A friend describes his years in Japan like this: “It’s been like living in a fairy tale!”
To be more specific, he continues, it’s been like living in the story of “The Three Sillies.”
For the fairy-tale-impaired, “The Three Sillies” has a plot line as follows:
One day, ye typical fairy-tale beauty — this one soon to be wed — steps down into her family basement, only to spy an ax embedded in the ceiling.
Deeply embedded. As if it had been lodged there since time began and would stick there till time ran out.
Upon which she convulses into tears, reasoning in her blond fairy-tale mind that once wed, she would have a child, and someday that child would romp down to the basement to play and said ax would then slip from the wood and bash her child in his noggin. Therefore . . . why get married?
She related her fears to her mother and father, who both wailed along right with her. Not end of story, but far enough for a moral: If something bad can happen, it will.
“And that,” says my friend, “is the thinking in Japan,” where worst-case scenarios make good sense to too many people, and in turn influence decisions in ways that can only be described as . . .
“Or,” he says, “cautious to the extreme. Risk-averse? It’s more apt to consider many Japanese as risk-paranoid.”
The island nation heebie-jeebies? The long-term battering effect of too many earthquakes and typhoons? The scathing eyes of critical group society?
“I don’t care where you place the blame,” he says. “People here imagine the worst and that becomes their rationale for action. Or inaction.”
“You mean besides the cultural rigor mortis with decision-making? Or the knee-jerk reaction to anything foreign? Well . . .”
He cites the Japanese propensity to save income for a rainy day.
“More like saving for a rainy 40 days and nights. In other words, for the end of the world.”
Or the excess of safety personnel everywhere. One school where he teaches boasts six guards at the morning gate. Sometimes it seems there are more guards on campus than students.
“Lightened security might mean lower tuition, but if something happened, how could they justify having ‘only’ five guards? Even though nothing has happened. Ever.”
Or baseball. Where the basic attack strategy is to bunt, bunt, bunt.
“For what if the batter hits into a double-play? If it might happen, it will. So . . . bunt.”
He also has his “crystal pen” story.
“I work as a wedding minister at a hotel on weekends, and they bought a pen with a crystal stand for the couples to sign their wedding certificates. One of the staff said that I was never to carry that pen.”
So he asked why and was told, “You might drop it.”
Because he was male? Or because he was a foreigner?
To him, it didn’t matter. From that moment on he insisted on carrying the crystal pen.
“I dropped it. And it cracked apart like an egg.”
But that came after three years. After he had carried the crystal pen hundreds of times.
No matter. The worst-case scenario had come true. Justifying the next decision:
“They bought a new pen with a base of forged steel. You couldn’t dent it with a sledgehammer. But I was told I was never to carry it. Just in case.”
Or his “changing jobs” story . . .
“I used to teach at this school on a nonrenewable contract. Too bad, as I liked the school and they liked me. But rules are rules and my contract was up. So I contacted a different school across town and got hired at once, my new work to begin in April.”
“Yet, a few months prior, this second school reneged on their offer. It seems the principal of my current school had begged them not to hire me. I stormed to his office and demanded why. Hadn’t he himself praised my work?”
His answer? “People in the community might still link me with his school. So while I was a model citizen now, if I did something ‘bad’ while at the other school, his school might then share in the criticism and that would be unfair.
“I laughed. And then wept. It was so silly.”
So why stay here?
He flashes his wedding ring.
“My wife’s family tried to talk her out of marrying me, giving every wild reason they could. All of which made perfect sense. To them.”
But, as in the fairy tale, the suitor just reached up and removed the ax.
“Again, I insisted on carrying the crystal pen, and happily it hasn’t broken now for 35 years.
“A bigger risk than with a Japanese couple? Maybe. But all marriage is risk. Something good might happen too. If you’re ruled by the worst scenario, you’ll never reach the best scenario.”
Which — who knows? — might have a fairy-tale ending.
When East Marries West appears in print on the third Thursday Community page of the month. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com