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Shinjyo-san's Goats
and Our First Visit.

Never Say "Debu!"

When I returned to Okinawa in 1986, I had decided, along with Debb, to wait until a house in Stearly Heights came open for us.

For those of us who were newly assigned to the island one of the first things we had to concern ourselves with was, of course, finding somewhere to live! Oh, we didn't go homeless the first night there! We moved into Temporary Living Quarters (TLQ) which was comfortable but not a place any family should want to stay for very long. In fact, a guy couldn't stay there very long. Although the quarters were adequate and the staff accomodating there was a limit to just how gracious and generous they cared to be.

Another thing that "newbies" get is a sponsor.

Stearly Heights is one of the housing areas on Kadena Air Base (KAB). The first time I was stationed on island, we were newly-weds and stone cold broke! We'd drive through the Stearly Heights area and drool over how nice it was. But it was "untouchable" for me - a lowly Buck Sergeant. Stearly was officer country and I always felt like the residents in there would turn their dogs loose if they knew an enlisted swine was driving through their territory! Things were different back in the early 1970s!
Well, anyway, here we were, back on the "Rock" and this time I was back as a captain! I could just smell Stearly Heights!! Truth is - whereas it really is a nice area, it's no big deal.... yet I was gonna wait for it!

I could have got base housing within a year of being back on island, but it would take an extra year to get into Stearly! There weren't all that many houses in there and the waiting list was long. Could have moved into a duplex, 4-plex or one of the new high-rise towers but, Nahhh!! Gonna wait!!

My sponsor was exceptionally helpful - almost to a fault. He drove us all over the place looking at off-base houses for rent. Most of the available houses or apartments were way too small or way too expensive! I ended up with a house that was way too small and way too expensive! But it was new - just been completed and was owned by a kind old Okinawan man by the name of Shinjyo. Shinjyo-san lived in a typical older Okinawan home, right across the street from this new place that I was in. He had a big garden which he tended to much of the time and he had goats. Up on the hill behind my house was a pen. Inside there were three goats. They were cool! Brittney, my then 3 year old daughter also thought they were cool! Up beyond the goats was Higa Park. There are some stories to tell about Higa Park too - but that'll have to wait a while. We're talking about Shinjyo-san now!

It was a nice house in a great neighborhood! It was in Aza-oki Yomitan Son on the Yomitan Peninsula. I learned later that Aza-oki is right smack dab in the middle of the beach that was invaded on a quiet, sunny Easter morning back in 1945. Now, 41 years later, it was a small village of mostly older people but plenty of younger families and their children. The Okinawan children were so much fun! One of Brittney's best friends was Miho, the daughter of a Japan Self Defense Forces man who lived in an apartment complex just down the road from us. Brittney spoke no Japanese. Miho spoke no English. They played for hours on end and enjoyed every minute of it!! Either Brittney was at her house or Miho was at ours. How I wish everyone could get along the way those two did!!
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Okay, on to Shinjyo-san and our famous visit. Debb and I had been out walking with Brittney. We used to like to go down to the "mama-san store" where Brittney delighted in looking at all of the colorful and inviting Japanese candies. Felix gum!! Oh, how we all loved Felix gum... and sadly, we have darn near run out of what was last sent to us. Thank you, Kym and Alan, for that last CARE package from Okinawa!!!
As we were walking back from the store, we encountered Mr. Shinjyo in his yard. We exchanged polite "Kom-ban-wa" and "O genke desu-ka?" Before we knew it, Debb, Brittney and I were invited to go in for a visit with the Shinjyo family. Graciously, we accepted his invitation.

We removed our shoes at the door and were ushered into the first room which was cluttered with odd & ends - typical of the small homes in which most Okinawans live. This home was not dirty or even messy - just cluttered, like my house!! In the center of the room was a low table positioned in the center of a tatami covered floor. A low hutch was beyond the table and a number of colorful plastic boxes containing a variety of household items was to the right. Shinjyo-san gestured for us to sit and so we sat - cross-legged at the table. Mrs. Shinjyo brought in a small laquerware tray bearing tea cups and a bottle of Awamori.

It had been many years since I'd been on Okinawa and what little Okinawan dialect that I remembered was matched by Mr. Shinjyo's broken and limited English. Nevertheless, between the four of us, we were able to carry on a very rudimentary and polite introduction. We understood as Shinjyo-san introduced his wife. I regret that I cannot remember her name. *sigh*

It was my turn: "Watakushi-no namei wa Mick desu," I said, hoping that it made sense and that I hadn't mispronounced something that meant your zipper's down or some other equally gauche blunder. But, Shinjyo repeated, "So-so, Mih-kee?"

I thought it odd, that he had repeated it back and had added the "ee" but figured that almost all Japanese words end with a vowel, so perhaps it's just easier to say the word with "ee" at the end. No biggie! I mean, it's not that I'd get confused with all the other Micks in the neighborhood, right? So I smiled and said, "Hai! Mih-kee!"

Now, with a little hesitation, I introduced my wife. I know now that when referring to someone else's wife, it's okay to say Oku-san but that word isn't used when referring to one's own wife. But, at that time I didn't know that, so I said, "Watakushi-no oku-san namei wa Debb desu." Now, don't e-mail me telling me how grammatically pitiful that is. But that's what I said and apparently it was close enough for the Shinjyo family to understand.

Shinjyo-san picked up the flask-shaped earthenware bottle and gestured as to inquire if I wanted more Awamori. With pleasure I held my cup up and he poured. He then offered some to Debb who shyly declined. Only then, after we were served did he pour himself another.

A young girl entered the room and offered a tray which held some small, tan waffer-like crackers with tiny green chips on top and which had a very glossy glazed coating which made them shine in the relatively dim light of the tatami room. (by the way, those salty, sweet crackers became one of our most favorite snacks!) Not wanting to offend anyone, I bowed my head - more like an exaggerated nod - smiled and said, "Doomo arigato!" Likewise, Debb took one, nodded and said "Doomo!"
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It's common courtesy among the Okinawans to serve oneself last or for two or more to serve each other. For example, let's say Shinjyo-san and I were at a club and had ordered a couple of Orion beers: the waitress would bring the beers, set them in the middle of the table and would set a glass in front of each of us. It is then proper for me to have taken a bottle and poured into Shinjyo's glass and he would reciprocate. Kinda nice, isn't it. Just another example of their gentle nature.

Mr. Shinjyo then turned back to Debb and I and questioned, "Debbu?" I had just introduced her as my wife, Debb. Well, we thought, here it is again - Debbu instead of just plain Debb. Easier to say... ends with a vowel. So I nodded, Debb smiled and I said, "Hai!! Debbu!"

With that, Mr. and Mrs. Shinjyo broke into broad smiles which quickly turned to stifled polite giggles. Shinjyo-san summoned his daughter who came back into the room and knelt between her parents. In hushed tones, Shinjyo was chattering to her and Debb and I most certainly couldn't understand a thing. At one point during the chatter, he gestured toward my wife and enunciated the word Debbu! Then all three laughed out loud. They abruptly stopped the laughter and the young Miss Shinjyo, still giggling with her hand held daintily across her mouth, scurried off to parts unknown.

Perplexed, we smiled and bowed and toasted with Awamori. We visited for another 15 - 20 minutes then excused ourselves as it was getting past Brittney's bedtime. I didn't know how to say that so I just pointed to my daughter then laid my head against my praying hands and closed my eyes. It worked!! He knew what it meant as he gestured toward the clock on the wall and immediately stood to usher us back out. All in all, it was a wonderful visit and we had finally got to meet our new landlord. We had rented through a rental agency and had not previously met the owner.

Once back in our own house, Debb and I both agreed that it was a little weird that they had called in the daughter then laughed about my wife. We simply trusted that whatever it was, it was well-intended and not something to worry about.

The following morning, I related the story to Toshi, our Japanese clinic receptionist. She listened intently as I recounted the previous night's visit with our new landlord. As I was getting into the part of the story when I had introduced my wife, Toshi covered her mouth with her hand and began to giggle. "You didn't told Shinjyo-san your wife name is Debbu, did you?"
"Yes, Toshi, I did!! And what's so funny about that!?"

Gentle readers, if your name, or the name of any one dear to you is Debb, introduce her as Debbie or Deborah or even Gladys.

In Japan, debu means fatso!!!!

Oh!! And those goats! What can I say about goats? They were goats! Cool goats though!


September 13, 1998


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