The race is not to the swift

Trends & Culture - July 17th, 1992

by David  Tharp

The prize in the race to become proficient in spo­ken Japanese isn’t always awarded to the astute or the swift. Consider the following story.

The scene is a country back road somewhere near Ise Jingu, the sacred Shinto grand shrine southwest of Nagoya. Your humble scribe was doing an Easy Rider along roads flanked by ancient rice fields on the way to the shrine.

It was a bright, sunny day. I was wearing a mo­torcycle helmet, sunglasses and a towel wrapped across my face to protect myself from sunburn. So, from a distance, it was impossible to tell that I was a yabanjin (barbarian).

It was a beautiful autumn day and farmers were harvesting rice. The Japanese kami were in their heaven and all was right with the world. Suddenly, I came up to a fork in the road that didn’t appear on my map. Hark, I thought, which way to Ise Jingu?

Well, we’ll soon find out by simply asking one of those noble farmers toiling in yonder fields. Alight­ing from my Yamaha (apologies to Harley-Davidson), I strode into a nearby field and hailed the closest stalwart son of the earth.

One country gentleman turned and walked toward me, and as he did so, I made a strategic error. I removed the helmet, towel and sunglasses to reveal my true gaijin nature. We drew up in front of each other, but now my potential guide’s facial features had completely changed as his jaw dropped to see me in my blond-haired, blue-eyed glory.

Sumimasen ga, Ise Jingu wa dochira no michi desho ka?” (excuse me, but which is the road to Ise Shrine?), I exclaimed in my most fluent Japanese, pointing to the fork in the road.

My new found friend, mouth agape, surveyed my alien visage and, waving his hand in front of his face, replied frantically, “E-i-g-o wakarimasen” (I don’t speak English).

The frustration button in my psyche had been pushed and red lights started flashing all down my early warning system to alert me to an impending cultural collision of gigantic proportions.

Shikashi, boku wa Nihongo da hanashite irun da yo” (But I’m speaking in Japanese). “Nihongo wakaru desho?” (You speak Japanese, don’t you?). However, all I got was a panic stricken smile with the waving hand held in front of his face and the same reply, “Eigo wakarimasen.”

I was quickly losing the battle with my own wits to stay calm and unaffected by this impasse in blind miscommunication. What to do? I decided to try an act of cunning.

With a deliberation that would have won me a promotion had I been a diplomat, I slowly returned the sunglasses and towel to my face and put on my helmet, thus wiping out all my telltale gaijin signs.

Amazingly, this did the trick, because in my last effort to get through to this son of the earth, I re­peated the question once more, and he sputtered into comprehension.

Ise Jjingu ka, so ka, migi no ho da yo” (Oh, Ise Shrine, oh I see, it’s the road to the right), he said in a rush of language enlightenment. Thanking him with a terse “domo,” I spun on my boot heels, grinding stalks of rice into the earth and returned to my motorcycle.

Displays of biker macho irk me, but when I kicked my machine into gear, I poured on the gas, standing the motorcycle on its back wheel, then sped down the road to Ise Shrine.

There is probably a farmer somewhere down that country road who still gets a free sake when he tells locals the story of how he explained “in English” to some crazy gaijin how to get to tine Grand Shrine at Ise.