After admiring a sunrise that turned out to be a petroleum fire in the neighboring town, chatting a bit with a prison guard who kept a large, mounted machine gun trained on me the entire time, and then falling onto the street below when the veranda I was standing on collapsed, I stood up, shook the bits of broken concrete out of my clothes, and considered for a moment my great good fortune.
I had been freed from the repressive, airless prison cell of “book learning,” I thought to myself, only 100 meters from a great many airless cells where prisoners did nothing but read books, an irony that, while not entirely escaping me, did begin to dig furtively at the walls with a sharpened spoon.
I had burst the restraints of literacy (and also, as a result of my unplanned fall to the pavement moments earlier, torn a seam in the crotch of my pants and possibly ruptured something important in my head). I looked afresh upon the world, a slice of which I could see if I turned away from the prison wall and looked through a narrow gap between two buildings behind me. Language is a warm, living, ever-changing thing, alive in the hearts and minds of the people around me (figuratively, as there actually were no people around me on that deserted, well-avoided street along the western wall of the Osaka Detention Center). It is the Voice of the People, vox populi, and expresses the dreams, fears, fantasies, in short the very humanity of the species. Now how can a book teach you that? How can a mere book, especially one from a library in such an inhospitable, rust-belt city such as Chicago, teach you anything about humanity. They didn’t even laminate their library cards.
“Books,” I snorted, speckling the pavement with tiny dots of blood from what may have been a brain injury. “Who needs ‘em?”
I moved a bit to my left to get a better view through the gap in the buildings. “The world is my persimmon,” I said aloud, echoing a sentiment I have expressed elsewhere in these pages, but mistranslating it in my head, which was now fairly throbbing. I had, of course, meant to say “oyster” and not “persimmon,” but as both are rendered kaki in Japanese, and as I almost certainly had suffered some significant brain damage from having fallen directly onto the top of my head from two stories up, I chose the wrong English word.
“I will go among the people,” I continued. “I will learn the language that beats in their hearts, that runs through their veins, that dribbles from the corners of their mouths sometimes when they’re sleeping.”
“And I will do so,” I said, shaking my fist at an imaginary librarian nodding off at the worn, wooden counter of a library empty as an echo since the invention of TV. “I will do so without that dastardly book Teach Yourself Japanese!”
My shouting woke the imaginary librarian, who turned to me and, with index finger to pursed lips, shushed me with such force that I was thrown back against the prison wall.
“I swear on all that is holy,” I whispered hotly, which brought a glare from the librarian. “I swear on all that is holy,” I repeated in a softer, almost inaudible whisper, trying not to move my mouth too much. “I will never touch another book.” I lowered my hand from where I had put it to conceal the movement of my lips required for the “b” in “book,” and presented the shushing public servant with an impertinent and feisty smirk before my legs finally gave out and I collapsed onto the pavement.
“The world is my kaki,” I uttered from way back in my mouth.