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The Asian American Literary Review

Compartment Comportment - Part 2

>> Part 1

Mark Twain once said: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” But the question of what you do and don’t reveal in public is very much at the heart of what it means to be in Japan, where social rules are shared and where you can anticipate most people’s responses. It is not illegal in Japan, for example, for a landlord to evict a tenant for homosexuality alone. Nor would such an act surprise anyone.

In a 2009 Japan Times article, Masao Kashiwazaki, a human rights activist, said: “As long as you’re quiet, people are tolerant...some feel that since there is no obvious discrimination as there is in the West, such as pressure from religious groups, we should not complain.” To westerners this is, of course, an odd thing to claim, given the harassment that Hiro endured in the kitchen, not to mention my mother’s very public shunning. But it goes to show how much buy-in exists for the concept of “normalcy,” even from those who aren’t “normal” themselves.

This kind of inter-generational divide reminds me Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, in which children endeavor to “correct” the mistakes their parents made, inadvertently creating new problems in the process. My American family, for example, was generally open to my parents’ marriage, though not before noting to my father: “You know, these things generally don’t work out.” My parents were married in 1968; it’s worth remembering that until 1966, inter-racial marriage was still illegal in most southern states.

The judgment my mother faced from her own family was harsher than my father’s mild warning: she was disowned, and instructed never to return to Japan again. Kinder family members left the door open, but the very public rejection my mother endured and the absence of any singular event to mark its reversal, has colored all that we do. It took years for my parents to repair relations with my Japanese grandparents and the project required that I learn how to behave “appropriately” to win them over. Despite my appreciation for mild subversion, I generally like to be good. I learned to hold my rice bowl correctly and to appreciatively eat anything given to me; it’s good to be a happy eater in Japan. I excelled in school; my grandparents understood straight As.

But my very presence—a half Caucasian and half Asian in Japan—was too bold a challenge. It laid bare the successful act of sex between two people who weren’t supposed to be together at all. By behaving correctly, I could ward off most ostracism, but I would never be able to completely eradicate the fact that I was different.

There was the time that my grandfather called me a slut for wearing a skirt; I was fourteen and the skirt came down to my ankles. I only knew what he was saying because I’d just memorized a list of swear words drawn up by a dutiful teenage boy; his parents had enlisted his help to educate me, a westerner, in a “cultural matter.” Otherwise, I wouldn’t have understood the depth of my grandfather’s insult. Another time, after I had contracted food poisoning from eating sea cucumber intestines after a chef in a restaurant had decided to test my ability to eat the most extreme Japanese delicacy, my grandfather demanded that I get up and help the other women in the kitchen. On this occasion and others, I wondered if all this chiseling of behavior toward an unattainable title—normal—was really worth the effort. And why did I have to live up to standards my mother had broken in the first place? Weren’t her actions supposed to set me free, not shackle me further?

There are Japanese in America I know who abhor this aspect of their culture, likening it to a kind of strangulation. My Japanese hairdresser who works in Midtown claims he sees no value in Japan, save for its food and hot springs. In my angriest moments, I might have agreed. But now I see some value in repression.

In the west, it always seems so important for us to signal on the outside how we believe we exist on the inside. Hence the trend for piercings and tattoos, a political stance against Starbucks, bumper stickers—anything that can give the casual viewer a sense of just how unique you believe your soul to be. The friends you make will probably share these external habits. There are times when I find this constant advertising to be not only glib, but exhausting. Does it really get at anything essential?

In Japan, to paraphrase a friend of mine, it’s the opposite, but not exactly how you think. Westerners returning from Japan sometimes complain to me that they never really got to know any Japanese, that they forever felt like objects of fascination by a homogenous hoard. You will know that you are someone’s friend when you get past the easily oiled outside machinery that makes up the manners and graces we so admire, and are truly in their private interior. You will know it and they will know it. The distinction between public and private can be very clear, very extreme. Every time I’ve fallen in love, for example, it is an agonizing, almost shocking realization as something suppressed slides out of one compartment into another.

I never wonder if what I feel is real.

* * * * *

A few months after taking his exam, Hiro returned to Japan and I went to visit him. We spent a few days in Tokyo playing the hotel game. This time I stood silently by as Hiro talked the maitre d’ at the Cerulean Tower Hotel into giving us one of the reserved window tables at the Bello Visto bar on the 40th floor so we could see Mt. Fuji rising up out of the neon horizon. “My friend,” he explained in Japanese, “is here for the first time.” I smiled and pretended not to understand.

A few days later, we left Tokyo for Hiro’s childhood home in Kyoto.

Tourists don’t generally see the rarified neighborhood of Hiro’s youth. His family house is situated in a serene, and intimately beautiful section of Kyoto where ladies in waiting to the empress once lived. Hiro can trace his ancestors back to bored courtiers devoting hours to composing poetry and tracing calligraphy. While Japan was at war, they gazed at the moon and made senmaizuke, a pickled turnip so finely cut that just one root is said to generate a thousand translucent slices. No one in the family is gay. Homosexuality doesn’t exist, and on the rare occasion that someone maybe feels he is gay, it is an impulse avoided, or best taken care of in the Japanese style, which is to say, it’s a hunger sated in the correct context. Otherwise, one risks a very public bullying—a growing and acknowledged social problem in Japan—or worse, the kind of complete social ostracism my mother underwent.

Hiro’s mother is a lovely person, warm in that Kyoto way, with a penchant for whimsy and elegance. She buys new handbags and has a collection of old kimonos she displays on rotation in the entrance to her house. She watched as uncles and aunts politely said hello to me before asking if I had a boyfriend. I said no and shaved five years off my age. “Then there’s still time,” they said. They asked Hiro when he’d be coming back to the neighborhood with a nice Japanese girl who would give him some babies. The family astrologer had predicted the previous year to be Hiro’s best chance for marriage; by waiting like this, he was getting further and further away from opportune timing.

Hiro shook off the ritual peer pressure one witticism at a time. Who would have him with his expensive tastes? He was too stubborn, he protested, too tall, too fat. His mother watched me watching him. Our eyes met and I thought; she knows. Hiro saw this too and presented the care package of sample shampoos and soaps we’d amassed from the Tokyo hotels to his mother, making her smile as only a favorite son can do. Some of her anxiety eased and her unspoken questions temporarily dissolved.

But the family pressure got to Hiro. While the two of us took a quiet walk through the grounds of a nearby Shinto shrine, he asked me to be a courier to a girl he knew in Tokyo and who he’d picked out to be the perfect wife. He was sure that she adored him, and anyway, by marrying him, she would move up in social status. Would I please take this nice hairclip, handmade in Kyoto, to her as a gift?

I knew the girl slightly. She was a manicurist who’d once spent a good hour inlaying my nails with bits of shell and sequins.

“You can’t marry someone you don’t love,” I said to Hiro.
“She would feel like she was loved.”
“Didn’t anyone teach you that it is wrong to lie?”

He left the hairclip in my luggage with a small note. I fretted over what to do.

On the train from Kyoto back to Tokyo, I decided that if he ever got married, I would not attend his wedding.

But I delivered the hairclip.

* * * * *

When I returned to Japan the following summer on the trip that included my boyfriend, my mother was again unhappy. “Tell every hotel clerk you are married,” she instructed. I didn’t bother informing my boyfriend about this latest subterfuge; he couldn’t understand Japanese anyway.

But there was one place where we would be welcome. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, since my last visit to Japan, Hiro had moved in with a guy named Ohno, both of them in the first committed relationship of their lives. They were giddy. They had picked out furniture from Fran Fran and were eagerly awaiting the opening of Ikea. They used a Muji-designed lantern to go out on the balcony to pick herbs to make dinner. There was no more talk of hair-pin delivery or suitable brides. I asked Hiro if his parents knew about Ohno and his face stiffened a bit. “No,” he said, and changed the subject.

A lesbian friend, Kimiko, came over to dress us up in yukata (summer kimonos) for the Gion matsuri, a yearly festival in Japan when an additional 250,000 visitors descend on this ancient capital with a population of 1.5 million.

“I don’t know about the yukata,” said my boyfriend.
“You’ll stand out more if you don’t wear one,” Hiro replied.

He was right. Even the dogs were wearing yukata, with sleeves made especially for their paws, and obis, or belts, fastened by Velcro. The night sky was the kind of blue-black you only get in summer, and the streets swollen with amber light from the hundreds upon hundreds of paper lanterns hanging off of the nearly 20 foot tall yamaboko floats. Rectangular in shape, the yamaboko are many storied, like houses with a peaked and shingled roof on top. Their outsides were covered with red and gold tapestries emblazoned with dragons, phoenixes and flowers—majestic symbols of the Japanese imagination. Young men were crammed on the floors of the floats, fanning themselves, drinking, singing, playing instruments and flirting with the girls on the streets.

“Do you see,” I said to my boyfriend, “why I love this place so much?” This, I wanted him to understand, was what I loved about Japan. This magic. I could find this nowhere else in the world. It was also because of things like this that Hiro could not sever his relationship with Japan—this was home.

During matsuri, social rules are relaxed and a love of play, unleashed at last, comes charging out. Boys and girls dye their hair blue or red. Children eat candied apples and wear masks of favorite anime characters, all for sale at squat carnival stalls whose plastic walls are illuminated like lanterns from the street glow. Old merchant families open up their homes in Kyoto and display select treasures from their collections. It is as though Carnival has met a Miyazaki movie.

Around one a.m. when we’d grown exhausted from the heat and the ambience, we retreated to a small izakaya, or pub, for a snack. Hiro’s friend Kimiko played the shamisen. We ate and drank and nodded while she played, as if to agree with some poetic statement about life she was making with her instrument. She smiled when we applauded and agreed to pose for a few photos. Then she looked at my boyfriend and me.

“Why aren’t you married?”

I was startled. In New York, my gay friends would have resolutely defended my right to be in a committed but unmarried relationship. I looked to Hiro for help.

“Because,” Hiro said after a moment, “that’s their lifestyle.”

She angled her head, in the twitchy Japanese pose of someone who is confused, and began to play again.

When the taxi took us back to our hotel that evening, we were given a 10% discount on the fare, the standard deduction for anyone wearing a traditional Japanese outfit in Kyoto.

“Even for westerners?” my boyfriend asked.
“Even us,” I said.

Part 3 >>

* * * * *

* “Compartment Comportment” will be published in The Asian American Literary Review, Issue 1 (April 2010). AALR is a not-for-profit literary arts journal, a showcase of the best of today’s Asian American literature. To learn more about the journal or purchase a subscription, visit at, or find it on Facebook.

© 2010 Marie Mutsuki Mockett

aalr hapa literature matsuri sexuality

About this series

The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

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