The Proper (Japanese) Way: PART II


Wax Museum

The Proper (Japanese) Way” is the manner by which this or that action is to be effectively carried out in Japanese social contexts.  The prescribed method is most often an aesthetic etiquette that sometimes has practical applications in that it can facilitate the action being accomplished efficiently well or “lean” as they say in business environments.

As an American woman trained in the “proper ways” from the age of 17 by a rural elitist Japanese husband, I am more than acquainted with Japanese customs.  A human horticulturist of sorts, he trimmed my uncouth roots and cut away bits of my free spirit until I became a rather hideous bonsai.  Later as the mother of two “hafu” children raised by the same keeper of trees,  I saw it play out from the sapling stage.

My “hafus,” the one-chan (older sister) and otooto (little brother) lovelies of my world, lived nearly every day of their lives in America, under a roof that just as well could have been constructed of black tile cornered with fierce gargoyles warding off evil.  Their cookie cutter cape cod, nestled in a Detroit transplant community of Japanese engineers and their families sent here teach us (“under-educated”) Americans how to build quality  cars, from the outside looked like any other home in Midwest suburbia– but inside, while one would not find paper doors nor tatami, the proper way  was strictly taught and our output managed.  The only correct answer to any barked command being a robotic, “Hai, wakarimashita” (“Yes, understood!”).

These beautiful, bi-cultural children, in a position to receive the best of both worlds, were in fact planted in vessels so small, that the elder became tightly bound– her tender roots knotted in an anxious ball underneath a lovely blanket of seedless moss; and the younger, refusing to bend in the prescribed direction, uprooted himself and found some semblance of peace living much like any Michigander his age…swaying freely in the breeze that blows from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie. These children, now adults grown, drive me to contemplate the dichotomy that defines the infamous Japanese national character.

And just what is this character?  Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist known for her 1946 book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture” described it this way:

“(The Japanese are)…both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways…”


The Two Sides

Oblivious to these polarized traits when I first arrived in Japan in 1980– some 34 years after Benedict’s epic academic study was published, I thought I had discovered the most interesting place on the planet.  Now in hindsight I think the exacting ways that drive the character we see are…to put it simply, tiring, and can have negative effects on anyone’s psyche…even that of a native Japanese.

This is not to say, a human bonsai, a person restrained and shaped by customs,  is not a beautiful and interesting thing, but few would, if they had the choice, elect to live such a potted life. In fact, the Japanese don’t really chose it, but through various societal mechanisms are trained.  Thus, they are at once polite, aesthetic, adaptable, submissive, conservative, hospitable, and loyal on the omote (surface); and insolent, rigid, and resentful on the ura/underside. They are both sides in order to strike a balance within themselves– and in the end preserve what is the proper Japanese way.


To learn more about this bonsai life, please  follow this blog for related posts and information on the upcoming release of “The Six-Foot Bonsai: A Soul Lost in the Land of the Rising Sun.”  


8 thoughts on “The Proper (Japanese) Way: PART II

  1. Hello, What a beautifully written piece. As an American born “hafu” who learned Japanese in college, I identified with many ideas in this piece. And it gives me pause, as I continue on my own journey venturing farther and farther into Japanese culture. I have definitely felt pressure in Japan to do things the “correct” way. One of my Japanese host mothers reprimanded me for my way of cutting carrots, and another time for handing over a plastic bag without folding it into a triangle first. And I agree with the dichotomy of the surface and the underside that you describe. I have also seen it work the opposite way with an aloof surface giving way to a warm and thoughtful underside. I take it as a measure of my own progress to enter into Japanese culture that I have been privileged to see past the surface (whether it be good or bad underneath). Thanks for the lovely and thought provoking piece. Jessy

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  2. Hello dear Bonsai, I read your story with tears in my eyes and pain resurrected so violently I cannot remember how I manged to keep it down for so long till I read your words today. Don’t be alarmed I am ok, just telling you how powerful your words are and never once hold back from sharing. Permit me to go on a little here, which may end up quite long but I have been on a journey of self-healing and discovery and on this journey if I meet someone that can give me some meaning to the chaos in my life I will stop and tell them thank you for having suffered for you are now a help to me. As selfish as it may sound, its true, we endure just as much as we are meant to and then the hurt is taken away by some magical force that we wished on and came to our rescue just when we thought it was our last straw. My ex husband while not Japanese was in principle and character the man who married, he ruled me and my children with such ferocity my babies grew up beaten, battered and bruised in every sense until one day the tides changed and we were free of him, I only say to people he is not here anymore and I thank the universe that conspired to release me from his clutches. I admire and respect you so much for being open and brave with your story – I still cant with mine, too many other lives involved and its not only my story it is theirs. but reading you gives me courage and above all an understanding why I allowed it to happen, I came from a good home, a happy home, I wasn’t looking for something other than to continue being in a loving place. But I see, its not me, men they know who wants to be molded and shaped and I was willing to please, still am I think and I have to be very careful not to let anyone close for I know they will mold me one last time and then destroy me permanently. yours is a story of triumph against such odds mostly because you could identify them and take positive action, you have a beautiful spirit I hope you always nurture and tend to it. I still have questions why I chose to be shaped into something and allowed it when it was never me and may never know the one right answer. Thank you for sharing your story – its precious and I hope everyone who reads it treats with dignity and love.

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    • Singledust thank you for taking the time to read my story and give such thoughtful feedback to me. It is a difficult position to be in to be the mom who should have protected the little ones. I went completely out of my mind in this situation. While I was in the house I took the brunt of everything. He worked late so I put the kids to bed before he got home as often as I could. I thought he just hated me and loved them. I ended up leaving the house and I was supposed to take them with me but I didn’t have myself together and left them for was to be a few weeks but ended up being two long years. I saw them but they were so quickly changed. Especially my daughter was brainwashed as I was. My son became his target of his cruelty; my daughter also but in a different way. Without God, and the love a good man now 15 years in, I could not make it. I simply could not face it. But, in case they need me someday again I have to be around I know. They are in their mid-late twenties and doing “ok.” The oldest has severe PTSD but still “fakes it to make it” everyday. Stay strong Singledust. I am glad to hear you are protecting yourself from danger and staying out of harms way. I do hope the Bonsai story helps young people consider their culture and protect themselves from becoming obsessed with another person, culture…whatever it is that they might get themselves into. Most of the feedback has been good, but I did have someone write a very nasty review of my personally…someone I did not know. They said they hated me and that I didn’t realize what a horrible person, mother, wife, etc. I am. Oh I do realize that during the late nineties I was a horrible mess of a person. I pay and pray. That review cut, but not as much as the reality. Clearly they did not read the end of the story but stopped in the middle.

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      • i am a mother and understand your mother’s heart and how it breaks to see our kids hurt even in the slightest way and am sure you must have hurt deeply, time heals no matter how cliched and they will come around one day to see truth and light, till then we can only hold them close to us even when they seem to not want us. I lived with a lot of darkness and still cannot come into the light after being conditioned to feel so inferior, it’s my daily struggle to feel good about myself so I protect myself from anyone getting close, not healthy but that works for now. I am happy though that you have found happiness and safety with a man that can be tender with you and accept you as you are. you are both blessed to have each other! Yes your blog is very inspirational to anyone who think s they can become another culture and also as a help for kids who are born in mixed marriages to find their own identity. Asia is a lovely place to live but customs and traditions will stifle and bind you to ways you cannot escape. Nasty people will be nasty no matter what you are, i say never judge from your snug smug life, tables can turn on you. I am so very proud to meet a strong woman like you, it indeed inspires me to want to love myself more and not believe all the lies I was made to accept before. thank you for allowing me this space to say so much. Hope we will continue to keep in touch.


      • I read your comment again today and it gives me strength once more to face a new day. This past week I attended therapy with my daughter and I cannot write any detail about that, but suffice it to say, few understand the mind control of a man– especially one from another culture when you are trying to assimilate. They tell you how it is…how the world works and all. It messed me up so much that I made little sense for years. I wish I had been stronger so as to protect my children but I failed. That pain is so horrible and although I function it does not leave me. I have gone over and over and over it so many times…what I should have done, the whole thing. Some may say I’m in detail or compartmentalizing or whatever, but when you relive a scene so many times you can tell the story in your sleep… almost dispassionately. Call me hard, strong whatever, but say one trigger word and I break.

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      • I am happy it gives you strength and Please if there is anything I can do to help or say that will help you understand all you went through I would be more than happy to. same for me too, years on I am still haunted by a lot of the things I was subjected to and find it hard to form normal relationships with people who come into my life, believing I don’t deserve to be loved, I find reasons to be hated and hurt the ones I love the most and they eventually leave me. I doubt I will ever really heal, but having someone who can accept me as I am is the first step, not wanting to solve or change me , just listening and being there. I have done all the analysing I don’t need someone analysing me! I wish you peace in abundance for healing will come from an inner peace no one else can give you but yourself, because end of day we only have ourselves. And when I can do that, have inner peace then I can be a better mother to my kids, they don’t have to mother me and the triggers are less hurtful, I used to cry if I heard a certain word, see a certain gesture, it was that bad – so I know how you feel – be strong for you and patience it is strong enough in you. Many blessings on you and I am here if you need someone to rant to!

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