SPEAKING IN TONGUES

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

 

When I was a small child, I used to read with relish a battered old book that belonged to my grandfather, giving useful and necessary phrases for travellers, translated into several African languages.      I looked forward to the day when I too could insist imperially:  ‘This room has not been cleaned sufficiently.’    Or declare, ‘You are  charging too much.   I refuse to pay.’    Then there was the dramatic, ‘Has anyone with cholera slept in this bed?’    And (my personal favourite): ‘This person seems to be dead.    Kindly fetch the appropriate person in authority.’   Though I have on my travels occasionally found it expedient to enact the English memsahib, emergencies of these types have not happened to us (yet.)

 When we first visited Japan in 1997, people outside of Tokyo would stare to see a European, and travel was very difficult because there was virtually no signing in English.   This is not at all the case now which makes travelling in Japan a lot easier.

I have explained before how this family has a shameful record of incapacity in acquiring anything other than a rudimentary grasp of other languages.   Elisabeth’s fiancé, Rob, has a much more commendable thoroughness in his language studies and we tended to depend on him in any situation where English would not suffice.

When I looked at his Japanese equivalent of our ‘Janet and John’ books, lazy as I am in these matters, I’d have promptly consigned it to the ‘too difficult’ category.   For a start there is the lack of any alphabet that we recognise.   There are three different systems of characters – thousands of those (I am reminded of the chrysanthemum fancier’s  500 million).   They  use all three systems, sometimes in the same sentence.     There are only past and present tenses.   With our complexity of tense, I found restriction to only two, impossible to imagine.   Japan is a caste oriented society so there are many varieties of phrases addressing people in different relationships to yourself.    Japanese used by men and by women is quite different.   (Apparently, when the Emperor Hirohito addressed the Japanese people after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recommend surrender, he used the language of the court and the majority of ordinary citizens did not understand him.  He described their situation as – ‘the war has developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’)     There are standard phrases which may mean many things and which might be employed say when concluding a transaction.    I do recall eventually becoming very irritated with a tour guide who used exactly the same phrases all the time.    When you consider the extreme shades of subtlety with which you can take your leave of someone in English, it is hard to contemplate there being one phrase to cover all eventualities.

While I was writing this I heard a good example of what I mean by this subtlety of English.   Ann Widdecombe on Andrew Marr, discussing issues of the presumed eventual succession to the throne, said of course it would be the heir apparent, there ‘was not going to be a plebiscite.’   I wondered what the difference was between plebiscite and referendum, and looked them up.    There is virtually no difference: both mean that the entire population votes on one issue.    But I suggest that in choosing the word ‘plebiscite’ with our association of common, uneducated and uninformed in the word ‘plebs’ Ms Widdecombe was subtly scornful (possibly subconsciously) of the very idea of the Great Unwashed being so bold as to have an opinion on the holy issue of Majesty.   (She probably believes in the divine right of kings.)    

To return to Japan however, everyone there speaks ‘English’ which is wholly admirable, but they have often been taught by a teacher who has never visited our islands and may therefore not be very easily understood.

Children on the other hand often understand remarkably well, and I said to a little girl of 8, dressed in her ceremonial kimono, ‘How beautiful you are.’ – thinking she would not understand but her grave face broke into a broad grin of delight and she rushed off to tell her father.

We had coffee in a French bistro in Tokyo where a sign said, Les huitres sont arrives.   Underneath it said, Fresh oysters has came.

On a boat, ‘Remember the finger thing’, was interesting to contemplate.

In general, Rob’s instruction to a taxi driver would be accepted at once, whereas Elisabeth saying exactly the same would be repeatedly queried until we decided what was actually happening was that they were saying, Are you sure you know where you’re going, Missy?

However the most annoying communication on this trip came in English, on the plane.   I hate it when the crew make prattling announcements or talks more than is necessary.   The assistant pilot was so bouncy and garrulous you felt as if ‘Roo’ was flying  the plane.   He interrupted our thoughts.   Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a problem with – then something took his attention and he fell briefly silent.   Problem with what, I thought.    The engine?   The fuel pump?   The landing gear?    When he continued, ‘with the Entertainment system’, I really felt quite annoyed.

You realise how the language you learn at your mother’s knee to some extent directs how you later think.   In English it may be customary for women (certainly of my generation) to swear less than men, but the whole of the subtle and complex language is at your disposal.   You are not required to define your relationship with the person you address, and you can, if you choose, be both very polite and extremely insulting at the same time.    Doubtless there are in turn subtleties in the Japanese language which are beyond our comprehension, but when I’m examining other tongues I’m always extremely grateful to be English mutter-spreche!

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THE KIMONO

THE KIMONO

Over the years, during my visits to Japan, I’ve purchased various kimonos.   These have been bought second hand and being made of silk and often very beautiful, they represent very good value for money, as the Japanese do not seem to care for ‘second hand’.   I have asked John to photograph one of mine to illustrate the points I am making. 

 

 

So far as I can see, Japanese ladies wear kimonos only for weddings, ceremonial occasions, and high days or holidays.   Sometimes at some shrine where a festival is taking place you will see an attractive family, the mother in an elegant kimono, the girls and boys in traditional dress – but the father in Western suit.   (Although the man’s version of traditional garb is a surprisingly masculine garment.)

Traditionally, under her kimono a lady would wear a piece of silk wrapped tightly round the body from waist to knee (this gives rise to a typical short stepped walk that Japanese women still seem to adopt even when not wearing the kimono.)   Over this, and its collar visible in wear, was worn a white silk chemise, which would be easier to launder and would protect the kimono.   On her feet would be silk socks with a division between the big toe and the smaller ones, and sandals with a wooden platform.

The kimono is constructed from very narrow lengths of silk.    There is only one size therefore and the construction of each kimono is exactly the same (apart from sleeve length).   Any adjustments for height etc are  made in the dressing, when material is tucked into the obi (wide belt.)    If the kimono were worn as a dressing-gown by us, it would fit a woman of 5’8 – 10” without needing adjustment.

As ever in Japan there are subtleties beyond my understanding.   I think the actual design placed on the kimono was probably intended for wear in one season of the year, so the photographed example with the exquisite hand painted maple or acer leaves would be intended for use in Autumn.    The length of the sleeves denoted marital status, with shorter sleeves being for married women.   The garment is worn the opposite way to what we are accustomed to (ie it is worn left side over right, as a man’s garment is); and to wear it the other way signifies death.

The obi, that wide belt that holds everything together, also gave information on marital status, number of children etc , depending on how it was tied. 

Other accessories could include a narrow rope cord, tied around the obi; hair ornaments of mother of pearl; pearls worn around the neck; and a very small handbag with handles.

Often, as in the example, the design on a kimono is asymmetrical.    The inside is lined with silk, beautifully finished, and often a wash of handpainted colour matching  the outside decoration is drawn along the inner edges.    In examining our kimonos, they appear to be entirely hand-stitched, although i find it hard to believe that some of the construction is not done on machine.    It is easy to see why a new kimono in Japan is a very costly affair, running into thousands of pounds.

 

I own two at present.    The one shown is, I think, a particularly fine example, made of heavy ivory silk with a faint design woven into the fabric, and with hand painted Autumn leaves in an asymmetrical design.     I bought it in Kyoto on my first visit to Japan.   My other one had been intended for less special occasions, but it is also of cream silk, with an overall grey pattern of fans.     I have decided I am going to bite the bullet and alter them for wear, and make silk pyjamas to match.   I also own two short silk coats, originally intended to be worn over the kimono, in cream with silver and gold embroidery, and purple shot through with silver, respectively.    Other kimonos owned by the women of our family are a subtle blue and gold one, of Joanna’s; and I have just brought her an oyster coloured silk with an abstract hand painted brown tree design on it.    Elisabeth had a pale green one with a design of cranes that she wore when in Oxford, and now a pale blueish design; plus a short red one given her by a friend of Rob’s as a thank you for being his hostess.    Sarah, Rory’s fiancée, has a cream silk kimono hand decorated with spring flowers.   When Kerri was with us on our first visit, she chose a lightweight green kimono.

If one owned a kimono but did not wish to adjust it for wear, it could also be used as a wall decoration.

From our various visits to Japan a few elegant ladies in their traditional garb stand out in our memories.   Kerri and I, in Tokyo, saw a young woman get out of a taxi wearing a kimono of plain emerald green.      She was of such exceptional beauty and looked so stunning in her outfit with her black hair, that she called forth murmurs of appreciation as she entered the building.    In Kyoto, at the Zen gardens, a group of matrons enjoying an outing together, one of whom wore an elegant plain kimono in a cream colour, topped by a navy short coat whose only decoration was that, woven into the fabric, were designs of swallows.    And finally, with Elisabeth in Tokyo, having brunch in The Park Hyatt Hotel (used for Lost in Translation), a lady in an austere navy kimono, but whose obi was folded in such a way that when she turned her back, a life size paradise duck beautifully hand painted or embroidered, was displayed.

While the kimono is not really a practical garment for use in the Western world, apart from in the privacy of one’s own home, it is sumptuous to wear and uplifting to put on, being so carefully crafted and of such wonderful natural material and exquisite design.