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East Asian Fiction

In Japan, everyone says “Itadakimasu” before each meal. It's an unquestioned tradition. There are many such rituals in Japan: the aisatsu greetings for good morning and good night, bowing to superiors, the proper way to use chopsticks, that go back so far in Japanese history, people can’t imagine it being any other way.


Everyone except for our son Kenji. He likes to make his own rules and has long ago decided uttering six syllables before eating is an inefficient waste of everyone's time.


In kindergarten, his teachers said, “He refuses to say Itadakimasu. He must be shy.”


In primary school, the teachers said, “He’s the only one who doesn’t follow along.” Then, with something between curiosity and sympathy in their voice, they would ask, “Are there problems at home?” 


We didn’t understand how one word would signal problems at home, and we shook our heads.


Kenji is now In middle school, and we’ve been called into yet another teacher-parent meeting.


Mrs. Takeuchi, wearing glasses, sits in front of us with the calm demeanor of one who enforces rules onto unwilling subjects. “Kenji’s uncooperative behavior is simply unacceptable,” she says.


“It’s just a word, it’s really not a big deal.”


She stares us down with a look that says our objection isn’t clever enough to qualify for an answer.


“He does everything else he needs to. Doesn't he?” 


“It’s disruptive.” She taps her finger on her desk. She takes a deep breath, and gets around to saying what she has prepared for us. “We have a special counselor that visits the school to deal with oppositional students. But you’ll need to pay for her lessons. They’re 12,000 yen [$100] an hour”


“Do we have a choice?”


“I’ll contact Ms Ueno,” she replies, and then signals the meeting is over.


That night, as we eat dinner, we can’t stop thinking about how ridiculous this issue over one word is. After we’ve finished eating and said the customary “Nice Meal” (there’s a set phrase for that too), we can’t contain ourselves.


“Why don’t you say itadakimasu?” we ask him.


“Because I’ve never said it.”


“You can just say it. ‘itadakimasu! Itadakimasu!'' we both say, mocking him. The blood rushes to our faces and we want to shake him until he agrees with us. “It's just a word, do you hear us?!”


His face turns red. He says nothing.


A week later, we drive to school to pick him up from the after-school counseling. we need to say thank you to the counselor. In Japan, it's usual to show appreciation to anyone who’s doing a service, whether paid or unpaid. If it was free, we’d have to bring a box of cookies or something similar.


Ms Ueno, young and optimistic looking, says, “It’s the first session. We’re just getting to know each other.” A hint of strain creeps into her expression.


“How did it go?”


“That’s private.”


“Can’t you tell us anything?”


“Counselor privacy.”


We say thank you and bow, and we get into our family Honda in the parking lot.


“How was the counseling session?” 


“She asked why I don’t say ‘itadakimasu’ and I just said I don’t want to.”


He just said the word now. But it’s no use pointing it out. He’ll just dig in further.


“Anything else?”


“She tried to get me to talk about other things, but I didn’t say anything. I know she’s trying to trick me into talking about not saying the word.”


We’ve paid 12,000 yen for him to say nothing for an hour. 


The sessions continue. The same result every week. After a month, a message comes back from Mrs. Takeuchi. “Ms Ueno says she's not making progress and doesn’t think it makes sense to continue the sessions.”


Kenji is stubborn. The sessions must have taken a toll on Ms Ueno’s confidence in her own ability to effect change.


Ms Ueno doesn’t know what to do, Mrs. Takeuchi doesn't know what to do, and now we don’t know what to do.


“Ok, you win,” we say to Kenji. “We give up.”


No one talks about it again for months. Feeling how angry we have been about it, it feels safer to skirt around the topic to keep the peace. We hold the issue firmly out of our minds.


Japanese New Year, O-Shoogatsu, is a time for meeting distant family members and spending time together eating, drinking, and possibly visiting a Shinto shrine. In the old days, every establishment in the country, outside shrines, would shut down. One would need to prepare three days of food in advance for the celebration. It’s not quite like that these days.


We invite all our relatives to come over. With apprehension, we invite Aunt Misako. To an outside observer, she might appear to be a free spirit, Bohemian minded, fun, but to a family member who's received telephone calls at 3am and knows her medical history, she suffers from schizophrenia. When she’s on medication, she’s manageable. We try to find out if she is, but we can’t find the right way to ask politely without upsetting her.


Misako arrives on the afternoon of Jan 1st. The first thing we notice is she’s wearing a tight-fitting dress and black lace stockings. More an outfit for a nightclub or a hostess bar than a family event. 


She says thanks to us for inviting her, and then quickly turns her attention to Kenji.


“Kenji! I haven’t seen you in a year.”


She grabs a chunk of his belly with her hand, as if she’s going to tear it off. Kenji jumps. 


“You are a strong little man now.” 


He smiles politely. He looks too scared to try to escape. Misako will surely pursue.


“I’d like you to teach me some of your computer games,” she says. “Which ones are good these days?”


“Elden Ring is the best”, Kenji says.


“Will you show me how to play it?”


Misako spends the next two hours playing games with Kenj, and ignores the adult conversation. Perhaps she feels more comfortable with children than with adults. Children don’t judge her.


As we listen from the other room, we hear bits of their conversation.


“I heard about the itadakimasu problem from your parents,” she says, and cackles with laughter. “That’s a good one!” 


“Really?” Kenji looks surprised that an adult is taking his side.


“Yeah! Screw those teachers and their rules,” she says. “Now, let’s play your next game and see if I like it.”


Kenji loads a different game.


“Kenji, one thing I learned is,” she says, while rapidly pushing buttons on the game controller, “sometimes changing yourself 5%—you are still 95% you—can make things easier.”


We watch her say this in her wild clothing, and wonder which 5% of herself she changed to fit in.


When they end the level of the game they’re playing, she stops him. “I need to have a cigarette. I’ll be back later, kid.” 


After her cigarette, she has built up the courage to talk to the adults. After drinking a few glasses of Shochu vodka, she begins telling wildly inappropriate sex jokes. She can be entertaining. But, after an event like this, we’re sure to get 3am phone calls accusing us of all sorts of conspiracies against her.


That night, the phone calls don’t arrive. She must be in a good mood.


Time passes. Three months later, we take Kenji to a weekend sports festival. At lunch, he sits with ten of his classmates. After they open the lids of their lunch boxes, one of the boys says, “itadakasmu” and in unison, everyone joins the chorus. I see Kenji’s lips move and appear to say the six syllables.


On the drive home, we discuss the day.


“We saw you say itadakimasu. We don’t know how you did it, but good work!”


“Every time I say itadakimasu, I give them the middle finger under the table, it balances out me doing something I don't want to.”


We think about this new form of inappropriate behavior. It isn’t exactly what we were aiming for. But the other students would see him cooperating. This is an improvement, isn’t it?


We feel proud he’s worked it out by himself. He’s developed his own ritual.


We wonder how many adults give their employers the middle finger when they walk into the office at 8am, and then do a full day's work. It's probably more than a few.


July 03, 2023 07:55

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25 comments

Michał Przywara
00:57 Jul 07, 2023

Heh, this kid is great :) The story wasn't a joke, but it still set up this line beautifully: "Every time I say itadakimasu, I give them the middle finger under the table, it balances out me doing something I don't want to." That's the kind of logic I can get behind. I think the aunt was crucial. Why he didn't say it didn't matter so much as the fact everyone was against him - until he found an ally. It's curious too. Even his parents, who started off ambivalent, turn against him until he wears them down. Curious, how strong conforming can ...

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04:24 Jul 07, 2023

Thanks for getting this! You seem to understand the logic of being oppositional, I've got a streak of that myself, so understand some of my own children's logic at times of just benig against rules. Sometimes with rebellious teens you just need to wait it out until they figure it out themselves. Yeah, its kind of a mystery in Japan and in many other countries, how there is unquestioned "the way" to do so many things. Maybe because so many countries and cultures that speak English, we do have seem to get a lot of new expressions constantly p...

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Michał Przywara
20:38 Jul 07, 2023

I think you're onto something. A lot of languages seem to be tied to a specific country and culture, and so you get a big "monoculture". On the other hand, English being a lingua franca, gets into all sorts of places and makes it easier for different cultures to mix. Add the fast pace of art and tech developments and there's new things being coined all the time. Interesting to think about!

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Mary Bendickson
21:23 Jul 03, 2023

A child with a quirk. Not too far off base

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00:42 Jul 04, 2023

Thanks for reading

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Michelle Oliver
11:39 Jul 03, 2023

I found this interesting, but I was left with so many questions. Perhaps because I’m a teacher, I couldn’t understand why the child wouldn’t conform to the expectations. They’re pretty much programmed to conform. The number of times I’m called the wrong teacher’s name in a “Good morning Mrs…” greeting is hilarious, because they just parrot off the greeting without thinking and they will say their own class teacher’s name instead of mine. Usually a child will have pretty solid reasons that may only make sense to themselves if they are buckin...

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12:52 Jul 03, 2023

Thats a good point, to explain this childs reasoning. At this age one of my children was pretty much at war with every rule, I think to get attention and act out. She was young for her class and felt a bit frustrated. Not exactly the character in the story, which was more about how some children can test their parents' patience, but in the long run everything tends to work out.

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Michelle Oliver
13:40 Jul 03, 2023

At war with every rule makes sense. I just wondered why this one word was the only thing the child was at war with. Something must have triggered it.

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13:57 Jul 03, 2023

I'll think of an "origin story" for this... yes, its an unanswered question in the story. Thx for your feedback, as a teacher it sounds like you have a radar for figuring out children's behavior! I hadn't fully thought this through.

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Amanda Lieser
04:05 Aug 05, 2023

Hey Scott, I loved the way you zeroed in on so mango great things for this story. There was the cultural significance of a ritual-it reminded me of saying “bless you” when one sneezes. I get so offended when someone doesn’t and I am the person in the quiet movie theatre who says it loud and proud. I also loved the advice you included about changing just 5% of one’s self in order to maintain the piece. What an interesting idea. Plus, the middle finger compromise was perfectly explained. Nice work on this one!!

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12:21 Aug 05, 2023

Thanks so much for reading my story for a few weeks ago. Yes, I guess it would be similar to "bless you".. those little courtesies make us feel like we're all connected and in this together.

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Wally Schmidt
03:50 Jul 09, 2023

So this is totally embarrassing but I always thought that Itadakimasu was five syllables (that the final u was silent), so now I'm aware I must have been pronouncing it wrong all this time. Drats. I loved the character of Misako and the fiesty-ness of Kenji. Both have their heads on straight and dance to the beat of their own drum. I like that. At the end of the story Kenji has learned to compromise, but doing what is expected of him but making it tolerable for himself, and frankly, figuring that out is going to take him far in life.

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04:50 Jul 09, 2023

You're so right, it usually pronounced with just a hiss for the s at the end. Only when people are trying to speak very formally would they said the "su" or when parents are teaching little children. When I worked in a japanese office, the entire good morning "ohayo gozaimasu" just became liked a hissed single syllable "uuuss". Japanese are really creative with shortening words. and combining them too into new expression.

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Wally Schmidt
15:44 Jul 09, 2023

Phew!

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Tommy Goround
00:33 Jul 08, 2023

I think you hit the crossover -- the way Norwegian Wood became a universal. -the teaming of the parents works -the aunt jumps off the page "Thank you for what we are about to receive," the disdain for group culture, the 95/5 rule of the most sako aunt. Of course, Ueno is a failure. (That's funny). The counselor cannot change the heart. Theme: hanzen , han + culture. (That which becomes obvious to Westerners).... Maybe hangai. "Half foreign/outside" Analysis: Kenji grows in a country dominated by team influence. He will not give up his...

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03:44 Jul 08, 2023

Happy to hear you enjoyed it. Took a jumble of real stories and characters and melded them all together with this. Yeah didn't want to overcomplicate it by making it a half story, but that's a big part of the resistance to doing everything in "the way" in japan. Its like if you say any word except Itadakimasu or gochisosama ppl in japan would look at you as if you're totally insane. They are creative with a lot of the new teen slang though.

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Mike Panasitti
15:27 Jul 07, 2023

I wondered two things: what does "itadakimasu" translate to in English (is it anything like "bon appetit" in French?), and when was flipping the bird adopted in Japan? There's something in both of our stories for these prompts about the functionality of rituals: their usefulness in restoring a sense of balance. However, your contribution is far more readable. Thanks for sharing.

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15:44 Jul 07, 2023

Itadakimasu literally means something like “i am receiving “ but Bon appetit would be about the exact same thing. And yes you have a good point, my half japanese daughter said something about giving ppl the bird once but japanese might do something more subtle to something they were opposed to that i couldnt really find the right words for.

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Lily Finch
22:58 Jul 04, 2023

Scott, interesting story. I learned a bit about Japanese culture. Thanks for the good read. LF6

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Delbert Griffith
20:49 Jul 04, 2023

Kenji is stubborn, but only about one thing. It seems that he's revolting against tradition, yet it's only this one particular tradition. Maybe it's his way of not conforming. A small rebellion. A symbolic act. Interesting tale, Scott. Enjoyable. Cheers!

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07:59 Jul 03, 2023

First draft of a slightly experimental story about parenting, any comments or suggestions would be extremely helpful. I read a story in "Visit from the Goon Squad" in which the narrator was two sisters, and thought I'd give a plural POV narrator a try, even though it can be awkward at times. This is not a true story, but is informed by various recollections of being a parent in Japan of multicultural children.

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Kimberly Walker
23:17 Jul 15, 2023

Ha Ha, Good ending!

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S Fevre
08:50 Jul 14, 2023

Made me laugh, loved the compassion and pragmatism of the characters, bravo!

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Bruce Friedman
23:26 Jul 12, 2023

I really like your insight on this: English being a lingua franca, gets into all sorts of places and makes it easier for different cultures to mix. Add the fast pace of art and tech developments and there's new things being coined all the time. Another insight about English from a friend who was Czech: You can speak English very badly and people will understand you because they are used to bad English. If you try to speak Czech and mispronounce one word, people will throw up their hands and walk away.

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Helen A Smith
13:12 Jul 09, 2023

Excellent story Scott. What a clever little boy. Of course, he was showing a keen intelligence by questioning why he should do something, even it was not the polite thing to do. At times, painful to be like that in any culture. His aunt Misako was a great character. I imagine she too had suffered by not following the correct rules. It was interesting the way she got the 95/5 point across in a way the child could connect with. There are clearly a lot of deep-seated cultural values which are a way of life in Japan. In one sense they are ord...

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