Teaching English in Japan I come across Anglophones from all over the globe who are engaged in the same trade of linguistic orthodontics as me. I also come across a large number of Japanese students who have very fixed, yet often mistaken, notions of national character.
One of the first questions I am often asked by prospective students, particularly those with an intermediate or above level ability in English, is: "Where are you from?"
When I tell them that I am American, most are happy. Some, however, hoping for an Englishman can't quite hide the disappointment in their voices. They ask a number of other questions, but for the most part they have made up their minds and are already looking at the phone number they will dial next.
To these women--it's always women, especially women of good upbrining--your average American may be friendly, but he just doesn't have the cachet of the English. Besides, they don't want to speak American English. Heavens no. They want to speak the Queen's English.
These women will fawn over any man who resembles ever so remotely Hugh Grant. They'll insist on watching only British or European films, too. Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of the perennial favorites. They'll have a fondness for Baroque music and furniture and preference for English tea in European porcelain over a cuppa joe. And on and on.
Funny thing is, I have yet to meet this prototypical Englishman. Most tend to be as rough around the edges as yanks, or, heaven forbid, the Australians, and quite a few have mouths that would embarrass a sailor.
Several years ago, I was listening to a English reporter of African descent talk about his experience covering the United States. One of the things that stayed with me is that in America the British accent adds fifteen or so points to a person's perceived IQ. I think the same can be said here in Japan. Have a English accent and the Japanese will perceive you as more intelligent and cultivated, a more gentle gentleman.
So, it amuses me whenever I come across an Englishman who does or says something that is, for lack of better words, just plain dumb.
Take Nigel (not his real name). Nigel and I play soccer together on a pretty strong team composed entirely of university professors. (I am the second-weakest link on that team, by the way.) Nigel and I often take the train into town together after practice and talk about life.
One of Nigel's recurring topics is how little sex he and his wife have been having. "I suppose I shouldn't really complain: compared to the average Japanese couple," he said in that languid cadence of his, "we do make love more often, but still . . . "
"Oh, with me it's the opposite," I replied, half-jokingly. "My wife is insatiable. You know, sometimes I just want to be . . . held."
"Sometimes, a young girl will come into my classroom, and she'll be so beautiful that . . . " he said with a shy smile. "Here I am forty-one years old and a girl of eighteen makes my heart go pitter-patter."
"It can't be helped," I said. "We're biologically wired to feel that way. Personally, I'm surrounded by young beautiful women because of my work, but I'm so busy and tired all of the time I have no interest in making a move. Of course, if one of them ever deigned to make a move on me, well, I would have no choice but to acquiesce. It is, after all, what Jesus would do."
Changing the subject, Nigel told me he was reading an excellent book and, fishing it out of his duffle bag, showed it to me.
"Ah," I said, taking his copy of Confessions of a Yakuza (浅草博徒一代 Asakusa Bakuto Ichidai) and checking to see how far he'd gotten. "I've read this four times already."
I asked Nigel if he had read any of Junichi Saga's (佐賀純一) other works. He hadn't, so I recommended Saga's first work, Memories of Silk and Straw (田舎の肖像, Inaka no Shôzô) which has a chapter on the gangster whose life story would be retold in Asakusa Bakuto Ichidai and later masterfully rendered into English by John Bester. "Anything translated by Bester," I told Nigel, "is a sure bet."
Talking about the yakuza and novels, Nigel asked me if I had read anything by Mifune.
"Yes, Mifune," he replied. "He was a right-wing radical, committed seppuku in the seventies . . . "
"I don't think that's Mifune, you're thinking about . . . "
"No, it's Mifune. I'm certain about that," he said. "Mifune, Mifune, Mifune. What's his first name again. Mifune."
"You know, I don't believe it's Mifune. It's, it's, it's . . . Mi-something. Oh, this is frustrating."
"Yoshio Mifune!" Nigels said triumphantly.
No sooner had we parted ways than the name of the author came to me: Yukio Mishima.
A few days later I was at a friend's Irish bar, The Craic and Porter, when another Englishman came in with a friend and sat down at the table next to mine. Let's call him Graham.
Graham has been in town for nearly as long, if not longer than, as I have. We have seen each other easily a thousand times (nodded to each other several hundred) over the past two decades, but never spoke until that night.
"You play tennis often," I asked. I had seen him playing at the same courts in the ruins of Fukuoka Castle where I myself played once or twice a week.
"I try to get a game in now and then," he answered.
"Me, too. Me, too."
I've been playing tennis for about five years now and am only moderately better than when I started. When I mentioned this Graham contradicted me: "I've watched you play. You're not half bad."
"You're either too kind or have had too much to drink."
Anyways, Graham and his friend went on to chat about this and that, their conversation eventually making its way to music.
"Do you know that Bob Marley song "No Woman, No Cry", he asked his friend.
"You know what that means?"
You gotta be feckin' kidding me, I thought to myself.
His friend supposed that it had to do with not having a woman in your life and . . .
"No," Graham said, "that's what I used to think, but I was at Allen's place, Xaymaca, the other day and he told me that it meant . . . "
"No, woman, don't cry," I interrupted.
"Yes! That's right!" Graham said, turning to me. "How did you know?"
Good grief. "Well, if you listen to the lyrics . . . "