The Great Wave, color woodcut, 1830-1833, 10 x 15 in. (approx)

In my twenties and early thirties I worked in the aerospace field. Three of my most important customers were Japan Air Lines, All Nippon Airways, and Toa Domestic Airlines. There was no conscious attempt to associate me with the Japanese; it just worked out that way. There were many stereotypes of Japanese businessmen in those days: prodigious and embarrassingly sloppy drunks; avid pursuers of sexual adventure; great traders of business cards; great bowers; and maddening anal-retentive negotiators. Persnickity detail-oriented fools, we thought them. We actually had a very large shipment of several million dollars worth of gear delayed once because a bag of washers worth about fifty cents had only 199 washers inside instead of the two hundred on the label. Their most senior people would fall asleep during meetings, and everyone else would lower their voices so as not to disturb them. Their functionaries could always brief them later if something important occurred while they were napping. And any business, no matter how crucial or time critical, could always be delayed in favor of a round of golf. (You don’t play golf Don-san? Hah! You must play golf! We will teach you.)

The overwhelming message for this young Louisiana boy was that they are not like us. Beware!

Years later, when I had become hip to the ways of Japanese business, one of my clients  brought me one of their books about doing business with the Americans. Here, in precis, is just some of what it had to say:

They are a very aggressive people, (meaning Americans) and must always feel in every interaction that there is a winner and a loser or it unsettles them. This is a culture that considered its own frontier as something to be “won,” to be wrested from God. When negotiating they look only at the areas of disagreement, and resent discussing the far more pleasant areas of mutual harmony which must also be explored lest we discover that perhaps we do not understand these issues as well as we thought we did. They will pretend to a great sociability, but will always think of you as inferior, not in a mean-spirited way, but in a kind of goofy ignorance…

And so on in that vein.  The idea that another culture saw us as a kind of witless, backwoods clan that had to be humored for the sake of business was very humbling. It was a real eye opener for me. I grew to love these people very much. They were often guests in my home during their visits to Texas. People know when you really like them, and I believe they liked me, in turn.

One night, when it was very late, I sat talking with my friend as we drank coffee together. He was much, much older than I, a man who wore an eye patch because he had lost an eye while fighting for Japan in World War II. (He caught an error in alignment for our collimating optics once, an error that our expensive, high-technology theodolite had missed. He grinned and pointed to his eye saying, “One eye pretty damned good, huh?”) It was one of those fuzzy late night discussions in which the older, wiser man listens patiently to the younger, dumber man talk about big issues. When I had finished defining everything for him, he spoke. “You know the difference between us?” he asked. “The real difference?” He showed me his cup and said, “To me, this cup and I. Same thing. This cup and you. Same thing. This is the universe, this cup. Same thing. This is what I believe, what I know to be true. We are pieces of glitter. Atoms. Atoms in this cup. Atoms in our flesh. Glitter reflecting light, but still the same things. When we dissolve into our atoms we will be what we are now, just part of everything.  Part of the air, the sea, the stars. Western thought and religion imagines a God that cares for you, so you can feel important. Our thought and religion knows that everything really is important. And nothing is. I don’t think Americans can ever be content with that.”

This is the first of Hokusai’s most famous series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The Great Wave is not a picture of a tsunami. It is simply a great wave at sea. Hokusai includes boats with people in them and they are all at the mercy of the sea. In the distance is Mount Fuji, the mystic symbol of Japan. In the manner of Chinese and Japanese art the painting is constructed such that we could easily be sitting in another boat just outside the frame. All of us in this same boat, as it were. Too clever by half.

My friend died a long while back. On my desk, right now, beside the photo of my grandchild, is a green sake bottle with cup that he gave me some twenty, twenty-five years ago. I drank the sake, of course. It is worth nothing. It is worth everything. Of all the things I own and cherish, it is the only thing to survive that period of my life, and it is the only one that I am certain will outlive me.

It is a very special cup. It is nothing at all.

And it glitters.

araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogaw

the rough sea/ stretching out toward Sado/ the Milky Way

(Bashō, 1689)




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6 Responses to Hokusai

  1. catherine whittington says:

    I, too, survived that period of your life. We should go play golf.

    • foxpudding says:

      The language in the essay makes it clear I am thinking of things I both “Own and cherish” and while I cherish you, dear, I certainly don’t own you. And I will never play golf with you.

  2. Dana Brenner says:

    For the last 4 years Steve has been reping a company in Mexico. He has experienced sort of the same differences. They wanted to sell in the US-which is why they hired him. His biggest complaint is that they have lunch from 2 – 4. And then they work till 7pm. It is what it is!!!! Who said that????

  3. Albert Berg says:

    What’s the name of that book, and is it available in English? I think it would be fascinating to read another culture’s view of American philosophy.

    • foxpudding says:

      Here’s a secret. There was no book. It was an article reprinted in a business magazine in English that our agent Tak Tanaka gave me. I wish I could remember the source better, but I can’t. I used “book” in the essay because it worked better, and I’m sure there are probably several books like that, though perhaps few in English. The comment about our attitude to the west was the part that always stuck with me. It was a great article that taught me much about patience and made negotiating with the Japanese a lot easier.

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