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Japan notebook; Takenoko dancers, matchbooks, and much ado about a suit

By Stewart McBride, Monitor special sections correspondent Stewart McBride has just returned from three weeks of meandering by bicycle and bullet train through Japan, where he discovered more than cameras and cherry blossoms. Below are a few excerpts from his reporter's notebook. / November 19, 1982


On Japan Air Lines' afternoon flight to Tokyo I take seat 23-J, wedged between two Japanese businessmen in short-sleeved white shirts. One sells typewriters, the other doesn't. He designs submarines for Mitsubishi.

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The typewriter salesman grew up in Nagasaki and was two years old when the United States leveled his city with the ''Little Boy'' atomic bomb. Fortunately he was living in Manchuria. His aunt was killed and his brother is still treated monthly for radiation contamination he received 37 years ago.

When I tell him my father was on the USS Phoenix in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the typewriter salesman leans forward and whispers: ''For years I was anti-America. Now I'm antiwar and we can be friends.''

He gives me a lesson in eating the soba noodles on my dinner tray, we exchange addresses, and I doze off to a videogame cacophony coming from Row 24. Two Japanese grade-schoolers are traveling with Pac-Man.

Getting lost in Tokyo, the world's second-largest city, is an everyday adventure. The roads, narrow and tortuous, fan out from the Imperial Palace, often with little rhyme or reason - or street names, for that matter. Moreover, Japanese signs are difficult for the uninitiated to read and cabdrivers speak little English. In case of emergency, advises guidebook author Eugene Fodor, ''keep a matchbox from your hotel in your pocket. Prepare to be lost, and don't worry. When you want to return, show the matchbox to a cab driver. He will take you home.''

Easier said than done. Not long ago an American, unable to retrace his steps to his Tokyo hotel, hailed a taxi and handed the driver a hotel matchbox. The driver didn't take him home, however. He drove him to the match factory.

The Japanese have a reputation for hospitality. In fact, they tend to be more polite to foreign guests than to their own neighbors. This is the result of a time-honored social code, said to have evolved centuries ago when fearsome samurai roamed the countryside and wouldn't hesitate skewering anyone who didn't treat them royally.

Because samurai frequently traveled incognito, swords concealed, prudent peasants greeted each and every guest in an exalted manner. Hence, as the story goes, today's sometimes excessive politeness.

Japan may be the land of dragons, but the language is a bear. As one American diplomat put it: ''I've never seen one Japanese-English translation that any four experts agree is accurate.'' While the English alphabet has 26 letters, to read a Japanese newspaper you need to have under your belt a trifling 1,850 kanji characters. The average Japanese college student can read and write 5,000 characters and has a vocabulary of about 80,000 words. Their American counterparts know half as many English words.

Complicating this communications thicket, Japanese, unlike English, is largely nonverbal. And it doesn't rely so much on body language as on the relationship between the two speakers. The words a Japanese uses can be far removed from what is being communicated. When you have something important to say you tiptoe deftly around, but not through, the issue at hand. Like a painter you may prepare the canvas, even sketch in the background, but you always leave the other person to fill in the main subject himself.

A Japanese, for example, would never make the outright demand ''Give me a ride!'' Rather, he might hint, ''I have a lot of packages and it's quite a walk to the train station.'' If you don't care to give him a lift you return the vagary and perhaps console him: ''I'm sure a taxi wouldn't be too expensive.''