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Omotenashi

This year I set my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge to 50 books, and on Christmas Eve I finished the 50th book! I didn’t read all of them exactly because I’m modern and also listened to a number of audio books, but still this is a year-end goal that I’m proud of.

Although, 2018 wasn’t successes all around. My only expressed New Year’s resolution was to learn how to shuck oysters. I bought the knife and the cut-resistant gloves, but when I found out that buying raw oysters from the fish market in Upper East Side was more expensive than happy hour at my favorite oyster bar in Greenwich Village including the train fare, motivation levels went down. Does watching oyster shucking YouTube videos count as learning?

Book 46 was Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks. I had read all of his novels since I first heard about him in college, and I guess at some point during that time I signed up for his email list. When I was notified that he was coming out with a nonfiction book about storytelling, I was curious and preordered it. This year I became a podcaster, and I thought that learning how to tell stories better would help me. I don’t craft stories to tell in front of live audiences in the way the author does at The Moth events, but I can say that I learned a lot reading Storyworthy.

In his book, he advises budding storytellers not to tell vacation stories. “No one wants to hear about your vacation.” Last year I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and well, looking back at 2018, I realized that my highlights were reflections while I was on vacation. Sorry, Matthew.

This year I went to Japan twice. The first time was in March with my dad. It was my first time visiting his side of the family since my grandfather died when I was in middle school. My dad’s the last Nakashige who’s a Japanese citizen in my entire family tree, and he took me to our family’s grave in Fukuyama-shi, Hiroshima-ken. (Shi is city. Ken is prefecture.) He asked me to remember where the Nakashige grave is so that I can come back and practice the Buddhist ritual of ohaka mairi after he passes away.

The second time was in November for a conference in Tokyo held by the nonprofit organization US-Japan Council. I spent a sleepless week meeting the most impressive Japanese American young professionals, and if you haven’t heard me talking about USJC already, I’ll probably be telling stories from that trip for the rest of my life.

One of the nights I came back from a bar to the hotel room around 4 am. It turns out walking alone as a man that late in Shibuya, many nicely dressed women solicit you to come in for massages. I learn something new every time I go to Tokyo. My conference roommate Yuki had gone back to the hotel earlier that night, so assuming that he was asleep, I cracked the hotel room door open as quietly as I could. Getting my iPhone light ready to illuminate the floor space where my shoes would get tossed, I was surprised to see that the lights to our room were completely on.

Yuki was in bed, his pillow over his face. I quickly changed, jumped into my comfortable Western-style bed, and turned off the lights. I probably dreamed of ramen. The next morning I woke up to Yuki’s alarm. That alarm got me to the morning sessions on time that entire week.

Yuki grew up in Los Angeles, but having lived in Tokyo for over 15 years, he is effectively a Japanese person. Japaneseness is a spectrum, and he’s at least two degrees more Japanese than me. I’m fully capable of speaking to waiters myself, but whenever we were out eating together, I’d get him to order for me. I’m just an American bumming off my friend’s cultural capital.

He also embodies Japanese values.

Sometime between breakfast and the day’s first conference presentation, I remembered stumbling into our room just five hours before. “Hey Yuki, you didn’t have to leave the lights on for me last night.”

He responded with a sly TV smile, “Omotenashi!”

Omotenashi means hospitality, or the Japanese approach to hospitality. It’s so special that you can find YouTube explainers about it, kind of like how to shuck oysters. But how I think about it, it’s the idea that you provide a guest with things that they don’t even realize they need before they need it. There are probably better examples of omotenashi in one of those videos, but as a Japanese resident providing comfort to his comrade, Yuki left the lights on for me. Drunk and tired, I didn’t know I needed it.

My maternal grandfather ran a ryokan—a traditional inn, or what I describe as a bed and breakfast—in the mountains of Gifu-ken. My summer vacations growing up involved hiding in futon closets of empty guest rooms. Only until a few years ago did my family sell the property, and the last time I visited the ryokan was after New Year in 2014. I remember the white of the snow that cleaned my city shoes. Memories of familial omotenashi are entangled with those of my childhood spent in Texas, where I learned about Southern Hospitality from friendly neighbors, and as an adult, I get a kick out of how hospitable Japan is. The first few days back in New York in early April and mid-November felt rude and inefficient.

One of my new best friends has a tradition of sending an email to family and friends during the holidays wishing everyone a Happy New Year and recapping his accomplishments of the past year. (I like to stress the word “new” here because it’s hard to make new friends when you’re an adult. Every year’s resolution should be to make a new best friend.) In 2018, he had his doctoral research featured in The New York Times, won a gold medal at an international sport competition, and produced a theme song for a mildly successful podcast called Scientist. The latter his most proud accomplishment.

I follow a couple fitness influencers on Instagram, and one of the things one guy keeps saying is something like, “Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage to other people’s highlight reels.” Matthew Dicks also recommends avoiding “hero” stories because tales of failure often garner more sympathy and investment from listeners. I’m proud of my new best friend’s accomplishments, and when I think about how much success I’ve had, I’m proud of myself too. But I also think that year-end reflections should include works in progress and even failures.

In between getting two first-author scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals this year, I applied to two postdoctoral fellowships I didn’t get and pitched my podcast to two companies that didn’t want to help produce them. I’m learning to accept death around me in spite of difficulty embracing uncertainty in my life. Although my guests complimented me on homemade Japanese brunch, they didn’t taste the soup I oversalted and the cod I undercooked. I learned a lot from Storyworthy and 49 other books, but I didn’t learn how to shuck oysters.

Going into 2019, I’m working on describing myself in terms of my personal traits and relationships. I was socialized in a professional environment that values an individual’s academic pedigree, and it’s annoying that I rattle off a list of schools when someone asks me to introduce myself. Hopefully in the next year you’ll hear my voice telling stories about the Japanese American community in New York and see fiction on this website. I’ll clean my shoes more, and maybe I’ll get to buying $2.50 oysters from my neighborhood fish market.

Most of all, this year I will provide others with omotenashi.

January 5, 2014

January 5, 2014

Toshiki Nakashige