Literature of the NonWestern World
Reading: Basho: 2108-34
Kojima Nobuo 2893-2919
Basho (The Banana Tree):
Basho is probably the most revered writer in Japanese
letters. The rest of the world knows little about Japan. The
very short haiku poems that the Japanese love are not easily intelligible
to us gaijin (non-Japanese), even when Basho provides a context
or background. Our text reports that Basho, "like a Zen monk . .
. shaved his head & donned the dark, drab garb of a cleric" when he
began his pilgrimage (2109). Basho describes his preparations
for the journey (The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel
Sketches. Trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa. Parenthetical page references
are to this edition):
I do not wear a single piece of metal on my belt [no weapons], nor do I carry anything but a sack on my shoulder. My head is clean shaven, & I have a string of beads in my hand. I am indeed dressed like a priest, but priest I am not, for the dust of the world still clings to me (54).
Practicing Zen Buddhist meditation under a roshi (Zen master) for 11 years (1673-84), Basho was obviously dedicated to Buddhist principles. You will recall that the basic principles are:
anicca: the recognition that everything changes, nothing stays the same. Being (or the universe) is a verb (a process) rather than a noun (or a thing). Every noun or shape is fleeting.Our text says: "It was Basho's gift to fuse the transitory & the eternal, both the moment observed & its greater significance. The crow landing on the branch of a withered tree is the 'now' of the poem; time's passing & loneliness [dukkha] are the universals" (2110). This is essentially a Buddhist outlook. The world is a process. Each perception is fleeting & consequently uniquely valuable. If you miss it, because you are not paying attention, it is gone forever. Events cannot persist, nor can they be repeated. When we recognize this, each perception can become poetically deep & sharp. If we discipline ourselves to focus on each immediate perception, attachment to abstract concepts & plans fades; dukkha is reduced. The fewer plans & hopes & expectations you have, the fewer disappointments. Basho's poetry never entirely overcomes the poignant sense of loss & inability to hold on to what we love. Basho remains a Buddhist pilgrim & never (in his poetry) arrives at final liberation, which could only be silent.
anatta: you are not exempt from the process of change. You have no permanent or eternal form, identity, ego, or soul. Each moment the dynamic processes of life "reincarnate" you. Nothing but habits persists from one moment to the next.
dukkha: life is disappointing & painful, because we stubbornly deny or ignore the previous 2 truths. We believe that our ego is stable & that it can possess the things of the world (other people, money, prestige, moral rectitude, etc.). When we fail to control both ourselves & the objects of consciousness, we are disappointed & suffer.
When Basho says:
p.2112 I myself fell prey to wanderlust some years ago, desiring nothing better than to be a vagrant cloud scudding before the wind.
There is more to his hope than simply thinking about a vacation or retiring. In the preface to his translations of Basho's works, Yuasa says "that few people, if any, thought of taking to the road merely for pleasure or pastime" (29). Basho takes to the road as both a Buddhist pilgrimage & as a discipline designed to reduce or cut off attachment to home, friends, & habits. Buddhist monks were often called "cloud & water" monks, implying that they should be as free & unattached as clouds in the sky or as water running down a mountain side. Basho clearly has attachments:
Transitory though I know this world to be, I shed tears when I came to the parting of the ways:
birds lament & fishes too
have tears in their eyes.
Fish with tears in their eyes! (A little
more than a century earlier in France, Rabelais describes a drought in
which "the luckless fishes, abandoned by their element, crawled on solid
earth, crying & screaming most horribly"! Screaming fishes!)
The journey of life, symbolized by the pilgrimage to "the interior," should
cure us Buddhists of our attachments. How can Basho maintain a house
(which is almost always a symbol for the rooms of one's identity or personality),
after he has left it to embark on his journey? Through the journey,
Basho, who has cast off all of his other possessions, can, perhaps, cast
off his habits & the ego that those habits create. The only thing
he can take with him is a mind ready to receive new perceptions.
Long rain of May,
The whole world is
A single sheet of paper
Under the clouds.
This is not Basho's haiku, but it serves to express
something of his outlook or what he expected to find in making the long,
dangerous, & arduous journey to "the deep north"; a journey he did
not expect to survive. The journey took 2 & 1/2 years to complete
(36). As a Buddhist poet, Basho had a double reason to hope for fresh,
new, & poignant perceptions. Zen Buddhism is especially critical
of habit & abstract thought, specifying various techniques to replace
these with fully conscious attention to immediate perceptions, primarily
to perceptions of nature. When those perceptions are of something
you have never before experienced, & when they are also experienced
in a somewhat dangerous context, they should be vividly powerful &
perhaps evocative of poetry; something new to write on that single sheet
of paper that covers the sky. Basho wrote a similar haiku:
Long rain of May,
I saw on the clay wall
A square mark of writing paper
Torn recently off.
Like almost all Japanese haiku this poem illustrates sabi (loneliness), which is a synonym for dukkha. The poet has endured days of "long" rain, perhaps cooped up in a dark & damp thatch inn, unable to travel because of the mud. He is lonely & cannot even write letters, finding in this rude room only a "mark of writing paper." The paper makes a "mark" on the clay wall, suggesting how out of place or hopeless it is to escape the world of rain & clay by dreaming in ink, i.e., by writing. For writing tears us away from immediate perceptions. Through writing we hope to hold on to memories of perceptions, to capture them, to possess them so that they don't wash away with the constant rain that falls like the tick of the clock.
Here is what Basho had to say about sabi:
Sabi is in the colour of a poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing a stout armour or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, & if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that. It is in the poem regardless of the scene it describes -- whether it is lonely or gay. In the following poem, for example, I find a great deal of sabi.
Under the cherry
Flower guards have assembled
Their hoary heads together (42).
What is so lonely in the images offered by the
poem? Not being Buddhists, we are not on the lookout for Buddhist
principles, primarily to indications of the passage of time that dissolves
everything we wish to hold on to. So one of the two key images in
this haiku is "hoary heads." "Hoary" means white, implying that the
guards are old men; so old that they can do nothing more robust than guard
the fragile cherry blossoms, which will quickly fall from the trees.
Even if they are not old -- perhaps the cherry blossoms have covered their
hair to make the men look old -- the point is still the same: time
The cherry blossoms offer the second key image. Like so many images in Japanese poetry, they are only immediately meaningful to Japanese -- to those who know what cherry blossoms mean in Japanese cultural life. They mean many things, but primarily they illustrate that beauty is fleeting & must be appreciated "now" before it is too late. This, however, is too abstract. The Japanese always prefer a concrete illustration. I can offer an approximation. I recall being in Tokyo in April when black clouds & spring rain threaten in the evening. Hundreds of people assemble in the royal cherry orchard to see a kind of performance. By the way, they are all drinking lots of saki in a party atmosphere. The spring wind blows & a million cherry blossoms fill the air looking like nothing so much as a fragrant blizzard. The pink & white snow flake blossoms are framed against a black sky. Unlike a true blizzard, the wind is balmy, the storm is perfumed. It is a great experience. The saki & party atmosphere help create something like a play or musical performance. But the "actors" are nature itself: primal reality. Japanese Buddhist culture creates something like a picture frame, but the Japanese would insist that the picture is stark reality. & what is that reality? Temporality & beauty. Nature (life) is process; it is dynamic. You cannot hold on to it or control it. The best response or orientation is aesthetic appreciation. Life is to be appreciated. In order to appreciate it, you have to be attentive in a way that almost no Western is attentive. Your mind cannot be occupied with plans for the future, regrets for the past, a daydream, or just a spacy nonaware state. The cherry blossom blizzard lasts only a night, if you are lucky & the wind puts on the show at exactly the time when the blossoms are about to fall. See how these haikus by Basho are similar, being focused on a sharp & distinctive perception:
The voice of a cuckoo
Dropped to the lake
Where it lay floating
On the surface.
We can almost perceive the echo of the sharp call in the still woods & see the sheet of still water (which symbolizes the mind). The call is so piercing & arresting that it seems "heavy" enough to drop like rock. Then it floats or echoes, not so much on the literal water, but in our minds, which is commonly associated with water in (Buddhist) Chinese & Japanese poetry.
In audacious quickness
The spring sun rose
Over a mountain-path,
Sweet scent of the plum.
The images here all contribute to a sense of speed & suddenness. The sun rises quickly & suddenly the poet smells the scent of spring plum blossoms. If we demand that the poem state an idea, it is the sudden recognition of new life in the feel of the sun, the slant of the light, the warmth of sunlight on your face, & most of all in the smell of the plum blossoms that hint at the plum wine that will be made in the autumn.
Though Basho is committed to Buddhism, I hope
you noticed that he could easily quote passages from Confucius' Analects,
saying about a peasant he met:
2113 he was indeed a man of stubborn integrity, devoid of shrewdness & calculation.
He was one of those, "firm, resolute, simple, & modest, who are near virtue."
Basho & his friend find the site of an old
hermitage where a monk had once inscribed a poem on a rock. The poem
offers a Buddhist sermon about attachment:
Ah, how I detest
building any shelter at all,
even a grass-thatched
hovel less than five feet square!
Were it not for the rainstorms . . . .
Here is a slightly
This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain (104).
Here & throughout his journey, Basho finds
neglect. People have nearly forgotten the past & the wild growth
of the wilderness has all but erased whatever temporary human marks were
made on the land. This is not simply historical. This parallels
the Buddhist diagnosis of what is wrong with human nature. We are
heedless or unfocused. Consequently the weeds of random thoughts
& dreams spring up like kudzu to create a kind of wild jungle in our
minds. The nearly lost memorials that Basho hunts are symbols for
Buddhist Dharma that seems to be nearly forgotten. Our text
does not contain this haiku of Basho's, which might caption many of the
religious historical sites on his journey:
The weedy grass
Called reminiscence [a weed, shinobu]
Reminiscent of the bygone days
In front of the Mausoleum
Who does the mausoleum contain? No one;
anyone. Names & conceptions & emotions are all smoke.
The grass erases the record of historic events. The remaining culture
& standard of living are almost unendurable:
2118 The hostelry turned out to be a wretched hovel, its straw mats spread over dirt floors. In the absence of a lamp, we prepared our beds & stretched out by the light from a fire-pit. . . . Rain fell in torrents. What with the roof leaking right over my head & the fleas & mosquitoes biting, I got no sleep at all. To make matters worse, my old complaint flared up [stomach aches & hemorrhoids], causing me such agony that I almost fainted.
The point is to suggest that the human culture we are so committed to is ramshackle & shoddy. Rather than complain, much less turn back, Basho reflected:
But I told myself that I had deliberately planned this long pilgrimage to remote areas, a decision that meant renouncing worldly concerns & facing the fact of life's uncertainty.
Returning to his major theme, Basho says:
Although we hear about many places celebrated in verse since antiquity, most of them have vanished with the passing of time. Mountains have crumbled, rivers have entered unaccustomed channels, roads have followed new routes . . .
Basho manages to find a monument from a thousand years earlier, but fails to explain anything about it. The major impression is that:
it was nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients" (113).
One nearly lost & uninterpreted monument does not illustrate that the works of man are eternal, but the reverse. Time & change erode every mark. Why be so attached to works that are doomed to be forgotten, even if they manage to rise above the lice ridden thatch hovels that serve as houses & inns? Why spend your life to build a mausoleum without a name or meaning?
In another work, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, Basho explains the detached attitude he hopes to cultivate through both poetry & travel:
Since I had nowhere
permanent to stay, I had no interest whatever in keeping treasures, &
since I was empty-handed, I had no fear of being robbed on the way.
I walked at full ease . . . & filled my hungry stomach with coarse
food . . . . I bent my steps in whatever direction I wished, having
no itinerary to follow.
Every turn of the road brought me new thoughts & every sunrise gave me fresh emotions (85).
Basho found fresh perceptions, but the cost was
great. The accommodations are miserable:
2124 The wind howled & the rain poured for 3 days, trapping us in those miserable hills.
The fleas & the lice--
& next to my pillow,
a pissing horse
2129 That night I drew up a pillow & lay down to sleep, exhausted after having traversed the most difficult stretches of road in all the north country--places with names like "Children Forget Parents," [apparently they get lost], "Parents Forget Children," "Dogs Go Back," & "Horses Sent Back."
In another work Basho
suggests how hard it is to escape or overlook the mundane cares of this
Shed of everything else,
I still have some lice
I picked up on the road --
Crawling on my summer robes (64).
Near the end of his work, Basho confesses to still
feeling sabi or dukkha:
2134 As we drank tea & warmed wine at the temple, I struggled to control feelings evoked by the loneliness of the evening.
Ah, what loneliness!
More desolate than Suma [a place of exile]
this beach in autumn.
Between wave & wave:
mixed with small shells, the remains
of bush-clover bloom.
Here is a slightly different translation:
I was overwhelmed by the loneliness of the evening scene.
Lonelier I thought
Than the Suma beach --
The closing of autumn
On the sea before me.
Mingled with tiny shells
I saw scattered petals
Rolling with the waves.
Our text informs us that Suma was a place of exile, meaning that it was boring & nothing ever happened there. The other 2 ideas are just what we would expect from Basho: broken & eroded structures swallowed up by the sea of time. Autumn is closing, meaning that the blank snow of winter will cover all the autumn colors. The small shells are the dead remains of marine life. The last flowers of autumn have fallen apart, their petals rolling on the waves, suggesting how we as individuals (like each petal) roll on the immense surface of time. The languid motion of the waves further suggests entropy or that every effort in this world is doomed to be washed out to sea, dissolved, lost.
Basho does not end
on this recognition of dukkha. His last poem indicates that his
pilgrimage & effort at enlightenment is life-long. The shrine
at Ise is the holiest Shinto shrine in Japan; something like Mecca to Muslims.
Notice that Basho uses the same images as in the previous poem: the shells
& autumn. Even though this poem has sabi, there is also
a tone of renewal & hope
2134 Despite my travel fatigue, I set out again . . . to witness the relocation of the Ise sanctuaries.
Off to Futami,
loath to part as clam from shell
in waning autumn.
A different translation
of this final poem changes the balance to accentuate sabi.
Clams are so hard to open. We might say that their greatest dedication
(or the only obsessive thought they have) is to keep the two halves of
their world together. Ultimately it is impossible. They die
& the 2 halves fall apart. Basho suggests that he similarly desires
to stay together with his friends, but like the clam, cannot. The
road that he takes is not just the physical road to Futami, but the road
of life that separates us from friends, family, & whatever else we
are attached to.
As firmly cemented clam-shells
Fall apart in autumn,
So I must take to the road again,
Farewell my friends.
Basho not only survived
this trip, on his return home (remember that he had sold his house) he
embarked on a similar trip to the south. Reaching Osaka, he fell
ill with dysentery, writing:
Seized with a disease
Halfway on the road,
My dreams keep revolving
Round the withered moor (47).
Basho's dreams ceased a few days later on 12 Oct. 1694 when he died.
* * *
Kojima Nobuo: "The American School":
Writing about the American occupation of Japan after World War 2, Kojima seems to have little in common with Basho. He does not proselytize for Buddhism. Basho wrote for his fellow Japanese & never considered a Western audience. Kojima's topic is the clash of values between East & West. Even if he does not address Westerners, his topic is how Western values have affected Japan. Consequently, we feel invited to see what the Japanese make of our American culture. The Japanese do not understand the Americans. The Americans do not understand the Japanese. In addition, the Americans are smug. They won the war & feel no pressure to examine their cultural habits, which produced victory. In contrast, the Japanese lost the war & consequently feel that something must have failed in their cultural practices. Some Japanese attempt to imitate the successful Americans. Naturally it is comic, because they have only a fractured & incomplete understanding of American culture. The major characters are Japanese teachers of English. So they are all committed, to some degree, to comprehending, if not practicing, American cultural practices. Our editor tells us that "Yamada is pathetic & dangerous because he stands for nothing except catering to those in power," who are Americans. "When they speak English, those who don't mind toadying enter a twilight zone of colonialism & opportunity. Their obsequious actions" are distanced by speaking in a foreign language. Somehow, what is said in English fails to connect or to be "owned" by the Japanese ego. Isa is the exception, finding his colleagues contemptible for suspending their Japanese honor. "They cease . . . in Isa's eyes, to be Japanese. Yet, of course, they can never be American. Neither fish nor fowl, they let English transport them to an unreal world of license where they humiliate themselves without feeling any shame" (2895).
This is the first
modern era story we have examined. Much of the writing in the nonWestern
world of the late 19th c. & the 20th c. could be collected under
the title of postcolonial literature. You can easily infer
from that title that a common theme in all parts of the nonWestern world
was the illustration of what European colonialism meant in the writer's
experience & to his culture. The most detailed illustration will
be offered by the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe in his novel, Things
Fall Apart, which we will study. Because of the colonial situation,
little things that might be considered insignificant in one culture are
interpreted in another culture to be very significant. Consider the
opening paragraph. The Japanese teachers have assembled & are
kept waiting before embarking on an excursion to "the American school,"
for the purpose of learning how to teach English.
2896 There was one woman among them. She had apparently gone to some trouble to dress for the occasion; but her high heels, hat, & new plaid suit only made her look more sad & shabby."
Why? Because these are not natural in her culture. They are the clothes of the victor that the woman wears in order to survive. Most of the English teachers arrive 20 minutes early. They are waiting for Shibamoto, but this gesture of respect would be lost on the Americans. When I taught at the University of Tokyo, my Japanese colleagues, who were full professors, kept their classes waiting exactly 20 minutes. If you knew your professor wasn't going to show up until 20 minutes after the hour, when would you come to class? I expect that you would quickly accommodate to arrive when the professor did. This would not do in Japan. You would be guilty of showing a lack of respect & may be booted out of the class, because you had failed to ritually express your interest in the class, but more so, you would be perceived to have failed to express your gratitude toward the august professor who is apparently doing you a big favor by showing up to say anything. Of course we are familiar with the notion that big shots can keep us waiting & probably do so intentionally to heighten the effect of their presentation. When is the last time your physician saw you on time? What we are unfamiliar with is that in Japan this is a cultural ritual or routine. So the Japanese in the story have made at least 2 gestures of respect to honor the Americans (wearing the foreign clothes & arriving early). Naturally they are resentful when the Americans do not even recognize the respect they have been offered.
The theme of defeat
& compliance continues with Shibamoto, the leader, giving orders:
2897 We must all present a neat appearance, whatever the cost.
Our text told us that "over 30% of the Japanese people had lost their homes" in the war. So this is more than a question of attitude. Did you catch the meaning of the sentence on this page?
There was scarcely another pair of leather shoes in sight.
Shibamoto has Western shoes & everyone else is wearing sandals or cloth shoes. Shoes are the most prominent symbol of capitulation, suggesting a willingness to "walk the Western path." Naturally Shibamoto wears leather shoes. Michiko's crisis at the end of the story occurs because she is unsuccessful in balancing on Western high heel shoes. Isa's blistered feet & his preference to walk barefoot rather than wear Western shoes is an obvious symbol of his unwillingness to abandon Japanese culture to imitate Western behavior. Shibamoto continues:
Any sloppiness would reflect on the profession. Worst of all, it would raise
serious doubts about our competence to teach English. They despise us
as a defeated people to begin with.
We recognize that Shibamoto is wrong on both counts. Does your professor grade you on what you wear? Or make judgments about what you know & can do based on your wardrobe? I hope not. We undoubtedly have expectations about what to wear to a job interview, but being well dressed will not get you the job. Once again, in Japan you do not dress to suit your own interests, but to consciously conform to a superior's expectations. Many American service personnel must have hated the Japanese in 1945, because they had lost friends & loved ones in the war. But it would never occur to an American to be contemptuous of the Japanese because they had surrendered instead of honorably dying to the last person, which is exactly what Shibamoto suggests. We thought exactly the opposite, viz., that it was mad or at least inexplicable to prefer death to surrender.
Above all, Shibamoto
tells the teachers:
They should avoid speaking Japanese in front of their hosts.
in order to suggest their fullest capitulation & compliance.
The narrator relates
Isa's disastrous first experience with an American. Getting into
an Army jeep, Isa tells the African-American solider:
I am truly very sorry to have kept you waiting.
It is nearly inconceivable
that Isa had kept the soldier waiting. Isa offers a gesture of respect
to the man. Every Japanese would understand the intent here: to suggest
deference & to ritually recognize the other person as superior.
Moreover, the objective reality is the opposite. The solider is mere
courier & driver whose duty it is to bring Isa for the vital task of
translation. Clearly Isa is superior to the driver. For whatever
reasons, the American is oblivious:
The soldier only stared at him coldly & uncomprehendingly.
You may wonder why
Isa became an English teacher, since he is hostile to all things American.
The narrator doesn't tell us Isa's motives, but does say that:
He had never had a single conversation in English; occasional attempts at practical
application of the language in the classroom had left him tingling with embarrassment
This is common in Japan, where English is taught from junior high through high school graduation. Despite years of study, very few Japanese even conceive of English as a medium of communication. I studied Latin for several years. Could I converse in it? Like the Japanese with English, the idea never really entered my head. If it did, who would I talk to? Most Japanese, before 1945 were in a similar circumstance. There were virtually no Westerners in Japan that one might talk to.
So Isa ignominiously
ran away from the driver, hiding in the woods:
2898 He called out to him in Japanese: "You'll have to speak our language. Speak Japanese
or else! What would you do if someone really said that to you?"
Do you see the humor or irony in this scene? Isa feels that his very survival depends on forfeiting his culture & his identity in his native culture. He seems compelled to speak a foreign language & to become some foreign type, even in his familiar Japan. He never recognizes that the black soldier is an African-American & what that implies. It implies that the man's ancestors were put into a similar situation. Enslaved in Africa & deported to the Caribbean or possibly sent directly to America, the man was compelled to learn a new language, a new culture, & assume a new identity or perish. Instead of perceiving someone who might comprehend his plight, Isa sees only an American, an olive green military uniform.
to fawn & ingratiate himself:
Whenever a jeep pulled up he would bustle over to explain the situation, stiffly.
"We are very devoted to the English language. We work very hard to teach the
English. We are now utilizing the latest methods of instruction, just like you have
in your country."
Of course this makes
no sense. Learning English as their native language, Americans have
no need of "the latest methods of instruction," which are only appropriate
in learning a second language as an adult. Interestingly, an American
offers a gesture of friendship to Yamada, offering him a cigarette.
Yamada fails to comprehend the cultural gesture, provoking the solider
2899 up his hands in disgust. "I am truly very sorry to have kept you waiting," he said,
& drove off. Yamada did not know what to make of this parting remark. The American
had perhaps been mocking Japanese officials.
Of course we know
that Yamada has it all wrong. We Americans would tell him to relax
at exactly the times when his Japanese culture tells Yamada to be most
formal & official. Thus Yamada worries:
We'll be disgraced. "What can you expect from a defeated people?" they'll say.
No American would
imagine that, nor imagine that:
Isa had been up since 3 am, riding his bicycle to the nearest station, then taking a combination of streetcars & trains.
When Shibamoto shows
up, the teachers are told to walk 4 miles to the American school.
Shibamoto tells them:
2900 You mustn't look so straggly -- there are Occupation personnel all around you.
A car stops &
a soldier challenges them. When Michiko, the only female teacher,
tells him in English what they are doing, the soldier responds:
"Well, you're pretty damn good, I'd say." The soldier thrust some cans of cheese in her hands & drove off.
Michiko silently slips one of the cans into Isa's pocket, causing him to reflect:
2900-01 Living in an era when true goodwill was translated into gifts of food, he was naturally pleased & flattered.
Do you think that Michiko was similarly pleased by the American's gesture? Of course not. Why not? The solider is rude, failing to offer the slightest sign of respect, even when he discovers that these are teachers. Even when he means to complement her command of English, the rude choice of words -- "damn good" -- undercuts the effect. Much the same thing happens with the food, which is not politely offered as a gift, but "thrust" into her surprised hands. The car then drives off before giving her an opportunity to thank her benefactor. We Americans tacitly understand the soldier's motives: he does not want his minor act of charity to humiliate the recipient. His gruff talk is intended to be an invitation to comradeship, to cover over the gift by suggesting social equality. At a meeting of strangers like this, such casual informality is unthinkable in Japan. When Michiko accepts the food, the only polite thing for the American to do is to allow her to "save face" by formally expressing her gratitude. Japanese & American cultural values & practices are entirely at odds in this scene.
Isa's feet blister
from the unaccustomed American shoes. But:
2902 No matter how dire his need, the very thought or riding next to a foreigner again made him sick.
Isa is nauseated, not only by the prospect of casual conversation in English, but -- recalling the symbolism of the shoes for "walking the Western path" -- of an even more accelerated involvement in Western culture.
2903 Yamada's ears perked up at the mention of Occupation personnel. He was intensely interested
in every kind of contact with the Americans . . . . He had a consuming ambition to study abroad,
to which end he schemed & fretted the livelong day.
The opportunity this
time is to ingratiate himself to Shibamoto in order to teach English in
the city, where Shibamoto has power, because he of "cooperation from
the Americans." More black humor. In order to ingratiate himself
to Shibamoto, Yamada brags about executing American prisoners of war:
2903 This might not be the time to mention it, but when I was in OTS I got to whet my blade a bit, if you know what I mean.
Yamada says he has cut 20 heads off:
2904 "Half of them must've been POWs."
"How did they compare with the Chinese?"
"Well, there's quite a difference in how they take it. When you come right down to it,
they show their lack of what you might call Oriental philosophy."
Ironically, Yamada figuratively offers to sell his head to the American conquers.
The execution theme
continues with the black solider aiming a pistol at Isa, commanding him
to speak -- i.e. to abandon "Oriental philosophy" or culture & embrace
Western practices. More cultural miscommunication:
2907 On their first encounter the Negro had mistaken Isa's cowed silence for sullen contempt, with overtones of a personal animus against himself [possibly from racial bias].
After the soldier
discovers that Isa is indeed a qualified English teacher:
He felt that his suspicions had been confirmed.
Even though the pistol is a toy, Isa is humiliated to be forced to repeat the deferential & ritual phrase: "I am truly very sorry to have kept you waiting." Symbolically, the American seems to be humiliating Isa, forcing him to apologize for not quickly enough embracing the culture of the victors.
Reaching the school
Isa sees American kids on the playground, concluding"
2908 that he & his colleagues were members of a pathetic race which had no place here.
The theme of the
story is explicitly stated:
It is foolish for Japanese to speak this language like foreigners. If they do, it makes them
foreigners, too. & that is a real disgrace.
He pictured clearly to himself the outlandish gestures that Yamada affected when he spoke
English. there was no dignity in talking just like a foreigner. But it was equally demeaning
to speak a foreign tongue like a Japanese.
2912 An American observer would not have found the compound remarkable, much less luxurious.
But the solid houses planted sparsely over the landscape . . . impressed the weary visitors
as a vignette of some heavenly dwelling place.
One of the teachers
What can we hope to learn from classes held in a place like this? The only lesson we'll leave with
is the one we've learned just getting here: we lost! These magnificent buildings that we're only
allowed to peek at -- they were built with our taxes. Doesn't it make you want to cry?
Ironically an American
apologizes for what he considers the school's defect, which is traceable
to Japanese influence.
2913 Since the school was to be built with Japanese funds, we had little choice but to go along with
the specifications given to us by some Japanese architects. The results, as you can see for
yourselves, were less than satisfactory. To begin with, the budget was barely 20% of what
would be considered normal back in the States.
The teachers must be envious of the Japanese employed
by the Americans:
2914 The lowest salary level at the school, the one for beginning instructressess, was still about ten
times the average wage of Japanese teachers
Among the unintended
lessons that the teachers learn is American informality & readiness
to display our emotions. Michiko says:
"Look at those two over there -- how disgusting."
Isa looked in the direction she had indicated & focused on 2 students who stood holding
hands in a corner of the corridor, their eyes closed in mutual infatuation.
"Why must I go through this humiliating ordeal?"
"What ordeal? You mean having to go barefoot before?"
"No. I mean having to look at all this beauty."
2915 With all their money & their fancy buildings, the children can't draw worth a damn.
He says this because each American drawing is a unique interpretation of a common theme. Naturally, a Japanese student would put all his effort into trying to exactly copy the original; just as an American student would feel that the challenge is to express something different, something personal.
A similar misunderstanding occurs when the Japanese
teachers confide to each other:
2916 You might almost say that our English is better than theirs . . . . Weren't you amazed
at all the mistakes in their grammar?
The Japanese necessarily speak a stilted, bookish, & grammatically cautious version of English, which they self-consciously monitor for grammatical correctness. Native speakers simply speak the language, checking only for cues to indicate that they are being understood. Of course it is nonsense to suggest that native speakers of a language are less qualified to speak the language than scholars who have memorized grammar rules.
The end of the story,
naturally, reaches for a kind of crisis of cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Isa is determined to do some kind of ludicrous violence to Yamada in order
to recover a modicum of national pride. Michiko attempts to surreptitiously
borrow Isa's chopsticks to eat lunch, as though they were some embarrassing
& contraband material smuggled into the American school. Isa
is already departing to attack Yamada when he offers them to her, causing
Michiko to lose her balance on the unfamiliar high heels:
2918 Her high heels slid out from under her, & with a piercing shriek that filled the corridor
she toppled over onto the floor. The bundle lay open where she had hurled it aside
in her fall, revealing a pair of black chopsticks.
Yamada lies, hoping
to put the best impression on things, saying that both teachers -- Isa
& Michiko -- had engaged in something of a battle for the honor of
being the demonstration teacher that day. Oblivious of any possible
insult, the American quips:
Ah yes. The old kamikaze spirit.
In something of a "tempest in a teapot" humor,
the American principal dashes Yamada's hopes by announcing:
2919 There are 2 things which I must strictly forbid . . . . The first is for any Japanese
instructor to conduct a class here . . . . Secondly, in the future high heels will not
be permitted on these premises.
Isa is left alone in the American school when
all the other Japanese instinctively follow their leader Yamada out the
door. Yamada flees the Americans. Isa doesn't. The final
irony is that Isa's pride & patriotism are much closer to American
values than the superficial & insincere sycophant behavior of Yamada,
which ultimately has no place in the American school.
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