Summary: Proper manners dictate height and depth when bowing and clinking glasses
Respect and hierarchy are paramount in Japanese society. In general, one should always show respect to one’s elders and superiors. This is demonstrated, for example, in toasting and and bowing.
Whenever people bow, which is often in Japan, it is proper for the “underling” to bow deeper to his or her superior. As a side note, if space is limited, bow to one side of the other person to prevent conking heads.
Similarly, when glasses are clinked, you should always click with your rim lower than that of your superior (elder, boss, etc.). When several people are clinking glasses together, you can observe this awareness of respect and hierarchy.
It is also good form never to fill your own cup. People should keep an eye on their companions’ cups and always refill theirs. Yours should be filled and refilled by someone else.
If you travel to Japan, people will notice and be impressed if you observe these simple customs of respect.
Some fun can be had with these customs. For example, if you are the boss or the respected elder, when several glasses are about to clink, you can suddenly lower your glass and enjoy the sight of everyone else having to hurriedly lower theirs as well before contact. This usually elicits laughter.
Mom had some fun in a similar way when we were visiting Keishoji. As honored visitors from overseas, we were shown great respect and gratitude everywhere we met. Being the eldest meant Mom typically occupied the position of highest respect in nearly any gathering we attended.
One evening, about a dozen of us were seated for dinner. As was customary, we sat on the floor next to a low table. The priest’s brother, a fisherman, had to leave early because he needed to rise very early the next morning to fish.
We were all seated on the floor, and upon taking his departure, the fisherman dutifully nodded and bowed his head to each of us. Turning to my mom, the most respected person in the party, he bowed low. Mom bowed low in return, which obligated him to bow lower.
Mom kept bowing lower and lower, and he kept responding until his body was basically plastered to the floor. He finally protested that he could bow no further. Everyone knew Mom was having a little fun with him and we all had a good laugh.
As for myself, I hope I am still agile enough to sit on the floor and bow low when I reach my 70s and 80s.
Summary: My Buddhist Priest cousin invents a kanji name for me
In my immediate family, apart from my mother, I am the only one who has a Japanese name. My middle name, Asai (浅井), is my mom’s family name (it means “shallow well”).
My middle brother almost got a Japanese first name. My parents debated naming him Kenji, but decided against it at the last minute. So he is named Kenneth.
While poring over and translating our Japanese family tree at Keishoji, I commented that I wished I had a kanji name. My last name, Loftus, would be difficult, since the closest Japanese approximation would be something like, “roh-foo-tah-su”). But my first name, Toby, has sounds readily replicatable in Japanese.
My cousin, the Buddhist priest at the temple where we were doing our family research, overheard this. I noticed him thumbing through a Japanese dictionary and scribbling notes over the next day or two. On the last day of our visit, he handed me a piece of paper with a kanji name he created for me. He used these three characters:
Two of the kanji are quite clear. The first one is associated with flying. The second one, Utsukushii, means beauty or beautiful. That character is in my mother’s name, as well as my Aunt Mika’s and late Uncle Min’s, and I am happy to share part of my name with them.
The third kanji is a bit more difficult to translate. My cousin the priest translated it as “support,” but potential meanings associated with this character are more broad. Another cousin informed me that this character is used in “fiber” (繊維), “maintain” (維持), and “restoration” (維新). By itself, it can mean connect, support, make bigger, and more.
For example, a single thread or piece of yarn (糸) can be wound and spun into something bigger: a rope (維). He also found a cool word, “Ten-i” (天維), which means “An imaginary net that exists to keep heaven (or sky) from falling to the earth.”
Apparently my interest in researching the family tree and strengthening family ties across the Pacific Ocean impressed my Japanese relatives. Everyone in Japan with whom I shared my new name deemed it to be a very good and fitting one for me.
Summary: Discovering the Japanese names of my aunts and uncles
As I’ve written, kanji, one of the main writing systems for Japanese, is non-phonetic. Therefore, one may be able to read it on the page, and grasp what it means, but have no idea how to pronounce it. Conversely, unlike English, you could hear a Japanese word and have no idea how to spell it in kanji.
The same goes for names. You may know how to say someone’s name, but there may be a variety of ways to write it, and you wouldn’t know which was correct until you saw it.
This is one reason why the exchange of business cards in Japan can be so formal: Until you see someone’s name written in kanji on their business card, you would have no way of knowing how it was written and what that person’s name might mean.
Mom has often explained how for many years she didn’t know the meaning her own birth name, Mitsuko. Not knowing how it was written, for many years she assumed “mi” related to three or third, since she was the third daughter.
Her father once overheard her say this and immediately corrected her: “No, that’s not how we write it!” Instead, it is written with these three characters, 美津子 and it means “beautiful child.”
Family members often wondered why my Uncle Gene was the only member of his generation to receive a Western-sounding name. Since all the children had been delivered at home by grandfather, none had birth certificates until later when my grandfather had to apply for them.
Years after my uncle’s birth, everyone learned that grandfather had spelled his son’s name “Jin.” Uncle Gene stuck with the Western spelling, and there have been many laughs in subsequent decades over the fact that neither he nor anyone else (other than his father) knew how to spell his name.
I realized that all my mom’s immediate family members must have kanji names. More than half had passed away by the time I started asking my numerous cousins if anyone had any record of what those names might be. None did.
I finally called my nonagenarian Aunt Mika to ask, and a few weeks later I received a handwritten note in the mail with all the family names written in kanji.
Several of my uncles had gone by names other than the ones assigned at their birth. Uncle Taro was known as “Tot,” and Uncle Masami was always known as “Min.” Uncle Itsuo was known as Dick or sometimes just “Its” (pronounced “eats”). Of Uncle Masaaki, mom, in her book, Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon writes:
“[Masaaki] was short for his age and graduated from high school when he was fifteen. No wonder that he was nicknamed “Half Pint,” a name that was later shortened to “Half,” which stuck until his life ended at age twenty-nine. Some knew him as “Ace” in the U.S. Army and later at Oregon State College, but that was not a name used by our family.”
Mom changed her own name from Mitsuko (“mee tsu koh,” which all her classmates pronounced “mitt soo ko”) to just “Mitzi.”
I’m very glad to have obtained this list of names, since I know of no way we would have figured them out without my aunt’s assistance.
Similar challenges face any westerner attempting to read a Japanese family tree. When we visited our cousins at Keishoji, a large copy of a family tree was brought out, which both excited and confounded us. Of course all the names were written in kanji, which neither my mother nor I could read.
The only kanji name I could recognize was my family name, Asai (浅井). And just like on gravestones, no Arabic numbers could be seen, since birth and death dates were written in Japanese and used the years of the era rather than the years of the Gregorian calendar.
Fortunately, the matriarch of Keishoji and two of her sisters sat down with us and helped us translate each name and decipher each year. It took a couple of hours, but we completed the work. I imagine no one on either side of the Pacific Ocean had this information prior this point.
I have begun writing about another memorable experience abroad I had. In 1989 I studied one semester in West Germany, and one semester in East Germany. This year is the 30th anniversary of that momentous time, and memories have been flooding back to me. I’ve begun reconnecting with old friends from that time, digging out old photos, and writing down my memories.
If you enjoy reading about my experiences in Japan, you may enjoy reading this too. Thank you for your interest!
Summary: The Panama Hotel and the novel in which it is featured leads to a lively and thoughtful discussion with junior high students.
I recently was asked to speak to several classes of junior high students in the Mercer Island School District in the state of Washington. Students were reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.
The novel is a story about a young Chinese-American boy and his unlikely friendship with a Japanese-American girl, and their struggle to maintain their friendship after her family is sent off to an internment camp.
The hotel in the title refers to the Panama Hotel, which still stands at the western edge of the International District in downtown Seattle. The structure was declared a National Historic Landmark building in 2006, and designated a National Treasure in 2015 — one of only 60 across the nation.
Before WWII, the hotel stood in the center of Nihonmachi, or “Japantown,” which was a thriving hub for Japanese-American businesses, including stores, barber shops, bathhouses, and more. After the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, most of Nihonmachi passed to other groups, save for a few exceptions … most notably, the Panama Hotel.
Built in 1910 by the first Japanese-American architect in Seattle, Sabro Ozasa, the hotel has been restored to retain much of its historic condition. Many Japanese-American bachelors lived in the Panama Hotel before the war, and since the rooms had no closets, they fashioned wardrobes out of old wooden shipping containers. You may still find old labels from canned vegetables affixed to the back side of their walls.
A basement room of the hotel was filled with belongings of Japanese-American families that had to quickly prepare for their “evacuation” to the internment camps. Although some families returned after the war to retrieve their stored belongings, many did not.
A Plexiglas-covered hole in the teahouse floor today enables diners to peer down at the items people left behind: luggage, a baby carriage, furniture. It is like looking through a window in time, and one wonders what became of the families who never reclaimed their belongings.
I cannot encourage anyone enough to visit the hotel and take a moment to peer through the window in the teahouse floor, if you live near Seattle or expect to visit the city!
The daughter of a musician friend of mine attends the Mercer Island Junior High school, and a request was sent out by the school to anyone who might have experience with Chinese or Japanese immigrants in Seattle to come and speak. My friend reached out to me, and after several emails and phone conversations, we scheduled time for me to do a remote session to speak with the students about my mom’s family experience during WWII.
I was delighted to receive questions from many students the week before my scheduled talk. Questions ranged from living conditions in the camp to issues of identity, racism, and how we feel about the event in retrospect. I was glad to answer the questions, as well as think about them in preparation for my talk.
At the appointed time, through a remote computer connection, I showed pictures of my mother and her family, and pictures from “camp.” With only a half hour per class, I had to limit my talk primarily to the period of incarceration.
At the end of my talk, I encouraged the students to examine two take-away lessons:
1. Interview your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
I never knew my grandparents. They died around the time I was born. The only reason I know these stories is because my mom collected them and laboriously hand wrote, then manually typed them, and shared them with me.
Today, it is so easy with a cell phone to audio- or video-record a relative. Ask the person about his or her life growing up. Be persistent! You will be grateful to have the stories and recordings later!
2. Stand up and speak up for what you know to be right.
My mother often says it was not the mean, racist people who hurt her and her family the most. Rather, it was the many people who stood by silently and allowed the mistreatment and injustices to occur.
I told the students I believed they knew right from wrong, and encouraged them to speak up when they saw something wrong. Whether it happens at an individual, community, or nationwide level, speak up! Don’t let anyone try to persuade you that your voice does not matter.
I was happy about the reception I received from the classes and the thoughtful questions the students posed. I was also delighted to receive personal messages a week later from the students thanking me for the talk.
Many wrote how much more meaningful I had made the history for them. Learning a personal story helped them understand much better what had happened and why it was so important to not to forget. At least one also indicated his intention to interview his parents. That really made me happy!
History is sometimes taught as a random collection of names and dates, and it often glosses over or completely skips its darker chapters. I was glad to speak with the students, and left the experience with renewed hope for the future.