I am always a bit surprised (and impressed, truth be known) when I find non-English speakers engaged in the pursuit of foreign travel. It’s fairly easy for me as a native English speaker to navigate my way around Japan. First off, a lot of modern Japanese is simply Japanification of English; if you can figure out the variations in pronunciation, any vocabulary that has been added to the lexicon since, say, WWII is understandable in contemporary Japanese (baseball=baysuboru, hot dog=hotto doggu, hamburger=hambaagaa, ice cream=ice-oo-ku-reem-oo and so on). Additionally, on most urban trains and subways, station names and train information are given in English as well as the expected Japanese. All of which is fine if you are a native English speaker, but less so if your only languages are German and French. I don’t know how those folks manage; it is easy to see why so many uni-language foreigners prefer package tours when they are outside their comfort zones.
My friend Kawazu-san speaks Japanese, with a distant minor in Spanish. He went to university there back in the day, and he remembers a fair bit of the language, although he hasn’t had much chance to use it in the past fifteen or twenty years. Still, we chatter back and forth in our broken Spanish to the immense amusement of his nine-year-old daughter Momoko, who clearly thinks we are speaking in tongues.
His son is much too busy striking karate poses to be the least bit bothered by the vagaries of foreign languages.
Often we cannot remember a particular word needed to complete a thought; in that case, we resort to pen and paper, and take a stab at drawing whatever it is we are trying to say. Failing that, we shrug our shoulders and move on to a new topic. It is an unusual friendship, but one punctuated with lots of laughter, and a genuine rush of accomplishment when an idea makes it through intact.
My friend Miura-san speaks even less English than I speak Japanese, which borders on being measurable in negative numbers. But Miura-san and I share two strong affinities: movies and music. Not just any cinema and tuneage, mind you, but very specific bits and pieces: American film noir, Juzo Itami flicks, Japanese master cinema (Mizoguchi and Kurosawa), the Buffalo Springfield, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Bruce Cockburn. This is definitely unexpected in someone born in the 1970s, and even more so when that person is Japanese. He and I both play guitar and can occasionally be induced to sing (read: caterwaul) when we are reasonably sure nobody is around except us two. We share an English-language repertoire of tunes, with him sticking more closely to the melody line, and me more closely to the lyrical intent of the writer. I am sure it would be most amusing to watch, but I can fairly well promise that you’ll never have the chance. I had supper last evening with Miura-san, and Saki-chan, who has been mentioned in this column from time to time. Saki often serves as my de facto translator, but she was out of her depth last night, with obscure references to movies, bands and songs she had never heard of (and likely will never hear of again). “You don’t need me here,” she said. “You too are much too busy entertaining yourselves! You know what you are talking about better than I do.”
So tomorrow I leave, bound for a place where my primary language is the primary language. For a while I will revel in the familiar. I will catch up on the car magazines that have been piling up in my absence. I will have meals and late-night chats (in English!) with friends I haven’t seen in the better part of a year. But by the time the evenings are touched by a bit of autumn chill, I will be getting antsy to be someplace where I am a foreigner once again. Somewhere I have to think about everything I do, before I do it, even something as simple as which way to look when I step off a curb. And then, for another nine months or so, the autopilot function will stay switched off, and life will grow more complex and tiring on the one hand, but exponentially more fascinating on the other. A reasonable trade-off, all things considered.