Bram Takefman is a retired international trade executive who has spent much of his adult life overseas, living in places like England, Japan, and Peru. Fascinated and inspired by these foreign cultures, he now writes about the experiences and customs he has learned in his travels.
An ex-Canadian, he now lives in the United States, where he is an amused spectator and confused participant.
His writing has appeared in The ILR Journal (Northwestern University), The Review (National-Louis University), and The Front Porch Review.
The American House
Ichiro Oku returned to Japan after two weeks of visiting friends and customers in the United States. Every weekday evening at his favorite drinking club, not too far from his factory, he would regale his drinking buddies with tales of the things he saw and did in America. He enjoyed his role of storyteller and the incredulity of his companions, although when he described the homes he had visited, they grumbled that his talents for embellishment had passed all acceptable limits.
“No, it is all true,” he would insist. “They really do have a room called a ‘living room’ just for entertaining guests and another one called a ‘family room’ just for entertaining themselves. They also have a room for the morning meal, which they call a ‘breakfast room,’ and for the evening meal a ‘dining room’; I never did find out what they do for the midday meal—eat out, I suppose. These areas just for eating and entertaining are as big as my entire house—and their bathrooms, why, they are not mere rooms but splendid temples of marble dedicated to the gods of urination and defecation. These shrines are numerous in most of the homes I visited, never more than thirty paces from where one is when the divine call comes. I still wonder whether Americans really are a pious people or simply a race with small bladders and short colons.”
From the telling of the stories began a dream that soon became a compulsion; he would build an American-style home for himself and his family. He asked for my help in obtaining back issues of the major architectural and home design magazines, which I was to send to Osaka—to his office, not his home, for he had to keep the dream secret. Mrs. Oku would surely not approve.
Mr. Oku thought back to the terrible months of suffering he had endured so many years ago when he told his wife that they were to leave the family farm and seek a new life in the big city. He was right at the time, for his elder brother was the heir to the land, and while the younger siblings would be secure, they would always be subordinate. He knew that he had not handled the matter well and recalled, with unease, his wife’s clenched teeth and pursed lips when he told her of his decision. He remembered the months where his normally chatty wife was silent and the tea was served cold with dinners that no longer included any of his favorite dishes. Unagi, sweet, smoky-tasting, grilled eel, became only a memory, and his most favorite, tonkatsu, stalwartpork cutlets, were banished, gone, it seemed, forever. The move proved to have been the right thing to do, for he now exceeded his elder brother in wealth and status, but this time he would handle his wife more carefully and would put to use the skills he had mastered in the world of commerce.
And so Mr. Oku nurtured his dream in secret, sketching in his few available moments variations of the wondrous, exotic things he saw illustrated in the magazines. He met clandestinely with real-estate brokers in search of the perfect property and he located a local architect who had actually studied for the profession in California and who could explain the functions of the unusual rooms. Finally he decided to commence discussions with his wife, but to do it in two parts. The first part, the easy one, was to convince her to sell their present home and move to an area more appropriate to their current economic status. The second, the more difficult part, would be to convince his wife that they should build, to phrase it benignly, a nontraditional abode.
Three months after returning from America, he initiated the first gambit. From his office he phoned Mrs. Oku: “Tsuma (my wife), I am thinking of coming home for dinner tonight—could you prepare some of your wonderful dishes so we may eat together?” He was a man of few words when talking to his wife.
“But Ichiro-san, this is not the weekend. Is there something wrong? Why will you not be going out as usual to carry out your business obligations?”
“Is there something wrong with a man wishing to dine with his wife? If you have made other plans, just tell me.”
“No, I am happy that you will be coming home to eat—only a little surprised.”
Dinner was a pleasant affair, and Mr. Oku was lavish in his praise. In fact, he found that giving up an evening drinking and dining with his staff and buddies was not such a burden. “Wife, I forgot how good a cook you are and how poor the food is in the miserable restaurants that I must endure for the sake of the business. We should do this more often. We have talked a few times about moving to a bigger, more comfortable home. I have been busy with my growing business, but now it may be time to start harvesting that for which we have toiled so long and so hard. Do you recall me telling you of how American men stay at home so much with their wives and children? It may be that their homes are more comfortable than ours. A more pleasant home to come back to would encourage me not to stay out every night.”
Mrs. Oku was surprised. “When the Tanakas moved to a better district and finer home last summer, you seemed to disapprove. What has changed?”
Mr. Oku shifted uncomfortably on the tatami, rearranged his kimono, and cleared his throat. “When I was in America three months ago, I saw that there was more to life than work. You are in charge of all our savings and investments, so tell me if we have enough money to buy a new house. It should be in a good, high-class area so that the wife of my elder brother will not continue to slight you.” He was pleased with that last improvisation.
This was all bewildering to Mrs. Oku, but she tentatively replied: “We could probably afford a new home, for we have more money than I ever dreamed possible. In fact, at the last meeting of our ladies’ investment club, the guest speaker spoke of how well investments in real estate have been doing.”
“So it’s settled. I’ll get listings of available places and together we will view them.”
The first part of the plan had gone better than expected, but that was the easy part. Now Mr. Oku began to come home for dinner more regularly. After dinner he would suggest that they watch a movie on TV. Soon it became a custom and Mr. Oku always volunteered to pick up a video on his way home. It usually was an American film and, more often than not, featured the wealthy, showing them in lavish, elegant homes. After each viewing, Mr. Oku brought the conversation around to the lifestyle of the Americans. When he believed his wife to be completely indoctrinated, Mr. Oku casually produced his twelve-inch-high pile of architectural magazines. He showed her his favorites, some going back for one or more generations, and made his pitch.
Mrs. Oku’s reaction was immediate; she clenched her teeth and pursed her lips. “So this is what the past weeks have been all about. Husband, I always knew you were devious, but this is beyond anything I could have imagined. I will not live in this thing you call a split-level, neo-Spanish, California ranch-style house with or without what you say is a ‘Florida breezeway.’ We are considering land in the best area of Osaka. Many of the mansions there date back to the Meiji period. Do you really believe that our new neighbors would be happy to have what you call an ‘alternative lifestyle’ home in their community? Even if I did agree, we would be ostracized. Why, the kitchen has no walls, and that big hole in the living room that you call a conversation pit would seat people too shocked or laughing too hard to make any conversation at all.”
“Wife, you are wrong. If I could prove that all our neighbors would welcome the new addition to their ‘traditional’ community, would you then agree?”
It was unseemly to debate with one’s husband without some attempt at compromise, even if he was being foolish, so Mrs. Oku took the safe but sure way out. She agreed they would build an American-style house provided all the neighbors approved, but if any disapproved, they would then build a conventional home. They bought the land, had an architect make sketches of the “nonconventional house,” and Mr. Oku had a scale model with a removable roof made.
When building a house in Japan it was the custom to visit your new neighbors to introduce yourself, present gifts, and apologize for the coming disruption of their tranquility. Mr. and Mrs. Oku followed these traditions, but in addition Mr. Oku invited all to a meeting the following week to view his plans and the preliminary model and also to help in planning and designing the new home. As he later told me, he hoped to preempt the critics.
The open kitchen startled all and Mr. Oku explained that the kitchens in America were social centers and that many of the men there enjoyed doing the cooking. This intrigued the local women but shocked their husbands. A few of the men began talking about ancestral values and the possible drop in the neighborhood real-estate prices; about the big hole in the living room floor and how shameless it was for men to do the cooking.
Mrs. Oku suddenly became concerned; her husband was about to lose face. Besides, his eloquent presentation had convinced all the other women, most of the men, and even her. She was beginning to be excited about the new house. She was also angry at the narrow-mindedness of the man who disapproved of men cooking and who called it shameless. She decided to act in her husband’s defense with irony and, assuming a guileless demeanor, she spoke: “I suppose the square hole in the living room that they call a conversation pit is where American men and women sit and exchange favorite recipes—and then discuss how the shameless male cooks of America won the war against Japan.” There was a shocked silence and then roars of laughter. Her risky quip had herded the stray ducks back into line.
That night Mr. Oku gravely told his wife that she had done well. She bowed in acknowledgment, slowly, to hide the warm flush of pleasure and pride she felt and then, with appropriate modesty, she replied: “I did what had to be done to muzzle that terrible Mr. Sakai, who was the barking dog that would set the whole street barking.” The following day Mr. Oku proudly told all his buddies how his own wife was wiser and wittier than any of the hostesses in their drinking club.
The split-level, neo-Spanish, California ranch-style house was built, but without the Florida breezeway, which the architect insisted would destroy the integrity and cohesion of the other three styles. The conversation pit was yielded in a tactical retreat before the combined forces of Mrs. Oku and reality.
After Mr. Oku completed the house, his visits to his favorite drinking club ceased, then began again, occasionally at first but gaining in regularity. Now every weekday evening, at his club, not far from his factory, he again regaled his drinking buddies with the tales he told so well. When he told them he would be coming regularly, they welcomed him with unbridled emotion—each a deep bow. One of his friends was curious: “Ichiro-san, it is good to have you back, but it seems that you will spend little time in your new home. Is it not what you had hoped for?” Mr. Oku answered enigmatically that it was beyond anything he had anticipated.
Sometime later I too asked Mr. Oku about his American home. He told me the story I have just recounted. As I was a co-conspirator in the original planning, he added a personal note to the tale: “When I built my house, I was eager to see the changes it would bring to me and my family.” Mr. Oku paused, and then continued ruefully, “It was to be as a pebble tossed into calm waters, causing gentle, ever-expanding ripples. I now know it was a large rock I tossed, and my wife, who was so reluctant at first, is being carried high on its waves. It began with tours of our home by the Architectural Society, which led to her becoming a member of that organization, which led to her joining their board, which led to her being active in the American Cultural Association. The waves continued, ever expanding; English lessons, TV appearances, and now one of the liberal parties is trying to get her to run for public office.” He again paused and then ended the saga of the American house on a poignant note: “Now even eating a simple meal at home is like trying to dine in a celebrated restaurant—I must make reservations well in advance.”
“ I met the prototype of Mr.Oku a few years after he left his family farm and had started manufacturing in Osaka where he soon became a wealthy exporter of industrial products. He was as fascinated with American culture and customs as I was of the Japanese and, although steeped in the traditions of his homeland and part of a quite xenophobic nation, he was open to exploring new ways of life. He is the protagonist in a number of my Japanese stories. ”