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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 34


May, 1988   -   READING IN THE RAIN


One day when morning work had been canceled due to rain, Norman, Shuko and I were sitting in the study, passing the time reading and sewing.  Norman and I had been hoping that it would rain as we both had many things we wanted to do.  The willingness to admit that one desired to do one's own thing as opposed to the temple thing was divided along national lines.  Norman and I had prayed for rain to all the buddhas and patriarchs, God, Mary, Jesus, Mohammed, the Earth Mother, the Great Spirit and we went out to the two small shrines outside our room and asked help from the local kami.  We were so pleased that our prayers had been answered. 

Norman was reading the Japan Times which had just arrived in the mail.  He got it once a week and we read every word.  Shuko was sewing his robes repairing areas where the stitching had come loose.  I was studying Japanese.  The temperature was just right, the air had that remarkable moist freshness and clean smell that comes with rain.  I sat there with my friends as we silently went about our stationary tasks.

The rain to me was a type of music, falling in different tones and textures with the sounds of all the drips, drops, sheets and sprinkles on the ground and rocks, in trees and on leaves, into other water and onto the roofs.  With wind for backup, there came a chorus of these wet sounds, full, round and ringing, deliciously coming from all sides, through the windows and doors and from the roof.  It was a rhythmic message of the immediate, beyond human emotions and symbols,  washing through our ears and bidding us to stay in, relax and enjoy the show.

I knew better than to share my feelings.  My gushy reverie probably would have elicited an irritated humoring from Norman and I was sure to get a "does not compute" from Shuko if I said anything at all positive about rain.  Japanese have set phrases for many situations and the ones for rain seem to be all negative.  "Horrible weather isn't it?"  That sort of thing.  Time and again I have heard a Japanese person express dismay at the same few drops that gave me a tingle of anticipatory glee.           The easiest way to descend from a cherished moment is to describe it so I sat mutely in the dimly lit tatami room in the mountain temple amidst drenched rice paddies and thick woods and stared through the Japanese characters before me secretly absorbing the wetness of the moment.  There was a flash and then a glorious and high decibel thunderclap peeled through the air blasting us where we sat.  My teacup ranneth over.


Eventually the rain subsided and I sank back into my studies.  The three of us had been the longest time together forgetting each other's existence.  Such pleasurable harmony can scarcely be created through conscious effort, even that of a religious life, which often as not goes astray which is exactly what was about to happen.  Suddenly Norman was guffawing as the newspaper in his hands was thrust down revealing his animated features and shiny lumpy skull.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

After he'd stopped laughing and had caught his breath, he answered me.  "I'm reading this article about a landlord in Tokyo who refuses to rent to foreigners."

Shuko kept sewing but was listening closely.  I could feel his attention divide.  They frequently comment to each other about newspaper articles or letters that they have read or were reading, each naturally selecting items that prove the points he wants to make.  Obviously Norman had just run into some printed ammunition that was about to be used in culture combat.  Shuko dug in.

"The man gave two reasons why he wouldn't rent to gaijin: first, they won't know when to put out their garbage..."  At this point we both laughed for a minute.  In the cities, garbage is put out on the streets on certain mornings which differ depending on the neighborhood one lives in.  Typically there's one morning pickup of nonburnable trash and two of burnable trash every week.  It's easy to figure out.

"That's pretty flimsy," I said.

"And second," Norman continued, "He said he'd had a family from the Philippines who didn't put away their futon during the day."  We laughed some more.  "So he says he won't rent to foreigners because they don't pick up their futon!"

Then Norman turned to Shuko who was pretending to be engrossed in stitching and started talking about how a foreigner is expected to follow the rules of Japan because the Japanese have no respect for other peoples' ways.  "You're always saying that there's no discrimination in Japan but you can see that these people are being discriminated against and the landlord gave such ridiculous excuses.  They don't know when to put out the trash and won't pick up their futon during the day!  Can you believe that?"

"Well, if you don't pick up your futon during the day then you walk all over it."

Norman thrust his eyes up in the air.  "Oh come on Shuko, you can't possibly be serious!  Admit it.  This is racism."

Shuko placed his smooth, olive hands together.  "People shouldn't bring their problems here and force them on others.  We should live together in peace."

Norman glared.  "Now what the heck is that supposed to mean?"  He threw me a disgusted look.  "They're renting the apartment - it's their futon.  What business is it of the landlord's if they put up their futon or not?"

"It's important to take care of futon properly," said Shuko.  "If you don't, they get dirty, musty and lose their fluffiness.  They should be hung out to air or put away for the day."

"That can't be the law Shuko.  It's up to the individual, not the landlord for god's sake!"

Shuko turned silent and dark.

Norman tried another tack.  "Look Shuko, I know you know there's discrimination in Japan.  At Suienji you were reading that book on the eta, the Japanese untouchables.  You just don't want to admit to a foreigner that there's any problems here.  That's it, right?"

Shuko was silent.

"I admit that America has all sorts of problems.  We have lots and lots and lots of problems.  I admit it.  Why can't you admit anything negative about Japan?"

Shuko looked straight ahead.

"Your lack of response is what Japanese people do when they want to ignore something.  They don't say anything.  They shut up, exactly what you're doing now."

"Now, now gentlemen," I interrupted.  "Maybe the solution is to require that all incoming foreigners go through a rigorous Japanese etiquette training program upon arrival.  When they've passed the course, they would be issued a certificate which could be presented to landlords and other concerned parties.  It might read something like, 'This certifies that so and so has duly studied and passed an official government training program in Japanese Customs and is thoroughly versed in such matters as how to put up futon in the morning, how to find out when to put out the garbage, how to open an umbrella when only one drop of rain has fallen, and so forth.'"  Shuko went back to his sewing.  Norman buried himself in the paper.  The rain picked up again and I got lost in it.