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Saturday, 5 October 2019

My anonymous guide

The height difference didn't diminish my affection
Damn! I’ve forgotten her name. I need to be sympathetic, let’s call her Han.

Han was guide to thirty European journalists visiting Japan in 1988, guests of  techno-giant Citizen Watch. Frequently it was grim work. With our bus immobilised in Tokyo traffic-jams, she told “little stories” – vignettes of Japanese life. Alas, French, German and Swiss journos proved just as oafish as their British counterparts and she was ignored.

I, however, had other fish to fry and needed Han’s help. I’d been commissioned – quite separately - to explain those Japanese hotels where guests sleep in tubes like torpedoes in a submarine. Han found me a contact. In a hyper-technical interview about just-in-time procedures at Citizen I needed the company’s best translator. Han got me the company president’s personal aide. Finally I’d been forced to represent the Brits at the Sayonara evening and had peppered my speech with sentiments in Japanese. Han phoneticised them for me.

Han was an attractive woman and knew Western culture; I liked her. Crossing a plaza we let a wedding entourage pass. Why, I asked , did everyone look so gloomy? Han averred it was probably the money. Years ago I'd read H. L. Mencken saying Japanese Shintoism was perhaps the silliest religion in the world. I was minded to follow this up but needed to know whether Han was religious; I didn’t want to offend her. “I am a free-thinker,” she said, and I liked that.

On the last day I struggled into central Tokyo and after several linguistic misunderstandings I bought the latest Graham Greene, Han’s favourite author. At the airport she tore away the beautiful wrapping and was overjoyed. I laughed, explaining she should have waited to unwrap it just in case the gift proved duff. She said, “I knew it wouldn’t be.”


  1. I would also like to know why she thought "H.L. Mencken said Japanese Shintoism was perhaps the silliest religion in the world." Any thoughts?

  2. Han didn't necessarily hold that opinion. I had read it in Mencken's Treatise on the Gods twenty years earlier (I'm a huge HLM fan). I wanted to discuss it further in practical terms but first I had to find out whether Han was prepared to talk freely. I am sorry I misrepresented her and I have edited the passage slightly to make this clearer. To tell the truth we talked about a lot of things (notably Western literature on which she was particularly well informed; note her favourite author) and I can't remember whether Shinto figured subsequently.

    As to your question, I'd hate to have to summarise Treatise on the Gods.. The book's a roar of laughter from start to finish and no religion escapes HLM's barbed pen. Just checked Google and it's still in print (including a Kindle version). Or I could lend you my copy.