Jeff Hill

“East Asian Encounters” by Jeff Hill

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Jeff Hill recalls his life in East Asia one story at a time, each one showing how experiencing another culture is an adventure and a revelation in self-discovery.

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Start: October 2014
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Interview with Jeff Hill

Read Jeff’s interview below and learn what you can expect from “East Asian Encounters”

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DigiLetter: What inspired you to pursue writing about Asian culture?

Jeff Hill: I ended up living in Japan for 30 years and subsequently continuing to explore and write about various Asian countries for the past 12 years as a result of a conversation I had with a couple of other guys in a U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst van on DaNang Air Base in 1970. One midnight shift we were discussing what we wanted to do after we got out of the air force. That we wanted to be released from our indentured servitude was a given. We also agreed that we wanted to go back to college. As enlisted members in signal intelligence, we were all iconoclastic college drop outs. When our conversation turned to wanting to experience more of Asia, it occurred to me, “Yeah, I’d like to go to college in Asia.” Fellow Radio Intercept Analyst Jim Matsen said, “Go to Sophia.”

I asked Jim, “What’s that?”

Jim told me, “It is a university in Tokyo. You can go there on the GI Bill.”

Because of the wartime conditions, we were restricted to base. The only exception was that on the rare occasions when he had the time, we went to China Beach on a Navy bus. Seeing the rice paddies and small villages of Vietnamese shacks through the metal grates that had been put on the bus windows to prevent hand grenades from being tossed through them made me have a yearning to be free to explore and interact with the locals within their environment.

While in Vietnam, I found the Vietnamese girls who worked at the various base exchange shops to be quite cute and, unlike the similarly aged feminists of America, approachable. Soon after I arrived in Vietnam I asked someone how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. It is “cao” (pronounced “chao,” coincidentally just like Italian.) When I received cheerful responses from the Vietnamese girls for this small effort to honor their culture, I little by little expanded my Vietnamese vocabulary. Towards the end of my year in Vietnam, a Vietnamese girl working in our chow line saw the short timer ribbon (taken from a whiskey bottle) I had tied to my top button hole and commented, “You go home soon.” I responded in Vietnamese, “Yes. And when I do, I will miss you very much.” The guy who had been standing behind me in line sat at my table and asked me, “What did you say to that girl? She looked like she was going to wet her pants.”

I said “I told her I would miss her when I go back to America.”

He asked me “Do you have something going with that girl?”

“Never saw her before in my life. But I meant it. I am really going to miss this place.”

The other guys serving with me in DaNang told me that if I could learn to speak Vietnamese, “Why don’t you learn something else that is easy, like Japanese?”

So in 1971 I entered Sophia University on the GI Bill and enrolled as a Sophia University graduate student focusing on Japanese psychological anthropology.

Read the full interview here.

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Living in other cultures will cause you to learn something about your own culture that you had never thought about before and, ultimately, things about yourself as a human being that you had never realized. In appraising each of my characteristic descriptions of Japanese, Koreans, Cambodians and others, you may shrug, “We have that, too.” And you will be right. There are commonalities of cultures just like there are commonalities of human beings. But, just as all human beings have symmetrically placed eyes, arms, legs, a rib cage, a pelvis, a mouth, and a nose but each of us is unique in our own way, each culture is unique in how it emphasizes and expresses each cultural characteristic and in how the combination of those characteristics composes it.

I ended up studying, working, and living in Japan for thirty years as a result of a conversation I had with a couple of guys on DaNang Air Base in 1970. We were working a night shift, when nothing much happens, and we found ourselves talking about what we wanted to do when we got out. As enlisted signal intelligence analysts in the air force, we were all iconoclastic college drop outs. That we wanted to get out of the air force was an assumption. We next agreed that each of us wanted to go back to college. But we still wanted to see more of Asia. Because of the wartime conditions, we were all restricted to base for the entirety of our year. The only exception was that on the rare occasions when he had the time, we could get on a Navy bus and go to China Beach. I was drawn to the rice paddies and the clusters of Vietnamese shacks that I saw from the bus windows between the base and the beach. So when I mused the fantasy of “I’d like to go to college in Asia,” Jim Matsen piped up with “Go to Sophia.”

I asked Jim, “What is Sophia? (At least I didn’t ask “Who is Sophia?”)

Jim told me, “It is a university in Tokyo. You can go there on the GI Bill.”

So in 1971 I began studying at Sophia University on the GI Bill. Rather than being overwhelmed at the prospect of going back to school in a foreign country where I did not yet know the language, the jubilation that I felt at finally being released from the indentured servitude of the U.S. Air Force made my four years at Sophia a joyous adventure as I earned BA and MA degrees.

Gift Giving:

The box of soaps: From September 1, 1971 to November 27, 1971, I lived in a boarding house called English House in Shoto Cho, Shibuya, Tokyo. I received my bed and board in exchanged for being an English language native speaker on whom the Japanese boarders could practice their English conversation. Most of the boarders were Japanese young ladies between the ages of 18 and 25, so I felt I was in paradise. During my first week in Tokyo and before my Sophia University classes began for the trimester, I was enjoying the company of one of those young ladies who was practicing her English conversation on me in the living room. Her uncle arrived, talked with her for a relatively short time, and left her a rather large, yet shallow gift wrapped box. As soon as he left, I asked her who he was and why he had left her that gift. She told me it was a Japanese custom to bring a gift when visiting someone, even a niece. When she opened the box, I saw that the contents were a bath towel surrounded by bars of soap.

“Why did he give you that?” I asked her. “Does he think you are dirty?”

She calmly told me no, that such was a proper gift in Japan.

It was September, so I had just missed the Japanese gift giving season of Chugen. The next gift giving season would be Oseibo in December. During these two seasons, Japanese housewives prowl the department stores to buy boxes of cooking oil, coffee, mushrooms, beer, whiskey, and other items that the department stores box and wrap up as gifts. The price of each box of items is more than if the items were bought separately. The shopper has the department store deliver the gift box to the recipient upon whom the shopper wants to make a good impression so as to secure the good graces of the recipient’s husband or family for the giver’s husband or family.

Kommatta na: Upon receiving the gift that has been given for Chugen, Oseibo, or some other reason, instead of feeling, “Oh, isn’t that nice,” the receiver typically sighs, “Komatta na” (“what a problem”) because now she has to do her own private detective work to find out how much the gift cost at that particular department store, buy, and send back a similarly priced (but different) gift. The longer she waits to do this, the greater the return gift should be.

We Americans in Japan at first found it silly that Japanese would pay more for three to six jars of instant coffee or three cans of cooking oil in a box than if they were purchased separately. And why are so many people giving others boxes of cellophane wrapped mushrooms? The answer is that even during the affluent years of the seventies and eighties, Japanese scrimped on themselves and therefore, the only way anyone in Japan would get luxury goods, such as mushrooms, would be to receive them as a gift from somebody else – to whom one reciprocated with a similarly priced gift.

After I had been in Tokyo for a few years, I asked one of my private lesson English conversation students in his home why the gifts that Japanese gave each other were always things like soap, cooking oil, mushrooms, and whiskey, but never something Americans would give such as a clock. He told me, “When you give something, you are placing the burden of an obligation on that person. So we give something that will get used up. If you gave someone a clock, with that gift you would be expressing, ‘Put this on your wall and be reminded of your obligation towards me for the rest of your life.’ That would be considered very enryo ga nai.” (As Doi Takeo surmises in his book “The Anatomy of Dependence” [“Amae no Kozo” in the original Japanese]

enryo” cannot truly be translated to English because, Doi asserts, Americans cannot truly understand Japanese feelings [something I do not agree with], but the translations of “modesty” and “restraint” will have to do.) To be enryo ga nai is to be a pushy, pretentious jerk.

Johnny Walker whiskey: Therefore, Japanese culture challenges everyone to make good impressions on each other to be in the other’s good graces (amae) without appearing to be a pushy, pretentious jerk. During my first fifteen years in Japan, for reasons having to do with national importation policies and which Japanese companies had secured exclusive importation rights, Johnny Walker whiskey was very expensive in Japan, and everyone, whiskey drinker or not, knew it. Everyone also became familiar with the fact that Johnny Walker black was more expensive than Johnny Walker red. Therefore, Johnny Walker black very often became the item of choice to buy and give to one whose good graces (ie: corporate superior, university chancellor who would make the decision on whether or not one’s son got into the university, etc.) one wanted to secure. A bottle of Johnny Walker black whiskey therefore became a trophy that the recipient put in his living room sideboard to show how important he was in Japanese society. The more bottles of Johnny Walker black he had behind the glass of his sideboard, the more prestige he displayed. Somehow, during those years, those bottles of Johnny Walker black never got consumed. They just stood there, side-by-side, as trophies.

In the mid 1980s, after the exclusive hold on the importation of Johnny Walker whiskey was broken and the price per bottle in Japan therefore dropped, the prestige value of Johnny Walker, whether black or red, also faded away. Therefore, Johnny Walker whiskey is no longer a favored gift in Japan. And you won’t see it in living room sideboards anymore.

The Grandma at the Bus Stop: Giving a favor as well as giving an object imposes obligation on the recipient that must be reciprocated. One day when driving from our home in Makomanai, Sapporo I spotted the next door neighbor grandma standing at the bus stop. The bus stop had a canopy but it was raining. I said to my wife “Oh, there is the neighbor obaasan. We know she is going to Makomanai subway station to get a subway downtown. We are going past the subway station anyway. I’ll pick her up so she won’t have to wait in the rain.” Michiko gasped, “No! Don’t do it!”

I asked, “It is no trouble. We are going that way, anyway. I’ll just pick her up.”

Because we were now very close to the bus stop, Michiko screamed at me, “Don’t do it!!!”

I asked, “Why?” followed by a sarcastic, “Because if we pick her up, she will have to buy a cake for us that she can’t afford?”

Michiko roared at me, “Yes!! If you know that, why would you consider picking her up?!!!!”

Expressing Affection in Japan

Hug your mother: For seven years I taught a course entitled “Japan-American Comparative Cultures” at Hokusei University in Sapporo. Half of the students in my class were Japanese who were majoring in English and the other half were exchange students from America who were in Japan on a homestay program to learn Japanese language. As the instructor, as much as possible I talked to my classes (such as by telling the above anecdotes) instead of lecturing to them. I also engaged them in activities that would illustrate and prove the culture points I wanted to make. I told one class that their homework assignment was to “go home, hug your mother, and tell her you love her. If you are from America, hug your homestay mother and tell her you love her. Then report on her reaction when you come to class next time.”

When the class met the next time, I asked the students to report. The Americans each reported that the reaction from the homestay mother was, “Why did you do that?” and that, “I told her that my university instructor had assigned it as homework. Her reaction to that was, ‘That is kind of weird, but OK.’” As I had expected, however, the Japanese students tensed up and reported, “I couldn’t do it. We Japanese just don’t do that.”

As I had wanted to happen all along, that kind of report from the Japanese students, most of whom were female, had the Americans gasping at them, “You can’t even hug your own mother? Why not? Don’t you love her? Why can’t you tell her you love her?”

Otosan, nagai aida osoreni natte orimashita“: I often set my Hokusei culture class into clusters of students, typically two Japanese and two Americans. Then I gave them prepared slips of paper with talking points on them. One of the talking points was, “If you are Japanese, explain to the Americans in your group why Japanese teenage girls cannot talk to their fathers.” A Japanese coed in one group read that aloud to the group and shrugged, “This isn’t true.”

The Americans therefore asked, “Oh, so you talk to your father?”

The answer was, “No. But that doesn’t mean I can’t.”

The Americans pursued this with, “When was the last time you had a conversation with your father?”

“I can’t remember.”

When I walked past one cluster, I overheard a Japanese girl say, “My father makes jokes like ‘The reason you have no boyfriends is you are ugly.’”

I asked her, “Do you think that is funny?”


I asked, “What do you do when he makes jokes like that?”

She said “I go upstairs to my bedroom and close the door” in a matter of fact, shoganai, way. (Shoganai is a Japanese expression that means, “It can’t be helped. What do you expect? That’s life.”)
So I commented to that group, “The sad thing is that she will not think about this until her wedding day when she ceremoniously recites to her father, “Otosan, nagai aida osore ni natte orimashita…” which means “Father, for a long time you have taken care of me [but now it is ended]” and at that moment both she and her father will feel the pang of regret that they had passed up the opportunity to have an affectionate relationship when she was a teenager.”

As I finished that last sentence, that Japanese coed dripped a tear on her desk and the Americans looked at her and at me with facial expressions of “Was this an act? Did you two have this all planned out?”

Price: $4.00
Format: Text/HTML
Start: October 2014
Distribution: Monthly on the 1st and 15th

Right now you can get this month’s DigiLetter issues for free. Subscribe anytime during the month and still receive all of the month’s issues. Cancel before the end of the month at no cost if you’re not satisfied.