Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere: A Memoir

Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere: A Memoir

by John Nathan

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John Nathan arrived in Tokyo in 1961 fresh out of Harvard College, bringing with him no practical experience, no more than two connections, no prospects, and little else to recommend him but stoic, unflappable pluck. Japan at that time was still in the shadow of the Occupation, and only a handful of foreigners were studying the country seriously. Two years later, Nathan became the first American to pass the entrance exams to the best school in Japan, the University of Tokyo. He went on to translate two of Japan's greatest contemporary writers, Yukio Mishima and Nobel laureate Kenzaburõ Õe, and direct several series of films in and about Japan in collaboration with world-famous directors and businesses; earn an advanced degree at Harvard and a professorship at Princeton; and become a Hollywood screenwriter. Nathan was given unprecedented access to the inner sanctum of Sony for his book Sony: The Private Life, and he explored the damaged psyche of postbubble Japan in his acclaimed Japan Unbound.

During his decades of passionate engagement with Japan, Nathan became close friends with many of the most gifted people in the land -- politicians and business leaders as well as painters, novelists, directors, rock stars, and movie stars -- and was privileged to travel, in their very special company, inside domains of Japanese life not normally open to foreigners then or now. In his unique chronicle of that journey, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, he details the adventures sublime, profane, and uproarious, many of a distinctly Japanese nature, that characterized his career, which was singular in its success as much as in its chaos. Along the way, he brings the most exciting era in recent Japanese history vividly into focus with wry humor, penetrating insight, and pathos.

John Nathan is not the only foreigner to have developed a rich, full, deeply nuanced understanding of Japan. But his experiences are certainly extraordinary and in fact irreproducible, and his memoir is the most personally satisfying story yet told of Japan (and elsewhere). From Nathan's lifetime of wisdom, compassion, and brazen resolve, we learn the value of traveling within our own mental and emotional borders as well as without the many places we call home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416593782
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 03/18/2008
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 869 KB

About the Author

John Nathan is an author, translator, Emmy Award-winning documentary
filmmaker, and cultural critic who has devoted a long and rich lifetime to
removing the cloak of enigma that surrounds the Japanese. Born in New York City,
he spent part of his childhood in Tucson, Arizona, and now lives with his family
in Santa Barbara, California.

Read an Excerpt

If Music Be the Food of Love, Pray (sic) On

I am asked "Why Japan?" with a bemusement that conveys an unspoken "of all places!" Perhaps my appearance and manner prompt the question. I am a hulking man with a hairy chest, parboiled hands, and a basso profundo voice in which I have a predilection for sounding my own horn. In short, there is nothing delicate about me -- allow me to say, nothing apparent -- yet delicacy is thought to be definitive of the Japanese sensibility. The truth is, my cultural wiring disposes me to appreciate Japan even less than people imagine. My roots are in New York's Lower East Side. My father's father, Nathan Stupniker, was a reporter at The Jewish Daily Forward and a member of the Socialist coterie led by Forward editor Abraham Cahan that convened on Yom Kippur Eve to feed on pork in defiance of Adonai. You'll have to look around to find someone less likely to resonate with Japan's grim earnestness than a disaffected Jew.

I was helped toward my career choice by uncertainty about my ability to vie on home ground. I arrived at Harvard from a frontier high school in the creosote desert surrounding Tucson, Arid-zone. We -- my younger sister, Nancy, and I -- had no business being there: our hypochondriac father contracted a chronic cold every New York City winter and decided, though he had never been west of the Hudson, to become a Sunbird. When I arrived at Harvard and walked into my suite in Matthews Hall South for the first time, I found on a round table a Fleet Street umbrella and a bottle of Danish mead. I considered uneasily that someone had left them there to remind me that I would have to do a lot of pretending to appear at home in Harvard's slick halls. I followed the sound of laughter down the hall to an open door and walked in on a group of freshmen dressed in khaki pants and dress shirts with school ties loosely knotted around their necks. Andover boys, it turned out, who had read the Greek classics under the stern eye of Dudley Fitts; collectively they reminded me of the young T. S. Eliot as I imagined him at Harvard, polished and superior, remorseless in the presence of mediocrity. Two had entered Harvard with sophomore standing; another was among the handful of students chosen by Robert Lowell to take his poetry course. These classmates would be my closest friends throughout college, and though I was perhaps the most entertaining raconteur among them, I wasn't about to compete in English or philosophy.

When I was eleven, the first year of our rude transplanting from the Jewish comfort of New York to Tucson, I felt invisible to my schoolmates except as a butt of ridicule for being a know-it-all, and decided a pet monkey was what I needed to distinguish myself. I begged my parents to buy me one, but they declined to indulge me. Japanese was my pet monkey.

Not to say that anything exotic would have sufficed. There were many possibilities: Old Norse, Gaelic, Sanskrit studies. But I was genuinely intrigued by the Japanese language. At lunch in the Freshman Union, a student from Japan drew for me on a napkin a two-character compound and explained that it meant an infection that occurs beneath the nails of the toes or fingers (later I learned that the English word is "whitlow"). I stared at the abstract characters, astonished that they could signify so precisely. That week, I sat in on a class in modern Japanese literature taught by a voluble Italian American named Val Viglielmo. Viglielmo was a virtuoso: he claimed to be the only foreigner to have been psychoanalyzed in Japanese. He was lecturing on Ichiyo Higuchi, a novelist who had written poignantly as a very young woman about life in the pleasure quarter in the late nineteenth century. As he introduced her he chalked on the board the characters for her name and the titles of her work with a swift, showy unerringness that inspired me with admiration and envy.

First-year Japanese language at Harvard in those days was taught by the renowned professor of Japanese history, Edwin Oldfather Reischauer. Born in Japan in 1910 and raised there by his missionary parents, Reischauer, a disciple of Serge Elisseef, the Russian émigré who had brought Japanese studies from France to the United States, was a revered figure in Japan. In Washington at the end of the war as the Japan expert in the Army Intelligence Service, he was prominent among the influential voices persuading the Pentagon to remove the ancient capital of Kyoto from the short list of A-bomb targets. When I encountered him he was in his late forties, a tall, handsome man who somehow looked Japanese, particularly about the eyes, cool and assured, intimidating in his gracious way.

Reischauer taught us grammar from a book that had been designed to train interrogators in the Occupation: we learned how to count battalions and heavy artillery and how to say "sweeping for land mines." Our drill instructor was a mysterious young woman named Rei Sasaguchi who was working on her dissertation in art history. I was in love with her; when she pointed to me to parrot a sentence my tongue tied. One day we were practicing gerundial verbs: "Boarding the _____, I rode to town." When it was my turn I used what I believed to be the English loanword for bus, busu. Miss Sasaguchi laughed prettily and said the word I had chosen meant "an ugly hag": "Boarding an ugly hag, I rode to town." My mistake, and my scarlet face, became a standing joke in the class.

My classmates were all graduate students. A number of them had lived in Asia and had Chinese or Japanese wives. They ate lunch with chopsticks from lacquer boxes they brought from home, kept their pens and pencils in brocade bags, and carried their books in silk furoshiki. In their presence I, too, was able to feel identified with the society I was studying but had never experienced. I shared little of my life at the Yen-ching with my friends in artsy Adams House, who were reading Kant or Camus or Chaucer. I did take them to see Marlon Brando in Sayonara when it opened in Harvard Square; I felt proprietary about the film, and proud, sitting in the dark, to be offering a tour of "my" Japan. The film was a hit among us; for years afterward Brando's drawled assurance to the Takarazuka dancer Hana-ogi at Red Buttons's pied-à-terre in Kyoto became part of our standard repartee: "But, Lloyd-san, what will our children be?" "They'll be half you and half me, darlin' -- half yaller and half white!"

By the end of my senior year I had acquired enough Japanese to attempt a translation for my graduation thesis. I chose Ryunosuke Akutagawa's sardonic self-portrait, The Life of a Fool. Translating allowed me to feel that I was a writer; my mentor, Howard Hibbett, who was translating Tanizaki's The Key, praised my work and assured me I had a gift.

That spring I decided to go to Japan. I wasn't sure of a goal, but it had something to do with living a literary life. I had considered applying to the Old Vic School in London -- I had played King Henry IV and Achilles and Othello in college productions -- but Japan tugged at me. JFK had just appointed Professor Reischauer U.S. ambassador to Japan; he encouraged me to go and offered to help me settle in. In May I went to New York to interview for a teaching job at a newly opened English conversation school in Tokyo that had been funded by the Ford Foundation. The school was to be a laboratory for a new approach, Pedagogically Correct, designed specifically for teaching English as a second language to native Japanese speakers; it was called ELEC (the English- Language Exploratory Council), and it paid well, $300 a month for five evenings a week. To prepare for the interview I disguised myself as a clean-cut college boy, shaving my full beard, pruning the thicket of my hair, and buying a preppy sport jacket at J. Press. Afterward, the project director, a man named Douglas Overton, who had been an intelligence operative after the war, walked me to the elevator and confided, taking my arm, "You can assume you've been accepted. I like Ivy Leaguers." With an introduction from Reischauer, I was also hired to teach English literature at Tsuda College, a school for young women with a reputation for incubating ideal wives for diplomats whose careers would take them abroad.

I spent the summer after graduation in New York, working at Nomura Securities on Wall Street to earn the price of a ticket to Japan and breaking up with my Radcliffe fiancée (such an antique word, like antimacassar). We had met in the spring of 1961, during my last semester at Harvard, and I had proposed -- it was very much the thing to do in those days -- on Graduation Day in early June. When she phoned her parents from my room in Adams House to announce our engagement, her father ordered her to return to her dormitory at once and to wait there until he arrived from Scarsdale. She returned to school a week later hoping to clear up one or two questions. Why, she now found herself wondering, did I never suggest that we cross the river into Boston for a play, or a museum, or an open rehearsal of the symphony? Why was I content to sit on the steps of Adams House A-entry noodling on my alto recorder to the guitar accompaniment provided by my friend Kurt Fiedler, back from the Marines, or worse, to sit passively -- she emphasized the word -- in the darkness of a movie theater?

I tried to redeem myself. We attended a play by Tagore and went to see Sir John Gielgud perform The Ages of Man, and when we emerged from a movie we discussed it. For a time things seemed better again. Then the parents delivered a clever ultimatum: they would sanction our marriage only if their daughter agreed to see a psychiatrist first. I was waiting for her when she emerged from her first session; it was 4:30 on a baking summer afternoon on the Upper West Side. Her eyes were puffy from crying; I took her hand -- it was lifeless -- and we walked in silence. At the corner she stopped and turned to me. "I guess I never had an orgasm."

"Not even in the bathtub?"

She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears.

"You could have fooled me."

"I was fooling myself."

Through the summer we held on to each other, but I knew, and I'm sure she suspected, though I could never bring myself to be honest with her about it, that when I left for Japan in the fall I would leave alone. Early in September, she saw me off the day I drove out of the city in a car I was delivering to San Francisco. The last time I heard from her was about a month after I arrived in Tokyo, when I received a short letter and a lock of her hair.

I had lied -- exaggerated -- my way into my summer job, claiming to read Japanese fluently. I spent most of my time translating pamphlets touting Nomura's financial services. This I could do; the problem was the cable that arrived each morning from the head office in Tokyo (the end of the day in Japan). It was my responsibility to translate these daily updates of market conditions and to phone the information to banks that Nomura serviced. But the combination of financial terminology and cable-ese written in Japanese phonetic syllabary stymied me. I wouldn't have lasted a week if it hadn't been for Kenji NaitoÝ, who was studying Shakespeare at Brooklyn College and working in the mailroom part time. When the cable landed on my desk I would scan it as though assuredly for the benefit of my colleagues in the room, then amble into the mailroom to ask Kenji to decipher it. He was a wisp of a man, tight-lipped and deliberate but full of mischief. On our way home to the Upper West Side we often stopped for dinner at the Times Square White Castle, whose bite-sized burgers were an ample meal for him. His knowledge of English literature, about which he was never anything but modest, was prodigious; later he became a professor at Meiji University and was a kind and generous friend to me throughout my years in Japan. The last time I saw him, many years ago, he was living in a small house on the outskirts of Tokyo with his wife, a Parisian with whom he had corresponded amorously for years before they married, and their two daughters. I remember feeling that he was resigned rather than content about his life as a college professor and a family man; he told me quietly, with a smile that struck me as forlorn, that he was happiest when he was alone in his study with his books. Perhaps my perception was colored by my arrogance about what lay in store for me.

After a brief visit with my family in Tucson, I drove to San Francisco to take a JAL flight to Tokyo. No one saw me off; I must have been excited, but what I remember is feeling lonely. The plane stopped in Honolulu, where we were served complimentary plates of pineapple, and again in Guam to refuel. When I emerged from customs at Haneda Airport I was startled to encounter a wall of Japanese faces.

I had reserved a room at the YMCA Hostel in Kanda, near the Awajicho subway station and a ten-minute walk to the secondhand booksellers that lined the streets of Jinbocho. The Y was a dreary place, a cavernous old building with polished concrete floors and a flight of worn concrete steps that led upstairs to sparsely furnished bedrooms. In the dining room on the ground floor you paid for meals with coupons; a breakfast ticket bought miso soup and rice, two gelid fried eggs that had been cooked the night before, and either coffee, green tea, or, my choice, Coca-Cola served in the original glass bottles.

I was timid about going out. Looking for the right limousine bus at the airport, I had assembled questions in Japanese, but the answers had come back at a speed I couldn't comprehend. I chose a bad day to explore: September 15, 1961. As I was walking on the Ginza a typhoon slammed into the city, ripping billboards off buildings and whirling them into the street like helicopter blades. Pedestrians ran for shelter; I lost my way, panicked, and tried asking directions of people running for the subway, but no one stopped. Eventually a businessman with some English helped me find the way back to Awajicho. For two days I stayed indoors, practicing counting in Japanese.

I braved the telephone for the first time to call the International House of Japan to request a meeting with the executive director, Yasaka Takagi, a professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo who is known as the father of American studies in Japan. Then as now, foreigners other than businessmen or diplomats who planned to remain in the country for an extended period were required to have a Japanese sponsor who agreed to serve as a personal guarantor. Formal responsibility in Japan is not undertaken lightly; Professor Takagi had agreed to look after me as a personal favor to Reischauer, his colleague and old friend.

He was waiting for me when I arrived at 10 a.m., sitting erect on a bench just inside the lobby, and he greeted me in faultless English. Takagi was a gentleman from Japan's past, impeccably dressed in English tweed; the glabrous skin stretched across his brow, and the bones of his face and neck put me in mind of an ancient turtle. He walked me around the premises, introducing me as a protégé of Professor Reischauer to the director of cultural programs, the hotel manager at the front desk, the maître d', and, a final stop, the cashier's office, where he informed a man with an abacus and black sleeve guards over his white shirt that I would be dropping in from time to time to cash an American check and convert dollars to yen.

Japan's institutional memory, for better or for worse, is long: Takagi's brief introductions installed me permanently at I-House as someone to be trusted. Long after he was gone, I could write a check on an American bank and it would be cashed for me with no questions asked, a service that wasn't normally provided. Even when I violated house rules, which I did more than once over the years, my conduct was overlooked, as if I had diplomatic immunity.

Takagi said he wanted to show me a special place nearby, and we walked up Toriizaka to the Roppongi thoroughfare and took a ten-minute ride on a trolley car to the end of the line at the moat around the Imperial Palace. The stop was Sakurada-mon (Cherry-fields Gate). He said this was his favorite spot for a walk when he wanted to reflect calmly on his life, and he suggested I should come here when I was feeling agitated. It was particularly beautiful at cherry blossom time. I never returned to Sakuradamon to walk along the moat, but I have often recalled what my sponsor told me about the tranquility that has continued to elude me. I don't know if I realized he was offering me a lesson about how to lead my life.

Tsuda College is in the countryside west of the City of Tokyo, past suburban Ogikubo and KichijoÝji and beyond the Koganei flatlands all the way to Kokubunji. My first train ride from Shinjuku seemed endless, and I was nervous about missing my stop because station names in those days were written only in Japanese. The campus was a fifteen-minute bus ride from the station down unpaved country roads. At the entrance to the main building I changed to a pair of green guest slippers and flopped along the shiny main hall to the office. The president, Miss Kasuya, who had studied at Bryn Mawr as a Fulbright exchange student in 1909, congratulated me for finding my way to Tsuda. "And where is Mrs. Nathan?" she then inquired. "There is no Mrs. Nathan," I replied. She blanched. I learned later that I was the first single male to teach at Tsuda since it was founded in 1900.

"I see -- well, it is nice to have you here with us. The Shakespeare Club in particular has been anxiously awaiting your arrival." The old woman gestured toward a closed door that now, as if by magic, opened to admit into the room a dozen young women who surrounded me, bowing and giggling in their excitement, cheeks on fire, each clasping an identical red-bound volume that turned out to be the Arden edition of Twelfth Night. The annual Shakespeare play, with all the parts performed by the girls in English, had been a tradition at the school for as long as anyone could remember; part of my job that year was to direct the performance. Roles had been assigned before my arrival, and I was introduced to my bashful, enchanting cast. Viola was a gentle, open-hearted girl who wheezed with chronic asthma. Olivia was a fluttery beauty who seemed very taken with herself; I never got to know her well. Sebastian was a solemn senior who would later identify me as a bounder inclined to spend more time coaching the attractive girls. Sir Toby Belch was a junior named Ikeda with fluent English. She was dressed like the others, in a flared navy-blue skirt and white blouse buttoned to the collar, tennis shoes she kept in her locker at school, and sheer white socks which she wore, as did they all, rolled down below her ankle bones on even the rawest days, a fad I imagined had originated in the need to add a touch of sauciness to the drabness of their uniforms. But though she dressed like the others, something about Miss Ikeda was different, more familiar to me. Later I learned that she had spent a year as an exchange student in an American high school in Cleveland. That accounted for the difference: doubtless she had already received a first kiss at least in the back of a car. Malvolio was a short, corpulent young woman named Muragi with ankles as thick as her knees, probably the sweetest and kindest of the girls and, unfortunately, as I felt at the time, the most attached to me.

Mornings twice a week I taught two sections of Reading 1; the texts I had chosen were Heart of Darkness, The Dead, and Sons and Lovers. When we discussed sexual imagery in D. H. Lawrence, the girls surprised me with their sophistication; they had read widely and seemed to have thought a lot about sex. I wondered if some of them might not be as innocent as they appeared.

Outside my classroom, the Shakespeare Club was waiting to escort me to lunch. The cafeteria was a ramshackle wooden building that once had served as an auditorium and was still in use as a gymnasium. During lunch hour, the girls sat on benches at long wooden tables that were pulled onto the playing floor. The food, for those of us who did not bring our lunch from home, was unappealing and, as I later learned, typical of every college cafeteria. There were two cold plates, A and B, identical portions of cabbage doused in soy sauce, a few chewy pickles, and a slice of pressed ham; the B, deluxe, version included a piece of fish that had been deep-fried earlier in the day. For those who wanted something warm there was a bowl of flat noodles in broth with a raw egg yolk representing the moon. And finally, the "sandwiches" still to be found in every bakery in Japan. "Salad bread" was a hotdog bun stuffed with potato salad and sharpened with Japanese horseradish. "Cutlet bread" was the same bun loaded with chopped cabbage and baited with a thin strip of pork poised on the outer edge of the bread. The trick was to buy several and to consolidate the strips of pork in one roll -- one of these and a salad roll became my invariable lunch.

At the Shakespeare Club table, a place was always reserved for me by devoted Malvolio. Apparently she arrived early, staked out a place for herself at an empty table, and then sat there immovably, saving the seat next to hers. As she was a Tokyo girl and not a boarder, she brought a box lunch lovingly assembled at home, always the most elaborate at the table. Throughout the meal she sat attentively at my side, watching me owlishly through her heavy glasses, rarely joining the conversation but always quickest with an explanation when something said in Japanese confused me. Her chief pleasure at lunch, once she had overcome her shyness, was modestly to offer me choice morsels of fish or shrimp or meat from her own bountiful lunch.

The seat to my left or directly across from me was usually reserved for solicitous Viola; next to her, or somewhere near, sat the senior girl elected by the club to serve as temporary director until I arrived to take over. And so on hierarchically down the table, players with smaller parts sitting at correspondingly greater distances away from me. Sometimes the girls brought friends from outside the club, who were required to sit quietly at the far end of the long table, straining to catch the thread of mostly English conversation with the school's new curiosity. At one time or another almost everyone I knew in or out of class sat at our table for lunch. Except the one I most longed to see, who was never there, not at first and certainly not later, when we had begun to meet off campus: the Duke Orsino.

When we finished eating, we went to the new auditorium for our afternoon rehearsal of Twelfth Night. The girls had studied the play in class the previous year and knew it literally, word for word. To be sure, I had to spend considerable time reversing rs and ls and adjusting intonations so the lines might fall comprehensibly on native English ears. But once the players could pronounce the lines, they performed them credibly -- those who could act. Those who could not act were awful, but no worse than American students similarly ungifted. Unlikely as it seems, Twelfth Night at Tsuda College was no more or less ridiculous than it would have been at an all-girls school in Poughkeepsie, New York.

I devoted myself to this part of my day at the college with close to complete seriousness. I mean I worked hard as a director on those autumn afternoons and flirted only a little. The cast responded by mostly forgetting during those hours that I was the first young American man they had known, and by trying their best to follow my direction. It was good for a while to be away from the giggling and the sidelong glances that followed me wherever else I went on campus: it was gratifying for those few hours to have a project more substantial than romance. In the auditorium, time flew, and 4:30 always arrived as a surprise.

From the first day I was reluctant to leave Tsuda in the failing light for the long bus and train trip back to Tokyo; it felt like being expelled into bleakness from a fragrant garden. I was lonely, but I couldn't bring myself to invite the dormitory girls to accompany me to Shinjuku for coffee or dinner. I was shy in my way and, though they were roughly my own age, I was aware of the boundaries my status as sensei required. As luck would have it, only Viola, boyish, hostile Sebastian, and stalwart Malvolio lived in Tokyo and rode the afternoon train. Viola and Sebastian alighted after just a few stops. Malvolio, who lived only three stations away from me, remained at my side for most of the trip, changing trains with me at Shinjuku and again at Shibuya, trotting along at my side as I hurried up and down station stairs, tirelessly explaining the meanings of billboard advertisements and, since I was considered the property of the Shakespeare Club, keeping other girls on the train at a distance. I resented being chained by circumstance to Malvolio. But I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I preferred to ride home alone.

Week by week the 4:30 end of rehearsal lowered me deeper into gloom. Finally I rebelled. I delayed my arrival at the front gate so that the others were ahead of me in line for the bus. They waved to me to join them, but I smiled and indicated that I would see them on the bus. They boarded, Malvolio last. I made as if to board and then hung back; the door closed and the bus drove off down the country lane. I watched it go happily. Now I was free to tarry, possibly to meet someone new; maybe I would even find the courage to wander over toward the dormitories in hopes of running into the Duke Orsino. And then I saw the bus slow down and stop eighty yards down the road, where I knew there was no bus stop. I watched in disbelief as the door opened and Malvolio stepped down and jogged pudgily toward me in the thin light. I understood: she had made the driver let her out, and now she had come to fetch me and there was nothing I could do. I stood there helplessly as she ran up panting and said, squinting up at me with no reproach in her voice, "You didn't get on the bus!" I smiled and was silent; we waited together at the gates to paradise another twenty minutes for the next bus, and this time I boarded obediently and we rode home.

A month at the Y and I was ready for an apartment. I found one in Denenchofu, an upper-middle-class residential district south of Shibuya. The rent was 25,000 yen a month ($70), but I was also required to pay two months' deposit and a third month called "key money" that went into the owner's pocket. Kenji Naito, returned from New York, had to come up from Kamakura to sign for me; in those post-Occupation days, no one would do business with foreigners without a Japanese guarantor, and I was reluctant to trouble Professor Takagi. My landlords were the Sano sisters, who lived alone behind the rental unit in a large house, spanking new, with a showy blue-tile roof that advertised affluence. I dealt with the younger sister, but it was the elder who intrigued, I should say excited, me. She was a pale woman in her early forties, beyond marriageable age by Japanese standards, but she was no spinster. Though she comported herself around me as demurely as she dressed, there was something hidden about her, a hint of compliant sensuality that lighted fantasies in me. One night, the only time I was ever in their house, the sisters invited me to dinner. There was another guest, a well-dressed man in his sixties perhaps who was introduced to me with no word of explanation except that he was the owner of the Imamura Rose Gardens. He seemed at home in the sisters' house, and though the elder sister treated him with the same muted cordiality she offered me, I sensed intimacy between them and came away wondering if she were not his mistress. A kept woman -- it was an exciting idea -- living in the house he had built for her and supporting herself on the revenues from the apartments he had built at the front of the property. I never saw him again and was unable to confirm the truth of what I imagined. The Sano sisters remained a mystery, and like so many of the mysteries life in Japan revealed to me, I was aware of something erotic beneath the baffling surface of appearances.

My train stop was Tamagawaen mae (Tama River Amusement Park), a twenty-minute ride on the Toyoko Line south from Shibuya toward Yokohama. The apartment was a short walk past the entrance to the park and down the High Street of shops and eateries. Like the sisters' residence it was brand new. It was a kind of townhouse, three two-story units with adjoining walls and their own front doors. There was one room downstairs, with a linoleum floor, about 12 feet by 15 feet; a "kitchen" with a single gas burner, a wooden tub just large enough to accommodate me to the shoulders if I hugged my knees -- the tap was cold water which was heated by a blast furnace installed beneath the tub; and, the feature I was most grateful for, a Western-style toilet with a civilized seat, not easy to find in those days. I furnished the room with a small table and two chairs only and spent little time there. Up a flight of stairs was an eight-mat tatami room (11 feet by 11 feet), where I lived. A large window looked out on a small garden below. I slept on a quilted futon on the new tatami mats, which made it smell as though I were sleeping in a hayloft; the bedding was meant to be neatly rolled each morning and stowed in the cupboard-closet behind a sliding door called a fusuma, but I'm sure I left mine on the floor. I bought a record player and a low Japanese table at which I intended to study, and I lugged home from a secondhand bookseller in Jinbocho a forty-volume set of modern Japanese fiction, three columns to the page in a very small font. I lined these volumes up against the wall -- they were bound in yellow covers -- and contemplated them with satisfaction and resolve. On the road to becoming the F. R. Leavis of Japanese fiction, I would read these voluminous pages from beginning to end. In fact, I spent little time at my books. I could see my breath in the apartment at night, and the portable gas heater I bought for the upstairs was inadequate to the cold. Besides, I was usually feeling too lonely or, later, too distracted to sit indoors by myself for long.

I lived in the apartment for eight months but never got around to equipping my kitchen; when I was home I ate the same meal every night at a cheap restaurant near the station, a "hamburg-steak" with a fried egg on top served on a sizzling platter and garnished with half a dozen "fry-potatoes." Two days a week I made the long trip to Tsuda to teach in the morning and rehearse my cast in the afternoon. Weekday evenings from 5:30 to 8:30 I was an English language drill instructor at ELEC, which was renting classrooms at Toyo Eiwa, a parochial school for girls across the street from International House. Saturdays I spent in the darkness of movie theaters watching Japanese movies until my eyes ached to sharpen my hearing of the language. Sunday, family excursion day in Tokyo -- the company man still worked a six-day week -- was the loneliest day. I wandered the Ginza observing the crowds of shoppers or stayed in the neighborhood to take pictures of families coming in and out of the amusement park on the banks of the Tama River. Often I felt forlorn, like an eavesdropper on life. What I longed for was romance, the feeling of being preferred that I have always required to shore up my wavering self.

As I learned much later, the dean of students at Tsuda, Professor Fumi Takano, had summoned the junior and senior girls to the auditorium the week after I arrived and informed them that no one was to accompany me off the Tsuda campus under any circumstances. I don't think Fumi was a prude, but as the translator of The Golden Bowl she had no trouble reading me and wanted to ensure the safety of the girls in her charge.

Not all the girls complied with the dean's order. By the end of October I was receiving return postcards; on the stamped and addressed portion of the card was an invitation neatly inked in English: "Would you like to join for a walk next Sunday?" Beneath were two squares with the words "Yes" and No" beside them. I checked exuberantly the "Yes" box and mailed back the cards.

How I loved those bashful walks around the pond in Kichijoji Park! The faces are a blur, but I remember the thrill of feeling the sweet, unimaginable innocence of these girls. Often we stopped at the stands at the entrance for a bowl of noodles or thick pancakes filled with seaweed and little shrimp or salted fish or octopus. Occasionally I persuaded my companion to go with me to Shinjuku for coffee at a café, but the girls had to be back on campus by 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons.

When I received an invitation from the Duke Orsino my heart leaped. Her name was Kiyoko -- "pure child" -- and I had longed for a chance to be alone with her. She was tall and slender with long black hair and the aquiline face of a classic Japanese beauty. I had observed that she kept apart from her schoolmates and carried herself with haughtiness, but as we walked through the autumn park she confessed to me with passion that colored her cheeks that she lived for literature and dreamed of being a writer whose theme was love. If she was a sentimental romantic she had met her match in me -- before we parted she had promised to cook a meal for me at my apartment the following week.

When my phone rang on Sunday morning I picked it up and heard her say only, "Tsuita wa yo." I deciphered the words in my mind: tsuita, the informal past tense of the verb tsuku, to arrive. Wa yo, particles used in feminine speech to convey emphasis, a spoken exclamation point. Translation: "I'm here!" I ran to the station to meet her and led her back to my apartment.

At the table downstairs she wrote out a shopping list in Japanese of items she would need. I had learned the words at school, looking them up and writing them out in my character notebook, and now they assumed a reality connected to my own. I was to shop at the market while she prepared rice in the electric cooker she had brought with her. I grabbed the list and raced back to the shops near the station. I felt for the first time that I was living life in Japan instead of observing it. Spring onions, one bunch; a small carton of mushrooms; rice noodles, two portions; bamboo sprouts, a lotus root, soy sauce, and sugar and, finally, at the butcher shop, 500 grams of beef sliced wafer-thin -- I wonder if I have ever again shopped with such excitement.

I ran back to the apartment, placed my shopping bags on the table, and, carried on the wave of my exhilaration, took the Duke in my arms and kissed her. She was startled but not repelled. She returned my kiss, and as it deepened someone knocked at my front door. I opened it and encountered two uniformed policemen who began speaking in Japanese I was too rattled to comprehend. The Duke emerged from the shadows at the back of the room to which she had retreated and explained in her halting English that someone had found the wallet I had left at the market and was waiting for me at the police station. In those days if you found a wallet and turned it in you were entitled by law to 10 percent of whatever money it contained. I was required to go to the station to complete the paperwork, and the Duke interpreted for me. As I had just cashed my ELEC check, the butcher's boy who found the wallet was well rewarded for his honesty. We returned to the apartment in silence; perhaps exposure to the eyes of the law had embarrassed Kiyoko. I watched blissfully as she turned the ingredients I had bought into sukiyaki, but she seemed withdrawn, and I didn't try to lead her back to amorousness.

Twelfth Night played for three nights in early December. The wooden auditorium was packed with students and their friends and families. Kenji brought his doctor brother and his family with him from Zushi, and my friends Ernie Young, Reischauer's political aide, and his wife, Marilyn, came too. The play was well received; there was a lot of clapping. It was amazing to me that the young Japanese audience seemed to have learned the play in English well enough to laugh at appropriate moments.

I had eyes only for the Duke, gorgeous in a tangerine frock coat over a white blouse with a high, ruffled collar. I had been coaching her privately at my apartment and I waited at the back of the auditorium for the lines that had continued to challenge her. She had never mastered the first line in the play; there was no telling whether she would get it right. Opening night she lowered herself regally onto the high-backed wooden chair that was her throne and declaimed: "If music be the food of love, PRAY on."

By that time she was sending me long letters which she signed "Aya of the dark eyes" and visiting me every Sunday. She was a proud beauty and had her moods, peevish or brooding. She was religious and prayed to her private God and whispered to me that I was God's first angel and that our love was pure and everlasting. Our physical intimacy had progressed; we kissed hotly and embraced in a tentative way, but I never pressed her to go further. She had told me that she was engaged to a boy she had met the previous spring at a miai, a formal marriage interview that had been arranged by her family and his, and I knew this troubled her. Besides, I wasn't hungry for sex; what I wanted was enchantment.

Japan closes for a week to celebrate the New Year. I spent two days in Zushi with Kenji's family, visiting temples in the hills of Kamakura, and was invited for dinner at Viola's home in Ogikubo. On the way I stopped at the Toyoko Department Store in Shibuya to buy a New Year's gift for the family. The food hall in the basement was dressed like a Christmas tree with the New Year's gift baskets the Japanese call o-seibo. The most extravagant assortments combined Japanese delicacies, fine rice crackers, teacakes, slices of Kobe beef marinated in miso, and Western luxury items: cans of Libby's fruit cocktail and bottles of Johnny Walker Black. I chose a whole smoked salmon with the head attached, and when I presented it to Viola's mother she seemed pleased. While she worked in the kitchen Viola and I and her teenage sister and brother and Sir Toby, who had also been invited, played baba-nuki, Old Maid. Dinner was broiled fish and steamed vegetables and rice. (With my inherited love of lox I had been hoping for some salmon but later learned it was impolite to serve a visitor his own gift.) Viola's father staggered in after nine, home from an end-of-the-year party with his colleagues at the office. I wondered if this was awkward, but no one seemed uncomfortable: the man of the house in a Japanese family has rights. He greeted me in English -- "I'm in the neck of time" -- paused to tug at the zipper of his fly, which he had noticed was unzipped, and switched into formal Japanese too slurred for me to fully understand. I heard "Have you ever seen such a home as this?" and replied, thinking a compliment was in order, "No, Sir, this is my first time!" Stunned silence, followed by hilarity. Viola explained when she could catch her breath that her father had offered a modest self-disparagement -- "Have you ever seen such a cramped and squalid home as this?" -- to which the proscribed response was "On the contrary..."

I was invited back the next day for a formal midday New Year's meal. This time the extended family was there: grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Bowls and nested lacquer trays of traditional New Year's food were arrayed on low tables installed end to end on the tatami mat floor in the main room. As I took my place near the center of the table, accepting an invitation to sit with my legs in front instead of under me, I felt a familiar quiver in my bowels. My father's legacy to me was a spastic colon; in the house of my childhood, bottles of Kaopectate were concealed in every drawer like an alcoholic's gin. Feeling trapped at that formal New Year's table triggered my affliction. I had to ask for the nearest bathroom. Viola's brother pointed at a paper door at the rear of the room, and when I had clambered up from the table and crossed the room to slide it open, I saw that the toilet, though plumbed and porcelain, was nonetheless a squatter. I have memories of squat toilets across Japan, nightmarish in winter particularly, when I was obliged to remove and place out of harm's way in the confines of a cabinet not only my trousers but a bulky overcoat. I say "obliged" because I was never limber enough, even as a young man, to assume with any poise the position Asians -- and, I suppose, sharecroppers -- master in their infancy. I slid the door closed and confirmed that the chatter at the festive table just feet away was clearly audible. I undressed and straddled the bowl. A metal bracket like a towel rack was screwed to the wall in front of me near the floor. As I hunkered down I grasped the bracket with both hands to steady myself and, losing my balance and sitting heavily back, yanked the fixture from the wall with a splintering crack. The table next door went silent. I sat on the toilet bowl, the bracket in my hands, and watched the plaster spill from the two holes I had opened in the wall. I prayed for transport back to my home in Tucson or, if that was unreasonable, to be flushed down the toilet. Aware that the family was still sitting in silence, I stuck the bracket into the wall, sagging on its bent screws, and returned to the table. I have never felt so embarrassed before or since. The party resumed as if nothing had happened.

Winter break, in mid-March, I traveled west across Honshu for the first time. My first stop was the Duke's home in the commercial city of Nagoya. She met me at the train station, and when we arrived at her house in what appeared to be an expensive residential quarter her parents were waiting to welcome me on their knees in the vestibule and thanked me, bowing deeply, for mentoring their daughter. Under the circumstances, their deference made me uncomfortable. My second night at the house, Kiyoko's husband-to-be joined us for dinner. He was a pleasant fellow in his mid-twenties who worked for his father in the family appliance store that he would inherit. Kiyoko was on her best behavior, attentive to him and appropriately diffident in the presence of her sensei. That was fine with me: I had heard her breath quicken in my ear, and as I entertained the table with tales of Tsuda I swam in the pleasure it gave me to suppose it was me she preferred.

After dinner, Kiyoko and her beau left on a date. When she returned she knocked on the door of the guest room where I was staying to ask if I needed anything before I went to bed. I joined her in the empty living room and she poured me some green tea. "He was in a bad mood," she offered abruptly. "What did he say?" "Anna da to omowanakatta," she replied with a troubled smile on her beautiful face. All these years later what I remember of this moment is hearing her words, a Japanese construction that was unfamiliar to me, and the process, as a feeling, of deciphering them. If I speak Japanese with fluency that is unusual in foreigners who acquired the language as adults, it is because I encountered and absorbed it bits and pieces, much as a child learns its native language, tied to distinct experiences in my life: "He didn't think (was surprised) that it was as much as that (between us!)." In other words, the man Kiyoko would marry shortly after she graduated had detected intimacy between us that bothered him. I don't think we said much more that evening; Kiyoko was distant with me, perhaps regretful. Not long after I returned to Tokyo she stopped visiting me at my apartment.

The next morning I rode the train further west, through Kyoto and Osaka and Kobe and past Kurashiki all the way to Hiroshima. As the conductor announced the station over the loudspeaker in the nasal twang affected by every Japanese train man, "Hirooo-shima, Hirooo-shima de gozaimasu," I felt my cheeks burn. I looked around to see if other passengers were observing me; I seemed to be the only foreigner on the train. In the city we had melted with a single bomb, I felt ashamed.

My destination was the provincial town of Yanai, two hours southwest of Hiroshima above the Inland Sea. The youngest player in the cast, a first-year student who had been assigned a bit part as the Sea Captain, had invited me home to visit her family. At nineteen, Kazuko Denda was unabashed, an exuberant child who hid nothing she was feeling and reached eagerly for what she wanted. She met me at the station with three of her friends from high school and took me home to her mother's house. Her parents were separated. Her mother ran a milk-delivery business; her father was mayor of Yanai. He picked me up that evening and took me out on the town. We were the focus of attention everywhere we went; when he indicated with a wave of his hand which girls were to sit on either side of me -- he designated the prettiest -- he introduced me proudly as his daughter's sensei from America. The girls kept our glasses filled from his personal store of Scotch whiskey, and inevitably the banter edged into lewdness. The girls had heard that foreigners were huge and covered in hair; I wasn't asked to confirm the rumors about size, but more than once that night I complied with requests to unbutton my shirt to allow inquisitive hands to play with the hair on my chest. I was at first uncomfortable to be carousing with Kazuko's father. But he appeared to be having a grand time showing me off, and as the evening got drunker and he began disporting himself as if I weren't there, I relaxed and indulged in some carrying on of my own.

Mid-morning the next day Kazuko woke me and announced that she and I were taking a bus into the mountains at noon to visit her grandmother. I had no memory of coming back the night before, but I supposed from my headache that my return had been late and drunken and probably noisy. Kazuko didn't say a word; whatever her father had chosen to do with me was not something to be questioned.

The bus wound its way past terraced slopes planted with tea into the mountains that rose steeply to the north of Yanai; the Inland Sea below us was a sparkling turquoise inlaid with clusters of small islands. The trip took hours: the light was failing when we arrived at the village of Hizumi, a bus stop in the middle of rice paddies on a plateau. We walked for half an hour on dirt paths that zigzagged across a checkerboard of flooded paddies to a small house with a thatched roof surrounded by a bamboo grove in the middle of nowhere.

The door was opened by an old woman bent almost double, Kazuko's grandmother, who lived alone in the house where Kazuko's father had been born. She smiled at us but didn't speak; Kazuko explained that she was deaf. A low table in the central room was already laid with a simple meal. As we ate, Grandmother shuffled off to the kitchen and returned with two bowls of tamago-zake, a toddy of raw eggs folded into clouded sake brewed from rice dregs. The drink brought an instant flush to Kazuko's cheeks. I wondered if the old woman was a witch who was casting a spell on us. She watched us drink, nodding with pleasure, and when our bowls were empty she disappeared into the back of the house. Grandma had already started a fire beneath the tub, and Kazuko insisted I bathe first. I put my clothes in a basket and lowered myself gingerly into the steaming water. When I stepped out, my clothes had been replaced with a yukata that barely reached to my knees and a cotton sash. In the main room, Kazuko had unrolled two sleeping mattresses side by side on the tatami-mat floor and was covering them with quilted bedding. I hadn't thought about sleeping arrangements, but I hadn't expected this; I don't think I knew at the time that sleeping in the same room, zakone in Japanese, was a common occurrence, especially when on a trip. Kazuko left the room to take her bath; I lay down on the futon and stared up at the rafters in the ceiling with my head on the uncomfortable sandbag that is the Japanese version of a pillow. Kazuko emerged from the bathroom in a cotton yukata of her own, her bare arms and face flushed from the hot water. She lay down on the mattress a foot away from mine and wished me good night; in the morning she would take me on a walk to see the first wildflowers of spring. The only light in the shadowed room came from a single lantern in the corner. A wind had risen and was whistling through the bamboo outside. Her deaf grandmother was sleeping at the back of the house. The sake was buzzing in my brain. I closed my eyes and willed myself to sleep.

Copyright © 2008 by John Nathan

Table of Contents



One -- If Music Be the Food of Love, Pray (sic) On

Two -- Mayumi

Three -- Yukio Mishima

Four -- Kenzaburo Oe

Five -- The Theater of Tears

Six -- Home Again

Seven -- Summer Soldiers

Eight -- Full Moon Lunch

Nine -- Unraveling


Ten -- A More Jewish Neighborhood

Eleven -- Mercantile Years

Twelve -- Stockholm

Thirteen -- Familiar Roads

Fourteen -- Detachment


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