SPIRITUAL REFUGEE

by Junko Chodos

Hans Christian Andersen begins the story “The Little Mermaid” with a description of the place where the little mermaid princess came from. It was far, far from land, where no anchor could reach the bottom and where you would have to pile many church towers on top of each other before one of them emerged above the surface of the ocean. The little mermaid princess fell in love with a human prince when she saw him dancing at a party on the deck of the big royal boat illuminated brightly, crossing the ocean. She wanted to dance with him and to be a human to marry him:

She went down to the dark seaweed forest and asked a witch to give her human legs so that she might dance with the prince. “It is stupid of you, for it will bring you misery,” the witch cackled. “Your beautiful tail will divide and shrink until it becomes what human beings call ‘pretty legs’. It will hurt; it will feel as if a sword were going through your body: every time your foot touches the ground it will feel as though you were walking on knives. If you are willing to suffer all this, then I can help you.”—“I am,” the little mermaid whispered.—“But remember, once you have human legs you will never come back and swim in the deep sea. And if the prince does not marry you, you will become foam on the ocean the very next morning that the prince marries another. And,” grinned the witch, “I want no small payment for my portion either. I know you thought of using your beautiful voice to talk to the prince and charm him, but I want your very voice for my payment!” The little mermaid nodded; the witch cut out her tongue and she became mute. When she appeared to him as a human figure the prince asked her to dance with him and she did just as she dreamed of, but every time her foot touched the ground it felt as though she were walking on knives. The prince wanted to know who she was and he asked her many questions, but she could not utter one word. The prince, though he was sweet to her in the way one would be towards a little sister who is mute, was going to marry the princess of the neighboring kingdom.

This is a story of irony. What the Little Mermaid sacrificed in order to gain the opportunity was the very tool she needed in order to exploit it. And that was exactly what I had done in coming to America, leaving my native land Japan, paying the cost of my own mother tongue. I came to America to live as an honest, integrated individual. If I am allowed a psychological interpretation of the symbols in the story, the royal marriage the little mermaid wanted is the symbol of integration with her own self. And the depth of the ocean represents the unconscious world. Integration with my own self was the precise reason that I came here too, from a culture where one is never encouraged to be separated, to emerge from the mother’s womb, where everyone drifts still in the dark tribal unconsciousness, to a culture which had reached the concept of individuality. The mermaid’s is a story of one who took serious risks to become an exile and endured all the consequences.

One must have a certain amount of freedom to be honest as an individual. Without this freedom there is no way to take responsibility for one’s own actions and thoughts and therefore there is no inner life, no place where one experiences oneself as an ethical being. Without that private place, others are merely strangers and one is a stranger even to oneself.

In a society that does not allow for the existence of individuality, the effort to become an individual invites persecution. Although this sort of persecution is not as visible as political persecution it is nevertheless fatal to one’s spiritual being, so the persecuted person becomes an exile. One usually goes into this sort of exile only after a sustained battle against the cultural system in which one’s whole life is wrapped up. The battle is painful. Wounded and bleeding, one becomes an exile. These people I call “spiritual refugees”; I consider myself one of them.

I grew up in Japan during World War II with images of total destruction: thousands of airplanes which kept welling up from the other side of the sky aligned perfectly like the lines of a chessboard, moving, keeping perfectly the same distance from each other in the sky above us, flying towards the big city where they dropped all their bombs at once—a carpet bombing. It was a well- thought-out and well-calculated plan: they did not miss one square inch, there was no undestroyed spot on the land, they did not miss even one baby who might have been born that very morning. Every day, every night it was done. Images of Tokyo in ruins, a field of debris spread where all buildings used to stand and where people lived, worked, and studied, stretching to the horizon like craters of the moon. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed overnight, their dead bodies piled under the debris. I grew up on top of those bodies. The memory of the smell of the dark wet soil in the little hole we dug underground for a bomb shelter, and which we crawled into every night, the memory of the young American soldier’s laughing face I glimpsed when he aimed his machine gun at me from the low-flying airplane—these are all still very vivid in me.

And yet, those images are not the most frightening images of war. The destruction of mind, the hatred of freedom and individuality, the hatred of the power of thinking, and the insistence on blind obedience to the irrational authority of the Japanese fascistic government—all those evoked much greater terror in me than the image of collapsing buildings. In those days, we were told to eradicate the different, eradicate the dangerous, eradicate evil—and this was the core of fascism.

At the age of four I drew pictures all the time in the little hole underground, on cardboard boxes in which medicines had been packed. I had already drawn over and over on each surface, knowing that I would never get another crayon once I finished the last stick. By creating art, I kept going through those overwhelmingly traumatic experiences without being driven insane.

Japan is not a totalitarian nation politically any more. In fact, Japan today is probably one of the most “free” nations in the world if we look only at its written laws. But although the written law is perfectly democratic the unwritten law is not, and it is the unwritten law that often has the stronger power over one’s life. I came to America from Japan in my late twenties, to escape the totalitarian control which continued in Japanese society in various and very repressive ways, and to escape from a kind of persecution which prevented me from growing into myself.

Erich Fromm, who escaped from the Nazis and wrote extensively about the mechanisms of Nazism and fascism, argued that primitive societies are built on the foundation of the figurative umbilical cord, on the strong tie to the mother, and by extension to the family and the tribe, to blood and soil. The relationship of the individual to the world is symbiotic. In order to become himself each man has to go through a long dangerous journey which has been known as “Killing the Great Mother” or “the Hero Journey.” This journey causes enormous fear and anxiety, but the alternative is worse: to try to remain in the umbilical tie, against the natural course of human growth, will cause terror, rage, and guilt, and will imprison one in a maternal-tribal-racial-national-religious fixation. Trying to avoid this terror and rage, he submits to authority, or seeks an illusional superiority and sadistic power over less powerful people, or tries to overcome his feeling of insignificance by destroying others and making the outside world less threatening to him, or he tries to become an automaton identical with millions of others. Erich Fromm believed that these things make up the syndrome of the fascism and totalitarianism he experienced. But considering the enormous difficulty of going through this journey and that most of us are struggling to take just the first step, it is not surprising that the danger of fascism remains right under the surface of every society, including our own.

Being a spiritual refugee and being an artist is not a coincidence. There is some deeper connection between art and individuation, for the artist actually goes through the process of individuation, a hero journey, by going through the process of creation. I have protected myself from insanity through creating art, I believe, during those insane periods of fascistic and destructive war and the periods which followed. And now I feel that all the works I have created since I came to America, over 500 of them, are the personal record of my own individuation journey.

The umbilical tie is particularly strong in Japanese society, where the requirement of homogeneity penetrates to the tiniest details of personal life. (I give you examples drawn from articles I have collected from the Asahi Shimbun, the leading Japanese daily newspaper, over the last ten years.) Some schools require their school uniforms, which are designed after military uniforms, to be worn at all times—even during summer vacation, even on the beach! Dyeing one’s hair or curling it is prohibited in most public schools: all students are required to have completely black, straight hair: this racial characteristic of the blackness and straightness of the hair is a patriotic, nationalistic symbol for many people in Japan. Some people whose hair happens not to be as black as

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others’ and not as straight as others’ by birth have to expect some “ordeals” because of that. One girl had her head pushed into a bucket of water by a teacher in front of the whole class to test if her curls were natural or not. Another boy who won first place in an athletic tournament had his prize taken away because his hair was suspiciously brown—even though he insisted that it was the excessive exposure to the sun during his daily training which caused his hair to fade.

Some school rules say students are required to walk down the school hallways exactly ten centimeters off the wall, and to turn corners at precisely 45 degrees. They are instructed not to use more than a certain number of centimeters of toilet paper at one sitting. Violation of these rules often results in violent corporal punishment, which sometimes effects lifelong injuries or even causes death: this sort of punishment is forbidden of course by the written law, but enthusiastically supported by the unwritten law.

When the young children of Japanese parents whose jobs took them to a foreign country for some years return to Japan, those young students are categorized as a group and are called by a specially made Japanese name, Kikokushijo (children returning to their homeland). Many schools refuse to accept those students even today; and of those who are accepted, more than 69 percent of them reported that they became the target of that special systematic abuse called ijime (bullying) in Japanese (Kikokushijo Soushichi Miyachi 1990). These young students, who one might think would help Japan to become a more open society, are often under pressure by the group to “retrain” them: this is jokingly called “scraping off training.” The target of this training is their objectionable “attitude”—which is evidenced by such things as asking questions in class or expressing their opinions (things which are not encouraged in Japanese school) and their natural pronunciation in English class in the case of students who returned from English- speaking countries. To avoid this ijime, some of them imitate the Japanese accent in English class, or even go to a local “English school” just to learn Japanese English.

This ijime continues until the victim shows no spontaneity or initiative and becomes completely homogeneous. Parents report that the teachers are either themselves active leaders in this ijime or often the hidden power behind it. This ijime sometimes escalates to serious physical assault and sadistic public humiliation and torture by the group: the victims sometimes commit suicide, and often need serious psychological and medical treatment.

Some stand up and try to find the truth. One thirteen-year-old student committed suicide leaving a note to his father that he had become a victim of ijime in school and saw no way to get out of the hell (Asahi Shimbun 1998). The police launched a perfunctory investigation, but the school wrote a letter to the police saying that they found no proof of ijime, and the case was closed. The father decided to find out what exactly happened to his son, and he sent out letters asking for information. One anonymous letter came back saying that his son was in fact the victim of ijime. But for the most part what the father received was letters and phone calls accusing him of disturbing the peace of the school. He was told by his employer that he must stop his investigation or be fired. He chose to seek the truth. But then, when he went to the market, people immediately left the market and excommunication started. The rumor spread that it was this father who drove his son to suicide. He realized that the ijime his son experienced was what he himself was now experiencing. He found support in a small group of parents who had lost their own children to ijime, and started to speak up in public about his son’s suicide and ijime and tried to do something to change the consciousness of society.

Perhaps these stories do not amount to real political fascism. But they do exhibit all the characteristics of totalitarian control which lie right below the surface of everyday life. The essence here is hatred towards what is different, towards the spontaneous and free, for all such people are considered to have “betrayed” their tribe. The hatred of the victim who stands up and seeks the truth is severe. Those victims receive more cruel treatment than the actual offenders. For standing up for the truth is possible only to the individuated, and the truth interests only the individuated, and those who are individuated are more dangerous to the totalitarian group than any criminal. For the deception of the “peaceful” society will be uncovered by those who seek the truth.

If standing up to tell the truth requires one to bring his case to a court of law, then he will find himself the most formidable person in society. He finds himself accused—not because his claim is unjust, but because he has brought his case to court. He is often fired from his job and excommunicated, becomes the target of death threats, and his children become targets of ijime at school. In short: the plaintiff will be judged and sentenced by the unwritten law of the tribe, long before he is judged in court. And often it is his closest family and friends who turn out to be the most vindictive members of the tribe.

To seek justice, to be courageous, to be ethical—in other words, to choose rational universal standards over loyalty towards the group—is to be a “traitor” in Japan, and these individuals break the biggest taboos of the totalitarian society. I experienced these aspects of Japanese society as a form of “persecution” and as a threat to my own integrity.

That is why I left Japan and became a spiritual refugee. But for the spiritual refugee, language is crucial. It is the tool you need to cut the umbilical cord and draw yourself out of the mother’s womb, and to establish a non-symbiotic relationship with your fellowmen. It is indispensable to achieving integration. Like the mermaid who had to become foam upon the ocean if she failed to marry the prince, the exile who fails to master language will not achieve individuation and may suffer the same fate.

How many times have I been asked since I came here to America, Why on earth are Japanese so bad in English? It is a brutal reality that Japanese are poor in English. The TOEFL scores (“Teaching of English as a Foreign Language”) which 2400 universities in America and Canada use to test foreign applicants continuously show that Japanese rank close to the bottom of all the nations in the world who participated in the testing program. This is a mystery, considering that the international test scores of Japanese students in other subjects have remained at the top, or near the top, among all the participating nations, and that English has been one of the hardest-studied subjects which must be taken for at least ten years by the time one graduates university. Students are not the only ones suffering from this difficulty in English: English teachers, professors, businessmen, government officials, politicians, financiers, journalists who are sent out into the world, all have enormous difficulties in English. Globalization and the pressure of e-mail has made mastering English even more urgent.

One of the reasons for this notorious difficulty lies in the Japanese language itself. There are many theories about its origins, about which family of languages it came from. But wherever it comes from, it is clear that it has been isolated from its origins for so long that it has lost whatever qualities it shared with other languages and has become unique. This makes it very difficult for Japanese to learn foreign languages as well as for others to learn Japanese.

Another reason is that Japan has never been colonized in its history. It seems that being colonized by a foreign country and being forced to use its language is the most effective way to master language skills—in spite of the deep scars that colonization leaves on the subject countries. Since 1853 when, as part of an aggressive colonization movement in which all the Western nations were ganging up on the East, Commodore Perry appeared in Uraga Bay and demanded that Japan should open its country to America, Japan’s most urgent goal became to avoid becoming a colony of the West. Japan succeeded in keeping its independence by going through a radical self-motivated modernization revolution. The language revolution was part of it: many new words which Japan did not have, such as society, justice, rights, and love, and many other modern industrial, technological and scientific words, as well as the simple pronouns “he” and “she,” were invented instantly by a government committee. And the Tokyo dialect was set up as standard official Japanese. In a very short period, all Japan’s educational institutions nationwide started teaching even Western subjects and performing all their functions in standard Japanese. This uniformity of the standard language and its seemingly limitless ability to incorporate unfamiliar new ideas into its existing cultural context, is an exception among Asian nations even today.

This independence, pride, and self-sufficiency, and the possession of a common language throughout the country, helped to save Japan from becoming a western colony. Yet ironically, it has also become one of the biggest obstacles for Japanese to speak English. Even people who received the highest education in Japan have great difficulty in sharing their accomplishments in academics or business with not only English-speaking societies, but also with their fellow Asians. Isolation in their world is deep. The complete uniformity of the Japanese language throughout the nation requires no English usage as a common language among dialects—which is the main reason that English is retained in some other Asian countries long after colonization has terminated. For as long as you are in Japan, there is no need to use English: just as a Classics scholar in America, however long he may have studied these languages, probably never made a grocery list in Latin or Greek, so for the Japanese who studied ten years of English there is no need to use it in everyday life.

In Japan, English has been respected for a long time as an exotic foreign language of a faraway land; it has been taught like a code which you have to solve. Complicated techniques and tricks were taught by teachers who had never actually communicated with English speakers in their whole life, and there was no way to find out if the language we were learning really worked.

There is another thing: a tendency deeply rooted in the core of Japanese culture to use language as a monologue and to view verbal expression as final. In situations where an English speaker would open up a dialogue with the people he is talking to, Japanese tend instead to speak in monologues. For example in the Man-yo-shu, a twenty-volume compilation of seventh- and eighth-century poems, a woman was waiting for the Emperor to visit her at night, and she wrote him a passionate love poem. But she does not express her feeling towards him, nor does she persuade him to come to her. Instead, she writes of how the autumn wind came into her room moving the curtain which was delicately woven of bamboo. That is all—a monologue; and the book is full of similar monologues.

In 1964, the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner in literature, Yasunari Kawabata, gave his acceptance speech. He began with this poem:

In the spring, cherry blossoms.
In the summer the cuckoo.
In autumn the moon, and in 
winter the snow, clear, cold.

This poem was written by the Zen priest, Dogen, in the twelfth century. Zen despises description or explanation in language and allows only short ultimate symbolic expression—almost like an exclamation mark by itself. The poem is an expression which is final, it will not develop any further, it will not expect any response to follow, it will allow only silence to follow. In his short address, Kawabata recited some “farewell poems”—short poems which are intended to sum up the poet’s life in two lines, composed when death is imminent either from natural causes or suicide. Such poems expect no response: they are final utterances. A few years after he gave that speech, Kawabata committed suicide: interactive communication with others was never his goal.

There is no tradition of dialogue nor debate nor public speaking anywhere in Japanese history. In a dialogue, language is the first piece to put on the chess- board—not the last: always some next move is expected and the responsibility of responding to the other party and building the structure of thoughts is shared equally between the two parties. Those forms of language never appeared in Japan. Conflicts, differences of opinion cannot and should not exist in the moth- er’s womb. If a situation arises in which people have to talk and work out difficulties, then some authoritative figure in the group appears, and using some very ritualistic kind of discourse which has been used for centuries, makes things “round”: they say that the edges are cut down and smoothed out and that people go back to the womb as if nothing ever happened. That sort of “talk,” though they call it talk, is in fact the very opposite of the essence of talk. It is a camouflaged form of threat to silence the troublemaker.

Talking is actually undesirable in Japanese culture. People say about a married couple, “They still talk to each other,” meaning that their marriage is not successful, they have not reached the stage where they don’t have to talk and can float in the womb of the mother which is what all good relationships are supposed to be. Verbal, eloquent, clear, logical, expressive—these are synonyms for shallow, untrustworthy, troublemaker and betrayer. Language is indeed used to make one separate from one another, and using language is a betrayal of the society in which every one believes he is living in perfect unity. In that kind of society, very short final words are enough, “In autumn, the moon”: your monologue vibrates the heart of the one who sits next to you. He will respond by uttering exclamations in silence.

In 1950 the Japanese psychoanalyst, Takeo Doi, now a recognized authority in Japan on cultural differences between Japan and America, visited America for the first time to study psychoanalysis. The question “Would you like some ice cream?” shocked him; the phrase “Please help yourself” made him feel helpless. These phrases showed that in America, people are not living in the mother’s womb. In the mother’s womb no one dares to ask what you want, assuming that oneness is crucial: assuming differences is a betrayal of the illusion that we all live in the mother’s womb, in paradise.

When his professor did some small kindness for him, Doi responded saying “I am sorry” instead of “Thank you.” The professor asked him, “What are you sorry for?” He felt that his position as a student was not sufficiently equal to that of his professor to say “thank you”: “thank you” sounded to him as if it would imply the two parties’ fundamental equality and he was afraid this implication would work as an insult to the professor. In panic at not knowing what to say he said “I am sorry.” He was still completely under the spell of the hierarchical language. In that language each word takes a different noun, verb, and pronoun, and changes its form in very complicated ways according to where the speaker stands in the elaborate hierarchical network. Not only does it change according to the social status, ages, or genders of the parties who are involved in the conversation: it changes too according to the people who are referred in their conversation. If the professor mentions his friend and the student responds with an expression like “Did he?” in too respectful a form, it might imply that he thinks of the professor’s friend as higher than the professor whom he is talking to. Without constantly monitoring this complicated map of hierarchy you cannot even open your mouth.

Times have greatly changed since then, and yet when I myself heard the expression, “Make yourself comfortable” for the first time at a dinner party, I too suddenly felt abandoned, in spite of having known this expression by that time. The sense of helplessness spread to my chest like a sharp pain. I felt as if I were alone in the middle of the Coliseum for some kind of tournament and I suddenly realized that I didn’t really know the rules of the game.

We don’t have the word “I” in the Japanese language, nor the word “you,” in the way English uses the words “I” and “you.” In English, “I” is solid: whomever you speak to, you use “I.” Often it comes at the beginning of the sentence, and it is written even as a capital letter! Once you say “I,” the whole sentence has to carry this “I” to the end. “I” requires the speaker to take responsibility. “I” is expressed as a declaration to the world: there is no way to run away, no way to disappear any more. It is like making a left turn in an intersection, you proceed, you stand at the center of the intersection, you declare your intention and you demand that others let you turn left. You cannot go backwards or suddenly run away to the right, all the cars are waiting for you to make the left turn now. And “I” is followed by verbs such as “believe” or “think” which define, and confine, the “I” more strictly. Once you say that word, it becomes you.

But in Japanese, things don’t go that way at all. There is no such “I” in the Japanese language. Some say that we usually abbreviate “I” in sentences. But in the strict sense it is not abbreviation. Some will say that we have many expressions for “I” which is true. But on each occasion, when you want to use “I,” if you have to choose among a dozen different words, and a dozen different ways of expressing respect and social distance, and if the key to choosing the “I” is totally dependent on the person whom you talk to, or more precisely depends on how the person whom you are talking to views you, even if you chose the “correct” I and pronounce it clearly rather than abbreviate it, it is not “I” in the strict sense.

And the word “you” does not exist either in the strict sense. It is used even less often than “I.” I don’t think I ever used the word “you” in any sentence when I talked to my mother in my entire life. An expression such as “Would you like. . . ?” is out of the question. It is too harsh, too direct. There is no “you” who stands in front of you, ready to listen to you. There is no “you” to whom you should talk, declare, persuade, convince, and confront, even if that “you” is your own child or God. The whole conversation is like a tapestry in Japanese; the word “I” or “you” is not painted there, but somehow delicately woven into it. And each tone of “I” and “you” is different from the tapestry you made with another person. Weaving tapestry is a task that requires enormous complication and subtlety. But Japanese recognize and identify “I” in that very process. Until the tapestry has taken shape, there is no “I” who can express any opinion to you.

To step out of his culture requires a Japanese to go through a radical transformation. A surgery has to be performed, the surgery that the mermaid went through: you have to shrink and divide your beautiful fish tail until it becomes what human beings call “pretty legs.” And this surgery you yourself have to perform on your own body without any record of any previous case to guide you. In this process, the only thing you feel is deep pain, the pain of losing your language, losing the huge structure that you were born into, and that you had built all your life. This is the reason why I call the process of learning English the loss of language, instead of calling it the acquiring of a second language.

I visited a bright young Japanese woman who married a successful American businessman. She met him when he was visiting Japan, and they had married and come to America ten years before. She told me that she studied English crazily, and finally came to the point that she understood what was going on around her. She thought she had an affinity for America: “I felt great that I can communicate to any one, I can have friends here. But,” she said, “I suddenly realized now that I am not understanding anything, whatever I see on TV, whatever the conversation I am engaged in, I understand only the outline, but the nuances of the words, the feeling that they try to convey through those words never reaches me. Everything seems to be just flat, does not mean anything to me. And I can say anything, because it does not mean anything either. After ten years of hard work, finally I came to the point that I cannot be involved in anything here. I never will be as long as I speak this strange foreign language.”

She cast her eyes on the floor covered with white carpet in the big living room of her Beverly Hills apartment. “I throw parties rather regularly here,” she said, “inviting all my husband’s business-related friends for his career promotion. I am still spending three hours a day to read the Wall Street Journal with a dictionary, to understand my husband’s business better and to be able to follow the conversations he and his colleagues are having. They all keep saying what a wonderful party it was and praise my English, how fluently I speak—just like an American, some say. They hug me, and kiss me, and they leave. As soon as I close the door for the last guest, I burst out crying at the closed door. I cry to my husband ‘I cannot live this way any more, I have to leave you, though I love you so much. I have to go back to Japan where I can live in my own language where I can be myself. What you are seeing is not the real me.’ I cry aloud all night through. Junko-san, have you ever wanted to kill anyone, I mean any American, who praised your English?”

“Have I ever wanted to kill them? I have already killed them, all of them, one by one, every night in my dreams,” I said. “You have to kill anyone who tries to fool you into thinking that language can be put on like you put on new clothes, and that you can keep living a wonderful life in your new clothes. And kill anyone who praises you that you are like an American because you imitated them so well. You will be split into two, into outside and inside, if you accept that sort of praise.” I continued, “It might look like some kind of quick solution to you to let your outside imitate Americans and keep your Japanese inside. But if you choose that way you will never be able to be an integrated honest whole person. Furthermore,” I added, “your inside will start projecting your anger and frustration which you inevitably have towards America, onto the outside, and you will start believing that hostility comes from the world towards you. Language has to come from your center.”

“You have to kill those who praise your English,” I said. I used the expression “kill” in the same way Zen used the word “kill”; “If you encounter the teacher, kill him, if you encounter the Buddha, kill Him.” Kill your own weak mind, your dependency on those who praise foreigners for the wrong reasons, such as people who are flattered to see foreigners imitating Americans, their language and mannerisms and protocols, without any connection to their own mind, and think of those foreigners as adorable just as they might adore their pets. Kill your mind which is sometimes desperate enough to cling even to those people in order to feel a part of the society. Kill your weak mind and accept the reality that there will be no fair power-balance in the communication between you: as long as communication continues the one who praises you will keep the advantage of using his own language, he will never learn and use your language just for fairness’ sake—even if he ever visited Japan.

She was sensitive and intelligent enough to feel her moral crisis at the peak of her remarkable victory which everybody celebrated, and as a Japanese, I saw all the details of the difficulties she had conquered with her intense efforts. Language has to come from her center, I said to her, but how? Language is real and vital only if you have something you really have to say. The idea of going back to Japan will remain as an alternative for a long time in her, and it will flame up intensely from time to time. But if she wants to stay here and speak in English with her own voice, she has to have a life more than playing a beautiful role. Honest language requires an honest life: this must be true for everyone, but for foreigners it is a command without mercy.

She had to go through a long dark journey, a journey in which she could not know the direction in which she should step out, nor the goal towards which she should go. A journey in which she has to kill the Great Mother and fight with many dragons; the hero’s journey.

There are so many stages of darkness you go through. Not understanding language was to me like being half blind: with the utmost concentration you can see a person who speaks to you as if from the end of a long tunnel. If you cannot sit right in front of him or if he moves away a few inches, you lose him, he will disappear from that pinpoint of sight quickly.

Not only is it difficult for you to see others: language difficulty keeps making you invisible, too. My eyes, which were directed towards someone with intensity and desire to understand him at a dinner table, seldom met his eyes—some- times never even once in an entire evening. That was when I started noticing groups of people who had difficulties in language because of their ethnicity, their age, or because of physical difficulties like strokes and many other sicknesses. All of them were living in the pain of not being reached, not accepted, not respected. I heard their unspoken cry of aspiration, like the howling of a wolf, everywhere I saw them. I identified myself with them and with their cries.

I looked back at how much I had taken my own language ability for granted. I had been a member of the proud side of society no matter how I was afraid of being persecuted for being myself there. I was powerful because of my expertise in my own language. Now I see myself naked. My ability of language is all scraped off. I found myself vulnerable along with those who suffer bitterly in this society.

This realization comes only after the acceptance of your own commitment to live here for the rest of your life and to become an American citizen; only after signing the pledge that even if your own mother nation becomes an enemy of America, your loyalty will belong to America, and only after renouncing your Japanese citizenship. During this period, any word which tries to comfort you about your language difficulty does nothing but hurt you. You have not recovered from the shock of seeing yourself in a wheelchair. You are still in the process of accepting that you are not the athlete you used to be, and that you will never be again. The mourning over the loss of identity of who you were—free, spontaneous and playful in your own language, the loss of pride and vanity, starts.

This process is deeply connected to the sense of mortality. Many Japanese simply disappear to Japan after decades of staying here when they face the first reminder of their own mortality, even if it means divorcing, giving up their careers, or leaving their young children behind. Burying your bones in a foreign land is a much harder idea to bear than living here for the rest of your life. Your commitment to live here takes a long time to sink into your own mind and accepting it requires a complicated process, even though you came as a determined spiritual refugee. The language which you have missed since you left the land of your birth will be once more roaring inside of you. It has been a secret which no one knows nor cares to know, but for you it has been your secret lover. You thought you could keep it a secret in your mind forever, but now you are not sure if you can repress it any farther. It is roaring loud and you are gasping for expression, you feel it might erupt like a volcano, gushing magma out into the sky, and reveal everything you have hidden, the love, sorrow, and pain for your mother tongue Japanese.

Any anecdote which is offered to encourage you, anecdotes about what an American experienced in Europe relating to language, won’t bring you any comfort during those periods. Because what Americans experienced in Europe is not about loss, not about mourning over the loss of language, over the loss of identity; it is about the hardship of gaining an extra skill. They were on skates, not in a wheelchair: though they glimpse their vulnerability, when they fell they were basically having fun. You hear well-meaning praises of how well you do with your wheelchair instead of how well you do as an athlete, which is the praise you were used to receiving. You realize only one thing: that they know nothing about you. If you were ever allowed to talk to them in your own language once, as they always do, if they ever made the enormous effort to learn and speak to you in your own language as you always do, if only this overwhelming imbalance of power were turned around once for a change, then they would finally see who you really are. But you hear a subtle but unmistakable command that you should be happy about their praise, as if you should receive with a smile the big stone plate which is coming down slowly to flatten you on the floor. You feel isolated, you lose your sense of connection to the world. You see yourself hanging from the cliff of America, the darkness below you does not seem to be like a darkness of being blind any more, it is felt more like a darkness of death itself which you will fall into any moment.

For a long time my language was lost. Those were years of deep silence—a completely unexplainable time. I did gain some extraordinary sensitivity—prob- ably just like a blind person develops his other senses out of necessity. And my art reached a consciousness level different from the usual everyday consciousness, something I call an altered state of consciousness. I went into the darkness much deeper than I ever thought possible and I developed certain working patterns for my art in the ways that only non-language experience could give me.

I found that the most personal quality which I had reached in my art through that non-lingual, unexplainable altered state of consciousness, reached a most universal quality. When I showed these works during that period, I saw viewers identify their own pain with mine, my most miserable personal pain, which I had revealed in my works: seeing my work, they went through a transcendent experience. The realization that the artist can reach a universal consciousness by going down deep into his own personal core, with the special altered state of consciousness became a clear reality for me. This new idea became part of the foundation of my concept of the spiritual refugee.

Living in a foreign language, with commitment, is like creating works of art. One needs faith and determination. Just as that Japanese friend had to build a whole new life, a life which had integrity, even before she could know all the elements of that life, so the artist encounters an image which is not yet fully formed and she gropes towards it. The artist does not know where the image will lead. If the work is powerful, it is because it is the trace on paper of the artist’s honest encounter with the image and of her faithful, persevering struggle towards it. The life of the exile imitates art.

The loss of language showed me the most mysterious way of how consciousness develops. Without the darkness of being half blind, without losing one’s connection to the world, without losing your proud identity, the altered state of consciousness in which I have been working would never have developed to this depth. I would never have known the mystery that darkness is light.

It was also a part of the ongoing surgery of turning a fish tail into legs. Language started taking a more positive role in my art. Loss of language turned out to be the way to gain a new strength of language.

By the way, I don’t have to kill anyone—any American who praises my English—anymore. Now when some one listens to my words intently and smiles, or when someone sincerely talks to me with deep feeling, those words are born in me and gain reality. Probably every mother tongue gains its life in your mind in the first place in just this way, when you are an infant, resonating with the love of another human being. My English is growing that way now.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2003, Vol. 52,  No 4.