Teahouse of the August Moon II

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ome of you may be wondering about the title of these entries. Well, the Tokyo home I talked about in the last entry was a former tearoom and it is currently August. Yes, yes, I am the simple sort. (Tearoom? August? Get it?) But I chose the name to reflect the 1956 movie “Teahouse of the August Moon”, starring Marlon Brando. It’s a farce of Americans as nation builders. Capt. Fisby (Glen Ford) goes to Okinawa to teach the Japanese democracy but the locals–led by Sakini (Brando)–out flank him by convincing him to give them what they want: a teahouse.

I know, I know, you’re all pretty disgusted. I mean, even if it’s a movie making fun of US “global” policy, how ridiculous to assume that all the Japanese want is a TEAHOUSE! As if they couldn’t build one themselves? Also, why Okinawa. As you all know, Okinawa is just one more group of people Japan assimilated into Japan. Many Okinawans, even today, view themselves as Japanese citizens but ethnically Ryukyuan. And wow! What’s with the make up?!? Doesn’t Brando–he’s the one on the left–look really Japanese to you? Hahahahahha. Ah, but it was the 50s and they didn’t know any better in Hollywood. Anyway, when I was in first grade, a local Catholic high school, Salesian, put on a play based on this story and they needed a couple of kids to play “Japanese boy”. If you look real hard at the photo above, I’m the one sitting fifth from the right.

Zenpukuji 1984-5, cont’d

I dug up a photo from 1984 when I lived in the tearoom. As you can see, the kitchen really looked like it used to be an alcove, the refridgerator is on the tatami mat, the stove is on (notice the hot orange), and I’m wearing a sweater inside because… my house was cold even with the stove on. Ah, to be young (ok, ok, I was 28) and able to live under virtually any condition. That was the single most important thing I learned in Japan, I think. Yeah, my Japanese improved immensely, but more importantly, I leaned that I could survive without the basic comforts we all take for granted, like three square meals, heat, hot water, a telephone, and others.

And the main reason for this is that I’ve always been an optimist. I always looked at life in a positive way, and have considered myself to be lucky. Although we were never rich, we never wanted for anything necessary, even though I tried to convince my father that soda and potato chips were necessities… Ando so my life in Japan started off just as humbly. With my first few monthly stipends of ・140,000, I bought the necessities. I paid ・40,000 for rent, ・10,000 for transportation to and from school, and about ・15,000 for gas, electricity and water. That left me with about ・65,000 for the rest of my needs. In October, I bought the refridgerator which left me with ・2000 each day to pay for food and basic living necessities. Since I was starting from scratch I had to buy everyting: soap, tissue, toilet paper, paper towels, dish washing liquid, sponge, paper, cooking oil, rice. I remember cursing myself for not thinking ahead. I could have brought with me things like tooth paste, a nail clipper, and extra pens and notebooks. Geez, I was eating on ・100 soba at school for lunch and one ・90 onigiri (two if I felt rich) from the local convenience store for dinner. I had lost 15 pounds in one month without even trying. Of course, this is all speculation because I didn’t have a scale…

In November, I splurged and bought a red 11″ Mitsubishi TV. It was collecting dust at a small mom and pop electronics store in Ogikubo and I lugged it home on the bus. At home, I adjusted the rabbit ears and watched TV at “home” for the first time in five weeks. Many of you may laugh, but I felt a sense of normalcy returning to my life. I could now cook my own rice, pour over it some instant curry, and watch a J drama while sitting in the kotatsu. It was a warming thought as the night grew chillier, but the kotatsu really wasn’t a kotatsu. It had a heating element but it was totally ineffective without a kotatsu futon to keep the heat in. Duh! (we didn’t actually use this word back then…) I knew what I had to buy next.

Now all this time, I was studying. Really. I was taking courses in Japanese language at Waseda University. I really wanted to improve my Japanese. I mean, I swear, I wanted to do much better in Japanese. I could speak basic everyday conversations fairly well, but reading was a bear. As many of you know, Japanese is made up of different scripts and mastering them is a bitch. But I spent my weekends and evenings reading the material I was given and poured over my dictionary. When I took the placement exam, I placed into advanced level. I was kinda proud of myself until I went to my classes. 95% of the class were Chinese or Korean. In other words, they either already knew the Chinese characters or they already knew the grammar. It was unfair. The lectures were in Japanese and I was transcribing EVERYTHING into romanization, then went home and tried to decipher what the hell was going on. I felt intimidated and totally powerless the first month. but I stuck to it. They placed me in the advanced class and the hell if I wasn’t going to do something with it…

The good thing, of course, was that I was able to make friends with people who did not speak English. That was a big plus. The Chinese were pretty cliquish and didn’t make friends with others, especially Americans, but I made a few Korean friends, mostly women, heheheheheh. I confess: they were hella cute… I went drinking and karaoke-ing with them a number of times. But they never kept me from my studies. I was focused! I met a few other Americans, and they would try to be my friend, as my Japanese was better than theirs. But, beside the superficial greetings, I shined them on. I guess they must have thought I was a freakin’ asshole. But I had a goal and I wanted to fulfill it. No time to worry about what they thought or about my image. I did enjoy the occasional English conversation–it was comforting–but I refused to wimp out. Would they help me with my Japanese 10 years later? Would they help me find a job? I had to look at the big picture. My overall goal–indeed, the future I envisioned for myself–outweighed all other considerations…

More tomorrow