Saturday, 17 December 2011


Yesterday a morning lesson in Tenjin turned into a lovely afternoon in Daimaru and Daimyo, turned into an evening of high-culture, turned into a cozy night in the pub.

My student Hiromi and I went to “Pronto”, a café chain in shintencho, a covered market area next to Tenjin station where she told me about her brother’s wedding in Kobe. She also saved me from the first of yesterday’s linguistic boob-ups. I wanted to order a “café latte” which should have been pronounced ‘ca-fé-ra-té’. Instead I said ‘co-hi-ra-te’: coffee latte. As such, the lady thought I wanted a coffee and a latte and probably that I was an utter tit when I started querying how one drink could cost 600 yen.

Lesson finished, Hiromi and I went to meet Henry-chan in “Aux bacchanales”, the French themed galley-style café in the middle of the well posh Daimaru department store.
The place is an utter gem and a masterclass in imitation: if it weren’t for the politeness of the waiters, you could well be back in Paris. I had an espresso and then a glass of warming calvados, ordered from a waiter who, for effect I’m sure, shouted across to the kitchen “deux cafés!” no matter what you ordered. They had French radio, French newspapers and posters from French movies.
Here came my second linguistic blunder: I asked for a "crème", thinking the waiter would know that I meant a café crème, but he heard "café calva" and thus thought that I wanted some calvados mixed with espresso. An intriguing idea no doubt.
I mused upon these linguistic blunders as an essential part of language learning: I remember in the early days in Paris, when my friend used to tease me because I would say "merci très bien" to waiters, convinced that it was an even more polite form of "merci bien". 

Hiromi and Henry sufficiently worse for wear after a few vins chauds, we shuffled over to meet Little James in the Apple Store, and then to Ina-chan’s favourite “Corduroy café”, before heading over to Ohori Park.

Ikehara-sensei had given us some fliers which got us in free for a shamisen concert. Here is the Wikipedia article on this traditional Japanese instrument: It was actually rather wonderful, for a number of reasons. By good fortune, we bumped into my French friend Vincent, with his pallet blue and grey, who is, it turns out, something of a shamisen enthusiast and a bit of a local celebrity among the shamisen set. We were warmly welcomed by a group of people from KBC, a Japanese TV company and shown to our seats by some guy who seemed to be quite important and who gave us all a business card.
Speaking to Vincent, confirmed something one of my pluri-lingual friends told me about while he was learning Portuguese  over the summer. If one part of your brain serves as the storage for your mother tongue, all foreign languages are served in a different part. That means that, as you learn a third language and the foreign language part of your brain is active, you get the two mixed up. As such, when I speak French now, Japanese words and expressions get thrown in as well. Bizarre, desu-pas?

Shamisen is an intriguing art form.
For someone like me, coming to it completely unspoiled by previous experience and unable to understand the programme or the compere, one has the impression that there is a lot more going on than meets the eyes or the ears.
The concert took place in the Noh theatre in Ohori park. Noh is an ultra-stylised traditional theatrical form in which the stage has a defined layout and emotion and action are conveyed in prescribed ways. Realism is by no means the goal but rather the suggestion of something deeper (is my impression). The place was beautiful, the stage temple-like, with beautiful paintings on the walls. Shamisen is an important accompaniment to this aesthetic.
A lot of women in the audience and the lady presenting (who is a famous TV presenter) were wearing beautiful kimonos and – my Japanese is now good enough to at least recognise this – all of the speeches were in the highest level of linguistic politeness, which can be very difficult even for natives. This gave the impression that we were in the presence of very high culture indeed.
The music was consuming – more so if you close your eyes (but don’t fall asleep like some of the chottorous chans I was with!). We enter here realms beyond the mastery of words: a pulsing and rhythmic yet liquid ooze of dissonant yet somehow complimentary sounds. You must listen: Unfortunately, this video and the others on youtube do not demonstrate the fullness of what we saw last night; perhaps they are sterilised for popular consumption. One of the most striking features, for instance, was the interplay between voice and shamisen. One or two male players sang waves of tuned speech: stylised wails dwelling on the vowel sounds.
Harmony as we understand it in western theory was not important nor indeed, I think, was precision in tuning. I had the impression that this group was among the best, and yet when they playing in unison there were mistuned and out of time notes and entries. I’ve played the violin since I was nine, but have no idea how some of the players could work out how and when to come in. No one was reading from any music. The atmosphere is the important thing, I think.
The structure was quite free: though there was repetition in the short term, devices did not seem to repeat throughout the uta or song. Changes in the music seemed to be signalled by a series of calls from the lead player, who was interviewed just before the interval.

From this nearly spiritual high culture came some of the wonderful Japanese bonkers-ness we’ve come to know and love.
The presenter lady interviewed the lead player and in her classic Japanese way punctuated it with a whole repertoire of more or less theatrical “soooooooooooooooooooou desu ka?”s and “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”s. For all that reservation is an important part of interaction in Japan, dramatic displays of emotion are common when speaking across honorific levels. I’ve seen this with one or two of my more formal employers when they speak to clients. In English it seems like a weird form of arse-kissing, but is part of the game here. When expressing surprise, one’s eyes must explode open and one must give a really deliberate “sou desu ka” and a rising “sugoooooooooooi”. When agreeing with your superior as he or she bitches about something, you must look like you’ve just learned that the end of the world is nigh and growl “dame desu yo, dame desu yo”. In this way, the theatricality of anime cartoons becomes understandable. And as an example, when Vincent told this lady that he had been learning the shamisen when he was in French, she literally jumped for joy and whooped.

It was all fascinating and gave a lot of food for thought. As such, we needed drink for non-thought, so went to Morris, the English style pub between Tenjin and Daimyo where I had some London Pride and, fully upright, thought of England.

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