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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 36


March 3, 1989   -   AT ISHITAKI'S


One day I was squatting on the floor of the kitchen tying up the ends of a plastic shopping bag that contained our unburnable trash, when I got a phone call.  I would have answered it but we didn't have a phone at the time.  It rang at our neighbor's house.  Ishitaki came over and gave me the message.  She said it was someone named Namba-san from Gifu Prefecture calling.  I knew at once that it was my car dealer buddy Yasushi, the one who had shown me his wedding pictures.  He lives deep in the country on the way from Kyoto to the Japan Alps.  In a land of generosity, Yasushi's a host among hosts.  He has driven me all over that part of the country, shown me the day life of crafts people and the night life of Gifu City (8,000 snacks).  He wanted me to call him back as soon as possible.  I got my wallet and the trash and Ishitaki and I headed over to her place.

It was a cool late February day and our neighbor Numoto Sensei, a botanist, was in the vegetable garden across from the temple grounds.  He was preparing for the spring.

          "Tell me a new way to greet him,"  I said to Ishitaki as we approached him.

"Oh he will understand you in English," she said.

"I know that," I answered with irritation (since she's so Westernized, I tend to be frank with her),  "Can't you understand I want to speak Japanese?"

"Then why don't you speak Japanese to me?  From now on let's only speak Japanese."

"You're English is too good."

"Well okay.  Mmm.  Say, `Uguisu wa nakihajimemashita,' The nightingale has begun to sing," she said.  "It's a sign that spring is around the corner."

I tried it on him.  He stood up from the bed he was tending, his long white hair falling almost to his shoulders, an eccentricity granted a retired professor.

He smiled and answered back in English, "Oh yes it has hasn't it."

"Please speak in Japanese to David, his Japanese is quite good you know," Ishitaki said to him in a formal high tone that slightly mocked me.

He apologized and repeated the simple reply in clear   Japanese. "So desu ne," as if I needed to hear the most basic sentence in the whole language.

"Now I feel like an idiot," I said to Ishitaki.

"I wouldn't say such a thing," she said.

We turned in front of the temple gate and I placed the trash bag in a pile with twenty or so others just off the street at the edge of the garden as the garbage truck backed up beeping.  The garbage men hopped out wearing white gloves and politely waited for us to pass before approaching the heap of bags which also contained some assorted rubbish: an old rice cooker, a bunch of cookie tins in a cardboard box, some toys tied together with a frayed electric cord, two kerosene heaters.  As we passed, Ishitaki thanked them for their many kindnesses.

I dropped off the garbage as we walked toward Ishitaki's nondescript cinder block wall and doorless garage stacked with boxes and cluttered with bikes, garden tools and various trash.  Entering her gate we were surrounded by the flourishing evidence of her green thumb.  I brushed by a lemon tree and glanced down at the slow-moving goldfish in a clay pot covered by a sheet of glass.

We stepped into her spacious and clean house, leaving our shoes at the entranceway but not putting on the customary slippers.  Her elder daughter was in the kitchen washing dishes.

"This is not supposed to be," I said acting as if I was fainting from the sight of a child doing chores.

"My children all do some work in the house." she answered proudly. It's obviously a little trick she picked up in the States.  "And by the way, here are a few things we have received which we don't need."  She handed me two tins of black tea.

"Are you sure you don't want them?"

"You know, people are always giving doctors so much," she answered.

"Well okay," I agreed, "But you give us too much."


"How much do you get?"

"Oh you'd be surprised,"  she answered.  "And we are not even so important.  In the case of an older or more important doctor or large company's president, they might put a tent outside the house and hire someone to receive the year-end or midyear presents.  Then they will select what they want to keep and there is a special business that will buy what they don't want for one third or so of its value.  The direction of the giving is always up, to the boss or to those who can bestow favor.  In some ways this is still a feudal country," she said shaking her head.

She gave me the number and said to please use her phone.  I declined, saying that I'd make the call from the green public phone in Daianji's parking lot across the street.

"But you and Elin are teaching my children for free.  You should use my phone anytime you want.  And I think it is time to start paying you."

"No no no.  You are always doing favors for us and other foreigners, and you put those first classes together for us to begin with - and, it's like having a lawyer on retainer," I said to her honestly and then teased her with more honesty.  "Anyway, I want to keep up with you in the giri (obligation) race as well as we can.  One of these days you're going to decide we're not good enough, but you won't be able to turn your back on us.  We will be in good standing,"  I loved going over the line with her like that. 

"Oh yes, but I may just turn my back on you anyway," she said without missing a beat.

And I was beating my finger on her dining table already thinking of the next thing to say.  "So, before you do, tell me something, would you?"

"My pleasure.  I am on retainer."

"I've been teaching English now to Japanese for half a year.  You did it for many years.  I don't mean any offence by this..."

"That would be nothing new."

"Well, maybe just a little offence...."  I searched for diplomatic phrasing and sighed.

"Maybe they are just sitting there like rocks?"

"Yes, uh..." I said relieved.

"Except for maybe the sixth grade boys who are hard to control?"

"Yes - but that's just the one class.  Rocks is the rule."

"Maybe you should be more systematic with the boys."

"The brightest ones are always the worst - unless I get their attention and keep it moving fast - and even then sometimes nothing works.  But it's what you said at first that bothers me more.  The others... they sit there like stones.  Or they talk to each other.  No one seems to be interested except for the exceptional student.  Kids go to classes so much - school six days a week and juku (private cram schools) after and then English conversation, piano and whatnot on top."

"They get worn smooth, like stones in a river, and they loose interest."


I didn't say this, because I thought it would be going to far, but one of the worst things Elin and I have noticed is what happens to kids when they go from elementary to middle school.  They just seem to go brain dead.  We've had bright, outgoing kids who asked questions and shot their hands up for answers one year, and the next they just sat there - just being stones like the others. 

"I'm sure there are lots of good students," I said to Ishitaki.  "Elin and I have some - your kids are very bright - but not everyone has you for a mother.  And surely there are many good teachers too, but the picture I'm getting doesn't explain how... how Japan could be doing so well economically, in the nitty-gritty test of the world market."

"Yes, the school system here just gets them into cramming for tests and they forget it all when they learn that way.  And once they get in college they don't have to study to pass.  All that matters is which school you get into.  But you know why Japanese business does so well?"

"Please, tell me."

"They don't expect the new employees to have learned anything in school, even college - except how to read and write and how to use a calculator.  They start from the most simple beginning and educate them in every single thing they will need to know for that job.  They treat them like babies and make them into what they want.  It works very well."

I was fascinated and just about to ask her more, when the phone rang and she got involved in a conversation.  Her voice jumped an octave and took on a singsong quality, her words full of apologies, gratitude and praise and a syrupy intonation.  It's not so different from listening to some women I have known back in Texas.  I picked up the tea and, catching Ishitaki's eye, nodded thanks, waved goodbye and departed to the parking lot to make the call to Yasushi in Gifu.

I looked at my phone card.  On it was a scene of islands in the Inland Sea and perforations that indicated it had 600 yen of phone time remaining.  That should be enough.  I slipped it in the slot and dialed while watching Ishi digging in the garden.