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February 21, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Narrow-minded? Not these country folk

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(October 14, 1993)    

The lecture, held to commemorate the local elementary school’s 120th anniversary, was titled “Nihonjin no Ikikata:  Soto kara Miru (The Japanese Lifestyle: Seen from the Outside).” As I was about to take my seat at the back of the auditorium, I spotted the familiar face of my former co-official in the children’s association. She beckoned me to sit next to her.

I hadn’t seen much of her lately – she said she’d been busy but came to the talk thinking the speaker would be interesting. Apparently well known, she told me he appears regularly in scholarly discussions on educational television.

She, like myself, assumed he’d lived abroad and had something, well, if not new, insightful, to say about his experience. She was particularly interested to know if he’d talk about how his new foreign perspective made him view Japan and the Japanese differently.

The talk was open to the community and indeed the room was full, not only with parents who’d just come from viewing their children’s open-school day classes, but other local folk. The elderly man who sat in front of me turned around as soon as he’d settled himself.

Bowing from his seat he said, “Ah, Anton-san, doumo.” He introduced himself saying his granddaughter, my daughter Mie’s classmate, often visited our home. Thanking me for my hospitality, I responded with the customary “kochira koso,” knowing I was equally indebted to him.

The speaker opened with a little joke saying that although he hadn’t chosen the title of the talk, he would try to speak to the issues the title raised.

He talked about any number of things, jumping from subject to subject – and was boring from the minute he opened his mouth. The only time I perked up my ears was when he mentioned the word kokujin – as I could not imagine how the subject of black people had worked its way into his insipid talk. And I could hardly believe those perked up ears when I heard his disparaging and prejudicial remarks.

After one hour, one question, and lukewarm applause, my neighbor woke up and asked me if the talk had been interesting. “It didn’t seem like it would be,” she said, responding to my weary look. “I was fast asleep before he’d spoken five minutes.”

Walking out of the auditorium I was stopped by the class representative for the PTA who thanked me for contributing an essay for a special anniversary publication. Another mother stopped me to say how well Lila, my youngest daughter, had spoken, explaining her class recycling campaign.

Before the talk began, the pupils had put on a production and my son Mario helped set up the stage and had been a prominent player. Chosen to be the school’s bandleader, he did a quick change before leading the band out of the auditorium with the students following.

Walking toward my car, I was touched lightly on the arm. When I turned around I saw the mother of my son’s track and field teammate.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said. “Look, you can still see the goose bumps on my arm.” And there were tears in her eyes.

I was glad she’d stopped me (and thankful my children had not been in the auditorium).

“Did he say what I thought I heard him say?” I asked her, thinking I might have misunderstood the Japanese and that it wouldn’t hurt to check.

No mistake at all, she assured me. What he said was clearly discriminatory. Standing behind her, her husband, a quiet man who doesn’t talk a lot, cast his eyes down and nodded in agreement.

She said that no doubt the professor felt secure in saying what he did because “country people are known to be conservative and narrow-minded.” And while he no doubt expected his rural audience to concur with him, these country people could only cringe at his ugly generalizations about “American blacks.”

In any event, I was certain that he did not know (would probably have difficulty believing) that in that little country school, in the middle of a rice field in the middle of nowhere, there had been a black person listening to his lecture.

Since my husband hadn’t been able to attend, he telephoned the school and asked for a taped copy of the talk. The school said they hadn’t recorded it. (Had they known in advance he wouldn’t say anything worth preserving?)

Clearly aware why we wanted a copy of the talk, a school administrator told my husband that they too had taken umbrage at what the professor said and had spoken with him afterward. They said his excuse was that in trying to shorten his talk he didn’t explain what he was trying to say.

What’s there to explain? What was he trying to say?

Some days later my neighbor asked me if I’d felt “disheartened” by what the professor had said. Not really, I told her. After all, I didn’t just wake up in this world. More than anything though, I said I felt sorry for my neighbors, for the parents of my children’s classmates, and for their teachers.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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