Letter from Japan: Learning the language of silence

In most countries of the world it helps to know the language a little before you arrive; in Japan, it can only be an impediment. Words tend to get in the way, and the ideal conversation for most of the Japanese I’ve lived among for 22 years is one in which as few words as possible are exchanged. The country fashions itself more as a family than a free-for-all, and as in any close setting, if you really know someone, you listen less to her words than to her pauses, her hesitations, her tone of voice, everything she leaves out. The main language to learn when you come to Japan is silence.

I got a crash-course in this elusive tongue, harder to translate than Hungarian, when I went with my Japanese sweetheart to the templed island of Miyajima not so long ago. I knew that the place would be packed with Japanese visitors — we were going on a holiday weekend in early November — eager to enjoy its celebrated maple trees, its strolling deer and “white raccoons,” the Itsukushima shrine set out on the sea, as shrines had been set here for fifteen hundred years. So I found a list of traditional Japanese inns on the island and made some calls several weeks in advance. At one of the numbers, remarkably, the phone was answered by the sweetest and most mellifluous voice I’d heard in years, switching within a syllable to perfect English.

I asked if she had a room available for the first weekend in November.

“Of course,” came the trilling answer. “Would you like a Western room or a Japanese?”

“Western,” I said, remembering too many nights sneezing on tatami mats.

“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you!”

Was that all, I wondered? Was something wrong? I queried her some more, and she said, in the most lilting and almost hypnotic English I’d heard in months, “Our rooms are very small, I’m afraid, but our food is good. I’ll be waiting for you.”I put down the phone with the strangest feelings. There was something so intimate and warming about the encounter that I’d felt as if I’d been admitted to a bedroom. Not in a seductive way, but in the form of an ideal reassurance. Japan styles itself publicly as a perfect mother — polite, attentive, consoling — and now, somehow, even I had been brought into the circle of her attention. I didn’t remember, for the moment, the classic wisdom here about how the greater the impression of intimacy, the deeper the probable distance (a lesson I could also have learned in my native England). I just rejoiced in the medicinal sweetness. Suggestion is only a half-note away from assertion in Japan, and it would take a Henry James to tell the velvet glove from the fist within it.

I was so confounded by the exchange — I must have missed something: did she need no deposit? Did she really accept credit cards? Had she truly got the dates correctly — that I asked Hiroko to call two days later, to make sure we had the reservation right.

“Very nice lady,” she said, not entirely characteristically, after her brief chat. “Very warm. Little home feeling.”

Six weeks later, we arrived on the tiny island and there, across from the ferry, was a fading sign above a grungy, six-seat coffee-shop that announced (in Japanese only, disconcertingly) the curious name of the inn we had chosen. We went in, and a gracious woman in her middle years, petite and attentive, came tiptoeing out in a blue kimono, and bowed deeply before each one of us.

“Hello,” she said, and I recognized the unhesitant English from before. “I was waiting for you.”

Then, before we could say another word, she bowed again, ceremonially. “I am so happy to see you. I’ve been waiting for you since this morning.”

Could this be true? We’d said we’d come at 3 p.m., and now it was 2:57. Something made me feel we were already putting her out.

“Your room is waiting for you. Japanese, yes?”

“Er, no, Western.”

“I remember that you wanted Japanese, but there was only a Western available, so when a Japanese became available, I put you in it.”

It sounded like one of those koans I’d come here to learn. She was doing us a favor by denying what we wanted. She was — perhaps — teaching us a little about the impermanence of desire and the folly of expectation. She was extending a gift-wrapped box to us, so delicately and so elegantly wrapped, that it seemed churlish to point out that it contained exactly what we hadn’t asked for.

It didn’t matter: the Japanese room was clean and elegant, with a lovely view. Its simplicity seemed to be instructing us in what the island was about, the need to speak little when the heart is full.

The room was named “Chrysanthemum,” she told us, after leading us up to it, immaculate in her sliding socks. I began to ask about how a few of its amenities worked, and she looked as if I’d asked her for a list of her favorite lovers.

“I will give you a soap later,” she said, and slipped away, never to return.

The next day we came back from a long day in a far-off temple. When we pulled back the front screen, our hostess — she was always there, it seemed — came out and bowed before us, once again, deeply.

“Did you have a good day?”

“Very, thank you.”

“You didn’t use my car! I could have given you a ride anywhere you wanted!”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t know.” We’d somehow done her a disservice by taking care of ourselves as we wished.

We began to move up to our room, and she signaled, without opening her mouth, that she had something to say to us.

“I’m so sorry. I’m terribly sorry. But you’re now in another room, across the corridor. I remember that you had wanted a Western room, and yesterday I gave you a Japanese room. So I’ve found a Western room for you. I hope you will like it.”

Somebody else had canceled, I thought — or else some more presentable and monied guest had arrived, and demanded a Japanese room — and we had already distinguished ourselves as trouble-makers. Harmony can be preserved only if each person subordinates his individual wishes; she was teaching us to be Japanese. Besides, she knew there was no way we could find alternative accommodations on a holiday weekend.

“But our things?”

“I moved them,” she said sweetly. I thought of the hand puppets I’d taken out of my bag, of toothbrushes and make-up creams and coins and underwear that we’d tossed around that morning, making the space our own. Now, we found as we got up to a windowless, squat little room, a funeral chamber ideal for a Meiji-era grandfather, all our most intimate items meticulously set down among frayed chairs and moth-eaten curtains.

There was a knock on the door.

“What can I make for your breakfast tomorrow?” I opened up to find her inches away.

“Just some tea, orange juice, nothing special.”

“No eggs?” She looked crushed.

“Okay, some fried eggs.”

“I can’t make you any sausages?”


Now we were trying to take care of her needs again, as if somehow our breakfast were her treat. I remembered how Hiroko had told me, when we’d met nineteen autumns before, that what you paid for in the water-trade, as the hospitality business here is called, was the chance to be beautifully manipulated. If the maneuvers were executed well enough, your smile would become more heartfelt than your hostess’s, and your comfort would become not just her pleasure, but her profit.

“And, for dinner tonight,” our hostess went on softly. “I’ve decided to give you something different.”

“That’s okay. We really liked what we had last night.” (How could I tell her that the tempura I’d ordered up the night before was the one Japanese item I could stomach?)

“Yes,” she said. Or “No!” as it would be in English.

We gathered a little later for our (not inexpensive, obligatory) dinner, to find out that it consisted entirely of arcane, non-tempura items — rejected, I could only assume, by the new, tempura-loving guests. Or items that our hostess loved, whether we were in the mood for them or not. She bowed with each small plate she delivered, and smiled as if to say, “You’re enjoying them — yes?”

The next day we were due to leave, and there were more bows, a chiming chorus of “Thank you”s and “Sorry”s and “Please come back.” Our hostess looked as if she were about to weep — tears come easily in Japan — so I complimented her on her English.

“I am fifty-six,” she answered, bowing, “and so it is many years since I studied English in school.”

“But you must have spoken it a lot since then. To be so good.”

She pretended to ignore me, as if it were I who should be complimented on my English. It was true: smiling sweetly and saying nothing, her “Yes”s accelerating as she thwarted our wishes, showed me how fluent she was in Japanese, even when she seemed to be speaking my tongue.

“And that receipt you promised us…?”

She foraged around her desk, as if I’d asked her for an elephant, on toast.

“Just an empty paper will do, if that’s easier.”

I’d put her out, apparently, by simply requesting a slip to show we’d paid. She handed over a scrap of paper from the trash.

“This is such a nice place,” I said in Japanese, to show that I could speak a little of her native tongue too.

“Thank you.” She bowed deeply. “Please tell your friends about us.”

At just that instant, another figure appeared, moving slowly towards the front door. “Oh, Sharon!” called our sweet and pretty hostess. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ve been waiting for you since seven o’clock.”

I looked at Sharon, so fresh to unarmed warfare, and thought: Where else can you learn about the power of the unsaid and the genius of saying nothing? She need never even go out to see the island’s temples; all their lessons were right here, in the bowing matron, if only she could see it as she was led up to precisely the room she hadn’t asked for.

[Photos courtesy Flickr users Racum; Jordan Emery; Geert Orye; Spiegel]

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Pico Iyer is the author of many books of travel, among them Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling off the Map, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.