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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 39

May 11, 1989   -   LECTURE PREP



What Yasushi had wanted was for me to come in mid-May and give a talk to his Junior Chamber of Commerce cronies.  He'd mentioned the JC's to me before.  He was the president of that chapter.  All these guys were buddies of his and I knew I'd have to do a good job.  Hmm.  It was a little scary but it sounded interesting.  And it would be great to see Yasushi up that way again and it would be challenging Japanese language study.  So it was decided.  After only one year in Japan, I would give a forty-five minute talk in what the Jesuits used to call "the Devil's language," it being next to impossible for them to learn well enough to convert anyone.


That night at home I sat at the kotatsu.  The blanket over my legs held in the warmth generated by the heat lamp under the table.  In front of me was an empty notebook.  My Japanese wasn't that great I thought , but if I prepared, I could do it.  "Heh heh," I laughed to myself - Bop had said that, having an American wife, I'd never learn Japanese.  I'll show him.  Now let's see.  What will I talk about.  Yasushi had suggested that I contrast my impressions of Japan with America.  How typical - comparisons.  Humph.

After I had spent all of my spare time for a few days writing down notes, I met with Kubo to begin to put it into Japanese.  She was excited that I was going to go through with this.  "What are you going to speak on?"  she said.  "Your first year in Japan?  Living in Japanese suburb?  Comparing America and Japan?"

"None of that,"  I said, dismissing the predictable.  "Why tell them what they already know?  Anyway, I hate comparisons.  Comparisons are the lowest, most superficial form of thought.  I'll tell them something new, something they don't know about, something stimulating."

Kubo thought for a minute.  "But you should tell them a little bit about your Japan impression and what you like about Japan and Japanese people," she said while smiling and nodding and making a motion with her hands like she was grinding something.  This is gomasuri, grinding sesame, a Japanese symbol for buttering someone up.

"But look, Kubo-san, here's the story.  I've got a great story to tell them.  And I proceeded to lay out for her what I was sure would be a captivating talk about a socially important topic that would both hold their interest and expand their horizons.  The movie "Mississippi Burning" had been in Japan for over a month so they'd be familiar with the background of what I was talking about.  I had spent time with the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi during the same time covered by the movie and had worked with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).  I could mention the movie story and my own experiences together and bring it all up to date.

Kubo listened and nodded and said it sounded like a very difficult subject.  She finally gave up trying to advise me and started working on the speech with me.  But she was instinctively putting it into extremely difficult oratory Japanese that would take me forever to get down.  She seemed to be getting bored and suddenly said she had to go to pick up her son at school.  So all I ended up with that I could use was a vocabulary list that I would tie together with my more basic Japanese later.

I worked it out in English at first, writing and remembering and developing a talk that criss-crossed back and forth between Mississippi and San Francisco, with a bit of Texas thrown in.

A few weeks later a letter from Yasushi which briefly reiterated the basic facts of my coming trip.  Included was the invitation that went out to the JC's that had a picture of me with a brief bio.  It said I worked for a government youth program in the States (I had worked for the California Conservation Corps for a couple of years) and that the title of my talk was "The Japan that I Have Seen."  I shrugged thinking that the guy just can't get it straight.  I didn't come to Japan to give them a talk on Japan.


On the way to Gifu to give the talk to Yasushi's JCs I stayed at Bop's in Kyoto, a small old falling down prewar one-story building nestled amidst newer two-story structures.  Bop is a medium-height, ex-surfer from Colorado who's blond where he's not bald.  Elin says he's cute.  He lives next door with his ladyfriend Keiks and he always lets me stay in his place when I am in town.  It is Grand Central for a disparate crowd of Japanese and foreigners - monks, blue grass musicians, an ex-Jesuit, art collectors and English teachers trying to save money and hold onto their sanity. 

The night I stayed there on my way to Gifu, Bop and Keiks were entertaining some buyers over to look at Bop's kimono collection, other types of traditional garb and beautiful old material.  The prospective clients were a sophisticated Japanese couple. 

We got a lot of talking in and they said my Japanese was very good - in fact everyone was complimentary about how much I'd learned.  I hadn't prepared my talk as well as I'd planned, in fact not at all, and so was a little nervous about it.  I went over the whole story with them and they agreed that it was indeed quite interesting.  There was a lot of smiling and nodding and the whole evening was just the boost of confidence I needed.  Other than that, all I'd done to prepare was to go over vocabulary a little.

There was one weird point in that conversation when I compared the plight of blacks in the United States with that of the eta in Japan.  "Ooh, don't say that word," Keiks said holding her arms and shivering.  I noticed everyone was uncomfortable.  I asked her why can't I say eta?  There's a big eta section just down the street about a thirty minute walk away.

"I hate that word," she said, "don't use it," and it stopped there.

Bop quickly changed the subject back to my impending talk, but his advice made me wonder.  "Just look at the audience and say 'I'm from America, I like ice cream."  He pointed to his nose the way Japanese do to indicate themselves, smiled and nodded as if in front of an audience of five year olds.  "That's all you have to do.  This'll be a piece o' cake for you.  No problem," he said slapping my thigh.

"Yes, do not worry David," said Keiks, easily shifting gears.  "Just be very simple.  Don't try too much."  The visiting Japanese couple were nodding and chiming in sounds of agreement.  "You'll knock 'em dead.  Say, 'I like sushi, I like Japanese cars and Japanese women,'" said Bop, "and Japanese toilet paper and Japanese forks."  They all laughed.

I tried to act amused but I really didn't get the point.  It all seemed sort of rude to me - to the audience.  But the important thing was that they all had confidence in me and after a second I adjusted and gave a little chuckle because after all, we don't have to understand everything each other says.