Anniversary stirs memories of Land of the Rising Sun

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Forty years ago this week, with college diploma in hand, I journeyed to Japan for a job opportunity.

Some family members wise-cracked that it was a belated payback for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I preferred to look at it in a different light, as a chance to experience the wonders of a Far East culture while bolstering my bank account in preparation for a costly stab at a graduate school degree.

The job, which was relatively high paying at the time, involved teaching conversational English to a group of Japanese businessmen employed by the industrial giant Mitsubishi. The class of some 20 execs was assigned the task of brushing up their English language skills in hopes that it would give them a competitive advantage in business dealings with their Korean and Taiwanese counterparts.

Written and spoken English, I learned from my contact at Mitsubishi, served as the common language denominator for the three Far East economic powers, since each placed value on "neutrality" in linguistic matters.

Much of our class time was spent trying to decipher the mysteries of American slang and English idioms, two topics that at various stages must have appeared as puzzling to the teacher as the students. Discussions about the grammatical twists of nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and pronouns and prepositions regularly gave ground to slaying the slang dragon and such shop-worn phrases as "take a rain check," "shoot the breeze," "your John Hancock," "Monday morning quarterback," and "bought the farm."

I nearly "bought the farm" when pressed to explain the difference between "go off the deep end" and "at the end of your rope." And this was long before the advent of "Fifty Shades of Gray."

Of course, the joy of teaching the finer points of English paled in comparison to learning basic Japanese, a language better left to those with a talent for understanding the true complexities of life.

I discovered as much upon arriving in Japan after a nearly 24-hour airplane odyssey from Detroit. I had spent much of the trip, which included two unscheduled stops en route to sort out several maintenance issues, trying to master a few simple Japanese phrases that were explicitly laid out in a handy red pocket book. Phrases such as "Good morning!" (Ohayou gozaimasu); "How are you?" (Ogenki desuka?); "Thank you very much!" (Arigatou!); "I'm lost" (Mayotte shimai mashita); and "Can you help me?" (Tetsudatte kuremasuka?).

I figured the last two would be particularly useful if I somehow strayed from the beaten path in Tokyo, the capital city awash in giant video screens and neon lights. It didn't take long before I was indeed lost in a city of 12 million, searching for the ride to my English-speaking safe haven.

Before long, I mustered up enough courage to corral a young couple my age, asking them in my best broken Japanese how to secure a subway ride to a certain hotel within minutes of the airport.

They giggled.

I tried again, calmly and deliberately asking for directions to the subway station.

More giggles.

I persisted, exclaiming in my finest Far Eastern accent, "Doko de nyuyoku toranku ni henko dekimasu ka?"

By now, a small crowd had gathered, trying to make sense of this most important question. Before long, a smart-looking older man came upon the scene, lending an ear to my query. He listened to me intently, breaking his silence with the sweet sounds of English.

"Do you know what you are asking?" he said politely.

"Indeed," I responded. "I want to know how to get to the subway station."

He chuckled, uttering a few phrases in Japanese to a growing group of onlookers.

"Actually, you are asking a different question," he corrected me, "one that I'm not sure that I can satisfactorily answer."

Increasingly puzzled, I said, "What question have I been asking?" as I inched closer for the long-awaited answer.

"In short," he said, "you have been asking, 'Where can I change into my bathing trunks?'"

He smiled. I laughed. The crowd mercifully dispersed. Indeed, it truly was my time for a "change" of scenery.

Published: Thu, Aug 13, 2015

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