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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 5




I call Watanabe "Hojo-san" because people at Daianji call him that.  Hojo-san is what chief priests are called in their own temples.  It has a nice everyday affectionate sound.  I looked up "hojo" in the dictionary and found it meant "assistant, helper" and thought, oh how interesting and humble.  I remember proudly explaining it to a foreign visitor I showed around the temple.  But he knew Japanese better than I and explained that it was a different "hojo," meaning "temple."  I looked in his dictionary and sure enough, there it was amid a dozen different homonyms.  (I had stopped at the first one.)  The fourth entry for "hojo" was made up of the kanji for "dharma" and "castle."  Neat, dharma  castle = temple.  So I started telling people that Hojo-san meant "Mr. Temple" though I assured them that the literal translation doesn't really convey the correct nuance.  I mentioned this learning experience to my Monday morning adult class and Morikawa-san, a slightly plump lady in her sixties, said that I was wrong again.  I objected but she insisted that the kanji for "hojo" used as a title for the abbot of a temple meant a space of about four and a half tatami - about ten square feet - and the others agreed with her.  I asked how that could be.  Her classmate, Mr.Shimizu, the proprietor of a liquor store, said that was once the size of the space allotted to the abbot.  Ok.  It's Mr. Ten Square Feet.

          We got to talking about titles.  "San," of course, is Mr., Mrs. and Ms. all wrapped up into one, but more than that because it's used after given names as well, though they're rarely used - unless you're going for crude, rude, or tattooed, you've always got to add some word.  And not only after people's names, but sometimes their professions or places of work as well.  A carpenter is a daiku, often daiku-san in conversation.  There's chan for little kids or for informal affectionate use for an adult.  There's kun, mainly used informally by boys in school for each other.  Sama is a high-class "san."  I know of two priests who are called "Hojo-sama" in their temples.  I asked the class why those priests use "sama."  Mrs. Morikawa, who does not like religion, said it was because they thought they were so important, but I think maybe it's just the custom of those temples.

These titles carry a lot of weight and are always used for others, but never for oneself.  "Sama," for instance, is generally used after a person's family name in the address of a letter.  Don't forget it.

One time our friend Ann in Kyoto was staying in a home with a Japanese family.  She asked the man of the house if he would write his name and address for her.  She explained she was going to photocopy it on mailing labels and send it with her letters so that there would be no mixups in receiving responses.  He thought that was a good idea and told her that Americans must be very smart.  A couple of weeks later she got home one evening and he was furious.  He screamed at her how rude Americans are, while holding up and shaking a letter for her from the States sent in care of him.  He pointed to the kanji written in his own hand on the address of the letter.  "There's no "sama" after my name!" he fumed.  "No sama!"  Ann tried to explain that it was just a copy of what he himself had written as his address, but he wouldn't hear of it.  She immediately mailed out corrected labels to her friends, but for the next few weeks, until the post was clear,  she always made it home before him and wrote "sama" after his name on the letters she received so he could see them and be pleased before he passed them on to her.


As with any cranny of Japanese culture, people who have studied Zen almost always use some specialized vocabulary at their centers or temples (which can vary from place to place): samu for work, tosu for toilet, tanden for belly.  Then they try these words out on non-temple Japanese who look at them blankly.  The title roshi (literally, "old teacher") is used extensively in America for Zen masters - but in Japan I've only heard it used by monks and Westerners.  I referred to Watanabe when speaking to my calligraphy teacher, calling him "Watanabe Roshi," and she tilted her head as if she didn't understand.  So I said "Watanabe Sensei" and she nodded.  Most people in the neighborhood call him Watanabe-san but I've heard Daianji-san and, if I say Hojo-san, they'll understand.  I couldn't even find the word "roshi" in most dictionaries.

"Sensei," to the contrary, is used everywhere.  It means "born before" and thus signifies someone more experienced.  It is a term of respect used for doctors, lawyers, teachers and scout masters.  People who are called "Sensei" are respected.

Until just before I came to Zen Center in '66, Shunryu Suzuki was called "Suzuki Sensei."  One day Alan Watts wrote a letter saying that sensei wasn't an appropriate title for Suzuki and that we should call him roshi, which was a much more traditional and appropriate term of respect for Zen masters.  It was said that when Suzuki was told about this that he laughed quite hard for a long time.  But some started calling him Suzuki Roshi, a moniker which stuck.  Before he died, Suzuki told us to call his successor, Dick Baker, "Baker Roshi."  Horrors.  We only wanted to use it for Japanese.


At the Monday morning class Shimizu scratched his head, repositioned himself in the rattan chair and said that it's in bad taste to use such a prestigious term for your own teacher when talking to someone from outside your temple.  He said Japan is a country where you play down what's associated with yourself.

In the West the word roshi has taken on new meaning.  It no longer follows the Japanese rules.  This year I got two letters from Zen teachers in the States (one of them Japanese) signed simply "Roshi."  It has become an English word.

Having been called sensei myself, I can feel the respect the Japanese hold for their teachers.  I was talking to a boy in one of my classes who goes to the best high school in Maruyama and makes good grades and I asked him, "What do you want to do for a living?"

He replied with decisiveness, "I want to be a teacher."

"What kind of teacher?"

"A high school history teacher," he said with pride.  It surprised me - I'm not used to hearing that where I come from.

I was walking down an old covered shopping street going to classes at a culture center and, as I passed his store, a shop keeper called out, "Thank you for teaching the children, Sensei!"  It was encouraging.  In his voice I heard the whole country taking care of itself, holding together.


Sometimes families will pay big bucks for the sensei title, especially when it means "MD."  One day our neighbor Ishitaki-san was working in her garden and I hopped off my bike to help her put a new tree into a hole and afterwards she gave me some apple pie and coffee.

With her apron, glasses and hair pulled back conservatively, Ishitaki might appear your typical Japanese housewife, but she is anything but.  She went to college in the States, speaks excellent English, and has remarkable insight into both of our societies.  She is one of Elin's and my prime advisors.

Her husband is a doctor and we got to talking about medical schools.  She told me about a local doctor who has four sons.  Three of them got into the prestigious medical school here and paid reasonable tuition.  One, however, had bad grades and did poorly on his entrance exams, so he had to go to a private medical school to which "donations" are expected in addition to tuition.  These donations can even run into the neighborhood of a half million dollars.  Pop doctor was so impressed with the amount his son's education cost, that he ended up starting his own medical school for bad students of good families and became very, very wealthy.  His school doesn't have a good reputation though, so doctors who graduate from there often go far away from this area to practice medicine.