Anyone here speak English, mate?

by David Tharp

LONDON—This week I opened my London Evening Standard to the entertainment section (a pale reflection of To­kyo Weekender‘s of course) to find a profile article about one of Japan’s most famous come­dians, Issey Ogata. Ogata just opened in the West End at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, the absolute centre and hotbed of London’s stage, screen and nightclub entertain­ment. Remarkably, his show is in Japanese with simultaneous English-language translation and it’s a hilarious hit.

The last time he played here at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1995, he was a runaway success with a sell-out season. The management had to add 200 headsets to accommodate the rush on the box office. This week when I dropped by the Lyric in the West End, there was a Yamanote Line type crush for tickets, and I barely got away with life and limb intact.

Ogata’s popularity here, in spite of the language gap, is at­tributed to his ability to portray the Japanese “common man” in a way that cuts across cultural lines. He expresses common themes and emotions that appeal to all people who struggle with life in a modern city setting. One newspaper de­scribes his act as “Japan to laugh at, Japan to weep over,” and another review said he “finds comedy where most Japanese find only headaches.” His portrayal of a commuter on a Tokyo train draws as many chuckles and guffaws on Shaftsbury Avenue as it does in Shiwjuku’s Kabukicho.

Is this British success by a Japanese comedian surprising? Not really Britain and Japan are attracted to each other by a host of emotional and unconscious similarities, although this is hotly denied by proud national­ists of both island countries who each share their love of royal families, tea-drinking customs and long imperial histories.

In spite of the great lengths we often go to prove how dif­ferent we are, perhaps the only major difference is the fact that we speak different verbal lan­guages, but find ourselves ut­terly comfortable in the lan­guage of each other’s cultural and social soup—accepting each other’s eccentricities with mag­nanimity because we deeply and secretly admire and desire to be like the other in some way.

It is hard to imagine an American version of “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” for example, because I just can’t imagine any stereotype Ameri­can hero like John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone putting aside their hostilities to sit down for a nice cup of tea with a Japa­nese prison camp commander to discuss the niceties of bridge construction.

Alec Guinness pulled it off because, by Jove, it was the Brit­ish thing to do. Madness, per­haps, but what country gave the world Alice in Wonderland? Japanese and British audiences bought the movie idea, and Hol­lywood had to acknowledge the likelihood of such a bizarre col­laboration by awarding the film with many Academy Awards.

Not that this spurious ex­ample is going to make it easier for the Emperor’s visit to London in the spring, when British ex-POWs man the barricades to demand long-ignored repara­tions from working on the infa­mous Burma railroad in WWII.

Still, mutual respect for the social graces, rituals, courtesies and culture of the two coun­tries has been the hallmark of relations since the first samurai set out from Japan in the 19th century to learn how to emu­late Britain’s gentlemanly se­nior service, the Royal Navy. Natsume Soseki had a long run­ning love-hate relationship with the British, but in the final analysis when he returned to Tokyo from London to teach English Literature, he was more British than, er, say, me. I often meet Japanese men and women studying or working in London who would make Queen Victoria proud of their British ways, while I doubt that I would amuse her.

Japanese guests I entertain in London would much rather have a simple coffee in my his­toric gentleman’s club than be wined and dined down the road in one of my favorite hang­outs with upbeat music, lovely waitresses and handsome wait­ers, and delicious Greek food.

The imposing portraits of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh looking down from the walls of my club, the fireplace and the stiff leather armchairs have far more appeal than the ouzo and houmous for some strange reason.

Emperor Hirohito fell in quite nicely with old British ways, too. He was on an infor­mal first-name basis with the British royal family when he made his first friendly visit to London as Crown Prince. This was, of course, prior to the spot of trouble that occurred between the two nations during the unfortunate and unmen­tionable period of 1941-45.

While grudgingly acknowl­edging the supremacy of the U.S.-Japan relationship in conver­sations, I’ve never met a Japa­nese who wouldn’t say in the same breath how he’d like to mortgage the farm to study the Queen’s English in Oxford or Cambridge, or make a pilgrimage to the distilleries of the Highlands.

I was once invited to a very upmarket nightclub in Akasaka-mitsuke by the presi­dent of a well-known Japanese corporation, who spent hours talking ecstatically about his great admiration for the British Empire, the Royal Family and Scotch Whisky—none of which I have any deep attachment to. Since he was paying the bill, though, and the hostesses were friendly, hey, why not listen?

But, it has occurred to me that through some great cosmic reincarnation sleight of hand, it might just be that all the British were Japanese in their last life, and all the Japanese were Brit­ish. That might explain part of the mystique of the affinity be­tween the two peoples. My as­trologer actually planted the seed of this idea, claiming that I was a highly skilled Japanese samurai swordsman in my last life.

In this life, many British pubs have found incarnations in Tokyo, Nagoya, Sapporo and Osaka, while Japanese karaoke bars and sushi shops have be­come an integral part of the Brit­ish landscape.

Here in London, my barber is Japanese; I often step out for a bit at my corner Japanese sushi restaurant, and get my ume-boshi at the neighborhood Japanese food store. My local Japanese-language newspaper is delivered to me every Thursday. It contains all the latest news about what’s happening in the London Japanese community. A Sapporo student lives in the downstairs flat, and I keep running into dozens of Japanese at the local library, bus stop, video store, restaurant and underground station—and my area of London is NOT even com­monly known for having a conspicuous Japanese population.

Sometimes I go for days without even speaking English — because the people I work with are Japanese, and I deal a lot with Japanese residents of London. I go for walks at lunch past the Sogo and Mitsukoshi Department Stores, and often step into the Japan Centre at Piccadilly Circus to browse through Tokyo magazines and books. Underground stations have signs in Japanese warn­ing of pickpockets, and tourist information centres all have Japanese-speaking guides.

The famous red, double-decker tourist buses have explanations in Japanese, and just about every Japanese you meet around Trafalgar Square can give directions to the Sherlock Holmes pub which does a thriv­ing business with Japanese visi­tors in souvenir T-shirts.

If I were to really get lonely for Japanese male camaraderie, I could always pop into one of the Japanese hostess clubs within strolling distance from my office, or there is always the Japan Club, the Japanese medical clinic, the Japanese-lan­guage church, the Japanese meganeya-san, and all the City restaurants which have Japa­nese-language menus and Japa­nese business clientele.

Many downtown London English-language schools have a 50 percent or more enrollment of Japanese students, and out­side the city, it’s almost impos­sible to walk down a street in Bath, Canterbury, York, Brighton or Inverness without hearing the friendly banter of Kansai or other regional Japanese accents.

If you happen to find your­self in West Yorkshire, just ask any one of the many Japanese you meet on the moors where the Bronte sisters lived and they will show you the way, or when at Loch Ness you can get a better idea where the Monster might appear by inquiring from one of the Japanese photographers staked out around the lake.

Yes, it’s a source of great re­lief to know that I can go any­where in London or Britain without having to speak a word of English, and feel perfectly at home. Just like being back in Shinjuku, mate!

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