice the connection between the tea party scene and all the arrows around it, pointing every which way including up?

The artist’s message to those who view the mural says that she imagined traveling light years away to another dimension when she made this illustration of Carroll’s tea party, and she hopes we who view the mural imagine this, too.  But I don’t see any need for one’s imagination to go into warp speed; all one need do is turn around.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't much care where..."

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

"...so long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

TRAIN STORIES

November 2, 2010

8:45 PM. Monday, October 18, Chuo Line, Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station is the terminal for the Chuo Line, so the train is sitting at the platform with its doors open as people come floating up the escalators and hurry on to the train, hoping to find a seat for the long commute home before the cars fill up.  I bounce into the car and find a seat at one end.  Diagonally across from me a man is stretched out asleep on four seats.  A young uniformed station attendant comes along and tries to wake him up, gently shaking his shoulder.  The sleeping man waves the attendant off and turns to face the other way.  The attendant’s voice grows impatient and louder as he makes another futile attempt to wake him.  Then he abruptly walks off the train.  I thought he might be going to get help, but he doesn’t come back before the doors close and the train leaves.

We continue our way westward across the center of Tokyo, stopping at Kanda, Ochanomizu, Yotsuya.  The sleeping man continues to hog the four seats as more and more people get on at each station.  We arrive at Shinjuku, the busiest station in the world (if not the entire universe), and here too the train waits a few minutes at the platform.  Now two uniformed station attendants board the train and proceed to rouse the sleeping man, who ignores them.  But two heads are better than one, and they persist in prodding him and calling out to him to wake up and get off the train.  Just before the doors close, the man gets up and stumbles out the door, where he stands unsteadily amid the milling crowd.  He blinks a few times as if to clear his vision and figure out where he is.  The train pulls out, leaving him behind and leaning against a vending machine for support.

Thursday afternoon, October 28, Seibu Kokubunji Line, Kokubunji Station. I’ve written before about people who hold things up when other passengers are trying to board or get off the train:  young women who stand in passive aggressive immobility in front of the door like a rock in midstream when you want to get off, or the growing number of people of any age or gender who are too busy staring at cell phone screens to make their way quickly onto the train when the doors open.  But not all slow pokes are holding things up for selfish reasons.

Kokubunji Station is the terminal for the Seibu Kokubunji line.  The train pulls in, lets off arriving passengers and sits at the platform for five minutes or so before setting off again in the other direction.  When I start to board, a clean-cut young man in a business suit pauses at the door as he is getting off, blocking my way for a few seconds.  He looks to his left, as if checking to see that he has not forgotten anything, and then gets off and goes away.  But a few minutes later he is back.  Now he is speaking to an ancient lady sitting to the left of the door.  “It’s the last stop,” he says to her gently, and as soon as he is sure she has heard him and has begun her slow, halting rise to standing position, he goes away again.  The elderly person, looking as unsure as the man who had been asleep on the Chuo line train, looks all around as if trying to figure out where she is, then creaks off the train and heads toward the stairs.

 

Train Story

October 12, 2010

On Monday, October 11, 2010, I got on a car of the Toei Shinjuku subway line at Shinjuku Station.  Just before the doors closed, a man wearing a baseball cap and thick-lensed glasses began to shout angrily and pound the end of a long pilgrim’s staff on the platform.  The top part of the staff was decorated with colorful strings and bells, and the latter jingled melodically if a bit crazily each time the man pounded his staff.  Around his neck was draped a white towel on which were printed neat rows of Chinese characters in black ink, suggestive of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture pilgrims like to chant during their long walks from temple to temple in search of salvation.  I could not understand what he was shouting.  Could it have been the mantra with which, according to Wikipedia, the Heart Sutra ends?

“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!”

The juxtaposition of the baseball cap with the pilgrim’s staff, the angry shouts with the sutra towel got me to imagining Alternative Pilgrimages, where pilgrims travel not the usual established routes to the usual holy places but by routes understood only to themselves to the unholy seemingly god-forsaken places—-like subway platforms, or garbage dumps, or Home Depots, or Starbucks cafes—-where instead of chanting Buddhist sutras they shout out their complaints about everything to whoever is within earshot.  Oh what an awakening, all hail!

The train pulled out of the station, leaving the Alternative Pilgrim still pounding his staff and ringing his angry bells.

Tokyo Style

June 23, 2010

“A Plastic Life.” The other day I got on a Yamanote Line train at Kanda Station. Across the way stood a young woman, her back to me, holding on to an overhead strap.  The first thing I noticed were her boots:  peach pink shiny plastic encasing her legs from knee to toe.  The tops were tightened at the back with pink grosgrain ribbon laced through brass grommets.  The next thing I noticed was the bag on her right shoulder:  shiny plastic in a paisley pattern of red, brown and green, with a matching paisley stuffed bear about the size of a hand, hanging from one strap.  In the hand not holding the overhead strap, she held a plastic carry-all in pale lavender and white check strewn with assorted images of baubles, buckets of popcorn, rabbits, and jingle bells in shades of aqua, yellow and lavender.  From one pocket of the carry-all emerged a cord that connected whatever was in the pocket to her right ear.  Her long, wavy hair, bleached to a rusty reddish-brown, flowed down over a bright fuchsia sweater tucked into a denim skirt, whose hem just reached the tops of those peachy boots.  By the time my eyes had circumnavigated her get-up, the train had passed through Tokyo Station and was now arriving at Yurakucho.  The doors opened and the peachy boots removed the plastic wonder from the train.

Train Story

March 25, 2010

Kore wa nani?


Hidden away on the back streets of Ogikubo, waiting in quiet composure, is the Suginami Poetry Hall.  The property consists of a house and garden, neither of which are very large.  It was originally owned by Mr. Kadokawa, the founder of a publishing company.  After his death, his heirs gave the property to Suginami Ward, and last year the ward opened the house and garden to the public.

The rooms of the house can be rented out by groups for tea ceremonies and poetry composing, hence “Suginami Poetry Hall.”  Its original name, however, is Gengisanbo, an expression that gave the Tree translation staff a hard time.  Sanbo means mountain villa.  The staff could find no such word as gengi, however, in any of the office dictionaries.  Apparently it is a made-up word, which Mr. Kadokawa, a haiku poet, used as his pen-name. It plays on his own first name by using different Chinese characters to spell it.  And these two characters, gen and gi, mean something like “illusion” or “dream” and “frolic” or “being silly,” respectively.

So please forgive them if they’ve got it all wrong, but the staff, after much argument, settled on this English version of gengisanbo:  The Silly Villa of Illusion.

The pictured mystery item can be found in the garden of the Silly Villa.  I will explain what it is at the end of this issue.

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Train Stories. Tuesday, March 23, 2010.  Last night after giving a lesson at the home of a private student, I boarded my usual bus for Shibuya Station.  I noticed at once that something was different.  The bus was much more crowded than usual.  I’ll do anything to avoid a crowd in Tokyo, so instead of going all the way to Shibuya, I got off at an earlier stop near Ebisu Station.  I can catch the JR Yamanote line at either station, but Shibuya happens to be one stop closer to Shinjuku, the station where I transfer to the Chuo line.

I walked up the several flights of stairs and escalator to the ticket gates, where mobs of people were standing around listening to announcements about train delays.  Two JR lines run through Ebisu Station, the Saikyo and the Yamanote.  The announcement said that due to some kind of mishap on the Saikyo line, all trains running in and out of Shinjuku Station were experiencing delays.  The Yamanote line, however, while not running at the moment, was due to start up again any minute.

After some quick thinking, I did an about-face and walked back down all the stairs.  Even if the train did start up again, I knew that it would be packed from here to Shinjuku, and I wanted to avoid being squeezed into a metal container which might experience even further delays down the line.  I considered my options:  I could go back out to the street and wait for another bus for Shibuya, where I would have a greater choice of alternative routes home.  Shibuya has several private lines besides the JR, and one of them, the Keio Inokashira, could take me to Kichijoji, one stop beyond Nishiogikubo. This is like going home the back way.  The trouble with this option was that everyone else at the big station of Shibuya might get the same idea, turning the Inokashira train too into a sardine can on wheels.

Then there was the other option:  the subway system.  The Hibiya subway line has a station at Ebisu.  If I took this line, it wouldn’t take me anywhere near where I live; in fact, it would take me right back toward the center of Tokyo in the direction from which I had just come.  But once there, I could transfer to the Marunouchi line, which would take me as far as Ogikubo, a station from which I could walk home if necessary.  I decided to take my chances on the subway, and headed downstairs into the ground.  The time was shortly after 8:30 PM.

The subway cars were relatively empty at this time of night, and I had no trouble finding a seat.  The trip home took about another hour. I stopped at the supermarket near my house to do some shopping and arrived home at 10 PM.  The TV was on because I had recorded a suspense drama earlier in the day, and I walked into a live news broadcast of the train delay story.  On the TV screen controlled chaos reigned:  People still stuck on stopped trains; people squeezing themselves into trains whose doors were about to close; people being led away down the tracks from an inoperable train; people who had fallen ill from being too long in a confined space being hauled off on stretchers.  No one yet knew the cause of the breakdown, but it seemed to have something to do with a damaged pantograph on the roof of one train car.

As we have written about in an earlier issue, train delays cause all kinds of problems for the flow of traffic here in Tokyo.  Because the city is so dense with people, we have to keep moving all the time to avoid bottlenecks and traffic jams.  A breakdown on one line, the Saikyo, has repercussions not just for passengers of that particular train or that particular line, but for everyone everywhere all over the intricately interconnected system.  I was fortunate to find an overlooked section of the system that had escaped these repercussions, was operating on time, and was not picking up the overflow from the backed up trains up above.  Once I left Ebisu Station, the only excitement I encountered was the frenzied reporting of the newsman blaring out of the TV set when I got home.

Postscript: Thursday, March 25.  A brief article in this morning’s Asahi Shimbun informs us of the details:  “A poorly fastened communications cable severed by a passing train…came in contact with a power supply line, causing a short circuit” at 7:18 PM.  Service was stopped on three lines for three and a half hours and 260,000 people were affected.

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What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping? On March 14, retired biochemist and medical doctor Masaichi Yamamura gave a talk to the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship on his research into the phenomenon known in Japanese as ki, and in Chinese as chiKi is a kind of energy that circulates throughout our body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, ki plays a major role in maintenance of health and well-being.  Ill health results when ki gets blocked or imbalanced.

Through his experiments with mice Dr. Yamamura discovered that ki is actually the sound created by our muscle movements.  “Our body is an orchestra playing a symphony,” he said.  Acceleration within a muscle creates vibration, which in turn becomes sound traveling through our bodies as the “music” of ki.

On the way home from his lecture, I recalled the zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and wondered if Dr. Yamamura’s research had provided an answer.  If you move one hand through the air as if it were “clapping” the other hand, which you actually keep down at your side, the movement in the muscles of the moving hand would create vibrations or “sound” even though you couldn’t hear it.  (Of course, a zen master might point out that “clapping with one hand” is both physically and semantically impossible, and therefore a paradox which remains unresolved by my simplistic grasp of ki.)

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SLIME MOLD STRIKES TOKYO ! ! !

According to an article (“A life of slime”) in the January 23, 2010 issue of The Economist, researchers at Hokkaido University (in northern Japan) conducted an experiment with slime molds to see if their transport networks were similar to human ones.  They laid oat flakes on a surface representing the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, placing them at the locations of major cities.  Then they put a slime mold on Tokyo Station, and it began to form links between the food sources.  Here’s what happened:  “They found that many of the links the slime mould made bore a striking resemblance to Tokyo’s existing rail network. [The slime mold] had not simply created the shortest possible network that could connect all the cities, but had also included redundant connections that allow the creature (and the real rail network) to have resilience to the accidental breakage of any part of it.” [bold face my addition]

Please note the section in bold type.  As we report in this issue, a part of the Tokyo rail network “accidentally broke” the other evening.  The fact that I was able to find a way home nonetheless is apparently evidence of the brilliance of Tokyo’s rail system planners, or maybe the intelligence of slime molds, or is it the resemblance of slime mold thought to human thought?  Now I’m not sure which…

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Kore wa nani?

Wrong if you guessed dinosaur eggs.  This is a suikinkutsuSui means water; kin means harp; kutsu means grotto.  Thus, “water harp grotto.”  It’s located just outside the tea ceremony room at the Silly Villa of Illusions.  When I dropped by the garden the other day, a volunteer guide found me in the bushes taking pictures of a stone image.  “Do you speak Japanese?” he asked me in perfectly reasonable English.  “Yes,” I answered, laughing, “but you speak English!”  Speaking from then on in Japanese, he said he’d be happy to answer any questions, so I told him I had come to take a picture of the suikinkutsu.  He led me up the path toward the house.

My guide explained that when people come to attend a tea ceremony in the teahouse, they first rinse their hands at the small stone basin in the garden, using the bamboo ladle to scoop the water and pour it over their hands.  The water drips over the blue stones in the circular area and flows down to the four white stones, where it seeps down into an earthenware pot which has been placed in a cavity hidden under the stones.  He demonstrated by rinsing his hands, and after a few seconds the plinking sound of water dropping into water in an enclosed space drifted melodically up through the stones.

Here’s an image I found at Wikipedia of what it might look like under the stones:

Cross section of a suikinkutsu

[This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suikinkutsu_CrossSection.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 2.5 license.]

 

There’s another component to this audio delight:  Leaning against the house were some bamboo poles.  My guide brought one over and demonstrated how to place one end over the four white stones and the other at one’s ear.  I followed his example while he poured more water over the stones.

The bamboo pole, which is hollow, magnifies the sound of the water harp.  When I listened without the pole, the water drops made a light metallic ring, almost but not quite like a wind chime stirring in a delicate waft of air that you could not precisely locate.  But when I listened through the pole, I felt as if I were down there in the underground space, right in among the plinks and plashes.

I wonder if the music Dr. Yamamura says my body is making as ki flows through it sounds anything like this water harp.

Here are some websites (in Japanese) where you can listen to a variety of suikinkutsu.

http://www2.tokai.or.jp/hikaru/

Scroll down the page at the above website till you see a player and click it to start it.  What you will hear is more raucous than what I heard at the Silly Villa of Illusions.

http://www.geocities.jp/koubou234/1.html

You can hear the water harp just by going to the above website.  This one has a steadier rhythm than what I heard.

This is a Youtube page.  It includes a video as well as the sound, though the video shows only the water basin, not the suikinkutsu itself.  It was recorded at Enkouji Temple in Kyoto.  This one sounds most like the one at Silly Villa.

You can click on the other thumbnail photos at the Youtube site and enjoy a few other water harps too.  In one of them, a man and a woman are walking around in what seems to be a temple compound, and they find the suikinkutsu.  He wonders if he can record the sound, but the woman thinks not.  However, a few notes come through.  Then the man trains his camera on the ground around him.  It is all paved in concrete.

“Why have they done this?” he asks.  “What a waste!  They should have consulted me first….”

He could be saying this as a joke, meaning simply that had anyone asked his opinion as a tourist he would have said he did not want the grounds to be paved in concrete.  Yet there is something serious in his voice which suggests to me the possibility that he himself is something of an expert on landscape design.  In any case, he is dismayed at finding the ground encased in concrete, a feeling shared by the entire staff of the Tree.

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We welcome your feedback.  Please leave a comment.

3-9

March 8, 2010

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