Karen Tei Yamashita
As it turns out, I have no idea what my blood type is, but at this late date in my travels to Japan and also in my life, I'm about to find out. In the first place, apparently all real Japanese know their blood type. This is because it's determined at birth or sometime thereafter and written as a certification along with one's birth certificate. What the state believes to be vital information to decree birth turns out to be rather interesting in what this says about the state and about the consequences played out in society. For some reason, Brazilian birth certificates relay information about parentage and grand-parentage, tracing family ties even though being born in Brazil or to Brazilians finally makes you Brazilian. U.S. birth certificates stick to parents only, but my own certificate in 1951indicated the race of my American citizen parents as Japanese. This was three years after miscegenation laws were overturned in California and six years after the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. These days U.S. birth certificates come complete with the issuing of a social security number; no blood type however, but depending, if you work hard, you too could be President. Now the blood thing for the Japanese certificate may be critical because you become Japanese only if your folks are Japanese. Since this sort of Japanese citizen is slowly in extinction, it's been projected that in 500 years the Japanese population will be down to one Japanese. Never mind samurai, who will be the last Japanese? And what will her blood type be?
But I'm told, it is vital information: what if you're in an accident and suddenly you're in a hospital and need a transfusion? You've got to know your blood type. Just before you transpire into an unconscious state, you'll mumble to the ER folks the important puzzle to your human makeup.
I mentioned this new knowledge of mine to my son who jibed, "But they're all Japanese; don't they all have the same blood?" Not so! Among Japanese, there are four types: A, B, AB, and O. But the data on you doesn't stop there because, as my friends explained to me, your blood type determines your personality. Westerners who read their daily horoscopes assume that Asians are into that 12-year animal calendar that zaps you with the characteristics of tigers, rats, dogs, dragons, rabbits, etc. And you thought it was about the moon and the stars versus the sun. In fact, it's much more earthly; it's all about the blood. One young Japanese man said, and others agreed, that the question of blood type is maybe the third question you get asked on a date, after your name and your job. He says, if he can keep his date guessing about question #3 for at least three dates, he doing okay. So it is vital information.
So what about the A type personality? Well, this is the person who is personally fastidious, orderly, punctual, given to obsessive adherence to social regulations and legal intricacies. At this point, my son said, “But that's all of Japan! I rest my case.” But wait, there's B, and it's the opposite. You see these types all the time in Japanese movies and literature, but one does wonder about a complete opposite to A. It might be a soft opposite, considering that you might not have to diverge that much from personal fastidiousness to get pegged a B type. AB? A complex mixture of A and B, suffering from a kind of social schizophrenia, a wavering between the two extremes. And finally O. I confess I'm confused about O. Maybe O is the type who moves through the As and Bs, practicing a kind of avoidance or innocence or perhaps a chameleon effect, a mimic or a pretender. The roving O. O whatever.
Okay, I think I'm O, maybe. This is why. My friend Keijiro Suga and I were supposed to meet each other at the exit of the Modern Art Museum (MAM) in Roppongi Hills at 1:00 pm on Friday, July 23, and (this is the O factor) miraculously, I disappeared.
I was there at the appointed hour with my friend Asano standing casually near the exit/entrance. While waiting, Asano and I talked and wondered what had happened to Keijiro who never seemed to materialize. Asano went to the information desk to check that there was only one exit. I went to check out the new toilets, all of which are equipped with the most sophisticated Toto contraptions of bidet, sound of flushing, etal. I tried out everything, then spent some time drying my hands in the high-powered airflow machines that must be based on wind tunnels for sports cars and jets. That all this technology could be applied to my hands, not to mention ass, was wildly gratifying. This is the world of peace we’ve been trying so assiduously to achieve via capitalism.
Admittedly, I may have dawdled, but Asano was posted outside. Well, maybe you could have missed Asano because he's a real Japanese, and despite his scruffy graduate student look, his worn jeans, he blends in. Me, I was wearing black linen capri pants, a dated Chinese-collared white shirt with no sleeves, showing off my dark tan obtained while swimming daily on the beaches of Amami Oshima island. Unlike Japanese women who never seem to tan, I was several shades darker. So we must have figured that I'm a kind of foreign beacon, chattering away in corrupt Japanese, some English and some Portuguese. Who could miss the gaijin in our midst? After 40 minutes of waiting, we decided something had happened to Keijiro, abandoned our post and wandered around to find a restaurant that he might frequent. We figured the Homely Basara might be a lucky guess.
As it turns out, Keijiro had been at MAM's exit with his wife and daughter, all three of them looking for me, the beacon of foreignness. They too waited 40 minutes before abandoning their post, but I guess Homely Basara didn't do it for them. Considering the space within which our margin of error must have occurred, we might have been inches but not more than ten meters from each other. Or perhaps we occupied parallel worlds, hovering around the egress of modern art. Perhaps we passed each other several times, seeing without seeing, oblivious to the blur of similar human beings reproduced in our minds again and again and again -- the women with their bleached red shag cuts, the guys with their gel'd spiky do's. Perhaps we were preoccupied with observing sameness such that our own difference disappeared.
But then again, this might be proof of my O-ness, my camouflaging tendencies, my stealth capacities. Invisible I move through the As and Bs. I can hardly believe it; without really trying, I had at least momentarily become invisible in Japan.
Before Asano and I left our meeting place at MAM, I thought maybe we should leave a message at the front desk just in case Keijiro turned up later. We could leave a message saying we'd be at the Homely Basara restaurant; join us there. Asano made this request, and I watched the receptionist, dressed in the MAM uniform with matching hat. She was to my eyes absolutely lovely, beautiful in every way, perfect makeup, perfect hair, perfect smile, perfect, perfect. She was astonishingly like an advertisement. I watched her bow to Asano -- the scruffy graduate student-type, with all the gracious consideration one might have for the highest dignitary. She began her speech, "Moshiwake arimasen ga . . ." I translated everything in my head: It is unforgivable (a great shame even), I am so very sorry, but it is not possible.
Why? I wondered. Was it written somewhere? Was it about the consequences of holding a written note? Would she get fired? Could a note be a kind of weapon, a bomb, a spy device? Could the fear of terrorism have thwarted client services to such an extent? Or was she worried about the responsibility of having later to toss away such a note? Okay, she didn't need to hold a note; she could hold our message to Keijiro in her head, if he happened at all to come around and ask the random question. What was the job of a receptionist anyway? Maybe it just wasn't in her job description, and everything outside of that description was moshiwake nai, I am not programmed for that possibility. Most likely however she wondered why we had not been in contact by the miracle of cell phones, mapping out our coordinates until we had visual reception. Moshiwake nai, it was not her fault if we were in denial about the miracle of the silicon chip, the digital advancement of one's thumb on a miniature keyboard, and, moreover, technically challenged.
Arriving in Japan after a hiatus of maybe four years, my only visits being virtual and in the form of three movies: Lost in Translation, The Last Samurai, and A Japanese Story, the country seemed much as I had left it and certainly untouched by any film's representation. In fact, no Japanese I met had seen any of these movies purportedly about themselves. So much for Academy Award nominations, Tom Cruise, or remakes of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Japan was still its own island. The last time I arrived after a long absence in Japan, the most dramatic change I noticed was the proliferation of mini-mart convenience stores. The konbini was on every corner like a splitting cell gone wacko. It had replaced forever the tatami shops, the tofuya, the empitsuya, the fruitsu stand, the steamed bun boxes -- you name your nostalgia.
This time, not only had Toto gained favor in public bathrooms, but the cell phone as mini-camera/video recorder/internet messaging system had become queen or empress. And along with the keitai, I also had to notice a new species of women, a kind of manikin replicant of the beautiful moshiwake nai sort who denied my very wishes with unparalleled gracefulness. No, said the manikin replicant, again and again, you may not get special services, dispensations, or favors just because you are a foreigner, a tourist, or a valued customer. I, she said, am infallible, completely trained, and do not make mistakes. If JAL in the U.S. gave you the wrong information, moshiwake nai, but the cost of your ticket is actually twice as much, and you will have to pay the difference. Or moshiwake nai, but you are checked in as one guest only and although you are sharing your generous buffet breakfast (included with the cost of your room) with a child who can only eat a small bite of your portion, you will have to pay for a second meal. Granted my Japanese is pretty basic, and I am simply bowled away by all the extra syntax and elegant language spoken in those lilting tones that sound like Pacobel played on a koto, but I can't tell if this is the bureaucracy speaking or the empowerment of the working woman or if type A has indeed become the exquisite standard. How can I get mad? It's her job; she's programmed . . . no, she's trained, and she's really human, another woman, and deserves my respect and understanding. Still it's really weird. Maybe the stewardesses on Delta sound the same to the Japanese.
But then there's the practice of greeting and thanking you as you enter and leave any store. I predict that in another four years the automatic doors will have a voice programmed to yell irashaimasu! as your enter and arigatoogozaimashita! as you leave. Of course the automatic doors will know if you are entering or leaving. Presently in some stores, all the employees yell this out, the pronouncement echoing from worker to worker, none of whom bother turn their heads to see the incoming person or dog, reacting collectively with some kind of programmed sensor locked into their brains. Or, as I disembarked from the airplane after eight hours squished into a window seat in which I'd spilled red wine all over my white linen blouse and my contact lenses had become permanently glued to my eyes, there they were: greeters at every turn of the stairs or corridors bowing graciously and saying what I literally understood to mean: You are honorably tired and have arrived. You are honorably tired and have arrived. You are honorably tired and have arrived. You got that right, I wanted to answer, thanks for noticing, but took my tired/arrived cues from the others passengers who never acknowledge greeters. Maybe they are right; this human interaction business is only business, and these bowing beings were really trained karate guards blocking my escape from the Narita Airport's international transit center.
In the same vein, I also predict that machines will replace human cashiers. Sitting in an airport restaurant for a good hour reading and biding my time until my next plane, I could hear the clerk at the cash register interact with the paying customers. Systematically, she read their check out loud pronouncing the amount. She accepted the amount, pronounced the change, then thanked the customer. She did this over and over again without any variation excepting the price and the amount of change. There was never any small talk. Not even a mention of how cute the kid was or a flirtatious remark about a colorful tie or even if the food was satisfactory. Okay, it's democratic. She treated everyone exactly the same. Still, I think about all the joking and flirting and improprieties at the same cash register in a Brazilian restaurant, but who's complaining? I myself presented my check, paid my bill, got my change. Since there was no small talk, I was comfortably invisible. No inquisitive Brazilian prying. No subtle American scrutiny. I was international. I was post-race. I was O whatever, traveling in an A world.
To tell the truth, I suspect that I'm really an A type. I plan ahead. I'm given to detail. I pay my bills and taxes on time. I appreciate good grammar and punctuation. I have a system for arranging my books. But given a context, I might pass for the messy unpredictable oppositional B. For my travel reading, I brought Oliver Sacks's book, An Anthropologist on Mars, and suddenly everything made sense. In the normal world of Japan, I display tourettic responses, uncontrollable gestures and vocal blurtings. It's not my fault; my body/brain has been socialized that way. I'm lost. I'm a goof ball. I laugh too loudly. I want to respond to the animate inanimate. I want to touch. I'm too inquisitive. My inquisitiveness is somewhat obsessive. I fear the lost opportunity. My odd-ballness is an excuse to get different knowledge, an excuse to connect.
And yet, this is how I met an archeologist on Amami. Amami is an archipelago of islands at the northern end of the Ryukyus, once attached to the Satsuma clan who lorded over the production of the island's sugarcane. The people of Amami are culturally closer to the Okinawans, their history and creativity intertwined with a rich subtropical sea and coastal life of coral reefs within hundreds of village inlets. The archeologist on Amami, Nakayama Kiyomi, and I may or may not have the same blood type, but we were born in the same year of the rabbit. This means that the full rabbit in the mochi moon blessed our oppositional tendencies. As we traded stories about our lives since 1951, we realized that we were both anarchists on a rabbit moon.
Nakayama grew up in Amami, an island among islands. I grew up in a Japanese American neighborhood, another sort of island, on the greater island of L.A. Nakayama became inspired by the lecture and presence of the Amamian novelist Shimao Toshio who came to speak at his high school. I became inspired by the storytelling of Alex Haley, author of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and later Roots who came to speak at my college. Nakayama set off for Tokyo to continue his education, but became involved in the movement for farmers' rights, defending the farming village at Sanrizuka that would be displaced by the Narita International Airport. I, too, set off for Tokyo to study Japanese, but I became involved in the pursuit of my family history in Gifu and Nagano. Nakayama saw his political and moral sympathies tied to his roots in rural Amami. I saw my political and moral sympathies tied to my roots beyond the racism I felt embedded in American society. Around 1969, Nakayama joined the Zengakuren student movement. In 1969, I became involved in protesting the Vietnam War and also in what would become the Yellow Power /Asian American Movement. Nakayama took up archeology as a path to knowledge of the world. I have taken up anthropology and literature. So many years later, I am researching the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I know that the involvement of the Zengakuren and the Sanrizuka protests documented in films by Ogawa Shinsuke were seen by Asian Americans in the U.S. and were influential in creating international ties to student revolutionary movements around the world.
Similarly in 1969, my friend Betty Nobue Kano, had begun a graduate program in studio art at the University of California at Berkeley, but in that same year, she also became involved in radical politics and was one of the Asian American leaders of the Third World Liberation Front organized to found a Third World College for Asian, Black, Chicano, and Native American studies. Like Nakayama, she abandoned her studies to organize the strike and protests that eventually closed the university with the violent confrontation of students and police. I came to know Betty through her history with the movement, but strangely it was her ancestry tied to Amami that accompanied me to the islands. Invoking the names of her grandparents Kano and Inori, I felt an entryway, what the island people call tofuru - that slip of passage that connects life to death, the sacred space before the caves that house the bones of the dead. All along the shores, broken coral is swept up in broken bones that over the millenniums continue to be crushed to the finest white sand. Betty's father, Kano Toshio, left these beaches so many years ago, crossing his tofuru on another shore, never to return.
Speaking of these things, Nakayama and his friends commiserated over sugarcane shochu and Orion beer about the revolutionary past of our generation, about the failure of our generation to change the world as we had hoped. No doubt, we were passionate. Across the world many acted on principle siding with the small and weak against an unjust social structure, an established war machine. Many were arrested and jailed; some were tortured and killed. Our actions were and are still considered illegal; the repression that followed was complete. This story is a secret, to some an embarrassment, a reckless youth of great innocence. Survivors, we still believe in that rabbit moon, but we fear the consequences of revelation, of telling our children how we tried.
Nakayama admitted that, only a few months prior, his wife had tossed his helmet, his headband, and his stick into the trash -- the last physical reminders of his radical past. I said, but you are an archeologist; he nodded sadly understanding my meaning about the keeping and recovery of artifacts, but then perhaps someone in a future time with the same obsessive desire to know will sift through coral bones, speaking prayers into the tofuru, find his trash, decipher a story.
Black and white scenes from Ogawa's films fill the dark screen of the mind, contest the now eccentric, even picturesque, remains of a remodeled farmhouse walled off along the endless stretch of Narita's perfect tarmac. Documented over thirty years ago, Ogawa Productions witnesses the same land over a period of seven years when deep stretches of rice fields support the daily lives of farming families -- young and old, humble but adamant in fierce defense of their ancestral homes; they build towers, tunnels, and barricades to stop the construction of the airport. In the final battles, the women chain themselves to individual trees along the barricades. The blare of the broadcast system announces the call to arms against the arrival of hundreds of shielded riot police and paid airport thugs -- prancing troopers moving into position against villagers and their supporters armed with bamboo spears and stones. A student contingent of ten young men moves forward in a tactical huddle, but the camera fails to see the first to fall, trampled into the mud, his head beaten down again and again, pained eyes glistening between another kind of sacred space -- helmet and mask, youth and belief. You are honorably tired and have arrived. You are honorably tired and have arrived.
Asano and I studied the menu at the Homely Basara. I understood that the food should have been home cooking with the Kabuki extravagance of say, Sukeroku's SHIBARAKU! entrance, one of those hybrid AB moments, wildly at home. It was oyako donburi for me, and that could be Otafuku's in Gardena. Maybe the wild part was being there with Asano who updated me about his life since the turn of the millennium, travels in Brazil, his approaching fatherhood, and memories of our shared mentor, a Japanese-Brazilian immigrant from the 1920s, Walter Honma, whose passing we both mourned. Hearing Asano's stories, at every turn I might have wept or burst out laughing; skirting hilarity and deep sadness, our saudades filled that tofuru space. Walter had spoken of children not his own, but of those of us, itinerant students, who had bothered to make the long trip to Guaracai to his communal home at Shinsei-nojo to spend hours into the night to know something that his wisdom must surely speak to us. In the 70s I had spent weeks at a time to record the history of the people of the commune. In the 80s, another student Valeria had taken my place. And at the turn of the century, it was Asano. Walter had said, in what would be his last words to Asano, “Karen is my first daughter, Valeria is my second, and you are my last son.” In a communion over oyako, I pondered this meaning.
Rica and Lei are 9 and 4 going on 10 and 5 this year. They are bound together in a sister/brother tussle of love and antagonism that also marked my own children. Jane Tei and Jon would immediately recognize themselves in Rica and Lei, dependent and yet in character so different. Lei like Jon expansively stretched in a sweaty sleep on top of Rica, and Rica like Jane Tei mortified by the dribble of snot and saliva puddled in her lap.
In Amami, we visited a museum housing the art of local painter Tanaka Isson. Rica and Lei wandered through the rooms. Rica, fluent in English, acted as my guide and interpreter. She showed me her favorite painting: the fruit of the adan tree hanging in the foreground, the ocean and coral beaches beyond. Lei, who loves to draw, pointed out vivid color and animal-life in the work. His excitement for the work was palpable. He stood silently for a long time staring at a photograph of the late painter.
A day later, we visited the house where Tanaka Isson once lived. It's an old structure reconstructed in a plot of mud pools used for dying fabric. This seems appropriate since Isson spent his last years painting fabric to make a living. Adan trees laden with fruit, sotetsu palms, papaya and banyan trees, ferny undergrowth -- the subjects of Isson's paintings, press against the house and up the hillside. The shutters on the house were pulled open to show the inside: a dusty now uninhabited set of rooms, tattered rice paper, torn tatami, and cobwebs. An old abandoned and dilapidated house. Lei's disappointment was an outcry, "Ah, kitanai!" It was not the words (it's dirty) but the disappointment that I heard. I felt Lei's grief too, knowing his excitement in the museum -- the absence of a beloved painter, his work all gone to the museum, this sad monument to the painter's living poverty and lack of recognition during his lifetime. In the next moment, however, Rica, clearly the well-traveled daughter of an anthropologist, reprimanded her brother. “You shouldn't say that,” she scolded, peering into a humble place that might have reminded her of houses she had seen in Brazil. Lei, who could not explain his sadness, kicked Rica, then broke into tears. Predictably, they fought. The anthropologist father and the artist mother separated their children.
Later in Sapporo, far to the north, we conducted a writing workshop of some 20 participants, asking As and Bs to cue in separate lines. Then we paired the As to the Bs. Anthropologists to Artists. We asked them to play the game of I am a camera/photographer. The camera shuts his/her eyes. The photographer leads the camera to a location, frames the photograph, and taps the camera's shoulder. The camera opens his/her shutter eyes for 5 seconds and “takes” the photo. We watched the AB pairs wander around the University of Sapporo, into the woods and across the fields, the blind camera led by the photographer's blind memory.
Back in California, I'm thinking of calling my physician and asking about my blood type. I'lldo it tomorrow, or maybe I won't.
August 9, 2004
(c)Karen Tei Yamashita