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Two Tuna Fish and an Auction

…the gift of hospitality across cultures…

“Dick-san,   I have cancelled exhibitions at department store galleries.  Please come to my house.  Please send your works.  I will say detail sometime from now.”

My spirits plummeted in the few moments it took for me to read this short email.  What I knew:  There had been some very unwelcome changes in the planning for my first two major Japanese exhibitions.

What I didn’t know:  what “detail” could possibly replace this long-hoped-for occasion.

To most American ears, the term “department store gallery” might conjure up images of Blue-Light-Specials and “Always Low Prices” slogans.  Not so in Japan.  The finest art galleries in the country are situated on the top floor of the flagship locations in Japan’s major department store chains.  An invitation to exhibit in the Mitsukoshi or Takashiyama department store gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district is on the level of a paramount exhibition in the finest New York or Los Angeles gallery.

No, this email did not bring good news.

But why would Kanzaki sensei cancel the exhibitions?  He had impeccable credentials with these first-rate galleries.  Rumor had it that Kanzaki was one of the two best-selling ceramic artists in the country.  And, typical of Kanzaki, he was again breaking new ground by having proposed a three-person exhibition:  himself and two gaigin – two foreigners – Karl Beamer and myself.  “It will be a stool with three legs….very sturdy,” he had said.  “Three strong artists who make works according to their hearts and souls and spirits.”

The success of department store galleries is driven by a kind of collaboration:  mutuality and shared costs between the artist and the gallery.  The gallery and the artist “swap” mailing lists,  sharing the names and addresses of all their best customers.  The gallery is responsible for all the costs of promotion.  The artist’s cost is a high commission on sales:  often more than 50%.  Yet when all parts of this relationship are working well, both gallery and artist prosper:  sales increase, contacts and connections expand.  This ground-breaking exhibition would attract many customers.

***

 The phone call from the tuna-boat captain to Mr. Kanzaki came just after he’d finished supper.  “Tomorrow morning is the time you should come to my boat if you want to catch a tuna.”

“I am coming,” said Kanzaki, “but I will be the only person on the boat.”

“You will pay for all 4 positions?”

“Yes, I will be the only fisherman on the boat.”

It was still dark when Kanzaki’s car headed out into the night through the mountains of Shiga Prefecture and around Lake Biwa.  His headlights bounced through the tight curves on the small back roads leading circuitously north-west toward the Sea of Japan.  The sky was only just beginning to give up the night when the charter boat chugged out of the harbor.  Kanzaki loved fishing.  But today’s trip was about more than simply catching tuna.

***

Months passed before I received the grainy black and white image as an email attachment:  Kanzaki standing on the deck of the boat, the two tuna hanging on either side of him.  One was upright and one was upside-down with its tail coming up to Kanzaki’s chin.  Kanzaki’s grin was huge.  His note was short:  “I had good fishing.”  Having been the only fisherman on the boat, he had successfully tilted the odds in his favor:  any fish caught that day would be his….something I had not yet learned.

With the fish safely flash-frozen, Kanzkai arranged a visit to his old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Imai in the village of Tamba.  Mrs. Imai was the mistress of a beautiful old ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.  Mr. Imai was the noted chef for the accompanying restaurant on the first floor of the inn.

“Ah, I have had too much good luck,” smiled Kanzaki, as tea was served.

“How can someone have too much good luck?, wondered his friends.

“Well, I went tuna fishing recently and I caught two!....one too many.  I don’t know what to do with the second one.”  Kanzaki paused.  “Do you suppose that you could put it to good use here in your restaurant?  I can’t use two.”

Tuna the size and quality of the fish Kanzaki had caught would easily fetch the equivalent of five thousand U.S. dollars, each, on the open fish market.  With a ready audience of regular customers at the restaurant and the inn, it was an offer the Imai’s could not refuse.  Arrangements were made.

Sometime later, Mr. Kanzaki contacted his longtime friend, Mr. Takigawa, a charismatic Buddhist monk directing the work of the temple in Kaibara, near Tamba.  Mr. Kanzaki again mentioned having recently had too much good luck.

“You cannot have too much good luck,” Takigawa chided.

“Oh, but I did!  I went tuna fishing recently and I caught two!....one too many.  I don’t know what to do with the second one.”  Kanzaki paused.  “Do you suppose that “group” of yours might be able to put the proceeds of a tuna to some good purpose?”

Surrounding Mr. Takigawa was a group of friends, the description of which is a little difficult to explain.  While all knew Takigawa, and some attended the temple, they openly said that their gathering was not really temple oriented.  They met together with regular frequency to participate in such diverse events as attending exhibitions, learning new skills (flower arranging, for example), or helping those in need.  They exhibited the qualities that Americans might associate with a Sunday school class, a self-help organization, or a civic club…..yet they seemed to be more than any of those.  Five thousand dollars in the group’s coffers?  It was another offer that could not be refused.  Arrangements were made.

Weeks later Mr. Kanzaki spoke again with Mr. and Mrs. Imai.  “I have a small problem,” he confided.  “As you know, I made a promise to host the two American potters in two exhibitions.  For more than a year I have had commitments from two important galleries for the exhibitions.  But with the ‘bubble having burst’ here in Japan, not so many people are buying pottery.  And at my last two solo exhibitions, the only customers who purchased my works came from my mailing list.  Not a single person from the gallery’s list made a purchase.

“So I began to wonder:  ‘Why should I take the Americans to the department store galleries where the commissions are so high, if all of the customers will be my customers anyway?  I think I can save the Americans very much money if we have the exhibition somewhere that doesn’t charge such a high commission.  So I cancelled the exhibitions at the department store galleries.  But now I have to figure out where I can host such an exhibition.  I have a problem.  I’m not sure what to do.”

“You know, Kanzaki sensei,” Imai said with a pause…..”we could host the exhibition here!  It would be a simple matter to remove the shoji screen walls between the rooms and make a large exhibit area.  We do it all the time for large banquets.  We could provide the food, hire the women to make maatcha tea, and host the celebration meal.  When else would these Americans have the opportunity to exhibit their works in such a lovely old ryokan as ours?  And here in the ancient ceramics city of Tamba – one of the Six Ancient Kiln Sites of Japan!  It would be an exhibition they would never forget.  Please, Kanzaki sensei, it would be an honor for us to host the exhibition here.”

I don’t know what protestations Kanzaki offered to Mr. and Mrs. Imai.  But I am sure that he was culturally appropriate…and am confident that there was no mention of the tuna.   I’m equally certain that it was all accomplished with well-practiced politeness and propriety.  And before the end of the day –  regarding the exhibition –  arrangements were made.

Shortly thereafter Mr. Kanzaki met up again with his good friend, Mr. Takigawa.  Kanzaki recounted to him the difficult decision he’d made in cancelling the department store gallery exhibitions.  And he mentioned his good fortune at finding a location for one of the exhibitions.  “But really, I still have a problem.  It is a lot of work to organize an exhibition.  Finding the venue is only a small part of it. The rest would require the work of many.  The space must be readied and display equipment must be secured.  The pots must be selected and priced and transported.  The flower-arrangers would need to be hired to fill the pots.  All the advertising and promotion must be organized, not to mention the set-up and tear-down, the selling and the bookkeeping.  I have a problem.  I’m not sure what to do.”

That the “arrangements had been made” would have been the least conspicuous element in the Tamba exhibition.  It would have been the very last thought to cross the minds of Karl Beamer or myself as we entered the glorious display space on the day of the exhibition opening.  We were oblivious to all that had occurred to enable this exhibition to come into being.  Our work, as it was so sensitively displayed throughout the rustic ryokan exhibition hall, had become transformed.  Influenced, as we both had been, by Japanese ceramics and aesthetics, our work could never have looked more “at home” to us than it did in that setting.  It was overpowering, in the most pleasant of ways, to see our own work in this light.  The strong sense of my work being exactly where it needed to be in that moment quickly erased any waning disappointment or confusion connected to the cancelled exhibitions.  While I still did not know why the cancellations had occurred, it no longer mattered.

Near the end of the exhibition day, traffic thinned.  Many pots had sold and were still selling.  Imai and the “group” were still busy with sales and packaging, and refreshments.  Kanzaki and Takigawa were sipping tea at a low table.  Kanzaki motioned for Karl and me to join him.  “You should relax,” he said, laughing.  “Have some tea.”

It was then that Kanzaki told us about the reason for cancelling the department store gallery exhibitions.  “I hope you are not too disappointed.  But I think it is better for you sell your works here where there is no commission…..don’t you agree?  All my collectors have come here to buy your works,” he laughed.  “Very good….verrry good.”

No commission?  I barely had a moment to consider this unexpected information as the conversation and tea and sweets continued around the table.  When the last customer left, one of Takigawa’s friends came to ask a question of Kanzaki.  “He wants to know,” reported Kanzaki, “if the group can pack up your pots for you now that the exhibition is completed.”

“Actually, with all they have already done, we should pack things up ourselves,” I offered.

“Ha, haaa.  No you should relax.  It is very good to relax.”

While we were relaxing, the pots were packed and a large celebration banquet was being prepared.

Rather abruptly one of the group members came to Mr. Kanzaki with another question.  Because my Japanese language skills are so poor, while I’m in Japan I rely to a great degree upon reading the body language of others.  It appeared to me that there was a problem.  I sensed some agitation.  The discussion was quieter than usual.  Eyes widened.  The questioner kept bowing repeatedly, rubbing his own hands.

Kanzaki turned to us.  “A customer has come to the exhibition after it has ended.  He wants to know if each of you will give him a discount on one of your pieces.”  This was, for me, a puzzling request because only days before, Kanzaki had lectured me about never discounting my work – insisting that it cheapened the work and offended collectors. 

“Dick-san, your piece is priced at $800 (80,000 Japanese Yen).  What is your discount price?”

I was so thankful that I remembered the one all-important phrase to know in Japan:  “Omakase shimasu.”  Literally, “I defer to your judgment”.  Kanzaki nodded.  “I will say $550.  Is it OK?”  I repeated myself.  He nodded again.  Takigawa added his approval.

Kanzaki continued, “Karl-san, your piece is priced at $500.”  Karl just dipped his head in my direction, as if to say, ‘like he said’.  “OK! I will say $350.”  After an affirming nod from Takigawa and a few words from Kanzaki, the questioner seemed to relax, and walked away.”

***

The celebration meal was remarkable by any measure:  many wonderful courses of seasonal ingredients grown or gathered locally, hyper-fresh with a rigorous attention to detail, served in an exotic collection of Japanese ceramic vessels – a feast as much for the eyes as for the palate.   Multiple sushi trays, more than two feet in diameter, littered the long table, around which sat the more than 20 people who made up “the group”.  Just to have listened in on the event with no Japanese language skills at all would have left any observer with a clear sense of the community and collegiality that was being enjoyed by all.  Laughing was non-stop.  Photos at every juncture.  Sake and Champaign reddened faces and loosened spirits. 

Toasts were frequent.  Kanpai

“Dick-san,” said Kanzaki, “please make a toast.  They want to know your words.”  Karl’s words were next.  Then it was Kanzaki’s turn.  As he thanked everyone on our behalf, he choked up for a moment – a  trembling voice, a catch in the throat, and a tear that needed to be wiped away.  Kanzaki revealed the emotions that both Karl and I had somehow managed to control.  His transparency revealed our true feelings.  The emotions were palpable for all. After Kanzaki’s words, it took several  minutes for the party to resume its momentum.

I’d been concentrating so hard, all evening,  on “listening in Japanese” that I had to ask Takigawa to repeat himself for a third time above the din of the celebration.  Finally I understood that he was speaking in English.  “Auction time,” he grinned.  Auction time??

“Auction time!  First piece, Karl-san’s.  Little handle broken.  You can fix.  Easily.  Original price, $500.  Time to bidding.”

Suddenly we understood.  There had been no customer who arrived after the exhibition was over.  This kind and generous group, who had organized the entire exhibition and who had insisted on packing up our pots, had accidentally broken two of them.  Now they were auctioning them off……to themselves!

Our protests were set aside with a laugh and a wave of kindness.

Satoru-san (my self-declared Japanese brother – we were born the same year) was the auctioneer and began the bidding for Karl’s pot at $100.  And while the rapid bidding was continuing with competitive gusto, the moment the bid reached $350, Takigawa interrupted the auctioneer:  “SOLD!  $350!”  Applause and cheers.

“Second piece, Dick-san’s.  Little chip.  You can fix.  Easily.  Original price, $800.  Time to bidding.”

While I sat there shaking my head, inwardly, being utterly amazed at this unusual hospitality, the bidding reached $400 and began to slow.  Finally, $430.  Then, no more bids.  Takigawa’s  shifting posture indicated, to me, some rising discomfort.  I heard Satoru-san say, “Going once.  Going twice.” 

And what happened next?  Takigawa rose in his seat, announcing at the last possible moment:  “And the temple adds $120!  Sold!  $550.” …..something no department store gallery, in all of Japan, would have ever done.

As the night came to an end, one of the group called for a common clapping exercise to bring the party to a close.  Everyone participated:  clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause) clap! AGAIN! Clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause) clap! LOUDER!  Clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause), clap, clap, clap, (pause) clap!

Then one final clap.  No practicing.  Everyone did one big clap (hopefully) in unison.  It was “directed”, one time only, by a single voice.  Readyyyyyyyy……..CLAP!!!

Chiaki-san, our interpreter, said that the unison clap, means that we are all of one mind and heart.  Kanzaki simply added:  “They are grateful for our help.  We are grateful for their help.”

I was surprised by the emotions that surfaced in our goodbyes that evening.  I think it would be wrong to attribute them to too much Sake.  There were some tears.  Much bowing.  Some long fervent handshakes.  And, uncharacteristically, not a few long hugs!  Something important had taken place!

Kanzaki and I shared a room at the ryokan that evening – a room that had, only hours before, been the exhibition space.  As I was drifting off to sleep, Kanzaki asked: 
“Dick-san, are you happy?” 

Oh, if he only knew.

***

What I know:  I know that in this exhibition experience, I was introduced to a depth of hospitality that I may never again experience.  No detail was forgotten; no need unprovided for; no responsibility unattended; nothing out of place.  Genuine success had been attained for the welfare of the entire group.  Certainly the experience surpassed anything that might have occurred in the more formal status-driven setting of the department store gallery.

I have managed to apprehend only a small fraction of the cultural and social complexities that needed to coalesce in order for the Tamba exhibition (and the second exhibition that Kanzaki hosted at his own home gallery in Shigaraki) to have taken place. 

My sense of gratitude and awe has deepened in the last decade, as I have been able to reflect more fully on the hospitality I received.

What I don’t know:  while it is absolutely certain that two sashimi-grade tuna were somehow and mysteriously parlayed into a major ceramics exhibition for two Americans in Tamba, I really do not know precisely what took place in the conversations between Kanzaki,  Imai, Takigawa, and “the group”.  Little information about the specifics of these conversations has been disclosed to me in the intervening 10 years – but enough for me to imagine what might have taken place.    And I’ve tried to keep my imagining in line with what I do know, first hand, about the personalities, temperaments and deep kindness of all those involved.

Curiously, in retelling this story, I have gradually become more comfortable with the parts that I do not fully know and understand.   It is generally recognized that “needing to know” the detailed intricacies of exactly how relationships work is a peculiarly Western propensity.  I am now more ready to set aside my Western impulses about this experience of cross-cultural hospitalityand to simply receive the experience as gift.Because Japanese hospitality being what it is, with its layers of the known, the unknown, the unspoken, the implied and the assumed, it is certain that I, as a gaigin, will never really understand the full picture….which is, perhaps,  exactly as Japanese hospitality would have it!

Copyright Dick Lehman

October 2008

All rights reserved

This (pre-edited version) article is reprinted with expressed permission from theMarch 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

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