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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 40

Gifu, May 12, 1989   -   KNOCKIN' 'EM DEAD


Late the next morning when I arrived in Gifu, it was raining lightly.  An old lady ran out of a coffee shop and gave me an umbrella.  I tried to tell her I was okay, but she insisted.  I'd been in Japan a year and I couldn't count the umbrellas I'd been given.  It was green and contrasted nicely with the grey buildings and grey sky in Gifu, a city of a million, northeast of Kyoto.  I walked on to the bus station looking forward to arriving in the countryside of Shiragawa where Yasushi lived, an hour's ride away.

The teenage girl behind the window was obviously so embarrassed at having to deal with a foreigner that after I uttered a simple request for a ticket, all she could do was to whisper excitedly to her fellow workers, hold her hand over her mouth and giggle.  I didn't see anything funny about it and I repeated myself.  She looked at me and burst out laughing.

"Don't you understand me," I said with irritation, "I want a ticket to Shiragawa."

She waved her hand sideways before her face and said she didn't speak English and I said that I was speaking Japanese and I repeated my simple request as clearly as I could.  She just looked puzzled and started giggling again and finally ran away.  The confidence I'd gained the night before at Bop's was eroding.  A man came over to the window and said that he couldn't speak English and I said the same old stuff all over again in slow, clear Japanese.  Granted it surely had a bad American accent but it was pretty close to correct, I knew it was.

He paused for a moment and looked down seriously.  "Which Shiragawa?" he said.

What?  Oh.  There's more than one.  Uh.  What's the other name I thought.  "Hachiman," I finally said and watched.  He gave a sign of recognition and told me the price.  Contact.

The next bus was three hours later.  I'd be late to meet Yasushi who wanted to leave his house at two P.M.  I kept asking isn't there some way?  Some other way?  But all the man would do was to keep staring at the schedule and acting very uncomfortable that he wasn't finding the answer I wanted.

"Look," I said, "just find me some cardboard and help me make a sign and I'll hitchhike."  This made him doubly anxious and he consulted with his superior who started staring at the schedule with him.  This went on for a while with me occasionally asking them to just help me make a sign and I'll hitchhike. 

When I looked into eternity and saw that the lines did not bend, I said, "Okay - I give up."  They looked relieved.  "I'll go hitchhike without a sign."   This finally jolted the head guy's eyes off the piece of paper they were fixed on and dislodged his brain.  He, an employee of the Gifu mass transit system could not allow this foreigner, this guest of Japan, to degrade himself by...  by...  hitchhiking.  So the gist of it is that he ran off and looked at another schedule for another bus that went to a nearby village and asked if that would be okay.  I asked how far away that village was from Shiragawa Hachiman and he said five minutes by car but there's no taxi.

"No problem."  I said.  "When does it leave?"

"Let's see," he said, " minutes after."

I looked around for a clock.  "What time is it now?"

He looked at his watch and paused.  "Twenty-seven minutes after," he said matter of factly.

They ran ahead of me past a line of buses and stopped mine, the last one, from taking off without me and we had an enjoyable parting with the problem solved which made us all happy and they bowed and apologized and I thanked them profusely and I could see them bowing until the bus turned the corner and they were out of sight.

Soon I was riding out of the city and by the big river.  The cormorant fishing boats were tied up for the winter.  Picking people up and dropping people off, the bus went past farmlands and villages and onward toward the foothills of the Japan Alps.  As we got further away from the big city, there was less and less cement and more and more vegetation and good old dirt.  We arrived at the village which the bus driver said was the closest stop to Shiragawa Hachiman.  He dropped me off at the bus stop in front of a store.  As a gesture of kindness to a foreigner, he refused my money.

The lady who ran the store welcomed me and asked what she could do.  Well for starters I'd like to use the phone, I said, and told her who I was going to see.  Her family and the Nambas were old friends and she insisted on making the call for me.  Then we almost got into a fist fight over whose ten yen to use.  I won.  I was thirty minutes late and Yasushi wasn't even home yet.  One of his workers would come to pick me up.  I got an apple drink and talked to the lady and waited.  She said my Japanese was really good and I said no it's still really bad.  She asked me some questions like where was I from?  Did I like Japan?  Why?  Did I like Japanese food?  What Japanese food did I like?  Are the cars small?  Are the roads narrow?  Was I married?  Is America dangerous?  Did I carry a gun there?  Why was I in Japan?  Is Japanese harder than English? 

Very soon a car pulled up and nice young slightly-nervous-to-see-me mechanic was opening a door.  As he drove I answered his questions.  I'm from San Francisco.  I like Japan.  Because the people are kind.  Oh yes, I like the food.  Pardon me?  Oh yes, all of it.  Yes your car is big enough.  Yes the roads are narrow aren't they.  Yes I like the ladies here very much but I'm married.  Yes, the streets are a little dangerous in US cities sometimes.  Japanese is harder for Americans and English is harder for Japanese.  He said my Japanese was really good and I said no it's still really bad.  He said that his uncle had been to Hawaii and had eaten an American steak and that it was tough and didn't taste good.

We drove by the torii or gateway to the local shrine and continued on to Yasushi's home and business.  I stood in Yasushi's driveway breathing the fresh country air and looked out over the rice fields checkered with homes and streets.  It was still drizzling.  The friendly young mechanic who had picked me up ran into the shop and returned immediately bringing me an umbrella, apologizing as he handed it to me.  I'd left the other one in the bus darnit.  I thanked him and opened it so as not to cause him grief.

Yasushi is a car dealer.  There's a big sign on a tall pole advertising his business.  I wonder if it strikes anyone the way it does me, as a completely unnecessary intrusion of metal and plastic amidst what is otherwise a fairly decent neighborhood.  There are new and old homes and spacious ornamental and vegetable gardens and rice fields next to cedar woods and a mountain creek.  There is no need for that sign - absolutely anyone who has the remotest chance of buying a car within many kilometers of there knows exactly who he is and where he is.  The sign is there for fun and pride and because that's what car dealers do I guess.  They put up big car dealer signs, even here next to the wilderness.  There were about ten new cars and ten used ones all lined up and shiny beneath the sign.

Next door to his house the vacant lot was gone and in its place is Yasushi's dream, a large new auto shop with three stalls and three mechanics busily at work.  When Kelly and I were there visiting the previous July, we had participated in a morning groundbreaking ceremony with Yasushi's family, workers and friends.  It was a Shinto affair.  Afterwards we had all drunk beer till we were silly.

I walked around and said hello to the workers in the clean metal building.  It had a new computerized toilet with heated seat and built-in optional bidet, bottom rinse and blow dry among other features.  In the guest meeting room upstairs a couch opened up into a bed and there was a programable remote control heating and cooling unit.

Outside the home, carp streamers flew high on a flagpole.  There were four colorful banners in all, three of them in the form of fish, and they rustled in the wind.  They announce the existence of boys in the family and are flown for about a month at this time every year.

The large two-story house is typical of other suburban houses all over Japan - grey tile roof, cement instead of clay on the exterior walls.  I feel comfortable inside whether I'm sitting on a couch in the office drinking the coffee immediately served me upon entry, or on the floor in the TV room with the kids crawling over me.

Kaori, Yasushi's wife, was busy on the phone in the office and suggested I go watch TV and wait for Yasushi.  She's used to foreign guests, as generous as her husband, and I feel comfortable with her as well as him.  I went into their home and walked around.  There's a room with a large black lacquer family altar in it with a Buddha figure in the center and little tablets with Chinese characters on them, the names of departed relatives in gold script.  On the wall above are old photos of parents, grandparents and great grandparents, the patriarchs of this once papermaking family turned auto entrepreneurs.  The only youthful pictures were those of two young men in uniform.

But this altar-room is not only for the dead, though death and its ceremonies are the specialty of Buddhism.  Included were signs of Shinto as well: the zigzagging twisted white paper and an offering of sake - requesting a good life and protection from harm.  Kodomo-no-hi, Children's Day, (though it's really for boys) had been a couple of weeks before so there was still an elaborate display on a stepped platform of samurai warrior dolls and shogun lord-of-the-land dolls.  There were about twenty of them all authentically dressed up.  Fresh irises adorned both sides of the platform.  Hinamatsuri, Girl's Day with it's lady dolls, had been a couple of months before.  I stood on the tatamis and inspected the foot-high guy dolls and wondered about their significance in the psyche of the children.  One thing for sure, Japanese children have a lot to identify with - they are told who they are by all that surrounds them.

Next to this room is another with a large low wooden table where the family eats.  In the house they sit on the tatami and at work they sit on chairs.  Watanabe says that the basis of Japanese culture is sitting on the floor and he believes that as the Japanese people lose that habit, they lose their culture, their center of gravity and their keel.

I peeked in Kaori's kitchen which is large and well stocked with culinary tools and food from East and West.  There was no idle space but it wasn't cluttered.  The whole house is unusually neat.  I slid open a door off the kitchen.  What room is this? I thought.  An old lady sitting on the tatami in a kimono barked at me to get out.  Oh gosh.  Who's she?  Oops.

I retreated into the small TV room which is where I'd been told to go in the first place.  I turned on the TV then turned it off and looked around the room.  It has Yasushi's liquor cabinet.  It's here that Yasushi and I talk until late sipping cognac or high-quality cold sake.  I always enjoy these talks which go back and forth between his twin loves - the Western world and Japan.  He is not only into cars from both hemispheres and Hollywood movies, he also promotes the renewal of Japanese arts and crafts which he worries are dying.  He has gotten his local government to sponsor Kabuki and traditional paper-making workshops for foreigners.  Bop said that to the locals these workshops must seem as far-fetched as having a bunch of giraffes coming to study the native ways.  I told Yasushi that and he agreed that it challenged the hosts as much as the guests.

Yasushi has proudly shown me bottles of whiskey that cost over a thousand dollars.  This is not an uncommon thing to run into and I do not comprehend it.  I think it must be some sort of marketing hoax.  I can see a Cognac being real expensive but not a whiskey.  As far as I can tell, you could get rich in Japan rebottling Southern Comfort, the primary source of vomit in parts of Texas, and selling it as some rare, aged American Bourbon masterpiece.  These bottles are often never opened, and sit in the case for show.

I sat in this room alone and remembered first hearing of the moon calendar and the dates of the old seasons.  Yasushi taught me here about the good days and bad days and the half and half ones - a sort of daily biorhythm superimposed on the calendar.  I asked him about it because one day he had to get home to sell a car between twelve and one.  The rest of the day wasn't propitious - could sour the deal.

"It's an old superstition that goes back to China, like so much of Japanese culture, and I can't do business without honoring it.  It seems to work out."

My daydreaming was interrupted by a voice down the hall.  It was Yasushi.  I came out and said "Ohisashiburi!" and he, "Long time no see!" which mean the same and we shook hands and bowed.  He's in his midthirties, handsome, smiling and always ready for fun.  He got ready in a flash.  In the meantime I reached into my bag and got a present I'd brought him.  When he came back I was waiting with it in my hand  It was a bottle of Martell.

"It's something uninteresting,"  I said as they say in his language when giving a gift.

"Ah..."  he said appreciatively, "Maruteru."  He was pleased.  I was pleased.  He looked at me a little quizzically.  It costs a bundle in Japan.  "You bought this for me?"

"Well, I guess I shouldn't lie.  The head priest at the temple next door doesn't drink and he kindly gave it to me to give to Elin's father who was visiting a month ago.  I thought you'd appreciate it more though."

He laughed and put it in his liquor cabinet.  "Let's go."  he said.  We went outside, got into his BMW and were off to the JC's meeting which was being held that evening in another town further into the hinterland.


Yasushi checked into a minshuku, a family inn, and we pulled out our futons and he took a thirty minute nap. 

"You made my mother-in-law angry," he said.  "Don't go into her room."

I was embarrassed and apologized.  "I didn't know she lived there.  I've never seen her before."

"She doesn't come out of her room much.  And she's afraid of foreigners.  No problem.  Just leave her alone."  He rolled over and went to sleep.

I didn't sleep.  I looked over my notes and vocabulary list.  It seemed pretty sparse.   What was I going to say again?  It would come.  Trust in the universe.  Yasushi and I had no trouble talking so I should be able to talk to them as well.  Just be natural.  Stage fright bodes well.

We drove to the meeting hall, a barren echoing cream-colored cement building with a lot of flags and folding chairs inside.  It was cold.  In a back room he and I sat in red stuffed chairs, drank coffee and chatted.  Neither of us had brought up the evening lecture.

"So do you feel ready?" he finally asked me.

"I think so.  I looked over my notes while you were sleeping and I went over the whole thing with a Japanese couple in Kyoto last night."

"Good.  You're going to tell about your Japan experience?"

"I'm going to tell about America."

"These people don't know anything about America really.  Most of them have probably never heard a talk by an American.  They just have a few simple ideas.  They haven't traveled like me."

"I'll keep it simple."

"What are you going to say you did in America?"

"I want to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and race relations."

"That sounds very difficult."

Just then a couple of men walked in the room.  Yasushi introduced us.  They were the other two officers of the JCs, the vice-president and the secretary/treasurer.  They were all smiles - nice guys, and I felt at ease.  The vice-pres was about as tall as me - five eleven - and the other was more like Elin's height - five six.  The former asked what I was doing in Japan and I said studying Zen.  They showed great surprise and said that it was so hard, so strict.

"Doesn't have to be," I said, "There can be daily life Zen."

"Maybe Zen is getting soft these days like everything else," said the taller one.

"Priests are too much at the bank.  The real ones don't leave the temple except to beg," said the other nodding.

They asked me what I did in America and I said that I was a Buddhist administrator - something I'd worked out with Ishitaki to say in our neighborhood.  She said I needed a label, I kept confusing people by mentioning different jobs I'd had and things I'd done.

"There is Buddhism in America?" asked the shorter one.  "What sect?"

"Just about everything.  Zen, Nichiren, all the Japanese sects that I know of - Tibetan, Korean, all kinds.  My teacher was Soto-shu."

"Mmm.  So-do-shu," he corrected me pointing out that the second kanji meant "cave" and is pronounced "do."

"Thank you," I said, not wanting to tell him that Dogen liked to change everything including the way that character is pronounced.  But since almost everyone in Japan says "Sodo Zen" I thought my point would not be appreciated.

They were having a hard time digesting what I was saying.  The short guy asked if I was Christian.  I said I didn't exclude it.  They didn't get that.

"Religion has to be from the heart," said the taller one.  "You can't just study it like a subject at school."

"The Christians in Japan, they don't understand Christianity," said the other.  "They want to be different."

I was a little embarrassed and unsure of what to say.  "Both religions are universal - not limited to any culture or country," I said.

"David is teaching English in Maruyama," said Yasushi nodding.  "He is a very good English teacher."

The guys liked that and said they wanted to learn but hadn't done so yet.  Then they left us saying we'd get together after the talk and go out to dinner and a nightclub.  Great.

"I think it's better you don't mention Buddhism," said Yasushi.  "To them it's impossible for you to be a Buddhist.  To them Buddhism means Bon," (a festival in August when the spirits of the departed are said to return) "and priests coming to their homes for memorial services.  They have no basis upon which to understand your point of view."

"Oh," I said, thinking about the talk I was to give.

Yasushi leaned over to me.  "Just tell them you drive on the right side of the street in America and you don't use hashi."

That was freaky.  He sounded like Bop from the night before.  I didn't know what to say to him but there was no time.  We were ushered into the main hall.

We walked in to a standing ovation from about fifty guys in their thirties or so, all in suits and ties.  The Treasurer gave a financial report and the reading of the minutes was waived.  (Hey! It was Robert's Rules of Order) After a few introductory comments by the VP, I went to the podium amidst more polite applause.

I put my notes down and said hello in Japanese.  This drew more applause.  Everyone seemed pleased.  I made a few simple introductory remarks like I knew I should: the weather, how nice this part of the country was.  The men were settling in.  Some started slumping in their seats.  I launched into the meat of the talk.

"America ... blah blah blah," I said.  A head or two went down.  "We have many people from different countries and of different races... blah blah blah."  Eyes started to glaze.  "We used to say colored, then negro, then black, now Afro-American... blah blah blah."  Most eyes were shut.  "Rosa Parks ... blah blah blah."  I wasn't connecting.  I took a sip of water.  A couple of fellows were looking up.  "Mississippi in 1964... blah blah blah."  Hm, I'm not doing too well, I thought.  There were so many things I didn't know how to say.  "SDS was a student organization, well more than just students... blah blah blah."  I kept starting sentences and getting halfway into them before drawing a blank.  I shuffled through my notes.  I thought of Yasushi's mother-in-law.  "When I dropped out of college... blah blah blah."  Yasushi winced.  "Do you understand ghetto?"  No response.  The room was spinning wasn't it?  No one cared anyway.  "San Francisco, I lived in San Francisco... blah blah blah... "  Some of them were sleeping.  Yasushi.  I started talking to Yasushi.  He can get me going.  I said some things to Yasushi and he explained it to them.  Why hadn't I just written the talk down and read it.

Feeling flushed and breathing short, I asked for questions.  A fellow asked about the whaling issue - I couldn't tell exactly what, but it was about whaling.  I answered something but I couldn't hear my words.  Somehow I kept going for forty minutes in all.  I thanked them and stepped down, relieved and embarrassed.  They applauded, a speaker thanked me handing over an envelope with money in it.  I smiled and accepted it feeling like a worthless beggar.  There was another five minutes of business and people started walking out.  Time for dinner.  I didn't feel hungry.

There was a feast at an izakaya, all sorts of tidbits, lots of it fried, on sticks and plates, with sake and beer.  We had our own room.  Someone said he'd heard I was studying Zen in Japan and asked which sect.  "Sodo-shu," I said diplomatically, only to be told that the correct pronunciation was "soto."  Yasushi brought me a guitar and asked me to sing.  I began to feel comfortable.  They were so kind and forgiving.  Even better - it was obvious they didn't care - they were having fun.

Then some of us walked to a snack and were served beer and whiskey by pretty women.  There were about a dozen of us around a table and spirits were high.

"I can understand you now.  I didn't understand a thing you said in your talk though," said a good-natured fellow who was a car dealer like Yasushi.

"Me either," answered a guy at the table pouring me another drink, "But I liked it.  It was the first time I ever heard an American speak in person.  You're nice people.  I don't understand you but I like you."

Everyone laughed and agreed and someone else topped my drink off.  (There had been an eighth of an inch drunk from it.)

Yasushi looked at me and laughed.  "They never heard of Mississippi or Afro or SD... whatever.  They had nothing to relate it to."

"What is misupisi?" asked a fellow who was getting drunk.  "I can't say it."

"Mississippi," I said clearly.

And then he tried to say it and everyone laughed at him.

"Really, everyone enjoyed the talk - especially the question and answer part," said Yasushi.  "They just didn't know what the words meant!"  And they laughed more.  Even he didn't seem to care at all.

I stood up and raised my glass.  "I didn't understand a thing I said either - let's drink to not understanding anything!  To international love without the burden of comprehension!"

They all stood and enthusiastically toasted with me and we drank and sang till two in the morning.