9. Kanji are just pictures

Hiroko drew a square.

“Japanese kanji are simply pictures,” she said, smiling wide like doctors do just before they hurt you. Trembling, I smiled back.

She pointed at the square.

“This is a picture, isn’t it?”

No, I thought, and nodded.

“What is it?”

I threw up a little into my mouth. Swallowing, I said in a very small voice, “a box?”

I knew immediately I was wrong, and my eye began to twitch a little. I tried again. “A square.”

The twitching got worse.

“A sandwich!”

Hiroko reached out to calm me. I flinched, so she stopped short and rested her hand on my knee.

“Japanese kanji are just pictures,” she said again, more firmly. “This is a kanji. It is just a picture.” She smiled again, pushing her fingernails into my knee. “Now, what do you think it is?”

I stared straight ahead, not focusing my eyes, until everything went blurry. I thought this would somehow make me invisible. It didn’t. It didn’t in high school either.

Hiroko waited a full minute, shrugged, then continued.

“Is it a picture of a choo choo train?” she asked, making a silly face and rolling her eyes. “Is it a cute little monkey?” she seemed to offer but then furrowed her brow and shook her head. “Or is it . . . ” Hiroko paused. She looked deeply into my eyes and, slowly and meaningfully nodding her head, continued, “ . . . or is it a mouth?” And here she said mouth like mouth, with italics and lots of emphasis.

I thought it over.

“It’s a silly monkey!” I cried, leaping happily into a yawning chasm where I thought there would be a warm pool of welcoming approval. Falling, my heart raced. “No, no, a train!” Nothing, and still I fell. Tears in my eyes, I called out, “A mouth! A mouth! It’s a picture of a mouth!” And I would have toppled off my zabuton floor cushion if such a thing were possible, but what started out perhaps ten years ago as a 10-centimeter high cushion was now all but flush with the tatami mat, so I did not so much topple off this zabuton as I did topple away from it, and sprawl across Hiroko’s tatami mats, which unlike zabuton actually get softer with age.

“zabuton” (archive by Kikuchi)

“Very good!” Hiroko exclaimed. “Excellent!”

Reassuringly patting my back, Hiroko repeated, a bit louder this time because I had put the zabuton over my head, “Japanese kanji are simply pictures.” Then she lifted one corner of the cushion and asked sweetly, “You like pictures, don’t you?”

I do, so I made a kind of whimper.


“Yes, I do.” I pulled the cushion away, looked up, and managed a smile. “I like drawing pictures.”

Hiroko slid a pad of paper across the lumpy tatami. She handed me a pencil. “Would you like to draw a tree?”

Oh boy, would I?!

My first tree

“OK,” I said in a small, hopeful voice. I took the pad of paper and began to draw what my art teachers in the early 1970s told me was a perfectly fine tree because it expressed something inside me, which was much more important than technique and the sort of slavish imitation that seemed to be such a obsession among older art teachers, and was, they more than just suggested, at least partially responsible for Vietnam. I turned the pad of paper around, and waited for the familiar “oohs” and “aahs” and occasional “power to the people!”

“No,” Hiroko said. “A tree. Draw a tree.”

I was confused. Bewildered. Maybe Hiroko was trying to draw from me something deeper and more meaningful, like the controversial Ms. Simpson in the 7th grade, fired after refusing to dismiss her class until they had shown her “their guts,” a phrase tragically misunderstood by the police who had surrounded the classroom. I say Ms. Simpson was “fired,” but perhaps “temporarily disabled by a percussion grenade” would be more accurate. Bit long, though.

“A tree,” Hiroko reiterated.

My second tree

I pushed the pad of paper firmly into the soft tatami mat, and closed my eyes so that I might better plumb the depths of my unconscious, so that I might find my own personal tree, my inner tree, the tree that lie lurking deep within the recesses of my being. Well, it turns out my being is not that deep, and I got there much quicker than expected. And thanks to my former art teachers’ passionate refusal to teach technique, I was furthermore able to dash off a sketch of what I found in less than a minute. I laid my treasure before Hiroko.

“No,” she said, and tore the picture off the pad.

I began to tremble again, and wondered if they had percussion grenades in Japan.

The correct tree

Hiroko grabbed my writing hand, pulled it down to the pad of paper, and jerked the pencil across the paper exactly four times, counting as she went, ichi! ni! san! shi! She released my hand, sending me toppling backwards. She held up the pad of paper and, beaming, announced, “a tree!”

“A tree!” I repeated with the kind of false conviction one learns in high school when one learns one cannot make oneself invisible.

“Kanji . . . “ Hiroko began.

“. . . are simply pictures,” I bleated cheerfully.

“Would you like to draw some more pictures?”

“Yes!” I cried, beginning to believe my own voice.

“Let’s draw a picture of the sun.”

No problem, I thought.

“Or a garden.”

Bit tricky.

“How about water?”

“No thank you,” I replied.

Hiroko smiled. “No. I mean, how about a picture of water?”

My heart sank.



“A picture of ambiguity.”

“But . . . “

“Irony!” Hiroko suddenly shouted. “Yes, yes! Draw a picture of irony!”

“But, I . . . I don’t know if . . . “

Hiroko picked up an old issue of the Soka Gakkai World Tribune that had on its front page an article about Tina Turner in which Tina tells the story of how she left her physically abusive relationship with Ike Turner, and found peace and acceptance with the Soka Gakkai religion. Hiroko held the tightly rolled newspaper over her head threateningly.

“Irony,” she demanded. “Draw it now!”

(In response to a flood of email, phone calls, faxes, and at least one bomb threat, we will soon be posting an update on Mrs. Doyle’s whereabouts and the ongoing Homeland Security Case against Mr. Kikuchi and his comrades. Stay tuned, you’ve already come this far. –Ofc. Dirkins)

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