On the subway this morning en route for Umeda, a seat opened up for me at Tennoji, a great rarity. I sat, settled in, and then I caught sight of a man well into his 70s (at least), stooped, thin, tallish (for a Japanese man his age), in a well-kept old suit and horn-rimmed glasses, strap-hanging in front of me, to my right. He looked a bit unsteady on his feet, so I immediately got up and gave him my seat (you never just offer, because old people here always politely say no supposing they can barely stand up). He bowed his head quickly, sliced the air vertically a few times (meaning “excuse me” or “much obliged”) and sat down. There was still a bit of of space next to him (he didn’t take up very much), and he gestured insistantly for me to sit next to him. I smiled, told him it might be a bit narrow for me, but he persisted and after other people shifted over a (resentful) little, I squeezed back in.
– Sumimasen, I nodded.
He looked me up and down. Wow, you’re big, he said good-naturedly.
– Soudesunee, I conceded.
– “You could be a sumo, couldn’t you?” he said, which I realized, after a split-second of resentment, to be a compliment on the old man’s part.
I smiled and nodded, as you do, reaching for my earphones. But he wasn’t finished.
– You must weigh about – what? A hundred kilos?
– Oh, I don’t know really, my smile probably getting a bit more strained around the eyes at that stage.
– But still (demo-ne) – I’m half you’re size and I’m only 50 kilos. Look! Look at that leg! And look at yours!
– But you look well, I said, trying to get him off the topic of my avoirdupois.
– Oh, I’m all right. But honestly, you’re what? 100?
– Must be about that, I answered.
– Ah. Well there you go. Big man.
Is this going to go on for the next 20 minutes? I thought. Then he paid me another backhanded compliment:
– So where are you from? England? France? The usual one-word question is “America?”, so although I don’t think I look either British or French, it pleased me for some reason.
– I’m Canadian.
– Ah! Canadian. English and French. Yappari (I knew it/ might have known)! And are you here on business?
– I’m a teacher (using the modest word kyoushi for teacher).
– Ah! Sensei desuka! (he used the more respectful term, which a teacher should never use when referring to himself). This seemed to please him, and he smiled and nodded and looked ahead. I did the same.
As it turned out, he got off after only eight minutes, at Shinsaibashi. Shitsureishimasu (excuse my rudeness, which you always say to you excuse yourself and leave first), he said, nodding in my direction, and he tottered off the train.
It’s odd – although the W word is the big taboo to ask anyone you don’t know well (and most people you do), his good-nature and obvious lack of malice about it made it seem not so bad. Also, just to have someone (more to the point, someone sane) chat with you out of the blue on a train is so rare nowadays that it put me in a good mood. I felt as though I were seeing a bit of old Osaka which has all but disappeared.
God help the next person who asks me that, though.