Sensible and slightly hapless to the young foreigner’s eye, the teacher’s court shoes had obviously been purchased after much deliberation and still weren’t quite right. Or so he decided. They were a little tight, yet the way they contained her instep was reassuring.

But what on earth was she talking about?

It hardly mattered; he liked to watch Sugito-sensei. Even if keeping up with her was difficult. A diminutive woman in doughnut-coloured stockings and a grey twin-set too thick for the season, she instructed and explained entirely in Japanese.

Though she belonged to the safe, sure days when mistakes were pointed out in your exercise book in thoughtful, omnipotent red, Sugito-sensei still had about her the hopefulness of a little girl eager for ticks. Smiling, she gave an abrupt little shrug.

Wide enough for two rows of desks and long enough for a row of twelve, the pebble-grey classroom in which they sat was in an annexe as far from the main entrance as it was possible to get. The room, like the corridor, smelled of floor polish and worn stone – the smells of someone else’s school. The walls were unadorned. There was nothing to look at but the teacher with the recently permed steel-grey hair standing in front of the blackboard talking, it sometimes seemed, to herself as much as those she was teaching. Sugito-sensei had a large repertoire of shrugs, all of which – or so it appeared – had a subtly different meaning. Some were prim, collected; others almost a shudder. Some were simple, some complex, nuanced. Others were cautious, tinged with diffidence. Yet others, if not transparent, had a meaning which could be inferred. Some were enigmatic (he was sure she didn’t mean them to be) and some made the commonplace wondrous.

Of the nine others who had travelled with him from England to this almost metropolitan prefecture – ‘Tokyo’s bedroom’ – to complete the second half of their postgraduate studies, many had been reading and speaking Japanese for a year or more. As this was only his eighth month of learning the language he was, in that sense, the baby of the group. Nevertheless, he could recognise and write two of the three alphabets used in Japan: hiragana and katakana. Mastering kanji – the system based on Chinese characters – was another matter. It was a life’s work. Yes, it had been pointed out by the Monday afternoon teacher that the symbol for holiday was, if you looked closely enough, a figure sitting under a tree. Also, little strokes resembling splashes denoted a connection with water. (The calligraphic touches which signified a teardrop and the word for it – namida – he found unaccountably beautiful). But there was so much to learn. Too much, perhaps. And it required more motivation than he possessed; or so he was beginning to feel.

Nearest the door sat Jake, bored and haughty, as if hoping to be rescued from the room and his predicament within it. Because the course was new, a hybrid and something of an experiment, its language component was taught at only one level – elementary. This didn’t suit Jake. He was a good five years older than any of his fellow students and had been studying Japanese for a number of years. In England Jake had held out for – and had been given – separate tutorials, one-to-ones fitting to his advancedness. No such provision had been made on the group’s arrival in Japan. Reluctance on the part of the Japanese university to divide its first ever group of foreigners resulted in Jake having to suffer the indignity of being left among paddlers in the shallow end.

Sugito-sensei shrugged again; a more abrupt one this time. All her shrugs were dainty and pleasant, willing her charges to understand. The difficult part was: trying to work out what they might mean and what had given rise to them. Still, he paid close attention to them. They were nearly all he had to go on.


That morning’s walk to the station had started like any other. He left his host family’s house and walked by the dense huddle of scrupulously identical suburban dwellings. All were detached. There was a sliver of space between each house and the next. The vet’s on the corner was just opening. Instead of flipping a sign on the surgery door, a life-size model of an Alsatian (alert and open-mouthed and standing on all fours) was placed outside on the pavement. After turning the corner, he went along by the fence parallel to the railway tracks and towards the fizzing lights of the pachinko parlour. Its arches of tubular chrome and the over-mirrored interior made him imagine it must be like sitting down to gamble inside a pinball machine.

For the past six weeks he’d followed the same route, down to the minute.

If he had become Japanese in his timekeeping, this had less to do with being in step with the national punctiliousness than with wanting to avoid an unplanned variation. His studies so far had encompassed the country’s history, society, constitution and language in equal measure. The part of the course in England and in English now over, the rest was vocabulary and verbs, and finding your way; not just linguistically. With almost every adult prop removed, each day became a succession of tiny but momentous challenges; not getting lost on his way to the university not the least of them.

The abstracted care with which the teacher smoothed down a newly-turned page with the flat of her hand showed respect not just for the book as an object but for the ideas and hard work it contained. Sugito-sensei opened it out further and moved her hand across the page in a motion as if giving the knowledge thereon an appreciative polish. He watched. In the absence of understanding her words, her every movement, however slight, was magnified. Her way of handling the book made him feel secure, in good hands.

Part of that day’s lesson was about real and artificial. The teacher spoke slowly yet animatedly. Trust the simple, her good-humoured tones seemed to say. She shrugged again. Not all of her shrugs were indecipherable. Some, like the one she just did, had a more prosaic purpose. That last one was a means of ending a digression or of giving notice that she was about to change tack.

The gestures had a quality which made it hard to believe she was a lecturer or professor. At a guess, she had spent her working life with infants and now, close to retiring, she was standing here hoping to be understood. How had she come to be here, one day a week, in front of a disparate clutch of foreigners? It was rumoured that this neat lady without a word of English had been brought in to save face. The English faculty, none of whom had so far risked contact with speakers of the language, were experts content to expound on abstruse aspects of their speciality. And to be spared the potential embarrassments that would surely result from an opportunity to put their knowledge of English into practice. That was where Sugito-sensei came in.

When attempting to acquire a language which had an alphabet and root words in common with your own, there was a good chance of deducing what certain lexical scraps meant. This was impossible with Japanese. Sugito-sensei’s lesson was like a join-the-dots puzzle. Sometimes he identified a few dots and attempted to connect them. Occasionally he’d be rewarded with a titbit of meaning.

Without the physical idioms of the Thursday teacher he’d have felt even more adrift. They were what he looked to for clues. So far that morning he had gleaned: ‘Isn’t that a strange rule?’; ‘Who knows how that started, but it is so …’; ‘I’ve always liked that …’

The others were scribbling something down. Aware that he was the only one (apart from Jake) not writing, he picked up his pen and started to fill line after line in his notebook. What he found himself writing in thoughtful longhand was thorough. It was painstaking. It was nonsense.


The queue at the ticket machines had not been any longer than on previous mornings. But the line he joined turned out to have a high proportion of ditherers. As a result he missed his train by less than thirty seconds. This had never happened before. He waited for the next one. It wasn’t long in coming.

Every commuter was reading. Their frowns more intense than any he’d seen on his commutes so far. Several newspapers bore photographs of Sammy Davis Junior. Beside the entertainer’s picture were two numerals and the symbol for ‘year’. The kanji which accompanied this no doubt had a pictorial root but he imbibed the overall meaning without being told. Some knowledge needs no tutelage. It’s as obvious as the sky.

On the approach to the station certain buildings – and the blue tarpaulin of the Tinker Bell Visual Café – usually sidled alongside the train, leisurely. Now they were charging by, frantic. In his panic, he got up. No one else did. The train maintained its momentum, ignoring his stop. He peered back pleadingly. The street he should have been walking along in a couple of minutes whizzed past. The roof of the Public House for Enjoyable People and the advertising hoardings above the Snack Captain kiosk were blurs, if that.

He stood by the doors. If only there was an emergency cord which would not only stop the train but make it reverse carefully back along the track. He craned his neck to keep the familiar buildings in sight. But they were gone.

Didn’t any of the other passengers want to get off at the station through which they had just sped? It would seem not. They just sat there looking absorbed and grown-up. Or bored.

Helpless, sick – twenty years wrenched from his age in a few seconds – he was being whizzed, mute with his own protests, in the direction of the capital.

One day soon he intended going to Tokyo alone. But he wasn’t ready yet.

He was still in the process of becoming attuned to the daily oddities which together would add up, invisibly, to being acclimatized.

Not Tokyo; not today. This morning he had somewhere else to go.

Nipping the material at both shoulders with finger and thumb Sugito-sensei lifted it then let it go – plucked it; perhaps to cool herself, perhaps because something was making her uneasy.

‘This is real.’ Was that what she was saying? ‘My hair is real. This is real hair.’

Amazed, she gave the back of her thinning hair a proud pat. Simplifying things over an entire career could have made her a little nutty.

All of a sudden she appeared delighted.

‘Hair’ was one of the easy words. So were the numbers ‘fifteen’ and ‘twenty-two’. He also heard the words for ‘girl’, ‘village’ and ‘nearby’. The dots were there but not in sufficient number for him to join them and make sense of what she was saying. One shrug in particular – the one immediately after she touched the back of her head – aroused his curiosity. Delicate, placid and resigned yet the most opaque of the morning’s communications, it made him wonder even more than usual about the words her shrugs were meant to supplement.

Sugito-sensei was looking directly at him. Without knowing the source of her pleasure, he returned some of it in his smile.


It wasn’t Tokyo. But it may as well have been. People were bolting – in a severely ordered way – in all directions. Getting off the train, it occurred to him to cross to the platform opposite and wait. But that might be too logical. So he went up a flight of steps and emerged into the purposeful pandemonium of a concourse. There he tried to spot someone who was, if not as disoriented as himself, then at least moving at a pace which would allow an approach. Among the neat, catapulted hoards he caught sight of a young mother with two small boys. She had just passed through the barrier and was tucking her tickets into her purse. One child, about four, was jabbing the other, about five, with a plastic stirrer.

His jaw defiant, the bigger boy kept repeating, ‘Itakunai.’

The woman was still occupied with her bag when, in faltering Japanese, he addressed her. She seemed surprised to be spoken to. Looking to see that the children were within reach, she set about telling him, in English, the platform he should go to.

As the woman was giving directions, the younger child – his cheeks full of air – considered his next move; then dropped a salted plum into the hood of the other boy’s sweatshirt. The boy in the sweatshirt retaliated by taking and slowly twisting his tormentor’s wrist. Just as the foreigner told the woman he understood, and thanked her, the smaller boy began to cry.

Never quite readied for the tang of tin – coffee in a chilled can remained a cultural bridge too far – he nevertheless sipped the liquid and hoped that before they were due back in the classroom someone would mention what the teacher had been saying.

When gathered round the drinks machine at the end of the corridor, the group would sometimes comment on the morning’s lesson, or rather the teacher. The tone of two or three of them never changed. It was that of impatient relevance-mongers. They found the Thursday teacher ‘too anecdotal’. Still, if among their complaints they let on what Sugito-sensei had been talking about it would save him from having to approach the most advanced of his classmates. He could see it already; the disdain with which Jake would listen; boarding the semi-express not a mistake he’d ever make.

Minutes into the break, however, no one had said anything about the lesson. Either they must have understood every word or, more likely, there were more pressing subjects to talk about. The group was now several smaller groups, each telling of their latest adventures – things still too strange to have become routine.

Unlike the kanji on the hurtling train earlier that morning, the teacher’s last shrug before the coffee break – the one accompanied by such joy – refused to give up its meaning. There was no way to fill in the gaps with guesswork.

Jake stood scowling out of the window.

There was nothing else for it.

A few yards inside the university gates, he reached up and slapped the cast iron foot of the founder – a vengeful-looking little figure in a wing-collar, his mouth turned down. The likeness gave the impression of being in permanent dudgeon at not having been granted a taller plinth.

He made his way to the annexe feeling like he had been attacked by (and had fought off) something invisible and hostile. He had a sense of having prevailed – he wasn’t in Tokyo.

The morning had imparted the meaning of a certain ideogram more firmly than repetitive practice with an ink-brush could have done. He doubted whether the symbol would ever separate itself from the member of the Rat Pack it referred to. He suspected that, regardless of what might be covered in class, the mishap on the train would prove to be the day’s real lesson.

It wasn’t the only thing he’d learned on his way in. Knowing that nai when added to a verb made it negative, he now knew – thanks to the little boy on the receiving end of the sugar stirrer – that itaku meant ‘to hurt.’

He arrived breathless but in time for the start of the first period.

He just came out with it and asked. Stifling a sigh, Jake checked which words his questioner had understood. Between swigs from a can of cold green tea, Jake recounted what the teacher had said. ‘Fallen out’ was a phrase way beyond beginner-level vocabulary, as was ‘grow back’. The name of the teacher’s girlhood village was something he couldn’t have been expected to know either. The nearest city, however, was known to all. Pronounced the Japanese way, according each of its four syllables equal length, it took a second or two to recognise.

That shrug. The corridor lurched with it.

Walking toward the classroom the chatter of the group was as it would have been on any other morning. But now the quietest of their footfalls sounded clumsy. Everything he thought he’d understood about the teacher in the court shoes vanished. The source of her astonishment had indeed been simple. Sugito-sensei’s joy, still fresh, was at her baldness having lasted only seven years. Her words – like all words – had equivalents, whether exact or approximate. Not so her shrugs. They remained beyond translation.

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