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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 67


May 28, 1990   -   ADDRESSING WOMEN


"America is a very wide country," I said pointing to a map of the United States of America.  America - that's what they call it.  I always try to be more considerate of others from our hemisphere and just call it "the States."  The other day I was shattered when a Canadian woman told me, "The States?  Isn't it just like you Yankees to think you're the only "states."

"I was born here," I said, pointing the stick to Texas.  "Texas."  (pause for recognition)  "The city where I come from is Fort Worth.  It is next to Dallas.  You all know Dallas because Kennedy was killed there."  (ahs and ehs)  According to Ishitaki, the first day that Japan was hooked up to receive live American television, everyone in the country turned on their sets.  The day was November 22, 1963.  Like us, the Japanese will not easily forget the Kennedy assassination.

"It was a very sad day."  (nods)  I mentioned the Wild West and oil and made a pun about the word "cowboy" in Japanese and English.

"We don't use chopsticks there.  I had a hard time with them at first in Japan, but now I'm gradually getting used to them."  I picked up two pencils and exhibited ridiculous hashi style.  (laughter)

"It gets very hot in Texas in the summer."  (wipe my brow)  "When I was a kid we used to eat a lot of ice cream and watermelons in the summer."  (mmmms - going up in pitch)

I was giving a talk to a ladies group in a town way up in the hills.   It took an hour and a half to get there by bus and train.  There were about eighty women, mostly farmer's wives, not poor or uneducated, but, according to their own president (a delightful older lady who I met now and then at a nearby culture center), "not as sophisticated or snobby as Maruyama women" who Ishitaki called, "not as sophisticated or snobby as Kyoto women."  My mother went to The Women's Club in Fort Worth.  I wonder if it was anything like this - nice cultured ladies, twenty-five to seventy-five years old.

I'd been giving talks to groups for half a year - ever since I recovered from the debacle at the Gifu JCs.  Poor Yasushi.  He tried to tell me.  Everyone tried to tell me.  Like the old Japanese saying goes,  "Open your ears fathead!"  At least that's the gist.

I demonstrated a car whizzing by me so close it made me spin.  I had looked to the left instead of the right.  "Your streets are backwards!"  Laughter.

Every sentence was written large on a piece of typing paper.  I could improvise without fear of getting lost.  All I had to do was look down and say what was next.  I'd gone through these pages a number of times and most of it was from prior talks so I wasn't really reading.  Ishitaki had helped me greatly.  ("You still haven't totally written me off - thank you," I told her to keep things on the edge.)  The principle of the talk that we developed was to give the ninety percent what they wanted and expected and say a little something extra the other ten.  She enthusiastically assisted with that didactic ten per cent and made it as effective as she could for the audience which she said would be less sophisticated than her friends.  I was elated with what she wanted me to say - not just the diplomatic nice-nice.  She told me it was what she would like to say in public but never gets to because outspoken women are not appreciated.  "I have to say what I think very indirectly.  You can be frank.  That's what they expect from an American." 

I told the ladies about a language problem I had in Tokyo when I was there with Kelly in July of 1988.  We were still new to Japan and were trying to figure out if we were at a temple or a shrine.  I went up to a baldheaded man in robes and asked, "Is this a temple?" (otera).

He pointed to the left.  "The rest room (otearai) is over there."

"No I didn't say 'otearai', I said, 'Is this a temple?"(otera)

"There's a hotel (hoteru) over there," he said pointing to the left.  They applauded and laughed.


The best hint I ever got on how to communicate with Japanese was something Bop told me late one night as we walked through the grounds of a temple on a wooded hill near his place in Kyoto.  "When Americans get together we exchange information," he said.  "When Japanese get together they exchange feeling.  They are also exchanging information but the feeling is primary.  I've often seen them go back and forth, starting off with a seasonal or literary comment and then progress.  There's an almost infinite body of knowledge, of stories, poems, sayings, observations, a lot of Confucianism and Chinese folk wisdom in there.  And the Japanese language with its Chinese and especially pre-Chinese words, is so descriptive of feelings, moods, subtle aesthetic distinctions and stuff like that.  Depending on how educated they are, they just go deeper and deeper into it, and that makes them feel better and better.  Ideally they don't one-up each other, they build on what the other says.  And if someone is good at it they'll make the other person feel good.  Making others feel good is important, more important than truth or principle." 

He told me about a Japanese harpsichordist who gave a special benefit concert for the environmental group that his ladyfriend Keiks works for.  A hundred or so people went to hear the concert, about twenty of them gaijin.  The musician had studied in Europe and was well known in Japan as an expert at playing Bach.  But that night he played only his own compositions.  Bop said that they were musically based on koto music which Bop likes a lot.  But, he said the man's own music was overly simple and irritating in its lack of melody.  To him the compositions were just not good at all.  After the concert, the Japanese guests were enthusiastic in their praise.  Bop and his gaijin friends were not impressed at all, but played along with the general mood till they were back at his place and could express to each other how poor they thought the guy's music was and how embarrassed they felt for him.  Then Keiks came in with some friends of hers who were Japanese musicians.  Bop asked them offhandedly as they sat down, how they'd liked the concert and they all nodded and smiled and made general positive comments.  Keiks asked Bop how he liked it.

"So desu ne," he said with a bit of hesitation in his voice.

"Ah, we wondered if you could tell," she said.

"They wanted the guy to feel good," said Bop to me when relating this story.  "Maybe no one will ever tell him what they truly think.  There has to be a place for him - that's more important than people's opinions.  Everyone needs to feel appreciated.  The Japanese can be brutal to each other in their conformity, but there are many kindnesses we could learn from them."


"I like natto," (the sticky Limburger of soybean products) "but my wife doesn't.  Who here likes natto?" I said raising my hand and just about half the ladies' hands joined mine.

Giving my classes a plug, I told them that teaching English is difficult for me - but I love teaching the women.  They learn better, listen better, speak better, express better.

I could keep talking to those ladies forever.  They were actually listening - and responding.  Senior groups listened well too.  But it was hard to get working men to show any interest, even in a prepared talk.

I told some stories about misunderstandings between our cultures.  The one about our friend not putting "sama" after the family name on a letter.  A story about a Japanese kid doing homestay in Ohio who was kicked out of the house for not being able to eat spaghetti without slurping.

I told them I believed in cultural exchange to promote international understanding.  (serious nods)  That's true, but the forms it comes in at times drive Elin and me batty.  We declined to be on a TV show about internationalism, the Japanese buzzword of the decade.  It featured local foreigners.  Things still weren't straight with Immigration and we didn't want to advertise ourselves.  Also we didn't trust them not to do something weird.  When we sat down in the den to watch the show, our suspicions were confirmed.

Twenty foreigners from all over the world, mostly students, sat in chairs on a raised bleacher-like stage.  Before them they each had two buttons - one red and one green - red no, green yes.  A moderator introduced them and one by one they said hello and told a little about themselves.  Then he asked questions and they would hit one or the other button.  Above their heads was a banner with the words "INTERNATIONAL HEART" on it.  Below the banner was a screen upon which would appear the yes/no percentiles of their answers.  Some of the questions asked were: Do you like Japanese food better than the food from your country?  Is it difficult to eat with hashi?  Is the Japanese language difficult or easy?  (red for difficult, green for easy)  It became clear to Elin and me that to some people, "internationalism" meant gathering people from all over the world to answer the same maddening questions over and over about Japan.


"Japan doesn't seem so small to me when I ride my bicycle.  It seems endless," I said and looked around the room.  Some of them were taking notes.  "I love to visit the shrines and temples in this area."  Then I listed them.

It was time.  We were cruising together.  I could say something special to the women's club.

"There is something that bothers me about U.S. Japanese relations - we are not yet in true harmony with each other."  I took a sip of water.  A lot of heads were nodding seriously.  "To me, however, there is one area where our governments and businesses are cooperating splendidly.  Unfortunately, they are cooperating in the destruction of the earth.  I think we could find in our cultures and in our hearts better ways to cooperate.  There are ways you can help and things we can offer to keep this earth and her people strong and healthy.  Each of us has special talents we could offer to help us live more lightly on the earth.  Maybe what we need is the emergence of the feminine side as a cultural and political force to help bring this healing about."

I told them I feared the results of what the men in power were doing.  "The earth is their toy to do battle on and to use up with economic games as if no children and grandchildren would follow.  The time has come for you to step forward."  I suggested that for a hundred years women run the businesses and the governments.  Eyes lit up, backs straightened.

"It's like your PTAs.  Yes, I know that many of them are run by the few men who come, and you have to go and sit and listen and never get to present your ideas.  Maybe the men should have to come to the PTA and listen to you."  (applause)

"Surely you would nurture the world," I told them, "if we could just keep the men in the kitchens.  You can take turns with the kids.  I know it's funny that I, a man, am saying this but I think I can explain.  My neighbor, Ishitaki-san, who is a housewife and a strong, independent woman, helped me to write this talk and it was my feminine side that worked with her.

"And now it is time for me to sit down and let you take over - unless you have any comments or questions."   A few hands raised amidst the laughter and applause.  There were no comments and all the questions were about the earlier parts of the talk, but afterwards a number of women thanked me privately for sharing my unusual thoughts about the role of women.  They knew I was just stirring things up and didn't take me too literally.  I might have believed it more than any of them.