Passing through Tokyo recently, I was encouraged to see that I was beginning to recognize a few words written in Japanese. Every person responds to signals differently, and on first blush, anyway, I began to feel hopeful about my eventual potential to read the language. To see two icons drawn that meant Tokyo, and another quite different pair that meant “Exit,” seemed like a great vehicle for communication of ideas. I could easily see the difference. I could recognize the signs. Hang grammar. This is the essence of the thing.

So, all charged up with my newfound “intelligence,” and left with two hours to burn in Tokyo on account of appointments fallen through, I planted myself in front of a train station’s neighborhood map, focused intently, and laboriously transcribed the Japanese characters in my notebook that named the place I was in, so if I went wandering and got lost I could simply show someone that and be directed back to the place from whence I came.

It was an arduous process, with each of the characters being more complex than the last, until I was drawing bookcases and chests-of-drawers with flags planted on them and running feet and exclamation marks to beat the band, but finally, I was confident I had a pretty creditable execution.

I stepped back with satisfaction and surveyed the map for any other keys to pick up. And then I saw the English translation hidden in bold type above the characters I had so meticulously transcribed. I realized I had drawn the magic phrase for locating yourself anywhere on the planet:

 “You Are Here.”