Tokyo When The Towers Came Down

I was standing in a classroom of a large Japanese corporation, with a group of men that I was teaching English to. At least I was trying, their katakana sounds were-ru not-to stopping-gu. Every ending to every word was finished with a vowel or the un sound, forcing the English language into a Japanese framework, whether it like-u it-to at-tu all-ru. To start with I had a very tough time understanding what was being said, or the rules by which the correct incorrect ending was chosen by the speaker. By the time I got into the swing of it, and my brain filtered out the additions, I realized this urge to put these katakana-ized endings onto words was a compulsion, and one which the speaker was not usually aware they were doing! Takashi-san, DARLING! You are doing-gu...I mean DOING IT AGAIN!

I went to extreme lengths in my war against katakana. The best hope these engineers had of making themselves understood and taken seriously within the international community was if I did my job and got them first to hear what was going wrong and then fixed the issue and cut it out. With nothing but a whiteboard and a pen, I had an epiphany one day. I wrote out what I was hearing being said, complete with the additions. I gave up on spelling correctly, instead wrote out phonetically what I wanted to hear, the useless garble of the additions in red, the correct phonetic pronounciation in black pen. I asked Tetsu-kun to read it out. He looked at me blankly, but out came perfect katakanaized English. I then took the black pen and crossed out the red parts. “Tetsu…now read what you see..exactly what you see, ok?”

By magic Tetsu’s chronic katakana problem vanished. He was speaking fluently. He could already read and write, he knew what he wanted to say, grammatically he was mostly present and correct, he just could not talk effectively because he was not hearing it. On the final word, he whispered the ending to the word that should not be there: “I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high over vales and hills(SU)!” I knew in the man’s head the compulsion to add the endings onto the words that shouldn’t be in the English language, was fighting back, and smiled at the sweet whispered ending to the word hills.

Everyone in the room wanted to try, asking me to write out in my hokey phonetics entire sentences. “I wish to amortize the necessary machinery for this project(to)!” It appeared the compulsion was merely pushed forwards to the end of the sentence. It was a kind of victory, but they could do better. “Say it in your heads only, boys! Lets vanquish the Katakana dragon!”

They were laughing and trying out their new superpower when D______ ran into my classroom, from his own next door, sliding into the room, and hitting the button of the TV. NHK appeared on the screen, it was an update on the situation in New York. They were showing the planes smash into the towers. His students had wanted to discuss it.

Sugoi! OOOORA (great! Woah!)! My students were chattering in Japanese as we watched the towers falls. I began to realize what I was seeing. It was the 14th of September 2001. I had travelled out of Tokyo to my regular weekly morning job, on the morning of the 14th of September, mostly unaware of the news. I didn’t own a television, I didn’t read a newspaper I was illiterate, I had no radio – having drunk my usual cup of coffee from the Starbucks, forced myself to eat a banana at an unholy hour, and sat on a hot bus the rest of the way up there I had no idea what had happened at all. I was blissfully, shockingly unaware. I had unlocked my classroom, set up my materials, and welcomed my student. Meanwhile the world was changing dramatically, as I carried on unaware.

David was backed up against the wall, looking nervous. He whispered in my ear “Paltry, I am not sure these guys are on OUR SIDE!” There was a certain admiration on their part towards the vastness of spectacle, a kind of schadenfreude borne of the callousness of the Yanks towards the Japanese in dropping two nuclear weapons on a bunch of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then celebrating a crime against humanity as a great victory. I was nervous and repulsed, horrified and dumbstruck, but couldn’t find it in my heart to dismiss the reaction with lack of sympathy. No one in the room wanted people to get hurt, the innocent lives lost did not give pleasure to my Japanese students, it was more an honest expression of emotion at the scale of the spectacle. We had no idea who or why. We didn’t know motive, or reason, or if it was accident or attack, individuals or political. Still, D_____ was backing off and desperate to leave.

“Planes smashing into shit,” I told D_____, it’s a homage, inspired perhaps, but that was soldiers against soldiers, if these guys had won it would have been a brilliant military tactic, but they lost, and so it’s seen as worse than mass murder by nuke of women and children.” I shrugged. “I don’t know, D____, you know I don’t do politics.” As usual, I sat apart from my Japanese hosts, and also my fellow teachers. Trash, as usual. It never seemed to bother me enough to shut my mouth. “Notice the Yanks didn’t nuke a bunch of blonde Germans….” My sentence trailed off….This was one hot potato on that day in that year at that time, was just too piping steaming hot to touch.

The rest of the time was spent talking about what had just happened, what NHK was saying about it all. No one cared much that I appeared to have fixed the Katakana problems of an entire classroom of nerds. My victory went to waste, paled in comparison to the bigger badder dragons let loose in New York.

“Hey, Sensei, can you say “busu gasu bakahatsu?” asked Tetsu. It was a common theme, I had a strange ability to knock out Japanese tongue twisters. It was my party trick. The gas bus blew up. I playfully poked his arm, as he laughed. D_____ stood there with his fists clenched into tight balls. He looked as if he needed a drink. The clock ticked to 1pm, and we headed out of there.


  1. The Paltry Sum

    The embarrassment of find out days later still hasn’t faded! I met a hibakusha – a woman who had been a little girl when she was nuked in Hiroshima. The wounds on her arms were still broken and open and bleeding, never healing, forever raw. She was protesting nuclear weaponry. She was just a little girl, and her maiming was cheered on and is still to this day.

  2. wildsum

    Japanese Katakana is not English. The English word “bag” has changed to “baggu”. Many Japanese know that, but the familiar tongue is difficult to correct.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      When native English speakers, especially those of us who teach English in Japan, talk about the problem of Japanese speakers of the English language, adding sounds to the end of words, or pronouncing it as if they were reading the words rendered into katakana – SHI-TI not city, Baggu not bag…Want-to not WANT – we call it “katakana English’ – since I write in English not Japanese, I am not talking about the katakana system of rendering foreign words in Japanese kana, I am describing the issue you are talking about. Hope it makes sense!

    2. The Paltry Sum

      英語を母国語とする人、特に日本で英語を教える私たちが話すとき、英語の日本語話者の問題について話したり、単語の末尾に音を追加したり、カタカナにレンダリングされた単語を読んでいるかのように発音したりします– SHI -TIは都市ではなく、バグはバッグではありません…したい-したくない-私たちはそれを「カタカナ英語」と呼びます-私は日本語ではなく英語で書いているので、日本語のかなで外国語を表現するカタカナシステムについて話していません。あなたが話している問題。それが理にかなっていることを願っています!

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