The Little Prince ... From Japan

HE is no older than four, this child I am watching from behind my menu. But he has a hero's endurance. Right now he is enduring a gray flannel suit with short pants, a starched shirt, a tie. He has a hero's visage, too; under a helmet of black hair, his alert gaze inspects the dining room of the Kyoto hotel - the slender male waiters, the guests, the nosy American woman three tables away ... quickly I raise my menu to cover my eyes.

But I uncover them soon, to view again this youngster attended by grandmother, mother, and two sisters. The grandmother wears a traditional kimono of heavy gray silk. The mother wears a black suit of Parisian cut. The teenaged girls wear navy skirts and crisp white blouses. They ply their forks and knives with competence.

No, these are not members of the imperial family, my son says. Japanese royalty, however much it wants to democratize itself, does not, when visiting Kyoto, take its breakfast in a hotel dining room. Having thus enlightened me, my son returns his attention to his odd breakfast of fish and salad. His chopsticks execute a remarkable trill. He lifts an eyebrow at the waiter. The waiter approaches; the two young men confer about the next course in rapid Japanese.

My son is spending his junior year in Japan. His familiarity with the politics and history and cuisine of a foreign country is impressive. But his fluency in a foreign tongue is dismaying. I know that my children lead private lives, but this particular child is able to conduct even his public life in a language I can't understand. My immigrant grandmother used to wave me away when, resenting some question, I answered in fast, slangy English. I think of her now with sympathy.

My son is speaking to me. "Don't stare at that family," he gently chides.

I try not to stare. But I can't help peeking over my fan of a menu.

The little princeling and his court have ordered a Western breakfast, apparently as a didactic exercise. The pancakes are more or less familiar. The toast in the rack is cause for giggles. The cereal is sobering; this mush is not rice! Throughout the serving and the eating of the meal, the attractive little boy comments, asserts, demands, remands. He tries this, he samples that, he hesitates over something, he repudiates something else. His voice is quiet, however, and his table manners are excellent, th ough every so often he takes time out industriously to pick his nose. His fingers are then wiped clean by either the old-fashioned grandmother or the chic mother. Meanwhile the teenaged sisters talk to one another. When a pitcher of cream arrives, one of them dips her pinky into it and samples the stuff. She makes a face, sees me watching, giggles, and then composes her exquisite features.

These are not the first children I've watched. My room upstairs in this hotel faces a Roman Catholic nursery school. Every morning, leaning out my window, I attend the students' arrival. They are brought by their parents - sometimes borne by them on the back of a bicycle. Often an infant sibling comes along for the ride, strapped to the parent's chest. The little scholars dismount and run toward the courtyard of the building, but they pause to bow gravely to the robed sister standing near the entrance. S miling, she bows in return.

My son, too, has mastered this silent gesture. I have seen him bow to the mother of the family with whom he lives, to a Japanese friend of mine we met in a park, to the young woman who served us a 10-course dinner in an inn. (I thought I saw him bow to an octopus which appeared on his plate that evening, but he assured me he was merely recoiling.) The wordless bow conveys courtesy and respect; what it conceals is anybody's guess. At school he and his classmates hand their essays to their professors with similar punctiliousness, he has told me.

I am reminded - but do not remind him - of the way he used to fold his phonics worksheet into an airplane and launch it at his kindergarten teacher.

I've gazed at older schoolchildren, too. They are everywhere in Kyoto - at the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which smiles at itself in its own lake; at the 15-rock Zen garden; on the Philosopher's Walk; along the river; in crafts museums and at exhibitions of French art. The students wear uniforms - tunics for the boys and pleated skirts for the girls.

At these sites that I have traveled half a planet to visit, I know I should study the rocks, the statues, the technique of braiding gold. Instead I study the faces.

A boy has broad, dark eyebrows. A girl has a round chin and reassuring eyes. Her companion's mischievous smile is a perfect "V." A boy in glasses stares so unwinkingly at a Buddha that I expect the god to stir and utter a prophesy. An ivory-skinned beauty blushes under my impolite scrutiny.

The students travel in groups and walk around in twos and threes. When they chat, their voices are soft. They seem to be trying to demonstrate by their good manners and their identical costumes that they are part of the famed Japanese communality, that they have subdued their individual selves for the good of the state, or the firm, or at least, the field trip.

Looking at the distinctive faces, I cannot believe that myth. Like my own children, each Kyoto child inhabits a private world. Each expects a personal destiny.

I always want to know what they are saying to each other. But my son has refused to eavesdrop.

He is otherwise accommodating. He has accompanied me from shrine to museum to park, standing slightly apart, arms behind his back, right fingers encircling left wrist. He thinks his own thought - like the big schoolchildren inspecting the Van Goghs, like the little schoolchildren blinking at Sister's habit. Like the boy in the dining room.

Half an hour after breakfast, I find that little fellow in the corridor outside his grandmother's room; through the open door I see the flurry of packing. Sitting with his back against the wall, the boy communes with his bare knees in dignified silence.

Earlier he revealed a talent for imperious prattle; now his is practicing the ancient art of keeping-your-own-counsel-in-the-presense-of-grown-ups - an art mastered sooner or later by all children in Kyoto, and everywhere else, too.

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