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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 14


November 23, 1988   -   LAUNCH AND LUNCH


Kobashi asked me to make a preliminary expense-paid trip to the shipbuilding firm at Ozu where I was to teach.  His consulting firm was inside the gates of the same company, which it turned out he was retired from.  A man in uniform at a guardhouse had my name on a list and directed me to Kobashi's office.  It was in a three story slatted white wooden building that looked about fifty years old.  The whole place reminded me of the Presidio, the old army base in San Francisco.  I got there just after nine in the morning and sat at a metal table waiting for Kobashi to get off the phone.  His friendly partner kept me company while their OL(o eru), office lady, trotted off nervously to get me coffee.  It was a perfect business meeting.  We went over the contract in three minutes and then left for a tour of the facilities.

          A company limo, black and complete with chauffeur, was waiting for us outside.  I guess it was a Japanese car but you don't see many that big.  He drove us past partially finished ships with giant hulls spotted with fearless welders.  I gasped at humongous equipment and rolls of monstrous cables and shops the size of low mountains.  I was gaga.  Nothing makes me happier than big equipment except for bigger equipment.  I wanted to teach English there forever.  Kobashi did most of the talking.  I was thumbing through my twenty year old trusty green pocket dictionary as fast as I could and asking him for clarifications.  Some people know how to speak to foreigners.  He's good at it.  He speaks clearly, not too fast and he instinctively knew what vocabulary I'd understand.  I was probably understanding a good sixty percent.

The high point of the tour was when we parked the limo and walked over to a jumbo dry dock to see what I thought must be the largest can on earth.  It was a rust-colored skyscraping container with proportions that made me wonder if maybe it was being built for giant peaches.  Maruyama is famous for normal-sized ones.  The cranes next to this towering vessel were so big and wonderful that I thought it must be a dream.  We were standing on the tracks of one that was moving very slowly towards us.  We must have looked like ants to the driver up there.  I felt relieved when we stepped to the side.

It turned out the can-like structure in between these magnificent Bunyonesque cranes was going to be floated across the Inland Sea to Kobe where a suspension bridge to Shikoku was being built.  There the container will be filled with cement and sunk.  It has to hit the sea bottom at the exact right spot or they can't use it.  There were a bunch of these tubs being built.  This one wasn't even the biggest.  And they were all going to be filled with cement.  The round metal wall reached to within a foot of the edge of the dry-dock on both sides.  Standing in the massive shadow of that cylindrical cement form - big enough that a baseball game could be played in it - I could see that the world was going to be used up, and in a very impressive way.

Next on the schedule was ranchi (lunch).  But first Kobashi had to go to a meeting - if it was alright with me that is.  That was fine, I assured him.  "Just give me a place to sit and read and I'll be content as can be."

He took me upstairs and showed me a room with pea green walls, folding tables and chairs, and standing ashtrays stationed every three feet.  Then he took me to a nearby carpeted room with overstuffed leather chairs and footrests.  "You can have this room or that room.  It doesn't make any difference.  Which one would you like?" he said.

"Oh, I'll take this room."  I said, of course selecting the one with the easy chairs.  "It looks so comfortable."

"So desu ne."  He said drawing the "ne" out and he sighed and pointed to the left of the door at a sign-up sheet that indicated the room was reserved in ten minutes.  "I guess I'll have to talk to these people about rescheduling their meeting."

"On the other hand," I said, "I might fall asleep in there.  Would the other room be alright instead?"

"Yes indeed, if it's alright with you," he said more positively.  "Either one is fine."

"In that case, I'll take this one," I said smiling and entering the big ugly, uninviting room.  I bid him farewell till lunch.


Kobashi came back sooner than I imagined.  I mentioned that it seemed a little early for lunch.  He said we had to go quickly or we'd miss it.  After we got the English words "lunch" and "launch" straightened out, everything was just fine.  Launch is also ranchi.  And indeed, it turned out he was taking me to a boat launch.  Terrific.  The ceremony was surprisingly quick and the champagne bottle broke on the first try.  The ship slid gracefully out into the Inland Sea.  I watched it, mesmerized, as it got smaller and smaller.  It was a navy ship and there was a row of Japanese naval officers bowing and smiling like in World War II movies.  Everywhere I looked there were military people and more navy ships, some with guns.  I envisioned warships being launched and tanks being produced on a massive scale, and American Congressmen demanding that they spend more and more money on more and more weapons when they're now only second to the U.S. in military spending.  This tiny island, these nice polite people don't need so many weapons, I thought.  It might have a bad influence on them.  Suddenly I felt like an American, like a foreigner.  I turned to the left - eyes were on me.  I turned to the right - people were looking my way.  I wondered if they were going to arrest me as a spy and stick bamboo slivers up my fingernails.  I looked around for an escape route.  Kobashi turned to me ominously.  Kobashi! Of course, that's why he's been so friendly.  "Ready for lunch?" he said, using the foreign loan word ranchi again.  This time I got it.

We stood in a mall while businessmen, factory workers, old bent over ladies in kimono and teenagers in leather walked by.            "Where would you like to eat?" he asked.  He gestured to the left toward a spacious attractive establishment.  "We could eat sashimi," he said. (Expensive, I thought.)  "Or," he gestured to the right where a street vender stood by his cart and smoked a cigarette, "We could eat noodles." (Cheap, I thought.)  On the other side of the street vendor was a cute little noodle shop.  "Either one."  he said, "It makes no difference to me."  I pondered.  Sashimi makes me drool as much as heavy equipment and I eat noodles all the time.  I paused for a thoughtful moment.  "How about...  noodles?"

"Okay," he said, "If that's what you prefer, let's have noodles."