I first became acquainted with Japan when I was 15 years old though a two-way cultural exchange. Socially awkward as a result of a disfiguring accident that occurred when I was five …the trip was a chance to see the world beyond my rural Michigan town and hopefully make some friends.
In 1980 “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” was my go-to resource for learning about Japan. In it anthropologist Ruth Benedict described the Japanese people as . . .
“both aggressive and unaggressive,
…militaristic and aesthetic,
insolent and polite,
rigid and adaptable,
submissive and resentful…etc.”
On the positive side of this dichotomy, I found my new Tokyo friends to be polite and very hospitable. AND I loved the aesthetic, ritualistic processes of Japanese daily life. During my stay I learned to gracefully back out of my shoes and step up into the house and say all the required greetings.
Japan was a place where everything had logical or spiritual significance. Nothing–not school, family, or religion as I had been exposed to it, had provided me with a framework that held my teenage soul together like the Japanese culture. Japan was so intoxicating that even as a teenager I began mimicking the quiet, purposeful movements of the people. And, soon after my return to Michigan I began to plot WHEN and HOW I would return and live in Japan.
To this end I hooked up with a Japanese college student studying in the U.S. His name was “Right Man” and he was from a small island in the Japan Sea…a remote, historical place called Sado. Right Man said it was the REAL JAPAN. At 18 I married “Right Man”…but before I could move to Japan permanently, he had to complete his degree at MSU. During that period I studied the language and by my husband’s instruction learned to cook, clean, and speak with soften tones. I could close a door without a sound, and silently set dishes onto a table. None of this was easy, but in 1986 I achieved my goal and moved to Sado—living on a 500-year old estate complete with a tea house, temple, and family burial grounds. There Right Man wielded his power as the only person who could possibly carry on the long family legacy.
As was customary, every so often demons came to perform a household exorcism. Unfortunately, their dancing did not expel the evil from our home. One day, while cleaning the futon closet, I found several magazines containing nude photos of very young girls…innocent erotica. My husband’s explanation went something like this: “Boys are first attracted to girls who are 10 or 11. It is natural for men to still be attracted to that beauty. It is fantasy, art…nothing more.” This explanation was hard to swallow, but comics depicting doe-eyed, characters in school uniforms as objects of sexual desire were commonplace; child pornography perfectly legal at the time.
Every spring, as the snow melts, the shape of a monkey holding a seed appears as a bare spot near Sado’s tallest mountaintop— signaling the planting season. Not long after our second planting season, my husband abruptly announced he would rather live the easy life in America than carry his family burden. The seed sewing monkey not only signaled our return to the US, but my first pregnancy. I had a daughter and two years later a son. From their birth I raised them to be 100% Japanese using books, toys, and videos shipped regularly from Sado. I knew no less than 150 Japanese children’s songs.
During these years we lived near Detroit in a transplant community of engineers and their families sent here to support the new Mazda plant where Right Man worked. My children and I were accepted into the close-knit community and treated like any other Japanese family living there…participating in their play groups and teas.
Although I was proficient in my duties, Right Man was very strict. He was the other side of Ruth Benedict’s assessment of the Japanese character…that is “aggressive, militaristic, insolent and, rigid.” His trimming and shaping of me was constant…and eventually I lost my mind and my children. What I did not lose was my adoration for Japan. In my afflicted state I became a karaoke queen and took an English teaching job in Tokyo. There I binged on Japanese culture and in the process came face to face with some unsavory aspects.
In 1997, after studying Japanese manufacturing on my own, I secured an interpreter job back in Michigan. For the next 4 years I followed Japanese engineers around as their voice…imparting their philosophy to American workers. During that time I received custody of my son but sadly my daughter remained with Right Man.
It was rather abrupt but one day, after 21 years of using the culture, I gave it up, moving to the shores of Lake Michigan where I took work with an American manufacturer and fell in love with an American man who shared many of my original values. Returning to my roots, becoming the tall Michigan white pine that I was born to be, seemed natural…much easier than becoming Japanese.
But this isn’t the end to the story. The fallout from my l blindness and my addiction to the culture would come several years later. I write to fit the broken pieces together and hopefully teach others a few lessons I learned.
Thank you for reading my book “The Six-Foot Bonsai.” I look forward to your feedback.