About a year ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a book called “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is a very small book, less than 140 pages, and I thought even I, who was not a fast reader, could read it rather quickly. Turned out, it took me almost 2 weeks to finish reading.

A small part of the reason for that was that Don Miguel seemed to have tried to make this book accessible to all, including the people who never got to go to high school, or it could be that he wanted it to be cryptic in biblical sort of way, and he used the same words and phrases over and over. That irritated me very much and my mind inevitably wandered to thoughts such as, “I want to send him a set of thesauruses,” but that wasn’t the main reason why it took me a long time to finish reading. It was because there were messages that were so powerful that they made me go back in time and think about how my life had been. A lot.

Don Miguel Ruiz is a Mexican surgeon turned alternative. Well, he was born into a family of healers, so you could say he just went back to where he came from. His teachings are based on ancient Toltec wisdom. Even if you don’t believe in cosmic dreams and spirits, he has a lot to tell you about life. Trust me, I’m agnostic.

His four agreements, taken from the inner cover of the book, are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
  2. Don’t take anything personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
  3. Don’t make assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
  4. Always do your best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Just by looking at these, I knew my weaknesses were #2 and #3. I think I’m pretty good at other two. I still need to work on “use the power of my word in the direction of love,” for when I’m angry I’m impeccably angry, but I’m very true to my words, sometimes too much so. And I do my best whatever I’m doing, and am getting better at feeling okay for not being perfect.

The bane of my life has been the numbers 2 and 3. I could feel these were closely related. When I take things personally, I can later see, as the steam leaks out of my head and my vision gets defogged, that I have made a lot of assumptions. It could also be in reverse; I can take something personally and then assume what’s happening based on that anger. The irony is that making assumptions is taught in Japan as a virtue.

It’s the word sassu-ru that I mentioned in my post “iParenting.” The word means to guess, to understand, to sympathize, to judge, to imagine, and to suppose, about others. In other words, sassu-ru is to make assumptions about others, how they might be feeling, what they might be thinking, what they might need, and so on. The connotation of the word is very positive because it’s something you do for others, and it is highly encouraged in the Japanese society. An organization in college can be like a boot camp for making right assumptions: the lower classmen are supposed to tend to the upper classmen’s needs without being asked. It extends into traditional companies in Japan, and it’s a desired quality when climbing the social ladder or choosing the mate in life. The Japanese people tend to conform rather than go against the flow, which makes it easier for assumptions to be right on target or pretty close. Or maybe there is fair amount of pretending going on, because of our tendency to conform. When someone assumed right about your need and acted upon it without you asking first, it could make you feel you are taken care of and understood. It could be addictive, on both sides.

Sassu-ru is great, to a certain extent. But assumptions, even if they were made out of respect and love, could cause a drama that pales hurricanes and tornadoes in comparison. Assumptions could take you so out of reality without you even noticing. You might think you are still at home in Kansas, while you could be in the Munchkin Country in the eyes of the person you had made the assumption about. We assume that we are all living in the same reality, and we believe that’s the truth. That’s the big problem. We each have different reality. It might feel a kind thing to do when you make assumptions, because you are thinking about the other person and feeling you understand her, but the assumptions are made based on your reality and not her reality. It is very selfish to insist your assumptions were right, no matter what they were. Then she might take whatever you assumed personally, and you in return would take THAT personally. “I thought you wanted it, I thought that’s what you liked,” you would protest. She would then say, “How in the world did you think I would like that? How can you not know me?”

We are all constantly changing, but it’s easier to think we are stationary and never transform in our relationships. It’s easier to stick with the other person’s image and idea, which was created by the initial impression or stereotypes in your head. Categorized, organized, filed, done. But it might take only one second to change everything you knew about the person. You never know. If you insist on your image and idea of the person and refused to see who she really is now, at this moment, then you are sabotaging the relationship.

In a way, love might be just that acceptance, to allow the other person to grow and change in you. To not to have a mold for her to fill, to let her free and take any shape she might feel suited at that moment. To be amazed at what she can transform into. To try to know the new her in every new moment. To make no assumptions about who she is.

True, making assumptions could save you from certain pain. If you got sick from eating raw oysters, you might assume it would always make you sick. If you got hurt when you brought up a certain topic with your partner, you might assume that is a no-no topic, forever. Making assumptions could act as our self-defense mechanisms. But in a relationship it could make us stuck. It’s hard to understand the other person when you are pointing your weapon toward her. She wouldn’t come near you, to begin with.

The thing is, it seems that making assumptions comes with the territory for us humans. We can think about future and plan on it. That’s a huge assumption. There is absolutely no guarantee that I will wake up tomorrow morning. I might get in a traffic accident and mingled up in a pile of flesh and metal on one of those scary highways. My plane might crash into the ocean on the way to Africa. A mugger might kill me to get $100 from my wallet. Yet, I still jollily plan what to eat for breakfast tomorrow, trips and vacations, birthday parties and future writings, as if I know they will happen, as if I know I have time for all these. What if we didn’t know? I have read and heard that cancer patients live differently after they were diagnosed. Their attention shifts from ‘someday’ to ‘now,’ and their now seems to become more vibrant, vivid, deep.  I bet they don’t make many assumptions about anything, either. I wouldn’t, because assumptions take up time, and if you know you are dying sooner, you don’t have that luxury.

I used to suppress a lot of my needs, thinking they might be inconvenient to others, might make them uncomfortable somehow, or I would get them when they have time. But recently I started to think, But what if I die tomorrow? Would I be happy as I die if I didn’t get those needs met? Wouldn’t I regret as I take my last breath? Besides, wasn’t that an assumption when I thought my needs might inconvenience them? So I started asking more questions and getting what I need. I feel my life has become fuller and less complicated. I also feel my connections with the people in my life have gotten truer.

Taking things personally also takes up time and energy. But it is soooooo hard not to feel assaulted when someone throws venomous words towards you! If making assumptions is the precaution, the aiming of your weapon outward, then taking things personally might feel like the shield against the weapon that is flying toward you. What I didn’t understand until I read this book was that this shield was made of very thin glass. When you hold this up against anything, it will shatter and you will be covered with sharp shards. So you will hold up another glass shield and that will break all over you as well. As long as you keep taking things personally, you keep on getting hurt.

What’s more, when you take things personally, as if being covered in glass shards wasn’t enough pain, you get poisoned too. When someone came to me and said, “Tomo, you stink! You are so selfish and uncaring!” and if I took it personally, that means I believed in what he said. And the truth is, what he said only reflects what he is going through and dealing with; it’s nothing to do with me. Nothing he thinks about me is really about me, but it is about him. Even when he said, “You hurt me,” that’s because something I did or said touched his old wound. I would try to understand and empathize, but I can’t make his pain happen or go away; only he can. He might try to defeat me and bring me down for hurting him, and the moment I take it personally and start fighting, I have swallowed his poison and let his garbage in me.

This taking-things-personally thing is extremely funny when you are not in it. I might venture to say that 99% of comedy is based on this. George Costanza in Seinfeld was the embodiment of taking-things-very-personally. He creates Shakespearian dramas out of nothing. He is furious or worried or furiously worried most of the time. It’s so funny to watch him, partially because he is the personification of fear everybody has. Too bad I can’t pull myself out of the drama when it’s my drama and I’m in it, taking things personally and getting all worked up; I’m missing the funniest show. I’m missing a lot, as a matter of fact, for I’m quite a high-drama type. Does this mean if we all started living without taking things personally and without assumptions, the world would become a boring place? Maybe. Happy, calm, peaceful never are as dramatic as chaos. “There is no humor in heaven,” as Mark Twain put it.

What surprised me when I read this part of the book was that “taking nothing personally” included compliments as well as criticisms and personal attacks. But it makes perfect sense. When I think about it, it is true that compliments don’t change me, don’t make me better. If someone said, “Tomo, you sing beautifully!” it doesn’t make me a better singer. It’s a reflection of his world. His idea of singing beautifully might be Kurt Cobain than Cambridge Singers. I am still a singer as good or bad as I believe. And if I am depending on compliments to make me happy, I’m in big trouble.

(There is an interesting observation on cultural differences in how we react to compliments. Sean Sakamoto is an American—who has taken his Japanese wife’s last name—who moved from New York to a very rural village in Japan. He has shared his keen cross-cultural views on several of my posts. Our dialogue regarding compliments, making assumptions and taking things personally, etc, can be found on the comment section of the post “iParenting.”)

This reminds me of a picture book that I used to read to my daughters when they were little. It is called “You Are Special” by Max Lucado. The author is heavily tilted toward monotheism, and his books normally have a God figure in it. His are the children’s books that Sunday schools must love to stock up. It makes me feel rather uneasy, to be honest, for I don’t want my girls to believe God is this father-figure old man with white beard, and when I read this book to them I needed to supplement at the end, but the message in it was worth the effort. It’s a story about small wooden people called Wemmicks. And yes, the woodcarver who lives on top of the hill, named Eli, is the One who made all the Wemmicks and he tells the protagonist things like “all that matters is what I think” or “she decided that what I think is more important than what they think” or “you are special because I made you” and makes me want to rip up those pages, and I had to tell the girls, “But actually, Eli is inside you and what you think is more important than what he thinks” and confused them thoroughly. But I like the message in the first half of the book. The Wemmicks carry 2 boxes of stickers—one containing golden star stickers and another gray dot stickers—and give each other stickers day-in and day-out. They give stars for those who have talents, who could do things well, or who are pretty. In other words, stars are compliments. The gray dots are criticisms. They give them to those who did something dumb, clumsy, or are ugly. Punchinello only had dots on him, lots and lots of dots, no stars. One day he meets a girl Wemmick who has no stickers on her. No dots or stars. Some Wemmicks try to put a star on her for not having any dots, but it falls off. Some come to put a dot on her for not having any stars, but it doesn’t stay on, either. Punchinello wants to be like her, and asks how she does it. “It’s easy!” she says, “Everyday I go see Eli.”

That’s where this book starts to sound too churchy for my liking, but if I think of Eli as “my true self,” I can take it easily. If I go see my true self everyday and see how I am, who I am, without any stickers on me, I might be able to say to myself, “You are special because I made you” and feel very happy about that. Eli tells Punchinello, “The stickers only stick if you let them, if they matter to you.”

Stickers could be really old. I still have a lot of dots that my mother gave me when I was little. Those are harder to take off, because the glue is old and leaves sticky substance on me, or some of them are so ingrained that they feel buried under my skin. But at least I can now see those are stickers, not true me.

Don Miguel says we take things personally and get mad because we are afraid, because we are dealing with fear. Jealousy, hatred, sadness, anger, they all stem out of fear. “If you live without fear, if you love, there is no place for any of those emotions. If you don’t feel any of those emotions, it is logical that you will feel good. When you feel good, everything around you is good. When everything around you is great, everything makes you happy. You are loving everything that is around you, because you are loving yourself. Because you like the way you are. Because you are content with you. Because you are happy with your life.”

The stickers would stick only on our fear.

I have to practice seeing Eli in me daily. Actually, I don’t like it to have a name. I want it to shape-shift and be fluid, as I am no doubt changing every moment. I shall practice seeing it in me, until all my old stickers fall off and new ones wouldn’t come near my skin. How empowering that would be!


Two summers ago my cat Jojo died. He was 19 years old. Despite the fact that Dave had lived with him for 16 years, and my daughters hadn’t known life without him, Jojo was “my” cat. He was the first pet I have ever kept. Not that I didn’t have any contact with animals before. Growing up, my family had an obscene amount of pets: over the years we had 7 dogs (a pair of which produced total of 24 puppies that we didn’t keep), 3 rabbits, 4 hamsters, a pair of parakeets, a chipmunk, a bullfrog tadpole, a tank full of guppies and snails, another tank full of common frog tadpoles, numbers of fighting beetles, and exactly one hundred silkworms. I had fun with all of them and did help with their care, dirty jobs as well as clean ones, but they weren’t my charge entirely. If I forgot to feed them, someone else would notice and fill their bowls. It was sad when they died, of course, especially the dogs, but the sorrow I felt was somewhat detached, about the same intensity for a distant uncle’s death.

Jojo was the first life aside from my own for which I was solely responsible. He came into my life in Tokyo. One day my boss at the ad agency asked me if I couldn’t take care of a kitten for a few days. One of the assistants of our department had found a kitten on a street and taken it home, but she had 9 adult cats in her house already, and they all had gone berserk upon seeing this little thing that’s alive. She had come to my boss to ask if he could take the kitten. He couldn’t, for his family had a pedigree Himalayan, and his wife wouldn’t be happy if he brought home a little mobile home of fleas. The assistant was rather a pushy person and my boss was semi-secretly afraid of her, and so, as usual, she successfully made him promise to find a solution while in fact he had no idea what to do about the situation. He told me it would be just for a few days, only until he found a permanent home for it. I grew up with dogs but never had a cat close by: I didn’t know the first thing about caring for a cat. But I thought I could manage a few days.

The little orange fuzz ball arrived that evening in a small cardboard box. He was so small that he fit on the palm of my hand. He had a pair of huge green eyes that threatened to pop out of his little head with burst of curiosity, and was a bounding embodiment of energy. His tail wasn’t straight: it looked as if it was knotted at the tip, and when I gently touched it I could feel the bones deformed and curled up inside. An image of a cruel boy trying to tie the tail of a helpless tiny kitten and breaking it came to my mind, and I felt sick. But later I found out that it was most likely a birth deformity common among Asian cats. Growing up in a concrete jungle, I had heard cats at night, in heat or in fight, but I hadn’t seen them all that much. I had no idea there was such a trend in Japanese cats’ prenatal development.

about a month after he came into my life

His every movement fascinated me. He sniffed around my apartment, from corner to corner, behind the TV and under the bed, up on the chairs and coffee table, checking out and memorizing, walking and leaping and jumping down in absolute silence. I would have called it graceful if he had been a few months older and his head and ears weren’t comically too big in proportion to his body. He did lose balance occasionally, but for a kitten just a few weeks old, he was very determined and thorough. Once he knew where everything was, he wanted to play. He squat down, his hind side high in the air, shook it a few times, and charged towards me. When I tried to catch him he darted back and started it all over, again and again. I played with him that night until he flopped himself down, exhausted, and went to sleep right in front of my eyes.

It was hard to leave him alone in the apartment next morning. After seriously considering whether it’s a good idea to take him to the office, I let out a big sigh and closed the door in front of his imploring eyes. I could still hear him meowing behind the door, and I felt like crying myself. I thought I could hear him in the elevator, on the street, even on the train. I was in love.

I told my boss that he didn’t have to look for a home for the kitten, for it had found one already. I rather suspect that it was exactly what he had hoped for. It was late August, right after the Obon holiday, during which we had been extremely busy preparing for a presentation one of our clients wanted to see right after he came back from his vacation, but that was over and I had hardly anything to do, so I went home as early as possible, on a train that seemed to have lost interest in moving forward, with all the people getting on and off the train in deliberate slow motion and my feet that suddenly seemed to have lost the ability to walk fast.

When I opened the door, he came running with his eyes still closed. He must have been fast asleep: he came bumping on this wall and that corner, but he couldn’t come fast enough to greet me. Two lovers, reunited. When I picked him up, he licked my hands with his scratchy tongue, as if to shower me with welcome kisses. That became our routine: he would come to the door to greet me with closed eyes, bumping along on the walls, I would pick him up and give him a hug, and he would lick my cheeks and neck. It was such a nice way to come home to after a long day at the office.

I named him Zoffy, after the father of Ultra Man and his ultra brothers, the popular Japanese superheroes. I quickly learned that kittens were very soft and fuzzy but came with really sharp ends, and they didn’t think twice about biting the hand that fed them. My forearms and hands became stripy with occasional dots. Then one night I woke up with tremendous itch on my back. I took off the white T-shirt I was wearing as a pajama top and nearly fainted: it was infested with sesame-seed size black dots. Fleas. I ran to the 24-hour convenient store around the corner in my pajamas. In Japan, you would find those stores on almost every corner, and they are truly convenient as they sell things like flea shampoo for pets as well. I dunked Zoffy in the bathroom sink, held the wriggling, squirming, screaming little thing down, slathered him with the shampoo and saw black sesame seeds starting to float in the water. I knew as much as I wasn’t supposed to squash them, for that would spread the eggs they carried inside. I combed through Zoffy’s fur under water, picked out all the fleas I could find, and left them in the shampoo water. I was totally grossed out at that moment, but the real problem was my bed and carpet and sofa, everything soft and warm and comfortable for the human and the cat and the fleas alike. It took a very long time until I felt sure that all the fleas were gone and my phantom itch disappeared.

One day, I was writing a letter to my friend, and having messed up big time, I tore a sheet of paper, crumpled it up and tossed it toward the garbage can at a corner of my living room. It didn’t go in the can. Zoffy darted for it, dribbled it in front of him in full speed like a soccer player, and disappeared in the hall toward the front door, and I heard a big thud; he must have been unable to stop in time and hit the door. As I looked at the direction in amusement, he came back, carrying the wad of paper in his mouth, and dropped it by my feet. He tentatively tried to nudge it to move. I picked it up and threw it toward the hall. He darted, disappeared, thud, and came back again with the paper ball. Thus I found out that a cat could play fetch, and enjoy it very much, too.

He was a cat of many opinions. He didn’t hesitate to voice his thoughts, regardless of the time of day (especially during the night). He thought the moment the first bird chirped at 5 in the morning was the time to get up for everyone. He hated his carrier. I took him to my parents’ house, an hour away by train, whenever I had to go on a trip longer than 2 nights. The moment I put him in the carrier he started meowing, and he made sure that everybody knew how unhappy he was in there. He got worked up so much that he started sounding more like a coyote than a house cat. Everyone on the train looked at me as if I were a cat murderer, or torturing whatever it was in that carrier that was making that awful sound.

That same summer that I got Zoffy, I also met my future husband. We worked in the same office, in different departments. When Dave’s contract with the Tokyo office expired after 3 years, I decided to move to Germany with him. I couldn’t part with Zoffy, he was my responsibility, so I talked Dave into accepting him along with me. Dave left Japan in March and started looking for an apartment in Hamburg. He told me to wait until he had moved into an apartment and settled a bit, but of course it was too long a wait and I was too impatient. When he called in April that he had found a place, I hopped on a plane while ignoring his warning, “We can’t move in for a few more weeks because they are working on the floor. Nothing had arrived from Tokyo yet, so we have no furniture, nothing. The hotel I’m staying doesn’t allow pets.” I asked my brother, who had just moved from Kyoto to Tokyo and planning to take over my apartment when I was gone, to take care of Zoffy for a few weeks until I sent for him. A month later Dave and I moved into the apartment and I called my brother. Zoffy flew all by himself to Hamburg via Frankfurt. As a cargo, the journey took a lot longer than as a passenger, and from the moment my brother put him in his carrier to when I went to retrieve him at Hamburg Flughafen, Zoffy had spent 40 hours in the cage. He was pretty shaken. He must have meowed as usual non-stop; he didn’t have a voice left when I went to get him. He looked skinnier. I thoroughly regretted my selfishness and irresponsibility.

But Zoffy rebounded nicely and adjusted to the new life in no time. He liked Dave. Dave also had never had much contact with cats before, and treated Zoffy as a dog. He pointed out that the name Zoffy sounded feminine. I explained Zoffy was the father of all Ultras, he was mighty super, but I had to admit it was confusing German people, for in the German language S is pronounced Z and Sophie in German and Zoffy in English sounded the same. Who da thunk that the father of ultra-macho supers had a feminine name? I had sometimes called him Zof-Zof (a pet name for a pet, haha), and that became Jojo, his new name.

in Hamburg

Our Hamburg apartment was a bit like a train, very long from one end to the other, with a long hallway on the side that connected the rooms. The hall had a kink in the middle. Jojo absolutely loved it. He enjoyed the brand new sensation of hardwood floor. He would dash from one end of the hall, try to change direction at the kink but his claws would have no grip on the floor, would just make a lot of noise without moving him much, and he would hit the wall at the kink, THUD! and, having successfully (or not) changed direction, would scurry into one of the rooms. Then he would repeat the same thing from the other end. He started playing fetch with tennis balls as well. He couldn’t bring the ball back in his mouth like a dog would, so he would carefully roll it with his paws. He was a lefty.

reading Sunday paper always ended up this way

Dave started slapping Jojo’s hind side, just as he would do to a bigger dog, and for some strange reason Jojo liked it. It soon evolved into rather vigorous butt slapping. Everyone who saw Dave doing it would say, “Oh, my God!” probably thinking, “He is harassing that cat!” But when they saw Jojo coming back for more with his tail high and hind side up, they would all say, “That’s a weird cat you’ve got there!”

all mine...


Then there was his shoe/foot fetish. As I am Japanese, many people who come to visit us courteously take their shoes off, even when I say they don’t have to. Jojo was in heaven when people left their shoes at the front door. He would be right on top of as many shoes as he could possibly cover, with his nose in one of them. When he couldn’t find any shoes lying around, he would come find our socked toes to rub against. He didn’t fully trust human hands, but he would let us pet him with our feet until we get cramps.

We moved to Frankfurt a year and a half later. The new apartment had a big mirror in the foyer that covered one wall. Jojo found another pastime. He would stalk his reflection from one side, and upon seeing himself he would arch his back and side-hop toward it, ears back and chin down, then flee to the other side. He would then turn right back and repeat. He didn’t do it every time he walked by the mirror and caught sight of himself, so I think he knew he was playing with his reflection.

I had framed a big poster, about 4’x 3’, that I made when I was working in advertising. One of my clients was Kodak’s professional film division. The image of the poster, titled by a copywriter as “Forest of Apocalypse,” was taken by a noted photographer, Yoshihiko Ueda, in an ancient forest in Washington State. I loved the deep green and blue and the clarity and depth of the photo. The frame was large and heavy, so I never bothered to hang it. It was leaning against a wall in the corner of the spare bedroom. One afternoon, I found Jojo sitting perfectly still in front of the poster and staring at it. Once I noticed it, I found him doing that rather often. At first I thought he was seeing himself on the glass. But then I realized that he could do that easier in the mirror but he never did. I have to think he was as fascinated by the image as I was. Dave thinks he was imagining himself as a cougar in the wild.

When Dave and I went down to South Africa for several months, a friend of mine in Hamburg took care of Jojo. Then we moved to New York. I made sure that we flew on the same plane this time, and also that the temporary apartment we would be staying was pet-friendly.

A year before my first daughter was born, I started to feel sorry for Jojo that he was left alone in the apartment all the time. I might have been reflecting my own loneliness on him, for that year Dave’s job took him around the world and he was away from home more than ever. I also thought if Jojo had a companion, he might become less dependent on the humans and would be less upset when we went away for vacation. He threw up a lot when he got upset. So, we adopted a little kitten, just rescued from an abandoned building in China Town. We named her Keeffer, in honor of my sister-in-law’s beloved cat, O’Keeffe, who had to be put down shortly prior. We didn’t see Jojo at all for 5 days. I heard him growling and hissing, but there was no visual affirmation of his existence. He must have realized at one point that Keeffer didn’t seem like a temporary inconvenience but was here to stay. He came out grudgingly. It took a good part of that month for him to stop hissing at the sight of her. But soon he started to ignore her, then respond to her playful paws, and then to curl up together on our bed. The number of his throw-ups was reduced in half, and so was his complains when we came home from a vacation.

Jojo took babies in stride. Human babies were a lot easier for him to deal with. We moved 3 more times: to Chicago, and to a suburb to another suburb. All in all, Jojo lived in 11 different places, including temporary housing, in 3 continents. In Japan, they say dogs get attached to the people and cats get attached to the house. They say it’s easier to move with dogs than cats, because cats get depressed in new places and they would sometimes try to run away, to go back to their original houses. It’s a good thing that Jojo loved new places, because if he had tried to find his original house, he would have had to contend with an entire continent or an ocean. That would have been a bit of a damper.

In the new house, Jojo found his singing voice. My house has a tiny breakfast area off the kitchen. The first floor ceiling ends at the edge of the kitchen and the breakfast area has 20-foot ceiling, so to speak, with 5 skylights in the roof. We also have 4 more skylights and therefore more skylight wells upstairs. If you find a right spot, the house gives you very nice echo. Jojo was really good at finding just the spot to maximize his volume, for the listening pleasure of the lowly humans. In fact, he became so good at it, especially during the night, that we had to convert the bathroom in the basement into cats’ bedroom and lock both cats in there for the night, lest no humans could sleep.

Jojo appears everywhere in my house

He was quite healthy and fun-loving, and very opinionated throughout his years. He lectured my father-in-law at every holiday gathering. He lectured me while I cooked. He lectured Dave every occasion he got. Around age 16, he was getting a bit boney on the spine and his paws looked a little arthritic, but he was still very much Jojo.

At about age 18 and a half, however, I started to notice something different. He used to sit on the corner of the rug while we ate our dinner, facing outward, as if to protect us from harm, but he stopped doing that. He stopped coming when I called. He used to come running whenever I called him, wherever he was, without fail. I couldn’t tell if he could hear well any longer. His singing and opining started to sound more like demented, out-of-control scream. Then he started to exhibit a zoo animal behavior that I hate most. He started to walk around the house in a set pattern. He would walk from the kitchen to the dining room, to the family room back to the kitchen, round and round, following almost exact path, exact line, as if he was on a rail like those Disneyland rides. At first I could snap him out of it, by stroking him gently or calling him and getting his attention, but as the weeks passed, he went deeper and deeper into his own world, leaving us completely behind.

Then one night, while Jojo was doing his nth round of the evening, Keeffer came down and plopped herself on top of Jojo’s invisible line. Jojo came back and just stopped where Keeffer was. He wasn’t seeing her, there was nothing in his eyes. He just stood there, devoid of any reaction. I waited for him to recognize something, see something, and go around Keeffer, but that didn’t happen. After a few minutes I nudged Keeffer to move, and immediately Jojo started walking on his line again, as if nothing had interrupted him. At that moment I knew Jojo was gone.

6 months passed. I don’t know what I was waiting for. Jojo didn’t miraculously start acting young again. His routine became more and more mindless and profoundly robotic. His motions became slower and slower. He didn’t react to anything anymore. He slept most of the day, and ate little and walked little. He was living very little. In August (or maybe his birthday was in late July; I will never know for sure), when he turned 19, I called the vet. She listened to my description and told me to bring him in. She said it might be his time.

We said goodbye to him the day before the appointment, just in case. Well, I knew that he would be put to sleep if we took him to the vet’s. Dave let him walk in our backyard for the first time. Jojo had never been an outdoorsy type. He had enjoyed balconies of our German apartments, but that was the total extent of his adventures outside. Dave thought Jojo couldn’t go without knowing how the grass felt under his paws. If we did that when he was younger, he would have been thoroughly freaked out and climbed on my back. That day, as Dave gently set him on the grass, and as all the birds and squirrels, after a moment of complete motionless silence, screamed in alarm, with so much commotion and noise in the air, Jojo just did his routine walk in slow motion, without stopping to smell, without feeling the grass, without hearing the noise.

On August 5, 2008, all of us accompanied Jojo to the vet’s office. I didn’t even bother putting him in his carrier, because I knew he had no strength left to be unmanageable. I put him in his fluffy bed and carried him in it. He started meowing. I hadn’t heard him meow like a normal cat like that for a long time. Oh, please Jojo, don’t do this to me now… The vet said she could run bunch of tests and determine what was wrong with him, but then he would have to be put under and that would be a tremendous stress for an old cat like him. Jojo continued to meow, while the vet stroked him and said, “I really don’t see a reason for doing tests. He is old, and looking at his paws, he is arthritic, he is probably in a lot of pain, too. If you think he is not enjoying life anymore, I think it’s time.”

Jojo meowed and meowed and looked at me. He looked at me. His eyes had been so empty for so long that I thought he was totally blind. My head started to spin really fast that everything became a blur. Should we take him home? Then what, wait till his body stops working altogether? He is not enjoying his life at all. He might be in a lot of pain. He is my cat, he is my responsibility, he is my first baby. He had been there for me through some of the toughest times of my life, always loving me unconditionally. Either way I decided, it seemed utterly selfish on my part. I didn’t want to see him empty and doing the rounds anymore. But what if his body was meant to live for another year or two? I didn’t want to cut his natural time in this world short unnecessarily. But if he was indeed in pain, I didn’t want him to suffer, just because I couldn’t let him go. Dave said, “Tomo, I think it’s time.” And I nodded through my tears.

I couldn’t bear to see him off. I took my daughters out of the examining room and sat in the waiting room, all three of us crying our eyes out, while Dave stayed with Jojo until his last breath. Dave was crying, too, when he came out and said it was very peaceful. We went home with the empty cat bed.

Dave’s sister said we should break Jojo’s dish so he could carry some food with him to the spirit world. As I learn philosophical Buddhism anew, I’m getting more and more skeptical about the existence of spirit or soul or afterworld, but when Jojo was gone it felt comforting to think he was bounding somewhere, chasing balls, free of pain, and when I die maybe I could see him again. I broke one of his dishes. I felt the consoling pull of rituals. I found two tufts of orange fur in Jojo’s bed, and arranged them so they shaped a heart.

It hurt so very much to lose a pet. I cannot imagine how it might be to lose a child.

I find myself telling my daughters about Jojo quite often, and Dave chimes right in, too, when he hears me talking about him. Jojo the Cat the girls knew was somewhat old already (by the time my older daughter was 2, Jojo was 10); they didn’t see much of the vibrant and full-of-life Jojo, the funny, quirky Jojo. A few months after Jojo died, urged by my daughters’ constant pleading, I went to a cat-only no-kill shelter with them to get one kitten, preferably an orange male. We came home with a pair of brother and sister tuxedo kittens. All 3 cats with us now are very sweet and I love them all, but none is as weird… I mean, as unique as Jojo was. He left so many albums in our minds, from which we can pull out memories of him to look at. We laugh, we cry, and we still love him dearly.

My Monkey Mind

I like to listen to music when I drive alone. Car is like a mobile audio room; I don’t get to listen to music out of 6 speakers in my everyday life otherwise. And when I’m alone, I can crank up my favorites without imposing them on others. Dave and I have very different tastes in music.

But driving requires almost all my mental ability. I didn’t start driving regularly until I was 33. I did go to a driving school when I was 18, spent almost 30 hours and $3000 of my parents’ money and got a license, just like any other Japanese 18-year-olds would. But after that I lived in Tokyo, Europe, and New York City, where the world-class public transportations were available. I didn’t have to drive at all, until I moved to a suburb of Chicago with a baby and another on the way. I didn’t have the warm-up time of driving around by myself and feeling comfortable before the most precious cargo was put in my back seat. Driving started out as somewhat a nerve-wrecking activity, and it still demands a lot from me.

The American urban highway, especially, freaks me out. In Japan and in Germany, each lane has designated speed and everyone follows that rule: no passing from the slower lane, period. Here, the rule seems optional. People pass from every which way and I don’t know how many times I saw cars from both sides passing and simultaneously coming into my lane right in front of me and screamed. I’m not a slow driver, I try to be in the flow with everyone around me, but obviously I’m too slow for those who need to get there a few minutes sooner.

So I’m driving with all my nerves directed to what’s happening on the road, but at the same time I want to listen to my music. This presents a great problem. I am not very good at multitasking. I have no idea how I survived my daughters’ infancy to toddlerhood, when I assume I had to do more than one thing at a time, all the time. When I listen to music, I’d like to listen to music. I am one of those people who like “albums” and listen to the CD from the beginning to the end without skipping a song, because that’s how it’s made and I’d like to enjoy it how it is intended. But when I’m driving and listening, or at least trying to, I end up doing a lot of skipping, backwards.

While I like listening to the whole album as it flows, I do get attached to certain songs. And within those certain songs I get attached to certain words or melody lines. And this is what happens when I’m driving and listening to music at the same time:

“…The streets you’re walking on, a thousand houses long,
Well, that’s where I belong, and you belong with me,
Oh, what good is it to live, with nothing left…” Whoa! That truck was going so fast! I think the driver was texting. …Oh, no, I missed the favorite part. Back back back…

“…that’s where I belong, and you belong with me,
Oh, what good is it to liv…” Should I turn here or at the next intersection? …Oh, I missed it again. Back back back…

“…and you belong with me,
Oh, what good is it to live, with nothing left to give,
Forget, but not forgive, not loving…” What should we do for dinner? Chicken? Fish? Shrimp pasta? …Oh, shoot! I missed it again!

So I go back to the beginning of the song and start all over again. Then I wait and listen to the part I really like, for the sake of listening. Because I am forcing myself to listen, the pleasure of it is gone. I don’t feel the flutter of my heart, that little hick-up that I get when I encounter something that harmonizes with my wavelength. I’m as tense as Miss Daisy at the beginning of the movie. It’s like grasping a singing bowl — the up-side-down bell you strike with a small wooden mallet before prayer or meditation — in my hand, holding it tight, and striking it hard repeatedly, wondering why it doesn’t resonate.

In short, I’m not in the moment but trying desperately to simulate those peak experiences. It’ll never work, but I’m so not in the moment that I don’t even see how comical it is.

This is when I am alone in the car. You can imagine how it is when I have my daughters with me and try to have a meaningful conversation while I drive and my CD plays in the background. Every time I come across a parenting tip that tells me to use the time we spend in the car wisely and have a meaningful conversation with the children, I feel so inadequate as a parent. First of all, I can’t drive and have a meaningful conversation at the same time. It’s just too much for my cognitive capacity. Secondly, I don’t feel I am having a meaningful conversation when I can’t see the other person’s eyes. Then if my favorite part of my favorite song comes up, it’s a lost cause. My mind is all over the place and not focused at all. I get frustrated on so many levels that everything starts to feel wrong.

Then I bought an iPhone. This device is an epitome of multitasking. I don’t ever touch it while driving (I know how deadly it would be if I started doing that), but the fact that it can do so much simultaneously is mind-boggling. You might have seen its recent commercial; you can call someone, call more people and add them in the conversation, check email, search the net, play a game, and whatever more, while you are still on the phone. Do I really need to do these all at once?

I am not good at multitasking, but that doesn’t automatically mean I am good at focusing on one thing; I have a very lively monkey mind. The Internet is an endless trap for it. I would be writing something like this, and when I want to check a definition of a word or find a synonym, I open the net and try to go to a dictionary site I like. But the home page of my browser tells me I got a mail, so I check that first and send out some emails. Then I go back to the home page and see a headline about a huge iceberg breaking off the coast of Antarctica, and I have to click on it and read the article. When that’s done, I see another email in my inbox. Someone commented on my post, so I go to Tomo-ese and comment back. I go back to the home page and find another email, this time from Facebook. So I go to FB, check that particular post and then also what everyone has updated since last time I was there, commenting on some and “liking” others. By the time that’s done, I can’t even remember why I was on the net to begin with. But the worst part is that I know I was supposed to do something other than all the things I just did. Everything was done rather half-assed because of this feeling of “I’ll just finish this quickly and move on to the real thing.” And sometimes the real thing never happens.

Multitasking in this culture seems to be a skill you need to master in order to live an efficient and productive life. It seems to have the allure of desired quality you are supposed to strive for. Yesterday my 10-year-old daughter came to me and said,

“Mom, you know that people always talk about how hard multitasking is? But if you think about it, I’m talking to you right now while breathing, looking at you, thinking what to say, standing, and all that. We do several things at once all the time!” She was triumphant.

“Yes, that’s really true. Now, try only breathing,” I told her.

She looked at me as if I had said something nasty. “I can’t!”

“My point, exactly!”

I know it is a lot harder to do just one thing at a time, but I also know that it is a lot more rewarding if I can do one thing only at a time. When I am having those “wow!” moments — the first time I ever saw the Milky Way, the gentle breeze on my face after a strenuous hike to the top of a mountain, the silence in the meadow, the roar of the crushing waves, the last chord of an emotional symphony — I am not thinking “How do I get back to the parking lot?” or “That burger last night was sub-par.” It’s “wow!” because I am completely immersed in the moment. When my monkey mind starts thinking about something else, it’s gone, the wow slips away. And if the monkey mind is always busy thinking about something, I can’t find the wow in the first place.

Every little thing can be a wow. One spring morning years ago, I was standing on my front porch, soaking up the early ray. I noticed something shimmering in the air. They were long strands of the finest gossamer, each attached on one end to a branch of a serviceberry shrub and the other end flying in the air, upwards. The sun and the breeze had caught them just right at that very moment; otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed them. Wow.

I was lucky that my monkey mind was quiet at that moment. How many wows am I missing, I wonder. How blind and deaf am I to this world, to my life?

Do we feel multitasking is essential because otherwise we can’t get everything done? Could it be that we aren’t supposed to be able to get all that done to begin with? Some of my friends routinely overbook themselves and their children. They seem to multitask so they can free up some time to do more multitasking. “I feel I am missing something,” one of them said to me once, “my schedule is really crazy, I’m doing all these, but I still feel I’m missing things.” I understand the sentiment, especially when it comes to providing ample opportunities and experiences for our children. But, as my daughter realized, we are doing several things at once all the time already. How much more can we possibly do and still experience everything in full strength?

There is also this craving of mine that desperately tries to recreate the wows. The original wow was amazing, so pleasurable, I want to feel that again. There is a false sense of hope in this regard in our lives that are filled with modern technology; we can replay the music on CDs, we can take pictures and videos as things happen, we can watch the same train ride or mountain top on a TV special, and oh yes, we can TiVo that, too. Alas, the reproduction is not the real thing. When the moment is gone, it’s gone. It is possible, however, to get a wow again from the same thing. It’s just a different wow. But as long as I expect the same wow from the same thing, I’m stuck. It’s like striking the singing bowl with my hand around it tightly. And in order to notice I am holding it tightly, I have to quiet down my monkey mind and be in the moment, doing less and doing deeper.

If I loosen my grip, it might resonate. You never know when a wow strikes.

(How should I end this essay? Oh, the laundry is done; I have to fold them. What’s for dinner? Ah, someone texted me. What was the point I was trying to make in this? I got an email. The plants need water. Squirrel!)


About a week before I flew to Japan to pay respect to my father, I crossed over to the “i” side — I bought an iPhone. My aging RAZR was giving me a headache and an occasional message that read “Battery Invalid” even after I bought a new battery pack. Also, Dave and I together had never left our girls for more than one night before; I felt I needed a reliable communication gadget. I was very excited about all things “i” when I was in Tokyo this time. So, when I found a poster in a train with a head copy that read “iParenting” (in English, just like this), I thought, What the??? Japan is technologically very advanced, I know, but parenting through technological devices? What’s next, a parenting robot?

It turned out that “iParenting” had nothing to do with techno gadgets; it wasn’t an app. It was a parenting tip from a professor of early childhood education at a women’s college in Tokyo. It said, “Bring ‘I’ into your parenting method. When your child misbehaves, instead of saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ say, ‘If you do that, I would feel sad.’ This will teach your child that his/her behavior has consequences and affects other people’s feelings.”

I couldn’t believe what I read. I reread it several times, and then told Dave. We both shook our heads and said in unison, “No, don’t do that!” If a child is doing something wrong, that’s what he needs to know, that he is doing something wrong. If he didn’t get it the first time and repeats the same behavior, he needs to be taught that it’s his choice to repeat the behavior again or try to change, and that his behavior has a consequence. But I have never heard of guilt-tripping a child is a good thing, not in the U.S. As a matter of fact, that’s usually in the what-not-to-do list in parenting books and magazines. Why is this professor recommending parents to instill in their children a sense of guilt and responsibility for other’s feelings?

Then, after the initial shock subsided, I realized this was very Japanese psyche. I quite forgot about this. The Japanese people tend to have great difficulty separating themselves and the others. If this tendency comes out positively, we are quite an empathetic bunch, but if it assumes negative vibes, we can be a nightmare, stepping over boundaries and disregarding privacy. Actually, there is not an apt word in Japanese for privacy. People are inclined to psychologically lean against each other. There is a book called “The Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kozo)” (original Japanese version published in 1971) by a Japanese psychoanalyst, Takeo Doi. He spent 2 years in an American college when he won a scholarship back in 1950’s, and after experiencing a culture shock, came to realize that people’s dependence to each other was a unique, fundamental structure of the Japanese society. He was criticized heavily for declaring this “amae” — childlike dependence — was uniquely Japanese and not found in any other culture. I wouldn’t go so far, but I have to agree with him that this dependence is very strong in the Japanese society.

I read the book in Germany, after spending a year and a half outside of Japan. I had been feeling the lack of that dependence structure in my bones, especially in the way people said good-byes in other cultures. When I lived in Hamburg I was among a very international crowd, for expatriates tend to gather together. I had friends from France, Belgium, Holland, America, Italy, England, and just a few actually from Germany. The way they said good-byes was a total shock to me at first. They would give hugs, a kiss each to both cheeks, say “Tschüß!” and be gone. On the phone, the good-byes would last for less than a second; “OK, bye!” and abrupt disconnection. In Japan, farewells last for a veeeeeery looooooooooooooong timmmmmmmmme. We start by saying, “Well, then…” No, it doesn’t really mean good-bye, yet. We would thank each other for the reason why we got together or called, then tell each other how wonderful it was to talk. We then would wish each other good health until the next time, side-tracking to quarries on each other’s future plans, then maybe to the mutual friend’s whereabouts and updates, then to “Well, then…” again, then thanking some more, wishing well some more, while bowing profusely both in person and even on the phone. If we are saying good-bye in person, we then nod to each other for a while, smiling, as if to say, “It’s okay to separate now, I wouldn’t feel sad.” As we bow some more and actually say bye-bye, we would slowly move away, still facing each other, and then wave our hands and ever so slowly walk away. We would look back several times and bow and wave some more to each other. If we are saying good-bye on the phone, we would bow a lot (yes, it’s pretty funny to watch), then elongate each words; “Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaai, soreja-neeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, sayonaraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, dooooooooomooooooooo, shitsurei-shimaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasu!” Repeat this for a few times. Then we would slowly put the receiver back in its cradle, bowing deep and trying to keep one ear on the receiver as long as we can as it approaches the cradle, trying to make sure that the other person hasn’t said anything new, because it would be rude and hurt her feelings if we didn’t hear it and respond to it. Then we put the receiver down with utmost care so it makes the least amount of sound.

I used to dread this ritual when I was living in Japan. Not only it was such a waste of time and mental energy, I could never tell when it’s okay to actually leave. Some people seemed fine without much elongation, while others seemed desperate to linger as long as they could. Sometimes it felt it was just the manifestation of respect and politeness, but other times it felt as if our relationship depended on how I said good-bye, as if it were the saddest thing in the world, separation, abandonment, and I needed to make it as pain-free as possible. I felt it could be seen as the gauge of my affection, and I was horrified to convey a wrong message either way. I felt I needed to extend my most sensitive antennas to detect how the other person was feeling while saying good-bye. It was draining.

But when the ritual was completely gone from my life, I felt… well, abandoned. I felt a bumper, a cushy soft thing that was covering me for the longest time, had been stripped away. And of course, it wasn’t only in the way people said good-byes; I felt it everywhere.

For instance, if I asked a Japanese friend where I could get a really nice tin of imported tea, it’s not unusual to see the tin sitting on my desk a few days later. Or if I asked my friend’s recommendation for something — say, ramen noodle shops in Tokyo —, I would get a full report on all of her top 10 favorite ramen restaurants. The Japanese people are also exceptionally good at guessing what others are thinking, feeling, and in need of. We have a verb, sassu-ru, that describes this; it means to guess, to understand, to sympathize, to judge, to imagine, and to suppose, about others. If you have a few friends who are very intuitive, like I did in Japan, you are always taken care of. They would know what exactly I need at any given moment and give it to me without me ever asking for it, be it some tender words, a cup of tea, a piece of paper, a pen, whatever. I, in return, would try to notice others needs and act upon it without being asked. “Ki ga kikune,” they would say, “your mind deftly perceives details.” Thus we show each other we care.

It is something that we are trained from very early age. We are told to think of what others would say about us when we did something wrong. We are thinking of others almost constantly, and we don’t notice how blurred the boundary of us had become. But there is a very clear boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ‘They’ are those who don’t rely on ‘us,’ and therefore we don’t rely on them, there is no dependence here, and this is where some seemingly uncharacteristic behaviors spring out of. The Japanese are generally regarded as gentle-mannered, polite and thoughtful (I hope), but when you are carrying a couple of large suitcases in a train station with no elevator or escalator, standing at the bottom of the stairs and looking up helplessly, you would experience a different side of the Japanese people. Nobody would help you, because you are one of ‘them.’ When you are 7-month pregnant and standing in a crowded train, nobody would give up a seat for you. It’s usually a foreigner who would be willing to help a total stranger. It is as if the Japanese only see people who are in their dependence circle, and people outside of the circle don’t really exist. Good Samaritans we are not.

But we invest within the circle heavily. There are countless numbers of words that are related to this societal dependence in the Japanese language. Amae-ru is a verb that stemmed out of amai, sweet. So amae-ru is to be sweet to, but it is used to describe the way a small child acts toward his parent, notably his mother. He expects his mother to love him unconditionally, so he doesn’t hesitate to ask her something, or show his true nature, even when he is in a rather naughty mood. We use this same word to describe relationships between grown-ups as well. When we behave based on our expectation of the others’ kindness and affection for us, we say we are amaete-iru. If your boss at the office tells you that you can leave before him (it is usually a taboo to leave the office before your boss), you would want to say, “Well then, I will amae on your words and commit the rudeness of leaving before you.”

We use the word “sumimasen” a lot. In a dictionary it might be defined simply as “excuse me.” But in real world it means a lot more than that. It is thank you, I am sorry, and excuse me, all in one. And it almost always means all three at once. “Sumimasen for your troubles (thank you for your help, I am sorry to trouble you, please excuse me for troubling you),” “Sumimasen for coming to the party (thank you for coming, I am sorry for taking up your time, please excuse me for wanting to include you),” “Sumimasen, could you pass me the salt? (thank you for your kindness, I am sorry to bother you, please excuse me for my request).” We do have separate words for thank you and I’m sorry, but in everyday life “sumimasen” comes out of our mouths a lot. I don’t think it’s because we are lazy; I think we really want to convey all three meanings at once. If I say, “Arigato for your troubles,” it means just thank you and wouldn’t say I felt sorry for troubling you, and if I say, “Gomen-nasai for your troubles,” it just says I am sorry and wouldn’t express my feelings of gratuity.

This “feeling sorry when thanking someone” might need an explanation. Sumimasen comes from the negation of the verb, sumu, to be done with, to finish. If translated literally, sumimasen means “it isn’t done, not finished.” It’s pregnant with a lot of unfinished feelings, such as regret, shame and apology, in its connotation. When someone has done something kind to her, a Japanese person would not only feel gratuity but also think how it might have inconvenienced him on account of her. She wants to make sure that by troubling him she didn’t inadvertently ruin their relationship, that their mutual dependence is still operational. Saying “thank you” might suffice, but it wouldn’t go beyond that. By saying “sumimasen,” she expresses how she feels indebted and also asks for forgiveness in addition to saying thank-you. We say sorry when we say good-bye as well. “Shiturei-shimasu” literally translates to “I am going to be rude.” We use this when we intrude, but we also say this to bid farewell, especially to our superiors. Come to think of it, it’s very curious how we feel separating is rude; really, what’s the alternative? But we do, so we say, “I’m sorry but I have to go, I know I am being impolite for wanting to part with you.”

Amae is our desire to passively receive love and affection, so we create this warm, fuzzy garden bed where our mutual dependence grows from our energy spent on each other. We care for each other because we want to be cared.  I grew up in this structure of interdependency without ever realizing I was in it. When I left it, I felt so alone and bare. But a human is resilient and adoptable; I slowly built up immunity for the world that couldn’t/wouldn’t guess what I wanted and where nothing happened if I didn’t help myself. I was feeling as if I grew up a notch, when a friend of mine came to visit from Japan and we decided to travel around Europe together for a month and a half. After a couple of weeks, she asked me one day, “Why are you so independent? Why don’t you depend on me?” I think she felt pushed away because I was not leaning on her emotionally, while I was aware of her leaning on me and started to feel a bit claustrophobic. We got into a big argument, and agreed to read the book, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” when she went home to Tokyo and I to Hamburg and compare our notes. We completely, spectacularly, disagreed on almost all accounts about the book. She thought the author was insane, mean-spirited, and trying to find hidden meanings in everything for his theory while in reality there was none. I thought the author was onto something; there were a lot of examples he included to explain his theory, and it felt as though he was explaining what I had been experiencing.

These are excerpts from the chapter 1 (it’s my translation, not from the official English edition):

…I think it was early in my stay in the U.S. when I visited an American friend of my Japanese acquaintance. After having a bit of conversation, the person asked if I was hungry, if I would like some ice cream. I was indeed a little hungry, but I thought I couldn’t say that to a person whom I’d just met, so I answered, no, I was not hungry. I was vaguely expecting him to ask me again, but he just dryly said, “Oh, okay.” I remember feeling disappointed and regretting that I didn’t say I was hungry. I also thought if he were a Japanese, he wouldn’t have asked if I was hungry; it’s rude to ask such a thing to a stranger. He would have treated me with something he had without asking.

…The phrase that Americans use frequently, “Please help yourself,” didn’t sound pleasant to me until I became used to the conversational English. It means, “Please take whatever you like,” but to me it sounded like “you are on your own.” It sounded rejecting and unkind, and I couldn’t understand why this could be an expression of kindness. In Japan, a courteous host would try his best guessing what his guest might need, and would help him and treat him as if he knows exactly where it itches on the guest’s back (this is a Japanese expression, meaning, “leave nothing to be desired”). Wouldn’t “Please help yourself” sound too inconsiderate for a guest who is not accustomed to the way of the household? I started to feel keenly that Americans in general didn’t consider or guess what others were feeling or in need of, like Japanese did. Just living abroad could make anyone feel helpless, but because of this I spent my first stay in America feeling even lonelier.

I understood what he meant very well, but my friend didn’t think it was significant enough to theorize as the base of all societal structures in Japan. I thought it was very interesting that she couldn’t see it, because she was one of the most leaning/depending people I knew. She was kind of a person, if you went to an art museum with her, who couldn’t stay quiet, who needed your validation and assurance on which art she liked. But then again, I didn’t know I was in the dependence garden when I lived in Japan. Moving forced me to see things from a different perspective.

Parents in Japan are still positively encouraged to teach their children to better conform to the societal dependence. I went home to my sister’s apartment, still musing over the thought. When Dave and I got there, my brother-in-law was doing some paperwork while watching a TV interview of Ichiro Suzuki, the baseball player. He was clad in a very funky outfit — his brother, a fashion designer, made him wear it? — but saying something that caught more of my attention:

“A Japanese team manager would tell us to play for the team and for the fans. He would say it was our duty to make the fans happy, play to make them happy. I didn’t like that. To think that any one person can make someone else happy is such arrogance. You simply can’t. I play for myself, to challenge myself. That might ultimately make someone happy, if I played well. When I say things like this, I get criticized as being Americanized and becoming an individualist (which is a bad thing in Japan). But if you think about it, people who can’t face themselves, who can’t challenge themselves to become better, are the ones who escape into saying, ‘I’m playing for the whole.’”

I thought, oh, wow, I love this guy, even in those clam digger flood pants! I had no idea he was so insightful and articulate. That was also incredible to hear this coming from a Japanese person. It immediately reminded me of the first time I ever heard of the expression, “Only you can make you happy.” Dave told me this when we started dating, when I was 24. I guess he was feeling my leaning on him too heavily and needed to unload me a little. I recently told this story to my therapist; he was so surprised that his eyes looked as though they were going to grow as big as dinner plates. “We grow up hearing it in this country, like from preschool, but you never heard it until you were 24?” I probably would have never heard it if I dated a Japanese and stayed in Japan. Over there, people rely on each other to make everyone happy. You are not responsible for your own happiness, everyone is. When Dave told me I was responsible for my happiness, only me, I felt as if my umbilical cord was ripped off. Over the years I slowly learned how to crawl and stand up by myself. I think I just started to be able to walk. It will be a while until I can run, jump and dance. It was wonderful to hear Ichiro running. I wonder if he went through the same kind of process as I did, after leaving Japan.

Another thing I have noticed living abroad is that people here seem to take their words less seriously than Japanese do. In Japan, if someone said she would show me her poem, she will; if someone said he would take me out for lunch sometime, he will. I found out it was not the same outside of Japan. It has been one of the hardest things for me to adjust to; I still get excited when somebody offers me something and disappointed when that doesn’t happen. I think it’s because I still automatically feel as if my happiness depended on his words and actions, and assume that the dependence in the relationship would surely make it happen, because if it didn’t he would be regarded as a weed in the garden and would lose his portion of the flower bed, which would be quite devastating for anyone in Japan.  But outside of Japan it could be that just the fact those offers were uttered is supposed to be enough to show he cares; actual action might be merely icing on the cake. I would like to know what’s really behind this. It can’t be that people outside of Japan are more forgetful, or that I am now surrounded by people who don’t care. Does it happen to you, too? Your friend says, “Oh, I have that at home and I don’t need it, I’ll give it to you,” but she never does? How does it make you feel? How should I take it? I would appreciate your insight.

Well, then… It was really nice telling you about this aspect of my country of origin. Thank you so much for reading, and for giving me an opportunity to explain it to you. I wish you stay healthy and have fun until next time. What is your plan for the spring break this year? How is your family? Please tell them I said hi (bow). Well, then… take care, please come visit again (bow), haaaaaaaaaaaaaaai (nod, nod), doooooooomooooooo (bow), soreja-neeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, sayonaraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa (bow), ogenki-deeeeeeeeeeeee (nod), dooooooooomooooooooo (nod, bow), shitsurei-shimaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasu (boooooooooooooow).

After my father passed away, I visited Japan for the first time in 11 years. I can’t say, “I went home,” because it’s no longer my home. This was a new way of thinking for me, and it was quite effective in dealing with many issues I had with my family of origin, but I didn’t really expect to see and feel Japan as a foreigner would. It turned out I did experience Japan very differently from any other time in my life.

Granted, it was an extra short trip, and I might have hopped on the return flight before the Japan-ness sank into me. But I saw so many interesting things that I would have missed or gotten irritated by before. I think it was because I didn’t see it as my home, much like you enjoy the company of your quirky friend, but if he were related to you, you wouldn’t see his strangeness as charming and would try to avoid him by all means. Here are some of my observations:


I quite forgot how polite Japanese people were! Dave and I flew a Japanese airline called All Nippon Airways. The Japan Airline, or JAL, had been the face of Japan to the world for as far back as I could remember, but recent financial troubles manifested in their service quality, and ANA seemed to have taken over the spot as Japan’s premier airline.

From the moment we boarded the plane, we were bombarded with friendly, genuine smiles throughout the flight. The flight attendants were all young and beautiful ladies, each of them with an egg-shaped face, porcelain skin, and black hair meticulously pulled back in tight bun and neat side-flowing bangs. Apparently, the hair coloring that has become exceedingly popular in the recent decade among Japanese youths isn’t allowed, because brown hair just ain’t Japanese. They were the embodiment of Yamato nadeshiko, the traditional demure and docile quality of Japanese women.

I used to hate this quality. I used to think that this was the very reason why the Japanese young women were often exploited or not taken seriously. But this time, this exact quality felt oddly refreshing. Which made me feel as if I had become a middle-aged salary man. Urgh. I shook that image off and replaced it with another of a foreigner who was visiting Japan for the first time. Yeah, that would work.

Every time they asked or offered something to us, the flight attendants smiled and tilted their heads slightly, and leaned toward us just enough to hear us but not too close to invade our space. I was skeptical of their smiles at first; I can’t remember a genuine smile on faces of any American airline flight attendants, and I assumed it would be the same, that their smiles would be dropped as soon as they move their eyes away from us. I watched them with utmost curiosity. Soon it became clear that their smiles were real, they never left their faces. They smiled as they come toward us, smiled while asking us something, smiled when serving us drinks and food, smiled when they bowed slightly to show they understood our wishes, and they were still smiling when they left us to work on our bidding or to go to tend to someone else. Just watching them filled me with calm happiness. It’s so nice to be served by people who really seem to care.

They even kneeled to take orders. I can’t recall ever seeing that on any other airlines.

Dave hoisted a small carry-on suitcase up in the overhead bin, and thinking there might be other passengers needing space, he set it perpendicular to the wall rather than parallel and sideways. When a flight attendant came and try to close the bin, it got in the way of the latch a little. Instead of banging harder and closing it by force, or going ahead and rearranging the contents of the bin, which is something we are used to seeing, she asked us very politely, “Excuse me, but could I please rotate your bag so it would fit better?” I almost fell out of my seat.

When two of them demonstrated the safety procedures on each aisle, their movements were perfectly synchronized. Then they gave the most flawless bow at the end. It was one of the best bows I have ever seen, with smooth movement, graceful hand positioning, just the right amount of time for staying bent, at 45 degrees exactly, and coming back up without slightest backlash. I wondered, how many hours do they practice that bow to get it so perfect?

The captain came on the PA system. After giving us the usual details of predicted flight conditions, he went on, “It is a humble aircraft and the cabin might be very cramped and miserable, but I would like to wish you a very pleasant flight.” It was one of the newer aircraft, Boeing 777-300ER. Not the newest model, they are introducing them in February 2010, but still, I wouldn’t have called it “humble.” And talking to a mainly Japanese crowd who are used to being packed tightly like sardines in everyday life, I thought calling it “miserable” was way too humble. I listened to his announcement in English that he gave next, and waited for that “humble, miserable” part, but it didn’t come. Very interesting…

On the return flight, another captain stated the following: “I expect some shaking when we cross the jet stream back and forth, but it won’t affect the plane’s ability to fly, so please do not worry.” Again, it didn’t come in English.

Tokyo’s main international hub, Narita International Airport, is located not in Tokyo, but in the neighboring prefecture called Chiba. Before the national railroad and a private rail provided alternatives, the only public mean to get there was to take an express bus. The ride took more than 2 hours from central Tokyo. Taxi was out of the question, for it would cost $200 to $300. But now you can take express trains, which reduced the travel time by 45 minutes.

The airport is surrounded by farms, mainly rice paddies. During the winter they look similar to wheat fields, with hey-colored rice stems and dry ground. In the early evening light, the evergreen trees and bushes looked very dark green, the color of overcooked seaweed. They floated in the midst of hey-colored field and bamboo groves. Oh, miso soup!

I saw many beautiful, traditional Japanese farmhouses during that train ride to Tokyo. In the countryside, it seemed, households were still quite large. Extended family live in a big lot surrounded by bamboo fences and beautiful plantings, sometimes in separate small houses, but often in a big main house together. Those main houses can be very large for the Japanese standard, with magnificent dark gray tile roofs and all the traditional trimmings of Japanese architecture. I had never noticed how beautiful those houses were.

As the train traveled closer to Tokyo, the houses became smaller and smaller, and the space between the houses became almost nonexistent. It looked absolutely possible for neighbors to shake hands from the second floor windows. Among contemporary aluminum-sided smaller homes, traditional tile-roofed homes dotted neighborhoods, until they vanished at about half way to Tokyo. It looked rather strange; the older, traditional Japanese homes were bigger and more splendid, but they were all located closest to the train tracks. It looked as if the trackside was the prime location for better homes, as the waterfront is along Lake Michigan. But then I realized; those were really old houses, most likely much older than the train tracks, and the space between them that are filled with tiny homes now must have been their yards and farmlands. The train tracks must have come to villages where the houses were, then more houses were built along the tracks and the farmlands were sold to build even more houses. Before long those big traditional homes might disappear completely. They can build 2 little energy efficient homes in the plot for one old house. And since the Japanese families are decidedly more nuclear now, there is scarcely any need for bigger homes.

The train smoothly carried us toward Tokyo, and after the traditional houses disappeared from sight completely, some gigantic apartment buildings started to dot the landscape. They often come in groups of five to eight massive identical buildings. They always make me wonder; how in the world do people who live there find the right apartment in the right building? Especially when they come home after a couple of drinks too many? I wonder if the residents get a lot of banging on their doors late at night by disoriented neighbors who can’t figure out why their keys don’t work.

Later, when my brother-in-law drove us and also when we walked around Tokyo, I felt the narrowness of the road and homes firsthand. I completely forgot how narrow they were. Most of the back streets are one way because they are just barely wide enough for one passenger car to drive through. And the parking… each spot is so narrow that every car needs to be backed in; otherwise you can’t get out. I’m terrible at backing a car, and was glad I didn’t have to drive in Tokyo. Well, I could have driven, I just would have needed to keep on driving forever.

My sister’s apartment has a very cool parking system. It’s like those puzzles that has one piece missing and you slide them around to make the complete picture. It is about 5 cars across, 3 cars up, except one of those rows is below ground level. There is one spot that is always empty, and when you insert your key to the control panel, it rotates the whole thing, up and down and sideways, and brings your car to the ground level. There are also a few double-decker parking devices at the site. The building has roughly 100 apartment units, and only 20 parking spots, but that seems to be working just fine.

The cars themselves were narrow, too. There is a separate vehicle category for “Light Cars.” They get yellow number plates rather than standard white, and get discount on taxes, highway tolls, and parking. They come in variety of sizes within their smaller size, but their narrow bodies were something that caught my eyes. They rather looked like toy cars for Barbie or Polly Pockets, the feeling of which was enhanced by some very unusual body colors, such as metallic pink or pearlescent mauve. While driving to my hometown and back, I studied the cars on the highway because I was fascinated, and noticed another odd thing, not with the Light Cars, but with Toyota cars. They all had the Toyota emblem on the rear, but on the front they carried different emblems. Different model had different emblem. It was as if they all suffered from identity crisis. Why would they do that?

The Japanese people like to use English as decorations.

When I left the country in 1992, it seemed to me that the Japanese people were as fluent in English as Americans were in Chinese. I thought, but after 18 years this must have changed, perhaps to the level of American’s fluency in French. Alas, I found it hadn’t changed much at all. Even the flight attendants or airport workers couldn’t speak or understand English very well. Good thing Dave’s Japanese was resurrecting miraculously and bubbling up from the depth of oblivion; otherwise I would have had to explain everything to him, which would have been rather taxing.

So you can safely assume that English you see in Japan are either strictly for foreigners’ eyes (such as on train station signage) or for decorative purposes only. For some reason, the Japanese like to fill in a little space in print ad or package design with English words and sentences. And a lot of times they don’t make any sense. I worked as an art director at an ad agency in Tokyo, but it was an American company and our clients were mostly multinational; I didn’t get to make those nonsense-blaring package designs or ad campaigns. That would have been fun and added some credential to my sense of humor.

Even if the slogan or copy were not blatantly incorrect in grammar, it tends to read like a dictionary rather than a slogan that was created to convey certain emotional qualities. Take Sumitomo Electric Industries, for instance. To begin with, the company is known in Japan as Sumitomo Den-Ko, but they decided to abbreviate their name as SEI, not SDK. I suppose they wanted to avoid looking like an apartment listing — DK in classified ads means “dining kitchen” in Japan, a room that holds kitchen and dining area (I hesitate to call it an eat-in kitchen) —, but I couldn’t tell what exactly “EI” part of their company logo meant until I looked up their English webpage. Why use English if the abbreviation wouldn’t make any sense to people and would be harder to remember? Then they came up with this company slogan: “Ingenious Dynamics.” I don’t think many Japanese people know what “ingenious” and “dynamics” mean, let alone both of them together. Dave saw the slogan, as we drove by one of their factories in my hometown, and said even he couldn’t tell what it meant. The company also has a goal of becoming a “Glorious Excellent Company.” Why does it sound more Chinese than English?

Japan has been notorious at coming up with the weirdest product names. They are rampant in grocery stores. A sports drink with electrolyte is called Pocari Sweat. I don’t see many English speakers drinking that stuff. There was another drink with vitamins and minerals that came out around 1990 called Mucos, but that one disappeared quickly. Collon is a little cookie snack. It is actually very tasty, one of my daughters’ favorite treats from Japanese markets, but my girls haven’t realized the name sounds like a certain human body part. One of the oldest brands of powdered creamer is called Creap. Calpis is a soft drink I grew up drinking. I get it is made with the goodness of milk and the first half of its name boasts its calcium content (whopping 2% of daily values!!), but where did the other half come from?  They renamed it to “Calpico” after they tried to sell it abroad and didn’t yield as much revenue as they had expected, but it is still known inside Japan as Calpis. I recently went to a Japanese market here in Chicago and found this on its English packaging: “Japan’s favorite drink since 1919! Calpico’s distinctive and refreshing flavor will satisfy your thirst and soothe your mind and soul.” Wow. I must have really happy thirst and pacified mind and soul, considering how much of this I drank growing up.

Dave and I found many interesting English slogans, copies and product names while we were in Japan, but we were too busy laughing that we didn’t even think to record them (darn…). But here is one we remembered; we saw many posters everywhere — in the trains, at the stations, on the side of the buses and buildings — for something called SoftBank. I thought, why does a bank need to be soft? Do I want a soft bank? The posters depicted a guy in several different pictures, wearing different colors and talking on his cell phone. I thought, hmmm, maybe they are a flexible kind of bank with mobile services. Wrong! It wasn’t a bank at all. SoftBank was a mobile phone company. Of course, it makes perfect sense… I just haven’t found that sense yet.


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