Speak Ja­panese and take a bow

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SUSAN KURO­SAWA

It is a dan­ger­ous thing to know a lit­tle of a lan­guage. Even worse, I reckon, when you have such a good ac­cent that the few words you man­age to ut­ter sound like the promis­ing tip of a mighty moun­tain of un­der­stand­ing and ex­cel­lence.

And so it is with my grasp of Ja­panese, a lan­guage in which I was rea­son­ably flu­ent when I lived in Tokyo, which was in the third cen­tury BC, or there­abouts. My pro­nun­ci­a­tion was per­fect, I was as­sured by ex­ces­sively po­lite lo­cal friends. The Ja­panese are so ap­pre­cia­tive of out­siders at­tempt­ing their lan­guage that they bow and say “O-jozu!” Which means you are tal­ented and flu­ent, when most likely you are not.

I was in Ja­pan last week and even though many words and phrases came flood­ing back, I felt like a to­tal fraud. The prob­lem with such an hon­orific lan­guage is that you can get away with ut­ter­ing end­less cour­te­sies and stock phrases with­out ac­tu­ally say­ing any­thing. It’s a bit like French in that re­spect, a tongue in which you can curl your lip and say “Mais oui!”, “C’est la vie!” “Vous en prie!” and “D’ac­cord!” from dawn to dusk and sound really rather clever.

With my oddly ex­cel­lent Ja­panese ac­cent, any foray into speak­ing with, say, shop­keep­ers or taxidrivers opened a tor­rent of con­ver­sa­tion on this re­cent trip. Of course I couldn’t keep up and would grab at a word here and there that I could understand, re­peat­ing it, bob­bing and smil­ing and then suck­ing in breath, which al­ways is a good time-staller.

“What was that all about?” asked my part­ner af­ter a cab ride in Nagoya dur­ing which the driver chat­ted non­stop. “No idea,” I replied.

“But you were talk­ing with that chap for 10 min­utes!” I replied that yes, I was, but it wasn’t con­ver­sa­tion, just phrases strung to­gether, like tod­dler Ja­panese.

In Morocco ages ago, I was the only French speaker (of sorts) in a lit­tle group of trav­ellers and was there­fore ap­pointed to deal with a driver we’d hired who spoke no English.

I sum­moned an arse­nal of verbs and nouns from lon­gago Al­liance Fran­caise classes and fired them about, making no at­tempt to form sen­tences but it some­how worked a treat.

The driver, too, just shouted out ob­ser­va­tions ev­ery time he saw a tree, an an­i­mal, a bus, and I re­peated the words to my as­ton­ished com­pan­ions, who could quite clearly iden­tify the likes of a date palm, don­key or camel in English, as it hap­pened.

That was the trip dur­ing which I gave up us­ing phrase­books. You learn to say stuff such as “Where is the tav­ern?” and the chap­ter on di­rec­tions tells you to turn left and you’ll find it be­hind a fig tree. Then you ask a lo­cal in per­fect French and they tell you some­thing else en­tirely. So what is the point, really?

In Ky­oto, a taxi driver apol­o­gised (in Ja­panese) for his poor English while I apol­o­gised (in English) for my ter­ri­ble Ja­panese and that be­came a cas­cad­ing ex­change that kept us go­ing for about 20 min­utes be­tween Arashiyama and Ky­oto sta­tion.

My Ja­panese was bet­ter than the cab­bie’s English, so I tossed in a few ex­tra nouns and names and it got so spir­ited that my part­ner ven­tured a few new words of his own — “Kirin! Asahi! Obento!” — be­fore stick­ing in his Qan­tas earplugs.

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