An American housewife living in Japan 50 years ago finds friendship and enjoyment in the heart of Japan. Her uneasy feeling about the war is immediately overcome by considerations offered by the Japanese at first encounter. Her vignettes reinforce the relaxed feeling as even the Emperor and his wife wave at the Americans as his train slowly goes by. The book presents a glimpse of the history of Japan and the Japanese.
In the words of the author:
Living in central Japan a little more than one hundred years after Commodore Perry “opened the door of Japan,” this memoir recounts the challenges of daily life as I was drawn into the heart of Japan and the Japanese. Through the years, I have taken two trips back to greet old Japanese friends. Suzy and Mr. Tanaka were foremost in my visits. From Tokyo to Nagoya, I have traveled by Bullet Train and at that speed the farmlands and villages were a passing blur. “Old Japan” appeared to be slipping away like the persimmons strung from the eaves of farmhouses, catching the dying sun, lighting up like lanterns and then going out one by one.
de Havilland with crack in engine nacelle with snowcapped Mt. Fuji
Jishin, A Vocabulary Word
The husband of one of my dropout American friends complained that he could smell Sensei’s flowery hair tonic long after he had left their house. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like Sensei, either. I have to admit our teacher had an edgy manner that was rare in a land of courtesy. He thought American women talked too loud, laughed too loud and their feet were too big. He predicted at our first meeting that we wouldn’t last long at studying the language of his “backward little country.” He said it with an ironic smile as if that was how Americans perceived Japan.
It was true. Many military wives never bothered to experience Japan. They filled their days with bridge and their evenings with Bingo at the Officers’ Club. Despite the luxury of loyal and often devoted housemaids who made this possible, they missed home. “Golden Gate in Fifty-Eight” was their slogan. My teacher, now my private tutor, worked in an accounting office at Gifu Air Base. The American employees there called him skoshi. What bothered him wasn’t the reference to his height but the incorrect use of sukoshi which meant a little, a small amount of something. If they wanted to kid him and everyone knew that Americans kid each other all day long, a better word would be chisai or chibi which meant a little guy. He had explained it to them so many times but it hadn’t helped.
After the other women dropped out and I had private lessons, he told me that he had secretly studied English all during the war years when it was forbidden. Every classroom had a portrait of Emperor Hirohito but the English books had disappeared. Before the war, English had been required from middle school on. It was the language of England and the United States, the international language that brought Japan into the circle of great nations with noble ideas about government and diplomacy and education. But as Japan became increasingly imperialistic, English had to be studied in secret.
Outside of John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he had never heard a genuine English speaker. After the war ended, he studied with a Japanese teacher of English. Sensei told me how his teacher would hold up a fountain pen in class.
“JISH eezu ah PENG!” He would say and everyone repeated jish eezu ah peng.
His own accent was good. He heard everyday English all day long at work. He could make the sound of ur as in curve, a sound which does not occur in Japanese. He couldn’t understand why we found it hard to pronounce the syllable tsu which we don’t have in English I told him.
“Yes you do!” he claimed. “What about United Statetsu?”
One Tuesday at about five p.m., no one else home, he took his mimeographed lessons out of a briefcase while I poured cups of green tea. I noticed the heading on the pages? Passive Voice. I had hoped to avoid passive voice in Japanese.
“The rice was eaten by the mice,” he said, waiting for me to laugh. I would have laughed but suddenly the house shook insidiously with a single booming sound like an explosion. A bomb? We jumped to our feet. Sensei, who had never so much as brushed my sleeve until that moment, reached across the table and took firm hold of both my wrists making it impossible to leave. The full pot of tea poured onto the table.
“What was that?” I said, frozen.
“Jishin! Earthquake!” He sat down, his face grey, still gripping my wrists so I couldn’t get up. Cold sweat stood on the back of my neck. I had to run outside to find my children.
“I’ve got to find the kids!”
“Not yet. Not yet.” We waited. When he thought it was safe, I found a towel to wipe up the tea that had spilled on his mimeographed lessons.
Earthquake! I’d grown used to the occasional California earthquake that began with warning tickings of Venetian blinds and the groans of windows before the shock was felt, then more creaks and tickings as they settled down. I described that to him.
“I think maybe Japanese earthquake is different. Vertical,” he said, pronouncing it perfectly. Even fluent Japanese speakers of English might have said “batikuru” but not him. The children rushed into the house, flushed with the thrill of an earthquake.
I liked Sensei better after that evening. A shared earthquake creates a bond. But two weeks later I did quit his lessons, confirming his opinion of American perseverance.
I was afraid I’d disappointed him, even offended him by dropping out. But he seemed to take it in stride. A few weeks later he came to the door to ask if I would accompany him to his month-old daughter’s first visit to the Shinto shrine. It was a ceremony called Omiyamairi. I had never heard about that. Temples were Buddhist, Shrines were the dwelling places of Shinto gods. Most Japanese find these utterly different religions appropriate to the aspects of their lives. New babies were reportable to the Shinto gods.
It rained on that day. I hadn’t met Sensei’s wife but she was waiting in front of her house. Expecting her mother would go with us, I was surprised when only Sensei climbed into my car with the tiny living doll swaddled in red and gold padded silk. Her mother, petite and pretty in her gorgeous red and green and gold kimono, waved us off.
The Shinto temple was elegantly simple, its enormous timbers giving off a spicy smell in the dampness. A smiling young priest in robes of azure blue silk and the tall, black lacquered hat, said a prayer over Sensei’s baby daughter. It was my honor to hold her against my raincoat while he painted two red dots between her brows, investing her with the spiritual sight she would need in another life. She never cried, only raised her charcoal black eyebrows, just like her father’s when she felt the tickle of the paint brush. It was quickly over and Sensei allowed me to hold the umbrella over him while he climbed back into my car with his firstborn child. As we drove grandly out of the grove of ancient and colossal cryptomeria trees that surround a Shinto shrine, I glanced over at the tiny skeptical face. “She looks like you, Sensei,” I told him.
And then, man of the world — of two worlds, he handed me a cigar.
“For your husband,” he said.