One duty of all foreign residents of Japan is to pick up a bunch of Japanese “things.” You know, the knickknack, bric-a-brac, give-the-junk-a-home type of stuff that is probably cluttering up your dwelling even now.
Perhaps you have a yellowed calligraphy scroll hanging on your wall, one that you can’t read and — in fact — no one can read, for it was scrawled two centuries ago on a night when the artist fell under the inspiration of eight flasks of sake. Yet you pretend to understand in order to impress guests and make them yearn for similar inscrutable scribbles.
Or maybe you have a cupboard full of stylish Japanese pottery, dishware that you scramble to protect with every teensy earth tremor, but otherwise only touch when you dust.
Or maybe you have a handsome silk screen that serves to divide your dresser from your wall. Or one of those giant, golden folding fans that dominates your living room in a decorating style known in art circles as post-Renaissance vomit. Or perhaps you have a cute “kokeshi” doll, which was even cuter before the head rolled off.
Yet, I myself have a confession. Though I have been planted in this nation now for over a quarter-century, I have failed to wrap my roots around a selection of Japanese curios. My house is devoid of Japanese swords, masks, lacquerware and pottery, and the only woodblock print we possess — my wife is fond of noting — rests squarely upon my shoulders, minus of course the print.
We have no silk screens, no stone lanterns, no tea sets, and our yard is much too small for even a dwarf tree. We do have a fair collection of chopsticks, crammed deep in a kitchen drawer, but lucky be the man who can find two that match.
I feel guilty about this cultural gap in our possessions and often am almost overcome by an urge to dash to some cobwebbed antique shop and purchase maybe a Buddha with a clock in his belly or some spiny blowfish that I could perhaps hang from the light cord in my office. To date, however, this urge has always been sufficiently offset by a corresponding deficiency in another Japanese commodity — yen.
Besides, my wife says, I already have enough non-Japanese oddities strewn about my office.
“Oddities?” I gasp. “Why, these are priceless possessions!”
True, one man’s treasures might be another man’s trash, but here’s an abridged list of my favorite things:
A battery-powered R2D2: Push a button on R2′s head and he squeaks to you in cantankerous R2-ese. I for one can listen to R2 all day, and sometimes when I’m stuck for a column idea, I do. It’s also fun to hold R2 to the phone, push the button and hear the Japanese person on the other end respond with, “Nihongo wa o-jozu desu ne.”
And don’t bother writing me; R2 is not for sale.
A pin art board: Objects placed underneath raise the silver pins into a duplicate form, allowing the owner to turn anything into art. But, as it says right on the box, be sure to “close eyes when pressing face against the pins.” You have no idea how much pain this direction has saved me.
A genuine Willie Mays autographed baseball: I can’t actually read the autograph because I think Willie — my childhood hero — must have gulped down eight flasks of sake just before he wrote it, but I know it is genuine because the man who sold it to me said so. I only regret I couldn’t afford the other items he was peddling: Geronimo’s rifle, Marilyn’s shampoo and Bennie Goodman’s corset and pen.
My Grandma’s cobra: My Grandma was a delicate lady who absolutely adored snakes, especially those with blood-dripping fangs. When she died at age 87, I was proud to inherit a 60-cm glow-in-the-dark plastic cobra, which charms me with fond memories of my Granny every time I trip across it.
A rubber eyeball: Which looks neat and bounces like mad. Or did till my dog caught it on the fly. Luckily, all things pass and I was able to retrieve the ball the following morning.
A Dilbert doll: If Dilbert only talked, he might prove to be an equal comrade with R2. Alas, all he does is stare. Yet, I find profound wisdom in that face, as well as wardrobe hints in his fashion.
A plaster cast of my own mouth: I needed the cast taken, you see, because once, when trying to emulate Willie Mays, I mistakenly placed my kisser in front of a fastball. The cast serves as a daily reminder of the nobility of failure, not to mention the high cost of bridgework. Besides, by moving the jaws, I can pretend to talk to myself. Useful when I need intelligent dialogue.
A hand-held Irish flag: While not exactly Irish, I do claim Irish heritage, one of merely 500 million Americans who do so. No matter. On St. Pat’s Day it’s fun to wave the flag while I riverdance about my office and croon, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with my plaster mouth.
Yet, even with all these wonders, I still feel compelled to add some classic Japanese frippery, like maybe a plate of fake spaghetti, spoon raised, or a wooden bear with a fish in its mouth.
“What need do you have for Japanese ornaments?” says my wife. “Haven’t you got me?”
“All right. Go stick a fish in your mouth and stand in the corner.”
Yet her comment rings true. Our house needs no Japanese enhancement, for it is already 50 percent Japanese. The artwork, in all its splendor, is only superficial. Our international marriage is knickknack enough. . . . But I bet one of those fat Daruma dolls would look sooo cool in our “genkan.”