Everyone moving to a foreign country should have a Mr. Tanaka. Foreign countries are intimidating as you navigate a foreign language, mysterious food, exotic culture and how to find a job and place to live. Without Mr. Tanaka the challenge would have been insurmountable.
He was a dictatorial fire hydrant of a man in his sixties. Aren’t Japanese supposed to be self effacing and polite? This guy was a gruff authoritarian! He spat out his sentences like a pneumatic nail-gun puts a string of spikes into a concrete wall. Tanaka knew how to smile but never bother. The only time I caught him with a robust grin on his face was when he was doing a mock complaint about his wife.
“Oh how I suffer. I bite my tongue so often it’s all worn out. Every day I put up with so much from that woman.” he jokingly moaned.
The elderly Mrs. Tanaka would roll her eyes and laughed, as she must have many times in their marriage.
Mr. Tanaka had risen through the rough and tumble ranks to become Senior Vice President of one of Japan’s huge construction companies. As a tough guy he did not reach his high status by exhibiting the “Milk of human kindness” or reading poetry all day. Was he lovable? No. But he was hiding his true character below that gruff surface. Some found him likable, even endearing.
As an important leader in his construction company, under no circumstances would Mr. Tanaka invite me into his comfortable home to live with his family. Japanese do not invite even close friends into their homes let alone me, a foreign judo bum. However through a series of coincidences this man learned that my Dad had entertained and invited into our home, eight top Japanese business guys traveling in the U.S. That made all the difference.
“Your father entertained Mr. Kuroda, President of Hitachi Company, the Presidents of Mitsubishi Real Estate, Odakyu Rail Road these others executives? They came to your home? I know some of those guys and will ask them about it.” he stated suspiciously.
Soon after that Mr. Tanaka, in his authoritarian way, asked
“Would you care to teach my two sons conversational English? Come and live in my home?”
Instantly all my living quarters problems were solved. I moved in and began one of the happiest years of my life. I slept on the tatami mat floor, ate mysterious cuisine and taught English conversation.
Each day began at 8:30 am after Mr. Tanaka and the boys left the house. The maid prepared toast and tea for breakfast. Mrs. Tanaka and I would sit there on the tatami mat for half an hour or more as we stumbled along with each other’s language inability. She was a fountain of jovial banter. When words failed her she would revert to hand gestures or facial mimicking expressions. I remember her sitting there drinking tea in her kimono, not the colorful long sleeve kimono that that young girls wear but something darker and more fitting her age. Our mornings chats concerned her experimental hair tinting she was trying. Like any guy I barely noticed but she would persist. We filled in the quiet times watching Japanese soap operas. Later I’d go off to judo class and come back for the conversation lessons. The routine was exotic at first but quickly became perfunctory/pleasant. There seemed to be nothing inscrutable about Mrs. Tanaka. She a great smile and a gift for making me comfortable and happy each day.
What was highly inscrutable was Mr. Tanaka’s view of Western customs. He and his family were planning a trip the United States. They wanted to gradually acclimatize to the culture shock they’d encounter getting off the plane in San Francisco. We all moved into the Tokyo Hilton one night to practice “Going western style”.
“How the hell do you people get clean?” Mr. Tanaka yelled at me that evening. Even gradual acclimatization to culture shock was too much for Papa Tanaka.
“What’s wrong with the bathroom shower.” I replied.
” I can’t see! I’m 5 foot 3. Shower head directs water into my face and eyes.”
“OK, forget the shower. What’s wrong with the tub? When you get to San Francisco just climb into the tub and wash.” It seemed to me the kind of question any westerner might ask him.
“There is no place for the water to run off.” he hollered. “It goes out all over the floor and into the carpet.” he protested.
“No no no. Keep all the water in the tub. Climb in, soap up in the tub, rinse and get out. It’s not too difficult. I know you can master it.”
I was wrong!
“Don’t tell me you sit in the tub, wash dirt and soap off into the tub water and then get out? With all that filthy soap and dirt still on you?”
He was serious.
“Yes. That is how it is done. And the dirt is very diluted.” I said.
“You don’t wash the dirt off first and rinse before you get into the clean tub water? You are joking aren’t you? Or were you just poorly brought up? Other foreigners don’t carry that soap scum and filth on them all day? Do they?”
I started to think disorienting thoughts: Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. OK, This is my boss. My job description is to teach English. This cultural acclimatization stuff is crazy. We speak different languages. They eat fish heads and we eat slugs (escargot). We wear outside shoes inside and they don’t. I’m prepared for diversity but is too much. We can’t even agree on washing? No wonder we’ve spent all of human history in conflict and war.”
I was sorry to tell this bad Western culture news to Mr. Tanaka, but:
“Yes.” I answered. “We, ( the imperial we) have done it that way for hundreds of years.”
Finally we got through the tub obstacle, sleeping on beds- not the floor. He came to understand loud slurping and burping at the dinner table was a no no. Eventually the Tanaka family enjoyed an exotic month long trip to the mysterious inscrutable United States.
I came to understand hard working Japanese executives as I got to visit Mr. Tanaka’s office. They are incredibly loyal and work for little pay by U.S. standards. But their success is well rewarded. The company pays for Tanaka’s international business travel, a company sea side summer mansion, limousines and a lavish entertainment style. Life is not to bad for the long suffering executive. Add in some business paid bar and restaurant visits, plus evenings at the geisha house and life is pretty good.
I was invited geisha houses twice. I found they were not brothels. Long time customers with fat wallets may sponsor a geisha and receive some favors but for the rest of us it is more like an evening sitting on the tatami mat drinking endless cups of sake and listening to traditional samisen and koto music. The entertainers can be very cute in their exotic makeup, hair style and elaborate kimonos. For me it was good fun but an erotic let down.
What was exciting was that which remained unseen. Seeing is supposed to be believing. Right? Like many foreigners, I didn’t realize what was in front of me. Mrs. Tanaka was a geisha girl, or had been before she married. As a young American man living for a year with a geisha, it should have registered on my hanky-panky Richter scale. Even if she were twice my age and retired, I never had a clue.
Sitting there having toast and tea with Mrs. Tanaka every morning there should have been some tip off. It was only years later that a business associate told me that the first Mrs. Tanaka had passed on. Mr. Tanaka had first sponsored his favorite geisha, then later married her and had a child.
Today I am filled with questions as to how their relationship played out. But questions still come to mind. Did she encounter culture clashes when she went from a geisha girl into a corporate wife? Did she get along well with other moms at the PTA? Did her old associates fit into her new circle? Was she living the geisha girl dream or did she miss the entertainment life?
Thirty five years after I lived with the Tanaka family Arthur Golden wrote a best seller Memories of a Geisha. Had I caught on earlier, how might my own writing have evolved? Looking backward it becomes obvious that I was focusing too much on toast, tea and hair tinting. I was oblivious.