June 1972, Tokyo. I can’t believe I overslept. Moving day. Of all days to oversleep! Transient beings that we are, we all move, right? But concern for my personal well-being and safety these last few months prompted my move. I spent this week at the Tanabe’s in Harajuku. I glance at the wristwatch from my dad. Time. Will I be able to make it there ON TIME?
Dressing quickly, memories flood my mind…
From 1969-70, I spent my senior year at UCLA in a Tokyo university as an education abroad student, after which I returned to begin my master’s studies. The second year I took a leave of absence to care for my mom following her risky surgery. Upon her recovery, my brother, mother and I drove from California to Florida, where Dad had been scouted to head a major building project. I longed to resume my studies and return to Tokyo for research.
January 1971, Dad surprised me with $500 and a one-way ticket on Pan Am to Tokyo. The rest, he said, was up to me. My former homestay family met me at Haneda Airport and gave me temporary lodgings.
March. A well-known surgeon’s family living adjacent to Tokyo University, offered me an upstairs room in exchange for teaching English to their son. The doctor’s late-night interruptions at 11:00pm asking to have a nightcap, practice English and discuss his son’s studies freaked me out. I declined the alcohol, left my door open to answer questions, then said good-night and locked my door. Using the downstairs ofuro (bath) caused anxiety. I got chills every time I saw the doctor. To avoid unwanted late-night visitations, I crashed at friends’ homes and only returned to teach his son.
June. A teaching colleague at the new ASIJ International Nursery Kindergarten in Naka Meguro asked me to house sit while her family stays in Hawaii for summer vacation. This morning her husband is driving a truck to the doctor’s residence to help me move.
At the Tanabe’s entrance, I stoop quickly to put on my shoes. Glancing up, the hanging scroll with bold kanji (characters) made by my calligraphy Sensei (teacher) captures my attention. This week, Miyuki Tanabe, my wise friend and one of my private English students, let me stay in their upscale condominium. A former ballerina, she ended her career to raise her sons and start a high-end jewelry business with her husband. She speaks eloquent Japanese, and enriched my cultural appreciation of Japan, by inviting me to the ballet, Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh and Odori and offering shuji (calligraphy) lessons in her home. Sensei’s fragile, 4 feet tall petite frame is always meticulously wrapped in exquisite kimonos. Her hands, Miyuki says, are “National Treasures”. I believe this because whenever she sits opposite of me and mutters, deep gutteral sounds, her hands guide my brush, which in turn senses her ancient energies, and magically fills with sumi (ink), to dance on the washi (paper), and bring my kanji to life.
Checking my hair in the entrance mirror, I remember the first time I visited Miyuki. Her Bridge companions were huddled around the dining room table admiring trays of diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald rings. As surreal as it was, what I treasure is my friendship with Miyuki. Although she urges me to find a well-educated, rich, sophisticated man, my goal is to find a safer place to live and to make a difference in this world.
TIME tramples my thoughts. I slip out the door. It will be impossible with train transfers to get there ON TIME. My only recourse is grabbing a taxi. Taxis are beyond my budget, but today, I have no other choice.
Japanese Santa Claus
Running, I frantically waved down a Kojin (private) taxi. Kojin taxis are owned and operated by private individuals, not companies. It’s common knowledge that private cab drivers are not only safer, but street and short-cut wizards. They never cheat customers for fear of being reported and losing their premium licenses which are difficult to procure.
I bounded into the taxi. In the 70’s, English speaking taxi drivers were extinct; this driver was no exception. Beneath his brown tweed Driver’s hat, a welcoming smile, gentle eyes and a round, robust form reminded me of Santa Claus without the beard. He was relieved that I spoke Japanese. I gave him the address and asked him to hurry. He said he could get there without speeding. He knew the roads. Conversing in Japanese energized me. I never shied away from talking, but his questions about America, American highways, my work, my interests in Japan were non-stop.
A piece of paper
As we talked, he repeatedly sang the praises of his son. I brought up other subjects, but the conversation always wiggled its way back to his son. Would I consider meeting him? "No, thank you". I declined. I was not interested in giving personal information to total strangers. He asked me to reconsider. I laughed and nodded, "No". Arriving at my destination, he asked again, and again. I felt guilty refusing this jolly Japanese Santa.
Then, I did something I had never done before. I tore off a small piece of paper, and literally scrawled my first name and number. Besides, Tokyo is a huge city, I am moving and will never hear from him again.
A Home, at last
By Japanese standards, the home I was house-sitting was a mansion. The front door opened to a stone floor genkan (entrance), the size of a small dining room. Shoes off, I stepped up onto a polished wooden floor that led to a massive living room. Tall, heavy wooden framed glass doors, stretching towards unusually high ceilings, looked out on an overgrown backyard and tea house. The dining room opened to a spacious kitchen with ubiquitous mint green built-in cabinets on every wall. I had never seen this many cabinets in a Japanese house before. As space in typical homes in Japan was limited, free-standing chadansu (wooden cabinets) for dishes and glasses were the standard. There was an office, a master bedroom, a maid’s room, and a child’s bedroom with bunkbeds. Faded blue mosaic tiles covered the floor and walls of the ofuro. Orange, black and white speckled Longtail Ryukin goldfish floated playfully in a huge aquarium. This uncommon dwelling with a musty odor was probably built for foreigners after the war. It was spacious, in a quiet neighborhood, close to work and the train station, and my safe refuge for three months.
The infamous light switch
The only inconvenience was the absence of a light switch in the entrance. If I returned late, and forgot to leave a light on, it meant stumbling up from the entrance in total darkness, and walking past the living room to find the light switch near the kid’s bedroom.
Tokyo summers are wet, hot and humid. The first night was too muggy to put a futon (bed mattress) on a carpeted floor. Besides, there was no railing to air it out in the morning. In summer, airing perspiration from futons in the sunlight is necessary. I opted to sleep in the kids’ room, on the top bunk. For protection, I picked up the child's baseball bat as my sleeping companion. Tokyo was a safe, but I was alone for the first time.
That week, when a friend visited, the phone rang. A charismatic, energetic voice on the other end asked in Japanese if I was home. The voice introduced himself as the son of the taxi driver… I quietly gasped. He played baseball on Saturdays and wondered if we could meet for coffee on Sunday. He had an infectious laugh. I could have hung up, but curiosity got the best of me. I was unaware at the time, but most companies in Japan had their own baseball teams. We agreed to meet on the Gotanda station platform. I would be easy to recognize because in those days, blue-eyed blondes were scarce. I asked how I would spot him. He said he was Gachiri. I had no idea what that was but agreed to meet him. After I hung up, I told my friend what happened. She squealed, “Gachiri!! He’s probably a Sumo wrestler!” I was a Sumo fan, but the thought of dating one was not my cup of green tea. What had I gotten myself into?
Sunday came. I wanted to cancel this blind date but didn’t know his number. To disillusion him, I wore blue nylons, red shoes, a crazy dress made from wacky international doll patterned material. Hoping he might give up, I decided to be late. When I finally stepped onto the Gotanda platform, no one was in sight. Success! Now I can go home. I thought…From the end of the platform, a man with a rhythmic bounce to his gait approached. White polo shirt, black and grey tweed slacks, extremely handsome, and an irresistible smile. He looked at his watch. “Do you always keep this time?” he asked in Japanese. I was speechless.
Coffee and Unagi
We took the Yamanote Line to Shibuya. Grasping the overhead handles, I stared at my ridiculous reflection in the train windows. I looked horrible! We went to Renoir, a popular kissaten (coffee house). At that time, coffee houses signified Westernization, and were trendy meeting places. Coffee cups were small, coffee was strong, expensive and there were no refills. Spacious coffee house interiors reeked of cigarette smoke. I loved Japanese coffee, but despised what cigarette smoke did to my clothes.
His name was Nao, like right “now”. He knew fragmented English. Even though I was fluent in Japanese, my Japanese/English dictionary was my faithful companion. Whenever I heard a new word, I marked it, and folded the corner of the page to review later. Nao interjected English into jokes and wrote on paper napkins to illustrate conversations. After two hours, he suggested we go for dinner, and asked my preference. Having only gone out to dinner with my wealthy friends who were doctors, business owners and company presidents, I had acquired expensive tastes. When I was on my own, my favorite meal was 12 gyoza (pot stickers) for 100yen. I replied that unagi (eel) was my favorite summer food. Unraveled by my pricey choice, he smiled and found a delicious unagi restaurant.
The infamous light switch
After dinner, we walked from Shibuya around the entire Olympic Stadium grounds. He loved Stephen Foster and started singing. I sang Japanese songs. The night grew on, he pulled out taxi tickets from his father, and offered to drop me off at my residence. When we arrived, the house was pitch black. I had forgotten to leave a light on! Embarrassed, I asked him to help me find the light switch and check the house but explained that my request was innocent. He laughed, shook his head, went inside, found the switch, checked all the rooms and asked me where I had slept. I showed him the bunkbeds. The baseball bat caught his attention. He chuckled. “Bats are used to play baseball”. I said I was nervous being all alone. “Why don’t you sleep in the room with a lock on the door?” he said, pointing to the large office. That had never occurred to me.
To cool the house, we pushed open the weighty wooden glass doors. I made cold tea; we sat on the living room floor and talked until 3 am. Prior to leaving, he offered to help shut the heavy doors. The thick, wooden frames around the glass were swollen from humidity. No doubt resembling a manzai (comedy pair), we pushed, we pulled, we labored. The doors were immovable. After nearly an hour, he told me to retire to the room with a lock. He needed a pillow and would sleep in front of the open doors to Mamoru You. Whatever that meant? I opened my dictionary: Mamoru means to protect. How sweet. I suggested he call his father to tell him what happened. He laughed saying he was an adult and didn’t need to call home. I wanted his father to know I was respectable; after all, he had introduced us. Determined and stubborn, he told me to get rested for work. I went to my room, locked the door, and forced myself to sleep.
At 6am, I tiptoed into the bathroom to make myself more presentable than the day before. He drank coffee, said goodbye; I scrambled to work in a daze. The school sent construction workers, who ended up removing the living room floorboards to repair the jammed doors!
Back in the USA
After a crazy summer and whirlwind year of dating, Nao’s parents were against our marriage for fear of losing their precious Chonan (first-born son) to America. In June 1973, I returned to North Carolina, where my dad’s office had been relocated. Nao visited in August to meet my parents and propose. He looked at me, “Tsuite koi” (follow me) he said. Puzzled, I asked, “Where are we going?” He grimaced. Language nuances are tricky.
In December 1973, he came to California, where my family and I had relocated. Unprepared and unemployed, we married in January. We used altar flowers from the previous wedding. To the bewilderment of my family and relatives, the entire Japanese church service in San Francisco was administered in Japanese. After a family dinner at a Japanese restaurant, we spent a miserable 2-day honeymoon in a downtown business hotel. We found work in San Francisco, a city we believed to be more tolerable of interracial marriages. It was 1974. I was totally unaware that interracial marriages had not been legalized in the US until 1967.
The next 6 years, while teaching in the Japanese Bilingual Program, I earned my Masters, a Specialist Credential, we brought two daughters into the world and purchased a home. At school, I helped design, collaborate and cut a felt banner from our students to present to the Emperor and Empress of Japan who were coming to San Francisco. Because of my ties to Japan's Royal Household Agency, we were given a private audience to meet them. It was a historical, emotional day for us, but we had problems. Frustrated with work and speaking English, and pressured by his family to return to Tokyo, Nao was a fish swimming in oil. He felt obligated to care for his parents even though we had our own home and family. We decided to spend July in Tokyo with his parents.
Sympathizing with Nao’s dilemma, a Japanese Foreign Ministry Affairs Chief, the father of one of my students, wrote a letter of introduction to a headmistress at a prominent Tokyo international school. After arriving in Tokyo, I interviewed. By the time I returned to Nao’s home, the school had called to offer me a position. Even though he had not secured work, I was told to pack our bags, and change our return flight. We were moving back to Tokyo to live "temporarily" in the upstairs apartment of his parent’s home.
In August 1980, I returned to Tokyo with our 11-month-old daughter. My husband sold our home, cars, made moving arrangements, wrapped up our US existence and flew back with our 2 1/2-year-old daughter. In less than a month, we had down-sized from a two-bedroom home with a basement, yard, garage, vegetable garden, dining room, kitchen, and living room to a tiny apartment consisting of two 6-mat tatami (bamboo mats)rooms, a 3-mat kitchen/dining area, no oven, a two-burner gas unit and pull-out a broiler for broiling 1-2 fish, ofuro, toilet, storage closet for futons and a narrow balcony for the washer/dryer I had insisted upon. Dryers then were considered a frivolous luxury.
Living upstairs meant being quiet. When our American hide-a-bed and matching loveseat arrived, they were miraculously hoisted by a crane through our windows. The entire neighborhood watched in disbelief. Once futons were laid down each night, there was no walking space. Privacy was a thing of the past. My in-laws insisted that Nao and I sleep in the traditional kawa (river) pattern. I was to sleep at one end, my husband at the other, with our two children in-between. This supposedly kept children from catching colds; I was to blame if they caught cold. Everything I did: laundry, cooking, eating, cleaning, child-rearing, shopping, clothes, my hair, dress and make-up was scrutinized by family members. I tried to be “Japanese”, but it was never enough.
We were invited to be on a television show featuring foreign women married to Japanese men. Wives introduced their husband’s favorite dish, and husbands explained how they met. Our taxi ride story astonished everyone. Weeks later, following overwhelming viewer requests, the producer asked my in-laws to appear with us on Konnichi wa Niji (Hello, it’s 2 o’clock) for a show focusing entirely on the taxi ride. The comedic, frenzied ricochet of dialogues between in-laws, the announcer, Nao and I was mind-blowing. My father-in-law, ecstatic to be on television, effervesced and digressed in all directions. My mother-in-law remained proper, stern and opinionated. My husband was caught between rapid-fire circus conversations of “he did that, she did that”. The program received high reviews, while my husband feared returning to the office.
We lived upstairs for over 3 years of continual stress, criticism, claustrophobia and the absence of any outward show of affection from Nao. Our marriage disintegrated. Walls closed in on me. Suffocated, I felt like a caged bird. Nao was content living long-term above his parents in our limited quarters. We needed breathing and living space. I finally managed for us to move. To maintain my sanity, elevate our lifestyle, save my kids from being bullied in Japanese schools, afford international school tuition, visit American grandparents, and make a difference in people’s lives, I hustled for work opportunities. I wrote and illustrated books, created edutainment mixed media products, wrote kids’ songs, did voiceovers, developed and starred in children’s theater, television and Internet programs, lectured throughout Japan and Asia, designed a children’s floor in an iconic department store, became a Department Manager (bucho) and consulted for the Japanese government. My daughters sang, acted, did voiceovers and contributed imaginative solutions for our creative projects. A foreign magazine featured me as "one of the 50 foreigners who made a difference in Japan". I traveled and lectured extensively endeavoring to provide a better life for our unique daughters. Work and creative projects kept me in motion and my mind off the irreversible rift in my marriage.
Fate and Decisions
In retrospect, the taxi ride I took 50 years ago changed the course of my life forever. Some might say it was fate. What exactly is fate anyway? Are events in our lives pre-ordained, or do the choices we make determine our paths? When I first arrived in Tokyo, a friend ‘s psychic read my palm. “You will marry but divorce,” she said. Her abrupt remark upset me. I politely, but defiantly replied, divorces do not run in my family! They do now. For 17 years we tried. Divorce leaves unfortunate scars, especially on children. Major decisions have domino effects on one's future. The love affair I had with Japan still resonates. I don’t regret that taxi ride. Although Nao died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm at 45, I am forever grateful to him for our two beautiful, sensitive daughters, whom he also loved dearly. Ironically, he call to apologize for expecting me to be Japanese the day before he unexpectedly fell into a coma. He asked, “Could we start over?” “Maybe,” I said, “but we will always remain best friends”. “Best friends can become lovers,” he laughingly replied.
Attitudes towards interracial couples are changing due to the increasing numbers, and more recently, natural portrayals of interracial couples in film and on television. I believe in the beauty and potential of interracial marriages, but they are not for sissies. You can never adequately prepare for what lies ahead. We were young, optimistically oblivious, naïve and totally unprepared mentally and emotionally for what followed, including challenges and responsibilities raising biracial children. Neither one of us should have expected the other to change and become someone they were not. When two cultures and languages merge, compromise, patience, respect, tolerance, kindness, flexibility, and a peripheral view of cultural expectations is paramount. Nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. Language is culture. Communication is key. When partners speak different languages, have distinct customs, family traditions, and opposing expectations, their emotions, opinions, hopes, desires often get lost in translation complicating the interactions.
I was numb to racial discrimination until it affected my life and family. We moved to Japan when interracial marriages and foreign kids attending Japanese schools were rare. My kids were bullied, rocks were thrown at them. I experienced blatant sexual harassment. Foreigners frowned when they saw my Japanese husband. It was an ongoing challenge to live, work and gain trust in a male-dominated society. I lacked the luxuries of Expat packages and grappled alone with international school tuition fees that were equivalent to US college tuitions. Yearly trips home to visit family were expensive necessities. Japanese family divorce court was traumatic and discriminated against foreign women. When I’m in a restaurant and see someone using chopsticks to pass food to someone else’s chopsticks, I not only shudder at their cultural blunder, and am reminded of Nao's and his father's raw, harsh, heart-wrenching funerals. After a cremation, relatives, including my daughters, used chopsticks to pass the deceased bone remnants to another member’s chopsticks to deposit into the urn.
Japan will always be my second home. The singular taxi ride opened my eyes, and dramatically changed my perceptions. I have a greater empathy, respect and appreciation for the hurdles that biracial children and their parents face. The cultural, artistic and career opportunities my children and I experienced, and the friends we made, were phenomenal. Their Japanese grandparents, whom I loved, taught us traditions and cultural sensibilities. We learned to value space and privacy. Japanese food was healthier, and reliance on walking rather than driving, kept us in shape. We felt safe and free from gun violence. We learned the value of being humble, the importance and necessity of respect, the rewards of patience, reverence for nature, kindness to elders, and that gratitude is a way of life. Public transportation was remarkable. Trains and subways were on time and impeccably clean. Life was convenient. National healthcare was astounding. Customers were respected. Japan is a harmonious blend everything imaginable.
My American grandfather, an iron worker, helped build the Golden Gate Bridge. We wanted our daughters to become bridges between cultures. As an interracial couple, we jumped hurdles and laid down bridges for others to follow. Fluent in two languages, our daughters have two cultures, traditions and heritages flowing in their veins. Independent, they have a sense of self, are respectful, confident, talented, loving women. Like other biracial individuals, they are energized and confronted on many levels, and have the potential to help change conventional attitudes for the common good. It is not an easy task, but bridge building is in their blood. Because of their sensitive perspectives, and biracial experiences they have been able and continue to enhance, educate, enlighten and contribute to the lives of many, including me.
Ojichan, (Japanese grandfather/my father-in-law) was a gentle, hard-working, soft-spoken man who loved his family. His dream of driving in America was fulfilled when he drove on highways winding through the Arizona deserts. He loved us, and we loved him. He most likely became a Heavenly driver who gives rides to newcomers in Heaven.
I owe Ojichan a debt of gratitude for that life-changing taxi ride.