By Jacques Tocatlian.
Kubuki, Sumo and Sake.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
The twelve-hour flight had resulted in a first-rate jet lag. Unfortunately, Melatonine had not yet been marketed and I was desperately struggling to sleep in my tiny room at the Tokyo Hotel. One would assume that at fifty, after twenty years of extensive traveling, my body would have adjusted more easily to these time changes. But not at all! As a matter of fact, it was getting worse as the years went by.
I had read that the WHO, the World Health Organization, recommended that when you travel long distance you should set your watch according to the time of the country you are flying into. Research has shown that, in so doing, you helped your inner biological clock to get adjusted to the time difference. In leaving Paris I had set my watch forward by eight hours, but my inner biological watch, with a mind all of its own, refused to act according to the WHO findings.
I had come to Tokyo to discuss with the Japanese authorities all the details regarding a Regional Training Seminar for information specialists of the Asian and Oceanic region on the subject of resource sharing. The Seminar was to be held in Kobe early in 1986. I felt very comfortable with the subject since I had successfully organized many similar training programs in Africa and Latin America.
But since I could not sleep, all I could do was worry. Worry that this time negotiations may be complicated by the presence of Professor Earl Ray Clark. The Japanese had insisted that Unesco contract an internationally known consultant – a star. They had suggested famous Professor Earl Ray Clark, basing their recommendation on his research work and publications. I had never met him but through a short correspondence and few telephone calls I had found him jittery and not disposed to too much talk. He had accepted the modest financial remuneration offered by Unesco only because he was interested in the experience. He was coming to Tokyo but he had refused to fly through Paris for a briefing and, from what I could judge, he did not think briefing was important. The worst part was that he had accepted to be in Tokyo for only two nights since he had to fly to Hawaii on Wednesday evening. Stars are often freakish.
This was my first visit to Japan and I was not confident that we would be able to agree on all matters in such a short time. We had to decide on the seminar program, who was going to teach what, the time frame, the venue, the number of Japanese and regional students, the number of fellowships, the budget and a multitude of other details. The agreement was to be recorded in an aide-memoire which I would sign before leaving Tokyo at the end of the week. On the basis of that aide-memoire, a contractual arrangement would later be concluded between Unesco and Japan.
As I went over all these considerations in my mind, it became clear that the best way out was to let Professor Earl Ray Clark first discuss the aspects he was mostly concerned with, that is the subject content of his lectures. I would deal with the other matters after his departure.
If I could leave on Friday I would be home for the weekend. That reminded me that my daughter, Françoise, who was then about fourteen, was worried that I was going to Japan because of the active volcanoes that smolder on the surface of the earth and violently erupt in that region. I had told her teasingly to lend me her class book so that I could better plan my missions in the future! I did not know then that the mini-earthquake I was going to witness was of a different kind.
Pondering over my mission I realized that there was an additional reason for my anxiety. I knew that it would be difficult to understand this country. I had gathered from those who had visited Japan, as well as from Japanese colleagues, such as Dr. Makato Takahashi, whom I had met in Morocco, that his was a different world. Everything was different. You could feel it. You could see it, hear it, and smell it from the moment you landed.
The previous evening, as the taxi drove from the airport to the hotel, I was struck by the size of things, the distances, the speed, the crowds. Automobile freeways connect the heart of the city with the suburbs and the airport. Some sections of the freeways are built two or three stories over dried canals. The spaces below the elevated highways are filled by stores and offices. Traditional buildings are mingled with modern ones. New and old are intermixed everywhere. The city is served by an efficient net of subways, buses, automobiles, and electric trains. Gone are the nostalgic days when transportation was done by colorful “jinrikishas” – the man-drawn carriages. The Japan I was looking at was different from the one I had seen in the Puccini Opera Madame Butterfly.
At the hotel I had been graciously greeted by several Japanese representatives of the Ministry of Education, the Tokyo University and the Kobe University. They had bowed profusely before handing their business cards, which in Japan are called ‘meishi’.’ I had bowed right and left in return, searching through my pockets for my ‘meishi.’
The Japanese cannot relate properly to someone before they know the exact rank of that person in his organization. Japanese protocol foresees different behaviors towards people according to their rank. This is why business cards are so important in Japan. As I was emptying my wallet, my hosts gently smiled saying that I did not have to bother since they knew who I was.
They had informed me that for the last evening of my visit I was to stay in a typical Japanese hotel in the outskirts of Tokyo, generally reserved for Japanese, in order for me to enjoy the experience. The present hotel we were in for the first few days was more conveniently located for the meeting. In the course of conversation I had also discovered, with great annoyance, that Professor Earl Ray Clark was already resting in his room and did not want to be disturbed.
I finally met him the next morning, just a few minutes before the car came to pick us up. He was tall and handsome, and impeccably dressed. He scrutinized the world around him with icy blue eyes and moved about the lobby, taking very little notice of my presence. He looked intractable, far from the stereotyped cliché of a smiling, easy-going and informal Californian.
In the car, I tried to discuss a few items but without much success. He knew who he was, what he wanted, what he could do and what he did not want to do. He spoke in a deep tone with the right amount of reassuring authority. It was obvious from the start that neither of us could reach the other. I probably did not know how and he did not care to.
I began to sweat. Gone was all the self-assurance I thought I had acquired over the years. Had I been able to say something, I would have explained that from an official viewpoint, I was the one who represented Unesco in the negotiations with the Japanese and that he – regardless of his fame, expertise and University rank – was accompanying me, in a consultant capacity . I was the one who would be expected to agree with the Japanese, sign an aide-memoire and later on conclude the contracts. His understanding of the situation was obviously different, if one could judge by his authoritative tone and grandiloquent language.
While I was striving in silent frustration to find a way to approach the subject without antagonizing him, he abruptly asked me, “Have you heard, Mr. Dupont, of Matthew Calbraith Perry ?”
I did not know whom he was referring to. Could that person be an American working at Unesco ? Or perhaps another international expert in education whom we could invite to the Seminar?
Before I could answer, he said, “Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry headed two naval expeditions to Japan in 1853 and 1854 to induce the Japanese government to establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. He knew that Japan’s traditional isolation policy could be changed only if superior naval forces were displayed and the Japanese approached with a ‘resolute attitude’. He managed to conclude the first treaty between the United States and Japan and thus opened up Japan for the West. Mr. Dupont, do remember that only a ‘resolute attitude’ could have made this possible!”
I felt baffled. The car arrived at the Ministry of Education where we were greeted at the door and shown to the meeting room. We entered the room: Professor Earl Ray Clark, tall and proud, with a definitely ‘resolute attitude’ and I, shorter and hesitant, mopping my sweating brow.
I was asked to sit in the chair farthest from the door, which, in Japan, is considered the place of honor. After introductions had been made and business cards handed over, the Chairman, Dr. Mitsuo Harada, bowed and opened the meeting with a fairly long speech. Japanese bow at the beginning of each interaction and at the end. The higher the rank of the person addressed, the deeper the bow.
Dr. Mitsuo Harada’s speech covered a fairly wide ground. He spoke of Japan’s desire to cooperate with Unesco and to serve the region; the philosophy of Japanese actions based on Confucian ideals of serving society and showing respect for others. He explained a very important Japanese word, “Wa”, which means harmony. As I understood “Wa” refers to a certain positive quality of human relationship and involves cooperation, sharing, understanding and a warm and caring attitude toward others.
Dr. Harada then spoke of the Japanese students and the high level of Japanese education. He said “Our illiteracy rate is less than 1%; 99% of the students in Japan complete high-school; there are 240 days of school per year in Japan – probably the highest in the world; 75% of TV programs concern news, cultural events and education and only 25% are about entertainment. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of unrest among the young and there is a noticeable decay in traditional values – a source of great concern for the older generation.”
He concluded by inviting us to lunch and dinner, outlined the social events that had been planned for us and insisted on the importance he placed on getting to know each other better.
During the speech, Professor Clark, who was sitting next to me, emitted several puffs; he was obviously nervous. All the placid references to the “Wa” had no effect on him. I stood up and thanked our host for his hospitality and for Japan’s invitation to organize the regional Seminar. I had intended to outline Unesco’s program objectives in the area of Education in some detail but with every puff of my neighbor, my talk shrunk and the Unesco objectives got shorter and shorter. I quickly concluded by suggesting that, because Professor Clark had to leave the next day, we discuss first the course content. Amen.
Professor Clark, whose signs of impatience and irritation were by now obvious to everyone took the floor with a bull-in-the-china-shop attitude. He described himself as a ‘hard-hitter’ concerned with concrete results, adding that he had no time to beat about the bush. While some Japanese around the table were wondering what the reference to the ‘bush’ was about, Clark outlined an agenda with four items and bluntly asked five specific questions.
It was obvious that Professor Clark had been much too aggressive and I could feel that our Japanese hosts, in spite of their polite smiles, were finding him uncongenial. In reply, Dr. Harada repeated some of the generalities he had already exposed in his introductory remarks and invited the Japanese participants to speak. They did but mostly among themselves in Japanese. Seldom was the meeting addressed in English.
No one referred to Professor Clark’s questions. That was too much for him! He was beginning to fume. I even expected smoke to come out of his ears any moment. I attempted to whisper some conciliatory words inviting him to be lenient. He answered that he had not traveled all these miles to beat about the bush all day and wanted to get down to business.
To everybody’s surprise he took the floor and said, “I am sorry Mr. Chairman, but I don’t seem to have made myself clear” and proceeded to repeat emphatically his proposed agenda and questions, forcefully articulating each word. My nervous stomach was torturing me. At that point I could have willingly strangled Professor Earl Ray Clark.
The Japanese are known not to show feelings. They try to hide them at all times, remaining tranquil and serene in all circumstances in order not to lose face. Losing one’s temper is considered vulgar. Experience is needed in order to learn how to decipher subtle signs of reluctance or distress on their faces. I did not know how to read those signs at the time, but I could see that many of the Japanese gentlemen had acquired a more rigid posture, others were more contained and a few were tight-lipped. The smiles that still remained on a few faces were of a different kind. The Chairman spoke very softly and slowly about the importance of harmony and consensus. Any trace of ‘Wa’ was gone.
I was embarrassed and did not know how to save the day but I felt I had to intervene. With a lump in my throat and one in my chest I said, “We are witnessing different cultural patterns and different ways of conducting a meeting. I have been to many countries and yet I am not sure there is a universally accepted way of conducting business. We have to adjust and compromise. Different cultures have different perceptions of time, different ways of carrying a dialogue, different ways of negotiating, different ways of communicating. No doubt, any misunderstanding can be overcome and, with some patience and tolerance, we will successfully conclude our meeting to the satisfaction of everyone.”
The Japanese spoke to each other in Japanese, while Professor Clark turned to me and in plain English said, ”Bullshit !”
Tea was served. Professor Clark, who obviously was bullheaded and used to having things done only his way, left the room with a ‘resolute attitude’. I never saw him again. Never.
During lunch I tried to explain that Professor Clark was a very busy person and was nervous because he had very little time at his disposal. In any case, he had been contracted by Unesco because the Japanese wanted him.
Mr. Harada smiled and said, “In Japan it is not important to establish who is to blame, when something goes wrong. What is wrong and needs to be corrected is the fact that someone is upset. We have to reestablish harmony.”
I thought that was a beautiful attitude compared to our Western confrontational and argumentative style.
Dr. Harada explained that he had to do a lot of consultation to establish consensus. I wondered on what, since to my knowledge we had not discussed anything so far. He inquired if I was willing to use the afternoon, and perhaps part of the next day, to visit Tokyo while he tried to establish consensus among his colleagues. He would contact me at the hotel in due time. Fortunately, Dr. Makato Takahashi was available to show me around.
In my long career as an international civil servant I had sailed many a time in the sea of inter-ethnic encounters and had always managed to avoid major storms. Never before had I had the feeling of being caught in such an imbroglio.
With Mr. Takahashi we walked and talked all afternoon on a variety of subjects. But I could not get my mind off the ‘Earl-Ray-Clark crisis’ on hand. No matter how one looked at it, I had failed to master the situation. I should have never accepted to attend the meeting without settling first a number of questions with him. I failed to play first fiddle and the resulting sour notes rang in my head.
Mr. Takahashi and I also referred to our recent meeting in Rabat and laughed about what had happened to my pants at the end of the Moroccan reception. I liked Mr. Takahashi. He radiated honesty, warmth and friendliness. In Japan, friendships tend to take a long time to solidify, but they may become deep, compared with other parts of the globe where personal relationships develop fast, but remain superficial. I knew that a certain degree of formality should always govern one’s relationship with Japanese friends, regardless of the degree of friendship. Informality is perceived as rudeness. No use of first names. No back-slapping. For a Frenchman of my generation that was not too difficult.
Mr. Takahashi showed much concern for what had happened during the embarrassing morning session. He was willing to discuss matters fairly openly with me. We talked for hours. I do not remember really seeing much of Tokyo, but I learned a great deal about Japan.
First of all, I realized that the major problem for the Japanese was not so much what Professor Clark said, but how he said it. They were upset because he looked upset and acted accordingly, thus harmony was shattered.
In addition, the Japanese have a problem with a rigid agenda. The purpose of a meeting is to let everyone concerned express his opinion and discuss alternative solutions to each problem presented so that consensus could eventually be reached. A fixed agenda may well be an encumbrance and prevent achieving consensus, since the Chairman usually tries to restrict discussion to items on the agenda.
When the Japanese deal with a foreigner, one of the most important goals of the meeting is to get to know him. That is why a first visit to Japan has to be relatively long. That is also why lunch, dinner and social events are crucial.
Mr. Takahashi also explained that respecting organizational hierarchy was essential in Japan. With reference to the morning meeting the fact that the Unesco consultant did not respect the head of the Unesco delegation alienated everyone. They had all seen that because in Japanese meetings, everyone is expected to read other people’s thoughts and interpret unspoken signs, behaviors, attitudes and even silence itself.
An interesting point I retained from our talk is that Japanese society was organized according to an historical military doctrine, which explained their attachment to hierarchical structures, rank, the chain of command, team-work and to loyalty. This was true in industry and business where strong feelings of identity and loyalty to the parent company exist. He admitted though that many modern writers and the young generation promoted Western-type individualism.
“With such a military heritage, how do you explain the emphasis on consensus? ” I asked.
He said that collective decision-making allowed everyone concerned to discuss, evaluate, and provide input to a proposal and fully identify himself with the final decision. It was a sine qua non condition for ensuring loyalty, team-work, feeling of identity, pride in the results and for keeping everyone informed.
As we finally reached the hotel I thanked my friend who had given me a crash course on many aspects of Japanese life.
At the hotel reception I found a message from Dr. Mitsuo Harada saying that the meeting would in principle resume on Thursday. That meant consensus had not yet been reached; we would never complete our business this week; and I had Wednesday off.
Mr. Takahashi saw the disappointment on my face and said, “Let us make the best use of the evening and of tomorrow.”
For that evening, we were scheduled to go out for drinks, dinner and at the theater with Dr. Harada, and Mr. Takahashi. We would not talk business. I learnt that Professor Clark had left the country, and that a Swedish visitor by the name of Ulf Nilsson would join us.
So we first went for a tour of three to four bars to warm up before dinner. In Tokyo there are thousands of bars. Most of them are very small and can accommodate ten to twelve persons at most. Strangely enough, many bars are scattered over several floors of buildings. They look like small apartments that had been converted into bars.
I was given to understand that most men usually go after work to one or more bars, while women go home to look after the children and prepare dinner. What happened to the Women Liberation Movement? The prices at the bars being so high, one wondered how they could afford so much drinking. When dinner time approached, men quietly zigzagged their way home.
The atmosphere in bars was, as a rule, festive and convivial. In one of them someone, having found out I was French, began to sing ‘La Marseillaise.’ I was astounded, as I was astounded to discover that Japanese whisky tasted so much like real Scotch. When we reached the third bar I had forgotten about the very existence of Professor Clark. By the fourth bar Ulf Nilsson began speaking Swedish to me. It was time to zigzag our way to the restaurant.
Dr. Harada ordered for us ‘Sachemi,’ ‘tempura’ and ‘sushi,’ well irrigated with ‘sake.’ The Japanese have developed a unique art of presenting food as an exquisite work of art. I found it really wonderful to look at.
Our host entertained us with a variety of subjects. At one point, noting that Ulf and I were looking at Japanese women with curiosity, he shifted the conversation to physical characteristics of the Japanese. He said that the male population had increased by an average of over four inches since the beginning of the century. The change was attributed to improved diet, exercise and decrease in the habit of sitting on the floor with the legs buckled under – a fact which impeded normal blood circulation. Mr. Takahashi looked at me and smiled; he was certainly thinking of our mission in Morocco.
We were finishing dinner when Dr. Harada announced that we were going for a short while at the theater to have an inkling of the popular Japanese drama, the ‘Kabuki.’ He said that it was a spectacle in which the arts of dance, music, mime, decor and costuming are elaborately blended in blazing and flamboyant style. He explained that ‘Ka’ means song, ‘Bu’ means dance and ‘Ki’ means skill. The other form of Japanese theater, the ‘Noh,’ was written in a variety of complex literary devices, too difficult for non-Japanese to appreciate.
So we went to the ‘Kabuki Za,’ a huge theater that seats 3000 persons. In the Kabuki art form, men also play the parts of women. A long passageway runs from the stage to the back of the theater through the audience and offers an extension of the stage where a lot of action takes place. The style of dancing consists of restrained, flowing movements for the female roles and exaggerated postures for the men. For uninformed foreigners what goes on in Kabuki is an insoluble enigma sandwiched between two mysteries.
As I was asking myself ‘if the Kabuki theater is supposed to be accessible, what is the ‘Noh’ theatre like?’ I heard next to me a vibrating, discordant sound which did not blend with the music. It was Ulf snoring. Whisky and sake did not blend with Kabuki either!
On Wednesday, Mr. Takahashi took me to the University where we attended a lecture by Dr. June MacGregor, an American anthropologist and lecturer in intercultural communication who had published extensively on international relations and cultural differences. – a subject that Mr. Takahashi knew interested me.
Dr. June MacGregor’s lecture made an enduring impression on me. She opened up unsuspected horizons and threw light on a multitude of questions that had preoccupied me. She was a straight-forward and articulate good-looking woman in her fifties, with curly gray hair, regular features, a classic bone structure and a pair of penetrating brown eyes. Her mind was quick and incisive, her voice clear and relaxed.
She said she was a disciple of Edward T. Hall’s school of thought who had shown that one of the most basic of all cultural differences among people concerns the way we communicate. Hall had departed from the view that culture was a system of beliefs, customs, values and the like. Culture was communication and members of the same cultural group unconsciously share methods of coding and communicating that information, often by nonverbal messages, the unique meaning of which was naturally understood by members of the same culture. And often misunderstood by others.
Dr. June MacGregor illustrated her talk by showing differences between Americans and Japanese. For instance, Americans feel very strongly about the responsibilities of a neighbor. In the U.S. one is expected to keep his house up and the lawn cut for the sake of neighborhood, if nothing else. In Japan sharing adjacent houses does not entail any obligations to your neighbors. In Japan the street may be filthy and the house immaculate.
In the U.S., top executives have secluded offices, protected from the intrusion of others. Information is shared with a selected few. In Japan several top executives share an open-space to freely share information.
The Japanese can endure noisy and crowded conditions in public; they can travel literally like sardines in subways and trains, but in social situations they guard against any sign of space intimacy. Having sat shoulder to shoulder in the subway, they profusely apologize if they accidentally touch your elbow at a cocktail party. In the U.S. it is rather the opposite.
She explained that a geographically large and relatively young country such as the U.S. – the melting pot of a variety of ethnic groups – is far from homogeneous. The difference in behavior between people could sometimes be great. Japan, on the other hand, which is geographically small, old, for a long time withdrawn into itself and is no melting pot, is much more homogeneous.
The lecturer went on to explain that her compatriots, because they were a prosperous nation, who had become increasingly affluent and had known many successes in scientific research, medicine, sport, and business, had come to believe that they had an answer to every problem. Mr. Takahashi looked at me with a smile; Professor Clark was on both our mind. She added, “ As the world shrinks and more Americans are engaged in international situations, that will gradually change.”
Before leaving, I went to thank and congratulate her and said, “ Dr. MacGregor, I was told that Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the West. You have opened up both Japan and the U.S. to me !” She smiled.
I asked whether she would come to Unesco to give a talk. She agreed in principle. As I was going down the stairs she said, “Call me June”. I first thought she wanted me to call her in June, but when I realized what she had actually said, I quickly replied, “Call me Jacques.”
That evening was dedicated to wrestling. That is, to watching others wrestle. Mr. Takahashi and I first dined in a simple, popular restaurant. A sort of Cafeteria where plastic dummies of the dishes one could order were on display. A useful device since I could see what I ordered and in what quantity. Of course, what the food tasted like was a different matter.
The dish I chose looked attractive but did not taste like anything I knew. For a moment I thought I had been given the plastic dummy by mistake. I found it difficult to swallow what felt like an indefinable, repulsive, jelly like material. Was it reconstituted fish, meat or vegetable ? Could it be the cellophane film that covered the dish ?
While I was wresting with my food, Mr. Takahashi introduced me to another branch of athletics: Japanese wrestling. “The first match recorded in Japanese history took place in 23 B.C.,” he said, explaining how wrestling gradually developed into two branches : ‘Sumo’ and ‘Jujitsu’. The latter, from which Judo is derived, is a system of fighting without weapons.
He said, “The period from the 12th to the 17th century was an age of continuous warfare. The Samurai, whose sole purpose in life was to fight for his Lord, mastered many forms of fighting with sword, knife, spear and, when he had no weapons, with bare hands.”
That night we went to a Sumo wrestling match. Takahashi had booked seats in the very first row. The fight took place right under our noses. The two wrestlers were naked but for a tiny loincloth. At the command of the referee, they crouched with their hands on the ground and watched for an opening. All I could see was the monumental buttocks of one of them.
On French television I had inattentively watched one or two such fights, but never had I realized what 300 pounds of naked flesh really looked like. I was watching a mammoth bulk moving about with a colossal mass. My stomach was already reluctant to cope with my ‘plastic’ dinner. It was getting more and more upset as the two dinosaurs – who seemed to be made of solidified molasses – wrestled on. As soon as one touched the ground with any part of his body, except his feet, the other wrestler was declared the winner. And two fresh dinosaurs came onto the ring for the next fight. It went on and on.
To this day I cannot talk or think of a Sumo fight without being nauseated. Was it the wrestlers ? Was it the food ?
The next day the meeting took place as scheduled. Dr. Mitsuo Harada apologized for the delay in resuming discussions. The participants seemed sympathetic to me. Now that I had become a mini-expert on Japanese matters, I looked for non-verbal messages or hidden signals. I could not detect any resentment. Harmony had descended upon the meeting. We had achieved “Wa”. Wow !
Dr. Harada spoke of the broad consultation that had taken place. In fact, he spoke of many things. He said that the Regional Training Seminar would be organized early the following year, as originally planned. (I was relieved). He gave partial answers to the questions raised by Professor Clark. (I was surprised). He then hinted at some of the questions I intended to ask but never had time to. (I was amazed) He finally suggested three names of potential teachers for Unesco to choose from, in replacement of Professor Clark, and gave me the floor.
I stood up to speak and, without even thinking, I automatically bowed Japanese-style. Then, I said I had become a great believer in the Japanese decision-making process because I had witnessed the very efficient results. I apologized for the earlier problem due to a lack of good preparation on my part. I then outlined some of the pending questions that had to be decided upon before we could conclude the contract.
Some of these issues needed extensive consultation to reach consensus and the presence of ‘the foreign instructor’ to participate in the discussion. Dr. Harada said that I should come back for a short meeting as soon as a consultant was selected so that we could settle all pending questions and everyone could get acquainted with the consultant. The rest of the afternoon was spent drafting an aide-memoire in very general terms. Once it was duly signed, Mr. Odashibuki and Mr. Katimimura from the Ministry of Education drove me to the new hotel.
It was relatively small, surrounded by a tiny garden with shrubs and trees, in a quiet residential area. They left me at the door, wishing enjoyment of the experience and reminded me that they would pick me up the next morning at 7 o’clock to drive me to the airport.
At the hotel no one spoke English. Communication was done with gestures and smiles. I was first asked to leave my shoes at the door and a young girl took me to my room.
My room looked almost empty: a table, a lamp and some flowers. As I understood from the girl’s gesticulations, I undressed and handed her my clothes which she put in a cupboard. She handed me a cotton kimono which she called ‘Yucata’ and asked me to follow her to the ‘Ofuro’.
In the ‘Ofuro’ I found a wooden-heated rectangular stone tub, full of water. It was very hot ! I soaked in it thinking of my Finish friends and their sauna. When the ‘Ofuro’ operation was over I was shown to my room where I changed my ‘Yukata’ for a black silk kimono. In my absence some cushions had been scattered in a corner and I was asked to rest on them.
Some ten to fifteen minutes later the girl directed me to the dining room. There I found three Japanese guests and, to my great surprise, good old Ulf Nilsson. Since men never dine alone in Japan, two Geishas were there to serve and entertain us. One played an instrument called ‘samichen’ while the other sang. We drank quite a bit of ‘sake’ and ate some exquisite ‘suki-yaki’. I felt relaxed; the three Japanese guests looked demure and serene; Ulf was obviously thrilled.
Later we were asked to play a game before retiring to our respective rooms. One glass was passed around and each one of us poured some ‘sake’ in it. When the glass was pretty full, one of the guests would cause it to overflow. As a punishment he had to drink the whole glass. It so happened that Ulf spilled the glass several times, either intentionally or by accident. In any case he managed to have many glasses of ‘sake.’ and looked accordingly.
When the Geishas bowed and left, the young girls led us to our respective rooms. Ulf did not seem in full control of himself; he was again talking to me in Swedish, intermingled with a few Japanese words. He vanished down the corridor singing ‘sayonara.’
The silk cushions had disappeared from my room which had been transformed into a bedroom. The young girl helped me get into bed and walked away with grace.
A few minutes later I heard a strident howl, followed by two long screams and a few Japanese yells. I thought I recognized Ulf’s voice and that of his young girl, roaring with rage. By now a lot of people seemed to be in the corridor and the commotion was going crescendo.
Judging from the turbulence created, I suspected that Ulf had been misled by the going-to-bed ceremony and had misinterpreted the graceful gestures of the young girl. A simple error of interpretation of the unspoken signals. The same signals meant one thing in Sweden and another in Japan. The ‘sake’ no doubt had helped in blurring the meaning. The agitation was still going on when I cowardly pulled the sheet over my head and waited until the squawks and the squeaks subsided into the night.
At seven in the morning I was in an official car rushing to the airport with Mr. Odashibuki and Mr. Katimimura. I kept thinking about what had happened at the hotel the previous night. I guess I shall never know what really happened. I shall never know but I have not stopped guessing.
Suddenly, the traffic came to a halt. Two cars had collided and you could see the two drivers standing in the middle of the freeway, bowing at each other in an exquisitely polite manner. I expressed my admiration. “C’est magnifique !” Mr. Odashibuki explained that, no doubt, they were profusely apologizing and each one was blaming himself for the accident, as required by good breeding. “Which, by the way,” he added, “has nothing to do with the written report they will each make to the police and insurance company, giving a quite different story.” I thought it was not so magnifique after all !
While we waited for the normal circulation to resume, we spoke about the Japanese language. I inquired whether foreigners could learn it in a reasonable time. Mr. Katimimura said, with a giggle “If you decide to study Japanese be sure to take a male teacher.”
I asked why and he explained that in the Japanese language articles, adjectives, verbs and substantives take the same sex as the person who speaks. He added that he had once met a husky, rugged old GI who had learned Japanese from a female teacher and now spoke like a young lady.
As the traffic started to move again I asked, “How do you say ‘good morning’ ?”.
They said, “It depends – ‘good morning’ to whom ?”
“To anyone. Just a simple ‘bonjour’ !”
To my great surprise I learned that in Japanese you have a special ‘good morning’ for your parents, a different one for your children, yet another one for the boss, one for a subordinate, and so forth. I gave up. I was not going to learn Japanese after all.
So, I finally boarded the plane after spending five days in Japan. I could not even say ‘Good morning!’
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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