David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

15 October 1990, Japan Stories #8: Parties, Catholics, Ireland, etc.

Last week the laboratory had a big party to welcome Cathy and me, to welcome the new students in the lab, to bid farewell to the guy who held my position previously, and to celebrate the promotion to full professor---in a new laboratory---of the laboratory's associate professor. There were about 30 people all told; Cathy, the OL ("Office Lady", who is really an administrative assistant, although her duties include vacuuming and making tea, in addition to budgeting, travel, scheduling, etc.), and a Chinese student were the only women. We sat in a private room that had two long, low tables on tatami mats. In contrast to most Japanese parties where there are quite a few speeches before anybody eats or drinks anything, the "kampai" ("cheers") toast was almost immediate (after they figured out the proper place to seat the Honored Guests). Eating and beer drinking started right away. The speeches weren't forgotten, however. It was easy to hear them, since the room was set up with an incredible sound system. (So was the private room just on the other side of a thin partition, which made for a loud party.) Our host gave the first speech, which lasted (I am sure) at least 30 minutes. Cathy thinks he said something about essentially everybody in the room, but I have no clue since it was Japanese. Then I had to give my standard introduction (I'm getting pretty good at this now). The joke I tried didn't go over really well, even after it was translated; Cathy liked it though, which is one of the reasons I why I love her. Then the other Honored Guests gave a little spiel (longer than mine, but not up to our host's record). But wait! The speeches weren't over. Not close. In fact, by the end, everybody (including the adminstrative assistant, some ex-students that had tagged along, and Cathy) all got to say their piece, 98

There was some good news, though. The sound system was connected to a karaoke machine. So we spent about 15 minutes in joyous song (which was in direct competition with the significantly rowdier group in the next room). Some folks did a Japanese song or two, Cathy and I did our fabulous rendition of "Yesterday" (hey, there isn't that much in English on these machines), a Japanese student did his imitation of Paul Simon doing "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", and, after lots of cajoling, our host did a final number in Japanese. It was then 8:30, the scheduled end to the party, so the organizer collected money from everyone (except the Honored Guests, of course), and we left. The faculty all went home (one guy still had his standard two hour commute) while the students went drinking elsewhere. I guess they wanted to talk about how strange Cathy and I are. (Actually, we later found out that they spent a lot of time "discussing" how long our host's speech was. Apparently every year his speeches get longer and longer.)

One the way out, one of the other Honored Guests came up and asked, "Is your wife Cathy?" I said, "Yes." He said, "So am I." Well, I'm used to being confused so I smiled and said, "Hai." Then he said, "I'm pretty unusual in Japan." I agreed (although this kind of statement is highly unusual in Japan). Then he said, "My wife's family lives in the neighborhood. And they go to church on Sundays. If your wife wants to join them, they'd be honored." Ahh, "Catholic", not "Cathy." By this time, it was too late to set things straight (trust me, I've tried this before, and it's almost hopeless). So I smiled and promised I'd talk to her about it.

One day at lunch, a Chinese woman who is a student in the department told me something else about Cathy that I didn't know: that some of her ancestors came from Iceland. Well, some of Cathy's background is a mystery to me anyway, so I figured this was surprising but not impossible. Then the student said, "Cathy said that's where she gets her red hair." Ahh. Ireland.

Cathy said a woman came to our apartment the other day. She was about 25 years old and dressed to kill (which is pretty much standard in Japan). There was a grandmotherly-type lurking down the hallway. Cathy doesn't remember many of the details, except that the magazine she showed Cathy involved blood. And money. And 98 it. The same woman came by on Saturday morning (no sign of a lurking grandmother), with something that might well have been material about the Jehovah's Witnesses. You can run, but you can't hide.

Last Wednesday was a national holiday, Sports & Culture Day. (The last holiday was "Respect for the Aged Day." We could use one of those.) The afternoon was a stunning fall day, so we went to Mino-o, about a 20 minute train ride away. We just wanted to walk around outside and commune with nature a little bit, and the rumor was that there was a nice waterfall nearby. We got to the station, had some lunch, and started the walk. And indeed the walk was nice, although we had both forgotten that it would be chock full of people (you'd think we'd have learned from Fuji-san). There were all the standard shlock souvenir stands along the way, selling things ranging from squeaky frogs and aligators (which we bought) to fake handcuffs and hear/see/speak no-evil monkeys (which we didn't buy). At almost every store (and there were lots) they were frying maple leaves in batter. We bought some just to see what they were like. They weren't so good (don't worry Mom, I was careful), but they were pretty and the idea was really nice. We also saw an automatic vending machine for cotton candy. Put in 100 yen and twirl a stick around in the bowl. Wild.

Along the way to the waterfall were lots of shrines and private houses, an entomological museum, some playgrounds, restaurants, and a beautiful flowing river with eddies and rapids and kids playing making dams and people having picnics on standard plastic dropcloths. It was closer to nature than we'd been for a while, despite the fact that the beautiful river was lined by a fence made from plastic logs. The waterfall, after about a 30-40 minute walk, was wonderful. I'd guess it was 50-75 meters high and it gave a nice spray and the sun sparkled off of it. It was crowded, of course, but Cathy and I climbed a rock and sat for a long time, watching the people mostly. Although more people than usual were dressed "down" in (designer) jeans and such, there were a couple of women in slinky dresses and fancy sweaters and high, high heels. This was definitely a walk rather than a hike, but four inch heels (seriously) couldn't have made it easy. On the way down, a middle-aged man came up to me and started pointing at my beard and shouting to his friends to look at the "gaijin" (it sounded even more derogatory than usual) with the "hige" (beard). He couldn't have been more than a foot away but he didn't even acknowledge that I was there. Now, people point at or giggle about my beard quite a bit, but this guy was a complete jerk. I really felt that he thought I was a zoo animal rather than a person. But we went off to the movies ("Strapless", which was great) and I felt lots better soon after.

Last week my host came in around 11AM and said that there was a party that evening at 6:30PM and that he'd like me to go. The laboratory that provides my position is endowed by a Japanese corporation; this is the only such laboratory at Osaka University, and the president of the university likes to show this off, so I was invited to the party. I cancelled a plan for the evening, because it seemed pretty important (despite the short notice). At 6PM four of us (my host, the full professor of the lab I'm in, and the Dean) took off in a taxi for the hotel. We got there and we registered. They had no pre-printed name tag for me; everybody else (except one) was in Kanji. The cost was 8000 yen each, about $60 at the recent exchange rate, not 5000 as I had been told earlier. It turns out that the party was for professors in disciplines such as computer science, EE, electronics, communications, etc., which span both the Faculty of Engineering and thefaculty of Engineering Science here. One intent of this yearly meeting (this was the 20th anniversary) is to introduce new faculty. I wasn't on the official agenda (passed out as people registered for the party), but I was added.

The party started with about 15 minutes of speeches (all in Japanese). Then there was the kampai toast. Then we drank and ate. There was beer, orange soda, sushi, sashimi, baked scallops, lunch meat, roast beef, tempura (made on the spot), whiskey (in big water glasses) and dessert (fruit and cake). After about an hour of eating, they lit up the stage and the Master of Ceremony (yes, I'm serious) introduced about a dozen of us new folks. I was last, so I had my canned speech already, and all 30 seconds of it went just great. Some guy in a string tie (95 gave a final speech. And the party was over. No sign of the president. On the way out, at the cloakroom, a very senior, quite old white haired fellow came up and shook my hand and mumbled something. Of course, I didn't understand, as usual, but mumbled my thanks right back. My host then whispered to me, with a gleam in his eye, "Did you hear what he said?" I told him I had no idea. Well, he had said, "Auf Wiedersein."

Auf Wiedersein.