Entries in lost in translation (2)


My friend, the call girl

   Yuko is visibly upset when she comes in and sits down across from me.

   “What’s the matter,” I ask.

   “My friend.”

   “What about your friend?

   “My friend is a . . .”

   “Is a what?”

   “She’s a . . . Oh, I don’t know what the word is in English.”

   I hand her my pocket electronic dictionary.

   “My friend is a call girl.”

   “Huh? A call girl?”


   “Your friend is a prostitute?”

   “A what?”

   “A prostitute is a shôfu.”

   “A shufu?”

   “Not shufu, a housewife. Shôfu, a prostitute.”[1]

   “Shôfu? No, no, no! She’s not a shôfu! She’s a call girl.”

   “Show me that dictionary,” I say. “Oh, she's a ‘coward’.”

   “That’s what I said!”


[1] Shôfu (娼婦) is another word for baishun (売春) which means prostitute. Shufu (主婦) means housewife.



   I’ve been reading old letters and journals from my early days in Japan hoping to find some gems worth buffing up and posting but so far no luck. I was awfully whiny two decades ago. But then, I had plenty to whinge about: that dreadful boss, “Bakayama”, the miserable state of my lovelife, student-loan induced austerity, and so on.

   The only really good thing about my first year in Japan was the friendship that developed between “Blad”, “Hoka”, and me. Never having been in the military myself I can’t be too sure, but I think what we had was as close as civilians can come to being comrade-in-arms. I might not have taken a bullet for them, but I would have quickly told off that idiot of a boss of ours if he ever treated the others unfairly.

   That’s another thing I noticed about myself. I had quite the temper. I’m happy to say that like a good wine I’ve mellowed with age.

   Anyways, there’s one funny story from those days that is worth mentioning.

   The more interesting episodes of that first year usually involve Blad. He was the first in a long slew of people I would come to know over the years who had a Masters Degree in TESL/TEFL and yet couldn’t master a foreign language if their lives depended upon it.

   And, in a sense it did: twenty years ago in Japan, it was hard to find people who could speak English, especially in that working class town we were living in, Kitakyûshû. You had to speak Japanese to get by.

   The root of Blad’s struggle with the Japanese language was the fact that he was tone-deaf. The guy could not have carried a tune even if he’d had a bucket. Seriously.

   The Japanese can be very polite and will encourage even the poorest of singers to finish their karaoke song, but with Blad they couldn’t help but throw their hands up. “Pulease, Bladorey,” they would beg as he sang Killing Me Softly. “You are killing us!”

   Thanks his imperfect pitch, Blad could never quite get his tongue around Japanese words. I can clearly remember how the word for “toilet”, o-tearai, used to give him a lot of grief.

   “Why don’t you just say, ‘toiretto’ or ‘benjo’?” I suggested.


   He could be stubborn, too.

   Some of the best times Blad and I had together were the evenings after work. Since we lived next door to each other, we would often get together, share a bottle of beer and talk about the things that had gobsmacked us during the day.

   “You know all those little mom-and-pop shops are up the hill?” he said one night.

   “I do.”

   “Well, I found what looked like a little garden shop/florist and there was a woman out watering the plants, so I picked up one of the pots and asked, ‘Kore-wa ikura desuka?’”

   We had recently learned how to say, “How much is this?” in Japanese.

   “The woman babbled something to me that I couldn’t understand, so I went to another plant, picked it up and asked, ‘Kore-wa ikura deskua?’ She said something to me again, but as I was picking up a third plant, she turned and ran into the shop. I could hear her shouting something to someone inside.”


   “And a few seconds later a man came out—I think it was her husband—and he gestured wildly at the plants and shouted, ‘No!’ He turned to some flowers, shouted ‘No!’ again. Then he turned to me and shouted, ‘No! No! NO! This . . . is . . . our . . . HOME!’”

   I laughed so hard that I started crying. When I finally regained my composure, I asked what Blad did next.

   “I put the plant down and continued on down the road.”