Some people are voice activated. My dad’s mom was. It was impossible to talk with her on the phone because as soon as you began speaking, she spoke over you. From the moment I met her in Hiroshima, my interpreter Junko Hattori did this, and nearly got a ribbing from me more than once until I woke up to what she was doing…and just how amazingly well. I came to Hiroshima Japan last week to present a slideshow about Rocket Mass Heaters at a festival called “I Am Stove! Hiroshima” for wood burning enthusiasts (and generally make friends, celebrate DIY stuff and peace and activism and no-nukes, etc). Junko-san was to be my guide and translator. A go-between for me and the event’s organizers, the public, and the other presenters (one from Korea). She arranged all transpo, fun side trips, lodgings… But so much more, she was like the best service dog, reading my moods and guaging my needs to be informed vs. be left alone to take it all in. She made me laugh, sparked interesting conversations, and–having translated the book Rocket Mass Heaters into Japanese– she knew her way around wood combustion and heat transfer. She could talk about it easily and understood my audiences. At this event in Hiroshima, I was to give a slide show and field questions, then sit on a panel, and play my fiddle at the parties.
We’d be in a circle of Japanese speakers, plus a Korean and his Japanese-Korean interpreter as well. They were Seong-wan Kim, and Ohio . As soon as someone began to speak, there was Junko-san in my ear, sometimes tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention. Several times, I nearly stopped her to tell her not to interrupt…Until I got used to the fact that she was not interrupting, but interpreting. For every conversation that happened within our group–us, our hosts, and various friends–she carried on the conversation itself in both languages as well as one with me. Sometimes all three languages, with the Korean interpreter chiming in for Junko-san. We had very rich conversations, too, we weren’t complaining about boyfriends or the price of gas. It was deep shit. Well, duh.
Performing a slideshow for an hour-and-a half with my wing-woman at the stage’s edge was scary and exhillerating …. We actually practiced this ahead of time in the performance hall of the Jimmy Carter Center in Konu Town where the event happened. I neither wanted to leave her hanging on half-a-thought, nor feed her too much to have to remember, so I focused on brevity and complete thoughts, and quickly noticed she was talking a lot more than I was, and it turned out she was filling in the gaps around my brevity with her own knowledge, based on what she knew the audience might need. Who knows what she said, but people were pleased, and bilingual folks tell me she did me right.
Junko-san was so much more, though. I whispered to her on arriving at our first hosts’ place that I needed prompting on a lot of the politenesses/customs because we are wild animals in the USA. I would make many mistakes and would need her help. How many times she would see me looking for the words and whisper in my ear, “Arigato gozaimas.” (thank you). Or prompt me with something helpful. She instructed me that first night on taking a bath, showing me how the shower worked, and once you are completly clean from showering, you can get in the hot bath (which was already drawn, which the rest of the family would use after I did. It was covered with a thermal roll-top cover). She said it may be too hot for you, though. I thought nothing of it, I’m tough and can handle it, I’m sure. But I could not handle it, and wondered how in the world they did, and emerged from the bathroom having steamed off the top layers of skin up to my knees, which was the farthest I could get into that stainless steel tub.
That first night, we spent a quiet sleep on tatami mats in separate rooms across a hall from each other, separated by shoji screens. Their windows and interior walls and doors are all made of the same stuff: paper screens framed out in wood. Beds were thin futons I jokingly called two-ply paper towels, but they were of course more comforatble than that, yet far less cush than we are accustomed to. The pillow was a bag of some seeds, or rice hulls. In the morning she showed me how to fold my futon and bedding and stow them in a neat pile. The beautiful subtlety in their architecture knocked me out. I gaped, astounded and turned on at every view.
Every day, Junko-san gave me gifts, but having been to Japan before, (I came with the Mermen in 1991 for a tour), I was ready for her, and armed with several things like Oaklandish tee-shirts and stickers. Our generosity-fest was a delight, but she of course won hands-down.
I grew to not just depend on her but I grew fond of her as well. Bringing everyone’s content to me–bringing me the conversations but also the happenings, customs, the plan, anticipating my needs and reading my moods (of which you know there are many), sometimes in three languages, Korean, of which she is proficient, Japanese, and English!
She is the very embodiment of the movement for peace that began in Hiroshima right away after the A-bomb broke everyone’s hearts. They are the dying and living example that peace is the only way to go. The culture around this small but growing group of “Alternative Japanese” celebrates a culture of peace through appropriate technology, fun, home grown food, inventiveness, open source sharing, and throwing festivals like “I Am Stove” and worksops to spread the word. I’ll share more about my week in Hiroshima in ‘blogs to come, as I was really touched by being there and don’t want to forget it anytime soon. Since they translated Rocket Mass Heaters into Japanese 7 years ago or so, Friends of Earth and Fire have felt like true friends, and now more like family. Part of me stayed back there, learning some manners, eating pickles and slurping noodles.
–In flights en route to the Natural Building Colloquium Twenty-Year Reunion, Kingston NM, October 19, 2015.