Language in the Round

By Marc Kaufman

At the small Tokyo kaiten sushi place I used to frequent it took three minutes and forty-five seconds for the near silent belt to make a single rotation.  Colored plates chugged along advertising their tastes and prices as men, always men, stood inside the belly of the belt, smacking their hands inside steaming tubs, encouraging orders, as they pressed the flesh of fish with index and middle fingers, into the warmed bed of rice.  When desires were shouted from customer to chef, they were never written down.  Instead they were parroted back, repeated by each chef until the sound reached the person in charge of the request, who filed it into their brain where it waited patiently to be filled in the order received.

The first language I learned in Japan with any proficiency was the language of those sushi shops.  The repetition of words, the call and response, all of it pinballing back and forth from customer to chef to server to person manning the cash register.  Often after long days of teaching when I was too tired to cook but unsure how to manage the more complicated kanji menus of most restaurants, the conveyor belt sushi places offered me both rest and relief.  No thinking involved.  Come in, sit down at whatever stool I was pointed towards. Mimic the ritual of first filling one of the ceramic cups with a teaspoon or two of green tea powder, add scalding water, trickle soy sauce into a miniature dish, break apart wooden chopsticks, then begin to survey what the belt offered.

Different times of the day meant choices were abundant or scarce. Due to my fractured schedule, my tendency was to show up off hours, late afternoon and later in the evening, when the belt had less to offer.  The plates with pictures were there, but behind them were mostly empty spaces.  Those times, I’d take anything that looked new, not dried out from recirculating too long. Less predictable crowds made the chefs slow to push out fresh choices, relying more on verbal orders. Those early days, when speaking even simple requests was perplexing and the names of things were unknown to me, I’d sit and wait and watch the chefs preparing new plates hoping to see something I’d want about to go for a ride.  Then, the problem was hands. Usually the chefs would dole out four to five new plates of any offering at a single time.  Sometime I’d get lucky and they’d load the plates onto the side I was sitting, other times I wouldn’t and the plates would start their journey just after me, leaving me to wait and watch for the full 3:45 to see if they’d all be gone in a single rotation.

Too many days watching too many plates swiped before reaching me, encouraged learning. 

My difficulty with Japanese has always been the combination lock pairing of consonants and vowels. The precision required of my sloppy English speaking tongue absent, I often mispronounced similar sounding words to hilarious and humbling affect.  The more I went to the sushi place, the more I began shouting orders.  Most were easy enough, bin-toro, hamachi, ika, katsuo. On some nights there was a crab salad roll that one chef would make and push on customers.  He claimed it was his specialty.  It’s presence on the belt was rare.  What I liked about it was his version didn’t swim in mayonnaise unlike so many others I’d seen.  One night I sat down just as the last one was picked up.  I tried to get his attention and point to what I wanted, but he was always a bit aloof.  When he wasn’t making orders he stood straight, both hands on the counter, looking off into the limited distance of the shop, a beatific grin drawn across his lips.  I found him wholly welcoming and wholly intimidating.  That night I was seated in front of his territory and thought I’d just ask him to make me one of the crab salad rolls. Kuni sa-ra-d, I said.  Returning to motion he tilted his head at me, repeated the order with disgust.  Kuni-sarad? Is that what you want? There is no kuni sarada here. He said over pronouncing ku-ni so I could hear my mistake. Kuni is the word for country. Kani is the word for crab.  It took me a while to ask for anything from him again and months for him to let me live it down.  Even as I got better at ordering when I would say kani he would make sure I didn’t mean kuni. He was one of my first and best teachers.  His rules were simple: you could have whatever you wanted if you had to the words to ask for it. If you didn’t have the words, you’d have to take what was there. There would be no help, no filling in the gaps of meaning.  Politeness compounded mistakes and to this day I continue to malaprop with the best of them.  Ordering was better, almost always better.  Unless you were choosing something just prepared, the fish handed to you directly was cooler, the rice was warmer. Eventually I became more adept at pushing hard at the ka of ­kani, but another time my brain slipped on maguro, the word for tuna, and I said Meguro, another neighborhood in Tokyo. 

Again I got nothing. 

Our game continued for a year until a sign went up in the shop that they would be closed for renovations.  Summer was at its end and I was about to return to New York for the first time since my impulsive Tokyo move.  When I walked back in the shop a month later, the walls had been repainted a sickly light pink and the entire chef staff was replaced.  Men still, but younger, less earnest.  They oversold their welcoming smiles and joyful screams whenever a new customer walked in.  In part because I had been away, in part because I was curious to see what would happen, I asked for kuni sa-ra-d. The young man nodded beneath his white hat. He brought me kani-sarad drowned in mayonnaise and smiled.  He told me I was good at Japanese and asked me how long I had been in Japan. 

After I rarely went back until I stopped going altogether.  While we were dating I took my wife there one time.  She found it dirty, which it was and wasn’t.  The new-pink walls hadn’t aged well.  Together, we discovered our own keitan sushi shop to frequent—a bright, raucous place where you pass your order to chefs on pieces of paper or order off of I-pads with multi-lingual software.  The fish comes hurtling towards you on model bullet trains.  Speaking is perfunctory. Would I have ever learned the names to anything if I found this place first?  When you’re finished you hit a button on the screen and a curious sign comes up. 

“Thank you.  Since we will employees, please wait.”