Our Difficulties with the Language-The Questionable Humour of Broken Speech-"Do You Striking This Man for That?"-"Companies, Scholars, and Other Households"- Curious Correspondence-Japanese Puns-Strange laughter -The Grotesque in Art-Japanese Colour-Prints-Famous Print Collections-Monet's Discovery of Prints at Zaandam -Japanese Prints and French ImpressionismThe complete dissimilarity between the Japanese language and our own, referred to in an earlier chapter, of course adds greatly to the difficulty of communication in all its various forms.
In Tokyo and other cities I attended many luncheons and dinners organized for the purpose of discussing relations between the United States and Japan, and promoting a friendly understanding between the two nations, but though Japanese statesmen and men of affairs spoke at these gatherings in fluent and even polished English, I never met with one American who was equipped to return the compliment in kind. The Americans, even those who had lived for years in Japan, always spoke in English, whereafter a Japanese interpreter who had taken notes on the speech would arise and render a translation.
The linguistic chasm dividing the two peoples is not, however, entirely a black abyss. If one wall is dark, the other catches the sun. Practically all Japanese students now study English in their schools, our language being considered next in importance to their own. And though, as I have said, many of them have perfectly mastered English despite the enormous difficulties it presents to them, there are many others whose English is imperfect, and whose "Japanned English," as some one has called it, achieves effects the unconscious grotesqueness of which startles and fascinates Americans and Englishmen.
To be honest, I have been in some doubt as to whether I should touch upon this theme or not; for it has always seemed to me that humour based upon the efforts of an individual to express himself in a language not his own was meretricious humour, inasmuch as it makes fun of an attempt to do a creditable thing. It is a kind of humour which is enjoyed in some measure by the French and the British but which is relished infinitely more by us than by any other people in the world, as witness entertainments in our theatres, and stories in our magazines, depending for comedy upon dialect: German, French, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Cockney, Negro, or even the several purely American dialects characteristic of various parts of the country.
This dubious taste of ours doubtless springs, to some extent at least, from the polyglot nature of our population; but whatever its origin it is a bad thing for us in one important. respect. We find the English dialect of foreigners so funny that we ourselves fear to attempt foreign tongues, lest we make ourselves ridiculous. Wherefore we are the poorest linguists in the world.
Even after the foregoing apology-for that, frankly, is what it is-I should still hesitate to present examples of "Japanned English" had I not discovered that Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain perhaps the greatest of modern authorities on Japan, a man whose writings reveal an impeccable nicety of taste, had already done so in his most valuable book, "Things Japanese."
One of the examples given by Professor Chamberlain is quoted from a work entitled: "The Practical Use of Conversation for Police Authorities," which assumes to teach the Japanese policeman how to converse in English. The following is an imaginary conversation intended to guide the officer in parley with a British bluejacket:
What countryman are you? I am a sailor belonged to the Golden Eagle, the English manof-war.One curious aspect of the matter is that so much of this weird English creeps into print, appearing in guidebooks, advertisements, and on the labels of goods of various kinds manufactured in Japan.
Why do you strike this jinricksha-man?
He told me impolitely.
What does he told you impolitely?
He insulted me saying loudly, "the Sailor the Sailor" when I am passing here.
Do you striking this man for that?
But do not strike him for it is forbidden.
I strike him no more.
Thus in the barber shop of the ship, going over, I found a bottle containing a toilet preparation called "Fulay," the label of which bore the following legend:
"Fulay" is manufactures under chemical method and long years experience with pure and refined materials. It is, therefore, only the article in the circle as ladies and gents daily toilet.And on a jar of paste I found this label, which will be better understood if the tendency of the Japanese to confuse the letters l and r is kept in mind:
This paste is of a pureness cleanliness and of a strong cohesion, so that it does not putrefy even when the paste grass is left open. Though written down on paper or the like immediately after pasting, the character is never spread. This paste has an especial fragrance therefore all of pasted things after using this are always kept from the frys and all sorts of bacteria, and prevents the infectious diseases. This paste is an indispensable one for the banks, companies, scholars and other households. Please notice for "Kuchi's Yamato-Nori" as there are similar things.The circular of one firm, advertising "a large assortment of ladies' blushes," might have been misinterpreted as having some scandalous suggestion, had it not gone on to discuss the ivory backs and high-grade bristles with which the "blushes" were equipped.
Another circular was that of a butcher who catered to foreigners in Tokyo. After stating that his meats were sold at "a fixed plice" this worthy merchant mentioned the various kinds of beef he could supply. There were, "rosu beef, rampu beef, pig beef, soop beef, and beard beef"-which being interpreted signified roast beef, rump beef, pork, soup meat and poultry-the word "beard" being intended for "bird."
In the admirable hotel at Nara I saw the following notice posted in a corridor:
Parents are requested kindly to send their children to the Hotel Garden for when weather is fine. When it is bad weather I will offer the children the small dining-room, except meal hours, as playing room for them, therefore please don't let them run round upstairs and downstairs at all. Please kindly have the children after dinner in a manner quiet and repose.
MANAGER, Nara Hotel.
From a friend, an official of a large company, I got a number of letters revealing the peculiarities of "English as she is wrote"-at least as she is sometimes wrote-in Japan. All these letters are authentic, having come to him in connection with his business.
The first one, written by a clerk to the office manager, refers to an admirable Japanese custom which in itself is worthy of brief mention.
Throughout Japan there is housecleaning twice a year under police supervision. Certain districts have certain days on which the cleaning must be done. The shoji are removed, the furniture is carried out, and the mats are taken up and beaten. The streets are full of activity and dust when this is going on, and there is a pile of rubbish in front of every residence. Meanwhile police officers pass up and down, wearing gauze masks over their noses and mouths to protect them from the dust, and at the end they inspect each house to see that the work has been properly done, after which they affix an official stamp over the door.
Wherefore wrote the clerk to the office manager:
MR. S--:A more serious dilemma is revealed in the following:
Excuse my absent of this morning. All of my neighbourhood have got instruction to clean out nest.
To General Manager.
My wife gave birth this noon and as it happened nearly a month ahead than I expected, I much rather find myself in painful situation, having not yet prepared for this sudden ocurrence.
Up to this day, unfortunate enough, I am destined most unfavourably for the monetary circumstance, and consequently have no saving against worldly concerns, I am forced to ask you for a loan of ¥25.00 to get rid of the burden befallen on me by the birth.
I know it is the meanest of all to ask one's help for monetary affair but as I am being unable to find any better way than to solicit you, I have at last come to a conclusion to trouble you but against my will. I deem it much more shamefull to advertise my poor condition around my relatives or acquaintances no matter wheater it will be fruitfull or fruitless.
The subjoined was received from one of the company's agents in another city:
DEAR SIR,The porter in a Japanese office not infrequently sleeps on the premises. But he must have the necessary equipment, as the following letter from an agent to a principal reveals:
We have the honour to thank you for your having bestowed us a Remington typewriter which has just arrived via railway express. We will treat her very kindly and she will give us her best service in return. Thus we can work to our mutual satisfaction and benefit.
Thanking you for your kindness we beg to remain,
Yours very truly, O--I--.
DEAR SIR,The next letter is from a man who wished to establish business relations with my friend's company:
In accordance to your esteemed conversation of other day for lodging the servant at this office, we consider we must provide to him the bed or sleeping tools. Please inform us that you could approve the expense to purchase this tool.
Awaiting your esteemed reply we are, dear sir,
Yours faithfully, T--A--.
I am a trader at Kokura city in Kyushu, always treating the various machines or steels and the architectural using goods.
I have known of your great names at Tokyo. Therefore I want to open the connection with each other so affectionately. Accordingly I beg to see your company's inside scene so clearly, please send me the catalogue and plice-list of good samples of your company.
I am a baby on our commercial society, because you will lead me to the machinery society I think.One thing which sometimes makes these letters startling is the fact that they are couched in English which is perfectly correct save in one or two particulars. Thus the errors or strange usages pop out at one unexpectedly, adding an element of surprise, as in the case of a man who wrote to my friend applying for work:
I am, K--M--.
DEAR SIR,I have often been asked whether the Japanese possess the gift of humour.
I beg leave to inquire whether you can make use of my services as a salesman and correspondent in your firm. I have had considerable experiences as a apparatus, and can furnish references and insurance against risk.
Awaiting your reply, I am
Yours respectfully, K--S--.
They do-though humour does not occupy a place so important in their daily life as it does in ours.
A light touch in conversation is uncommon with them, and those who have it do not generally exhibit it except to their intimates. Yet they are great punsters, and some of their puns are very clever. A case in point is the slang term narikin which they have recently adopted to describe the flashy newrich type which has come into being since the war.
To understand the derivation of this word, and its witty connotation, you must know that in their game of chess, called shogi, a humble pawn advanced to the adversary's third row is, by a process resembling queening, converted into a powerful, free-moving piece called kin. The word nari means "to become"; hence nari-kin means literally "to become kin"- which gives us, when applied to a flamboyant profiteer, a droll picture of a poor little pawn suddenly exalted to power and magnificence. The pun, which adds greatly to the value of this term, comes with the word kin. Kin is not only a chessman; it also means "gold." Which naturally contributes further piquancy in the application to a nouveau riche.
Moreover, through a play on the word narikin there has been evolved a second slang term: narihin -hin meaning "poor"-"to become poor." And alas, this term as well as the other is useful in Japan to-day. War speculation has made some fortunes, but it has wiped out others.
My friend O--, a truly lovable fellow, once spent the better part of an afternoon explaining a lot of Japanese puns to me, and I was hardly more pleased by the jests themselves than by my friend's infectious little chuckles over them. At parting we made an engagement for the evening, but about dinner time O-- returned to say that he could not spend the evening with me.
"I have just heard that my best friend died last night," he said. "It is very unexpected. I must go to his house." So speaking he emitted what appeared to me to be precisely the same little chuckle he had uttered over the puns.
The suppression of one's feeling is a primary canon of Japanese etiquette. To show unhappiness is to make others unhappy; wherefore, when one suffers, it is good form to laugh or smile. The foreigner who comprehends this doctrine must, if he be a man of any delicacy of feeling, respect it. But if he does not grasp the underlying principle he is likely to misjudge the Japanese and consider their laughter, in some circumstances, hard-hearted, apologetic, or inane.
The supreme proof of Japanese humour is to be found in the grotesqueries and whimsicalities of Japanese Art. You see it revealed everywhere- in the shape of a gnarled, stunted pine, carefully trained to a pleasing deformity; in the images of cats left in various parts of Japan by Hidari Jingoro, the great left-handed wood-carver of the sixteenth century; in the famous trio of monkeys adorning the stable of the Ieyasu Shrine at Nikko-those which neither hear, see, nor speak evil; in a thousand earthenware figures of ragged, pot-bellied Hotei, one of the Seven Gods of Luck sitting, gross and contented in a small boat, waiting for some one to bring his abdominal belt; in the countless representations of the Buddhist god Daruma, that delightful egg-shaped comedian who will run out his tongue and his eyes for you, or, if not that, will refuse to stay down when you roll him over; in figurines without number, of ivory or wood; in sword-guards embellished with fantastic conceits; in those carved ivory buttons called netsukê, treasured by collectors; and perhaps most often in Japanese colour-prints.
The hundred years between 1730 and 1830 was the golden age of wood-engraving in Japan.
During the lifetime of this art it was regarded as distinctly plebeian. Many of the fine prints were made to be used as advertisements or souvenirs. Some, it is true, were issued in limited editions, and these cost more than the commoner ones, but generally they were sold for a few cents.
Unfortunately, before the art-lovers of Japan perceived that the finest of these prints were masterpieces representing wood-engraving at its highest perfection, the best prints had got out of Japan and gone to Paris, London, Boston, New York, Chicago, and other foreign cities, whence the Japanese have lately been buying them back at enormous prices.
From a friend of mine in Tokyo, himself the owner of a very valuable collection, I learned that the collection of 7,500 prints assembled by M. Vever, of Paris, has long been considered by connoisseurs the finest in the world. This collection was recently purchased intact by Mr. Kojiro Matsukata, of Kobe, president of the Kawasaki shipbuilding firm. It is said that Mr. Matsukata paid half a million dollars for it. My Tokyo friend tells me that the collection belonging to Messrs. William S., and John T. Spalding, of Boston, is probably next in importance to the Matsukata collection, and that it is difficult to say whether the Boston Museum collection or the British Museum collection takes third place. For primitive prints, the Clarence Buckingham collection, housed in the Chicago Art Institute, is also very important.
How does it happen that it was in Europe that Japanese prints first came to be highly appreciated as works of art?
Octave Mirbeau, in his delightful book of automobiling adventures, "La 628-E8" (which, I believe, has never been brought out in English) tells the story.
The great impressionist, Claude Monet, went to Holland to paint. Some groceries sent home to him from a little shop were wrapped in a Japanese print-the first one Monet had ever seen.
"You can imagine," writes Mirbeau, "his emotion before that marvellous art. . . . His astonishment and joy were such that he could not speak, but could only give vent to cries of delight.
"And it was in Zaandam that this miracle came to pass-Zaandam with its canals, its boats at the quay unloading cargoes of Norwegian wood, its huddled flotillas of barks, its little streets of water, its tiny red cabins, its green houses-Zaandam, the most Japanese spot in all the Dutch landscape. . . .
" Monet ran to the shop whence came his package -a vague little grocery shop where the fat fingers of a fat man were tying up (without being paralyzed by the deed!) two cents' worth of pepper and ten cents' worth of coffee, in paper bearing these glorious images brought from the Far East along with groceries in the bottom of a ship's hold.
"Although lie was not rich at that time, Monet was resolved to buy all of these masterpieces that the grocery contained. He saw a pile of them on the counter. His heart bounded. The grocer was waiting upon an old lady. He was about to wrap something up. Monet saw him reach for one of the prints.
"'No, no!' he cried. 'I want to buy that! I want to buy all those-all those!'
"The grocer was a good man. He believed that he was dealing with some one who was a little touched. Anyway the coloured papers had cost him nothing. They were thrown in with the goods. Like some one who gives a toy to a crying child to appease it, he gave the pile of prints to Monet, smilingly and a bit mockingly.
"'Take them, take them,' he said. 'You can have them. They aren't worth anything. They aren't solid enough. I prefer regular wrappingpaper.'"
So the grocer enveloped the old lady's cheese in a piece of yellow paper, and Monet went home and spent the rest of the day in adoration of his newfound treasures. The names of the great Japanese wood-engravers were of course unknown in Europe then, but Monet learned later that some of these prints were by Hokusai, Utamaro, and Korin.
"This," continues Mirbeau, "was the beginning of a celebrated collection, but much more important, it was the beginning of such an evolution in French painting that the anecdote has, besides its own savour, a veritable historic value. For it is a story which cannot be overlooked by those who seriously study the important movement in art which is called Impressionism."