I had a completely open schedule today and it happened to coincide with clear skies and warm weather. Tokyo is having an uncharacteristically white winter so the warm day demanded a long walk and some sightseeing. I have spent an obscene amount of money on subway fare lately, so I decided to stick to my own neighborhood and explore on foot. I scoped out a bakery and a few stationary shops (=a guilty pleasure of mine. I have a stockpile. Boz claims I could take over the entire Any Soldier program without needing to buy more cards), and I eventually ended up near a museum. Tokyo’s art scene includes a practical partnership between 3 museums collectively titled Art Triangle Roppongi. After paying the admission fee for any exhibit at one museum, visitors receive entry to the other 2 museums at a discount. On this particular day, I only had time for one museum, and I chose the National Art Center.
(That is a lie. I don’t have a job. Of course I had time for all 3 museums. The truth is that although I always enjoy museums once I am mid-tour, the thought of going to an art museum makes me want to rip out my jugular…or drink sake. It’s a toss-up.)
Anyway…I was about 5 minutes into my self-guided art tour when I caught up with a group of Japanese retirees listening to a female museum guide describe a painting. To avoid overtaking the group (so as not to be discourteous), I stopped and appreciated the painting while the guide spoke. The explanation only took about 2 minutes, but during this time, a handful of the retirees shifted around in order to view the painting from various angles. I ended up in the very center of the group and as we slowly shuffled along to the next painting, I couldn’t think of a socially-acceptable way to escape. I stood through the next presentation, front-and-center. As the guide wrapped up her 2nd description, she began distributing fliers to each group member. I didn’t want to cause a scene (in Japan, especially with the older generations, my refusal to accept the flier would have genuinely been disruptive), so I just accepted and pretended to read it.
On we went…throughout the museum…me and my posse of elderly Japanese…listening to our guide and following along with our flier. At the end of the hour-long tour, we stood in a circle and, Heaven help me, the guide looked directly at me and asked a question. I saw no choice but to shrug, shake my head, and say “I don’t speak Japanese.” Momentarily dumbfounded (as evidenced by her little gasp), she recovered with “Oh!! You guest!!” along with lots of encouraging nodding and glancing around the group to figure out with whom I was touring. Alas, I had to shake my head, “No, no. I’m not anyone’s guest. I’m sorry.” Using what I can only assume was some sort of silent consensus-reaching tactic passed down from the samurai, the rest of my group simultaneously smiled, chuckled, and shook their heads. The group leader now laughed out loud (albeit in a very delighted, friendly way) and exclaimed “You know no one!? You just follow and you no speak Japanese!?” I just shook my head and shrugged and bowed…and felt my face grow so red I cannot believe I didn’t spontaneously combust. The guide, still trying to put a finger on exactly what is wrong with me, followed that up with another bewildered statement “You take whole tour in Japanese and you no guest and you no speak Japanese!”
Yes ma’am. You got it. That is indeed the essence of this situation.
Everyone was now laughing and one gentleman patted me on the back and said “You good job!” And then we all just stood around and laughed at me a little more…in the totally inoffensive (and actually somehow comforting) way that is specifically provided by the separation of language AND generation (you know, that everyday combo…). We eventually all shuffled to the exit and went our separate ways after much bowing and “Konichiwa”ing.
For the record, the only thing I’m taking from this ridiculous faux-pas is: Today folks, I good job!!
And now for the very obvious, practically obligatory, post script:
Let’s spend the next 7 minutes and 53 seconds together, appreciating the late comic genius, Mr. Chris Farley.
ps. I went directly from the art museum to lunch, where another unpredictable cultural experience ensued. Details tmw...