Well! It’s quite an accomplishment to wean myself off social media for the most part. It was even more life-changing to be off the internet and having no high-speed phone service for six days while at Venice Beach, Florida recently.
I barely want to get on the computer these days, as being hooked up to a machine for very long makes me feel disembodied. I write mostly long-hand and read physical books.
One of the books I read was the 1954 Pulitzer Prize-Wining play by John Patrick The Teahouse of the August Moon. Based on the novel by Vern Sneider, the 1956 film about The U.S. Occupation of Okinawa included Glenn Ford and Marlon Brando, whom I was obsessed with in high school. Brando dressing up to be the Japanese narrator Sakini seemed racist to me, so I didn’t pursue watching the film, yet living in Japan made me curious. I checked out the play here compliments of my public library.
The Teahouse of the August Moon is not racist, but a satire of American imperialism’s dominator system.
U.S. soldiers stationed on Okinawa at the end of WWII strip themselves and return, literally, to nature and realize the beauty of the the spirit of the caring partnership system still found in Japan, that stresses non-material nor ego-seeking qualities of living together but union with nature instead.
It’s a tribute to Japan’s beautiful culture of living in harmony with nature, contrasting with Americans’ trained to destroy nature yet yearn for it. It’s a great handbook for survival in our era – get back to nature, simple living and what really matters in life. It’s a system based on relationships rather than individualism and the benefits that working in partnership brings that I can relate to. It comes from the Shinto Buddhist nature that all things are Buddha things. All things are nature things. The other is yourself. The Japanese understand this and have great respect for each other.
Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I was a confirmed feminist and hippy. As insane as my family was, its values were about what you can do with money, like travel, make art, eat organic food, get a good education and help people. My father was Dutch, too. I great up in a hoarder household, but it was creative. We were into reading, watching science, opera, and ballet on TV shows. art, sewing, crafts, gardening, cooking, travel and foreign languages, meditation and yoga, doing intellectual pursuits and not our nails. (My ancestors turned out to be part of the 1% Colonial Dutch, I finally realized all this while in Japan.)
Enter my persistent and charming Tex-Mex husband, Frank, who made me his Hispanic version of Eliza Doolittle. I was happily working as a journalist in Mexico City and I didn’t want the vacuous house with white Berber carpet he convinced me to return to the US to, which we had to fill up with a lot of heavy furniture (I love Japanese furniture! Practically NONE!)
Saying the word “downsize” to him was enough to send him running for the blood pressure cuff. Exasperated with me he’d say, “This is how people live!” He didn’t like me saving the water from the giant master bed shower to use on the garden flowers. Baking bread and making homemade ice cream with the raspberries I grew, “Why not buy it at the store???” he’d ask. I’d say, “WHY buy it in the store?” I’d reply. “It’s so easy to make and much more meaningful and delicious!”
He refused to get a mini-van because that signaled “US” rather than “ME” like the Range Rover he bought did (he read about that in Men’s Health Magazine. At least he was a self-made man, but after he died, I bought a brand-new mini-van and hauled half of the Montessori School of Golden around in it regularly from then on out. I remember putting my 2 ½-year-old daughter’s black-paint-stained hand prints like a stripe around the white Range Rover after he died when his Denver advertising business went under in the post 911 downturn. He didn’t get extra lines of credit like SOME businesses did, that in America are more equal than others. Well, they can have it.
Naturally the whole US system house of cards is coming down now as Trump destroys America from within like Nikita Krushchev said he would. Many people have so much to lose, especially their lifestyles. I have nothing to lose, because for one, I’ve already lost it. It’s easy to let go, especially when you never wanted it in the first place! I’ve been trying to get rid of stuff my entire life! (So funny I’d end up living in two different penthouses in Osaka that the company provided. Never my intention!)
Secondly, Japan taught me well. It’s beautiful culture aligned with nature proves the greatest wealth possible by living in harmony with nature. There’s nothing to fear, for all is I, as the Buddha realized and touched the earth. Materialism is a sign of nature-starvation as exemplified in the Greek myth of Demeter and King Erysichthon. Naturally repatriating to America has been the equivalent of spiritual death.
Walking the Kumano Kodo definitely infused me with the soul of nature, desiring and fantasizing but one day may just have a poet’s hut in the middle of the forest or become like Basho and roam the countryside with little in my pack but an ink stone, brush, ink and paper to write haiku.
Here are some my favorite scenes and lines from the play that speak to this issue and show us how to be free again in nature.
The Disaster Economy
SAKINI: In Okinawa… no locks on doors. Bad manners not to trust neighbors.
In America… lock and key big industry
Bad manners good business.
In Okinawa…wash self in public bath with nude lady quite proper.
Picture of nude lady in private home… quite improper.
In America… statue of nude lady in park win prize.
But nude lady in flesh in park win penalty.
Pornography question of geography.
Hubris and Cultural Imperialism
In this small village of Tobiki, Captain Fisby, formerly a Professor of Humanities before being drafted (So symbolic!), is put in charge of building a pentagon-shaped school for “psychological warfare” by Colonel Purdy.
PURDY: Captain — you are finally getting a job you’re qualified by training to handle— teaching these natives how to act human.
FISBY: The Humanities isn’t quite that, sir.
PURDY: If you can teach one thing you can teach another. Establish some sort of industry up there.
FISBY. Is there a general plan?
PURDY: There is a specific plan. Washington has drawn up full instructions pertaining to the Welfare and Recovery of these native villages. This is Plan “B” Consider it your Bible, Captain.
FISBY: I’ll study it carefully, sir — there might be some questions I’d like to ask you.
PURDY: Washington has anticipated all your questions.
FISBY:: But I was thinking —
PURDY: You don’t even have to think, Captain. This document relieves you of the responsibility.
FISBY: But in dealing with the natives, sir–
PURDY: It’s all covered in Section Four — “Orienting the Oriental.” How is your Luchuan?
FISBY: I don’t know, sir — what is it?
PURDY: It’s the native dialect. Well–I can see you’ll need an interpreter. I have just the man for you. Sakini!
FISBY: I could study the dialect, sir.
PURDY: No need. We won the war.
Commander Purdy’s entire motivation for the project is to get accolades so that his wife, Grace, knows he is a success if he names a new Boulevard after her.
But the residents turn out to be more human and equal than the American occupiers, whose goal is to introduce industry. The locals don’t want a pentagon-shaped school; they want a tea-house. Their values are about having tea while watching the sun set. Their values are about building cricket cages and having to catch your own cricket for wealth and good luck rather than buying it at a pet store in an alienated fashion a consumer market demands.
Geishas are not Prostitutes
Lack of sex and meaningful relationships is another Western problem dumped on formerly sexually open and unashamed Japan.
No sexual release equals frustration, addiction, materialism and violence. Make love, not war! But that’s another story.)
A Geisha named Lotus Blossom exudes Japan’s reverence for beauty and the fine art of femininity. The play points out that American troops’ erroneous assumption that Geishas are prostitutes has led to their degraded image.
SAKINI: But Geisha girl not prostitute, boss.
FISBY: At least we have the decency — (he stops.) What do you mean – Geisha girls aren’t prostitutes? Everybody knows what they do.
SAKINI: Then everybody wrong, boss.
FISBY: Well, what do they get paid for, then?
SAIKINI: Hard to explain fundamental difference. Poor man like to feel rich. Rich man like to feel wise. Sad man like to feel happy. All go to Geisha house and tell troubles to Geisha girl. She listen politely and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” She very pretty. She make tea, she sing, she dance and pretty soon troubles go away. Is not worth something boss?
FISBY: And that’s all they do?
SAKINI: Very ancient and honorable profession.
Considering the Geisha has nice makeup and things and Fisby is teaching the villagers about democracy, the ladies in the village insist on being equal and having nice things to buy too. The villagers want a tea house, because the majority of the population are older and don’t need a school anyways.
Hard work and Nature
Naturally, Purdy finds out what’s going on and sends McLean, a psychiatrist, to check Fisby out. When asked what happened to his uniform, Fisby reveals that geta and kimono are more comfortable in the hot climate. His hot helmet is replaced with a local hat that is cooler because wind can pass through. He offers McLean Tsukemono, Fragrant Things, eaten during the day between meals.
McLean sees the building going on, and Fisby reveals it’s the Cha Ya, teahouse, because you can’t have a Geisha without a Cha Ya and you can’t have a Cha Ya without a lotus pond. (How I miss the lotus ponds of Japan!)
Fisby explains that the Japanese have a “strange sense of beautiful and hard working — when there’s a purpose…. Don’t let anyone tell you these people are lazy. ” They take pride in their work because it is meaningful to them.
Contrast that with the meaningless automaton jobs capitalism requires and forces minorities into then judges too lazy to work. Lakota Holy Man Lame Dear said he didn’t want to work in the factory because he was too good for that. Any human was too good for that, he said. I agree.
Fisby reveals to McLean that he wants to get chemicals for more agriculture. McLean gets excited when he hears this, as his passion is organic gardening.
MCLEAN: Do you want to poison these people?
FISBY: No, but —
MCLEAN: You’ve touched on a subject that is very close to me. For years I’ve planned to retire and buy a farm — raise specialities for big restaurants. So let me tell you this — chemicals will kill all your earthworms and earthworks aerate your soil.
McLean continues to extol the virtues of beekeeping, worm castings and ends up ordering a soil testing kit as his garden fever kicks in. He stalls to return from his assignment regarding Fisby.
Mass Production vs. The Artisan
One of the most touching parts of the play is on the subject of mass production as opposed to Japanese artisans. This subject goes back to the Edo period when Japan’s closure to the rest of the world made the Japanese people creative and frugal. Art was for everybody, not a wealthy few, and frugality was a form of nature worship.
The Japanese respected elders and Living Artisans who produce one of a kind things with skill over decades of work. It’s not the mass produced industrial production the U.S. wants everything to become in the name of profit and the expense of the environment and displaces elders with new technology.
In this scene, Sakini relates how a Mr. Keora was tired from having to haul back handmade artisan hats he had tried to sell to soldiers. None bought any because machine-made hats were ubiquitous. Fisby then asks Oshira about his artisan works.
FISBY: Did you take your lacquer ware to Yatoda?
OSHIRA: Oh, yes… but come back… not go again.
FISBY: But I don’t understand… the Navy always spends money.
OSHIRA: Sailors say, “Oh, pretty good… how much you want?” I say, “Twenty-five yen.” They say, “Oh, too much… can get better in five and ten cent store. Give you one nickel.”
FISBY: Did you explain how many years it took you to learn how to turn out such work?
OSHIRA: They say, “What you want us to do, cry?”
FISBY: (Angilry) Damn, stupid morons! Did you tell them that each cup was handmade?
OSHIRA: They say… not care. They say… at home have big machines that turn out ten cups every minute. They say… take nickel or jump in lake.
Racism and Hipocrisy
Eventually the village produces brandy, Tobiki’s specialty. But when Purdy eventually arrives to see things for himself, he is appalled to find out about the Geisha and alcohol production. He orders the distillery and teahouse destroyed. Fisby realizes the racism, hypocrisy and error of The United States imposing its culture upon the Japanese, along the lines of Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai.
Fisby is dejected. McLean is sent away, but his last request is that somebody look after his bean plants. Lotus Blossom wants Fisby to marry her and bring her to America, but he refuses. He doesn’t want to change her.
SAKINI: Tell her that I am clumsy — that I have a gift for destruction. That I’d disillusion her as I have disillusioned her people.
SAKINI: She say she think she like to go to America. There everybody happy. Sit around and drink tea while machines do work.
FISBY: She wouldn’t like it, Sakini. I should have to see her wearing sweaters and sport shoes and looking like an American looking like an Oriental. (I saw this in Japan. Pretty horrific everybody — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American, European, etc. wearing the same monoculture crap!)
SAKINI. But she wants to be American boss. She never see an American she not like, boss.
FISBY: Some of them wouldn’t like her, Sakini. In the small town where I live — they’d be some who would make her unhappy.
SKAINI: Why, boss?
FISBY: She’d be different.
SAKINI: She say not believe that. In America everybody love everybody. Everybody help everybody — that’s democracy.
FISBY: No. That’s faith. Explain to her that democracy is only a method — an ideal system for people to get together. But that unfortunately — the people who get together — are not always ideal.
SAKINI: That’s very hard to explain, boss. She girl in love. She just want to hear pretty things.
FISBY: Then tell her that I love what she is– and that it would be wrong to change that. To impose my way of life on her.
FISBY: Tell her that I shall never forget her. Nor this village. Tell her that in the autumn of my life — on the other side of the world — when the August moon rises from the east — I will remember what was beautiful in my youth — and what I was wise enough to leave beautiful.
The poetry of Japan rings through here, as she says she will never forget him and when she sees the Autumn Moon think of him. She says she will make up a long song-story about him to sing at the tea house. Maybe 100 years from now he’ll be famous all over Okinawa, she says.
Man Vs. Machine
Fisby then realizes what success and happiness really are all about.
FISBY: I tell you something, Sakini. I used to worry a lot about not being a big success. I must have felt as you people felt as always being conquered. Well — now I’m not so sure who’s the conqueror and who the conquered.
SAKINI: Not understand, boss.
FISBY: It’s just that I’ve learned from Tobiki the wisdom of gracious acceptance. I don’t want to be a world leader. I’m making peace with myself somewhere between my ambitions and my limitations.
SAAKINI: That’s good?
FISBY: It’s a step backward in the right direction.
The People of the Lie
After all that, Purdy hears that Washington thinks Fisby’s program is a success, and it’s to be used as an example. But his orders to destroy the distillery and teahouse were carried out to the letter by Officer Gregovich.
PURDY: Why can’t someone disobey orders once in a while! What has happened to the American spirit of rebellion. (And we thought Trump was an aberration!)
Just then, Gregovich passes out from being drunk on brandy.
They find out that the Japanese never destroyed anything, just hid it away. And Purdy is excited to visualize his Boulevard sign coming soon one day.
The Teahouse of the August Moon is prescient for our era! Covid-19 is actually a blessing in disguise. It’s like birthing pains, to clear away an old, destructive age of domination and usher in a golden one of caring and partnership. A golden era of equality, peace and living in harmony with the environment, which in turn helps us live in harmony with each other and most importantly, ourselves.
Next time you are outside, have a cup of tea and look up at the moon!