(Sent to ANA Wingspan Short Story Contest July 26, 1997)


By David Aldwinckle

Chris Anderson simply adored travel. Whatever chance he got, he used his home base of Hokkaido, Japan, as a springboard to explore Asia. His style was distinctive--he would simply board a plane and wing it, letting the winds of fate determine his schedule. One time, however, he flew too close to the sun. Joining a Japanese package tour, he travelled like the Asians do themselves, but found himself buffetted by group dynamics that made the trip unbearable.

First, some background. A thirty-year-old American, married and fluent in Japanese, Chris was the only foreign member of the "Hokkaido Extra-National Discussion Association" (HENDA). A organization like many in Japan, HENDA was comprised of older men who found life worthwhile if they invested surplus time and money in a social club. Its goal was to "promote mutual understanding between Japan and other countries", nominally accomplished through homestays and student exchanges between English-speaking countries.

HENDA's founder and helmsman, Mr Shirasaka, was a professor of English at one of the local universities. In his late sixties, Shirasaka had so much seniority that he could delegate anything to HENDAites. One of his pet projects was the HENDANEWS, a semiannual circular, full of half-baked halftones of parties and flowery articles about Japan's ubiquitous internationalization.

This is where people like Chris came in. Since extra-credit credibility is lent to any Japanese publication if it finds its way into English, HENDANEWS needed translators. Shirasaka's job was to find a doe-eyed gaijin (foreigner) learning Japanese, befriend him, and have him translate--gratis--a designated article or two "for language practice".

Shirasaka actively recruited Chris into the HENDA ranks and set him to work. Whenever there was a speech to be made, Chris was wheeled out as the cute-Japanese-speaker to translate for members who were bilingual anyway. Most of Shirasaka's former pet gaijin, when they saw how cheesy their role was, quit HENDA without regret. Chris, however, stayed on, assuming it all part of the "Japanese give-and-take", and expecting future rewards for being the present gofer. In any case, he thought, it was excellent language practice.

Chris's job description soon grew. For their tenth anniversary, Shirasaka proposed that HENDA run down to New Zealand and meet honorary members (i.e. penpals), taking Chris along as interpreter. Voluntary, of course--Chris would pay his own way. True to form, Chris did not refuse, for it was his first chance to see the Antipodes. Little did he know that on this trip he would discover more about Japan than NZ, since events and Japanese group dynamics would force him to choose between his loyalties and his conscience.

So off HENDA went for a Kiwi week. The entourage, about ten members with their families in tow, displayed the typical mix of thrill and fear that Japanese feel when first leaving their language. They need not have worried. At all their stops--Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wellington--HENDAites spent their daytime touring in classic Japanese style: cooped up in tourbuses seeing the sights behind glass, only getting off to shop and eat food that was tailored to Japanese palettes. Evenings were spent drinking with the Kiwi HENDA members, who had kindly arranged big "intercultural exchange" parties with the governments of sleepy towns. Guess who became the Official HENDA Emcee? Chris found himself perpetually on call, translating shopping lists by day and public platitudes by night, and in between maintaining a public face for the HENDANEWS cameras.

This style of touring was not to Chris's taste, and it soon took its toll. Worn out every day before lunchtime, treated as hired help by the HENDA bosses, and unable to create his own precious fate, Chris for the first time found himself actually sick of speaking Japanese.

Hence he was happy to find a member of the troupe who was a good English speaker but not an old fudd: Ms Aihara. A woman in her mid-thirties, she was a bored Japanese housewife with lots of education but of the wrong gender to make use of it. So she spent her elderly husband's prodigious salary, sponsored HENDA homestays, and studied English. Then, when she found out about her husband's philandering, she decided two things: 1) to divorce him, and 2) to travel to NZ to see old homestay friends and refresh her language.

It took a day or two of being bored on a tourbus before Ms Aihara's conversations became this confidential, but she, like many Japanese, felt liberated by speaking in English. So she let her angst show, and became particularly vocal about her relations with another member of HENDA--Chairman Shirasaka.

It went like this: When Shirasaka heard of Ms Aihara's impending divorce, he started barraging her with flowers, gifts, and date invitations. Ms Aihara's polite refusals just made him redouble his efforts, especially now that they were in close quarters on this tour. The more Shirasaka chased, the more Ms Aihara edged towards the only other HENDAite who was close to her age--Chris. Overnight, Chris had changed from Shirasaka's apprentice to his rival.

So Shirasaka went on the offensive, resorting to the oldest Japanese trick in the social sanction book--defamation through juicy rumor. In the best Iago tradition, he spread snippets about sexual liaisons between Ms Aihara and the gaijin in the group. Most members were incredulous, but since our group loved gossip, too much time was spent pretending not to be talking about the alleged lovebirds.

Chris could see what was going on but he refused to edge away from Ms Aihara. To him, there were issues of pride and privacy involved. Not helping out would have been cowardly, and he couldn't just let somebody sexually harass a member of his group. Even if that "somebody" was HENDA's most powerful member. Besides, our relationship is nobody else's business, Chris thought indignantly. If he was becoming a shield or a foil, so be it, he decided.

Moreover, Chris knew that the last thing one does in the face of rumor-mongering is act guilty. So the duo met and talked as normal. Chris remaining confident that a professional attitude towards Ms Aihara as an English student would clear things up. However, that was not to be, and Chris's more American attitude to the situation merely accelerated the collision course. HENDA's tongues refused to stop wagging, and the tour's atmosphere continued to deteriorate.

By the last day of our trek, Chris had reached breaking point, and he demanded a day away to see NZ his way. Fortunately, the last day of the tour, Auckland, had an open schedule. The airplane was leaving in the late evening, so as long as members were back to the hotel in time for the airport shuttlebus, they could do as they pleased. Ms Aihara suggested that she and Chris rent a car--one day with unlimited mileage was cheap, and 90 Mile Beach looked inviting.

Chris took the proper precautions to avoid miscommunications, telling a number of senior HENDAites about their itinerary and return schedule. Shirasaka expressed misgivings, saying that their breaking away was not Japanese style. But Chris calmly pointed out that 1) they were in fact free to do as they wanted, and 2) this was not Japan anyway. He nodded in assent and off they went.

It was an interesting drive, full of beloved happenings. They ate roadside fish and chips for lunch and dinner, saw lovely rolling hills and bays, lost the road, and nearly ran out of gas. After refueling, Ms Aihara suggested they play it prudent and turn around now. Unfortunately, on the way back the winds brought forth two, count them, two thunderstorm fronts that and drenched them--as well as a few thousand other cars mysteriously jamming the entire 80 kilometers back to Auckland.

Ever the veteran of unpredictability, Chris had brought a matchbook with the Auckland hotel's number, and called to tell somebody that they would be delayed. But as fate would have it, Shirasaka was the only one within earshot. He came on the line and said no problem--he would spread the word to HENDA. And how.

Meanwhile, nothing exasperates quite so exquisitely as when you are bumper-to-bumper with a clock ticking away in your head. When Chris realized that they would not even be back in time for the hotel shuttlebus, he called again, resourcefully having the concierge change the car drop-off from hotel to airport, and got Shirasaka on the line to tell him of developments. No problem again.

At long last, the star-crossed duo arrived at Auckland International Airport, fortunately well in time for the airplane departure, and coincidentially at the same time as the HENDA shuttlebus. Meeting in the lounge, Ms Aihara and Chris extended their apologies and greetings to anybody who would listen. Problem was nobody would. HENDA members displayed the normal "Japanese angry response"--silence and averted eyes.

Chris foresaw an uncomfortable twelve hours in transit, so he downloaded etiquette gleaned during stints working at Japanese companies. How to contain conflict in this kind of situation? Answer: a bit of hansei (making an effort to find your faults) via a speech of general apology to the group. Chris waited until all were assembled, and wound up to deliver the speech of the century.

Unfortunately, HENDA's second-in-command, a Mr Fukuyama, was not in the mood. As Official Organizer of the tour, he had been respon-sible for making schedules run like clockwork--the regular Japanese expectation. He had also opposed Ms Aihara's and Chris's trip pre-cisely because something like this might happen, but had held his tongue. Now, buttressed by a bottle of bubbly with dinner, he decided to uncork.

Right in the middle of Chris's explanation for their tardiness, Fukuyama screamed, in front of everybody, "Shut up, idiot! I will hear none of your bullcrap!" (damare! omae no detarame o kikan!).

Chris was shocked, and had to think fast about how to respond. If he reacted like he would have in America, he would have screamed back: "No, YOU shut up and listen! We were back on time--in fact arriving here the same time as you. You have no right to yell at me when I'm trying to apologise. I even called twice to tell you we were going to be late!" Or Chris would have just stated that he was not beholden to Fukuyama's concepts of group rules, particularly when the former is neither Japanese nor in Japan.

But intuitively Chris knew that that tack would lose the battle. One does not fight fire with fire with Japanese when there is so much seniority involved. Fukuyama was over twice Chris's age. In his experience, if one acts disrespectfully towards elders in public --no matter how tyrannical they are--one instantly loses the audi-ence's support. The hardest thing for most Westerners to get used to is that even young Japanese people, though disadvantaged by this setup, accept it as the way things ought to be. Thus there is no recourse for discussion if the elders won't hear of it. It is a fundamental attitudinal difference towards conflict management.

So the only tack is humility back. It took Chris years to learn how to react the following way:

He approached Fukuyama and bowed deeply. Not just a little nod of the head. I mean bowing at about 35 degrees or so from upright. He held it for about (seriously) three minutes. He asked continuously (and loud enough for everyone to hear) his forgiveness (moushiwake arimasen. yurushite kudasai!). Rules: You cannot offer excuses. You should say nothing more complicated than a blanket acknowledgement of your wrongdoing. Even if you think you are right, assume the prone position. Then people just might acknowledge the tragedy of your situation. But they definitely will not if you, as the subordinate, are seen as the escalator of the conflict.

Fukuyama's reaction: he was too angry to forgive. Lips quivering, eyes shifting back and forth in fury, he told Chris to go away, that he had done a deplorable thing.

Chris then tried to apologise to Fukuyama's wife, who was also along on this tour. But, predictably, she gave one of those Japanese smiles and said, "Everyone was so worried, you know", and thus deflected him away.

Chris then went around and apologised to everyone individually and alone. Not as a gesture of repentance, mind--as a means of surveying levels of support. Ms Aihara, on the other hand, was so disgusted with Shirasaka's smug look at their denouement that she stayed away from everybody.

HENDA's reactions to Chris's apologies were highly stratified. The old, divorced men were critical, stressing how much he had incon-venienced the group. But deep down there seemed to be a Shirasaka-esque envy--of his having been alone with an available woman.

However, another HENDA big wheel (and drinking buddy of Chris's) basically told him to forget it--no harm done. Same went for the younger members of the troupe.

The most interesting response came from Fukuyama's middle-aged daughter, who was also with us. She actually apologized to Chris! Furious at her father for blowing up in front of everybody, making Chris lose so much face, she thought there had been a clear overreaction. Chris denied it and tried to take the blame back, but she wouldn't have it. She said Ms Aihara and Chris were adults, moreover he a native speaker in an English-speaking country, so what was the fuss? Everyone was on time, anyway.

And Shirasaka? He switched back from rival to mediator, an "I understand gaijin like Chris-san so I'll smooth over everything," sort of attitude. Chris apologised to him just the same, as is politic, and he was all smiles. Until his mind alighted on Ms Aihara. His face darkened and he said in English:

"Chris-kun, you apologised to everybody. That is good, the Japanese way. But Aihara is not showing a good attitude. She is not apologising to anyone. She hasn't apologised to me. You should tell her to apologise to me, like a real Japanese. Otherwise, she will be abandoned by Japanese society." That out, his smile reappeared, and he gave a big hyena laugh.

Hyena indeed. Chris would find out months later from Fukuyama that Shirasaka was the cause of all this. The latter had spent the day buttonholing the older men, pointing out that the two-person outing was foolhardy and inconsiderate, and questioning the propriety of married people travelling alone like that. To top it off, Shirasaka had never passed on Chris's telephone messages to the group. No wonder Fukuyama blew up!

However, Chris, after ten years of living and working in Japan, had managed a surprising amount of damage control. Despite Shirasaka's best efforts to blow his rival away, the level of support for Chris's position remained high: over half the members were sympathetic, including Fukuyama's daughter, who would normally defend her dad against anybody! Thus, Chris here realized that humility and prostration can be used as a weapon too, in ways that were counterintuitive to his American background.

Most importantly, justice was finally served. During the long plane ride back, Shirasaka showed the whole HENDA entourage that if anyone had designs on Ms Aihara, it was not Christopher Anderson.

In the airport lounge, Ms Aihara cooled down a bit and went around apologizing, but HENDA treated her with disdain. Shirasaka had turned up the ostracization gas. He had told Chris and other members that nobody should approach her, that people were saying she was callous and unpredictable, and not behaving like a proper Japanese. Boarding the mostly-empty plane, Shirasaka publicly told her to sit far away from everyone. Compliantly, she went round a corner (where the attendants bring out food) to a solitary seat.

A little while after takeoff, Chris went to Ms Aihara and asked if she was alright. Of course she was not, so he sat down to keep her company. When he mentioned Shirasaka's attempts to ostracize her, she let her hot anger dry up her tears, then asked Chris for some paper. Since Chris collected stationery from any hotel at which he stayed, he had some handy and went to retreive it.

He went back to his seat, aisles away and plainly in view of Shirasaka--who had taken an interest in Chris's activities since he changed chairs. Chris was searching through his briefcase when Shirasaka boldly came up and said, "What are you looking for?" Chris simply replied, "Oh, something,", and waited until he had sat back down. Then, paper in hand, Chris returned to Ms Aihara's seat.

Shirasaka actually stood up, followed behind, and peered around the corner to see what they were doing, ducking back when Chris felt someone watching him. All this in full view of HENDA.

Ms Aihara, who had suffered enough defamation, then set about creating a record of Shirasaka's harassment, complete with times and dates. As fate would have it again, one of HENDA's big cheeses just happened to be a lawyer, and both he and his married daughter just happened to be on the plane. The time was ripe for the truth to come out--if not to clear her name, then to frighten Shirasaka away.

Chris asked if she wanted to be left alone, and she said, "No, please sit here. If you leave, Shirasaka will come over and try to find out what's happening." Chris stayed put. Hours passed, and when he could no longer keep his eyes open, the HENDA lawyer's daughter, in a surprising show of support, took Chris's seat. All Shirasaka could do was sit in the background and bite his nails. The forces of social sanction were working against him this time.

More surprises came. According to the lawyer's daughter this was not Shirasaka's first offense. Shirasaka was in fact a pathological bottom-pincher, and her father had to help hush up several of his exploits. That was why she respected Chris for helping a damsel in distress, and for shaming her into finally lending a hand.

After landing in Hokkaido, Ms Aihara photocopied her record, gave it to the lawyer, and washed her hands. All calls and communications from Shirasaka henceforth ceased.


MR FUKUYAMA and Chris had a lot of chats about this trek later on, and now see eye-to-eye on this incident. They remain cordial.

MS AIHARA and Chris lost touch with one another, as often happens when fates disentangle and lives return to normal. She has remarried and lives the less-bored life of a mature student at a university.

MR SHIRASAKA is still carrying on as normal, sans Chris. Although he has found another pet gaijin to help with his pet projects, he has become famous in the long-term gaijin community as "Mr Take-and-Take". Anyone who knows him steers clear of him, especially women.

CHRIS ANDERSON just went home to suck on the lessons of this trip. Ayako Anderson, a long-suffering travel widow like Gulliver's wife, repeatedly criticized him for spending so much money on a journey he did not enjoy: "Why are you such a sucker for women in trouble?", she reiterated. Chris sighed and said that he could not have conscionably just sat there and done nothing.

AND HENDA, the ultimate victim of this story, watched its membership dwindle. To members, the NZ trip was like a live-action David Lynch movie, where a society nice on the surface exposes a deep, dark underbelly. HENDA's perennial leader was willing, in a fit of jealousy, to sully his reputation within a group he had invested so much energy. Subsequent gossip fueled an exodus. Chris himself quit soon afterwards.

So what take-home lessons did Chris glean from all this? When he had to prostrate himself in that airport, he came very close to absconding and never returning to Japan again. But return he did, to find renewed confidence from those days' events. He rested assured that even a person as bull-headed as he could learn how to play the Japanese way, learning the tools and the rules to combat disadvantages that arise when non-Japanese get involved in Japanese group dynamics.

That confidence, Chris told his wife, was worth the airplane fare.

Dave Aldwinckle is a university lecturer in Sapporo.

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Copyright 1997-2003, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan