My niece just wrote to me. “You were the first female carpenter in Japan? What? Tell that story please!“ It is so strange to realize that she does not know this about me. This is the story as I wrote it to her in reply.

When I was twenty-one, I went to MIT for my first year of graduate school in the architecture program. I soon realized that I really didn’t know anything about carpentry or building and that this was a deficit to being a fine designer. I did not want to be an architect who only knew how to design on paper. My school work was super pretty and attention-getting. Maybe it was good “art”. In crits (critiques at which professors would judge and comment on the students’ work), I  would get praise for my imagination and creativity and my projects would draw people from across the room because I could manipulate visuals well. I could also argue anything, and compellingly too, I soon discovered. But the criticism that stuck was that “It is not Architecture”. I argued that I knew that it was not Architecture, but that that was not the point. I knew that it was my work on paper and in models for school. But I still felt insecure. I wanted to really be an architect, and I wanted to know more about how things were built.

I decided to work as a carpenter. In my mind, I was choosing between wood (post and lintel) or masonry (stone and/or concrete). It was a sort of starting from the beginning, self-education process as far as I was concerned. And, I really did not have an upbringing in which this sort of thing was taught to me. So, I decided to take a year off to learn carpentry. I looked at all of the possible places to study woodworking for construction and my short list was Scandinavia, Vermont, Oregon, northern Italy, or Japan. I chose Japan. I was into all things Japanese at the time. I loved Japanese film, literature, design, food… (I think that my first introduction to it was through Aunt Sandy and Uncle Ed as they had brought back items from Japan where they visited when they honeymooned. So those items were part of my early childhood and they were unique since not many other families we knew had things that looked like these.) Japan was the farthest away and most adventurous, and I was into that. I had the idea that I would take one year in school, one year away from school, one year back in school, and so on, indefinitely. It was a beautiful dream.

So, I had saved enough money for a flight to Japan and the equivalent amount for a flight home. I bought a one-way ticket for a little over seven hundred dollars and I started to spend my return ticket the moment the plane landed in Japan. But I knew that I would be okay. I had researched it and it sounded as though the worst thing that might happen was that I might be pick-pocketed in the city or that the government might deport me. I was willing to take that risk.

My first year at MIT, I had taken a Japanese Gardens course by a woman who had just returned from Japan, a “Building in East Asia” course by a German man who wore orange and had “surrendered himself” to Bawang Shree Rajnesh, and a studio course (which comprised the majority of school hours) with a Japanese instructor. Clutching a letter written in Japanese by my studio instructor (the gist of which was that I was a student at MIT and that I was interested to learn carpentry — although, of that letter, all I could read was “MIT”), I landed at Narita airport in the middle of the night. The telephone numbers I had for contacts did not work and I wound up taking a night bus into Tokyo which let me off in a dark alley where one of two homeless guys came over to “help me” and who pointed to the phrase “be careful!” in my phrase book, and then pointed to his buddy. I knew one phrase which was “Where is the police box?” since there was supposed to be one on every street corner. The helpful homeless guy grabbed my suitcase handle, and I grabbed it at the same time, and together we wheeled the thing to a police station a few blocks away. I sat next to a guy with bloodied nose and a woman who looked like a hooker and the police, who spoke not one word of English, called the number I had which was a friend of a friend who lived in the Shinjuku neighborhood not far away. He picked up the phone in the morning, then picked me up at the station, and generously hosted me for my first few days in Tokyo. I went to Kyoto from there.

I am getting off track.

I did not have time to study Japanese my first year in grad school. I tried to learn it on the plane using a phrase book. But I also found a Japanese language course for $250 and I signed up. I am generally a quick study with languages. I could sound like a one and a half year old in no time. J

Ok. I am still off track.

I met a cute guy in a café. I was writing fast and he came over to tell me that he was amazed at how fast I was writing. I told him what I was doing in Japan. He took me to a party at the home of an architect. I dressed up in a white satin dress, with my hair up in a high “do”, and lots of makeup. I was told that people really dressed up in Japan. The house turned out to be a unique building that was inhabited by an architect (whose name literally translated means “Dragon One”) and his family but also by a carpenter who helped design and build the house. There is a long story about the history of Japanese architecture and society that goes with this that substantiates my claim about how rare or even totally avant-garde this living arrangement was. But I will refrain from telling it right now.

The carpenter, whose name is Hasegawa, came up to the architect’s house during the party. He was wearing pants, no shirt, an impenetrable expression, and he was barefoot. Furthermore, he was still chewing his dinner. (It turned out, as I realized when I go to know him, that he was the SLOWEST eater I have EVER met.) We talked for a long time. He listened as I ardently affirmed that I wanted to be a carpenter, and I admitted that I had no experience. The boy who brought me to the party finally got angry since he thought that Hasegawa was only humoring me. But, Hasegawa told me that he was working on a shop only a few blocks from where I was living and that I was welcome to stop by.

Now, I had already gotten introduction somehow to a group of carpenters who were working on a temple, and I had given them a copy of my letter. They took the letter to the government somehow (their job was a government job). They asked me to wait. They had me wait for weeks. They eventually agreed that I could come to work on their temple job but that I should bring a book to read since there may not be much I would be given to do. I think that one of them smile/laughed, but I might be making that up. I didn’t think that they understood, and I thought that they would treat me at best as a scholar and not a carpenter, and I chose to work with Hasegawa instead. (Years later, when Hasegawa visited me in San Francisco, he apologized for treating me like a male, Japanese apprentice carpenter and not realizing the culture shock I was experiencing. I tried to assure him that the way he treated me as my boss/mentor was exactly what I was seeking.)

It is worth mentioning that Hasegawa could only become a Master Carpenter by being the foreman on a temple job prior to opening his own shop/kobu. He had the knowhow and creds from this venerable experience. But, when I knew him, he wore a full leather suit and rode a 750 cc Honda motorcycle. He was unconventional.

I am getting off track again.

I visited the okonomiyakia that Hasegawa and his crew were building. It was a small shop that was going to sell what amounts to pizza-pancakes. I hung out and eventually, after days, he gave me a broom and let me clean. One day, he went away on an errand, and his apprentice, Kai, gave me a chisel to use. Hasegawa came back, saw me trying to use the chisel, and chewed out Kai for doing that. He said that I was not ready. But, he did give me more challenging things to do after that. Hasegawa had me use an electric planer at his shop, an ad-hoc open-air portico next to his house. I was to take eight-foot long, eight inch square pieces of lumber, and run them through a planer, holding them down to keep them level as they went through the machine. After a day or so of this heavy work, my right wrist swelled up like a tennis ball, and Hasegawa tried to fire me. I reminded him that he had told me that the same thing had happened to him when he was an apprentice. So he relented, and instead, he gave me a few days off. I took that time to nurse my hands that were covered in blisters while the wrist swelling subsided. Somewhere, I think that there is a photo of this.

I went back to work after a few days. There was another incident and I am unclear about the chronology of it now, though it may have been the same time when he was trying to fire me. That was when I asked Hasegawa “why” once too many times. He lost it. He said “WHY? WHY? WHY??????? If I tell you to shine my shoes or take my kids to school, YOU DO IT and you DO NOT ASK WHY! After you do things MY WAY at least three times, then you can suggest trying it YOUR way. But first, you DO IT MY WAY and do NOT ASK WHY!!!!!!!”

After two months, the okinomiyakia was complete. Hasegawa invited met to attend the opening. There, he handed me an envelope that contained two hundred dollars and told me that he thought that I was serious and he offered to have me join his “shop” (his crew, his team”, the kobu).  I was so flattered. Hasegawa was taking an unconventional step to accept a foreigner, a female, a novice on to his team. It just was not done. And so it goes.

After that, we worked on the renovation of a country home (one room) but not much else. I think that I mostly worked at ruining Hasegawa’s tools as I tried to sharpen them in the mud from seven thirty in the morning to seven thirty in the evening, six days a week (I taught English in Osaka the other day and, whereas I made $6/day as a carpenter, I made $17 an hour teaching English. So teaching subsidized my carpentry “career”.) I remember crying in the rain as I crouched on my knees and from the window I could hear the client’s radio playing “Country Home” by John Denver (“take me hooooome… country road… to the plaaaaaace I beloooooong….”). At another time, there was an elderly gardener who liked me and who said “Why don’t you go back to America and be a woman?”

I learned a lot. About myself. About Japan. About carpentry and building. I say that I was “the first female carpenter in Japan” and I believe that is true, although, I never “became a carpenter”. I have friends who are or were carpenters, with the scars and lost fingers to prove it. I am intimidated by carpentry tools.

I forgot to mention that after my six-month student visa ran out, a kind, gentle, soft-spoken, elderly Landscape Architect who was the host of the teacher of the Japanese Garden Design course I had taken at MIT, agreed to officially support an extension of my visa for another six months. I met his family on New Year’s Day when I had completely lost my voice and had to whisper the few words I thought I knew in the only language he and all but one son of his family spoke.

I lived and worked in Japan from July 4, 1978 (Independent’s Day) until April 10, 1979. It was a total of nine months and six days, I realize that now, although I sometimes say “about a year”. I was 22 when I left (Olivia’s age now) and 23 when I returned and went back to impatiently complete my time at MIT and receive my “Master’s” degree as fast as I could. I lectured a bit about Japanese design and so on. That was a long time ago.

In Japan, I wrote to a friend every day and would send off letters in packets of five. He saved them and returned them to me – all but one. I still have them. I think that they may be more raw and juicy than this retelling. Maybe I will write a novel with them someday. Life goes on.

Love, Your Aunt Miiiiiindy (a.k.a. Mindysan)