By David Yamaguchi
WHEN AND WHERE, in everyday Seattle life, does one find Japanese culture? Sometimes one encounters it unexpectedly, as in the case of the young lady wearing the kimono at right. I met her, briefly, on the number 106 Rainier Beach bus in the Rainier Valley. It was a cool but lovely mid-October Saturday afternoon.
I introduced myself in my politest Japanese, as I wanted to take her picture for this space. It has been a while since I last ran a street-fashion story. Such columns are fun, owing to their spontaneity and efficiency. The picture is pretty much the story. For content, I need only write what the subjects tell me about themselves and their clothes. There is accordingly little of the usual slaving over words.
“Hokubei houchi no Yamaguchi desu,” I began. “Shimbun no tame ni shashin wo totte mo yoroshii deshou ka?” I am Yamaguchi from the North American Post. Can I take your picture for the paper?
At first the woman looked puzzled; she did not know the NAP. But when I explained that it is the Japanese community newspaper, which she can pick up at Uwajimaya, and that we occasionally do fashion spreads, she said yes.
“Gomen nasai,” she elaborated. “Ichinen-kan nihongo wo tsukatte koto ga arimasen. Chugoku-jin desu.” I am sorry. I have not spoken Japanese for one year. I am Chinese.
After taking a few minutes to reboot my phone, which gets into a snit sometimes, I snapped a few pictures of the elegantly dressed young woman. I asked her name. I gave her my card, so that she could contact me later, if she wished.
She said, simply, “Kiki desu.” I am Kiki.
“K-I-K-I?” I asked, double checking the spelling. She nodded.
And that was all the time there was. My destination came, I waved good-bye, and stepped off the bus.
There is undoubtedly a larger story behind my brief interaction with Kiki. Did she know the Japanese custom of dressing for the four seasons, and where she had learned it? What was the event from which she was returning/ She did not appear to be going to an evening event, as she did not have a jacket.
If we had had the time, I would also have asked Kiki the broader story of how she had learned Japanese, and why she had chosen to study beyond her heritage language(s). Moreover, has she lived in Japan (likely), and under what circumstances? For example, is she a UW JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) alumnus?
I may never learn the answers to these questions. As my Fukui-based cousin taught me, “Ichi-go ichi-e.” Sometimes in life, you meet people only once…
That evening, I shared the photo with a friend, for feedback.
“I can’t believe that she let you take her picture,” my friend said. “You are a stranger.”
“Well…,” I replied, “we spoke in Japanese, which opens doors.”
“And it is cultural,” my friend said.
It was the cultural highlight of my otherwise ordinary day.
I will close by sharing here what I would have liked to have said to Kiki in person, had there been more time, and had I known an appropriate expression. Perhaps Kiki will see these words, or one of her friends will tell her of them.
What I might have said was later taught to me by Arisa Nakamura, who staffs the front office of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Washington (JCCCW), when she isn’t designing pages for this paper.
“Kiki-san, anata no okage de, akarui ichinichi ni narimashita.” Kiki, thank you for brightening my day.
PS. Since submitting this column to my running file at the NAP office in November, from which editor Misa draws, I ran into Kiki again.
“Do you recognize me?” she asked. She was holding down the information booth at the recent Cherry Blossom Festival. As we had more time to talk, she explained that she is a UW student from China. She hopes to work in Japan.
David Yamaguchi is a local Sansei. He has written for the Post since 2006. Tweet him @davidyamaguch10.