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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 16




Being in a fresh setting, I basked in the rays of the all important harmony of temple life.  At times when I spoke to Norman though, I was reminded that cultural conflict would be swinging its aggravating tail, and each additional day I was there, comparison, that lowly beast that prowls around the edges of pure experience, would be waiting to barge in and smell up the place.  If I were not on guard, I could see that, inevitably, dissatisfaction would take root and grow.

Before long I was forced to find refuge in the practice of nondiscrimination as best I could.  This calls for not paying so much attention to the editorials between the ears.  To me it meant following the breath, the opening to body/mind with the center of attention being in the belly like Suzuki and Katagiri had told us over and over.  "Just sit.  Just work," they both had said so many times.  It's the Soto mantra.  When the bell rings, go where it beckons.  Don't take your thoughts so seriously.  Nothing to it but to do it.  That sort of thing.  And what a perfect place to use such nondevices to express original shining mind, which is what Koji reminded me Dogen said we were all doing.  I would just have to take their word for it.  Sometimes it didn't seem so.  Disturbing things would come up.


One day during the afternoon tea break on the steps Norman handed me an English language newspaper that he'd bought in town.  There was a story in it about some kids in one of the public elementary schools whose paintings had been accepted at a national exhibition until a mistake was discovered.  The mistake was that their school was a "Korean" school and they were therefore not eligible to enter the contest which was for "Japanese" children.

"These are kids who were born in Japan - some of their grandparents were born in Japan," Norman spoke softly so that the others wouldn't hear.  "But because they are of Korean ancestry their art was rejected.  Can you imagine how those little kids felt?  They were probably all excited about the fact that something they had made was in an important national show.  Brutal."

"But wait," I said,  "Progress is being made.  A public hospital in Tokyo hired a 'Korean' nurse.  Can you believe it?  She was born and educated in Tokyo and that made front page news."

"A quantum leap."

"You think discrimination here is worse than in America?" I asked him.

"Different, not worse for sure.  But we can't ignore it here just because it exists there.  It's ugly no matter where it happens.  Especially against kids."


Jakushin is Korean and on top of that an orphan, a parentless child without a country.  One day he went to Beppu to the alien registration office.  They've got his fingerprints on record.  He's got to carry an alien identification card - like me.  Koji says he can become a citizen through effort if he changes his family name to a Japanese one.  Norman says even if he did so he couldn't erase the stigma, only obscure it a little.  The situation didn't seem to bother Koji much.  He thought it was only natural.

"Why are they called Koreans," I asked him, "if they're permanent residents here.  Most of them were even born in Japan.  That's not Korean.  That's Japanese."

"No, they're Korean.  There's more to being Japanese than just being born here," he said.

"But he looks and talks exactly like any other Japanese.  How could you possibly tell the difference if someone hadn't told you?"

Koji just looked at me askance.

With a thoroughly decent fellow like Koji having opinions like that, I got a sense of the depth of the problem.

"It's hard for us to get a handle on discrimination in Japan," said Norman.  "They just don't have the assumptions that we have about race, equality and peoples' rights.  It's a totally different mind set, different history.  Not saying I don't think they're dead wrong.  They just don't see what we do when we look at the situation.  They think of the U.S. and, especially, South Africa, as racist countries and of themselves as blameless.  For a South African to enter Japan, they have to sign an affidavit that pledges that they aren't racist.  Ha!  To each his own - denial that is."

All that would be enough to give a Korean-Japanese a chip on the shoulder, which is exactly what Jakushin has.  He struts around with paper thin pride that hardly masks his sense of inferiority.

Koji said Jakushin's parents died in an automobile accident when he was a baby.  He'd had a hard childhood being raised by poor friends of the family and, by all appearances, a miserable time of it in adulthood too.  He had to go to a segregated school for kids of Korean ancestry and wear a uniform that identified him as such.  Koreans as well as burakumin, also called eta, the Japanese yellow trash who likewise suffer terrible discrimination, can always go into the Yakuza, the Japanese mob, if they want a better chance for advancement.  Jakushin chose the priesthood instead.  Buddhism also offers a system at least intending not to discriminate.  But he's on the bottom of the heap at Hogoji - Norman and I are off the scale.

And Jakushin blows it by being a creep.  It's hard to blame his problems on discrimination because his attitude and behavior toward others is so bad - it's a vicious cycle.  When he's not acting pathetically arrogant he's complaining about being left out or short changed.  He has been annoyed that he was thrown in with Norman and now me when everyone else had his own room.  Koji said he's in there with us because he arrived last and that's all there was for him.  Jakushin kept insisting it was his turn for a private room so it looks like Maku is going to trade with him soon.  Norman says that maybe then he'll stop going into other people's rooms, eating their cookies and reading their mail.

  I went in during a break and asked Jakushin if I could help him in the kitchen.  I was curious about him and the thickness of his shell.  He accepted my offer and had me measure out the rice for dinner and wash the white powder off it.  We didn't have any exchange but there was no problem.  He was quiet and serious and seemed as dark as the room to me.  The only way I could extend myself to him was to wash the rice.  I told myself that that should be good enough, there was no need for anything added.  This is what we're here to do - to be quiet and practice together.  So I gave up my idea of being friendly, let him be himself, and washed the rice.  It took me a moment to adjust.

Koji told me that Jakushin's been told that this is his last chance.  If he doesn't do well here he'll be asked to go off to the temple he came from which is too poor to support him.  That puts him in a desperate position because if he has to start all over at another training temple then he'll lose his seniority and that's all he's got.  At most training temples the new monks get kicked around terribly by their seniors.  It's not something anyone would want to go through twice.  Sometimes Norman and I decide we should put the poor guy out of his misery and have devised various "Arsenic and Old Lace" schemes to do so.  Poor Jakushin.  It hurts me to think about him.