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Lost—and then found—in translation.

By Alan Rosen | Not long after I moved to Japan in 1974, I got a call from the local post office.

“Please come right away,” the clerk said. “There is a slight problem with your mail.” In my rudimentary Japanese I asked what the problem was, but was told that it was too hard to explain on the phone.

I had recently taken a temporary gig teaching English at Kumamoto University in Kyushu, a large island in southwestern Japan, and was living next to an experimental dairy farm whose cows mooed plaintively at all hours of the night.

I still had plenty of time before teaching my afternoon class, so I got into my car and drove over. The local post office was a tiny place: a single room with a counter dividing it into one-third for the three or four employees who worked behind it and two-thirds for the customers, who seldom numbered more than one or two at a time. 

As I opened the door I was recognized and smiled at, and one of the clerks went searching for whatever it was she thought I needed to understand the problem. Another clerk was helping the only other customer, a middle-aged woman clutching a savings account passbook. While I waited, the woman had finished her business, but apparently she was sticking around to see what would happen to me—or to them.

The clerk had found what she was looking for and was waving it at me, smiling nervously. As I approached the counter, I saw it was a postcard to my mother that I had sent three days ago. In my mind, it was already in my mother’s hands. Why was it still here? It contained some important information that she needed very soon. Now it would be impossible for her to get it on time. (This was long before email.)What was going on? 

The other two clerks had joined us, and they smiled and nodded as the first clerk began to explain.

“Can you understand Japanese?” she asked me, turning her gaze to her colleagues as if they had the answer. I briefly considered saying no, but this was no time for games. I needed to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible and get that postcard back into the mail. I had to show them I was not happy, not happy at all. I had to overcome their position, whatever it might turn out to be, and six months of Japanese was my only weapon.

“Is this postcard yours?” another clerk said slowly and carefully, showing me the card.

“Yes, it is,” I said trying to sound grave. “It is very important. Why do you still have it here?” The tone of my voice was already growing unfriendly, and the clerks’ smiles were tightening. 

“It was returned from the central post office,” one said. “We are so sorry to inconvenience you, but we cannot post your card like this.”

“Like what? I don’t understand.” I looked at the other customer for some sympathy, but she just smiled blankly at a poster on the wall. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s just a regular postcard, isn’t it?” I tried to strike a tone of incredulity.

The clerk continued with deliberate calm. “But you see, this is a picture postcard.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I demanded. I glanced at the other customer, who was now grinning with rigid lips and eyes of glass. The door opened behind me and another lady entered. She stopped in her tracks and waited for us to continue.

With a barely audible sigh meant to signify infinite patience, the clerk showed me what he meant. “On this side is the picture, right?”

I looked around as if to say I couldn’t believe this was happening. The first customer, who I realized had no intention of ever sympathizing with me, was staring stupidly at the clerk, in apparent dread of meeting my eyes. The other woman rummaged in her purse. This was not customers versus clerks; this was me versus all of Japan.

“So what?” I said.

“And on the other side you write, OK?” 

With an air of impatience I nodded. Just then, almost as if it had been pre-arranged, another clerk took over.

“You see,” she said, “there’s this vertical line printed here dividing the writing space in half: left half for the message, right half for the address.” I nodded. My mouth had become sticky and my throat was extraordinarily dry. I swallowed, hoping to feel some saliva. Her slender finger was now tapping at my message where a few of the letters had gone over the vertical line and into the section marked Address. “But, you see, your message goes clearly beyond the line and penetrates into the area marked Address.” She paused expectantly, as if this would be sufficient explanation. I felt all eyes on me and I knew that they were waiting for a sign of understanding, but I could not speak. I breathed, licked my lips, and looked up at them and back down at the card. Finally, words came.

“You mean to say that you didn’t mail this card because some of the words go into the area marked Address? Is that what you mean?”

“Yes, yes. That’s right. See? The words here and here and here? It’s a pity but these are all clearly over the line,” one of them said, pointing to the places in question.

“So what?” I said in disbelief. “What has that got to do with anything?” 

Another clerk took over. He was no longer smiling. “This card,” he said stabbing at it with a short fat finger, “does not conform to the proper way in which a postcard of this type must be written. By exceeding the prescribed message area, clearly marked by the vertical line, you have broken the rules which make this a postcard.” 

“You mean to tell me that because a few letters go over a line that this is somehow no longer a postcard?”

“That’s right.” Maybe they had tried to sound sympathetic, I don’t know. I was too enraged to notice much except that my Japanese was wholly inadequate for a fight against such irrationality. 

“Therefore,” one of them went on, “it must be considered a letter, in which case the postage you have paid is insufficient. You must pay an additional 60 yen and send it as a letter.”

I looked around, not so much for sympathy as for some sign that this was a joke, a Japanese candid-camera stunt. There were now three customers standing at a safe distance. One clerk went to the end of the counter to help someone. I looked at the clock. If I didn’t wrap this up soon I would be late for class.

“This is without a doubt the most absurd thing I have ever heard in my whole life. You kept this card for three days and then called me up at my home and had me come all the way over here to tell me that this postcard, the very important postcard for my mother in America which I sent days ago, is really not a postcard, oh no, not really a postcard but a letter?” Whether my elementary Japanese actually conveyed all of this, I do not know, but this is what I was desperately trying to say. Perhaps from the frustration of trying to rise to a level of eloquence that was clearly beyond me, I began shouting and maybe spitting a little. Their eyes were growing impatient and unfriendly. I went on.

“Any idiot can see that this is a postcard no matter what is written on it or where it is written. A postcard is a postcard is a postcard! It weighs the same no matter how it is written, so what’s it to the post office anyway? I thought weight is what determines postage. Size and weight. Everybody knows that: it’s common sense all over the world.” Silence. “And what business do you have reading my mail anyway? What I write is my business—not yours! Even if it is a postcard, you’re not supposed to read it.”

I picked up the postcard, took a pen set out for customer use, and started violently crossing out all the letters that were over the line. I even ripped through the surface of the paper in one place.

“There!” I shouted triumphantly. “There! Are you happy now? No more words go over the line. Doesn’t that make it a postcard again!?!” I was sneering but no one was looking at my face. Staring at the card, one clerk picked it up and turned to get the opinion of her seniors. Apparently they were taking the question seriously.

“Here, give me the stupid card,” I said as cuttingly as I could. I thrust it under their faces. “This line, this holy line I crossed, this great postal sin I committed—this is a purely arbitrary line printed by some printing company. This line was not put here by God! It’s only for the convenience of the writer. And show me where it says that if any word, or any part of any letter of any word, goes even one millimeter over this line the postcard turns into a letter! Where does it say that? Where?”

When I stopped shouting, I saw that I had lost them. Their minds and ears were closing up; I had succeeded only in convincing them that I was raving and alien. That’s when it happened. In the silence of the room, I became aware of the torrential roar behind my temples, and suddenly, almost like a bit of magic, I knew what I should do, what a Japanese would do. I bowed low. The roaring ceased.

“Please forgive my terrible outburst just now. I must have taken complete leave of my senses. Please accept my sincere apology for my crazy behavior.” The words started to flow, as if spoken by someone else. “First, let me thank you all for taking the time and trouble to find my number and telephone me, in the middle of your many duties, to bring this problem to my attention. I am so sorry to have caused you so much trouble on my behalf. Thank you so much for kindly pointing out my mistake. I have no excuse except my ignorance. It was wrong to allow my writing to go over the line. I know that now, thanks to you. I assure you I will be very careful in the future so that this kind of thing will not happen again.”

Gradually the friendly smiles had come back, from clerks and customers alike. I was being forgiven, listened to once again. “He is human after all,” their eyes seemed to say. “He lost his senses for a while but now he’s back.”

I cheerfully paid the money as the additional stamp was affixed. Everyone beamed at the happy outcome. Then, bowing and apologizing, I backed out the door. My postcard would arrive too late to be of any use, I had 15 minutes left for a 30-minute drive, and I had unconditionally surrendered. And yet I had the feeling that, on some new level I was not yet able to understand, I had won something valuable.

Alan Rosen C’67 teaches English language and literature at Kumamoto University. After living in Japan for 30 years, he writes, “I like to think I’m making progress in fitting in—but I wonder.” His current research is on Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), an Irish-Greek writer who also taught at Kumamoto University and whom most Japanese consider the world’s greatest interpreter of Japan to the West.

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