(Please pardon the delay in postings to this site, but my staff was absent for much of the holiday season. Mr. Kikuchi was visiting his ancestral home in the temple-studded, gently rolling hills of Nara Prefecture, and Mrs. Doyle won a trip to Las Vegas in a drawing run by a local pachinko parlor. She extended the 8-day jaunt with a short trip to Kingston, Arizona to visit a nephew “who isn’t related by blood, so it’s okay,” whatever the hell that means. -Consular Officer Gerard K. Dirkins)
It wasn’t a storybook sunrise, a great wash of orange spilling over the edge of a distant and happy horizon, brilliant rays of light then racing across fertile farmlands to fall upon small clutches of gentle people standing there, in overalls, smiling faces turned upwards and eyes closed beatifically against the warm, life-affirming, now lemon-colored sunshine. It wasn’t something just short of that, either, or anything even close really. It was more like a dust-colored cloud creeping across the murky water of Osaka’s Yodogawa River, climbing up the wall of the maximum security prison on the far bank of that river, dragging itself across the packed sand of the deserted exercise yard, then, with one final gasp, clawing its way over the far wall to finally deposit a weary gray glow onto the verandas of the two-story apartment buildings just west of the prison. That’s if it was a sunrise at all, and not just some petroleum fire in the neighboring town.
But it was at the very least something that could in a pinch pass for a sunrise, if viewed with both an open mind and absence of alternatives, and so I faced this force of nature, or man if indeed it was the petroleum fire I was starting to think it was because of the smell of burning fuel that had begun to waft into my neighborhood and also because it was already half past ten and the sun had presumably already risen and now hovered somewhere behind the gray cloak that permanently shrouded Osaka. At any rate, whatever this light might have been, I faced it. I faced it with a sense of renewal. A sense of renewal and promise and hope. Standing on the sagging concrete veranda of my apartment building before the western wall of the Osaka Detention Center, or actually back a bit for safety’s sake and because my eyes had begun to burn, I faced that blazing future, all the brighter now set against the black clouds that had begun to billow from its flames.
I was free.
I was free of the book that had led me astray from the very moment I stole it from the Chicago Public Library. Teach Yourself Japanese. Teach yourself Japanese, indeed! I recalled those early chapters—There is a pencil here. There is a pencil there—and let out a loud and bitter laugh, then immediately raised my arms high over my head and showed my open palms to the officer in the prison guard tower who had spun around to train his machine gun on me.
I was no longer on the run, a fugitive from an agency infamous for, among other things, its orchestration of coups d’état in support of right-wing dictators abroad and its illegal surveillance and smear campaigns of law-abiding citizens at home. The U.S. government, that is, not the Chicago Public Library, though you never know, and every librarian I’ve ever known seemed capable of torture or worse.
“I’m free,” I said softly to myself, my hands still high over my head.
“To do what?” the guard in the tower asked. He was only about five meters away.
He really should have been watching the prison exercise yard, and I would have pointed that out to him, but I was a bit intimidated by the huge mounted machine gun.
“Free to do what?” he asked again, reaching around and turning off the gun’s safety with a loud, dry click.
“Learn Japanese!” I cried. “On my own terms. Without that terrible book. I will go among the Japanese people and learn their language.”
The guard came out from behind the gun’s site.
“Tongue,” he corrected me. “You will learn their tongue.”
“Tongue, language, it’s all the same,” I said as assertively as one can when talking down the barrel of a large mounted gun.
“No,” he replied. “Tongue is different. Or, I should say, ‘the tongues are different.’”
I was plainly confused.
“The tongue of a native English speaker and, even more importantly, the soft palate are different from that of a Japanese person, as are the structure of the brain and the length of the intestines. This explains why it is impossible for a native English speaker to master the Japanese language, and, conversely, why it is impossible for a Japanese person to master English. It also explains why I get gas after eating Australian beef.”
“But your English is excellent,” I countered, gently, again because of the large mounted gun.
“We have a Canadian prisoner in here.”
“And he taught you English?”
“No. I had his tongue, palate and the language center of his brain removed for semi-voluntary donation to the prison organ bank, an informal and unofficial organization I’ve set up in an unused part of the cafeteria. Then, as I was at the top of the waiting list, it was a simple matter of . . .”
His voice trailed off, as my apartment’s crumbling veranda finally crumbled completely, dropping me two stories onto the narrow road below, along with several large pieces of concrete, and what was supposed to be iron rebar but actually turned out to be sticks, twigs, and the pages of an Asahi Shimbun newspaper from 1951.