Curiosity and the foreign neighbor



I here was an old woman who would repeatedly ask me how tall I was, and what did my family eat for break­fast. She was a fanner and neighbor in the mountain village where we lived for seven years. These two questions seemed of particular interest to her; at least, she never tired of asking them, and I answered her each time as though it were the first time.

Apparently she could not reconcile my looks and eating habits with some other facts. These facts were that year after year she'd seen me carry my chil­dren on my back as she had her children and then grandchildren. That we plant­ed and pickled at the same time of year. That in summer we both donned our cotton kimono to dance in the Bon Festival. That we'd sat side by side at the recitals at the kindergarten, and stood side by side at the funeral of neighbors.

In any case, I continued to answer her questions about my height and diet, and with the respect her age demanded. Eventually she stopped asking. I sup­pose she came to realize that 170 cm wasn't all that tall, and the fact that I enjoyed miso soup more for the evening meal than for breakfast didn't make

that much difference — as far as she could see. I came to realize that it was very probable that I was the tallest per­son she'd ever met, and that in her world, miso soup, rice and pickles were the only possible breakfast.

I realized too that the simple people I lived among were no more accustomed to seeing someone who looked like me than I was to seeing tigers roaming. I learned to announce my coming with a cough or an audible footstep when I walked on back roads and the narrow paths that cut across tea fields; it seemed unfair to appear all of a sudden in front of some old farmer tending his fields and minding his business. (I seriously considered that I might be the unwitting cause of a heart attack!)


The first time I met the old woman, I'd gone to her home to return a shovel I'd borrowed from her son the day before; expressing my gratitude and uttering the ordinary politenesses, I left. Much later she confided that she'd seen me coming and had actually wanted to

hide, simply because she didn't know what she would, or could, say to me. After our brief and uneventful encounter she said she'd felt relieved, and thought to herself that she must be "just an igno­rant old country woman."

However, the ignorance of my old neighbor, a farmer who knew only farmers, was hardly greater than that of supposedly more educated and sophis­ticated folk who would continually ask the usual questions: "Can you sleep on a futon, use chopsticks, eat sushi, drink green tea?"

I didn't mind the questions, really, but it was the can part that got me, since these things simply comprise ordinary behavior in this country. And then too, after all, there we were, living in an old farmhouse in the middle of one of the

country's prime tea-growing regions, generally abiding by, naturally, tradi­tions these same people had only heard about from their grandparents.

It would not have occurred to me to question if they could drink coffee and eat a steak with a knife and fork, or to exclaim in wonder that they sat on chairs and slept in beds, though these characteristic Western ways were not my own. I could not have remem­bered the last time I'd eaten a steak, I did not drink coffee, and in that old farmhouse there were neither chairs nor beds.

But how could they know? People see me and my dark skin, my husband's distinctly non-Japanese features, our children's curly hair—and make all the wrong assumptions.





Why can't Johnny read hiragana?




The following is taken from a letter I A received recently: Dear Mrs. Anton:

"My daughter 'Anne' is in the third grade at a Japanese school. She goes to a special class and all the other children in it are Brazilian. This class appears to have no structure. She's supposed to learn Japanese in this class, but we have been here eight months and she has only learned half of hiragana. She cannot read a word. In her regular class she does math problems all day. They are teaching her very little. Basically, they hand her a worksheet or a book for her to work on her own."

The letter ended with the writer ask­ing for my advice on "how to communi­cate with Japanese teachers."

I responded by saying I was reluctant to offer advice without knowing first­hand about the situation, but as far as talking with teachers about her con­cerns, I suggested she seek out the assis­tance of a Japanese person. "I don't know how well you speak Japanese, but even if you are fluent, it will not hurt to have someone Japanese (a mature adult) act on your behalf."

The writer, who signed herself "A frustrated parent," also said she'd like to hear about my children's experiences in Japanese schools.

While I don't think there are really any parallels, this has been our chil-

dren's experience:

Our last three children were all born here, so quite naturally Japanese has been their first language and language capability never a problem.

Nanao, our eldest daughter, was born in Denmark (and given a Japanese name purely by chance). She spent half of her first five years in Europe, and the other half in the United States. Although she spoke English when we came here, I note she was "late" in beginning to talk. After Denmark, we lived in Switzerland and France for a time. I think she had heard so many languages while she was an infant, she must have waited to choose which language to use.

In any case, when we arrived in Japan in June 1975, Nanao could have gone directly into first grade. However, we chose to keep her back; we believed kindergarten would be the best way for her to begin her Japanese education.

It is a well-known fact young chil­dren have an incredible ability to learn languages. While adults struggle to learn a foreign language, children can have native fluency in a relatively short time. My husband and I were truly amazed at how fast Nanao learned to speak, read and write Japanese. She did not have any special lessons or tutors. After a summer of play, when she start­ed kindergarten in September that year, she was already functional in Japanese.

I can still remember the day she came in the house and ran up to me saying: "Mama, listen. I can read this," and proceeded to read from a little children's book a friend had given her.







UNIT 2      15

"Yes, yes. How wonderful. Now run along and play, dear." To myself I thought: Sure, sure. Nobody can read that stuff. It looks like Chinese.

Looking back now, I realize her teachers must have been especially kind and conscientious in giving her special attention—while never singling her out as in need of special help. Nanao's Japanese language acquisition appeared to be a seamless process.

Occasionally I have read in this paper of the increased government and Education Ministry efforts to help the steadily increasing numbers of children of foreigners (many of whom are South Americans), who have come to Japan to work in recent years.

When I first saw these notices, I thought: Boy, that's nice. Our daughter didn't get any special help when she started school here.

Now, I don't think that was a bad thing. Without a doubt, Nanao was the first foreign child in her kinder­garten and elementary school. For all four of our children, they are, and have always been, the only foreign children in their schools and in our community. Living in rural Japan, I doubt their teachers ever had experience dealing with for­eign children.

(Two years ago when our prefecture conducted a special survey of foreign children in public schools to find out what problems they might be having, they asked the principal of our chil­dren's school if they could be inter-

viewed. His answer: "Why? They cer­tainly don't have any problems. And they're not 'foreign'.")


Some schools do have programs, mostly centered on Japanese-language acquisition, to try and address the prob­lem of the somewhat sudden increase in the number of foreign children in Japanese public schools.

I suspect these programs are evolving, and are not yet designed to face the task of teaching a classroom of children who speak languages as diverse as Portuguese and Tagalog, English and Chinese.

There is quite a difference between 21 learning a second language when a child

is 5 or 6 years old, or when he or she is 9 or 10. For teenagers, it's a challenge. Lack of language ability coupled with non-adaptation can make their problems acute.

Since the consequences of neglected  teenagers become news reports, it would be wonderful if the Education Ministry, famous for its glacier-paced change, implemented innovative and effective programs to address the needs of all these children. Now.


Tea-serving no contradiction for strong Japanese women



 have three daughters. My eldest daughter Nanao, was born in Odense, Denmark. My other two daughters, Mie and Lila, were both born in Japan. They, along with their brother Mario, have all been raised here, and received their early education in this country's public school system.

For quite a few foreign families living in Japan, the necessity of having to send their children to Japanese public school (if there is no international school option, which there isn't if you live in the provinces, as we do) is simply the critical crossing point: the time to leave.

Aside from the education aspect, quite a few foreigners appear hesitant to raise their families in Japanese society because they fear it will have negative consequences for their children. They seem to think their girls will turn out weak and ineffectual, their boys, imperi­ous.

Many people are curious to know about my experience of raising a family here over two decades, and I often recount this in my lectures.

Some years ago, I gave a lecture to a spirited group of foreign women. At this gathering, I could tell long before I'd finished speaking that there would be a lot of questions.

The first question came from a young woman in the audience who asked with

no beating around any bush: "Aren't you worried your daughters will become like Japanese women?"

She seemed to think that was the
worse thing that could happen to them.
I don't.                                                            
This woman saw the probability of
my daughters becoming like Japanese
women as a clear and present danger. I|
did not share her perception that my
daughters might be lesser women, some­
how, if indeed they acquired whatever
might be typical characteristics of what­
ever might be the typical "Japanese

I sometimes want to go looking for this mythical Japanese woman, because she is no one I know.

There are an abundance of negative ' stereotypes about Japanese women that just do not apply to the many Japanese women whom I've counted as friends, acquaintances and associates over the years.

This Japanese woman is certainly not 12 the woman who was my children's pedi­atrician; neither is she one of my best friends, who is also Lila's dentist. She is not the woman who occasionally helps me in the house.   This woman has no stellar professional status. Widowed early in life, she raised her children as a single mother amid the deprivations of postwar Japan.   Now, her hardships behind her, she's decided to travel and see some of the world. I know she's not the woman who teaches me Japanese, and teaches German and English to oth­ers.   Surely she is not my mentor, the






woman who guided and encouraged me through those years when my children were young and I was still new to this country living isolated on top of a mountain.

She could not be the hardworking local farm women I know who have worked alongside men, survived them, and gone back in the field to work some more. Surely she cannot be the shrewd shopkeepers who manage in the midst of economic adversity to prevail and keep their businesses going, and continue to offer good service. She cannot be the many women on whose backs the pillars of Japanese society rest, and without whom there would have been no "eco­nomic miracle."

Of course, I didn't always feel this way.

I remember very clearly when I came to this country in 1975 that after just a few months here I thought: What is it with Japanese women? All they do is

serve tea.

Like anyone who stays longer, and cares to look a little deeper — and sus­pend judgment— I was soon disabused of this negative impression. And not because the same women who were serving me tea, suddenly announced as they offered me the cup with two hands: I'm a Ph.D. I'm a mathematician. I'm a doctor. I'm a dentist. I taught elemen­tary/junior high/high school for 20 years.

Their modesty in their abilities and accomplishments made me think twice about flaunting my not particularly brilliant feathers. I suppose if I wanted to say what I thought characterized the Japanese women I know, what they have that I value, it would be such qual­ities as selflessness, grace, forbearance, perseverance, generosity, modesty, humility.

My daughters could have worse examples to emulate. So could I.

UNITS       21




In the global village, no place is exotic


Picking up the phone, I recognized the voice of my friend Felix.

"Karen, how's it going? I thought I'd call to see how you're doing."

Most of my friends don't call me. They know I don't like to talk on the telephone. Felix, who is Dutch, knows too, but like another European friend, Franco, who's Italian, he doesn't seem to care. In their countries and cultures, you call your friends.

Felix is also one (there is one other) person with whom I regularly corre­spond, and we have corresponded regu­larly for more than 30 years. We first met in Spain, on the island of Formentera, in 1965. Formentera, a miniature island with terrain like the surface of the moon, is one of the Balearic Islands, which include the larg­er and more popular, and populated, Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza. I think there were about 14 people on Formentera when we were there.

Felix now lives in California. He was calling to say he's on his way to Europe, for a five-week vacation. No, he wasn't calling to gloat. He wanted to apologize for the lapse in our correspondence and to say he'd drop a line from Europe and write once he returned.

He'll spend part of his holiday in Holland with his family, visit a sister in Switzerland, then travel with his

brother to Italy. "Hey," he said, "tell me what's a good gift to take to Europe. I hardly know anymore."

What's a good gift to take anywhere? I hardly know either.

I was in Paris in the spring; it was the first time I'd been in Europe since my husband and I set out from Genoa to take our yearlong drive to Japan, 24 years ago. Figuring who knows when I'll get there again, I was really looking for things to buy.

But it seemed to me that what I could buy in Paris I could buy in New York I could buy in Tokyo. Almost more than searching for presents, I searched for even one good reason why I should buy things to drag around airports and through customs that I'd have no diffi­culty purchasing in nearby shops.

I recall one of my prized souvenirs after that first trip to Europe 33 years ago was a ceramic bowl I'd bought in Spain. It was a beautiful bowl, made of terracotta; although I no longer have it I remember it well. In fact, it was very similar to the Spanish bowl I bought in downtown Hamamatsu last year.

I returned to New York after Spain, and Felix, who had by that time taken a job on a cruise ship (the Holland-America Line), visited whenever the ship docked there. On every visit he brought me a gift from another far-off place.

They were special gifts, truly unique. I mean, I didn't even know anyone else who had a silk scarf from India. Of course, if I want one of those scarves






now, I don't have to wait for a friend to sail across a couple of oceans to bring me one from Bombay. I can find one in

the nearest all-purpose store, next to the

handkerchiefs, or socks, or something equally commonplace.

Anyone who travels now knows that you cannot buy a souvenir without first ascertaining where it was made. You've got to locate the label and check it out carefully. Because even if part of it is made where you are, other parts might be made where you're going.

When I'm in the U.S., I scrutinize the items I want to purchase to make sure the intended gift I want to take back to Japan, was in fact made in the U.S. and not, l hope, Belize or Bulgaria or (and it's happened) Japan.

An acquaintance who as a young girl traveled on several occasions with her family to Europe ("to learn European manners and how to eat properly") speaks nostalgically of the days when she "booked passage" on ocean liners

and crossed the Atlantic with steamer trunks.   Now, like everyone else, she


She says she's put off by the sight of "tourists schlepping around airports dressed in jeans and sneakers." Now that many people can afford to travel she wishes they would do it with "more


A class called "economy" means peo­ple who hover anywhere near the middle class can travel. Foreign countries and exotic destinations that were the stuff of dreams are now places to buy stuff. Be it Borneo or Bali, it's no fantasyland, but the place they plan to spend their next vacation. Their friends have probably already been there.

In addition to some of its more seri­ous shortcomings, the much-ballyhooed "global marketplace" does kind of take the wonder out of things. The age of the Tourist, accompanied as it is by the ubiquitous souvenir, sort of results in a world that's a supermarket.



UNIT 4      27




The joy of strangers on a train




I have a friend, an American novelist,

.who told me she styles the dialogues for her books on the conversations she eavesdrops on in restaurants. She creates many of her novels' characters from the unexpected but welcome encounters she has with strangers on public transporta­tion.

I don't listen in on other people's conversations and I don't encourage strangers to talk to me, but it seems every time I board a train that's exactly what happens, even when I have my head buried in a book.

Recently, when a man sat next to me on the shinkansen and said "How do you do?" I thought, "Oh no. Time to talk English."

I said nothing, looked his way and smiled. Perhaps that could be taken as encouragement, because before the train pulled out of the station I knew he was married with two grown (unmarried) daughters, was a former high school teacher, and now works for the local board of education.

Staid, suited and buttoned up, he appeared the quintessential bureaucrat. I could hardly believe how easily and openly he began talking.

He'd always liked English, he told me, and started studying on his own beginning in junior high school.

"I was so keen to study. I memorized many phrases and expressions. But

sometimes my memorized phrases got me into trouble."

Here I showed some curiosity.

"After I finished university, I was able to realize my dream, I visited the United States. While visiting an American home I asked 'Where can I wash my hands?'"

His host, naturally, took him to a sink. He washed his hands. Hours later, noticing their guest appeared to be in an increasing state of distress, he was asked if perhaps he would like to use the toilet. "I couldn't even answer calmly. I almost screamed 'Yes, yes!'"

"When I taught school, I often thought how fortunate the students were. They were never hungry. Each one, I was sure, had a tape recorder in his room. In my junior high school there was one tape recorder. It was the treas­ure of the school. We students were not allowed to touch it. Only teachers could touch it. Young people now cannot imagine what is was like when I was a schoolboy."

When he was 13 years old he went on a school excursion to Kyoto. "That's where I saw a foreigner for the first time in my life. I cannot tell you how happy and excited I was. 'Gaikokujin, gaikokujin "

There in the train he clapped his hands together as he had done those many years ago, and for one brief moment, he was no longer the staid for­mer teacher and bureaucrat, but a teenage boy, with tears of joy in his eyes.

In December I visited the Noto






Peninsula. It's a long train ride (in fact, three train rides) and when I settled back in my seat with my book, I wasn't exact­ly thrilled when my seat-mate said "Are you traveling to Kanazawa?"

Before long I knew she and a friend had visited Washington D.C. where her daughter had been studying. It was her first time to travel outside of Japan, and it had been a wonderful trip, right up until this incident.

"From the moment my daughter and I and our friend entered this restaurant we felt uncomfortable. The waiter was unpleasant and haughty, and made no effort to hide his disapproval of us. Although many tables were available, he did not give us a good one. Our food came late, after people who arrived after us. One dish was so burned it was ined­ible. My daughter returned it saying it was not acceptable. Although I don't speak English, my daughter could speak it well enough to complain and express her displeasure."

She said although it had happened eight years earlier, the experience was still vivid and she will never forget it. She was shocked, she said, to find out how poorly people can be treated just based on their looks, and she became aware how easy it was to make others feel inadequate, somehow.

"It was very unpleas­ant for me, but I did learn something. Until then, I had never even thought about prejudice

or discrimination, so there was value even in this painful experience." She said it was only then that she realized how some people in Japan, and other places, are treated and how they must feel.


Fortunately, that unpleasant experi­ence was balanced by the experience of going to another restaurant where their patronage was welcomed and they were treated well.

"But just think," she said, "that this 20 small thing, really just a social incon­venience, could cause such sadness and be so hurtful. I am sometimes surprised when I think of how it still affects me. Imagine what it must be like for people who are looking for work or a place to live." There were tears in her eyes.

She apologized when she saw my 21 book, which had remained open on my lap.   "I am so sorry I interrupted your reading."

I'd hardly noticed.   I can read anytime,

I told her, but I never know when I can talk with a stranger on the train.

UNIT 5      33




Pen can be louder than words



My father, who wasn't born in this century, wrote on vellum paper with a fountain pen he dipped in ink. At a time when it was considered an accomplishment to have good penman­ship, he was known to have a "fine hand." The neighbors appreciated it when he offered to give penmanship les­sons in our home to their children.

Naturally I attended these lessons, and I learned to love the technique of transferring words from pen and ink to paper. My interest led me straight to calligraphy; though that word "is not an exact equivalent of the Japanese expres­sion sho," as John Stevens says in "Zen and the Art of Calligraphy," I had long wanted to study this art form.

After arriving here and inquiring about calligraphy classes, I met a woman who offered to introduce me to her teacher, if indeed I wished to be a "serious student." How serious was I? How serious did I have to be? I heard from others that the teacher, Oki Roppo-sensei, well known and highly esteemed, was called "One of the five fingers of Japan." Though grateful for the chance of an introduction, I was hesitant: Could I possibly meet the expectation of this eminent teacher? And, more practically, did I want to travel a total of five hours just to get to the class in Shizuoka City and home again?

I attended one class with the idea I'd

make my decision afterward, but my mind was made up the minute I stepped into his studio. Eighty-three-years-old then, Oki-sensei sat at his writing table surrounded by his brushes and timeworn inkstones, and an aura of tranquility. I presented him with a loaf of bread I'd baked; he received it telling the students present how pleased he was to have a homemade gift.

He told me he would be glad to s accept me as his student, and said that although I might not realize it, I was for­tunate in not having ever studied before as I would not have any mistaken pre­conceptions.

I was given an o-tehon (a book of e samples) and told that I should bring in my work the next week to be corrected. I practiced at home every day the simple kanji I'd been given, but after a week of effort I was not at all pleased with the results.

When I returned to class the following week I sat in the formal seiza posi­tion and watched while he checked the work of the students before me. Their work was beautiful. (I later learned that most of his students, including the woman who'd introduced me, were teachers of calligraphy themselves.) By the time it was my turn to show my work I was so embarrassed and ashamed by its primitiveness, I cried. He made the corrections, said a few inaudible words, and gave me the samples for the next lesson. Oddly, I felt encouraged; I mean, he hadn't thrown my work away and told me to never come again!

I continued to study with him for   &



years, and for a long time I felt handi­capped by my lack of knowledge of kanji and the techniques of calligraphy; disadvantaged is what I felt when I com­pared myself to the other students, not "fortunate." I could not reconcile myself to his method of teaching; he rarely spoke. I wanted desperately to be told and instructed in very definite terms, as I was accustomed to. I could hardly see the point of travelling so far just to watch him write.

But after a while it all started to come 9 together, and I could see that this method, teaching without words, new to me at the time, had its merits. The stu­dent was expected to observe and endeavor, in the truest sense of those words. It was instructive just to see how he sat, how he held his brush; an inspira­tion to watch him writing, and see how one stroke followed the other—flowing in perfect order.



UNIT 6       39






They’re so expensive. (I don't know why people here insist on calling them ‘American’ cherries; it’s probably a trade thing.   I've eaten them straight from trees in France and Denmark too.

Now there are machines that sell fresh vegetables -and they sell them

cheaper than in the stores. So you d think a thrift-conscious person like myself would welcome the automatic vegetable vendors.

But I have to say, I don't care if the machines are selling cabbage for half the price, or even if you could just push the button and get carrots free. I'd rather go to the store and buy my food from a human being.

Besides, I like my greengrocer. He addresses me as o-nee-san, adds in his head faster than with an abacus, and told me the secret to making the best umeshu. He's used to my "I-can-buy-it-cheaper-in-America" harangue, and the last time I told him I could get better corn for half the price in California, he

told me he wishes he could shop in California, too.

He has his stall in a large shopping complex, and a few years ago when they did a complete remodeling, I couldn t find him when I went looking m the same spot where he'd been for more than 15 years. After searching, I figured he must have moved. I went back to the store looking for him several times, and sadly resigned myself to the fact that he was no longer there.

Then one day, some months later, happened to go to a part of the shopping area I hadn't been in, and there he was.

"O-nee-san," he said, "Where have you been?"

I explained I'd looked for him- He said he thought perhaps I was abroad, but then thought I'd left for good.

One advantage of vending machines must be that they don't show emotion. My greengrocer and I had tears in our eyes as he put my tomatoes, onions and lotus root in a bag.

UNIT 7      45




Nothing like the human touch



hey're all over the place and quite literally everywhere, so even if you didn't know there are 5.5 million vend­ing machines in Japan, you kind of get the idea.

In 1992 there was one machine for every 23 people (in the U.S. the ratio is 1:42). In a country as crowded as this one, where there is hardly room to walk on narrow, cramped streets (and if you find a sidewalk it'll have both pedestri­ans and bicycle riders), these money-gulping monsters take up precious space.

These wonders of the modern age that dish out everything from hot soup to cold eggs are also big energy-gobblers. Vending machines with heating and refrigerating systems consume more energy than the average household. It has been reported that it takes the equiv­alent of one large nuclear power plant to provide the energy needed for all the vending machines selling canned drinks in Japan.

These unmanned mini-department stores dispense all manner of things: underwear, frozen beef, Bibles, comput­er software, fresh flowers, you name it. Although vending machines that sell whiskey and pornography are required to be labeled "adults only," machines have neither brains nor consciences; they don't ask questions, but give their goods to anyone who puts in money.

My friend Chieko tells me the machines on the corner of her quiet street keep her awake at night. In addi­tion to the annoying droning of their electrical insides, the white fluorescent lighting shines right into her bedroom. Everytime someone buys a pack of ciga­rettes the otherwise dumb machine says "Arigato gozaimashita!"

I bet vending-machine manufacturers are proud their machines can "talk," but I also bet no matter how many coins you drop in you're not going to have a con­versation.

I like open markets, the simple loyal­ty of patronizing favorite merchants and sense of community that's fostered by shopping at local stores, and I'm sorry to see them disappearing. I despair that by the time we realize the many good ways we're losing, they'll be gone for­ever— swallowed up by the monsters Speed and Convenience.

I avoid using vending machines, and ' convenience stores too, for that matter. The main reason I don't like these shop­ping shortcuts is because they're imper­sonal. But apparently, that's just what some people say they prefer: They don't have to talk to anyone. I can understand that; there are days I don't feel like talk­ing to anyone either. But I can't say that I ever really mind saying "Hello" to a shopkeeper.

And at my greengrocer's I don't only 9 say "Hello," I always have something to say about the high price of fruits and vegetables. The other day I told him when I see my favorite fruit, black cher­ries, I pretend they don't exist because





Strong, nurturing family ties enrich the cultural experience


Tn January I was invited to be the J. guest speaker at the 30th anniversary convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese.

I've known about AFWJ, a national organization, for a long time, and for a long time, too, I'd regretted I could not be a member because I lacked that essential qualification for membership —a Japanese husband.

In my early years here, those years when I thought loneliness and isolation would get the upper hand, I can remem­ber reading with envy the organization's many notices and announcements in this paper. They had luncheons, lectures, various events; I viewed it all as a kind of general ticket to camaraderie. If only I could qualify, I thought, without hav­ing to trade in my otherwise satisfactory but non-Japanese husband.

Well, I'm still with the same guy, and still not a member of the organization, and I very much appreciated the invita­tion. While speaking to the group, I looked out at the audience and recog­nized some of the women from the pseudo-organization I "belonged" to some years back.

In 1983, when we were living in the city of Hamamatsu, several members of the national organization started a regional group. If they had limited their members to women married to Japanese,

there would have been few members indeed; at the time there just weren't that many foreign women settled in the area.

They chose to open their group to other foreign women, and not only for the purpose of increasing their numbers. They realized that what they had in common as foreign women living in Japan was of more significance than their husbands' nationalities.

I remember the first meeting as one literally crawling with babies, and packed with women seemingly desper­ate to speak in their native languages. Goodness knows I was one of them. We had just moved into the city from our "mountain haven" where I'd lived most days without talking to another living soul other than my adolescent daughter (mostly at school), infant (not exactly a conversation partner) and husband (off to work early, home late).

Informally and unofficially, the group called itself the Association of Foreign Wives and Friends. It was fascinating to listen as members (no dues) conducted conversation in Portuguese, French, German, Spanish, Danish, Tagalog, and oh yes, English. (The Americans in the group were soon outnumbered.)

The group represented stability for those women who were settled in Japan. Because the foreign community can be transient, it is not unusual for those for whom Japan is home to become cautious about forming relationships; they ask themselves if it's worth establishing friendships with people who are here










just temporarily. Aside from it being tiresome having to continu­ally repeat one's life story, so to speak, it can be emotionally stressful always having to say good-bye.

I don't want a Japanese hus­band. But when I spoke at the convention I told the members of AFWJ: If I were to be asked what was the one thing I wished I'd had, the one thing that I would have found the most helpful in living in and adjusting to Japanese society, I would answer without hesitating: a Japanese family.

A mother- and father-in-law, which would mean grandparents for my children. Aunts, uncles, cousins.

A family home where I, and my children, knew we were always welcome.

Family to be with to participate in some of the traditional celebra­tions of Japanese culture.

Family who could help open some of the doors of culture, explain some of the customs, set an example; family who would be both informant and guide.

There was some grumbling from the audience when I said this. One woman spoke out loud and said something to this effect: "You wouldn't want to be a member of the family I married into!" (Sure sounded like I didn't!)

I had to tell them too, that I did not wish to idealize their lives or fantasize about the real situations they were in. I was sure there were those among them who have had, or may still be engaged in, life-and-death struggles with their in-laws. It is not uncommon, and I per-

sonally know some foreigners who were not accepted by their Japanese families. In some of those families, they would not accept or recognize the grandchildren.

It takes little imagination to know n how hurtful and distressful that must be.

However, I know of more families  is where the foreign spouse has been wel­comed as a family member, and where the children grow up with close, warm and loving ties with their grandparents.

I told them that I hoped that through 19 their husbands they have those strong, nurturing family ties — and that I hoped, as a result, it added to their enjoyment of this country and knowledge of its culture.




A woman's search for freedom and love


It's widely reported that an increasing number of Japanese women are choosing to remain single, and in an interesting article in this paper's "Vernacular Views" (June 8), one young woman told her reasons why.

She began by saying that she had originally planned to work only on a temporary basis after finishing universi­ty, and took a job with a small trading company, but that "after five months of being worked like a dog, I quit."

Later, she registered with a temporary employment agency; whenever they did­n't have work for her, she worked part-time at a coffee shop. That job lead to her becoming fascinated with baking cakes and pastries, which lead to her becoming an assistant to a cooking instructor. Although she reported not liking "boring" chores like sharpening knives when things are slow, she enjoys the work and has been at the same job for five years.

It is still common for young adults in Japan to live at home until they're mar­ried. Since many Japanese parents do not expect nor ask their working chil­dren to contribute to household finances, they're able to amass considerable amounts of money. Quite a few have ample funds for foreign travel and fash­ionable clothes, and can still begin mar­ried life with their own savings.

This woman said she had not saved  5 much money because she loves overseas vacations and every year visits Europe and Asia. "My favorite destination these days is Thailand," she said.

"As for marriage, I am not interested e at the moment. Even though I haven't had a steady boyfriend for eight years, I'm thoroughly enjoying my life." She said that of her friends who are married, none appear happy.

On the occasions she accepts invita-    tions to parties, the men she meets are all alike; they are, in her words, "boring, unattractive suits."

I've heard Japanese men referred to as "suits" before. An American woman friend said they appeared like "bored robots; just blue suits." I suppose Japanese men have only themselves to blame for this unfavorable description, but when I pointed out to my friend that a lot of these men are hard workers who have sacrificed personal enrichment for the support and comfort of their fami­lies, which often includes aging parents, she said, "I never thought about it like that. I guess they're not really so one-dimensional."

Our young working woman concluded: "Because I've been working as a cooking assistant for some time now, I think I'm ready for a new challenge. My dream is to start a restaurant special­izing in Southeast Asian or Middle East cuisine." She said that while she needs more training, what she needs more than that is financial backing. The article ended with her musing: "I wonder if anybody is interested in helping me."





I wonder too. Who? Santa Claus? An anonymous but very generous spon­sor? A beneficent benefactor? Perhaps someone who longs to follow the exam­ple of the wealthy patrons of the Italian Renaissance?

   I couldn't help but think that
a husband may be just what this
woman is looking for.   One of         
the "suits" she rejects out of
hand might just have (while out­
fitted in a suit) made, and saved
some money.

      Maybe her mother should tell her, I thought, that if the rela­tionship is ever allowed to progress beyond the depths of the clothes the man is wearing, she could tell him she prefers him in T-shirt and jeans, or whatever; most guys wouldn't be threatened by that, though they may still need to wear a suit to work.    In any case, there's a good chance that one of these men she dismisses so summarily has the money she says she needs.

Perhaps if she were to meet one of these men when they're dressed in slacks and a casual shirt, she might find it in her to strike up a conversation.   I wouldn't be surprised if she was pleas­antly surprised to find he's had enough of the corporate world himself, and would be happy to help a woman (as Partner and/or wife) realize her "dream."  I bet there are a few men out there who have  not had the time or inclination develop an imaginative vision for their lives and would like nothing better than to become entrepreneurs, helping



nurture the success of a business in which they have a personal interest. A lot of these men, locked body and soul into the gears of their companies, would be thrilled to have a knowledgeable woman show him Thailand, among

 other things.



Anyway, if she still rules out marriage, maybe she could get a loan from a bank (although she's probably already thought of that and can't).

It's not impossible, of course, that  there might be a few people out there who would be happy to underwrite an enterprising young woman, but you just never see ads placed by people seeking to give away money.

Marriage gets a bad rap these days,  and it's no surprise since there are so many bad marriages. But there are more good ones — and the best marriages are partnerships.

UNIT 9       57







Who wants to volunteer?



here is no escape.  Your card will come up; there will be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Though it has taken years for this to sink in, I see clearly now that it's impos­sible to live in a Japanese community and not accept this basic fact: Your turn will come.

It may be for the local children's association, the neighborhood associa­tion, or any of the many slots to be filled in the PTA at your children's schools. But as sure as the rainy season, hardly a year will pass when you are not an offi­cial in this or that group; and it is of course not unusual to be in several groups at the same time.

Every time I am chosen for some­thing or am told that I have been select­ed for yet another committee, my first reaction is without fail: No way.

But this is followed, and with light­ning speed, by the realization that it's my turn. I am not even dreaming of actually saying, "No. I won't do it."

The other day a woman in our neigh­borhood, a mother who knew she would soon have to hold the staff of office, stopped me in the grocery store and said she knew I'd already served a term as the children association's vice-president. "Did you volunteer for the position?" she asked.

"Are you joking?" I responded. I'd only agreed to it when I saw there was

no way out.

"Yeah, nobody ever wants to do it," she said.

"But you're all used to participating as a group, no questions asked. No one seems to mind."


" 'Seems' and reality are different," she said. "We just know there's no get­ting out of it and accept it. But believe me, everybody is dragged into it."

My new attitude is: Do it now and get " it over with. No matter how busy I am now, I reason, I may be busier later. I do whatever is asked of me, and liken it to making a deposit in the bank: the time will surely come when I won't be able to do something, and then I will have a little margin and can draw on my deposit.

When your children are in elementary 12 school here there are certain responsibil­ities connected with the school and you are obligated to participate. A meeting is held to outline what positions have to be filled; some mothers volunteer imme­diately, deciding it's best to get it out of the way. Then there are those who try to fade into the edges of the group until they have no recourse. The blank " I'm-a-gaijin-I-don't-know-what's-going-on"

look doesn't work at all.   Everyone is more than happy to explain it to you.


Last year I was chosen (can't say elected since I don't think any demo­cratic process is involved) to be a repre­sentative in my son's first-year junior high school class.

On my way to the classroom to '4 assume my new position as the first-year representative, I met the woman who






was to be the co-representative in the hall. I had my work cut out for me, let me tell you, trying to convince her that she should be the leader and I the assistant.

"Oh no, Anton-san, please. Oh won't you be the leader," she pleaded.

"Oh I beg you," I said, "not me, please."

"Onegaishimasu . I implore you."

Have a heart... I'm on bended knee ... In the name of all that's good, I ask your indulgence. I was running out of ways to beg.

"Oh, I beseech you," she went on. "I don't know anything. This is my first experience with junior high school."

Now she had me. I had the dubious honor of being her sempai (the senior or superior) in this circumstance, because I'd already had two kids in and out of junior high school and was now on my third.

"Don't worry," I said, "I'll be right by your side. I just don't want to be the leader," who, I knew well, has to read long notices to the assembled— and there is no time to decide if you do or

don't know a kanji or to check electron­ic dictionaries.


But she wasn't giving up. "I've been ill," she told me. "I don't know if I'll be strong enough to attend all the meet­ings."

Well, I wasn't to be outdone in the ill-  ness department.  I had a few stories of my own, and at the time could even say I had been hospitalized and had only recently been discharged.

Wouldn't you know it, she too had 24 been in the hospital, and for something worse!

We both went on, exchanging stories 25 and vivid descriptions of our various symptoms and ailments, delineating clearly to what degree we were debilitat­ed. We mentioned our prescribed med­ications (which we collected after long waits at clinics) by name. Although we were, "okagesama de" much improved, we were still under a doctor's care. I think if we'd had surgical scars we would have shown them!

Finally, we both just laughed and 26 said, "Okay. Let's do it together."

UNIT 10      63




The problem with kids today? Reality is just a state of mind






When my children were very young, if we were going to do something special, something I knew they'd really enjoy (like going to an amusement park), I wouldn't tell them. That is, I wouldn't tell them too far in advance because I knew they couldn't conceive of time in the abstract. They were too young to put time in perspec­tive, to see how many meals they would eat, baths they would take, or bedtimes they would have before the really fun thing took place. I used to call it their "reality gap."

I think a reality gap, wide and deep, is what afflicts many children these days.

The Japanese junior high school boy who admitted to stabbing his teacher to death in a fit of rage, told his defense attorneys he wants to go home "as soon as possible."

Actually, "soon" won't be all that long, considering the long years ahead of the widowed husband and his mother­less child. In just a few years, the boy can expect to return to his family.

While in jail, an American teenage boy accused of multiple murder at his school in Arkansas cried for his mother, saying he wanted to go home—as if he were free to leave earlier than planned from an activity in which he was no longer having fun.

Both he and his co-accused, another minor boy, asked to have pizza instead of the regular jail fare.

These children clearly do not grasp that life as they've known it ceases once they're detained by the authorities.

No more Saturday afternoon shopping, or going with your buddies to Sunday afternoon sporting events. No more ordering out for pizza, or finding your favorite snacks in the refrigerator, put there by your mother who knows, and cares, what you like.

The unrealistic reactions of these boys isn't strange when one thinks of the strange world many children inhabit these days.

Last summer, arriving at the airport in Portland, Oregon, I shared a minivan taxi-shuttle with a father and his two young sons. I sat in the seat behind the driver. The father and boys (on their way to Grandmother's house, I soon learned) sat in the seat behind me. The 'conversation' between the father and his youngest son went something like this:

"I really killed him!"


"I wasted him!"


"Blood was spurting out all over the

place!The next time I'll destroy him. I’ll wipe him out.   I'll blow his head off!

"You can show me when we get
Grandma's."                                            -

At this last, I involuntarily turned





it's easy to see from the language chil­dren use that they have learned, and retained, a lot from their main sources of information: video games, television, comics, and movies. 18 I don't think children who commit

head. Ah. A video game.

Why, I wondered, didn't the father say something like, I don't know, "Remember, it's just a game" or, "It isn't really nice to hurt people" or "It isn't pleasant to hear you express your­self so violently."

I wouldn't have thought it unusual if he'd said: "Why don't you put your pocket video game away for now, (adding in a whisper) you may be dis­turbing and shocking the lady sitting in front."

The father said nothing. He sat smil­ing and complaisant, as if the boy had been talking about the passing scenery.

Reading the reports of some crimes,

serious crimes have any idea of the real consequences of their actions. I've never seen a movie, in the U.S. or Japan, that shows how truly dismal prison life is, or conveys what it really means for a person to be deprived of his freedom. I don't know if there exists a movie that documents the misery of life regiment­ed, and bereft of affection. Do children who commit murder know their parents may lose their jobs, house, neighbors and friends?

Contemporary movies pride them- 19 selves on their "realism," showing any number of configurations of people being "blown away." But nothing could be more phony, because we never really get to see the result­ing damage inflicted by a bullet that rips through flesh and bone, organs and brain tissue. We never really know the devastating, lifelong pain and suffering of surviving family and friends.


Parents need to 20 awake from their tor­por. Far too many parents consciously ignore their adoles­cent children. They studiously turn a blind eye to their children's antisocial behavior as long as the kids attend juku and main­tain an acceptable grade-standing.

It's easy for these kids to live in an unreal world because no one is paying attention.

UNIT 11       69






Real racism vs. real stupidity





o be parents of children attending Japanese junior high school means participation in their metamorphosis every weekend into potential Olympic athletes. At least that's how the "coach" (ordinarily known as the math or per­haps science teacher during the school week) acts. You can expect a telephone call on Saturday nights to say "the team" will be gathering the following morning at 6:30.

And so, early (I left the house at 6 a.m.) one Sunday morning I took my youngest daughter Lila, picked up four members of the volleyball team and drove them all to a small town about 45 minutes away for a tournament.

I like to be up early, but I don't think much about being behind the wheel of a car at that time in the morning. Still, by the time I reached the venue, saw the teacher smiling and genki in his incarna­tion as coach, it didn't seem so bad to be out at cockcrow.

As I prepared to drive back home, the other mother who had also transported a carload of girls, suggested we stop at a nursery on the outskirts of the town. I thought it was a great idea since it's a place I don't go often and this particular garden shop is known for its wide vari­ety of plants and low prices. I wasn't in the shop 10 minutes before I'd filled a basket with potted flowers I wanted to purchase. Just as I put my chosen items

on the counter, the proprietress of the shop came out.

I'll stop here to reiterate something I've said before: I expect Japanese peo­ple in Japan to notice my hair is not like most Japanese people's hair. I myself know it is not like Japanese hair.

This woman came from behind the counter, caught up a bunch of my hair in her hands and, while holding it, looked at the woman I was with and, addressing her, said: "Is this real?"

My fellow volleyball mom, duly mor­tified, was completely speechless. After all, what could she have answered? "I too am curious. Why don't we ask the person to whom the hair belongs?"

I took the woman's hand by the wrist, removed it from my hair and said in a voice as cold as Arctic ice: "It's real. Don't touch it."

I wasn't sure if the woman had lost her mind or just her manners. Although I had passed the early-morning grumpy stage, I was in no mood for this kind of foolishness. Talk about being impolite, I call that kind of behavior rude and offensive. I'd also call her ignorant, insensitive and inconsiderate.

Still, I wouldn't call her a "racist." That's the term someone I know used when I related this story. No, it wasn't a "racist" act. It was stupid.

Racist. That word is asked to cover a little too much ground as far as I'm con­cerned. I also think that some of the peo­ple who are quickest to bandy the word about do not realize their complaints amount to little more than whining.

One might hear the word "racist"





pulled out of the hat to describe the owner of a club in Roppongi that doesn't welcome foreigners. A Japanese shop­keeper is called a "racist" when he/she refuses to speak Japanese to foreigners.

In the first place, these statements presuppose the Japanese are a race. They are not. Secondly, "race" is a totally unscientific category; it's more a social myth than a biological phenome­non.

Surely some distinctions are needed. For example, racism is often confused with ethnocentrism. But we all may exhibit some degree of cultural bias or ethnocentrism; we practice this selective discrimination on a daily basis with no more thought than drinking water.

It is not strange that most people pre­fer to be with people who are like them­selves. Naturally enough, there are also those others who willingly venture out of their comfortably familiar groups to be with others unlike themselves. If you are one of these people, you are excep­tional. It may be one of the reasons you're in this country.

Any foreign child can go to any public

school anywhere in this country. If they couldn't, if they were prevented from going because of how they looked and because they were categorized as being of an "inferior race," and if it required armed officers of the law to ensure they could go to school, they would clearly be victims of racism.


Racism, as it has manifested itself in my country, the United States of America, has proven itself, over the course of several centuries, a malignant disease. It poisons discourse and has created an enormous amount of human and social damage; to this day it pre­vents the effective cooperation of pro­ductive minds.

Discrimination and prejudice are not is necessarily racism, although they can be. Racism systematically and effec­tively shuts out and excludes persons or groups from the social, educational and economic mainstream. When this sys­tem is forcibly maintained, whether by tradition, habit or law, I'd call it oppres­sion.

Oppression.   Now there's a serious affront to dignity.


UNIT 12      75