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Glenn had offered the following advice about “Talking to People”:

Japanese people do not typically open up to strangers as much as gregarious Americans, but you will have a built-in advantage through Rotary connections. (Typically Osaka people are more open than their stiffer Tokyo counterparts.) While everyone has studied English as a written language for six years at school, most Japanese have no need to speak any other language than their own, so their comprehension of spoken English or their confidence to respond orally will be quite limited. Often you can resolve a linguistic difficulty in writing more easily than by speaking. Be patient, as sometimes you will need to repeat yourself or rephrase your question more simply. In other cases the resident “expert” may be called, who has more experience speaking in English. Even in the most remote area, there is always someone who can communicate. It also pays great dividends if you try to speak Japanese. (Effort is more meaningful than success.) Pronunciation is easy: vowels as in Spanish, consonants as in English. Learn a few polite phrases and greetings and use them as often as you can, and you’ll make a lot of friends.

The Japanese language is a huge and complex subject that I have no intention of even beginning to tackle; what follows is therefore grossly oversimplified.

Unlike European languages that, no matter how little they may resemble English, are at least written with the same alphabet, Japanese does not (for the most part) use the roman alphabet or anything remotely resembling it (such as Cyrillic) or indeed any alphabet at all. This makes it so unfathomable that it might as well be an arrangement of pictures (which in a sense it is) or abstract drawings (which in a sense all writing is). At one point Glenn commented, “How does it feel to be illiterate?” Indeed, it does give one a sense of the helplessness that must be felt by those who cannot read any language at all.

The spoken language is reportedly not impossible to learn (though don’t tell the Japanese that—they are very attached to the concept of the Oriental mystique of their language, which is much too complex for any Westerner to master). Learning the written language is more of a challenge. Whereas English uses only 26 characters, each with at least some chance of being pronounced a certain way, Japanese has many thousands of characters, so many that no one is really expected to learn all of them, and most have more than one pronunciation. The Japanese Ministry of Education has prescribed 1,945 characters as those most essential for common use and everyday communication. A student who has learned these characters will be able to read ordinary books and periodicals and write in reasonably fluent style. Of these 1,945 characters, 1,006 are designated as the basic requirement for the six years of elementary school.

The characters referred to above are the kanji, which are the written forms imported from China (where they are called “han-zi”) and also used in Korea (where they are called “Han-ja”). Most kanji have at least two readings, or pronunciations. One reading reflects the pronunciation of the original Chinese word (usually one or two syllables). The other is the pronunciation of the Japanese synonym (often several syllables). A few “native” kanji (those that have no equivalent in Chinese) have only one pronunciation; some kanji have more than two (there is one that has 20 standard readings and many other nonstandard ones). And there are many different characters that are pronounced the same (but have different meanings). No matter how the character is pronounced, however, it means essentially the same thing in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. There is not a kanji character for every word in the Japanese language; their sounds and meanings are combined to represent more complex things and ideas.

Kanji, however, are only one of several types of Japanese characters. Because Japanese, unlike Chinese, has inflectional endings and particles, these are written with a different set of characters called hiragana. There are 46 of these characters, which form a syllabary. That is, each character represents a syllable, such as ko or chi, not just a vowel or consonant sound.

There are also 46 katakana, which represent the same sounds but are used to spell foreign and adopted words. Both hiragana and katakana originated as a phonetic way to write Japanese, making it easier for children and others with less education to record the language and read literature. The characters are simplified versions of selected kanji. Historically, the hiragana, which are more curved and graceful, were used by women and the squarer katakana by men, but that is not how they are used now. Kanji, hiragana, and katakana are all used together to represent the spoken language.

Finally, there are rōmaji, which are a phonetic representation of spoken words using the roman alphabet. Although there are several methods of romanization, the one that is still in most common use is a modification of that developed by the Rev. James Curtis Hepburn for his Japanese-English dictionary, published in 1867. In large towns, street signs and other directional signage are written in romaji in addition to Japanese characters.

Most of this I knew before I went to Japan. There had also been times when I had learned some basic Japanese words and phrases (yes, no, hello, please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, I’m sorry, etc.), and there had even been times when I had made a study of Japanese kanji. But circumstances prevented my reviewing any of this information before I left for Japan, so I arrived as destitute of language as a newborn babe, hearing words that were tantalizingly familiar but not quite recalled.

Fortunately, our tour package included a pocket-sized Tourist’s Language Handbook published by the Japan National Tourist Organization, which served as a handy reminder of the phrases I had once known and added many new ones, along with their written form (in kanji and kana). Matthew and later Chris acquired copies of an immensely helpful book, The Original “POINT-AND-SPEAK” Phrasebook, which was organized along the same lines as the smaller handbook but contained much more information. It provided useful words and phrases in English, romaji, and written Japanese. Many of the words were illustrated with drawings and (in the case of foods) photographs. I didn’t manage to get a copy of this book for myself until we were in the Tokyo airport leaving the country, but the “boys” made good use of it to facilitate their adventures.

I concentrated primarily on frivolous language activities, such as correlating the kanji with the romaji on street and highway signs (a mostly pointless effort) and, by dint of repetition, figuring out the meaning of geographical suffixes such as those listed below. When we were in Osaka, we became very adept at recognizing the two kanji used to write the name of the city, which Barney described as looking like a man kicking into a soccer goal (大阪). This was helpful for identifying Osaka on TV weather maps and the like. When we got to Kyoto (京都), we transferred our efforts to the characters for that city (Barney’s interpretation: a signpost in front of a house with a TV antenna on top and a banner waving from the side). All would probably have been well if we hadn’t gone on to Tokyo (), which shares one of the characters in Kyoto, but I could never remember which one! [For what it’s worth, it’s kyō, the word for “capital”: Kyōto means “capital city,” and Tōkyō means “eastern capital.”]

Kanji for Osaka

Kanji for Kyoto

Kanji for Tokyo

I think the young men in our party probably made more of an attempt to communicate than Barney and I did. For the most part, we were surrounded by people who (more or less) spoke English. The other Rotarians on our tour were all Americans, the tour guides were adept at giving tours in English, the desk clerks at the hotels were accustomed to dealing with American tourists, and so on. So, especially when we were being herded around as a group, there was little opportunity and less need to speak Japanese. I contented myself with pleasantries (hello, thank you), but I could never match the politeness of the Japanese staff in the hotels, who were trained to say Domo arigato gozaimas (“thank you very much”) as we passed.

During our stay in Osaka, we were kept so busy with convention activities that (aside from meals) we had little opportunity to immerse ourselves in the local commerce, but I did manage to make myself understood in a couple of camera shops that were on our route between the hotel and the convention center. I had been unable to buy a spare rechargeable battery for my digital camera before leaving the United States, and I hoped to find one in Japan. Eventually I did, though it took several tries. In the first camera shop, I removed the battery from my camera and held it out. “Do you have one of these?” I said, the meaning of my question evident from my gesture and inflection even if the clerk had no English. He took the battery, looked around a bit and finally returned with the bad news. “Out of stock,” he said apologetically. The next day I repeated the process in another camera store. This time the clerk found a battery that was almost but not quite the right one. When he had ascertained that the numbers didn’t match, he said sadly, “Don’t stock.” I was at least able to buy an ordinary battery for my film camera at that store. Ultimately I did find the required battery in the giant Yodabashi Camera store in Tokyo; if I had taken Matthew’s advice and gone a couple of blocks in the other direction from the hotel in Osaka to the Yodabashi Camera there, presumably I would have had it sooner.

Our experience at the laundry in Kyoto is recounted in Day 9, along with my experience in getting my photos transferred to CD. This experience was repeated, equally dependent on body language, at Yodabashi Camera in Tokyo (that time I did get what I expected—a CD with the photo files on it).

Somewhat more of a challenge was our adventure with a self-serve photo printing machine. Never having used one of these in the United States, we were especially helpless when faced with one entirely in Japanese. We wasted a lot of time trying to get it to speak English (Eigo). We thought someone had told us it was possible to change the display language; we later learned this was true of ATMs at the post office and fare machines in the subways but not photo printing machines!

I didn’t really want to print any pictures; I just wanted to verify that the photos were actually on the CDs before I wiped the CF cards. With the enthusiastic help of a man and woman using the adjacent machines, I managed to satisfy myself of this. Encouraged by the man, who was intrigued by my photo of a tiny green turtle at Shukkeien Gardens, I even made one print (¥50).

These experiences were typical of our commercial transactions in Japan—a lot of smiling and gesturing and pointless use of language. The last we especially noticed in the FamilyMart in Yokohama. Every time we made a purchase, we tendered the amount shown on the cash register and were given our change (if any) and a receipt, a transaction not requiring any exchange of language at all, yet the clerk babbled throughout. I’m sure he didn't even think about whether or not we could understand him; I’m reasonably confident that he was repeating the same kind of polite formula that clerks in a grocery or convenience store in the United States are taught: “Thank you for shopping with us today. Please come again. Have a nice day, etc.

One of the funniest communication problems we had was in Hakone. When we checked into our room, we found that one of the light bulbs in the bathroom was burnt out. So I called Housekeeping to report this. The concept of a burnt-out light bulb proved to be impossible to get across. Even if I described the bulb as “dead” or “not working,” the word bulb itself was the obstacle. (Even if I’d had the “POINT-AND-SPEAK” book at that time, it would have been no help; the closest its glossary comes to “light bulb” is the word for “lantern.”) Ultimately, the man on the other end of the line concluded that the only solution was to come to our room and see for himself what the problem was. When I pointed to the burnt-out light bulb, comprehension dawned. His face lit up, and he left and returned soon after with a replacement bulb. Whether his vocabulary was thereby increased or not, I don’t know!

Throughout our stay, we enjoyed watching Japanese TV and trying to puzzle out what was going on. One program we saw in Osaka featured what appeared to be a man telling humorous versions of folk tales (we later learned that storytelling is a cultural tradition in Osaka). In Yokohama we watched a program that appeared to be a combination of Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” pieces and the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” or “Hands-on History.” The interviewer was clearly traveling around and visiting artisans engaged in traditional crafts, which included the baking of a kind of specialty bread and the crafting of wooden mah-jongg tiles.

A popular pastime for tourists is the collection of examples of “Japlish,” the curious Japanese rendition of English. As amusing as this can be, I consider it in rather poor taste: at worst, the English is better than my Japanese. But there was one example so delicious that I cannot resist including it. On the window of the Novotel in Yokohama was this sticker (click to see larger picture):

Suffixes the knowledge of which enhances the appreciation of place names:

bashi = bridge

den = hall

do = temple, hall

dori = street

en = garden

gawa = river

higashi = east

ike = pond

ji = Buddhist temple

jingu = imperial Shinto shrine

kata = central, middle

kita = north

koen = park

mae = in front of (in subway station names)

minami = south

mon = gate

nishi = west

notaki = waterfall

shima = island

suji = avenue

yama = mountain