When the “Star‑Spangled Banner” plays, Abraham Lincoln stands up and speaks, “Hachi‑ju nen mae.” Although Abe speaks in Japanese—quite a stretch for a nineteenth‑century Illinois farm boy—Kyoto, the translator, assures us it is the “Gettysburg Address.” As Lincoln finishes, “. . . okyakusama, moshi yoroshikattara, gifuto shopu e okoshi kudasai,” I strain to hear something that approximates “shall not perish from the earth.” Kyoto informs me, however, that Honest Abe is inviting us to patronize the gift shop and sample authentic beef jerky. I can’t help but imagine Buddha rising from a lotus position. He speaks softly, in English, “Ladies and gentlemen, drop in at the Country Bear Jamboree and have a rootbeer float!
The six‑foot animated replica of Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial is a lead exhibit in American Village, a theme park three hours from Tokyo. While touring us through the village, “mayor” Mr. Saduki, smiles, repeating, “Wait until you see Mount Rushmore!” And sure enough, there is a one-half scale replica of the presidents from South Dakota in the gardens outside. The full‑scale replica of George Washington’s nose is on display in the park restaurant so visitors can get a closer look.
I am part of a museum crew hired to design and install “Mississippi River Country.” As a writer, my job is to work with Kyoto translating into Japanese our exhibit text about the Mississippi and about the ten states along its shores. This is our first glimpse of the exhibit being built according to the plans sent over months ago, and it is disconcerting: in American Village, buffalo roam the plains and the Rockies right alongside the River Belle pilot house. Museum director and crew historian, Jack tries to explain to our host employers that they have both time periods and location mistaken, but Mr. Saduki likes that buffalo. It stays.
Our first concern is to track down artifacts shipped by the Midwest Express Company weeks ago, probably held up in customs. Fortunately Saduki never bought Elvis’s guitar for the exhibit. Although Elvis grew up in the heart of the Delta—Tupelo, Mississippi—and cut his first record just miles from the river, Jack advised that it may inaccurately represent the Mississippi River valley to place Elvis’s terribly expensive guitar next to a 29¢ copy of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This time, authenticity won. The guitar was out and Faulkner was in (although I wonder if the $250,000 price tag had more to do with Saduki’s decision than any allegiance to accuracy).
We work long days installing the exhibit. Although the crew of Japanese carpenters, electricians, and artists seem confused by Jack and me working alongside them in the hall, they are gracious, and I learn a great deal more about Japan than I could have as a tourist. We’ve been relying heavily on Kyoto, but tonight as we work well past midnight, we find translation less and less necessary. At break time, toasting one another with ginseng tea, the carpenters share their rice burgers, and Jack and I pass around the Doritos. We compare our tools, holding up hammers and planes, most of them Japanese‑made, whether from the States or Japan. We compare our paper currency and mimic the faces of our countries’ founders etched on the front of bills.
Fukiyuki, master carpenter, seems startled to find me hammering next to him instead of another Japanese coworker, or at least an American man. After working wordlessly for over an hour, he finally speaks, “Please have American dollah?” He points to a photograph of a boy of seven or eight, taken from his wallet. As he taps the photograph repeating “one dollah, one dollah,” I think of Andrew, our seven‑year-old son back in Iowa. Recalling that I promised to bring home “foreign money,” I know instantly what Fukiyuki wants. I hand him the dollar bill. He tries to give me the Japanese equivalent in yen. Although I tell him this isn’t necessary, he keeps saying, “Yosun, yosun.” A slang term for yen, I think to myself. “He wants to know if you have a son,” Kyoto calls from across the room. From my wallet, I pull out the photograph of Andrew, and Fukiyuki gives me the Japanese bill, “Yosun . . . you son . . . your son . . . for your son.” With the bison and the pilot house behind us, we stand together in the dim exhibit hall holding hammers—and photos of boys a continent apart.
With only a week before the exhibit opens, tensions rise, yet there is never a harsh word spoken on the job. Jack explains that the Styrofoam catfish must be positioned within the traps, and Mirimoto-san nods, yes, yes, and bows. There are smiles and agreement all around. But when workers install the catfish, they appear outside the traps, swimming blithely through space. Disagreement comes through action, we learn, not through conversation.
We learn to smile through the numerous photographs of Dolly Parton and Elvis being selected over those of Ella Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Louis Armstrong to represent the ten‑state region of the Mississippi. They can’t get enough of John Wayne, who (as far as we could research) never did a thing related to the Mississippi except to have lived in Winterset, Iowa—a town not even remotely close to the river. We smile, we nod, we agree when they say, “John Wayne, John Wayne, bang, bang.” We plan on returning later to replace Wayne with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Satchmo.
They want Field of Dreams, so we have brought a uniform worn in games on the field where the movie was shot in Iowa. Just before closing the glass exhibit case and screwing in the bolts to safety-lock the uniform, I notice that the fly in the pants has not been zipped shut. I leave it in its natural state.
Before leaving Iowa, Jack and I struggled with the text as we have done together so often before. We worked to get the language concrete, precise, pithy. We consternated over parallel structure, metaphors, cadence. Writing text for exhibit signage requires close attention to qualities of sound since it has to read aloud well; most museum visitors subvocalize or at least lip‑read.
But now as Kyoto and I work on translation, we struggle with far different concerns. Simple things that any American would instantly recognize are foreign here. I explain in precise mechanical terms and gestures words like “wingdam,” “barge,” “lock and dam,” “log rafts,” “paddlewheel,” “sternwheeler,” and even “steamboat.” My own appreciation for the subtleties of the Japanese language also grows:
“We have two ‘-ing’ words throwing off the cadence, Kyoto. How will that translate?”
“In Japanese, it makes no difference.”
“The verb tense here is a little tricky,” I tell her.
“This is not a concern in Japanese.”
“These clauses, Kyoto, they have a parallel structure. Will that translate?”
“In Japanese, it makes no difference.”
Together we pare to the core, and I feel as though we are compressing a twenty‑volume encyclopedia into a single haiku poem.
As we walk by the rice paddies on our way to work this morning, Jack and I agree. We will not argue with the Japanese any more. It’s their show; they are paying the bill, and it’s their version of America for the exhibit. Besides, we are beginning to feel like ugly Americans who insist that our voices be heard over all others. Hiro, our friend and the liaison for the project back in the States, tried to prepare us for this, “You have to understand that after the war, the government sent people to America to learn the culture and bring it back to Japan. But when we brought it back, it did not stay American. We make it our own, we make itJapanese America.”
The more I think about it, the more I wonder why we think our picture of the Mississippi River region is any truer than their picture. We claim accuracy because we live on the river. We claim authenticity because, after all, we are Americans. But how likely is it that we have an objective view of the land where we raise our children, the shore waters where we swim, crick‑stomp, work, water ski, write, canoe, and love?
The Japanese perspective, focusing on America’s fascination with movie stars and twangy musicians may represent us more accurately than we would like to believe. They crimp the hundreds of miles between the mountains of the West and the limestone bluffs of Iowa as tightly as a closed accordion. The Japanese do not understand the concern we have with placing the Rio Grande exhibit alongside riverboats. But when I look at it from the island of Japan thousands of miles away, Americans and American history seem quite like that of all western peoples. No wonder Sam Cheng back home gets so upset when people mistake the curve of his eyes to be Japanese instead of Chinese.
It is early. Rice farmers are checking water levels in their fields. Rice plants need to steep constantly in 5‑6 inches of water. Because this is the rainy season, farmers rarely turn on the spigots that flood their fields. Watching them unleash the water today reminds me of the flooding on the Mississippi last month and the woes of farmers trying to dry fields so corn wouldn’t rot.
Before starting work, I tour another exhibit, “Western Town,” near the other end of the park. The sign for “Langhorne Clemens Attorney Office” hangs over a saloon where Japanese‑featured Dean Martin croons a Willie Nelson tune. Up the street is a church complete with spire and cross. An animated preacher, with a Bible in one hand and a cross in the other, speaks to rows of empty pews. Occasionally he beats his fist on a pulpit carved with a traditional mural of Jesus at the Last Supper. All seems rather correct until I notice that a Jewish menorah stands on a small table to the left of the preacher. I wonder if the Japanese designers were trying to give fair play to both religious traditions. Or did they simply confuse it all as one belief, that which they might call “not Buddha” or “not Shinto” (as much as Americans tend to confuse Buddhism with Shintoism)? I wonder what the preacher is saying. Is he inviting visitors to snap a photo in front of the last supper? Is he suggesting they buy some Asahi beer at the kiosk across the square?
Here in the heart of Sho‑gun territory, I also discover two Asian actors performing a shootout on the reconstructed streets of Deadwood. Their authentic six‑shooters about to be drawn, they count off paces. They shout jibes at one another in Japanese punctuated by American expressions, “OK Pardner” and “This town ain’t big ’nuff for both of us.” It feels like the movie set of a bizarre John Ford production with John Wayne being dubbed in by Japanese voice‑over.
At another saloon up the street, a mannequin speaks to us in orgasmic Japanese rhythms, her eyes half‑closed. Heavily made‑up and blond, she looks much like Marilyn Monroe, Dolly Parton, or any number of women I have come to call American Geishas. I won’t need to ask Kyoto what she is saying.
July 4, Friday
Jack and I have been working with the carpenters and electricians since 4:00 am. There were no raised eyebrows the first two days we worked in the exhibit hall. Jack was directing things, telling American workers who had flown over ahead of us how to modify the pilot house and how to arrange sandbags to look more authentic in the flood exhibit. They expected this of “The Museum Director,” a man they saw similar in position to Mr. Saduki. Mr. Saduki, however, has no contact with the workers; he channels his approval and displeasure through Mirimoto‑san. In Japan, it would be unseemly for a man of Saduki’s class to speak directly to anyone who has a hammer in hand.
But when Jack took up the staple gun on the third day, driven to meet the deadline for opening, I heard them whispering. The day I showed up at work in shorts, wielding a wrench and questioning both Jack and the carpenter about the placement of the Kentucky Derby poster, the eyebrows arched. I presume they are more horrified by me than by Jack since even professional women in Japan should be demure. But they are too polite to object. “You are American,” Kyoto tells me. “It excuses everything.”
Although the exhibit opens in only two days, this day feels as breezy as a summer afternoon kayaking Menominee slough. Maybe it’s because it is the fourth of July, and the American workers are determined to feel festive. More likely, it is because Mr. Saduki and Mirimoto‑san are away in Tokyo. The sun is finally coming out and Hank Williams, Sr. has been singing “Your Cheating Heart.” American country‑western music is piped all day into every crevice of the theme park—Patsy Cline, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, and occasionally Garth Brooks. But today the CD is stuck, and I hear “when tears come down like falling rain” over and over (and over) again. No one seems to notice. Kyoto laughs. She recognizes the repetition, but she is the only Japanese worker who does. We make bets to see how long it will take others to notice.
We work mainly on the aquarium installation. Japanese workers have been instructed to fill tanks with fish from local waters. Jack tells them that saltwater ocean fish are different from Mississippi River fish. Everyone smiles, bows, nods, and agrees, but when we return from afternoon break, mackerel and tuna swim inside the aquarium labeled “catfish,” chasing one another’s tails. Familiar with tail‑chasing, we bow, smile, and invite Fukiyuki and the others to join us in lighting sparklers brought to celebrate Independence Day. Showered by the radiance of sparklers after a too‑long day, we leave the park ready to collapse into bed. But Hank Williams, Sr. is wide awake on the loudspeaker,” . . . sleep won’t come the whole night through.”
July 5, Saturday
I slip my own CD into the park player this morning. Japanese workers and tourists do not notice thatPink Floyd is not country‑western. It all sounds the same to them: crazy, wailing American English.
July 6, Sunday
“Mississippi River Country” opens today. In attendance are representatives from the ten states that border the Mississippi River, all of them young, middle‑class, and Euro‑descended. They prefer not to be called “beauty queens,” as the Japanese tend to label them. I hear two U.S. government officials, men old enough to be my father, old enough to be the grandfathers of these young women, oogle. I feel as though I’ve stepped into a boy’s high‑school locker room, but instead of pimples, the “boys” have gray hair and spreading middles. I wonder about my own culture that so objectifies women.
Miss Minnesota, Miss Wisconsin, Miss Iowa, Miss Illinois, Miss Missouri, Miss Kentucky, Miss Tennessee, Miss Arkansas, Miss Mississippi, and Miss Louisiana. In the months ahead, they will travel thousands of miles and make hundreds of appearances, all vying for the coveted Miss America title. The Japanese refer to them as “the Misses.” Hearing this, Jack and I laugh imagining a balding, pot‑bellied man sitting in his truck outside a hair salon “waiting for the Mrs.”
These young women are strikingly beautiful. They are also young enough to be my daughters. “Eeeooow, warm Coke,” I hear one of them moan. “What IS this?” another whines at lunch, picking through a dish of delicately sautéed eels and bowls of minted tofu as though they are dead gophers. In my attempts to make them feel less foreign, more at home, I ask them about their families, interests, and schooling.
Hearing their answers, I feel as though I’ve tuned into the Miss America Pageant, “Hi, I’m Karen and I love skiing! I also design and make all my own clothes! And my favorite thing to do is spend my days volunteering to teach English and bio‑engineering at the recreation department in the inner city! Of course, what I really want is to be a wife and a mom!” At least I get them to refrain from feeding chewing gum to the wild monkeys in the hills behind the park.
At the big celebration dinner, with Kyoto translating, Jack and I talk with Yokatu, the geisha assigned to entertain us. She plays a lyre and sings. She explains the long arduous training of a geisha: she learns to prepare traditional Japanese food, to become cultured in the arts, to speak English, and to wrap the many layers of her geisha robes “just light.” Her primary job is to serve as companion to well‑educated, wealthy Japanese men. She may accompany them to business dinners, affairs of state, or other ceremonial rituals where an erudite partner is required. Yokatu is eighteen or nineteen, the same age as the Misses.
Our Official Japanese Guidebook tells us that geishas are an honorable part of Japanese tradition. “Although Westerners sometimes mistake the role of geisha to be sexual, this is not the case. They are among the most cultured class of Japan.” In Yokatu’s case, I think this is so. But later in the evening, after many rounds of Asahi and saki, I see the older geishas pinching the rear ends of some of our male hosts and following them off to private rooms. I can’t help but be reminded of those American government officials making lascivious remarks about the “Misses.” Regardless of which country we call home, we all live in two worlds: the world we proclaim in guidebooks which sails full steam ahead like sternwheelers on the Mississippi’s surface, and the world that runs underwater full of wingdams and snaggy river bottoms.
As I fall asleep our last night in Japan, I see overlays like the transparent plastic pages of an old encyclopedia. Under “anatomy,” the first plastic page reveals skeletal structure, the second the muscles, the third the heart. Layering this soft Asian night, page upon transparent page turns across my dreams. I find Dolly Parton riding a buffalo bareback alongside John Wayne singing “Your cheating heart.” Government officials bow respectfully to young geishas while winking to one another. I hear Elvis playing the trombone as Dean Martin sings “Jailhouse Rock” and the Misses feed tofu to mountain monkeys. Fukiyuki asks for American dollars, layered by Saduki riding a catfish into the gardens as Mount Rushmore’s George recites the Gettysburg Address.
On the final layer, Jack and I pilot a steamboat through the island of Japan cutting across rice paddies and shrines. But our navigational charts of the Mississippi River valley break apart. The lines on the chart—separating river from land, state from state, and the United States from the rest of the world—become chopsticks which form into Japanese characters, Kanji, drifting and swirling in an ancient Asian scarf dance—graceful, strong, and never‑ending.
* Excerpted from Dreaming the Mississippi by Katherine Fischer, published by the University of Missouri Press, October 2006. To order this book, please call (800)-828-1894.