Sudden Illiteracy

On my first visit to Japan, I am astounded by my illiteracy.

For someone who has devoted much of life to reading and writing, it is a shock to stand on street corners with no idea how to read the writing on the wall or the signs. I can’t read a thing. Many of the symbols are so complex with such subtle differences that are difficult to remember. There are very few symbols that I can recall from one instance to the next.

I’m not entirely hopeless. I work with small steps. Knowing the symbol for exit is a smart move when negotiating public transportation and visiting hotels in a country known for its earthquakes. I try to work out how symbols relate to the words in Roman script on signs, but the patterns remain obscure most of the time. My visit is too short to allow an intelligent study of the language, but it is long enough that I remain persistently curious to decipher bits and pieces along the way.

As a step towards recognizing the symbols, I went to an exhibition of Mitsuo Aida’s poems that he rendered in lovely and sophisticated calligraphy.

The exhibit provided English translations of the poems. The structure of poetry simplified to some extent the job of discovering links between the symbols and the words that would be repeated verbatim or with slight variations in the text.

The poetry inspired contemplation and its rendering through calligraphy was a lovely thing to behold. It helped to deepen a connection across time and space.

I’m so pleased that you are reading this text so that we can make a connection.

When have you experienced anything like sudden illiteracy?

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