Catfish, Scholars, and a Geisha Party

May, 2005

May, 2005 May is Asian American Heritage month. It seems this month has become a time when I am called upon to share my thoughts on the contributions Asian Americans have made to this country with diverse groups. Two years ago, I toured U.S. military bases in Germany speaking of Asian American history. Last year, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the opening of eight museum exhibits, a major symposium, and a speech on the subject. This month began with a return to Little Rock with a similar mission, this time at nearby Camp Pike to the U.S. Army, 90th Regional Readiness Command. These are the men and women of the U.S. military who have served or are ready to serve in the hot spots of today such as Iraq and Afghanistan. After my speech, I enjoyed a good southern fried catfish lunch with a group of the committee members. It was a privilege to share some time and thoughts with soldiers who are serving us so proudly.

Then it was on to Louisville, Kentucky, and a different but equally special audience. It was one hundred bright, young high school students from throughout the nation. They were being honored at a banquet with scholarships from Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. I served as the keynote speaker at the dinner. These young people are the cream of the crop - smart, energized scholars, who had, as well, contributed to the betterment of their respective communities in various ways. It was an uplift just to be in the company of these spirited young leaders of tomorrow.

The big challenges were across the Pacific in Japan. The Japanese American National Museum, which I served as Chairman of the Board for two terms and still serve as a Trustee, had scheduled its first board meeting outside the U.S. in Tokyo.

We want to contribute to strengthening our bridge across the Pacific in U.S.- Japan relations. In conjunction with our board meeting, we held a major symposium on U.S.- Japan relations. I was a part of the U.S. panel together with Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and General Eric Shinseki, former Army Chief of Staff. It was a rare opportunity to share the experience of Japanese Americans with the leadership of the people of Japan. All Americans, I strongly believe, can contribute, each in our own way, to the betterment of America as a member of this global society. Japanese Americans can serve in a unique way in our relations with Japan. The symposium, meetings, press interviews, and personal conversations were engaging exchanges and we were handsomely received. Foreign Minister of Japan, Nobutaka Machimura, hosted us to a lavish reception at Japan's diplomatic residence, Iikura House. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer similarly hosted us the following evening at the historic U.S. Ambassador's residence that General Douglas MacArthur had once called home.

After our many diplomatic events in Tokyo, we traveled to the World Expo at Aichi near Nagoya. This massive exposition sprawled over a vast green valley. It would have required days to visit just the highlights of this Expo. We had only five hours. However, we had with us a special entrée - in our party were two VIPs, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. General.

As long lines of people waited patiently at the pavilion entrances, we were quickly whisked past them and escorted in through a back way. We were able to visit a few of the major exhibits in the limited time that we had. At the Expo Theme Pavilion, we saw a rare discovery - the frozen remains of a prehistoric woolly mammoth; at the Toyota Pavilion we saw a spectacular Cirque de Soleil-like show featuring a single passenger futuristic concept vehicle and a musical band made up of anthropomorphic robots. At the Hitachi Pavilion, we saw exhibits that demonstrated nature and technology working together to protect the environment. On the way to another pavilion, we walked past a long "green wall" about two stories tall with a huge diversity of plants growing from it. We were told that "walls" like these would help counter global warming. Finally, after a fast and exhausting tour, we ended our visit to the Aichi Expo at the United States Pavilion. We were greeted by a giant holographic image of Benjamin Franklin speaking in Japanese - of all unexpected things - as well as in English. This year is his 300th birthday and the U.S. exhibit was on electricity and of Franklin's discovery of the proof of electricity with lightening.

From lightening to the futuristic Segway human transporter vehicle, it was a comprehensive exhibit on the powers of electricity. The visit ended with a relaxing reception in the Benjamin Franklin Room. An African American young woman serving as a guide impressed me. She spoke rather good Japanese. It was heartening to see young Americans learning foreign languages, going abroad, and serving as citizen ambassadors to the world.

The other mission of this trip to Japan was a promotional tour for my autobiography, "To the Stars," which had just been published in Japanese translation. Titled "Hoshi ni Mukatte," I wanted the fans of Japan to know of its publication. I did radio, television, and newspaper interviews, and, of course, the inevitable bookstore signings. I even did a college lecture on Japanese American history at Bukkyo University in Kyoto. A book signing also followed this event.

The word is now out in Japan about my autobiography, "Hoshi ni Mukatte."

My reward for all this exciting but also fatiguing tour was a fabulous treat - a classic geisha party in the storied geisha district of Gion hosted by the publisher of my book, Mr. Ito. Two elegantly charming geishas in lovely kimonos and elaborate headdresses greeted our party at the entrance and ushered us upstairs to a spacious traditional room The long black lacquer table had been set with glistening lacquer bento boxes. My geisha smiled and gestured me to my thick cushion on the soft tatami floor. From that point on, I was completely in her care. She lifted the top off my lacquer box to reveal a sumptuous meal. She suggested I raise my tiny sake cup up to her and she poured the hot liquor for me with a gracefulness only a geisha can perform. As I sampled the delectable morsels from my lacquer box, she continued to charm me with her wit and sparkling laughter.

She even took my chopsticks from me and fed me some delicious bits from my box. However, she did not eat with me. Her role was to simply serve me and keep me charmed. My manager, Brad Altman, sitting across from me, also had his own personal geisha serving and delighting him. After the meal, the two geishas disappeared and a woman, who plays the samisen, or a stringed, guitar-like instrument, seated herself off to the side of the sliding shoji door. Cued by her first "twang" on the samisen, the shoji doors silently slid open to reveal my geisha in a classic dance pose. The music began and her lyrical movements, like flower petals swaying in a soft spring breeze, transported all of us. The shoji closed, then, re-opened to delight us with the second geisha's dance. Hers was just as lovely, just as transporting. This must have been what it was like to be a shogun in old Japan. We were literally beamed back in time.

Then, the silliness began. I was invited up by my geisha to play the "paper, rock, scissors" game with her. The loser had to sip some sake. I lost often. Once she had me well loosened, I was invited to join them in a "baseball dance" geisha style. I clumsily tried to imitate her graceful movements. I made a laughing fool of myself - but according to tradition, one is supposed to act like a giddy ninny at a geisha party. So, I was being very traditional that night at a classic geisha house in the Gion. It was an enchanting evening I will long remember. I savored that memory the next morning as well. Is that what is called a "hangover?"

The translation, publication, and the fond memories of the promotional tour for my autobiography would not have been possible had it not been for the good efforts of Rev. Chiyu Sadakane and his charming daughter, Yumi-san. They did a fine job of translating "To the Stars" into "Hoshi ni Mukatte." My heartfelt gratitude goes out to them for having made a long held dream a reality beyond all expectations. Domo arigatoh gozaimasu.

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