That is the snake that bit my foot


If you’re thinking of dabbling with Japanese, then as a more practical guide than the sketch “How to learn Japanese in three easy lessons” (freezing cold, constipated, and absent-minded—available on request), then allow me to recommend Teach yourself Japanese, by the reputable Messrs Dunn and Yanada.

First published in 1958, it’s full of phrases that will stand you in good stead. I will cite the examples faithfully in the precise order that the plot develops; and believe me, these citations are real! (For Effle, click here, with further fine links; for another wacky linguistic fantasy, here.)

Let’s begin with

There is a hat on your head.

Gosh! Thanks for telling me! It all seems to start off so innocently. But a hint of the sinister turn that the lessons will be taking comes with

Cats die in water.

Mastery of conjugations for dying is considered essential as early as Lesson 5, and we soon meet

The cat is dead

as well as

Both the man and the dog are dead.

Lest we get bogged down, after a phrase meaning “reading is possible”, we are advised

but it is probably better not to analyse the meaning of expressions such as this.

Just don’t ask no questions and no-one gets hurt, OK? The authors appear to nurse an ambition to write screenplays for Japanese horror films:

The rain is repugnant.

He is an unpleasant child.

More arcane, with echoes of The Third Policeman, is

 Isn’t there a bicycle that isn’t heavy?

It cannot be said that they are not keen to avoid initiating us into the use of multiple negatives. Lesson 9 contains a sentence that will be vital on those visits to the Kyoto police station to take part in identity parades:

That is the snake that bit my foot.

Just imagine all those snakes lined up in identical hats and scarves. Back to the horror film:

There is someone in that room.

This time, some vocabulary for the unfortunate snake, now singled out:

I did not see anybody. I did not meet anybody.

He’s not giving in. More on that story later.

Meanwhile, idiom is the order of the day. The particle Saa

might correspond to “Let me see now”, “That’s a teaser”.

The horror film is never far away:

The window from which the child fell.

Soon after death comes the first hint of alcoholism, beginning with the classic disclaimer

I drank a little beer.

Despite the Japanese reputation for politeness, sometimes there’s just no beating around the bush:

The fact is, his suit is peculiar.

The fact is, this book is peculiar. Death is not going to be enough—by Lesson 13 we have to master suicide:

Why did he commit suicide?

Not because his suit was peculiar, I hope. To take our minds off it all, how about a vacation?

The thing to do in America is to buy shirts.

Forget the Empire State Building—though hey, we’ve already learnt the verbs for falling and committing suicide, so why not?

Let’s not be pedantic—to explain the sentence

You’ve bought the case we saw yesterday?

we are offered the helpful comment

If the case was in the window of the shop when you saw it with your friend, then, on the next day, it was gone, on meeting your friend again you might presume that he had bought it, and would use a sentence like this to ask if your presumption was correct.

Got that? More visual imagery:

We are laughing at the one the tip of which is shining.

It’s OK, they’ve only drunk a little beer. Also highly suggestive is

He saves time by using machinery.

A chainsaw, maybe? Back to philosophy:

Shall I too die tomorrow?

Look guys, we have to learn this properly: a slightly different formulation

could also be translated in the same way, but would imply the will to die—“Shall I too kill myself tomorrow?”

Ma Yuan

Most elegant scene in the budding screenplay is

I wonder if the man who was standing on the island in the middle of the river was trying to get across.

Eat your heart out, Kurosawa.

Back to our man saving time by using machinery:

Let’s use as thick and heavy a lid as possible.

For a while now we’ve been so busy dismembering people and attempting suicide with correct conjugations that we haven’t had time for another “little” drink, but at last in Lesson 16

I drank a lot of sake yesterday, so my head aches today.

Let’s face it,

In spite of the fact that he promised not to drink sake, he drinks a lot every evening.

Well, with such a peculiar suit, you have to, don’t you? More mystery:

The packet is dry, I wonder why the cigarettes are wet.

And here’s a crap-haiku version of the Bucharest bread-queue joke (also available on request—Ed.):

How many cakes are left?
There aren’t a lot of cakes left.
There’s not even one cake left.

Back at the Kyoto AA meeting, predictably, eating cakes is thirsty work:

As there was any amount of beer, we drank a lot.

I saw through that cake-eating shtick right from the start. No wonder that

Every week I think I will go to the committee meeting, but I never can.

Just can’t seem to find the time eh? Back at the police station, we overhear the interrogation following the snake identity parade:

Have you at any time been to see a Chinese play?

(“There some kinda law against it?” sneers the snake cockily, chewing his gum.)

Sure enough,

Are you all lined up?

Back to our man with the machinery:

Today’s meat is different from the usual.

Uh-oh. More useful tips:

If we leave aside the brusque imperative used in military circles and when speaking angrily to inferiors…

Meanwhile, back at the horror film:

You had better not open the door.

Oh well, what the hell:

Do you want to drink some beer?

This is getting scary:

I shall go with you, but before that will it be all right if I just phone somebody?

‘Fraid not, kid. Just get in. Useful once you’ve learnt how to say

Follow a person, trail somebody.

More homespun philosophy:

What is there after this?

Hmm, that’s a teaser. Always good to avoid embarrassment:

In the sentence above the children ran away so the teacher could not see them. A similar thought lies behind: “Let us clear this room up before the guest comes”. Here the purpose is to avoid letting the guest see what an untidy state the room is in.

Yup, beer bottles and body parts strewn all over the darn place. Don’t say you haven’t been warned:

It seems that it is dangerous to go along that road at night.

On the same page, we meet

someone who looks like a doctor.

Inevitably, we are soon asked

Is it still alive? I expect it will still be alive tomorrow.

The weather is playing its part splendidly: apart from the constant rain,

I suppose there will be fog again today.


If you go to a place like that once, you probably won’t want to go again.

By now I’m even worried by

May I give you some water?

Machinery man has an accomplice:

Please go and wash this knife.

For our friend who has walked along the dangerous road at night and asked to make a phone call before coming with machinery man, some more vocabulary that may come in handy—if not for long:

If there is a good opportunity I shall run away.

Too bad, just when he was thinking the man who looked like a doctor would be able to save his leg after that snake bit his foot at the Chinese play. Sure don’t look like he’s going to make that committee meeting. And what is it with water? First it’s the cigarettes, now

I only dried that suit this morning and it’s quite wet again!

The peculiar suit? Cats do tend to thrash around a lot when they’re being held down in water. There’s no escape:

They killed even the children.

Hey! Do you want us to come to your country or not?

The quicker the better.

Just when you’d quite like to be learning sentences that’ll help you make friends, learning how to walk into a shop and buy a black kimono that’s not covered in fucking bloodstains, some more handy everyday vocabulary:

He died at the second hour after taking poison.

Still, there’s useful information:

It is only the third bottle from the left which has poison in it.

Oh well, at least

He had his sword taken away by the policeman.

No wonder that

There is a funny smell in this room, isn’t there?

Not just blatant horror, the more subtle ghost story isn’t neglected either:

I feel that I have been here before.

But machinery man is getting careless:

When I looked in through the window, there was a corpse lying on the floor.

More useful vocabulary—though not for machinery man’s victims, I guess:

One’s legs are there in order that one may walk.

Or is he just goading them? They do have to be, like, attached to your body. By Lesson 27, at last we get a clue to that seemingly inconsequential phrase near the beginning:

You must not go into a room with your hat on.

I see! Machinery man just can’t help dismembering people who walk into his room wearing a hat. That early deadpan comment of his “There is a hat on your head” was the beginning of this whole nightmare. Brilliant suspense. The fact is, his suit is peculiar. Soon the psychological details fall into place:

Cats disgust him.

Lesson 30 covers the polite language, but I fear the time has long passed.

And that’s just the Lessons—you should see the Conversations.

The latest news from Japan is that it looks like the snake’s gonna get off the rap. They can’t pin nothing on him—not even a hat, and he has an alibi for the night of the Chinese play. But will it stand up in court?

22 thoughts on “That is the snake that bit my foot

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