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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 13


May 19, 1989   -   JENGLISH AND ENGLESE


"It's raining!" Okamura-san called out to me in the kitchen where I was sitting studying Japanese at a deep brown wooden table.

"Thank you!" I responded opening the sliding screen door.  She was outside taking the clothes off the line and putting them in the basket that was under the overhang.

I walked out apologizing and started helping her help me.  "I'll get this.  You'll get wet."

She picked up an umbrella that was leaning in the corner and held it over me as I got the last of the laundry out of wet's way.

We stood under the overhang talking.  Gray-haired Okamura-san was in a small-patterned white floral dress protected by a light blue apron with a ruffled edge.  Like most Japanese she is not a bit overweight.  She comes up to my shoulder and is about the same age and build as my mother.  She lives with her husband behind our house in a large two-story home with a walled-in flower garden.  Their driveway passes by the side of our house.  Across that driveway and through the bamboo grove we could see the Daianji monks weeding with the help of a crowd of young laypeople who were at the temple for a three day training.

"There are many kenshukai," (trainees) she said.  "It's a lot of work for the monks to keep up with them all."

"They're the new employees from the Sobi Bus Company.  There are seventy-five of them."

"Taihen desu ne?" (Lots of trouble isn't it?) she said shaking her head.

"Hojo-san is going to give them a special lecture when he gets back this afternoon."

"Where did he go?"

"To the leper colony out on the Inland Sea.  He visits there every couple of months."

"What a good priest he is," she said.  "Always working hard for people's benefit.  Not your usual priest."

"He's very diligent."

"I've been bothering you," she said, taking her leave.

"Here, take this river," (kawa) I said, handing her the umbrella.

"Kasa," she responded softly with a twinkle in her eye.

"Oh, of course," I said.  "Take this umbrella" (kasa).

"No thank you.  I only have to walk to the door and it's not raining so hard."

But I insisted so she took it thanking me and apologizing for being rude.  I went back inside thinking what an idiot I am - always getting even the simplest words confused.

I had the morning to myself and was using the time to study Japanese.  I loved our house - especially after we'd replaced all of the dreary fluorescent lights for incandescent bulbs, and switched the tacky plastic hanging fixtures with hand-made paper lanterns which I'd picked up from an old paper maker in Gifu.

Neighbors, including those at the temple, had helped us furnish the house by contributing not only art, but furniture, utensils and bedding.  We filled in the rest with sodai gomi and stuff from second-hand stores.  Sodai gomi is "big trash."  On an appointed day every few months it is deposited at collection sites and picked up and crushed like regular trash.  We borrowed a white pick-up truck from the temple and rode around at night to the various drop-off spots in our part of town.  We went through mountains of discarded furniture, appliances and household goods and had picked out everything we thought would like a home in our home.  We'd gotten a chopping-block table as well as sundry pots, pans and dishes for the kitchen.  We chose our favorite among various refrigerators.  There was a good bicycle with big front and rear baskets in one pile.  Elin had selected two much newer ones, but another trash-picking lady, also going through the pile with her husband, meekly mentioned that those bikes were theirs.  It was there I found the long red plastic shoehorn, not worth much, but it was in perfect working order and is a must for all entranceways.  Like Bop said: "There may be more lawyers in San Francisco than Japan, but there are more shoe horns in Kyoto than America."  The organ in the front hall also came from sodai gomi.  No pianos though.  I read in the paper that twenty pianos are put out on the street in Tokyo everyday.  The rest of our furnishings we'd filled in by going to second-hand stores.  There are just a few of them and they aren't very popular so the prices are good.  That's where we got our bed, the living room set, and the rice cooker which says "neuro-fuzzy" on the front.

We like the rice cooker because it has a setting for brown rice.  Every time we mention to Japanese that we eat brown rice they look at us with bewilderment and say, "Brown rice is very healthy - not tasty, but very healthy."

Next to the rice cooker we keep a wide-mouth glass jar filled with waribashi, throw-away wooden chopsticks that we couldn't bring ourselves to throw away.  Whenever we eat out, we have to use them.  You snap them apart, eat and dispose.  We have our own nice permanent lacquer hashi to take with us so we won't have to be part of the tsukai-sute (use and throw away) society as they call it.  These traveling hashi are in tasteful cloth cases with draw strings at the top.  But if we happen to remember to bring them along when we go out, we invariably forget to use them.  It's frustrating.  So we've got this jar with a growing collection of plain pine chopsticks that I'll have to throw out when they get moldy.

One day Hashimoto-san, a high school English teacher and friend, dropped by unexpectedly with 1950's style sandwiches from the local bakery.  During her visit Elin made a disparaging remark about the wastefulness of waribashi.  Hashimoto defended them, saying it would be considered rude and unsanitary to give used hashi to guests.  And she pointed out that America's use of paper towels seemed wasteful to her.  I'd never thought of it that way.  It wasn't as cut and dried as I had supposed - it was more... neuro-fuzzy.


Words like that - Japanese English - attract our attention as much as the Japanese we are always studying and trying to figure out.  A lot of it is quite creative.  We have a tall white plastic wastebasket in the kitchen that we bought new at a local homusutoru (home store) that says:


This expresses our life vision


              Supreme Can

(Let's is the brand name)

While riding the bus to town Elin and I have made a mental list of interesting names of commercial establishments along the way.  Some of the names are cool, like Niagara Moon, a coffee shop.  Some are uncool, like Infect, a lady's dress shop, and a bicycle rental store at the train station called Shity Cycle (that's "city").  There's a coffee shop named Guns and Coffee, a barber shop named Cut and Bro, a beauty parlor called Haircutter Freak and, at the busiest intersection downtown, a men's clothing store called BRAINS ORGANIC MATTER.  I copied a message written in large letters off the wall of the video rental store nearby.  It says: 


This is the space where we can be willing to coming so it       gives a lot of good amenity and rental A&V for you.


Sometimes I surprise my teen-age English students when I ask if I can write down the messages on their tee shirts.  Here is a sampling:


- Pay close attention to various objects and be calm.


- Doc Holiday stokes his chin and regards you through

hooded, hostile eyes, You stare at your head or hand



- HAIL TO THE QUEEN  He spokes as if to say in that low cautious tone of voice, "you Bastards." INFORMATION



(I copied that one off of the back of a motorcyclist's jacket)


- New Basic & Trendy Fashion,

Good Feeling Life for Young Mind 


- Sleep With Me Tonight


- for the player who demands the ultimate best sensitive comfortable fat fashion good things exist throughout time


- Princess Cat

There is something graceful about cat.  Cats represent

cute, cooing, sweet, everything is oh, so nice love.



Dick Baker (who Suzuki chose as his successor) told me that when he and his wife were living in Japan they saw a sweatshirt with PEPPY CASUAL written on it and thereafter spent a good deal of time trying to find one to buy but had no luck.  He also saw one that had the round Harvard University seal with "Charlotte, North Carolina" printed below.

A college age English student of mine wore a totally shocking sweatshirt to class one day and I told her that it referred to oral sex in the crudest way, stating in no uncertain terms a commitment on her part that she might not be interested in fulfilling.  She was shocked.  A month later she had it on again and I made a subtle comment.  She just shrugged and said that no one understood it and she liked the design.


I looked down at my notebooks, full of idiomatic Japanese phrases and useful words.  The cover of one notebook says "White Superior Note - always be along with you."  Another reads, "NOTEBOOK - please use this note book politely, and use up the last sheet. And then please use your brains everyday."  A third which I use for random thoughts in English is more apropos.  It pictures three kittens with bat and ball and says "SHOWING OFF" and then on each page at the top, two cats dressed like the Bowery Boys walk along arm in arm and it says "a couple of crooked priests that you just can't seem to dislike."


Okamura-san was calling my name again.  I was staring at the table at the time - the one that she and her husband had loaned us for the duration of our stay.  At first her voice seemed to come from beneath the table's surface but then I caught her in the corner of my eye standing out on the driveway.  The rain had never really gotten going and the sun was out.  She had a clipboard with a message on it that was being passed from neighbor to neighbor.  She explained that there would be a neighborhood cleanup day on a Sunday three weeks away and that if I couldn't attend I should give 3000 yen to the housewife Seki-san across the street.  I initialed it and took the clipboard to pass on to the botanist, Numoto Sensei, who lives on the other side of the parking lot in front of the temple gate.  I always wait till he's home to take it over because I think I scare his wife.

Okamura-san started putting the clothes back up on the line.  I told her to stop but she wouldn't - so we did it together.

I looked for something timely to say.  Of course - her cherry tree.  It's a late-bloomer with a double flower.  A lot of the cherry blooms in this area were all rained and blown away by mid May, but hers still looked pretty full.  As I pinned a shirt to the line a breeze came up and a flurry of petals took to the air and wafted gently, circuitously to the ground.  Ahah - they use the word "snowing" for that.

"The fish (sakana) are snowing," I said.

She looked at me smiling.  "Sakura?" (cherry blossom) she asked.

"Yes, yes, how stupid of me - the cherry blossoms are snowing."  I pulled a clothespin from my teeth and grimaced.