A little over 2 months ago I submitted the following piece for the JET Essay Contest. I worked very hard writing this piece and even though it was not selected, it was this essay that lit a fire under me and got me started writing. I hope you all enjoy it more than the critcs did. I've retrofitted with links for your pleasure.
Ever thought you knew everything about something only to discover that what you knew wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t completely right? Like knowing about something but not recognizing it right in front of your face. As if everything you learned was just theory? I know this feeling because I operate out of it daily on the JET Program. Everyday the reality of living and working in a Japanese community erodes my tidy preconceived notions of “Japan,” and, some days, obliterates them like a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon. Reality is messy. Here’s a messy JET Program story involving one of my students, a Buddhist priest, and a squirmy poodle. It was one of the most unusual days of my life, and like most unusual days, it started out usual enough…
Saturday means lunch at Nonkiya, the best family run noodle shop in Washimiya. I always order the same thing, so when the shopkeep asks for my order I just smile and nod. Well it was a day like that, one of those “everydays” that start happening when you get used to a place and a place gets used to you. A day set on auto-pilot where everything glides on the rails of routine. Even the shy whispering of my name by a junior high girl seemed natural enough.
I turned to the table on my right finding a happy, well kept family hunched over their noodles, whispering to each other as they peaked at me. Behind my “konnichiwa” I frantically flipped through my mental filing cabinet searching desperately for the girl’s name, grade level, even her school’s name, anything. I’ve never not known so many people before. Teaching every student age fifteen and under in town has that effect. Just wing it…again.
We chatted across the tatami isle throughout lunch and the father, a large beast of a man, picked up my tab as we left. Once outside he began showing off his brand spanking new lightning silver Mercedes Benz. The family invited me home with them and soon I was cruising shotgun through the eastside of town, which, in my town, is the nice side. Curious, I asked the father what he did for a living; I expected the usual Tokyo salary-man scenario, home for the weekend making up for lost time with the family. However, his occupation surprised me; turns out he’s a Buddhist priest. I didn’t know Buddhist priests made that kind of money, but one squeeze of the plush leather seat assured me that Buddha meant business, and business was good.
I couldn’t believe it, I was rollin’ in a Benz with a Buddhist priest; I’d never met one of those before, and it might have been my first time in a Mercedes too. I had a lot of questions for him. He probably wasn’t expecting to bring home a guy interested in Buddhism, much less one packed full of theories and ideas about his job and religion. One of my reasons for coming to Japan was the chance to study and practice Buddhism with a real Japanese master, just like the ones I read about in school.
My curiosity about Buddhism and Japan began during graduate school and I can’t say which interested me first. It was a package deal. At that time I was just beginning my obsession with all things Japanese. I must’ve watched Lost in Translation a hundred times and Kill Bill vol. 1 a thousand times, especially the part set in Hatori Hanzo’s sushi bar. I started reading Japanese philosophy in English translation. In no time I was talking Zen and filling my conversations with cool sounding Japanese words. I offered an “eastern” perspective on the topics under discussion; pretty sketchy considering the closest I had been to Japan at that point was Las Vegas, Nevada.
I learned about the JET Program shortly after my Japan kick began. As usual, I was sitting on the porch of my graduate school apartment, losing a game of chess and pontificating on matters of theology and geometry with my friends. However, this day was different because a new classmate named Nezha told me about the JET Program after hearing me throw a Zen twist into the discussion. Nezha will always be a special person to me and to Japan. She came to Japan as a member of the founding class of ALTs, the Class of ’87. She was a team teaching trailblazer, helping Japanese students learn English while I was still struggling with compound words like, well, “trailblazer.” I’ll always be grateful to Nezha because without her I wouldn’t be pulling into the Priest’s driveway as a member of the JET Class of ‘06.
I hadn’t even taken my shoes off when I met Cha-in, the family’s hyperkinetic poodle. What a mess. Like a gnarly gray and white ball of yarn with a mouth. It would be thirty minutes before the little thing quit yapping, though it never did stop fidgeting. Like most little dogs it perpetually quivered.
“What a nice house,” I said, and it was a nice house. It was new and surprisingly spacious, the antithesis of most Japanese homes which feel more like paper mazes with furniture. The house felt American with its painted walls and open living room complete with sofa and love seat. When I told the family the place felt American they were thrilled. The whole family loves America and American things, but most especially they love Americans. They showed me the slide show from their family vacation to Los Angeles and were shocked to learn I had never set foot outside LAX Airport; as if every sane American dreams of being from or moving to L.A. Their pictures were interesting not because of their quality but because of their diverse contents: rental cars, fast food dinners, and hotel rooms. I’ve never taken pictures of any of those things, at least not while in America. During this time I started to piece together the girl’s identity; her name was Yuna.
After the slide show concluded and the family dispersed, I asked the Priest some questions about Buddhism and his job. When I asked about the Japanese philosophers I read in school silence ensued:
-Do you know Hakuin Ekaku? …No huh? ...
-Ekaku Hakuin then?
I thought I’d try changing the names around, that always works with Ken Watanabe’s.
-Still no? …got it…
It didn’t help at all.
-Maybe someone more recent, how about Nishitani Keiji? …Nothing… I see…
Sitting at 0 and 2 I brought out my heavy hitter,
-Ok, Ok, Nishida Kitaro, I know you’ve heard of him. He’s got a walk named after him in Kyoto and that’s important right?
The Priest paused, nodded, and curtly replied:
-I know him… He’s tough…um.
And that’s it. That’s all he said. All my studies in Japanese Buddhist philosophy boiled down to “he’s tough.” I already knew that. What had I been reading?
What I didn’t know is that the Buddhist priest job is a lot less enlightening than I imagined. Instead of meditating for days on end and writing “tough” philosophical treatises, he mainly performs funerals and tends the graves near the temple. The job can get a bit depressing. For the first time I learned that in Japan, Shinto celebrates life and Buddhism honors death, that’s why shrines never have graves and temples always do. We had just started talking about and death when the little cousins arrived, stirring the pooch and our spirits.
I asked the Priest if he would show me around the small family temple adjacent to the house. Surprised and thrilled by the request he sprang up ready to go. He said it was rare to meet a person my age so interested in Buddhism, much less one from America. Before we got out the door he lit a cigarette and out we went, Priest and daughters, little cousins, dog and all.
It’s funny seeing a little poodle running around in a hundred some odd year old temple, sniffing at everything and looking up at me with those quizzical little eyes. I returned his bewildered look; I suppose we were both confused at seeing each other in this holy space.
The dad kept his smoke going the whole time he showed me around the small hall, explaining the various scrolls and statues. Forget sandal wood or jasmine incenses, he burns tobacco. When he pointed to his grandfather’s picture hanging above the family altar I couldn’t see past the long ash dangling from the end of his cigarette, like a cindered serak ready to release at any moment. Noticing my distraction the priest didn’t extinguish the smoke; no, he just flicked the ash in the altar’s incense burner and kept on smoking. Apparently smoking in the Buddha hall isn’t a bad thing; in America he’d be damned.
Now between the perplexed poodle and the cigarette puffing Priest was the four year old nephew who started waling away on the wooden fish drum like John Bonham reincarnated. The girls punctuated his pandemonium on back up percussion, pounding out long sonic peels from the sitting bell and lush round whomps from the taiko. No one chanted. No one could think. I couldn’t hear the sound of one hand clapping if I tried. I was trapped in a Buddhist tornado, caught up in a sacred swirling of the mundane. The Priest bellowed laugher and smoke from his grinning jowl, the curly headed poodle stared at me with his black marble eyes, and the drumming ticked like a primordial time piece with a bent sprocket.
Amidst the chaos I pulled a fifty yen coin from my front pocket and cast it into the worn collection box. Mind bemused, my body prayed that day. A big Domo Arigatou went out to the Buddha that afternoon for giving me the opportunity to meet this interesting family.
Back in the house, with my head still ringing from the temple, I sat into the cushy couch and hung out with Yuna. Throughout the day I pieced together her identity, learning she was a third grade student at East Junior High. We talked about teachers and I helped her a little with her English homework. That didn’t last too long though because the Priest wanted to watch some TV while the mother made dinner. We all kicked back and relaxed, the poodle jumped in my lap, and the big screen lit up. I was at a loss for a moment; I couldn’t believe whose mustache and scruffy mug I saw. It was none other than Jason Lee’s. Turns out the whole family loves ‘My Name is Earl.’ What? They really meant “all things American.” Earl represented America for them like Hatori Hanzo represented Japan for me.
Two Japanese-subtitled episodes later we moved from the sofas to the dinner table where mother had laid out a huge spread of food and drink. She called up a few friends and before long I was the center of conversation for ten. We ate, we drank, we communed. I didn’t get back home until eleven that evening; a half day after Yuna Ito and her gregarious family put an end to my usual day.
The Ito’s are a gracious, curious, and lively family to say the least. They broadened my image of Japanese people and I like to think I broadened their image of Americans. That day I didn’t meet a stoic Zen Master, I met a family with a loud poodle. Likewise, they met Justin, an American whose name isn’t Earl.
I came to Japan to meet people like the Ito’s and learn from them. And what did I learn? I learned volumes about what my textbooks never taught me or the movies ever showed me: I learned my knowledge about Japan and Buddhism belongs behind my real-life experience, not in front of it. It wasn’t until I quit asking questions based on my presumptions that I finally started learning something: Knowledge is valuable when it illuminates, not when it covers up.
There is a Zen saying to that effect that I’m starting to understand, “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see the beauty of the moon beyond.” The key is look past the finger, even if it’s holding a cigarette. Thank you Ito family for inviting me home and showing me a radiant piece of reality.
International exchange happens everywhere, while standing in front of a class or being sat on by a poodle, all it takes is the humility to look outside ourselves and the courage to see beyond what we think we know. For over twenty years the JET Program has smashed preconceptions and stereotypes obstructing the beauty of authentic international understanding.