John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

Piaf, Impressionists and luxury handbags: why the Japanese are saying 'Oui' to France
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The Independent Online

Beat this for a boast. The Japanese Edith Piaf is in the same class as my wife at the Sorbonne.

So were, until recently, an Estonian film director, a German composer, scores of silent, studious, young Chinese, a Vietnamese video-games addict, a Japanese kleptomaniac and a half-dozen Japanese girls who never want to go home.

To improve her French, Margaret has just completed two of the tough courses in French language and civilisation offered by the Sorbonne. She enjoyed the classes but delighted even more in the variety, and personal histories, of her classmates.

There was the young Vietnamese man who insisted on giving an exposé (lecture or show-and-tell) on the history and attractions of video games. In the course of his presentation, he explained that he had dropped out of a military academy in Vietnam and fled to France.

Asked why, he said: "Ah, Pas de filles, pas de filles." (There were no girls, no girls.)

There was also the pretty Japanese girl who agreed to spend a weekend with a German student. He thought that he was on to a good thing, but she spent most of the time crying because she was in love with their fiftysomething French teacher.

So, it turned out, were two other Japanese girls in the same class. One of them told Margaret that she had got a job in the Printemps department store and hoped never to go home. "Japanese men are small and ugly," she said.

In Margaret's second class, there was also a quiet, striking, somewhat older Japanese woman. When it came to her turn to give a talk in French, she chose to speak on La Chanson Française(the French tradition in popular song).

After giving a short lecture on the life of Edith Piaf, she startled her classmates by bursting - rather beautifully - into song, performing "Je ne regrette rien" in both the French and Japanese versions.

It turned out that Ayumi Ishihara, 45, is a professional pop singer in Japan, who specialises in re-recording the songs not only of Piaf but also Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand. She is in France to improve her French so that she can sing the songs better in the original language and translate more songs into Japanese.

"French culture is very popular in Japan," she told me. "French wine, French cuisine, French luxury goods, but also French songs, especially Edith Piaf. With French songs, the words are beautiful not just the music. The Japanese appreciate that, so long as they can understand the words. That is why I am here."

We now have one of Ayumi's CDs with her covers of Piaf songs - "La Vie en Rose", "Padam ... Padam". She does a wonderful, throaty, rather slow, Japanese version of the great little Parisienne. On 28 June, she will be performing at the Théâtre de Nesle in the sixth arrondissement (tickets: €15).

I asked her why the Japanese were so taken with things French.

"It is not just France," she said. "We also like Britain. We are obsessed with the British style of gardening."

That's all right then.

"In Japan," Ayumi added, "most cultural trends are established by women, especially young women. It is they who have started the fashion for French culture, because they like French painting, they like the Impressionists, and they like French handbags.

"But it is also a little because Japanese women have the impression that French women are strong and have more independence than they do. In Japan, almost everything, apart from culture, is dominated by men."

This explains why for many of the younger Japanese women in the Sorbonne classes "La Vie en Rose" (life in the pink) would be to marry a Frenchman. Not all French women would necessarily agree.

Mystery suit

Foreigners can be a terrible nuisance, though. The other day, I was walking down the Avenue de Friedland near the Etoile when a battered little car stopped and the driver beckoned me over, pointing to a map.

"I am an Italian," the man said in French. "I am in the fashion business." He turned over the lapel of his white jacket, as if to prove his point.

Then he pointed to a plastic bag: "I have here a Giorgio Armani suit, which I am supposed to take back to Italy. I don't want to. You are a fashionable, young man. You can have it. For free."

Smelling a rat, and calculating no Armani suit would be likely to fit me, I declined. He swore at me in Italian and drove off.

I told my wife the story. She agreed about the suit. She also reminded me something uncannily similar had happened to her in almost the same spot two years ago. An Italian in a battered car had called her over, holding a map. When she leaned into his window, he said "horrible hands" and drove away.

Was it the same man? No. Mine was thin and thirtysomething. Hers was fat and fiftysomething.

Can anyone explain what is going on?

Dash for freedom

The younger generation can also be a terrible nuisance. Charlotte, 11, a friend of one of my daughters, lost her tortoise a month ago while visiting her family's house in Provence. It is hard to imagine a tortoise running away, but that is apparently what happened.

Last week, the tortoise was discovered in the next door neighbour's garden. The neighbour rang Charlotte in Paris with the good news.

"Could you send it to me in the post?" she asked. Silence at the other end of the line.