There was once a terrible famine in a certain district of Japan. For a long time the peasants there had had little to eat- they were truly miserable. One day they gathered to discuss what course to take.
“We should write to the local lord and tell him of our troubles. Let’s ask him to exempt us from paying our taxes this year,” one of the peasants suggested. This plan was eagerly subscribed to by the others (for it was the custom in Japan for peasants to pay their taxes in the form of agricultural produce, particularly rice). But an obstacle to the idea immediately presented itself: none of the peasants could write. “Oh, this is awful”, they sighed in one breath.
Just then one of their number spoke. “Don’t worry. I have an idea. Leave everything to me.”
Not long afterwards the local lord received a letter of supplication. Opening it, he read the following: “一二三四五六七八九十”三, which are the cardinal numbers in Japanese, one through ten.
“I wonder what this means?” he said to himself. “I can’t seem to make head or tale of it.” The lord called one of his attendants and ordered that the bearer of the letter be brought before him. When the man had been ushered into the apartment, the lord questioned him.
“Is this really a letter of request?”
“Yes,” replied the man.
“If that is the case, as there is no misunderstanding, be so good as to read the letter yourself,” commanded the lord.
And the man proceeded to relate the villagers’ distress, enumerating each point with a cardinal number (the pronunciation of which sometimes also served as the first syllable of the first word in its corresponding article; the effect produced was clever, a bit like punning).
“At last I understand,” said the lord when the man had finished his tale. But tell me, why didn’t you just write a proper letter?”
“No one in the village is literate, so I came up with this mnemonic method of communicating our wishes.”
“I see. What does the “三” (san) at the end mean?” asked the lord.
“Yes, that’s the name of the village elder, Yokokawa Sanzo.”
Copyright 2009, Brian Southwick