Thursday, July 19, 2007

Road Signs

This is just a very brief tale I was reminded of a bit ago by a little talk on a guest book I visit concerning road construction. This series of events occurred over a period of only one long day during one of my stays in the quaint Asian country known in the west as Japan. It was inevitable that the foreigners working in the country would eventually wind up dating, living with, and often marrying members of the opposite sex they'd meet there. This held true for both genders, and, minus the marriage vows, gay and lesbian folks as well. This often led to discovery of amusing little quirks of their culture by us, and vice versa. One of the biggest sources of amusement to westerners is usually the way the foreign languages are interpreted by the Japanese. They have other little quirks that accompany those of foreign language translation and application. The amusement factor extends into other areas of language as well, which I learned over a period of years. One of the greatest suppliers of the humor came in the form of a very pretty, petite, college educated young lady who lived with my very good friend, co-worker, and fellow motorcyclist during this particular time frame. They would eventually marry and spend part of the year in his home state of Minnesota and the remainder in Japan and travelling around Asia purchasing items for their import/export enterprise. It was often our custom to spend Sundays in the nicer weather months on longish cruises around the countryside. This always provided a bit of history, adventure, fun, and considerable frustration on rare occasions. As no good maps were readily available in English at that time, we generally dispensed with that bit of frivolity and "flew by the seat of our collective pants". Often this required a short conference and subsequent vote as to which particular path of travel would result in our being "the least lost", or somewhat in doubt as to our real location from moment to moment. We always took comfort in the fact that we were on an island, a somewhat large island, but an island nonetheless. That meant that, being surrounded by water, if we'd travel in any one direction long enough we'd find salt water. That being accomplished, it would be just a matter of a few days riding around the perimeter of the place before we'd get home, home being on the seaside for me and nearby for them. A great way to discover new people, sights, and geological features. Unless it was getting late and we were weary. At those times we'd turn to our intrepid "secret weapon", our own Japanese person Yoshiko, who we knew would be of great assistance if asked. At least that was the theory until one day when we actually swallowed our pride and admitted to being "confused" beyond our usual degree of disorientation. When we finally got to the point of informing her we might possibly need directions from the local inhabitants, she cheerfully agreed to approach an officer in the local "Police Box", the peculiar little structures all over Japan from which the neighborhood policemen operated. After observing her and the nice officer discussing our plight accompanied by much gesturing and bowing, we were finally rewarded by seeing her heading toward us with a typical Japanese smile on her face. My friend, knowing her much better than I, immediately shook his head, exhaled loudly, and exclaimed "Oh shit!" softly to his boots. I'd forgotten one peculiar aspect of Japanese society in my joy at seeing the smiles and nods exchanged by Yoshi and the officer. In Japanese society, it is unthinkable to give a negative reply to a question, rather, the question must be phrased in such a way as to allow the answering party to reply in the positive that a negative is the case. For example, if you go into a small shop to purchase mosquito repellent tablets to use in your nifty little Japanese mini hot plate to rid your residence of the pests(don't understand to this day why they don't sell them here in the USA) and ask the proprietor if they have the item, the answer is ALWAYS "Hai, so desu ne!" "Yes, that is true." This is the answer whether they have them or not, as if not, it's understood by the shop owner that they carry them, but they're out at the moment. This isn't a problem to Japanese or long-term foreigners as the phrase comes with two types of smiles. Smile one is the "of course, and I'll happily sell you some". Smile two is the somewhat embarrassed "we should be able to sell you some and would happily do so if we in fact had them in stock". To the practiced foreigner or native Japanese, this difference is readily apparent, and requires a polite nod, and a statement to the effect that "I see, I understand you have no tablets at this time", which always gives the now ecstatic shopkeeper the proper outlet by saying, "Hai, so desu ne!". The notable difference is that now he's agreeing that they have none, he's happy, you can continue to another shop, and all's right with the world again. Another aspect of the positive answer is very familiar to old Japan hands. In this type answer, which unfortunately for us was what had transpired between Yoshi and the officer, person one makes a statement to person number two. Person two smiles, nods, and politely says the familiar phrase of agreement. However, in this case it doesn't mean agreement but acknowledgement of person one's statement. It does NOT mean agreement, only that "yes, I heard you, but I have absolutely zero idea what you actually said". Again, the Japanese person or old hands recognize the accompanying smile type, and promptly begins the necessary ritual of saying commonly understood phrases such as "thank you" (for acknowledging my right to speak), "I'm so very sorry for taking up your valuable time", and other necessary niceties which are always accompanied by much bowing and smiling. After sufficient apologies, hand gestures, and smiles, both parties feel comfortable with each other's politeness and disengage from the conversation amid much further bowing and smiling. Apparently we'd wandered far off the beaten path to a place where poor Yoshi, coming from a southern city, couldn't comprehend a word that the officer spoke, any more than he could understand her. It was the "Okay, I tried, I failed miserably, and now I must apologize to my friends" smile my pal had detected. After much discussion, it was decided that we'd continue on, using the now setting sun for guidance until we reached a major byway. Finally it happened, after about an hour of steady riding through the rolling countryside we came to what was obviously a major thoroughfare. Sadly for us, our hopes of a quick resolution were shattered when, after about ten kilometers, we came to a spot where the road split into three major roads, each heading in the same general direction, but with vastly different destinations. I should point out here that the road was a "high speed" road, which in Japan is about sixty kilometers per hour speed limit, or roughly 37.5 miles per hour. Due to this limit, and the general impossibility of faster travel because of traffic density, a slight deviation could result in a 40-50 mile distance between the road's terminus and our destination. Therefore, it was necessary to get the correct path the first try. For this, our college educated Yoshi would be pressed into service once again. It was then that my friend and I learned a new lesson about Japan and Japanese road signs of that era, actually it was more about the painters of said road signs. Yoshiko got off the bike, walked tentatively toward the signs having directional information, studied the thing a long time, then spun about and ambled slowly back in our direction with that same "I'm so very sorry smile" on her face, which elicited another "Oh shit!" from my buddy. This time, even though neither of us knew the problem yet, we both knew that smile boded no good for us. Sure enough, when she finally spoke, it was in answer to his question "Did you read the sign?", to which she, being Japanese and all, nodded and answered in the affirmative. He then logically, to us, asked which way we should go, to which the only reply was an enigmatic smile and a nervous head nod. "Do you not know the way now?", he asked, eliciting a happy smile and an affirmative answer accompanied by much bowing, to which it was my turn to exclaim, "Oh shit!", as I'd just realized what had transpired. My pal and I looked at each other and shook our heads in final recognition of what had been said: "Yes, I do not know the way now!", the perfect polite answer giving her the face saving way out. The next little bit isn't fit to write for a polite audience, such as the readers of this missive. Suffice it to say the words were very colorful in both their meaning and inflection, and it reflected the frustration of daily dealing with an infuriating custom, maddening to us at any rate. The conversation went along these general lines, "The sign's in Japanese, right?", happy affirmative and nod with smile. "And you're Japanese, right?", same answer. "So you can read Japanese, right?", again with the yeses. "You read the sign, right?", yesiree!! Smile nod, but not a happy smile and nod. Another "Oh shit" from him. "Did you not understand what it said, it being Japanese and all?", BIG smile, BIG affirmative, BIG nod, BIG "Oh for C*****'s sake!!". Much silence, finally broken by my friend's tentative "Why did you not understand the Japanese sign, written in Japanese language, on this Japanese road, since YOU ARE JAPANESE?" No smile, just shock at his insensitivity to her efforts to end the conversation politely. Now, I tried a few simple questions, which FINALLY got to the crux of the difficulty with the sign. It seems that, as with the language problem previously, all rural areas of Japan have their own sign painters, and every one has his own artistic flair which he, or she, incorporates into their signs. This is fine for the locals, who understand what the signs are supposed to say, being familiar with the area and all, but generally of absolutely no help whatever to those persons who pass by that are from other areas of the country. And so, despite having a genuine Japanese person, highly educated at University of Tokyo, as our personal guide and translator, we finally just had Yoshi toss a pebble at the sign and took the route indicated where it hit. This resulted in our being only about 20 miles from our destination when the road ran out, which, I found out later, was excellent luck as the other wrong branch would've taken us over 50 miles from home at its terminal point. Just another lesson in Japanese culture and language, along with a not unpleasant ride. Until next time, take care.

7 comments:

Hahn at Home said...

That whole sign thing is how I feel when talking to the guy at the convenience store who speaks some dialect of Indian--just when you think you have an understanding - it turns out he still doesn't have a clue what you're saying.

Great story, as always, Mike!

Annette said...

Maybe you get used to the custom of ‘nodding’ and ‘smiling’ and all the polite behaviour around. But I would go crazy over the time. I need a short answer to a short question either positive or not. I’m not sure if I could live in that culture. Very interesting to read. Thanks Mike.

Jim said...

Great post Mike. You're a born storyteller, and it's about time you got started on your autobiograpy if you haven't already.

Jim

Mies said...

I am with Annette, I would lose patience. Where I live everything tends to be short and to the point. But, that's not always the best way because you may skip something you shouldn't, if that makes sense?...Well. to make this comment short & to the point(haha)...
Good story, thanks...

Leiselb said...

Wow this is extremely enlightening, interesting and funny. Thank you for sharing!

Patricia said...

Great story, Mike. Interesting little custom, it would surely be difficult for the straightforward Yank to learn to do that, to phrase a question so as to always allow a "Yes" answer, even when it means "No". I'll have to practice up on that one. Kind of like "Yes, we have no bananas" in the old song, I suppose. Enjoyed reading it, Mike.

Linnea said...

Ah, different cultures. Fascinating!

...I could use that one for my classes, almost. Got any about the Middle East?

(pulling up a chair)