Drawings by Lars Martinson


People sometimes ask me about how I translate Japanese, do I translate very literally or do I translate freely, and I guess I’m usually in-between, kind of a middle-of-the-road translator. But something happened to me the other day that I just have to share with you in a literal sort of way.

Now, all the gaijin I know in Kyoto know what ogatagomi is. You know, you’re walking down the street and all at once you see, say, a Sony TV set, a bicycle, a suit of armor and three bookcases lying abandoned out on the street, and you say, “Wow! What time does it get dark?” Then you get it all home and you find out that the TV is only black-and-white and the cord’s been cut off…But anyway, that’s the easy part. Trying to get rid of ogatagomi is a problem. It’s really hard. I know. I tried, and this is what actually happened to me.

Definitions: (Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, 4th ed.)
Ogata: 1. Large, full-size; oversize.
Gomi: n. dust; rubbish; litter.

CAST: (in order of appearance)
NARRATOR: Someone who knows everything…
VOICE ON: Japanese, male, bureaucratic.
ALIEN ME: The Alien, me.
VOICE TWO: Japanese, male, bureaucratic.

Setting: The Alien Me’s tatami living room in Sakyo Ward of Kyoto, Japan. He kneels in front of a telephone for three reasons: 1. He is about to make a phone call, 2. He doesn’t have a chair, and 3. He is too stiff and sore from carrying the trash the day before to really stand. The season is pre-cherry blossom March, the time mid-morning.

Narrator: Spring coming Kyoto,
Buds coming to the trees,
Politicians coming to the streets,
Has forced one lazy alien
Away from his kotatsu
Away from his dwindling pile of mikan
To peer out the door
And to come to feel some ambition
About cleaning the yard,
Or that path-sized strip of ground
Between two sunless walls
And to actually pick up the stuff
That should be thrown away.

Now the spouse of this Alien
Was on her way to town
To get herself fingerprinted
For her own Alien reasons
And was asked to ask at the ward office
About Ogatagomi…
(These aliens hate Japanese phone books
Almost as much as they hate telephones,
No matter what language they speak…)

Returning from the Sakyo-ku office
She handed him a piece of paper
(Smeared with a bit with fingerprint ink)
With a number, she said, for Ogatagomi
And repeated to him as a lecture
She had received from the fingerprinter
Dealing with his never dealing with TRASH,
But in a spirit of public service
And International Cooperation
He did look up a number…

Which our alien
While in the privacy of his own home
But in the same spirit of service
(Well, he could have left the trash alone
Or gone ahead and piled it in the street
Hoping another Alien would steal it…)
He decided to forfeit a morning
To international Confusion,

VOICE ONE: Speak. Speak.
NARRATOR: Newcomers think Moshi Moshi means Hello
But literally it means “speak speak”.
Although experts seem to disagree
Who is speaking, you or me or us,
Let’s just leave the subject off
And be as literal as we can be.

ALIEN ME: Speak! Speak!
Concerning Ogatagomi…
I wish to beg of you…

VOICE ONE: Concerning Ogatagomi…
There do exist established rates
And yearly contracts…
Concerning the name of your company…
We wish to beg of you…

ALIEN ME: There is no excuse
But I am private residence only
A company for me does not exist,

VOICE ONE: Concerning contracts
We do not have relationships
With private residences only

ALIEN ME: Concerning contracts
I am not concerned
Concerned Ogatagomi
I am! However…

VOICE ONE: Understanding has taken place…
Were you to dial another number
It would be appreciated…
I think…

ALIEN ME: There is absolutely no excuse…
But if that other number
Could be bestowed as teaching upon me…
I would wish to beg of you
I think…

NARRATOR: After much humble gratitude
Another number is jotted down,
After the Alien has poured coffee,
In fear of the coming ordeal,
He dials again… and somewhere
A phone is answered saying “Speak! Speak!”
To which the Alien replies
In flawless Japanese:
“Speak! Speak!” and then adds:

ALIEN ME: Concerning Ogatagomi
I do wish to beg of you…

VOICE TWO: Concerning Ogatagomi
Is it?

NARRATOR: This aging man
Has been saying
This same thing
For years and years…

VOICE TWO: (continuing)
And may we inquire
As to just how large
The OGATAGOMI could maybe be?
Is there a refrigerator perhaps?
Or maybe an old TV?

ALIEN ME: No, just average Ogatagomi.

VOICE TWO: “Average” Ogatagomi
Is not fully understood…
Were you to list for us
What actually exists for you
As teachings upon us
It would be better
We do believe…

ALIEN ME: Old corrugated metal roofing

VOICE TWO: Yes! Yes!
And concerning old corrugated metal roofing
Just how many thin objects of these
Do exist there for you?

ALIEN ME: Well, there is no excuse, however…
But I rolled them up into tubes
And I believe I should be forced to say
That 5 or 6 of these cylindrical objects
Exist for me…

NARRATOR: But as he spoke
He really wondered
If maybe it should be:
5 or 6 rows or
5 or 6 rolls or
5 or 6 bundles or
5 or 6 reams or
5 or 6 volumes or
5 or 6 vehicles or…

VOICE TWO: “Speak! Speak!”
You said “Old corrugated metal roofing”
Now just bestow upon us
As teachings for us
The number of thin objects
That exist for you there.

ALIEN ME: Ah, Truly. Truly.
There is no excuse at all and
This never ends…
Five or Six Thin Objects
Exist for me here.
VOICE TWO: Truly, Truly.
This never ends…
Five or Six “thin objects”
of old corrugated metal roofing
Understanding has taken place,
And now what else
Exists for you there?


VOICE TWO: And how many cylindrical objects
Of that PIPE
Exist for you there?

NARRATOR: One of the pipes had been smashed flat
Somewhere in the middle
But the Alien held his tongue in secret…

ALIEN ME: As for the pipe,
There are 2 or 3 cylindrical objects
That exist for me here
I do believe…however…
There is no excuse…

VOICE TWO: Yes, Yes…
Two or Three cylindrical objects of pipe
And what else…

NARRATOR: The Alien was amazed
That the voice did not ask
The materials of which the pipes were made
Nor the thickness, nor the length,
Won’t the collectors
Be totally shocked to find
His 42-feet of 8-inch pipe
Made of deadly asbestos?

VOICE TWO: Speak! Speak!
And what else…?

ALIEN ME: A box of trash.
A box of average trash.

VOICE TWO: Describing the contents
of a box of average trash
Is not necessary…
What is the box made of?
Wood perhaps? Or cardboard?

ALIEN ME: Cardboard.

VOICE TWO: Describing the contents
of a box of average trash
Is not necessary…
What is the box made of?
Wood perhaps? Or cardboard?

ALIEN ME: Cardboard.

VOICE TWO: …and One Thing of Cardboard Box…
And what else…?

ALIEN ME: That is the limit of the trash
That exists here for me.

VOICE TWO: Then perhaps you will provide
Your name, your address
And your telephone number
As teachings upon us…

NARRATOR: Knowing all that data could
He provided it without flaw
And felt he could at last
Return to his morning
But the Voice continued…

VOICE TWO: Now without hanging up,
Wait until we can locate
Your house on our map…
Well, on this map of ours,
And it is really regrettable,
Your name does not exist.

NARRATOR: With land prices in Japan
Being as outrageous as they are
It is indeed no surprise…
That his name is not on maps.
Or if the old tenement house
Which he can afford to live
Appears anywhere in Kyoto records
He would really be amazed.

ALIEN ME: Since I only rent
The landlords’s name
Would be of some help
But not knowing anything
And having no excuse…

VOICE TWO: It is Kyoto City Police
Concerning Ogatagomi
When the name of the Real Person
Does not appear on our map
Then the name of a neighbor
Must be provided
As teachings upon us…

ALIEN ME: The neighbors?
Well, you see, the truth is…
There is really no excuse…
The neighbors are all quite nice
But I haven’t lived in Kyoto THAT long,
Just nine months…
And haven’t talked to anyone yet
And don’t know anything at all
But doesn’t the house number 61
Mean anything at all…to you?

VOICE TWO: It is necessary for you to provide
The Name of a Neighbor
Whose name would appear
On this map of ours
As teachings upon us
We beg of you
Now cut yourself off from the phone
Go outside and learn the name of a neighbor
It will be written as a nameplate
It will be hanging on the door
Do this as teachings upon us
We beg of you, we think…
And call us back.


NARRATOR: (This happened, this really happened!)
Still in yukata
He moves from the phone
Still in bare feet
He puts on cold shoes
Since it is still raining
He opens an umbrella
And hobbles next door
To peer at a Nameplate.
And just when he wished
He had studied more kanji
The neighbor, a young wife
Comes out of her door
To find a kimono-clad gaijin
With untied shoestrings
Under an umbrella
And the nameplate on her door
With widened eyes
She runs back inside and bolts the door
For her safety…
The alien grins politely
And bows to her peephole
Before running home
So we wouldn’t forget
The number of strokes
In his neighbor’s name
Then free of cold shoes
Free of the umbrella
He runs to his desk
To reconfirm for himself
And the city of Kyoto
That his neighbor’s surname
Confident now,
He calls The Voice back.

VOICE TWO: Speak! Speak!

ALIEN ME: Speak. Speak.
There is no end to all of this
But concerning the neighbor
The person is Baba.

NARRATOR: Now in fairness to all
Alien and local alike
It should be noted
(as teachings upon you)
Then the characters involved
In writing the neighbor’s name
Are “ba” “ba” like “horse” “place”
Or “Riding ground” or “racetrack”
But “baba” also means “hag”
Or “old woman” or “witch”
Or even a “wet nurse” at times
So how would the Voice be likely to know
Which kanji the Alien meant?

VOICE TWO: Speak. Speak.
Concerning the neighbor?

ALIEN ME: Speak. Speak.
Concerning the neighbor?
The person is Baba.

VOICE TWO: Concerning the neighbor?
Concerning a Baba?

ALIEN ME: Speak. Speak.
Concerning Ogatagomi…

VOICE TWO: Yes. Yes.
Concerning Ogatagomi
Is it?

NARRATOR: This aging man
Has been saying
This same thing
For years and years…

VOICE TWO: (continuing)
And may we inquire
As to just how large
The Ogatagomi could maybe be?
Is there a refrigerator perhaps?
Or maybe an old TV?

ALIEN: Speak. Speak. No. No.
That’s not right.
It was decided already:
Old corrugated metal roofing
And pipe…Remember…?

VOICE TWO: And how many thin objects
Of corrugated metal roofing
Exist for you there?

ALIEN ME: Jesus! It can’t be helped…
5 or 6 thin objects
of corrugated metal roofing
and 2 or 3 cylindrical objects of pipe
exist for me here…
But I already offered that
As teachings to you
And I live in Ichijoji
And my name is Ra-i-to
And I don’t know anything at all
But my neighbour, however, is Baba!

VOICE TWO: Speak. Speak.
Concerning Ogatagomi, is it?

ALIEN ME: Speak. Speak.
I am speaking…
My name is Ha-ru-ro-do Ra-i-to
Which isn’t on maps
And YOU needed to know
The name of my neighbour
But I don’t know why
But I went outside
And I got wet
And I read the Nameplate
And the neighbor now thinks
And that neighbor is BABA!

VOICE TWO: Understanding has taken place…
There are baba
Living all over Kyoto
And it is not enough to know
One is living next to you…
Concerning Ogatagomi
You must learn that baba’s name
And bestow it upon us as teachings…

ALIEN ME: (understanding the confusion at last)
My neighbour’s NAME is BABE
And she is not THAT old
I don’t mean babe, a hag
I mean Baba
Like where you ride horses
Because that is the name
On the door of my neighbor.

You are a neighbour of Baba-san.
And luck is now with you
Baba-san is here on the map!

ALIEN ME: Truly. Truly.
Luck is upon me.
I am so grateful…

VOICE TWO: No. No. Don’t mention it at all…
Now, where is your house?
To the north or to the south?


VOICE TWO: Speak. Speak.
To the north or to the south?

ALIEN ME: …in the direction of the south
perhaps, however…
…in the direction to the north
perhaps, however…
maybe east, or even west
I really don’t know anything at all
Can’t you find the number 61?

VOICE: It is the Policy of Kyoto City
Concerning Ogatagomi
In the event that the Real Person
Doesn’t exist upon our maps
Then the name of a neighbour
Must be provided
As teachings upon us
And to do so
We are begging on you…

ALIEN ME: Understanding has just taken place.
It is probably for sure the direction north
For Mt. Hiei lies still north of me
And I live north of Baba.

VOICE TWO: Speak. Speak.
Mt. Hiei?
Your house exists in Sakyo-ku?
Concerning Ogatagomi?

ALIEN ME: Yes. Yes.
Yes. Yes.
Yes. Yes.
Next to Baba-san.
North of Baba-san.
Yes. Yes.

VOICE TWO: Understanding has been achieved.
Now let’s discuss the date
Of Ogatagomi in your area…
Thursday, March 26 is the next
We start at 8:30 am.
But never know
Where exactly we have to go
Or when we will actually finish
Or when we can pay a call
Upon your home…
Actually you may be the very first
So we beg of you to cooperate
And have the Ogatagomi
Set out by half past eight
And also attach a sign
Written on PAPER
With your name upon it
And the words OGATAGOMI.

ALIEN ME: Understanding has taken place
And I am grateful
There was no excuse at all
And I know nothing
This never ends.
Moshiwake gozaimasen deshita…
Truly Truly, Domo Domo
Honto ni. Homma ni…
Arigato gozaimashita
I have been so rude.
Shitsurei itashimashita.

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