by Junko Sumiya
Art and Crafts Instructor at the American School In Japan (ASIJ)
Ki Nimori is retiring at the end of this school year, setting a school record of 42 years of service as the Art and Crafts Instructor at ASIJ. Through his art and his teaching, Ki brings together the best of East and West. In his four decades at ASIJ, he was a breath of Japan in a school populated mostly by Western teachers. It is no accident that his crafts studio always seems full of chanpon language and chanpon kids hanging out. Ki is a magnet that draws us back to visit ASIJ even after many years abroad.
Born and raised in Japan, Ki considers himself partly chanpon, or a conscious chanpon, and different from many chanponites who were born or raised chanpon due to parental circumstances. He made the conscious decision to go abroad and absorb another culture as a young adult, and has since fathered a multi-generational chanpon family. He is the father of two chanponites and the grandfather of three. He sees his multicultural experiences as bringing out the best of Japan: "I don't know what makes me Japanese, what helped me become a better Japanese or better human being who happens to be a Japanese national is the fact that I went abroad."
Ki will be sorely missed at ASIJ, and his departure is a great loss to the school and chanpon generations to come.　　Not one to take a quiet retirement, however, Ki is starting a new project, continuing in his dual role of teacher and artist. As a public service, and fulfillment of a personal vision, he is starting an open studio called 「何つくろう館」 (Nani-tsukurou-kan) or "What shall I make?." This studio will be his personal atelier, but will also offer instruction and studio space for adult retirees, and the mentally and physically challenged.
Q: Is there an incident that you can share with us where your chanpon background helped you?
A: I can't really, there is no such clear incident that I can use as an example. But the advantage that I realized and I talk about quite often is that I am freer than the typical Japanese of my age. In other words, I don't follow Japanese tradition, just because they say it is the way. And people respect that. My classmates from my high school days and middle school days (in Nagano), my parents and my neighbors, say "Mr. Nimori is different. Not different in a funny way, but he's Americanized, and he's an artist, and he thinks differently." Just hearing that without knowing me makes me sound snobbish. I try to explain, although in Japan they say, 沈黙は金なり(Chinmoku wa kin nari), I do things differently. They ask me why, I explain, and they understand.So in a way I take advantage of being partly chanpon or conscious chanpon.
Q: Was there ever a disadvantage about your partially chanpon background?
A: I feel like my background is not a disadvantage, but certainly a little inadequate. I can never become a perfect chanpon. I was twenty when I went broad. That's why my English is not chanpon English, not like a native. No, let me say it this way. People who were born chanpon, they had no choice. Unconsciously they pick the sound, color, wind, everything of the place where they were born. For instance, if you were born in Japan, you hear 蝉の声とかお月様を見る習慣とか、だけれども,蝉の声 "that's too noisy" that's everyone's reaction とかキリギリス、コオロギの声を聞いて「ああ秋だな」とか、お月様を見て「アー満月だな」とかそういうこと。だからそういうのっていうのは unless you are raised in that culture when your sensitivities and perceptions are so pure and absorbent like a sponge, you don't really appreciate that culture that much.So chanpon kids, if they are born abroad, or in Japan but raised abroad, and then they come back after they are twenty or so, they might claim to be Japanese, but they might lack what I just explained.When they pick it up later it's?
Q: It's very cognitive?
A: Yes そうそう that's just right.And it's the same way for me when I try to explain how America is. When I explain why Eisenhower is the way he is in the old days, or now Clinton or Bush, I can explain to Japanese people better than they understand, but I can't feel the same as an American.But I can't recall any particular incident where it was negative or it hurt me because I was partly westernized or part chanpon. I think there are more advantages than disadvantages, that's my thinking. Other people may think differently. Q: What: do you miss most about Japan when you are away?
A: When I was younger, a college kid, you know it was very different.Now there's e-mail, but then, my mother and friends would send me letters asking me if I got homesick, because most of the foreign students got homesick, but I didn't get homesick once because I was very positive and active in absorbing everything I could absorb.�Now, I would miss 露天風呂、赤提灯とか露天風呂。赤提灯、あれは本当いいよ。 I really missed it, even when I was in college.You just stop by, because there's no door, just the 赤提灯と暖簾だけでしょ。You say, "That sounds interesting.""おでんでもいいし、焼き鳥でもいいし、それでコップ酒飲んでいると隣の人が「アンちゃん、いっぱい飲めよ」とか。That I missed a lot. And then I missed the 露天風呂。 I went to 温泉 in Czechoslovakia, when I was in Prague studying. But you have to wear a bathing suit. Same too, in the states. It's not the same. よく日本で言うじゃない。生まれたままの形って。And of course the way Japanese associate with nature.That does not mean that Japan is the best country in the world, I mean more advanced in preserving natural resources. It's the other way around. The Japanese are not that good effort-wise, but in the association and relationship with nature, I think the Japanese have a very aesthetic way.
Q: What: do you miss about the other countries you lived in when you are in Japan?
A: This is another question that almost everyone asked mewhen I came back. Which country did you like the most?I said all of them for different reasons. For different reasons I miss every country that I have been.
Q: Is there a 露天風呂 equivalent? In Prague, Indianapolis, Germany?
A: If I had a chance and time and money I would go to Amsterdam. For one, I really love the scenery of Amsterdam, the canal, the tiny thin houses of different colors, 日本で言うメルヘンチック。 can speak of one or two things about every country.For instance, Switzerland, boy I miss that coffee. Hot coffee and hot milk poured together. カフェオレみたいなんだけれど fresh coffee and fresh milk and both hot that was the first thing.Then of course the states is difficult because it is not one country.It's a mixture of many different races and cultures and that's what I miss about the states the diversity.
Q: What makes you feel Japanese?
A: I don't know what makes me Japanese, but what helped me become a better Japanese or better human being who happens to be a Japanese national is the fact that I went abroad.I often feel that friends of mine should go to the states for a year or two, and then they wouldn't talk like this, they are so bound by traditions and local culture.It was my personal choice, perhaps an egoistic choice, but after I came back, and then, ever since I've been teaching at ASIJ, and then associated with chanpon people, it became more important to me. I was more absorbent, in some cases naïve, but picked up different ways of thinking, different ways of life, and ways to associate with people.That's very important.That's why I became a better Japanese.
Q: Are there sounds, images, moments that you feel Japanese?
A: Yes, but I can't say exactly when and where. It happens not every month, but three or four times a year. It is just momentary. It's more emotional more my form of perception and my association with nature. It's not a built thing, and difficult to explain by example, but like a flash, it comes and goes.Even though the time is very short, it's very important that it reminds me. 例えば、京都とか奈良に行って、竜安寺とかのお寺に行って、枯山水とか白い砂を引いて竹で筋を立てて、ああいうところに座ってると、 I appreciate not the fact that I am Japanese, but that I was born in a country where these aesthetics and culture were created, or existed for many years. It is similar to when I went to Germany after graduating from college.The German government was very good to the foreign students. They gave the Japanese equivalent of 月に一万か二万円 to assist foreign students to enjoy German food, culture, whatever.I went to concerts and there was Segovia, the Spanish guitarist who is dead now, and I loved his classic guitar. He came to Berlin and there was a 500 yen foreign student ticket and I sat in the very first row, and I could hear the 音を出すときにギターを「きゅっきゅっ」ってやるんだけどもそんな音まで聞こえて I felt I was so fortunate to be the contemporary of such a great guitarist. The incidents that make me glad to be born Japanese are not quite the same, but the emotional feeling is about the same. That somehow in here [tapping his chest], there's some kind of substance in my being that without forcing, catches the essence of music or art or something like that. That I think is partly the fact that I was born in Japan, and am Japanese, and partly my DNA. I was born with some artistic inclination. And I partly saw something which is not negative, but as a character that is quite contrary in other countries.This is becoming kind of abstract.
Q: What makes you feel you aren't Japanese?
A: No, I don't have a choice.I know that my heart as well as my liver and kidney everything is Japanese. That I can't change, and I am happy about that. Of course I don't have much choice. No situation, no incident makes me feel that I am not Japanese, but the only time that I question myself being Japanese is when I get involved in some kind of situation that the way that things are done or treated in Japan is not right in my belief or education.But still I am Japanese. But I wish that the Japanese people in general would consider other ways of thinking and go beyond their traditional limit. There are many cases like that too. Because it is a 島国.
Interview with Ki Nimori
JS: Would you consider yourself a chanpon? I don't think it's a very set definition, like one must be raised in more than one country from age one or five or ten, not like that. I think it's more of a mindset, and enjoying and reconciling with two or multiple cultures.
KN: My understanding, my observation of those who consider themselves chanpon, comes from my association with chanpon students at ASIJ. I think they are rather fortunate, in having had good choices to choose from, a good environment, education, mind, everything, even though the choices were not their own. I have seen other chanpons. But I think almost 100% of the kids became chanpon without a choice. The kids didn't have a choice, it was the parents' choice. Your parents were in the states or England or Australia, and either you were born or raised in a different country speaking a different language. And then of course when you grow up, then you can make your own choices. So I think I am different from the typical chanpon person because I made the choice to go to the states. Because I wanted to see the United States with my own eyes and have first-hand experience. And so I am entirely responsiblefor going to the states. Because I decided to go and stay there for 5 years. And maybe I might have gone to graduate school but I decided not to, and I came back to Japan to identify myself as Japanese.
JS: There's no accident?
KN: Almost no accident yes,
JS: Do you feel very Japanese though? You mentioned that you decided to come back because if you didn't, you felt like you would lose your Japanese identity.
KN: That's right. So in a very simple way I feel very Japanese at heart, and very westernized in mind. By western, it's not just the states. I was in the states the longest, but also Europe, and Australia. Of course I went to visit many different countries, like Germany, where they are not English-speaking. But others like Australia and the states, are both English-speaking countries, but they are quite different too. Everywhere I went, I chose to adapt what I liked, and threw out what I did not. So I've been living all my life like that, ever since I went to the states when I was twenty years old. As an individual who was born Japanese and was still Japanese at heart, but for my ideal, for the artistic aesthetic concept or reasoning I don't know whether it's been good or not, but every time I had to make a decision, I'd face it with a Japanese heart and western reasoning.
JS: It's a different kind of interpretation, but there is an integration within you, having Japanese and different cultures?
KN: Right which is inevitable, and I don't regret. But this is the one thing I wanted to emphasize. A chanpon person probably has more opportunities. Whether it's just one parent or both sets, chanpon parents will probably produce more chanpons than the typical Japanese or typical American.
All together in the world, there are more and more chanpons, if the definition can go beyond Japanese and American. They're all over. Then the meaning of chanpon becomes more universal and then, this is an example, when Nagano prefecture had the winter Olympics it was good, but I was very disappointed, I was very mad, in fact. They actually tore down the Nagano Station, which was representing Nagano's Zenkoji (善光寺) temple architecture. It was one of the most beautiful station architectures, but they tore it completely down and built a typical station you can find in Mitaka, or anywhere else. And so if chanpon becomes universal, but a wishy-washy kind without making choices, without understanding either side, then it becomes like that uncharacteristic new station in Nagano. So chanpons who become parents have to be more responsible and become more conscious how they want their children to identify themselves. Not to just let nature take its course, which was typical in the past. I feel very strongly that chanpon parents have a bigger responsibility about the future of the chanpon kids. That's why my second son, their children all of them speak English.
JS: Do you think that a chanpon person needs to have a strong identity? Do you want your grandchildren to retain a strong Japanese identity?
KN: No, and this is true for anyone, not just chanpon kids, but I think the ideal situation is for a person to go to any country he or she might be interested in visiting, or happen to like, and live there, and make friends, and experience the culture, the natural surroundings and so on, and then make the choice. I do think that it's almost a luxury, a privilege to have your own 故郷, even in Japan. And between countries, it's the same. To me, that I spent 7 years in Nagano and having friends in Nagano, I have a 故郷. Ken and Ko don't have that, no 故郷 because they are born in Tokyo, and then so it becomes more, maybe I am too sentimental, it becomes more of a privilege.
KN: There's one thing maybe I'd like to add. When you asked me about the way I teach at ASIJ. I thought of this, the way I feel about teaching. When I was in Australia, which is almost 30 years ago, '72 to '74. The school I was at had a British headmaster. And he threw a party when he retired and made a little farewell speech. And in that he didn't criticize one or two particular teachers but the new trend in education. Teachers now -a-days are more interested in teaching something which can be evaluated immediately like test results. He said to me education is something that has to be evaluated in a longer distance view, the result may or may not happen. Or the kids may not realize it maybe until they graduate from high school or even college or until they get married and have kids. So I don't necessarily trust teachers that have short sight. And education might not bear fruit, but if it does, it may happen 2 years from now, or 10 years, or even 30 years from now. And I believe that, and that made me feel that I should be more patient with the kids. That's why I really appreciated the emails that my former students sent me [for an alumni gathering celebrating Ki's long service at ASIJ)]
JS: I think it's also true that what you are teaching, although it may be in the scope of crafts and art education, when I see my friends who are now out in society, who are not necessarily artists still appreciate the classes and what happened in that time. That it actually applies to more than just actively creating an art piece. So I think people who could take advantage of your classes, took away more than a technique.
KN:I think when you really think of education you are really bound to the human relationship, which was very important of education in Japan. Not just the teacher who is the person who hands down the knowledge and skill to many young people , but also the way of life, during like 吉田松影とかの明治以前の人達。あの寺子屋みたいな。
Junko's Notes from After The Interview:
It's been many years since I was a student in Ki Nimori's class, but he was just as I remembered him, if not a bit softer. People change over the years, and that is no exception to Ki Nimori, but I was very comforted to see and feel the mutual respect between teacher and student in the crafts room when I dropped in for this interview. I was inspired once again to see the excitement and energy Ki Nimori holds, to understand that retirement at ASIJ is a beginning to pursue another dream. Speaking to Ki Nimori, I was also able to revisit my thoughts on education. There seems to be a fair bit of controversy on education reform in Japan these days. I would be very happy if this interview gives food for thought to its readers, what education is, the quality and form, and what ゆとりの教育 might look like.
Posted by Junko Sumiya at 2002年05月16日 07:14