A Sunday evening on the Midosuji Line, heading south to my home in Nagai. I’m standing, listening to Quirks and Quarks on my iPod, gazing into the middle distance (I think I need glasses, finally). The train stops at Showacho and a crowd gets off, prompting a man, who was standing by the opening doors, to walk deliberately (I am aware) behind me. He is in his 60s, wearing unironically old-fahioned glasses, with grey hair slicked back, and he is dressed in a jacket and tie on a Sunday evening (a time when even most men his age dress casually). Pastor? Teacher? I brace myself for the usual Sales Pitch for Jesus and the offer of a pamphlet, which I will decline. He moves into my line of sight and has one of those confiding looks which are comforting when given by a friend but which put me on guard when they’re given by a stranger. Me of little faith. I ‘fail’ to see him – if he wants to talk, he’s going to have to start the transaction.
Eventually, he pounces.
– “Excuse me? Can you help me?” he asks, unfolding a piece of paper. Written on it are two sentences:
We look at Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji looks at us.
He helpfully reads them out to me (I should add that I’ve turned off the iPod by this time). Then he asks me, very deliberately, “Do you ever say that second sentence in English?”
I am to the point: “No. Never.”
He gives that involuntary hollow laugh that older Japanese people give when they’re embarrassed or perplexed. “But you could say it, couldn’t you?”
– You could say it, but we wouldn’t say it.
– Why not?
– Because it doesn’t make any sense in English. The first sentence is what we say.
– But we say it in Japanese.
– Okay, but we don’t say it in English.
Embarrassed silence. I try giving him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he is speaking figuratively, poetically. Perhaps he is using the wrong verb. I try again, offering a face-saving suggestion:
– Do you mean Mt Fuji overlooks us? Because it’s so big? You can say that.
He sighs shortly, impatiently. He obviously has a high opinion of his written English and is not used to being contradicted.
– No! Look! We believe that Mount Fuji looks at us the way we look at it. Because it’s a god. We believe in mountain gods.
– Where I come from, not many people believe that.
– Excuse me, where are you from?
– Canada, I answered, fumbling for my earphones.
He gives me the look that the good cop in a Japanese police drama gives when offering a bowl of noodles to the guy the bad cop is trying to beat a confession out of. Come on, pal – just between you and me.
– But in Canada, you have many mountains. The Rockies look at you? You sometimes say that, don’t you?
– No. We don’t. I’m sorry. (I expect to get a strongly-worded runic parchment from the Druid Anti-Defamation League of British Columbia any day now)
– Well. I see. Thank you.
He does not look grateful. Nor does he look like he sees. I put the phones on just in time for the train to pull into Nagai subway. The doors open, and I look back. He is staring stonily at his piece of paper, and I will not be acknowledged. I guess that will show me.
I wonder how many times he went up and down the line that day, trying to find some foreigner to tell him he was right. And why?