After eleventh grade I spent a summer living in Japan through the American Field Service (AFS) program. The family I stayed with was very wealthy and lived in a large house in a rich enclave. They had something that almost no one else did in a place where land was so valuable—a yard. The father had created a large business in China, lost it all in WWII, and started from scratch in Japan. At the time I was there he had seven plants that produced plywood, motorboats, lumber, and pre-fabricated houses. It was one of the largest companies in Japan and had thousands of employees. With such a high profile this family kept their secrets very close.
The family’s application to AFS indicated a mother and two sons. But when I got there, I never met the mother or the older son who was in his twenties. The family told me that she was ill and lived in a house closer to the hospital. But no one mentioned or visited her. Not a word about the other son. I spent my time with the younger boy. He played drums in a rock band with some very skilled musicians his age. If you’ve never heard Led Zeppelin in a Japanese accent, it’s an experience. “Way down inside, I want to give you my love…”
The father was an extremely tough businessman. The people from his company used to come to the house and meet with him in the dining room, the sliding doors shut. I’d hear him yelling at them and they’d emerge sweating. Then I’d go into the room and he’d grin and say, “Japanese ice cream, number one.” I got to visit a plant with him once. We were driven in a white Cadillac. He wore a white suit with a white fedora and walked to the gate with a cane. The guards saluted him.
The AFS staff figured out what had happened with the mother and the other son. My family’s father was separated from his wife. If known, that would have tainted his reputation in Japan. AFS insisted on a complete family, so the father brought his wife in for the interview and then shipped her back to the other house. The scheme was all in the hope that the son I was with would learn more English from me. The secret had to be kept even closer because the AFS staff were young college students. The father owned one of the largest companies in Japan and would never reveal his true social situation to them.
No one in the family ever told me the real story. The son I was with hinted at a secret when I asked questions about the family, but neither he nor I ever brought it out into the open. That summer I learned just how important face was in that culture.
Do you have a story about a lie more important than the truth? I’d love to hear it.