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Published:October 29th, 2009 10:35 EST
Sanford and Son Meets Japan

Sanford and Son Meets Japan

By Geoff Dean

 Learning Japanese has had a lot of benefits. I encourage everyone to learn a foreign language and take every opportunity to put it to use, even if, like me, they are far from fluent. In my case, it has great improved the quality of my life in Japan, given me cultural experiences that would otherwise be beyond my reach, allowed me to make friends, and, most importantly, given me insight into the legendary sitcom, "Sanford and Son."

 In a nod to full disclosure, I must admit that I grew up on "Sanford and Son" and have always been a big fan. As an elementary school kid, when put down or teased, I would quickly fall back on a "Watch it, sucker!" When surprised, I would go for an, "Oh, it`s the big one!" although I`d usually leave off the "I`m coming to join you, honey!" I adopted Rollo`s (he was the sterotypical shady, in and out of jail friend of Lamont`s) combination African and American greeting, "Odago, Jack!" and used it on everyone (if you are not familiar with this phrase, look for "Lamont goes African" on youtube). My favorite Sanfordism was his rustling through his drawer of glasses and doing math problems that inevitably involved the meaningless "metric 8" but still managed to come up with correct answer.

 Still, fan though I was, I lacked an important skill to enjoy the series. I didn`t understand Japanese. Recently, as in enjoyed the series again courtesy of youtube, I came across the episode "Sanford and Rising Son" in which the junkman teams up with Pat Morita of Karate Kid fame to open a Japanese restaurant in his house.

 As a child, I watched and enjoyed this episode but missed out on several details. First, Pat Morita`s character was named "Ah Chew", obviously an attempt at humor, but now I know, impossible as a Japanese name (much closer to Chinese). Furthermore, the Japanese massage woman who appears at the end of the episode bows improperly and wears her kimono incorrectly, and I suspect, is not Japanese at all.

 Most interesting or egreious, depending on your view, is the scene where Fred and Ah Chew make their first sale and celebrate. Ah Chew says that there is a Japanese phrase for these auspicious occasions and rattles off a long proverb in Japanese. The joke is that no one can understand what he said. Unfortunately, now I can and I realized that he was speaking a popular children`s nursery song. He said, "Kaeru, kaeru, nande naku no, nande naku no..." which means "Frog, frog, why do ribbit? Why do you ribbit, indeed?" And so on. It has absolutely nothing to do with making a first profit. The producers obviously assumed that no one who understood Japanese would ever be watching Sanford and Son and those who did not, would be amused by someone speaking Japanese, regardless of what it meant. And they were probably right. It made me wonder about some of the Spanish speaking by Chico, the Puerto Rican neighbor, too. Was it just random talking? Or were they more concerned about the possibility of Spanish-speaking viewers?

 While I still love Redd Foxx and still enjoy "Sanford and Son", I can`t help but be a little disappointed. How much trouble would it have been to use a real proverb instead of forcing Pat Morita to say something he knew to be ridiculous? And let`s not even get into the Karate Kid series (called "Best Kid" in Japan, by the way).