In the 1930s when Japan was preparing for war, foreigners were regarded with great suspicion, especially by the police. Sometimes the suspicions were built on chance coincidence without any substance, but in the official mind they proved hard to shift.
A young accountant employed by a foreign firm used to enliven his evenings by visits to geisha houses, where he drank and talked and laughed with the girls. He never learned any Japanese but as it happened he was a very good mimic.
In the course of these evenings he learned to sing some of the little songs along with the girls, mimicking their pronunciation with remarkable accuracy. In time he could sing some of these songs himself just accompanied by one of them on the three-stringed Samisen.
He had no idea of the meaning of what he was singing. When war came suddenly he was arrested and interned along with a number of other enemy aliens but almost immediately the police took him into custody and began to interrogate him in Japanese. When he waved his hands to show he did not understand they continued (still in Japanese): “We have reports here that when you are drunk you even sing in perfect Japanese.”
They interrogated him harshly but without being able to get him to confess to any knowledge of their language. The police chief took an interest in the case and said, “We must try to trap him”.
So next day the jailer came in and said quietly in Japanese “Here is the doctor to see you, take off your coat” but the prisoner sat there unmoving.
The next day when he was cleaning his cell with the jailer watching, another jailer came in and said in a low voice: “Tell this one to get his things together, he’ll be coming out this afternoon,” but he carried on cleaning. They tried shouting, “Fire, standby the door!” but he just looked up at the shout but remained sitting there.
It turned out later that they spent several months before they were finally convinced.
Sometimes it takes much longer than that before Life forgives us for our own imitations.
© 1999 Trevor Leggett