Sunday, June 30, 2002


He wears black all the time, has big feet and a nose five times the size of his brain, but don't let that fool you. With eyes like shoe buttons he is one sharp cookie, knows his business, tends it like a miser, watches it like a hawk. Has a raucous laugh, talks to himself a lot, has few acquaintances and none he can really trust, because he knows they're just like him. He walks with a swagger and is very nervous around houses, which people unpredictably pop out of just as he's about to pull off a heist. A member of the avian underworld, godfather of these parts, he is known to me as Dr. Crow.

Sunday evening, as I was enjoying a beer out on the deck, the cattle egrets were settling in to their usual roost in the small grove of trees across the paddies, maybe a dozen of the elegant birds, so graceful in their flight, but so ungainly when settling into trees for the night, that it takes time for them to get everything just the way they want it, the elegant are often thus fussy, and there was a good deal of commotion and bustle and tipsy-testing and rearrangement and moving and changing and what not; finally they got settled in, when all of a sudden they burst from the trees in a cloud of white, and swirled around screaming in cattle egret "What in heaven?!" "Oh my goodness!!"and "Dear me!!"

Right at the acme of where they'd all been, suddenly appearing in all his blackness, was Dr. Crow, who had dive-bombed the egrets from the other side to scatter them, and now he stood there right on top of where they'd all just gotten flustered from, sticking his big beak out and going "HaaaH! HaaaH! HaaaH! HaaaH! " And they swirled around in the distant air saying "You nasty fellow!!", finally giving it up and winging off in search of a more refined neighborhood to roost.

Dr. Crow NEVER spends any time in those trees. He just didn't want to see any big elegant white birds settle in as though they owned the place, when in fact a smaller, floppy black bird owns it.
The land we have a human deed for, and upon which we built our house up here on the mountainside, is also owned by Dr. Crow, who oversees many of the primary aspects of the enterprise, watching over everything with a dark and careful eye to make sure that all is going corvinely. He accepts our late and ongoing presence for fees in kind, such as an entire row of bean shoots from our spring garden, or a really messy look in our garbage. He doesn't ask much. In fact he doesn't ask at all.

Crows don't really like each other, either; they may act like they do now and then, but you can see they don't in the blackness of their eyes, and in that floppy solo get-your-hand-off-my-shoulder kind of way they fly. Sure you might on occasion see crows in a cawcus of three or four or even more, but whenever possible they sit on separate telephone poles and talk long distance, which they prefer, that's why their voices are so loud, and why they're never very close to one another for long.

Friday, June 28, 2002


I came to Japan from the old country over twenty years ago with no intention of being an immigrant; I was just a traveler who stopped. Like age, immigrancy was upon me before I knew it.

I am the first generation of my family to visit Japan, let alone live here. My wife, who is Japanese, is about the 900th generation of her family to live here. Our children therefore are second generation immigrants and about 901st generation natives, which makes them thoroughly indigenous nisei, and so extremely interesting in many respects. They are more Japanese than me, though less American, and less Japanese than my wife, though more American than her, and more international than either of us.

As for my own multiply grafted family tree, some of my great-great-grandparents were intentional immigrants from Ireland to their new country America, while other of my great-great-grandparents were scions of native Americans who had "immigrated" across the Aleutian chain from Asia 40,000 years and more ago, so maybe it was in my blood all the time to reconnect, and what I was really doing wasn't traveling, but continuing in my turn the journey my ancestors set out on, that has continued since before the dawn and will go on beyond the sunset. Such transcendent concepts were likely common knowledge 40,000 years ago, before there were visas.

Needless to say, I am the most American person in my Japanese family. I speak my mind, just like that, nakedly right out there in the open, shockingly point-blank in front of everybody. I prefer good bread to good rice, though that balance has changed a great deal since I first became an alien. Certain of my native words (and with them, native ways of thinking) are fading also, as my native country becomes more and more of an old country and the new exerts its influence on my being. My mental America is in fact becoming archaic, as I become more Japanese than I ever thought possible. Still, I speak best the language of the old country, and remember the old country with fondness when in Japan I sit out on my mind's back porch. But of course that old country no longer exists except on the mind's back porch, where all old countries are.

Whenever I visit the country that's America now, I feel perhaps more a foreigner than I do in Japan; I am surprisingly surprised to be treated as an American, as though that state were still and fully native to me. When I'm in America, I wear shoes very gingerly indoors; I can't take a bath with the soap in the water; people look me right in the eye as they talk to me; and everyone speaks English, which can be unsettling.

But being foreign really doesn't require another country; one can feel foreign just by changing neighborhoods, or growing old; my great grandmother, who was 16 when Lincoln was assassinated and who lived to hear of the atomic bomb, was about as foreign to the 1950s as possible. For her, Elvis was from a non-parallel universe, much the way golden-haired Japanese rappers on roller skates on tv are to me of the Elvis generation. I'm already a foreigner to teenagers of both my countries. I'm also more of a foreigner to who I used to be: I look at old photos of myself in the fully American days and remark how truly different was my ignorance then.

My children's Japanese school friends look upon me, I imagine, much as I used to look upon my immigrant friends' grandfathers back in New York when I was a kid: someone who looks and dresses and talks and acts--- well, foreign.

As to the biological bottom line of all this, the geneticists assure us that the differences between the 'races' are infinitessimal in genetic terms--- skin color, hair, eye shape etc. collectively comprising no more than an atom of a wisp of a drop in the global ocean of the human genome. At that level, the difference between me and the Japanese is about the same as the difference between me and I. Cultures too are thought to reside in that 'difference,' when in fact they are matters of time and place. To truly live in another country is to realize that prejudice is ignorance, and what a heavy and useless burden is enmity.

My grandchildren will be American sansei in Japan, unless one of my children or their children has children with someone of yet another nationality and so carries on that grand wandering that is native to the human family. Perhaps even, one day, my great-grandchildren will emigrate back to my old country, and find themselves a new continent there. Or they may stay here, and astound their friends by telling them that their great-grandfather was, believe it or not, of all things, an American.

First published in slightly different form in Kyoto Journal

Thursday, June 27, 2002


Last night we held the muneageshiki, or roof-raising ceremony, which is more like a barbecue with lots of booze. The plan had been to hold it on Saturday 22, but it rained, and we couldn't have workmen scrambling around on a wet roof, so it was postponed to Sunday, but it rained, so it was postponed to Monday, which was only cloudy, though it did rain later in the night, but we managed to squeeze the ceremony in there.

When Echo and I got to the land, where only a week ago there had been nothing but the concrete foundation with logs lying on it, there was an entire standing house with a lot of logs in the structure, and several men scrambling over the roof in a hurry, trying to get it finished so they could have some barbecue and beer.

They were astonishing to watch, the way they scrambled and slid, swung, dangled and hopped about up there on an open frame so many meters above the ground, their thin-soled, separate big-toed soft Japanese construction shoes giving them pedal prehensility of an extent unknown in the West, where construction workers wear thick slabs on their feet, going mainly for traction, not grasp or flexibility; these guys' feet could practically wrap themselves around a pole, or grab an eave.

Bim Bam Bom, the roof was done, a skylight cut and installed, and they were down. The 'ceremony' consisted of fashioning a wooden image from a board (with my and Echo's names calligraphied on it with a writing brush), attaching a round colorful fan-shaped object made out of paper and on that placing an otafuku mask; into a slit in the top of the board was placed some slips of blank ceremonial paper.

In traditional Japanese houses, this object is placed in a special location built for it between the first and second floors, which was not possible in our house, so the image was leaned against a pile of lumber to party with us. I suggested offhandedly that maybe the image could be put under the first floor, at which great aghastness erupted among the group, the head carpenter saying that then everybody would be "walking on it all the time," and by then I could see his point. So we let it party with us.

Later, it stands under the tarp in the corner of the workshop, gazing out at the goings on, keeping an eye on things...)

Tuesday, June 25, 2002


Today I cranked the first Frank Zappa ever played on Pure Land Mountain. Of this I am certain. The aural orgies of Absolutely Free wafted among the cedars, inspired the frogs as they waited for evening and their big chance to call any vegetable. The ferns nodded knowingly to the rhythms of Plastic People. Not long ago, Otis Redding as well was first heard in these fastnesses, singing Ton of Joy and other favorites.

Sunday, June 23, 2002


Last night Echo turned to me out of the blue and asked if, when the time came to join the big party in the great beyond, I wanted to be interred in the States. I must be emanating an aura of transience. Hadn't given the matter much thought, really, though I can't see much need to go on a death tour. Like most Japanese, Echo is frank about such things, and has queried me on a number of occasions regarding the details of my sepultural preferences, perhaps the acid test of expatriatism.

Does one really want to spend eternity in the home country? Is there patriotism after death? Such promptings and the resulting grave thoughts deprive "home country" of all meaning, a fact reflective of its illusoriness as a concept. "Home planet," well, maybe, at a stretch; at least while I'm alive I think I'd rather be here (give me an alternative, though and I'll entertain it), though there are times I'd much prefer to be on Ganymede; but home country-- not much resonance in that idea at best: what does one get from a nation that does not after all derive from oneself? What right originates in a bureaucrat? I am the source of my liberty.

The first time Echo asked me if I wanted to be in her family plot on a hillside in Nagano I said sure, why not, then on second thought it occurred to me that there's not much night life in that vicinity, so I said to put half my ashes there and half in my own family plot back in New York, but then that's way out in the boonies too, so then I thought anywhere in the world or outer space would be ok too, such details are for the living.

I foresee no pilgrimages to my grave. I won't be there much anyway, boredom finds no greater depths than in a cemetery, excepting maybe a laundromat, so the where of it should involve a source of good times for all; other than that, it will have nothing to do with the me I am in life, or with nationhood-- how locked we are in ideas, how fastened we are to existence, even in death-- Simply let me be indistinguishable from everything once again, preferably not far from a timeless roadside stand with draft beer and a good jukebox.