In Omiya in 2001 the billboards soared large above the streets, clogging the skyline on both sides. A random city in Saitama, it satisfied my youthful desire to live in the future of Japan. A decade later one of those signs remains in my mind, its strange language still near at hand.
In every city we read without thinking. A background process of our eyes and brain assimilates any language we can understand, without focus or need. We notice funny license plates on the highway, t-shirts on passers-by; advertising thrives on this, creating whole markets for billboards in video games and products used in TV shows. We absorb until we cannot, until we find ourselves somewhere with no knowledge of the written word. And then we work harder.
Japan was like that, in 2001. Like fresh snow, untracked with meaning. Young and impressionable I wandered open to new in all forms, and was forced to learn from watching people rather than words. Without the context of the written and without maps, bus trips from Warabi to the shopping mall in north western Kawaguchi where I taught once a week were journeys that relied on help from the driver, from watching the passengers and the landscape. In many ways those rides were the first of the lost moments. They were the first time I would think of the globe and my location and wonder how I had ever come to be there, so far from upstate New York where I’d been born.
In the decade since these moments have become frequent without becoming common. Walking alone over the bridge towards the US border in Juarez at three pm on a dusty Wednesday in November. Driving over the Golden Gate bridge at dawn. Crossing the Yangtze by ferry at eight am on a Monday in September. These moments, to me, are proof of the unpredictable path of life and the scale of our world.
To the value of words, the subconscious emphasis we grant things read, I return to Japan. In these moments of scant knowledge the few words we find and understand stick out stronger. Most Americans in Japan are obsessed with strange English usage. In Omiya the billboard I recall was for a pachinko parlor, happy caucasian women in front of a blurred nature background overlaid with white text. “Yes, Go Open!” it said. Three words out of a skyline of neon. Here in San Francisco I still say them to myself, at the start of an evening out or as the disc is pulled in an ultimate game. Yes, go, open. I doubt I’ll ever forget these things I never meant to read.
Life is littered with strange collections of words glimpsed unintentionally. The numbered stickers that for years were affixed to the back of the plexiglass in Shanghai taxi cabs. Slow children at play, which followed me throughout college. We do not go searching for them, these mantras, they simply exist. Double fine, a road sign that became the face of a company. Face slapping goes international, just blocks down the street. The price is very low like mud, from a Chinese restaurant about their pork. Words, adrift in our environment, take on meaning through rarity, through repetition, location, and design. They become part of our memories, another layer of geography tied to our lives.