Kikubari and Growing Old: A Tribute to My Japanese Dad

My 85-year old Japanese father-in-law just flew in from Japan yesterday to spend a few weeks with us in Hawaii. It’s 3:00 pm, a lovely day in the jungles of Pahoa as I type this (a week will have passed when I finish this piece). Dad is jet-lagged, napping on our recliner in the family room. I’m on the lanai, occasionally glimpsing the colorful tropical foliage around me that includes red and green ti plants, wild yellow hibiscus, and coconut palms. After spending the day communing with Japanese dad and nature, got some thoughts percolating about two seemingly unrelated topics: kikubari and growing old.

Japanese Dad

Dad and I have always had a great relationship, just shy of three decades now. But we don’t talk a lot. Unlike me dad’s not a talker, typical of Japanese men that age. But we do enjoy a quiet comfort when we’re in the same room. Japanese dad communicates less with words, mostly through anticipation and kind deeds, what Japanese call “kikubari.”

No surprise that I have great love and respect for my Japanese father, although it would be inappropriate to verbalize such sentiments in his culture. Old-School Japanese believe talk is cheap; if you really love someone then show it everyday through actions. I read somewhere a great quote that basically says while an American husband will tell his wife “I love you”, the Japanese man will insist his wife go to the doctor for a physical. (Hopefully even a romantic person would get the loving intent behind that.)

“Action”–or a call to action–is the operative word here, because without action all that’s left are empty words. Kikubari, the fine Japanese art of anticipation, is the action that gives meaning to words and good intentions. But action alone does not constitute kikubari. Paying attention is indispensable. And for that to happen you must be internally motivated to do so.

This is precisely what’s so amazing about my Japanese family. My wife is the master of kikubari. Now I understand where it came from: Japanese mom and dad–of course!

What Did Japanese Dad Think About His Daughter Marrying a Barbarian?

This was our biggest worry when Kurumi and I agreed to make a go of it. We were concerned about dad’s reaction because back in the early-1980s, a large majority of Japanese fathers would have objected to their daughter marrying a foreigner. But unlike most Japanese ladies dating foreigners, Kurumi chose not to keep me a secret from her parents. (Big sister knew about me from the start so we were busted anyway.) And no, my wife wasn’t completely forthcoming about our relationshiop with her mom and dad either. She was…strategic.

How my wife introduced me to her parents (six-months prior to me ultimately popping the question) is indicative about her approach to life. Her direct (yet subtly indirect) approach would have made Sun Tzu proud: in retrospect she was brilliant! (She still is.) Especially in light of the hand she was dealt…um…that would be me.

The year was 1983. I was between my second and third year of college. My wife says we met at a party a year or so before that, although to this day I can’t for the life of me recall the encounter. (No I wasn’t drunk; the alleged party was full of Japanese people–and one foreigner, me–so I kind of stood out and she didn’t.) Again, I remember none of this so as far as my feeble memory is concerned, we first met in 1983.

It happened in front of a 7-11 near Tsuruma station in Yamato City. Had no idea who my wife-to-be was when she reintroduced herself, but I was thoroughly smitten the second time around. We did the perfunctory chitchat routine required by Japanese protocol when acquaintances have a chance meeting. Then we parted ways.

In the excitement of the moment I forgot her name.

Only by happenstance through a mutual acquaintance did we manage to hook up again. I was just smart enough to remember her name by our third encounter: it was “Kurumi”, which literally means “walnut”. (A reality that allows me to say silly things that make my wife’s eyes roll, like, “Kurumi is a nut”.) Suffice it to say that fate had to work overtime to create this union. My wife’s patience has kept it together for 27 years.

After dating my wife for several months, she decided one day to “take me home” for the weekend to meet the parents. (Leading up to the big weekend I had dreams of Kurumi pleading with her parents, “Can I keep the foreigner, oh please, can I keep him?”) I remember being nervous, but Kurumi assured me her parents were nice folks and that she’d handle everything. Of course this didn’t ease my concerns. But I went along for her, and maybe deep down the challenge of winning them over trumped my nervousness?

This is where I paint a picture of what I looked like in 1983. Imagine long, scraggly hair just above my shoulders with a bushy, unkempt beard, think “college bum” dressed in bright pastel pajamas. Later I would learn that Japanese mom described me as looking like “Jesus”. Other relatives thought Socrates was a better fit–and as far as I know they never reached consensus. As a clueless foreigner I was totally flattered by the comparisons, very happy to resemble either of these great historical figures. But with the wisdom of hindsight I realize mom and relatives weren’t complimenting me at all.

So on that fateful day Kurumi and I jumped on the train at Tsuruma Station near our homes in Yamato City (me dressed in my very best pastel pajamas). A couple hours later we were standing in front of my future-in-laws home in Atami knocking on the door. If only I had taken a picture of the next thing that happened, I’d have a priceless memory: Mom opened the door, looked down at my feet then tracked her gaze upward until she saw the bearded barbarian. Had she known I was destined to be her son-in-law, she’d surely have dropped dead of a heart attack right there. After a moment of quiet shock, mom gathered her wits and invited us in. Reluctantly.

Later I would learn the source of her shock: over the phone Kurumi (almost 3 years my senior) had told mom that she was bringing home an American “otoko no ko”, an ambiguous expression that can mean “young American man” or “little American boy”. Apparently mom was expecting the latter, hence, her initial glance downward. So I disappointed her right out of the gate!

Kurumi’s strategy apparently was to “ease them into” the idea that she was interested in hanging with foreigners. In a classic Kurumi-like strategy, she figured there was no use punching them in the nose with the truth when she could sneak me in the back door. To achieve these ends, as far as Japanese mom and dad were concerned on that first visit, Kurumi and I were just “friends”. Naturally our characters in this little charade required that we show no public displays of affection. I think we acted out a very respectable Platonic façade as they didn’t seem to suspect anything. But just as likely they were in denial.

Six months later, after having met me just once, Kurumi informed mom over the phone of our plans to tie the knot. If this wasn’t shocking enough, she also mentioned that we planned to live together for a year before making it official. Whoa Nelly! What happened to sneaking me in the back door?

As you might expect, Japanese mom was concerned. She worried that “Americans get divorced,” and that her precious daughter would be whisked away to the other side of the planet forever. We assured mom we’d make the marriage work, and also that we’d live in Japan forever. And we meant it.

Full disclosure: we kept one of those promises. In my defense, after our “temporary” 2-year stint in the Deep South, their daughter wanted to stay in America not me. So what could I do?

By that time it was too late for Japanese mom to fret anyway, since she had two freshly minted grandsons, a reality that helped carve out for the ages my place in the Ishiyama clan.

How did dad react to the notion of his daughter living in sin with a barbarian prior to formal nuptials?

“That’s good,” he said with a shrug. And mom-in-law said no more.

Growing Old

From the moment I met dad he was moving, working, anticipating, always attentive to the needs of others, especially me. From our first encounter he’s always treated me like an honored guest, even though technically, in the Confucian pecking order, I was at the very bottom. And yet, dad never once made me feel that way. The only downside to this reality is the embarrassment and guilt on my part; but through the years it’s inspired me to get off my ass and reciprocate as best I can. I’ve improved but not nearly where I need to be. Kikubari is not part of my cultural DNA so adapting my life-style to the kikubari path has been a challenge. Still climbing that mountain!

My point in bringing up the kikubari angle is that Japanese dad has always had this quiet energy, grounded in action, an energy felt but not seen. And it’s the very same energy I feel from both his daughters, especially my wife (although the daughters didn’t at all inherit dad’s “quiet gene”.)

Even when dad visited Hawaii seven years ago at the age of 78, he was easily able to keep up with me at the Kapoho tide pools, hopping from rock to rock with the agility of a man decades younger. Watching him maneuver the ponds from a distance, he could easily have passed for a fifty-year-old man in very good shape. But the difference between dad at 78 and now at 85 has been dramatic. Didn’t help that he had a stroke a couple years back.

Late last year when we spent time with our in-laws in Japan it was obvious that time had crept up on dad. But we took comfort in the fact that he was still moving, still attending to the needs of others, even those of his wretched barbarian son-in-law. In fact before we arrived in Japan last November, dad made sure the fridge was stocked with beer (a vice I’ve since given up to maintain my girlie figure). And as always, he made sure they had fresh, tasty sashimi on hand, knowing how much I love raw fish. Not only did dad do our laundry while we were there–against our protests–he cooked dinner, washed the dishes, and continually kept my beer glass full from the moment we sat down for dinner. He wouldn’t let us help him do anything beyond clearing the dinner table; and he genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us.

Dad was old, but still full of energy.

Fast forward to a week ago. When dad got off the plane he seemed to have “lost a step”. His words weren’t coming out right; he was disoriented. Truth be told we were a little worried. Watching a loved one that you live with slowly age day-by-day is not so shocking because it happens gradually. But seeing someone age in “snapshots” from year to year amps up the shock level. Kind of like fast-forwarding to the future.

Rather than fret we decided to take it as a challenge, as a way to give back what dad has given us all these years. So we thought about dad’s love of work and serving others–something that seems to give meaning to his life–and decided the best therapy was to keep him busy and put him to work.

Kikubari Therapy

“Therapy” in this context is about us reciprocating through acts of kikubari. Dad’s “kikubari therapy” then, could only happen if we took the time to consider what he might want out of the visit. After all kikubari is about anticipating needs, not asking folks what they want. Dad wouldn’t have told us anyway.

So prior to dad’s arrival Kurumi stocked the house with his favorite summer beverage, mugi-cha (barley tea), chilled and ready for consumption. She also placed on the coffee table a Japanese book on Hawaiian history and culture, knowing dad eats this stuff up. In retrospect it was a good call: dad’s been reading the book everyday.

Every morning Kurumi gives dad a massage after breakfast, something he’d never ask for. And after dinner she tucks him in at 7:00 pm sharp–then checks on him before we go to bed several hours later.

Kurumi is always observing, on the alert for kikubari opportunities that are easy to miss with someone as quiet and shy as dad: she decides his spoon is too big so swaps it out with a smaller one; she pushes his chair in at dinner so he’s just the right distance from the table; she fetches the wooden disposable chopsticks when she notices dad’s udon noodles keep sliding off his lacquered chopsticks; she helps him take off his shirt, and tie his shoes. This is an ongoing process of observing and anticipating.

At the most basic level of kikubari is proper food selection. In dad’s case it means serving good old healthy, Japanese comfort food…with our own twist, of course.

Kurumi did her best to duplicate dad’s breakfast in Japan, even called mom and big sister to confirm in advance: yogurt, fruit, half toast (no more!), a pickled plum and fried egg.

For lunch it’s been mostly soba or udon, sliced raw onions sprinkled with katsuo bushi (dried fermented bonito fish flakes), salad with a squeeze of lemon, miso soup and tofu.

For dinner we’ve been more adventurous, using it as an opportunity to broaden dad’s horizons with new cuisine (mixed in with familiar Japanese dishes). We always have Japanese pickles, rice, ginger, seaweed, and complement it with fish or chicken of various flavors. So far dad’s been gobbling up everything we serve.

But it isn’t just about what dad is eating. Portions are important too. Unlike the local Hawaii custom of throwing food at guests, dad comes from a time and place where food was scarce, which means wasting food is the most grievous of sins. In concrete terms it means dad will keep eating until his plate is clean–whether he wants to or not.

So as Kurumi observed dad eating this past week, she could see that the portions she’s been preparing were too large, and slowly has been scaling back. She’s also been admonishing dad repeatedly to “chew more slowly.” He nods, smiles back and says nothing–meaning he’s listening but will do what he damn well pleases. A man after my own heart!

As you can see, dad is almost never direct in his communication style. That’s why the onus is on us to anticipate what he wants, just as it’s his job to anticipate what we want when we visit Atami. Observing and solving riddles is the nature of the kikubari game.

In Search of Kikubari Clues

Here are a couple kikubari “clues” dad dropped on us. The first came while dad and I sat in the car waiting for Kurumi to lock up the house. To put dad’s words in context, it helps to understand first that before he lost his driver’s license in Japan (due to the stroke), he kept his car immaculate, wiping it down everyday before driving it out of the garage; the interior always looked and smelled like a new car.

Not so with our car in Hawaii. We’re not total pigs but we’re not very diligent either. Rarely do we wipe down the car; candy wrappers are always stuffed in the door pockets. (We empty them when they get full.) Of course this is “normal” to us so was completely off our kikubari radar.

This apparently didn’t sit well with dad, as he was compelled to say, “Aw, too bad we don’t have time to clean the car.” When I told Kurumi later she laughed. This morning we will clean the car before heading out. Kikubari rules!

Another not-so-subtle clue from dad made me laugh. We were having dinner two nights ago. Based on the cues Kurumi has been giving me, I haven’t been offering dad an alcoholic drink with dinner (save for one night when Grady graced us with his presence and the three of us shared a Kirin tall boy). That’s because when dad got here he mentioned the first night that he had “quit drinking”, a surprise because he was never much of a drinker to begin with. Two beers and his face gets as red as a beet. And that’s usually his limit. With this new information, the proper response on our end–or so I thought–was to serve him his favorite non-alcoholic beverages: water, green tea or mugi-cha (iced barley tea). Dad seemed very content with all those drinks.

But since the very first day some 28 years ago that dad and I broke bread together, we’ve always poured each other’s beer during dinner. It’s been a bonding ritual for us. So having dinner every night this past week together without our beer-pouring ritual somehow felt wrong, and it was bumming me out. But I kept it to myself, lest I incur the wrath of dad’s protective daughter (otherwise known as Samurai Wife). I went with the flow thinking all was hunky-dory.

Based on dad’s “clue” it wasn’t: during dinner when Kurumi once again admonished dad to “slow down and chew your food”, dad said with a devilish grin, “If I had a glass of beer I think it would help me eat slower.”

I almost fell out of my chair. It was a moment of joy: dad missed the beer-pouring ritual too!

And herein lies a great example of a kikubari-challenged American (me, who should know better) dropping the ball. I lacked the foresight to stock the fridge with beer “just in case” dad wanted it; and the consequence of my oversight on that fateful evening two nights ago, was that dad had to suffer the fate of eating too fast, with no beer to slow him down.

As they say on the basketball court of life, it was “my bad”: an inexcusable kikubari oversight. But on the happy flipside of all this, I had a shot at redemption and took it.

What’s unusual about this story is my wife always picks up on subtle hints from people, innuendo much more subtle than dad’s blatant hint above. But amazingly she missed this one. And even more amazing, in a rare display of “sensitivity”, her wretched barbarian husband caught it! (And trust me, I’ve been gloating about it since.)

When I dropped Kurumi off at the supermarket yesterday and reminded her to pick up some beer, she answered me with a blank stare. I reminded her about dad’s remark the previous night. She hesitated and cocked her head, giving me her best “I-doubt-it” look. But she got the beer anyway.

Then last evening, dad, who didn’t know we had bought the beer earlier in the day, said he wanted to try a glass of wine (what I’ve been drinking with my dinner of late). Since dad had never tried red wine before, I offered him a taste, knowing he wouldn’t like it. He didn’t. Then I told him we had beer and he grinned.

At dinner we poured each other’s beer and toasted our good fortune. We limited dad to one very small glass, but he was happy.

Beyond the Basics

Moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we figured dad also came for physical and intellectual stimulation, something he hasn’t been getting in the sleepy hills of Atami. He used to walk up and down the steep hills overlooking the town, an activity that kept him fit all these years. But post-stroke dad, who is supposed to be using a cane but won’t, can’t hack the Atami hills anymore so he stopped walking! His only exercise has been climbing and descending the stairs of his home. Clearly dad’s been bored and his once mighty legs have atrophied.

We too live on the side of a mountain, one that happens to be an active volcano. Thankfully our inclines are much gentler than those of Atami, so taking walks in the neighborhood with dad has been a no-brainer. Already his atrophied legs are getting stronger and his blood circulation seems to be improving.

Yard work is another great activity for dad. He loves nature, enjoys being outside, and craves to be productive. So we had him pulling the weeds around Kurumi’s flowerbed. Then we took him shopping to help us pick out more flowers, which he planted for us when we got home.

Knowing dad is a dog lover, we also put him in charge of feeding our two feisty mutts. No surprise that the dogs are always hanging with dad now, their new buddy. Dad has thoroughly embraced his new alpha dog role.

After a week of kikubari therapy we’re seeing great results. Dad is chatty, his slur is gone, and he’s smiling a lot. Our only worry now is overdoing it, as dad would never tell us to slow down.

The Dude I Owe Big Time

Japanese Confucianism has a concept called “giri-on”, best described in English as “reciprocal obligations”. The tradition assumes that from birth we all start out indebted to our parents, grandparents, and on down the line to our ancestors because, simply put, without ’em we ain’t here.

Hence, in this value system the idea of a “self-made man” doesn’t exist. No such thing as a rugged individualist lone wolf surviving on the frontier on his own wits. The collectivist culture of Japan preaches that everyone needs everyone so ostentatious displays of power and status are frowned upon. As the old saying goes in Japan, “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Said another way, even an arrogant jerk in a leadership position is wise to at least feign humility and downplay his status. (No need to push it, everyone knows he’s the boss anyway.) The ideal leader in Japan is the genuinely humble moral Confucian gentleman. The next best thing is a leader who fakes it very well.

In such an ethical system, when one helps another for whatever reason (altruistic or pragmatic), the giver of the favor becomes the recipient’s “on-jin” (in American vernacular, “the dude you owe big time”). That means you’re forever in that person’s debt. In practical terms it means reciprocation on an ongoing basis whenever the chance presents itself, whether it’s money, or just simple acts of kindness and anticipation–acts of kikubari.

No surprise then that Japanese dad is my “on-jin”, a very righteous man whom I owe big time. From day one he’s had my back.

Over the years I’ve made some surprise discoveries about Japanese dad along the way. My biggest surprise came one night–my best guess 25 years ago– when we drank enough beer to get dad in a rare chatty mood. We started talking about the War, a subject we had never touched on before. It’s the only time I remember seeing dad emotional. He told me how much he had trusted the Japanese government during World War II; that he believed with all his heart the propaganda that touted Japan as “defender of Asia from the Western barbarians”.

He was in the Japanese Navy at the time. In fact dad was in line to be deployed shortly after the war ended. When the truth came out after the war, dad said he was livid with his government leaders who had led Japan into such a destructive war.

As the U.S. occupation was rolled out, dad said Japanese people were terrified of meeting their occupiers as Japan’s militaristic leaders had painted America evil, the land of the barbarians. So in the weeks leading up to the occupation, dad’s fear was that the Americans were going to do horrible things to their women and children.

The very first American G.I. that dad met gave him a piece of chocolate. Later, others would bring food.

Dad says the humanity extended to him in the aftermath of the war forever changed his image of Americans. He’ll never forget what America did for Japan.

Can’t say that this is why dad approved of the marriage, but it couldn’t have hurt either. Today I consider the American G.I. who shared that piece of chocolate with dad as my “on-jin” as well.

When the idea was first proposed for Japanese dad’s visit to Hawaii earlier this year, I was happy for the chance to spend time with him. But no way did I anticipate how much I’d enjoy it.

Dad’s quiet support all these years helped bring into existence my own family, the people I value most today. Without the Ishiyama clan, I absolutely would not have developed the skills I need to do my job today. And ultimately it all comes down to dad, the dude I owe big time.

As a postscript, last evening, exactly one week after dad arrived, I finally got around to asking dad why he didn’t object to our marriage 28 years ago. His answer surprised me but it shouldn’t have: he said that he had raised and educated his daughter to make good decisions so he had to trust her judgment, including her decision about whom she would marry. Dad said my race was never an issue with him, although he admitted that Japanese mom had a problem with it. But dad apparently “overruled” mom’s objection, telling her that their daughter had her own life to live. After that we never heard a peep out of mom. It took awhile, but mom and I eventually grew closer over the years. As proof, she always hugs me now when we make our yearly visit to Atami.

I’ll close with a story Kurumi shared the other night, new information she never told me before. Apparently the Ishiyamas had a family get-together shortly after our engagement became public knowledge almost three decades ago. At this particular gathering–one I was not part of–dad’s older brother turned to Kurumi and said, “How could you marry a barbarian”?

Japanese dad stepped in: “Kurumi made her decision. You’re talking about her future husband, so back off.”

And big brother backed off.

How cool is that?

So glad Japanese dad came to visit us.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


3 responses to “Kikubari and Growing Old: A Tribute to My Japanese Dad

  1. This is an awesome post.

    My highlights:

    – Grandpa is the Samurai Gangsta, he doesn’t take junk from anybody.
    – Grandpa was trying to convince himself he’s stopped drinking…but subtly trying to get you guys to give him a glass so he doesn’t come off as rude by declining. That’s a pro maneuver.
    – Grady is drinking Beer?!?!
    – That G.I. made everything possible. Imagine if that guy was an A-hole, would have made things a little more interesting when you entered that house for the first time.
    – Good to hear that Samurai Gangsta Grandpa is getting much needed paradise therapy.
    – Love the part at the end. I was almost imagining him standing up and unsheathing his sword, consequently forcing everybody else in the room to stand up and unsheathe their swords, “Say that one more time and see what happens.”

  2. What a great and heartwarming article Tim. I love your ability to see beyond the surface to what truly lays underneath a persons character and you should be proud to have such a dad. Enjoy your time with him while you can.


  3. Aloha Tim! Wonderful post! Many similarities to Noriko and my family history. Although her father was trained as a kamikaze pilot who luckily didn’t get to fly due to WW2 ending. It did brainwash him though to definitely not be a fan of me (clean cut business type that I was) marrying his eldest daughter…and we did live together for 8 years without him acknowledging my presence.

    But was close to my mother in law who was an outstanding entrepreneur in her own right and became a mentor to me. She is 80 now and has given up on life which is such a change from this incredibly vibrant woman we all knew. Noriko is spending one month every three months in Japan caring for her.

    Your comment about your father’s experience with Americans after WW2 reminded me of the time I asked my father in law’s best friend, who was assigned to take me to sushi every month to make sure the business we had started was doing OK…my Japanese not being very proficient I liked to control the conversation (and this was a one legged construction sea barge captain who was larger than life in every sense of the word) by asking questions. I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. He bellowed (his only way to converse since he was usually at sea) “I lost all 8 of my brothers and sisters to fire bombing by you Americans during WW2″…..I understood enough to feel TOTALLY BAD…but he continued with a big laugh, “I only survived because I fell down a well which is how I got this wood leg. But you know, I LOVE you Americans because you should have, by rights, come in and pillaged and raped…I mean you won the war right?”.

    Love the Kikubari and growing old connection…so true. And so well written.

    Again, thank you for sharing the experience through your posts…I always learn from them…and it always brings back “interesting” memories of my past and current experiences with my family in Japan.

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