I have learned business Japanese through trial and error, which is very similar to the Braille method of learning to parallel park your car.
Recently, a customs broker called me from Osaka to tell me my cargo shipment had arrived. He said he was figuring the customs tax of the contents of the shipment but was confused by some of the language used on the packing list. This didn’t surprise me, as the packing list is written in English, a universal language, and the broker speaks only Japanese, a language used only by a small East Asian nation and a handful of nonnative speakers.
So I was appointed translator, and we went through the English list one by one in order to determine a customs tax for each product.
“What is a sarong?” he started.
“It’s a piece of cloth that is used to wrap around the body in most Asian countries, but in Japan, for some reason, people hang it on their walls.”
“Clothes on the walls?” he said. “This is very complicated.”
“So, which is it, clothing or a wall hanging?”
“Indeed!” I agreed, although I really wanted to say, “Whichever one has the lesser tax.” Still perplexed, he then asked, “Is it ‘orimono?’ “
Now, apparently this word has several different definitions, but the only one I was familiar with is the one used in women’s clinics by gynecologists qualified to ask women very personal questions. Let’s just say that ‘orimono’ is an uncountable noun that I daresay they could tax without measurement in beakers. Sure that sarongs could not be measured so, I said, “No, not orimono.” It was only later after looking it up in the dictionary that I found the word also means “textiles.”
Surely wary of my translation skills at that point, he quickly moved on to the next category: bedding. “Can you explain ‘bed covers?’ ”
“Oh yes,” I said, aware that bedding carries a high 16 percent customs tax and that it would be to my advantage to leave interpretation open to a different product with a lower tax. “These are bedspreads with a black-and-white cow print design,” I said. “Holstein,” I added for good measure, hoping to regain his confidence by impressing him with my familiarity with my own products.
“I see,” he said. “Knit or woven?”
“One hundred percent cotton. Stitched,” I said, hoping that answered his question. He seemed satisfied and moved on to the next category within bedding: pillows. “These go with the bedding,” I explained.
“What kind of pillows?” he asked. “They’re decorative pillows that go on the top of the bed. There are three types, each shaped like a different part of the cow: one cow head pillow, one cow tail pillow and one udder pillow. (Since there is no word for “udder” in Japanese, I had to say “cow nipples.”)
“These are pillows used by humans?” He seemed shocked.
“This is children’s bedding,” I explained, “so children can play with the arrangement of the pillows on top of the cow print bedspread and make an abstract cow using the pillows.”
“What is inside the pillows?” He seemed suspicious.
“All natural fibers. Except for the cow nipples, which have small synthetic balls inside to make the nipples squishy.” I heard nothing but the sound of sucking through teeth on the other end of the phone. “It’s supposed to be educational,” I added.
“We’ll call them toys,” he said, which automatically qualified them for a lower tax.
I was extremely relieved I didn’t have to go into any more details about whether cow nipples qualify as toys. I guess some things are better left up to the Braille method.