Retro burger

In the fourth of his dispatches from the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Gary Kamiya muses on Japanese English, the quest for tosto and hamburgers done in retro

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 13, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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NAGANO, Japan -- Wednesday, 1 p.m. Tonight I plan to initiate an exciting, Samuel Beckett style of reporting: sports coverage that leaves out the end of the game! The U.S. women's hockey team is playing Finland, the first non-stiff team they've faced after feasting on the pathetic likes of China and Sweden. It ought to be a great game, but in the middle of the third period I'll be running madly from Aqua Wing, trying to grab a taxi back to the station in time for the last train to Saku. Writing up a game I leave before it ends will be no problem: If Ronald Reagan, in his days as a radio announcer, could re-create baseball games using a little wooden block to simulate the sound of the bat, I can make up several vague alternative endings to a hockey game. "From this point on, the game was packed with interest and incident." "The final score of this hard-fought match was, ultimately, irrelevant." "The third period, featuring desultory play on both sides, passed as if in a dream."

I just said goodbye to my dad. He's flying back home today. This morning we decided to find the main drag in our mysterious burg and try to dig up some semblance of a Western breakfast. The hotel's Japanese breakfast is excellent, but my system rebelled at eating pickled vegetables, miso soup, rice and smoked fish at 8 a.m. again. In the unaccented but archaic and hick Japanese he's been using to confuse the locals with (he stopped speaking and studying Japanese when he was in grade school in Ballico, Calif., around 1932), my dad asked a taxi driver to take us to downtown Saku. This request seemed to puzzle our driver, but he headed out anyway, down what looked like an anonymous ring road -- except that it didn't ring anything. It was lined with car dealerships and nondescript buildings that could have been deserted stores. When informed that we were searching for an American-style breakfast with toast and coffee, he became still more confused: He started talking to his dispatcher, whom we could hear saying "Tosto? Tosto?" over the radio. We turned off one anonymous road and onto another just like it. No sidewalks, no central square, nobody on the streets -- nothing that looked like it might produce tosto. The meter clicked over to $12. I wondered if we were going to drive all the way to Nagano in search of a couple slices of Wonder Bread. Finally, we pulled up in front of a plastic Denny's-style franchise I'd noticed in Nagano, called Apple Grimm.


Now we understood why he hadn't known where to take us -- there was no downtown Saku. It was a real wasteland of a city, devoid of planning and charm, but for some reason it wasn't nearly as depressing as its American counterpart would be. Partly this was because of the beautiful sunny day and the snowy mountains ringing it. But there was another reason, too, one that was harder to put your finger on. Maybe it was the sense that exterior desolation here isn't matched by that interior desolation we Americans specialize in. Even the power lines and vacant lots and neon signs here seem well-behaved, polite. Nothing here is ever going to slip through the cracks and turn strange and evil -- perhaps nothing is ever going to turn strange at all. This nation of straight-A students may feel so weird to an American precisely because it's so universally not weird.

Apple Grimm (the only derivation for this peculiar name I can think of -- the fairy tale about a princess who eats a poisoned apple -- seems somehow unlikely) fell into the chalk-it-up-to-surreal-experience column. Their version of "American" food turned out to be a bit like Italian "Chinese" food, which the Italians won't eat unless it tastes like Italian food. I ordered the Big Hamburger, which proved to be a large, mealy, meatloaf-ish patty -- at 10 bucks, you'd think they could hold the breadcrumbs -- covered with that vaguely Worcestershire-y brown sauce that is ubiquitous here. My wiser father ate a raw tuna salad. I was consoled, however, by the menu, which featured not only a wine called "Chateau Berkeley" -- is that decanted from the Coke bottle Mario Savio pissed into? -- but one of the finest gems of Japanese English I've come across so far: "This hamburger steak has been done in retro."


Japanese English! Or, as Zen-master-with-a-low-I.Q. signs say all over
Nagano, "Welcome -- you are here!" I first sampled this wondrous tongue when I
was a taxi driver in San Francisco and picked up two Japanese businessmen who
said they wanted to go to "Rhibaldsho." I had never heard of Rhibaldsho, so I
asked them again. They repeated it slowly: "Pliss -- we want go to ribald
show." Ah, ribald -- a word not spoken by anyone in the United States since
the 19th century. A retro call for naked women! We merrily zoomed to the
Mitchell Brothers sex arcade.

According to my father, one of the reasons the Japanese often have so much
trouble speaking idiomatic English, even after studying it for years in
school, is that their teachers often don't really speak or know proper English
themselves. A weird hybrid language -- Japanese English -- is now institutionally
entrenched and passed on from generation to generation. Our relative Emiko,
who is fluent in English -- she lived in the U.S. when she was a little girl
-- told him that her daughter spoke terrible English, but when Emiko
tried to get her to speak correctly, her daughter flatly refused, saying, "That
isn't how I was taught."

The Japanese difficulty with English, we speculated, might also be related
to their upbringing, which stresses performance, obedience and discipline.
This leads to a highly internalized sense of shame and self-consciousness, and
isn't big on flexibility and looseness. These traits have some wonderful
social results -- a staggering uniformity of graciousness, the fact that
people simply get off their bikes and leave them unlocked on the sidewalk --
but they may not be particularly conducive to the who-cares-if-I-make-a-fool-of-myself attitude useful to linguists. Not that I'm not in a very good
position to throw stones when it comes to language skills.


Thursday, 12:25 a.m. Back in Saku after the hockey game (and yet another
emperor sighting! His crowds, by the way, keep getting bigger), which I
managed to watch until 12 minutes into the final period. The U.S. was ahead 4-2 when
I left (and eventually won by that score). It was a highly entertaining and competitive game: The U.S. team was
clearly superior, especially in its crisp passes going forward on the attack,
and was both more athletic and physical than the Finnish team, but paid for its
occasional sloppiness in the transition game. The Finns scored their second
goal short-handed, when a U.S. defender misplayed a routine Finnish clearance
and handed a Finnish forward a virtual gift goal.


I've seen the U.S. women twice now, against China and Finland, and they are
a most impressive unit. A well-played women's game is more entertaining than
a ragged men's game: The slower pace and comparative absence of checking
(although there were some bone-crunching hits dealt out) opens it up more for
a precision passing style, which is prettier than the crash-and-lurk tactics
played by some of the men's teams I've seen here.

I'll have more on the U.S. women later -- but I would like to raise a
dubious eyebrow about the authenticity of the "Italian" and "Japanese" men's
teams. I heard one "Italian" guy yell, "Let 'er rip, man," in an accent that
was clearly not Milanese, and the Japanese government granted Japanese
nationality to six Canadian ringers, several of them half-Japanese types like
me. I wonder if any of those guys have American last names and switched to
their mom's names to avoid the embarrassment of a "McDonald" or "Smythe"
upholding the glory of Old Nippon? Ah well, they aren't going anywhere anyway.
But keep your eye on Kazakhstan, which played a very elegant game in beating
"Italy"/the Bronx, and which, with Belarus, is the dark horse of the tournament. Both of those teams have made it through the cannon-fodder group and will advance
to mix it up with the Dream Teams, the Mighty Six with their NHL star-packed

By the way, did the International Olympics Committee really strip that snowboarder of his gold medal
because he tested positive for marijuana? If I read the logic of this
correctly, that means they're either saying that marijuana is a performance-enhancer (what a message to send to Our Young People!) or are simply being
moralistic busybodies. What next -- Jim Beam checkpoints? Maybe those
renegade snowboarders who didn't come were right about the IOC being the Evil
Man ...


Tomorrow is a huge day -- the rescheduled downhill and combined downhill,
speed skating, hockey. I won't be able to file, so my next dispatch will be
Friday. On with the ribald show!

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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