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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]

Chaptre 43


June 5, 1989   -   DOUBTING THE SUN'S SON


One Monday morning Shimizu arrived first for class.  He opened the front door and called out, "Good morning!"

"Come on in!" I said.  "You're early as usual.  Come watch me wash the dishes."

"I hate that smell," he said.  "Why are you burning incense?"

"Oh we just light it sometimes for the aroma," I answered surprised.

He pulled up a chair at the kitchen table.

At nine A.M. sharp Morikawa and Tanahashi, the barely old and not quite young professors' wives, and Etsuko, the elementary school teacher, announced their presence from the front hall.  They all came in saying "What's that awful smell?"

"I can't believe it.  What have you all got against incense?" I said breaking the burning end off and turning on the vent fan.

"Makes your house smell like temple," said Morikawa, fidgeting with her flowered blouse.

"What's wrong with smelling like a temple?" I asked.

"It's the smell of death," said Shimizu, his nostrils widening slightly on his smooth brown face.  "We only smell incense at funerals or memorial services."

As the deadly aroma disappeared, the ladies soon were looking at me in amazement, chattering and oohing that I was washing the dishes.  "Your wife must be so happy," said Tanahashi sincerely in her soft high voice.  "Do you always do dishes?"

"Yes, I have to," I told her.  "If I don't.. ."  and then I made the signs of an angry wife: holding my hands up to my head with my index fingers extended to represent horns.  Tanahashi put her hand to her mouth to muffle her laugh.

Elin stuck her head out from the den where she was reading.  "It's not true," she said guessing I was slandering her.

Kubo-san had just walked in at that point and she joined in on the laughter without having to be filled in.

Carrying a pot of tea, I led all into the living room off the kitchen where the shoji were open, revealing the garden in its April splendor.

Morikawa started off the conversation by saying she'd been to an interesting lecture in which the speaker talked about the differences between European royalty and the Japanese Emperor. The main difference she said was that European royalty was believed to have derived it's authority from God whereas the Emperor was thought to be a god.

The Emperor Showa had died half a year earlier.  He'd had the role longer than any previous emperor and had presided over the greatest swings in Japanese history.  On the news they said he'd died without ever having been told he had cancer.  They said it as if such ignorance was a blessing.  I was expecting major shock waves and public grief upon the announcement of his death.  He died early one morning.  I'd wondered why the flag was up at the temple gate.  We were downtown shopping and ran into a lady, a college student we knew, on the street and she told us.  We felt weird.  The head of Shinto, the symbol of Japan had died, and we couldn't read it in anyone's face - there was no change.  No one in the neighborhood had told us that morning.  Later I had asked kids in class how the Emperor's death affected them and they'd just shrugged or said it had no meaning to them.

Mrs. Morikawa continued: "After the war some Japanese people think the Emperor should be ... hanging..."

Me: "They thought the Emperor should be hung... uh... hanged."

Mrs. Morikawa: "Be hanged.  But many people respect MacArthur and he think it's very useful to not kill Emperor."

Mr. Shimizu: "Australian Labor Party leader said after Emperor's death this year he had no message of sorrow.  He said after the war the Emperor should have been chopped into many pieces with jungle knife."

Mrs. Morikawa: (laughs) "I believe him to be a war criminal.  But MacArthur was very wise - very smart not to kill him.  Often in European country they killed the royalty.

We never killed Emperor or reject Emperor system."

Mr. Shimizu: "Japanese Emperor is the most historical Emperor in the world.  Going back the longest and continuing in unbroken line."

Mrs. Morikawa: "But since the Meiji Restoration in the latter part of the last century it has been a special period.  Before that the Emperor ah... very often uh didn't appear on the political surface."

Mr. Shimizu: "Sometimes Emperor had no power because the shogun had it all or the general.  There was much fighting for power.  Emperor just figurehead."

Mrs. Morikawa: "So so so."

As one person speaks, the sos, hmms, ehs and ahs of the others are going on all the while.  Japanese get uncomfortable if they don't hear constant feedback - aizuchi.

Mrs. Morikawa: "In Meiji era there was the first prime minister, but also the Emperor gained respect and that idea continues now.  But before Meiji the Emperor was not so respected."

Mr. Shimizu:  "Some emperors had no money.  No one even thought of them.  It's not so much the respect or power, but most important is the idea of divinity that increased at the time of the Meiji."

Me: "You're saying that the Emperor became more important during the Meiji era?"

Mr. Shimizu: "That's right.  More divine."

"That's funny - isn't that when Japan opened up?" I asked.  "Meiji was the era of westernization."

Mrs. Morikawa: "Yes.  It is irony.  In the speech I heard yesterday, the professor said that the Japanese have fallen into a dilemma about the Emperor.  The British King or Queen make an effort to connect with the people but the Japanese Emperor still separate.  Now the Emperor wants to contact with the people but the people around him, his retinue, don't want this connection.  They want him to be on an ivory tower."

Kubo lights up.  "Ivory tower?"

I explain.  She goes back to listening.

Mrs. Morikawa: "After the war he became only a symbol of the nation.  Before that many people thought him god."

Me:  "Did you think the Emperor was a god?"

Mrs. Morikawa:  "Yes.  I was taught in school he was the god and I believed till I was ten years old and the war over.  Then he says he's not a god and I was so angry.  I hate him."

Elin and I knew there were some people who didn't appreciate the Emperor.  In the papers such thoughts were usually associated with left-wingers and older people in Okinawa where so many civilians had died in the final fighting of the war.  There were politicians who vehemently opposed the government spending a cent on the Emperor's funeral or anything Imperial.  They said it went against the separation-of-church-and-state clause in the constitution.  The heavy-duty anti-imperialists have burned shrines associated with him.  The mayor of Nagasaki was shot by a right-winger for saying that the Emperor bore some responsibility for the war.

Mrs. Kubo:  "I don't care yes or no for the Emperor.  There will be no Emperor in twenty years anyway."

Mrs. Morikawa: "When were you born?"

Mrs. Kubo: "1955."

Mrs. Morikawa: "You didn't have to suffer for him.  Why didn't he tell us before he was no god.  And the lies about white devils.  All the women who jumped off cliffs in Okinawa to escape white devils.  My family was in China for him.  So many died.  Many millions.  We thought Chinese inferior and whites were devils and only god, our god, could win the war.  Then everything went wrong.  We took the boat back with no food.  And they wouldn't let us in because of the quarantine.  Just out there in the Inland sea we waited a week in the boat and my sister starved to death.  She starved to death for the Emperor.  And then the white devils came and fed us.  They were fair.  They saved us.  The whole world was exactly opposite of what I was taught.  I will always hate the Emperor Showa and I want his son to quit."

I'd never seen her so worked up.  English class can be like group therapy.  It gives people permission to talk about things that might not otherwise be considered appropriate topics of conversation.  Morikawa was shaking but still smiling.  Mrs. Kubo was looking a little shocked but was listening intently.

"I don't hate him," said Shimizu.  "He was victim of the right-wing too.  But I think that LDP Diet members who still say they believe the Emperor is a god are too old fashion.  But I don't hate.  And I was born in China.  I was just a baby when we had to run so that's why I don't have bad memories.  My mother did though.  She shaved her head so that if the Russians caught her they'd think she was a man and just kill her and not rape her.  They killed my father, uncle, grandparents and brother.  They killed everyone they could.  Only my mother and me got away.  I am very lucky.  And Japan was lucky the Russians never came."

That was all the heavy talk for that day.  Kubo said she wanted to talk about something nice for a while.  She pointed out that she had just bought a set of ivory bracelets.

"Don't they kill the whole elephant to get the horns?" said Tanahashi with a look of concern.  It was the first thing she'd said all morning and made me aware that I'd neglected to bring her into the conversation.

Kubo quickly broke the awkward silence.  "I know I'm not supposed to buy them," she said laughing.  "It's illegal and my children love elephants, but I couldn't resist.  They were very expensive."

Behind her I could see Elin in the kitchen fuming.  We'd just seen a documentary on TV about the social life of elephants which included heart-wrenching scenes of their families being rounded up and slaughtered for ivory.

Kubo looked at me.  "Americans don't want us to do this," she said.

"I agree with the Americans," said Tanahashi firmly.

"Americans buy almost as much illegal ivory as Japan," I said a little sickened and looked for something to say to express my displeasure tactfully, but Tanahashi had taken that role and anyway, Kubo was off talking about her son and how he played tennis all day and would never get into any good schools.  Elin and I happened to be grateful to her son.  Because of his bad grades Kubo had given us his TV so he wouldn't be able to stay up in his room and play video games all the time.


I stood in the garden and bade farewell to the members of the MMC.  It had been another freewheeling day.  I was still chewing on bits and pieces of the fragmented conversation.  It's an interesting way to get to know people - through a language that they're struggling with.  I'm struggling with theirs too.  I think the most overused word for those who live abroad or study foreign languages is "fluent."

"We don't really understand each other," Shimizu once surprised me by saying when we were talking on the edge of the street in front of his small neighborhood store, I on my bicycle and he at the rear of his truck.  "I can only really express myself in Japanese.  I have a lot of deep and complicated feelings I just can't say in my English or your Japanese.  But we try and I enjoy trying.  What we are doing makes me very happy.  We are planting seeds for the future."