There are three types of written characters in Japanese. The history of how these separate scripts came into being, the multitudinous ways they may be combined, and the political, social and sexual nuances of many of the individual characters is a rich, deeply rewarding area of study for both Japanese and non-Japanese.
I recited this from the paper tacked to my wall, lowered the kitchen knife from my neck, and returned to the flash cards.
あ . . . “ah” . . . い . . . “ee” . . .
I was studying hiragana, one of the three Japanese scripts. It’s an easy one. Each character may be pronounced, or read, in only one way.
う . . . “oo”. . . え . . . “eh” . . .
There is another one called katakana. Like hiragana, it is made up of characters that have only one reading.
お . . . “oh” . . . か . . . “kah” . . .
Hiragana and katakana each have 46 characters. This makes for a grand total of 92 characters. But again, each character has only one reading, and the hiragana and katakana characters that share the same reading often look alike–き and キ for example.
き . . . “kee” . . . く . . . “koo” . . .
And then there are kanji. These characters were originally imported from China. Their appearance has changed over time, some characters have been invented by the Japanese and added, and each character has taken on additional readings to accommodate the Japanese language, the structure of which is not at all like Chinese. Consequently, there are now over 700 billion of these kanji characters, each with at least one million readings, making a grand total of 17 bijillion pieces of information required to write a postcard to your grandmother in Kyoto.*
And reciting the words once again from that paper on my wall, I once more slowly lowered the knife from my neck.
け . . . “keh” . . . こ . . . “koh” . . .
The knock came as such a welcome interruption that I was up and halfway to the door before the third rap. I was three-quarters there before the woman outside called out “Gomen kudasai” then slid the door open as could only be done in a country with gun control. Assuming “gomen kudasai” was Japanese for “search warrant,” I dropped to my knees and put my hands over my head. (I later checked the appendix of Teach Yourself Japanese for “gomen kudasai.” The phrase was not there but each word was, listed separately. So “gomen” plus “kudasai” would be “Sorry please.” Perhaps this phrase, which apparently may be used during home invasions or just anytime you feel like opening a stranger’s door, is treated more thoroughly in Teach Yourself Japanese II.)
I was startled, relieved and delighted, in precisely that order, to see leaning through the noren curtains at my front door not an angry police officer, but a very pretty young woman who, upon seeing me on my knees like that, hurried into my apartment, knelt beside me, and started chanting, “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” over and over. She smelled lovely, some sort of fruit shampoo, so I was immediately receptive to any spiritual guidance I suspected she was about to offer. And besides, I was not really comfortable with the fact that I did not have a religion. I wanted a higher purpose, I craved structure and meaning, I needed to fill that god-shaped hole in my heart French philosopher Blaise Pascal spoke about, and I felt at that moment that this sweet-smelling cutie next to me just might be the ticket.
After following her through the narrow streets of my neighborhood for about half an hour, I found myself at some neighbor lady’s apartment drinking lukewarm instant coffee. The neighbor lady and my aromatic young friend were speaking rapidly to each other, rifling through a dog-eared Japanese-English dictionary, searching for the words to convert me. I had never felt so important, and all it was going to cost me, as far as I could tell, was my soul, which I wasn’t using at the time anyway.
The best I could figure was that this was some kind of Buddhism, which sounded great to me, as I possessed that vague American sense of Buddhism as something peaceful and non-coercive. A happy “middle way.” Something found outside the confines of those large foreboding synagogues and Catholic churches back in Chicago. I started to tell them this but as soon as they heard the word “Catholic” they got very upset, speaking in rapid Japanese and crossing first their fingers then their arms into angry X’s until it became pretty clear they did not approve of Catholics and probably had a similarly unfavorable view of Jews or, you know, everyone else.
The neighbor lady produced a photograph of an older smiling man in a suit, which I figured was their Jesus or Moses or something, and they started telling me what a great guy this Ikeda-sensei was.** This made me a little uncomfortable, as I was used to prophets, messiahs, and saviors who wore robes and sandals and were either dead or had been at least once. Sensing this discomfort, my two spiritual advisors shifted things into high gear.
The two women fell quiet and turned to face an enormous altar that completely covered one wall of the small apartment. The neighbor lady took a remote control off the little stand in front of the altar and pushed a button, and the altar began to unfold. Massive wings moved slowly outward, revealing an interior filled with blinding gold ornaments, including tiny chandeliers that had not yet stopped jiggling when the now open wings began to unfold into yet another layer of wings, and those into another layer. Wings within wings, gold within gold, and I was temporarily blinded by the light that filled the room and raised the temperature by at least two degrees. They began chanting, their voices rising slowly together, “nam-myoho-renge-kyo, nam-myoho-renge-kyo, nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” And just when I had had enough, just as I was preparing to make a mad dash for the door, I caught the smallest whiff of what I decided was probably strawberry shampoo, possibly kiwi fruit, and I paused just long enough for my pretty young friend to notice a hiragana flashcard that had fallen out of my pocket.
She held it up.
“Sah,” I said, and she smiled.
“My name is Hiroko. I will help you.”
I turned to the golden light radiating from the still unfolding altar.
*This entire paragraph is full of ridiculous exaggerations and bad math –Asst. Ofc. Kikuchi
**Ikeda-sensei is the leader of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization that has been the subject of some controversy regarding, among other things, its aggressive proselytizing. –Ofc. Dirkins