TOKYO -- It is sometimes said that the Japanese language is the greatest barrier to communication ever devised by the mind of man. Schoolchildren spend nine years memorizing 1,945 written characters, the minimum (out of more than 40,000) they must master to be literate enough to read a newspaper. Spoken Japanese is a nightmare of politeness, with intricate rules for addressing superiors and referring to people inside and outside your company or family.

Worse, the language is exceedingly vague. In one notorious incident, Richard Nixon was led to believe that Japan had agreed to a deal with the United States when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato told him "Zensho shimasu" -- literally, "I will dispose of this in a favorable way." But any native speaker knows that the expression, as used in Japanese political circles, means nothing more than "I'll think about it." Washington and Tokyo spent the next two years squabbling over the meaning of Sato's remark.

Today, the person best suited to head off such flaps is Ken Yokota, the number one English-Japanese interpreter in Tokyo. When Japan speaks to America, Yokota is often in between, negotiating the dangers in a linguistic no man's land. Born in Japan, educated in Stockholm, New York, Tokyo and London, Yokota, 43, is a former diplomatic brat and a complete unknown to most Japanese -- but a star in the slice of Tokyo that must deal with the English-speaking world.

He works for Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and U. S. Trade Representative Carla Hills. He interprets for Salomon Brothers and Keidanren, the powerful Japanese business association that represents the giants of the industrial oligarchy. He has also interpreted for Joe DiMaggio and Brooke Shields. What did he think of her? "Pretty, tall," he says, and compared with the prime minister, "much less demanding."

In the past 13 years, Yokota has been at more contentious U.S.-Japan trade talks than the participants themselves, dutifully translating every obfuscation and tantrum, as the Americans have pressured the Japanese to open their markets to U.S. beef, citrus, semiconductors, wood products, rice and lawyers. "I try to reproduce the entire atmosphere," Yokota says. "When someone shouts, I do my best to pull myself together and shout too. But I tell people when they start throwing punches they shouldn't go through me."

Yokota, like the handful of other top interpreters in Tokyo, makes $700 a day, and moves with seeming ease between his American and Japanese clients. But he admits that his work got especially delicate during the 1985 semiconductor talks, when he was hired for one round by the Japanese and for the next round a month later by the American side -- causing critics to complain that the United States would do better in the trade talks if it hired American interpreters who were part of the team. "In an ideal world, that would be nice," admits a U.S. Embassy official in Tokyo. "But the level of interpreting is much better in Tokyo than it is in Washington."

Yokota, who is the American Embassy's first choice for any job, says he simply signs up with whoever calls first, and rejects the implication that his nationality undermines his objectivity or effectiveness. "I'm very conscious that other people would question my loyalty or conscience," he says. "But my job is to translate as accurately as possible."

On at least one occasion, though, his sympathies were clearly with Japan. Yokota was interpreting for a powerful member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party when the politician told a crude, off-color joke to a woman Cabinet member from another country. Yokota cleaned the joke up, and the politician never knew. "That was an occasion when I thought it was better not to translate exactly what was said," he says. "I felt very embarrassed to translate it. I guess I did it for myself, and that's very unprofessional. But I think I did it for the image of Japan too. I didn't want people to think that all Japanese politicians are like this. We're speaking of an extreme case here."

Yokota's success is due in large part to his flawless English, particularly striking since the few Japanese who do know the language do not speak it particularly well -- a situation considered the fault of Japan's education system, which emphasizes the rules of English grammar and not conversation. Yokota, who speaks unaccented and idiomatic American English learned in the United States, has such a command of the language that his repertoire includes an Oxbridge accent he dusts off for British clients.

On duty, Yokota is genial, formal and impeccably dressed, usually in Italian suits, crisp white shirts and burgundy ties. His longish hair and horn-rim glasses give him the look of a fashion-conscious Japanese preppy. Off duty, he goes home to his wife and two children in a far-flung suburb of Tokyo. He reads to relax, mostly in English, either magazines or Jeffrey Archer spy novels. Two or three nights a week, he stays out as late as 2 a.m. eating and drinking with old college friends -- the inalienable right of the Japanese husband.

Most of Yokota's days are spent darting back and forth across town, in a taxi or by subway like everyone else. Once, after he had finished interpreting in Tokyo for then-U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, he excused himself to head for another assignment. "See you later," he said to Yeutter. That same day, when Yeutter arrived for a meeting of Japanese companies, there was Yokota -- on the other side.

Recently, after a week in which Yokota had interpreted for Kaifu in an interview with CNN on Japan's contribution to the war in the Persian Gulf and a U.S. Embassy press conference on the latest round of the so-called "structural impediment" trade talks, he was at the Stanhope Hotel in New York by the weekend with a team of three interpreters accompanying Japanese Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The job included sitting behind Hashimoto and interpreting chitchat over dinner, which Yokota hates. "For one thing, you don't get to eat," he says. "Also, the silverware makes a lot of noise."

Over the years, Yokota has learned enough secrets to write a volume of memoirs, but the ethics of interpreters forbid this, at least for now. "I've heard some amazing stuff," he says, only saying that the secrets include fights during negotiations, private agreements between two companies and incompetent performances by officials during trade talks.

Yokota's fans in Tokyo say his other interpreting skills are speed, accuracy and the ability to speak sophisticated Japanese. More important, he is also considered lightning quick in making delicate judgments and sizing up the capacities of his audience.

Not long ago, Yokota was interpreting for Bill Emmott, an editor of the Economist and the author of "The Sun Also Sets," as he spoke to a crowd of Tokyo businessmen. Emmott referred to an "unholy alliance" against free trade in America, and even though there is no phrase in Japanese for "unholy alliance," Yokota instantly plugged in kegareta domei. Afterward, he explained why. "Domei" means alliance and "kegareta" means dirty or soiled, with a religious connotation, as if one's soul has been tainted. Yokota says there is a phrase in Japanese for holy alliance -- shinsei domei -- and that he could have added "fu" to make it negative. But he decided not to. "The meaning would have been the same," he says, "but probably the audience would not have absorbed it very naturally." Yokota's discussion of this took five minutes; the important thing to remember is that he actually made the decision to use kegareta domei in an instant.

Although much of what Yokota interprets is intensely serious or merely tedious, he has been known to display a sense of humor during his work. Last fall, for example, at a press briefing about Emperor Akihito's upcoming enthronement, Yokota was interpreting for the director of rituals for Japan's imperial family. Tokyo was filled with talk about the private, religious part of the enthronement in the middle of the night, during which Akihito was to commune with the spirit of his mythical ancestor, the sun goddess Amaterasu. Some scholars said the emperor would simulate intercourse on a bed in the inner chamber. The palace denied it, but people remained unconvinced.

When a French reporter wickedly asked if the sun goddess and the Emperor would be alone during their rencontre, the rituals director replied, in a tone of high seriousness, that the two would never be ittai ichi -- literally, face to face. Yokota rapidly translated the remarks in the deep, mellifluous FM radio announcer tone that is his trademark, but could not resist concluding with just the trace of a smile: "There will not be any moment when the emperor and his ancestor will be -- shall we say -- one on one." The room broke into laughter. Slips of the Tongue Throughout history, interpreters have always had the potential for influencing events and creating catastrophe. "It's scary," Yokota says. "One slip of the tongue at a press conference and it can be carried electronically around the globe." Like most members of his profession, Yokota is well aware of the most famous debacle in recent years, the one in 1977 when then-President Jimmy Carter told a crowd at the Warsaw airport that he had come "to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future" -- which his interpreter then translated as, "I desire the Poles carnally."

One of Japan's more recent disasters occurred in 1981, when Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki delivered a speech in Japanese to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, saying that in defense matters Japan was "not a roaring lion, but a clever hedgehog." This is a common phrase in Japan, implying that the nation is not an aggressor, but clever enough to monitor the seas around Japan and use its defensive force -- like a hedgehog uses its needles -- if attacked.

The word that Suzuki used for hedgehog was "harinezume," which literally means "a mouse with needles." But the interpreter couldn't remember what a harinezume is in English. Pressed, he took a stab at it and told the committee that Japan was "not a roaring lion, but a wise mouse." The next day the mouse roared up a mess of its own, and a Washington Post editorial scolded Suzuki. "The Japanese cannot simply explain their special conditions {on military matters} and sit back with folded arms," The Post said. "Americans do not expect Japan to become a lion that roars. But a lion that squeaks?"

Suzuki's interpreter -- by now no doubt fully educated in the nuances of hedgehogs -- announced that Suzuki had actually meant "prudent porcupine." Tokyo-based journalist Murray Sayle, who wrote about the incident for the Spectator, thinks things could have been worse. "If Suzuki had actually said "wise mouse," he says, "this might well have come out literally as 'cunning, small rat.' "

Insider/Outsider Yokota is here in his office in the center of Tokyo on a recent morning, not far from the Diet and the prime minister's house, sipping coffee on a battered sofa that looks like a refugee from a fraternity house sale. Although two decades of interpreting for Tokyo's political stars have placed Ken Yokota comfortably in Japan's upper middle class -- he says he makes about $150,000 a year -- the old steel desks and grimy walls of Yokota's surroundings make it appear that he's vying in a contest for worst office with his clients at the equally seedy Foreign and Finance ministries. In Japan, a no-frills office means you're frugal and serious about business; decorated suites are for decadent American corporate executives. At any rate, Yokota's schedule keeps him out of his office most of the time. He happens to be here, uncharacteristically dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans, because a meeting was canceled.

Yokota has lived for the past 22 years in Japan, but in his society he will always be a "returnee," a person whose life abroad has tainted him, or at least made him fundamentally different from those Japanese who have never left their own shores. "I don't feel like an outsider," he says, "nor do I feel like a complete insider. But I feel comfortable here."

Yokota's sense of displacement began early. He spent his childhood learning, forgetting and relearning English and Japanese as his father's career as a diplomat moved the family between Japan, Europe, the United States and back again. At the age of 5 in Stockholm, where he spoke English at home, Yokota had to endure the Swedish kids who taunted him with "chink, chink, chink" on the train on the way to school. Two years later, he returned to Tokyo, discovered he had forgotten all his Japanese -- and had to face taunts from the other side. "Some of my classmates would make fun of me," he says. "I couldn't fight back verbally, so before I knew it, my fist would be punching someone."

Six years later, Yokota moved to New York and entered ninth grade at Robert F. Wagner Junior High in Manhattan. This time, he had forgotten all his English. "It took about a month or two for English to flow out again. It must have been stored somewhere in my brain," he says. Back in Tokyo a year later, Yokota kept up his English in conversation classes after school, spent another year with his parents in London, then returned to Tokyo to attend International Christian University. He worked in between classes for Simul International, Tokyo's largest interpretation agency; when he graduated in 1972, he went to work for Simul full time. His parents were not pleased. "Possibly they thought there were a lot of things more worth doing in the world," Yokota says.

Indeed, the eldest son of a Japanese diplomat should have gone to work for the Foreign Ministry, or at least should have secured a job in the Tokyo office of an international company such as IBM. Interpreting was low-status work, largely for women, who went into it because it was one of the few jobs, other than that of a flight attendant, open to them.

But Yokota says he wasn't interested in promoting Japan's national interest abroad; to him, interpreting was the real intellectual challenge. "I felt there was nothing that would interest me more," he says. Was he drawn by the secrets, the behind-the-scenes power? "I didn't look at it as power," he says. "It was more like working on a puzzle -- and having to work on that puzzle right then and there."

The puzzle gets especially complicated during jobs that require simultaneous interpretation, when Yokota must listen and talk at the same time. In Japanese, as in German and Latin, the verb is at the end of the sentence, forcing the simultaneous interpreter to wait crucial seconds for the action to occur. "There's a limit to what you can do when the sentence gets too long," says Fujiko Hara, the grande dame of Tokyo interpreters. "We have to interject what is likely the verb."

The other problem is that the Japanese use few pronouns; what Americans consider the normal use of "I," "we" or "you" is viewed as too direct and impolite in Japan. "When you translate into English," says Yokota, "you've got to put in the subject of the sentence and certain parts that are missing. So you've got to talk on the risk."

Yokota made his worst mistake when he was once forced to "talk on the risk" in U.S.-Japan negotiations over aviation rights. In a briefing before the talks, Yokota had been given the impression that the negotiations would break down midweek. So when the chief negotiator on the Japanese side (who understood English) used the phrase tsumatte kita, Yokota soberly informed the American side that "We seem to have come to an impasse."

The Japanese negotiator jumped to his feet. "No, no, no!" he shouted in English. "We seem to have boiled down all the issues!" Yokota was mortified, instantly realizing that he had incorrectly used tsumatte kita, which can mean either "hit an impasse" or "boiled down" depending, obviously, on the context.

Yokota left his job with Simul in 1983, breaking out on his own with five other Simul interpreters, all women, and forming a company called Linguabank. He began interpreting for Japan's prime ministers starting with Yasuhiro Nakasone, although even now he doesn't handle one-on-one meetings between the prime minister and foreign leaders; that is still done in-house, by Japanese Foreign Ministry interpreters. But Yokota travels with Prime Minister Kaifu for his meetings with the foreign press, and if Kaifu suddenly decides to talk to the BBC, as he once did in London, Yokota is flown in from Tokyo.

Yokota says his politics are "center-right," and admits that over the years he has formed "distinct opinions" about the substance of his work. On the trade talks, he says, "the U.S. side ought to be a little more tactful. The Japanese side ought to be a little more ... hmmm ... a little more what? Aggressive in certain cases? Speak out more clearly. I guess the Japanese way of negotiating, of going around in circles, is a good way of evading certain points. But there ought to be more direct communication."

Who are the better negotiators? "Honestly speaking," he says, "I don't think either side is really that" -- he pauses, thinking -- "skillful. But on balance, probably the U.S. side, knowing that they can always push. The Japanese side usually gives in, inch by inch."

Over the years, after all the endless verbiage, has Yokota become more cynical about government, diplomacy, the merry-go-round of trade talks between the U.S. and Japan? "Yes," he admits, then reconsiders. "Well, the U.S. and Japan may not be going about it the right way," he says, "but at least talking to each other is better than not talking to each other."