Discussion Guide

Chapter 1 – The Arrival

1. The special status of foreigners in Japan became apparent as soon as I stepped off the plane in Sapporo—with clear plusses and minuses. But in my thirty years in country, never did I hear anyone theorize, as I did in Chapter 5, that the Japanese attitude toward foreigners originated in their relationship with their gods. Do you agree? If not, why do you think foreigners are so special?

Chapter 2 – The Initiation

2. Does it strike you as contradictory that monks sometimes drank in Hosshinji? Or that, on occasion, a few patronized prostitutes? Or that, when I asked the master what I should do if I wanted to sleep with a woman, without hesitation he replied, “Sleep!” If so, why, why and why?

Chapter 3 – The Monastery

3. What surprised you most about monastery life? What about the kyosaku, which many foreign trainees find objectionable?

4. Hosshinji had a rule for almost every nook and cranny of monastery life. What do you see as the function of rules in a Zen temple? Is that function different from the role rules play in society?

Chapter 4 – The Coffee Shop

5. Due to several incidents at the Kohi Kan, it became progressively clearer how little Maruishi liked me. Why do you think he continued to shower me with freebies and “kindness?”

6. In our classes on Japanese culture, Maruishi exhibited behavior the exact opposite of what both our text and he claimed the Japanese were. Do you think Maruishi really was a master teacher, intentionally creating situations designed to let me choose to respond like our text said the Japanese did? Or was he simply a knowledgable blowhard oblivious to his own shortcomings?

Chapter 5 – The Town

7. When I moved into Obama, I followed proper protocol by handing out gifts to my new neighbors. Why were the townsfolk were so unwelcoming? My take

8. What was Keiko Yoneyama’s motivation for inviting me to her house if she didn’t really want me to come? Or the Watanabes’ motivation for inviting me to take a bath at their house? Or their insistence on my coming to dinner, only to stand me up?

Chapter 7 – The Hot Spring

9. Giri has been defined as both “loyalty” and “obligation,” but loyalty is voluntary and obligation is mandatory. How do you see it? What is the denominator common to all variations of giri?

10. The longer I stayed in Japan, the more Japanese paid me the supreme compliment that I was “more Japanese than the Japanese.” But these compliments started in Obama with a strategy I learned to exploit to the fullest. What was it?

11. There are different levels of geisha. High-end geisha in the Gion district in Kyoto spend years mastering traditional skills in learning their trade. Yet they must find a male sponsor or sponsors to pay for their kimonos and other work expenses. Are they prostitutes?

12. Eriko, a naïve country girl, was tricked by yakuza and sold into prostitution. When I asked her why she didn’t “just leave,” she told me she had to work off her debt to the hotel. What debt could she have felt to the hotel that coerced her prostitution? Why didn’t she leave? Similarly, whereas Japanese feel indebted to their parents and, by extension, to society as a whole, Americans feel they are born with rights. As an American, what do you owe your parents? Your children? What rights are you born with? And where do they come from?

Chapter 8 – The Informer

13. Informing is one of Japan’s time-honored means of keeping people in line with minimal open conflict. What are some other ways the Japanese deal with conflict? And what are some of the social institutions that help minimize conflict or diffuse potential discontent before it escalates into a threat to social harmony?

Chapter 9 – Sit-Down

14. Murata and Kakuta had a job to plan, but since Murata’s participation was never in doubt, most of the evening was just “for show.” Why spend so much time on basically ritual behavior? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to just sit down, straighten out the details and be done with it?

15. The first time Murata and I went drinking in Chapter 6, he told me he didn’t like torukos or prostitutes. Yet in this chapter he willingly had sex with a prostitute after the business meeting. How do you explain this apparent contradiction? Was he lying to me? Similarly, my turning down Murata’s offer of a woman angered him at Katayamazu, but not at Playground. How do you explain this change?

Chapter 10 – The “Forget-the-Year” Party

16. On the way home from the ill-fated yakuza forget-the-year party, based on a new “understanding” of Japan’s vertical society gleaned from the events of the evening, I had an epiphany of the basic futility of cross-cultural communication that culminated in my decision to leave Obama. What do you think? With such heterogeneous histories, customs and mindsets, how deeply can Japanese and Americans really get through to each other?

Chapter 11 – Cold Training

17. In Christianity, good works benefit the individual soul in getting into Heaven. In Zen Buddhism, donations to monasteries and monks during begging, even monks reciting sutras, create “merit.” What purpose do you think this merit serves?

18. In Japan, spirit possession usually indicates negligence in performing ceremonies for deceased ancestors, making the threat of possession an incentive to diligence in keeping traditional customs alive. In short, Japanese spirits serve the social function of reinforcing cultural norms and values. In America, many spirits are evil or seek revenge. What social purpose, if any, do spirits serve in America?

Chapter 12 – The Water Trade

19. In Japan, you don’t do anything without an introduction. From business to marriage, middlemen, matchmakers and go-betweens play critical and respected roles in Japanese society. Why is the ability to bring together two unfamiliar people or factions so important?

Chapter 13 – The Cabaret

20. In the bubble economy of the 80s, ten years after I suffered through seven weeks of meaningless pre-work meetings at the Palace, Americans bashed the Japanese as “economic animals” in response to Japan’s financial dominance and real estate buy-ups—the new Yellow Peril. But while the foundational concept for economic animals is “time is money,” Westerner businessmen invariably complain that Japanese meetings were a colossal waste of time. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?

Chapter 14 – The Door

21. What could have motivated Palace customers to regularly strike me in the testicles?

Chapter 15 – The “Girls”

22. When I was at the Palace, most hostesses were forced into the life by family-related economic vicissitudes. Thanks to the heady affluence of the bubble economy, by the 90s the majority were hostessing for personal wants, not family needs—designer clothes, trips abroad and other luxuries. In fact, Japan’s affluent 70s and especially the 80s changed many time-honored traditions, while others fell to the recession of the 90s. Can you think of some? Then, there’s one tradition that will likely survive economic ups and downs. Any ideas?

Chapter 16 – Mari

23. In Japan, “love” fades by definition. It’s not expected to last. Not only that, once you know everything there is to know about someone, he or she becomes uninteresting, and secrets help maintain the feminine mystique. For Christians, true love is possible only when everything about the loved one is fully known, and secrets are seen as attempts to cover up breaking God’s commandments or other wrongdoing. With so many strikes against intercultural couples, is love possible?

Chapter 18 – The Happening

24. The first question Japanese invariably ask foreigners is, “Where are you from?” I have discussed the origins of and differences in Japanese and American identities. What defines you?

25. Hitting a defenseless woman with a half-full beer bottle is a cowardly act in any country. Do you think the drunk got what he deserved? How do you think Suzuki handled the situation? How would you have handled it? Love aside, is all fair in war?

Chapter 19 – The End

26. The irresolvable demands of giri and ninjo is a popular plot structure in Japanese literature. In this chapter, I found myself caught in a similar bind—between my responsibilities to the gangsters as my friends and the Texan women as my guests. How would you describe my dilemma in terms of giri and ninjo?