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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 23


May, 1988   -   KOJI, BOUND BY DUTY


It was during a break and Koji and I found ourselves at it again.  "Well come on man, come with me.  Let's go.  What's keeping you.  I used to leave home with a nickel and come back two weeks later with a dime.  Ready?" I leaned over and looked into Koji's eyes.  He was so excited.  He knew it was possible.  He loved the idea but he couldn't do it.  "Why not?" I pushed him.  "Okay, forget being a wanderer.  You could be a priest in America.  That would be different.  That would be an education.  Where's your spirit of adventure?  You'd learn a lot from them and they'd learn a lot from you.  They'd learn more about working together and you'd learn more about being free. Come on."  But his story was already written and he wouldn't even proof-read it, much less attempt a re-write.

"I am tied by duty," he said.  And what a dutiful life he has led.  At his father's poor country temple he'd get up early, sit zazen (unusual outside of training temples) and clean the place.  After breakfast he'd work in the fields, do cabinet work in the afternoon and go to school at night followed by Judo.  Frequently he would give his father long massages before going to sleep.  He attended the Soto Zen University for four years.  Again he had a full schedule, sitting zazen in the morning and practicing karate at night.  Then he went straight to Suienji and Hogoji where he has been practicing for four years.

"Diligent life, Koji," I said, "What a work ethic.  You seem to enjoy it though.  You're going to be a great priest."

"No I won't, but it feels good to me," he said.  "I envy you and I do not see a way to have freedom of movement like that.  So I feel I must be as good a priest as I can, help others and find freedom of the heart."

"I want the same thing except I don't' want to be a priest."

"Do you want to get married again?" he asked.

"I think so."

"To the lady in Georgia?"

"Uh, well, let's see if she writes first."

"Do you miss her?"

"Well, sort of but it's so much fun being in Japan I haven't had time to miss her much.  I might have to forget her.  I don't know yet."

"I think you will have a love marriage," he sighed.

Years ago he'd promised a woman he'd marry her, and she now was thirty.  If he didn't then she might very well never get married and he was afraid she might even kill herself.  He just had to marry her and live with her and his parents in his father's temple and help his father out and do what was expected of him till it became his own temple.  There was no way out - no honorable way out.  I got a strong sense from him about what duty is and what they mean here when they say "tied by duty."


The more we talked the better my Japanese got.  Koji said he wanted to learn English so we agreed to do something about it.  What this meant was that I studied Japanese and that sometimes we talked in Japanese about how he wanted to study English.  We were in Japan - it was natural.  Anyway, saying that you want to study English is one of the important set phrases of the Japanese.

One evening I told Koji that I insisted that he study English for ten minutes a day and that his first lesson began now.  Keep in mind that almost all Japanese people have studied English in junior and senior high and in college and so they've got a good foundation for it.  But the way they study it goes back to the Meiji era when the objective was to read scientific and engineering manuals in order to catch up with the rest of the industrial world.  To actually speak a word of it verged on the unpatriotic.  The ancient and infamous translation method, abanconed in most of the known universe, tragically still has a stranglehold in Japan.  The cruelty of this system is evident when they are called upon to speak English and can't.  Reading is a different matter.  Koji read "Of Human Bondage" in English while in college.  Word by word.  He said that his brother was an English teacher who couldn't speak any English although he read an English language newspaper everyday.  He said that once some Westerners came to his brother's school and that his brother sneaked out the back door and ran away terrified.

I started Koji off with a rather advanced lesson.

"Are you ready?" I asked.

"What?" he said in Japanese.

"Are you ready?"  I repeated.

He sat up at attention.

"I want you to learn this sentence," I said, still in Japanese.

"Hai!" he said like a good boy ready to follow the master's instructions.

I recited the sentence to him.  "Robert's lover, the rare rabbit robber, lowered Luther's Luger through the louver."

Silence.  Ten seconds passed.  Koji's eyes averted.  "What was that?"

"Pay attention!" I said sternly in Japanese.  "Now once more."  He prepared himself, opening his mind as if for the very dharma of Buddha.  I repeated the lesson.  "Robert's lover, the rare rabbit robber, lowered Luther's Luger through the louver."

Another moment of silence.  "They all sound the same," he said shaking his head.

"They are all different words."

"No.  It can't be.  I can't hear any difference."

"I think it's going to take some time for you to master the subtleties of speaking and hearing English."

"Say it again," he said intrigued.

We spent one hour on that sentence and though he found it fascinating he never got it down.  He said that I should open up a school of Torture English in Tokyo near the temple where he will be helping out when he goes home.  I told him I'd consider it but that his fellow countrymen seem to be doing fine without my help.

Koji looked at his watch.  There was a little time left before afternoon work.  He made us some instant coffee, put sugar in his and we both added Creap, the popular nondairy creamer.  After we'd half finished our coffees he opened a small wooden box.  There was a cigarette in it which we shared.

"So how do you like Hogoji?" he asked.

"It's good but I'm surprised that no one's been pushing me around.  I thought that's what happened when you came to a new temple."

"But didn't you hear what Katagiri said when he introduced you?"

"Uh, some of it.  Why?"

"He said to treat you like an equal."

"That's very nice of him. But Koji, there's one problem."


"There's no such thing as equal here is there?  Isn't everybody higher or lower?"

"Everybody but you," he said.  "You're equal."