THE "JAPANESE ONLY" WORLD TOUR AND VISION QUEST
(What follows is an unfinished series
of essays which were too painful to conclude past Part One, as they
discuss a legacy of horrible parenting and child abuse in my past.
I've since added to this in 2007, when even my parents abducted
my daughter and denied me visitation rights. More on that here.
Arudou Debito in Sapporo)
Hello Friends' List. Time to make sense of my March:
THE "JAPANESE ONLY WORLD TOUR AND VISION QUEST
April 3, 2006
This series of essays will not be in the format of my typical
reports. As longtime readers on my "Friends' List" know, after I
go on a trip, I generally offer my Friends' List a summary of what
happened on the journey, both logistically and intellectually. If
not for my sake (to organize my thoughts and put moments and lessons in
their proper place), then to offer thanks to my hosts and ruminations
to those who know me.
If this sort of
thing is not to your taste, please skip this series. There'll be
reports from me as usual in the near future as things come up.
Still, perhaps give it a try? Taking a break from reportage
actually gives the writer in me a good workout. Debito in Osaka,
en route to Sapporo
Let me open with a rumination:
I have a feeling that a good part of one's middle age is spent dealing
with issues dealt us in childhood. Finally putting demons to rest
if possible. Not only to enable us to grow a bit, but also
hopefully to allow us some form of peace in our twilight years.
Because no matter under how many layers and experiences one buries
their unpleasant memories, sooner or later they somehow manage to claw
their way out.
This might sound a bit precocious, but I think I already see the path
to the twilight. I consider my thirties and particularly my
twenties to be time spent lost, dealing with uphill climbs, wondering
what I'm supposed to do with my life and pondering what is the measure
of a man. Now in my forties, I feel as though I've reached a
summit, able to look behind and see where I came from, and admire the
panorama ahead, seeing more clearly than ever the path of a lifetime as
it winds into the sunset.
This trip, it would turn out, would exorcise a number of childhood demons...
PART ONE: FROM OKAYAMA TO BATON ROUGE
MARCH 10 - MARCH 17
March 2006 was busy. I had been hired to talk at several
educational institutions in The States. The first invitation,
from Mark West at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, had come in
over a year ago. A few more rolled in after I had an article
published in January on JAPAN FOCUS, evaluating Japan's ability to
assimilate immigrants and its overwhelming need to do so (read it at
http://www.japanfocus.org/article.asp?id=496 ; the site coordinator,
Mark Selden, said it was the most accessed article on their site for a
good two weeks). So I asked around to see if there would be any
interest in my making a few detours. There was, and all told my
itinerary became Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Kennedy
High School (yes, a high school) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U Mich Ann
Arbor, Columbia Law School, New York University Law School, and Amherst
College, Massachusetts. Three weeks, six venues. And, since
I love public speaking, I asked my hosts for as many additional on-site
speaking gigs as I could get (since I was stopping over for at least
three nights in each place). Hey, they were bringing me all the
way over there, they might as well make me earn my keep. They
were amenable. I then sent my destinations to my travel agent and
arranged a multi-stop plane ticket.
It would become a trek which taught me a lot more than I taught
others. A fair exchange. Problem was, the spirit was
willing but the flesh would weaken. From day one on the road.
The trip began on March 10, flying down from Sapporo to see friends
(Chad and Karen, as well as an expanding circle of drinking partners,
such as DJ, Aki, and Fernando) in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture.
Both C and K had arranged accommodations, and Karen in particular
arranged a speech for me in Okayama City (delivered as transparencies
and an overhead projector to about thirty people; this would be my only
low-tech speech of the entire trek; everything else was a delicious
Powerpoint presentation I had created specially, which you can download
in full at http://www.debito.org/arudounewpresentation.ppt ). As
usual, we spent every night partying, every day working (I was of
course on vacation, but I kept polishing my Powerpoint). And
dealing with a development that would mar more than half my trip.
The creeping illness was pretty subtle in its attack. The first
two nights, I just felt ungodly tired, as though I was coming down with
mononucleosis or had been bitten by a tsetse fly; one night I just
asked for a catnap break from my beer and slept like a brick, waking up
a full two hours later; I hadn't been so diphenhydramine sleepy since I
came down with pneumonia at age two. But by the third night, when
I was delivering my Okayama speech and feeling the storm of sinusitis
gathering strength, I realized that it wasn't a matter of tired blood
or body. I was coming down with a horrible cold, one of the worst
I've ever had (and I don't get colds very often). The TPO
couldn't have been worse--this version seized my throat and filled my
sinuses for days. Worse yet, it took away my voice--something I
needed in order to do what I had been hired for. What good would
it do my hosts if they got me all the way there and I couldn't
perform? Talk about the measure of a man! <g>
On top of that, I was in Kurashiki, for below-average temperatures
(below freezing at night), where like in most of Honshu buildings are
not insulated, and people are used to donning more layers instead of
heating their homes. And my cold was throwing in chills at no
extra charge. One lingering image I have of this trip is where my
hosts ran outside to see snow falling mid-day (snow is apparently
unusual in Inland-Sea-abutting Kurashiki; I had just gone through five
months of flakes in Sapporo and London and was bloody sick of
it). They opened windows to watch it trickle down. They ran
outside and caught it on fingers and tongues. And meanwhile left
the front door and windows open in the excitement. Something
absolutely unthinkable in Hokkaido since you'd lose all your house
Precisely. Which meant there was no escape from the cold (the
houses, if anything, were colder than outside, since they shielded you
from the sun). Not even a hot bath helped, since the shower area
was in an unheated room with freezing tiles you'd have to brave
in bare feet just to reach the faucets, and a window was always left
open anyway to remove condensation and the possibility of mildew in any
other season... Sorry, but I was miserable. Even
stuffing adhesive kairo chemical heating packets in my socks and on my
lower back did not fix things, as I was riddled with chills
anyway. Extra layers? I donned them, but I had brought no
winter coat because I was travelling light for three weeks and through
a number of climate zones.
The worst memory of my trip was the morning of March 14, the day I was
leaving the country. I awoke early in the morning (the room
thermostat, despite the air conditioner roaring all night set to 30
degrees C, indicated a balmy 11). I was in a world of congestion
and hurt. Not only was it impossible to breathe through my nose
(bunged up and bloody beyond blowing), when I breathed through my
mouth, the air scraped against my inflamed throat so badly that the
pain had even woken me up. As I said, my flight out was on that
very day, which was disastrous since I clearly needed some medical
attention, but didn't want to have to deal with exorbitant US medical
costs. And since I had sparked awake about 3AM, it would be at
least four hours until the rest of the world woke up and I could ask
somebody to take me to a doctor. So I hooded myself with a
bedcover (blankets in Honshu are also thin--I was dying for a Hokkaido
tanzen sleeping kimono or at least a duvet), made myself a breathing
cave (a Boy Scout trick learned during winter camping--the blanket
cavern warms up the ambient air before intake), and doubled up on my
socks, scarves, and caps. Anything to make things a little more
conducive to sleeping away the interim.
Come 7AM, I croaked into my keitai (a whisper was all that I could
manage--I made sure to give my full details onto the answering machine
so that Karen didn't think I was a crank caller) that I needed to be
taken to a hospital. Any hospital would do, as I fortunately had
my national health insurance form with me. My current host was
unable to help out in that regard, as he and I had drunk overmuch the
night before and he would be stuporific until at least 9AM.
Moreover, his wife (accustomed to our semiannual partying) was out
staying with family to give us the run of the house; problem was that
meant she had taken the family's only car. I didn't even know a
taxi number for Kurashiki. An hour or so later, Karen got my
message and drove me to a throat specialist ("He's a quack, but he can
write prescriptions," she said semi-encouragingly), who took one look
at me and started painting the back of my throat with something
evil-smelling and hopefully not too toxic.
"This isn't just a little case of the sniffles now, is it, doc?" I squeaked out.
"No, this little jobbie will last you at least a week. Going
overseas, are ya? Don't answer, just nod. Okay, I'll give
you two weeks of antibiotics. Odaiji ni," he said, in the
conveyer-belt-then-bombarding-with-pills style of Japanese
medicine. I bid farewell to Kurashiki and headed for the
airport. I didn't care where I was going, as long as the air I
would breathe would be warm.
DALLAS-FORT WORTH, THEN LOUISIANA
Coming back to America shouldn't be so shocking but it always is.
It's a big country, with many lifestyles and climates (one of the
reasons I shudder whenever somebody asks me in Japan, however
innocently, "how doAmericans do this-and-that?", is because there is
just too much diversity to draw any accurately representative
pictures...). DFW is a good introduction to the iceberg--a huge
airport with zillions of runways and planes taking off every few
minutes (and it's not even the nation's busiest airport). Popping
pills and stumbling in after 13 hours airborne, I had enough
distraction from my cold: Texas accents and attitudes (this is a
red state, after all). CNN blaring away in every waiting area
talking about issues far from Japan's media radar screen. Bars
selling various permutations of sandwich and coincidentally gearing up
for St. Patty's, with green beer and clover all over. The US
military was present, with troops on leave from outposts in the Middle
East walking around probably in as much of a daze as I, except in full
desert-color BDU (battle dress uniform), with the soil of Iraq probably
still on their boots (DFW even had USO lounges, on par with the lounges
for high-flying yuppies with gold cards). We had arrived a little
late (some other plane had parked in our spot, and we had to wait for
it to clear our gate), so I hit the ground running: I had less
than an hour to clear Homeland Security (had to give fingerprints all
over again--now totalling six times this past year), get my bags (my
black "monolith", which airlines made a tidy profit out of with every
connection, since it weighed more than fifty pounds; and a separate
duct-taped box of fifty JAPANESE ONLY books, which I was hoping to sell
out of), hand them to another gate, get my new boarding pass, and head
to a separate terminal to board another plane for Baton Rouge, where I
would be staying a few days with an old friend. Believe it or
not, I made it--the last one to board an American Eagle tube-on-wings
local jet which is difficult for even medium-size Americans to stand
upright in. Anyway, kudos to DFW for processing me so quickly.
Arriving at Baton Rouge in time for supper was a definite upturn.
I met with one of my oldest friends, Steve, whom I had known from
junior high school. Steve and I were fellow "Class Brains" back
then (probably still are), and I got to know him through
jealousy. He was the only kid in seventh grade who got A-pluses
(yes, A+) in ALL of his subjects. I only managed straight-A's and
the occasional A-plus (I contented myself by saying that I was on a
different course track, where two of my teachers, Mr Scharrer and Mr
Emerson, never gave anything higher than an A). But this was a
time in our lives when being first in something, be it first in line
for the bus or the cafeteria, and sitting at the "cool table" at
lunchtime, mattered to us. And for Steve (who was once a
watery-eyed milquetoast skinny kid unused to the sudden celebrity of
being heralded as "the smartest kid in school", while I languished in
second place merely for reasons beyond my control), this was no doubt a
watershed experience. We should have been rivals. But
no. We slowly became friends. Because Steve was also smart
enough not to compete. He didn't need to. Good grades came
naturally to him, whereas I had to work for them. I guess I even
needed the goading to perform.
But as Steve, now with a doctorate (I have a hell of a time calling him
"Dr. Hall", but I managed it in front of his students; I don't have a
doctorate, darn it, I suppose because we didn't attend the same
universities so he could inadvertently goad me...) sat down for a
catfish and gumbo dinner at a good Cajun restaurant, we realized just
how many youthful changes we had experienced. Together. We
did Boy Scouts together, even went to the same troop (Troop 1, Geneva,
NY). Went to Philmont Scout Ranch together both as scouts in our
teens and later as staff Rangers in our twenties. Worked as
counselors at BSA Camp Babcock Hovey (me Nature, he Trading
Post). Went to the same church Fellowship group (I never attended
the church--only the fellowship, since one of the girls there invited
me and I hoped I'd get her behind the pews sometime; I stayed on even
after I accomplished that, thanks to a very liberal minister).
Knew all the same people in high school (Steve still manages to keep up
with them; I'm out of the country but love hearing the stories of how
people are turning out). Shared the same sledding and
cross-country skiing trails. Even shared one girlfriend (and
almost shared another...). And after we went home that evening to meet
his lovely wife and children, we even rekindled our Scout Camp songs
(and a memorized Gettysburg Address which we kept filling in pieces of
for each other); she eventually just let the two of us sing like old
war veterans and gave up trying to understand the meta. Point is,
I can ask Steve about just about anything that happened to me between
the ages of twelve and twenty, and he'll have a memory that complements
one of mine.
Steve had overcome his growing pains by finding a lifetime philosophy
which gave him meaning--devout Christianity. Then we started
talking about how I had amazingly overcome mine.
"I'm proud of you, Debito," he said, "for what you've done.
You've gotten an education and a good job. You've got the mettle
to carry on human rights activism in Japan. You write
books. Of all my high school friends, you've become one of the
most accomplished, turned out as one of the most interesting.
Despite your background."
Steve began giving his opinions (because I really wanted him to) about
my family situation. I have no brothers or sisters, so nobody to
bounce the past off of. And bouncing is psychologically
important: One needs a second party to tell them their view of
what happened in the past. It's especially helpful because Steve
is a witness, a primary source. Because just recalling everything
by yourself leaves room for too much personal embellishment, and
defense mechanisms clouding what might have really happened.
Steve: "You've got interesting parents. One of the things I
remember about your dad is how he seems to have become stunted in his
emotional growth. Just reached a certain point and stopped.
So he spends a lot of his time putting others down to make himself feel
Quite. I remembered that Steve, since both he and my dad are
involved in the life sciences (he in agricultural engineering, my dad
in genetic engineering, both connected to Cornell University), share a
tenuous but existing professional relationship. One dinner party,
when we were both in our early thirties and Steve was finally settling
down to a clear career, dad over beers and barbecue glibly dismissed
Steve's entire science of sustainable agriculture as "composting", and
tried to find fault with the process due to lead poisoning through
Dad did the same thing on my graduation day from UCSD (which Steve,
yes, attended, since he was in California at the time going to UC
Davis, my dad's alma mater). Only to me this time.
Dad: "I don't see what you keep going on about, about how diverse
your graduate school is. Doesn't seem all that diverse to
me." I proffered: "There's a lot of ethnicities and nationalities
represented in our student body. Look around--we're very
diverse." Dad's counter: "Rubbish. They all look the
same. Everybody seems to be wearing the same clothes."
Clothes? Ethnicities? Connection? Hello? I
whispered to Steve later, "Shall we go home now and change our
phenotypes and throw them in the laundry?" Amusing stuff to hear
from a scientist trained in genetics like dad.
Steve continued: "And for him to keep putting you down so much
when you were a little kid? Well, good job, daddy, you've just
intellectually bested your ten-year-old son. Bully for you."
This unearthed a few memories. How when I played dad in Chess
when I was around seven or so, he'd first start winding me up about how
soundly he was going to beat me. Then mid-game, he'd start
reading a newspaper while I was deliberating about my moves, as if I
was wasting his time. Then he'd win. Well, I was goaded, so
I started playing Chess during my free time in school. Got a lot
better. Finally, one day when I was around 11 years old or so,
when dad was doing the pre-game wind-up, I calmly said, "Your
confidence is greater than your skill." I actually beat
him. Then he refused to play me again. Ever.
Or the time, in my early thirties again, in front of other guests at a
party where he was getting drunk and punchy, dad decided to make a
wisecrack about how I never went into the hard sciences like he
had. "We're talking genetics here. But David, you see,
being a soft scientist, wouldn't understand something as hard as
No, I said I understood just fine. Mendel. Big B, little b. Dominant and recessive traits...
Then in jumped mom: "Yes, but of what vegetable? Huh? Answer that!"
I stood there wondering why I was being tested like this. In
front of everybody. I decided against being a barking seal.
I left the room.
"Whoops, there goes David again!" laughed my mother.
I knew the answer, by the way. Rough and smooth peas. High school Honors Biology. But why should it matter?
"Debito," continued Steve as we walked along LSU's University Lake
enjoying a wonderful warm sunset, "I was at your house when we were
both young teens, and I remember some situations where I felt very
uncomfortable, like I shouldn't be there. I was watching your dad
sitting there making fun of you, putting you down. Couldn't
understand why. He took the trouble to adopt you, after all, when
he married your mom. Perhaps that was a means to an end.
But he said to me once, when you weren't around, 'Why are you spending
your time hanging around with somebody like David?', as if you weren't
worthy of my friendship somehow. Not sure what he had against
That was the first time I'd heard that story, and it hurt. But it
was more proof positive of an undercurrent of antipathy, of a
hostility. I couldn't imagine why. I mean, I wasn't a
problem child. No drug, alcohol, or pregnancy problems.
Honor or high honor student. Award-winning graphic artist.
An Eagle Scout. Graduate of an Ivy League. Yet I could
never please my parents, never got the feeling that they were all that
proud of me, no matter how hard I tried or how much I
More the feeling that they just wanted me out of the house as soon as
possible so they could get on with their lives. I was, for one
thing, an unplanned child (thanks to mom's formerly devout Catholicism
precluding birth control). After her divorce from my birth
father, indeed a horrible man, I was no doubt a clear hindrance on
finding another man; saddled with raising a toddler as a single mom for
a few years in hippie-era California couldn't have been easy. She
still married someone else, a man who thankfully took me in as part of
the bargain. But as puberty took hold and I began to look more
like my birth father--who used to beat my mother and became a drug
addict--it was pretty clear that my mom (in retrospect, I realized a
couple of years ago) just doesn't like me. For many reasons, I
believe, again, that are beyond my control.
Concluded Steve: "I think that if laws had been properly
enforced, you would have clearly been judged a victim of child abuse."
There it was. The elephant in the room, finally clearly
visible. All I needed for all these years was for someone to say
that, and things that I had been puzzling out for decades now fell into
I knew that my dad (i.e. my stepfather) was a frequent and mean drunk;
he was also a person who could rage and rag on me and get away with
it. I was the recipient of many a beating (I'm not talking a mere
botty spank; I mean fists, kicking, smacks with a hot greasy spatula,
grabbing by the hair while slapping and punching faces, and once even
the threat of a door being broken down when I barricaded myself in a
bathroom out of fear when I was about seven. I also have two
memories of dad wanting to see my genitalia; fortunately it did not
involve touching. But out those long-buried memories came.
Steve could unzip them.
The physical side I remember quite vividly--so does my scoutmaster and
various neighbors who would take me in when I would run away from home
(I did that quite often, IIRC), offering shelter and refuge during the
winter months. However, in contrast, it is the emotional abuse
that lies latent, dormant for decades, since it's something that even
battered wives can learn to put up with. Until somebody comes out
and tells them they needn't anymore, and offers a shelter.
I found my shelter, all right. Japan. I got as far away
from my parents as I could. And to this day, especially after I
naturalized (and apparently "broke my mother's heart"), I have no
contact with them anymore whatsoever. They are simply not very
Clearly they aren't going to like it if they ever read this (and I'm
sure the trolls who love fiddling with people's Wikipedia profiles will
enjoy adding that I was an abused child). But there it is.
A demon. Being dealt with by writing it out. With a little
help from my friends.
MOVING ON TO THE NEXT STOP
Somewhere during my Baton Rouge stay I did a speech. To Steve's
Ag Eng students (who seemed to enjoy not talking about nitrogen-fixing
bacteria for a change). It was my first dry run of my Powerpoint
presentation. It went well. Very well, really. A good
premonition, even though my voice was as raspy as Harvey Fierstein's
As Steve drove me to the airport for my early morning flight to Cedar
Rapids, we watched the sunrise over Route 110. I broke into
song. Steve knew it and joined in on the second bar. One of
our Boy Scout nonsense songs, which was always sung in the dining hall
right after breakfast to jumpstart the blood and brighten the mood:
Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
With your hair cut just as short as mine.
Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
You are surely looking fine.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
If the camel doesn't get you then the driver must.
Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
With your hair cut just as short as, your hair cut just as short as
Your hair cut just as short as mine.
We smiled in the sunlight. Haircuts? Steve's bald and
thin. I'm hirsute and fat. "Which would you prefer," I
asked. "Your hair back and a paunch? Or just the way you
have it now, skinny but with more hair on your face than your pate?"
Without hesitation, and with Steve's classic smile: "I'd rather be just the way I am now."
"Me too." We parted with a hug and I boarded the plane.
NEXT: SPEAKING IN IOWA
GETTING A NEWFOUND APPRECIATION FOR HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS
April 3, 2006