Naga Chokkanathan

Japanese Connection

Posted on: September 9, 2010

Few years back I had to conduct a training course in Tokyo. This was the first time I was visiting a country where English was given the second (or third or ninety ninth) priority. Everyone spoke Japanese, wrote Japanese, read Japanese, even smiled Japanese. You absolutely can’t communicate with anyone if you don’t know the local language here.

Because of this, I was really afraid to leave my hotel room. I decided to spend all my free time locked inside, reading the books I carried from India.

But everyday morning I had to go to office. I tried to take a taxi on day 1. But couldn’t explain the address / route to the driver. He did some roundabouts before finding the client office for me.

When I spoke to a gentleman there, he told me that the hotel I am staying is quite close to that office. He showed me the route. He asked me to walk to office instead of taking a cab, and save some money.

I decided to take his advice. Not to save money, but to save myself from the conversations(?) with cab drivers.

From day 2 onwards, I walked to the office everyday. It took less than 10 minutes and I could enjoy the city view without the need to talk to anyone.

During the next two weeks, Other than the (English) conversations in office, I never spoke to anyone for anything. Only during the second weekend, I gathered the courage to buy a train ticket and went to some tourist places far away from my hotel.

On that day, I visited a museum which had some fascinating exhibits about Japanese history and culture. Also, the friendliness of Japanese people made me like them a lot, eventho’ we couldn’t exchange any words between us.

After returning to India, I spoke to one of my friends who also visited Japan recently, I was surprised to find he had similar thoughts about Japanese. We both wanted to understand them better, and somehow communicate with them.

Of course, we never got an opportunity to visit Japan again. But whenever I read any news items or articles about Japan, I think of those days in Tokyo, there was something attractive about Japanese which I couldn’t make out – sort of a mystery novel whose last page (or the last paragraph) is written in an unknown language.

Last week I got a book titled "Grandpa Cherry Blossom and other folktales from Japan". This is a collection of folk stories from Japan, collected and translated / retold by Hema Pande. She has lived in Japan, learnt Japanese language and you could see it in the simple, yet effective style with which she has done the translation. Keiko Tsuji’s illustrations transform these stories to an uniquely-Japanese experience.


Thanks to my daughter who needs a story to go with every meal, I read lot of stories, especially fairy tales / folk tales. Many of the story themes in this book I have already heard or read somewhere in some other format. But yet, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Mainly because it gave a snapshot of life in Japan (at least ancient Japan) and there were no language barriers this time.

Similar to many other folk traditions, these Japanese stories are full of Good Vs Bad, people treating others well getting the rewards they deserve, punishment to greedy people etc., Sometimes you feel themes repeating. For example three stories in this volume "Tongue-cut Sparrow", "Why the sea is salty" and "Grandpa Cherry Blossom" can be merged into a single story, because of the way good people and bad people are portrayed in them and what they gain by being good or bad.

Of course, this is not a big drawback because the target readers for this book (age group: 11 to 14 years) would love reading these stories in simple language, with pleasant layout (By the way, wonderful choice of font, Or is it handwritten?) and bright, detailed watercolors.

According to me the best story in this volume is "Greatest Mountain". A Famous wrestler in Japan decides to tease a fat girl. But she catches the wrestler between her arm and body and drags him to the nearby mountain. There they meet the mother of the fat girl, and this mother is carrying a cow. She looks at the famous wrestler and says ‘Poor Weak man!"

You can read rest of the story in the book 😉

(Grandpa Cherry Blossom and other folktales from Japan – Hema Pande / Keiko Tsuji – Pratham Books – Rs 75/-)


N. Chokkan …

09 09 2010

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