Thursday, January 3, 2008

Haragei: A story of Beppu

The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers featured stories of the weird and wonderful, and readers have asked for more. Here we go…

My wife had asked me to bring her chabako, traditional tea boxes, from Japan. My host in the city of Oita agreed to take me on a chabako quest, before delivering me to the Oita aikido club that evening. Because the boxes were more likely to be found in Beppu, the neighboring hot springs resort town, we climbed into Keiji’s car and were soon navigating the narrow streets of Beppu.

“The allies never bombed Beppu during the Pacific War…unfortunately,” Keiji remarked.

“Why do you say ‘unfortunately’?” I asked.

“They bombed Oita very obligingly,” he replied, “and we got to rebuild it with nice, wide streets, good for driving cars. But it was a dirty war, and the American pilots knew they would need a bath afterward. So they kept the bombs away from Beppu, and it still has these damn narrow streets. By the way, isn’t this a lot of trouble to get a tea box for your ex-wife?”

“Keiji-san, I’m sorry if I was unclear. This is for my wife. I don’t have an ex-wife.”

Keiji said, “Neither do I…unfortunately.”

By the time I could control my laughter, we had arrived at an old-fashioned tea retailer. The tea merchant explained that his deliveries came in ordinary cardboard boxes – but if we drove up another three narrow streets we would find a merchant who still received the old-style tin-lined wooden boxes. Keiji and I thanked him and turned to leave, but the tea merchant continued to talk, saying that he would close a few minutes early because on Tuesdays he always went to train at the Beppu aikido club.

Keiji, a thoroughly modern Japanese who worked in an Oita government office, was shocked. Japanese shopkeepers do not make unnecessary small talk with casual customers. Moreover, not many people practice aikido, even in Japan, and I could almost hear Keiji thinking, “What are the chances…”

In fact, the odds of one aikidoist randomly finding, in a small town on Japan’s far-southern island, another aikidoist who happened to be an impolite chatterbox were vanishingly small. I was surprised too. I checked my clothing for telltale aikido logos, finding none.

Finally, Tea Guy ran out of steam and stood there with a “what am I saying?” look on his face. Keiji put him out of his misery, explaining that the visiting gaijin with no ex-wife was an aikidoist too. Tea Guy was relieved and satisfied; this obviously had been haragei, Japanese telepathy, and was therefore completely reasonable.

Keiji was shaking his head over the incident well into the next day. It’s not that he did not believe in haragei; rather, he was shocked only by the shopkeeper’s chatty breach of social etiquette.

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