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Tourist In Japan

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Back in 1989, I took a year off work to travel. At the time I was self-employed, and was doing reasonably well as a mid-list novelist, so this was doable. My travels took me through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal and India, and then back to Nepal, and then to Thailand again, and it was only after this - after Delhi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Kathmandu - that I finally arrived in Japan.

After the funeral fires by the River Ganges, after the legless lepers begging in the streets of Calcutta, after the street scene of Kathmandu and the Buddhist prayer wheels of the Himalayan hills, Japan was comparatively Westernised. In Tokyo, for instance, paper, sugar and salt were white, whereas in Kathmandu these same three commodities had been grey.

Nevertheless, Tokyo came as an enormous shock.

Part of the shock was consequent upon the loss of the protective linguistic bubble which Western wealth buys in the Third World. Throughout the Third World, there are informal travellers' centers such as Khao San Road in Bangkok, the Thamal area in Kathmandu, and Jalan Jaksa in central Jakarta. In such places, Western wealth buys access to an entire neighbourhood devoted to English-language service: hotels, restaurants, cafes, travel agencies and bookshops.

But - Tokyo?

Japan is very much for the Japanese, a country where Western travellers typically come to make money, not to spend it. It was the first country in which an entire neighbourhood was not already ready and waiting, prepared for my arrival: the first country in which I had to seriously try to make sense out of signs in a foreign language, to hold conversations in a foreign language, and to make telephone calls in a foreign language.

The fact that a lot of words in the modern Japanese language have been derived from English doesn't help. In fact, sometimes it can make things worse.

An example:-

In Japan, "McDonald's" is "Makudonarudo" and a "Big Mac" is a "Biggu Makku." This can make for some confusion, particularly when someone tells you to meet them at "Makudonarudo" and you have not the slightest idea what place they are talking about. The subsequent conversation then goes like this:

"Makudonarudo? What's Makudonarudo?"

"You know! You always go to Makudonarudo!"

"I've never heard of any such place in my life."

"Well, when you get there, you'll know it."

And so I did - Ah, that's Makudonarudo! That place with the golden arches! Yes, that looks familiar!

Many Japanese things, then, have a one-to-one counterpart in the Western world. To describe such things, all you need to do is swap your Western word for its Japanese equivalent. This is easily done. "Rice" is "raisu"; "hot coffee" is "hotto kohee"; and "bread" is "pan". In such cases, getting to grips with Japan is just a matter of swapping one word for another. What could be simpler?

However, problems arise when you come up against items for which there is really no proper equivalent word in English, and there are quite a few such things in Japan, one striking example being the "daikon," a huge great white watery weak-tasting "raddish" which grows longer than a man's forearm. If you try to call it a "giant raddish" then you're really pushing the word "raddish" beyond its natural boundaries, leaving it damaged beyond repair.

Even during



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