The Tokyo hesitation

GETTING to the shinkansen - the fabled Japanese bullet train that would whisk me down to Kyoto that evening - was no problem. We'd left plenty of time. So as our white-gloved cabdriver stitched his way diligently across the fabric of a Tokyo rush hour, we picked up our earlier conversation - about how children in Japan learn the 2,000 konji, or Chinese characters, that are central to the Japanese language. ``For instance,'' I asked my colleague, a native Japanese fluent in English, ``how does a dictionary work? I mean, these characters can't be in alphabetical order - so how do you look them up?''

She explained that it had to do with the number of brushstrokes needed to make each one.

``But how do you know how many strokes in, say, that one?'' I said, pointing to the writing on the rear of a laundry truck stopped at a light ahead of us.

She counted silently, making slight strokes in the air with her hand.

``Twelve,'' she said. ``No, thirteen. Thirteen.''

``I could make it in six,'' I said.

``Oh, no,'' she said quickly, intent on stamping out such latent heresy. ``You have to do it the proper way.''

Pen in hand, she sketched the character on a pad, pausing after each stroke. Japanese children, she explained, labor to learn these strokes with great precision and always execute them in the same order.

I thought about the slips of paper in my pocket - addresses, written out for me in a nation where I could neither speak the language nor recognize the written words. When I'd had to hail a cab to get from one meeting to the next, I'd simply handed the driver the proper slip.

``Hi!'' he would say after reading it - the Japanese word for ``yes,'' ``I understand,'' ``so be it,'' and ``OK'' all rolled into one. The slips, some of which my friend had written, all had one thing in common: neat, sharply etched characters. The system seemed to be working.

``Maybe you want to write out the address of the Kyoto Hotel for the cab when I get there?'' I asked her as we stood in line at the shinkansen ticket counter. She would not be going with me: For the next several days, I would be completely on my own.

``Oh, you won't need that,'' she said absently, searching her purse for a train schedule. ``Just say Kyoto Hotelu.''

The counter was free. She paid and handed me the ticket with a reassuring smile.

``Platform 14,'' she said. ``You have about five minutes. This is as far as I'm allowed to go - see you Thursday.''

``Kyoto Hotel-u?'' I ventured, trying to imitate the sounds she had made.

``Kyoto Hotelu, very good!'' she grinned. ``You won't have any trouble.''

Once aboard, I found the dining car, ordered by pointing to the brightly illustrated menu, and was pleasantly surprised to get what I thought I'd asked for. System seems to be working, I thought.

It was only when I got back to my seat that the nameless little apprehensions began to form. What if I miss Kyoto and don't get off? What if there aren't any cabs? What if, when I say ``Kyoto Hotelu,'' I'm greeted with a blank stare of incomprehension?

That's when I found myself thinking about Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. Maybe it was that, outside, spring was already at work, reminding me of the famous opening lines of ``The Canterbury Tales'': Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote ...

Maybe it was that the babble of unfamiliar sounds in the half-empty coach took me back to my days in graduate school - when, with strains of Old High German and Old Frisian filling Professor Dobbie's classroom, we studied the history of the English language. He had encouraged us to memorize the Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon, bits of which I could still recall.

And he had made sure that, to pass the course, we could read aloud to him, with proper pronunciation, a 20-line passage from Chaucer which he would select at random whenever we thought we were ready.

I remembered preparing for that exam by listening to recordings of ``The Canterbury Tales.'' Since I didn't know what passage I'd be asked to read - and obviously couldn't memorize the whole thing - I recall simply trying to soak up the inflection, the rhythm, the nuance of the speech.

It wasn't an exercise in learning Middle English. It was an exercise in mimicry, in imitation, in playacting - in becoming a kind of personified Middle Englishman.

``Kyoto Hotel-u,'' I said to myself. There was no one nearby in the coach, so I practiced the words furtively. I could say them, of course, like an American: ``Key-YOE-toe HO-tel-LOO.''

But what if I pretended that I could actually speak the language? What if I simply impersonated a Japanese? ``K'yo-to Hoht-e-lu,'' I said, diving into the vowels from the top like a kingfisher, then cutting them off when they'd barely begun.

I tried doing it with a slight bow: That was even better. I tried assuming an attitude of genuine seriousness and concern for the person I was speaking to - the nodding, energetic eagerness to listen and respond I'd seen so often in this country. Better still.

Then, in a string of words coming across the loudspeaker, I heard it: ``K'yo-to.'' Just the way I'd say it, I thought, gathering up my luggage for the 120-second stop at the platform. The doors hissed open.

A swirl of movement down the stairs, a sign on the ceiling pointing to the cabstand, a wave of the hand. The taxi door opened, and I wedged in with my bags.

``K'yo-to ... Hoht-e-lu,'' I said, leaning forward in the evening darkness.

The moment's pause that followed seemed an eternity. Then he nodded. ``Hi!'' he said, and drove off with the assurance of someone who knows exactly where he's headed.

I leaned back with a muffled sigh of relief - grateful to Chaucer, Professor Dobbie, my colleague in Tokyo, the cabdriver, and everyone else I could think of. System seems to work, I thought.

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