49. Kọ Ara Rẹ Ni Ede Japanese

(I apologize for the delay in postings to this site. I’d like to tell you it is because we here at the Consulate have been consumed with the unfolding events in Syria or recent revelations that the U.S. government has read every email ever sent by anyone ever, but the actual reason is that the two staff members in charge of this blog did not speak to each other for nearly two months following a falling out at a nearby curry shop over the partitioning of a lunch bill. Turns out that, due to its irregular shape, determining with any real accuracy what percentage of the garlic nan one has eaten is nearly impossible. At any rate, Mrs. Doyle and Mr. Kikuchi are now back on speaking terms, lunching at places with symmetrically shaped food, and have returned to their work reassembling the rambling nonsensical manuscript of missing American Eddie Trombone for posting here in the ongoing, albeit increasingly half-hearted, investigation of Mr. Trombone’s disappearance.  -U.S. Consular Officer Gerard K. Dirkins)

There was, the story goes, a proposal by the Japanese advertising giant Dentsu to increase the number of advertisements on Japanese trains by placing them on the only surface left, the only surface where passengers might conceivably allow their eyes to rest unmolested by the swirling, mind-sucking tornado of blazing colors and blindingly white, horrifyingly enthusiastic smiles that leapt off every wall, swung on every hand strap, and fluttered from clips placed along the ceiling at regular 5-meter intervals.

That last unexploited surface?

The windows.

more subway ads

The plan was eventually abandoned, however, not because it was determined that blocking the sun this way would result in a mass outbreak of rickets and, eventually, madness, but because a preliminary study showed that there was as much advertising plastered on the buildings, billboards, and train stations outside the train and visible through its windows as there was inside. Which is where our story begins.

“Toothpaste!”

“Constipation medicine.”

“Bridal dresses!”

“Crematorium.”

“Coffee creamer?”

“Kitchen cleanser.”

“Constipation medicine!”

“Toothpaste.”

We stopped halfway down the train car. I turned to my new Nigerian friend, who, in addition to being a Yoruba instructor (see previous post), was also fluent in both English and Japanese.

“How’m I doing so far?” I asked Olawale.

“You haven’t guessed a single one right,” he said, sitting down and opening his Nigerian Tribune.

“Close on a couple of them, right? The one for varicose veins?”

“You thought it was an ad for a travel agency,” he mumbled into the gray newsprint.

“Looked like a map.”

He swung a page around and snapped the newspaper taut.

“You don’t approve of my Japanese teacher, do you?”

“His name is Blue-sky Rocketship,” Olawale replied.

“So?” I countered.

Olawale looked up from the Trib.

“Blue-sky,” he said again.

I didn’t flinch.

“Rocketship.”

I held fast.

Olawale tucked the Trib under his arm, stood up, and planted himself directly in front of me. He stared into my eyes, which had begun to well.

“His name is Blue-sky Rocketship, and his Japanese lessons consist of him popping a video tape of Japanese commercials into a VCR that, along with the weird-smelling TV it’s connected to, he got out of his neighborhood garbage pile.* He is what they call in your country a seller of snake oil. He is a joke.”

“They laughed at the Wright brothers, too,” I said.

“Perhaps, but they also laugh at Geoge Orji.”

“Who’s Geoge Orji?”

“Exactly.”

So many things are lost on me, this one just fell softly onto the pile and slid slowly down the far side.

Olawale took a deep breath and continued.

“It does not matter who George Orji is. I am simply trying to impress upon you the fact that some people are laughed at and never invent an airplane.”

Silence.

Plop.

Slide.

Deep breath.

“Geoge Orji is a crane operator in the city of Lagos.”

“Why do they laugh at him?”

“None of the passersby on the sidewalk where George stands and operates the complex levers of his crane can actually see the crane, and while they can hear something, it is obvious to all that this is simply Mr. Orji doing his best to recreate the sound he imagines a crane might make while at the same time not moving his lips.”

“What sorts of things does he build with this crane?”

Plop.

Slide.

Deep breath.

“Forget about Orji,” Olawale said. “Your oddly named teacher is not a teacher. He is not a Wright brother. He is a fool. One does not learn a language by looking at advertisements. One learns through zealous study.”

I giggled.

“What?” Olawale asked.

“You used ‘jealous’ wrong.”

Plop.

Slide.

Deep breath.

“One learns through fervent . . .”

I giggled.

“Arduous . . .”

I snickered.

“Earnest?”

“Eddie,” I corrected him.

Deep breath.

“Hard,” Olawale said wearily, and waited.

Nothing.

“Hard, then,” he continued. “One learns language through hard study. Forget this idiot Blue-sky Rocketship. I have learned 17 languages on my own, without the aid of any teacher.”

“You learned Japanese all by yourself?” I asked.

“By myself,” he said, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small paperback, “but with the great help of this!” He held the book inches from my face. The title was different but the cover was unmistakable. The big red dot in the middle encircled by a series of Japanese images—Tokyo Tower, a bullet train, three kimono-clad women on the steps of a temple, and, inexplicably, a photo of Vito Scotti’s unflattering portrayal of a Japanese sailor on Gilligan’s Island.

“Kọ Ara Rẹ Ni Ede Japanese,” Olawale lilted.

“Teach Yourself Japanese!” I cried, and fainted onto the lap of a sleeping salaryman, causing him to slide into a dozing OL, who then fell against a high school boy napping with his head against an umbrella he had planted between his feet and that now went skittering across the train floor, sending the boy plunging forward into a beautifully executed somersault across the width of the train and into the arms of a lovely young woman roughly his age, whom he dated from that day on, through university, then married and raised two lovely daughters and a son who would one day meet, fall in love with, and have his heart broken by the daughter of the Nigerian Ambassador to Japan.

“You speak Yoruba!” Olawale cried.

a Japanese "salaryman," or office worker

a Japanese “salaryman,” or office worker

a group of "OL," short for "office lady"

a group of “OL,” short for “office lady”

*This would place this portion of the manuscript most likely in the mid to late 1980s, an exceptionally good time for Japan’s economy during which everyone in the country decided to hurl all of their belongings into large garbage piles that sprung up in every neighborhood on staggered days of the week, depending on each neighborhood’s municipally-assigned ōgatagomi, or “big garbage,” day, and then go and buy new belongings, some of which looked pretty much like the old ones, which in turn led to an even greater expansion of the economy and larger piles of garbage until there followed the inevitable post-boom bust. By then, the Japanese population had helped furnish the apartment of every foreigner in Japan with their castoffs, which made it even more difficult to get rid of these outsiders when the predictable anti-foreigner rhetoric followed in the wake of the economic bust.

(The note above was written by a newly arrived intern at the Osaka U.S. Consulate. Some know-it-all graduate of the University of Massachusetts, where I suppose he studied Marxism, history, or some other whiny, subversive nonsense. Dark-skinned kid, maybe Mexican or Jewish. –U.S. Consular Officer Gerard K. Dirkins)

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