The Six O’Clock News
There were a whole lot of advantages to being a Japanese girl at the United Nations International School in New York. M was special just for being Japanese. And she received an inordinate amount of attention for being born in the land of the rising sun, or the rising yen in those days.
There was often a small crowd of children peering into M’s lunch box during lunch recess. They all wanted a look at the unusual things she ate. A few gathered their courage to try the strange-looking black strips that M called nori, and there was always a child who was eager to share her lunch with her. Not wanting M to go hungry, I learned to send enough food to feed an army.
Show and tell time was always easy. All she had to do was ask the whole class, all twenty-five children, including the rowdy boys, to come to our apartment on the corner of 43rd and Second, and marvel at her Hina dolls.
Japanese girls are given a set of Hina dolls to celebrate the Girls’ Day Festival which is held every year on the third day of March. The Hina dolls represent the Japanese imperial court, and a set consists of the emperor and the empress, three ladies-in-waiting and various other attendants, five musicians, and a whole lot of things that can be found in the imperial household.
Once a year, I would take the Hina Dolls out of their boxes, and set them up in our apartment. It was just like decorating for Christmas, but instead of hanging decorations on a tree, I had to dress dolls. I cannot recall the illusions of grandeur that my husband and I had when we set off for Asakusa to purchase M’s set of Hina dolls, but we walked out of the esteemed establishment of Yoshitoku with a receipt that confirmed that we had bought ourselves the biggest and grandest set that they had to offer, and that it was being delivered to our tiny apartment in Matsudo the next day.
Seventeen dolls that when arranged on their tiered platforms measured 180 centimeters in height, 120 centimeters in width, and 156 centimeters in depth. Seventeen dolls that had to be dressed with the right headgear and swords and all manner of royal paraphernalia.
In New York, I could not bring myself to construct the tiered platforms that came with the set, and so, I cleared all the bookshelves once a year, and displayed the dolls. And while I was at it, I dusted the shelves and the books, and did not have to deal with years of accumulated dust. Not that we lived anywhere long enough to accumulate tons of dust.
It is customary to put away the dolls after the third of March for it is said that the longer they are out after that date, the later it will be for the owner, in this case, M, to find a husband. Should there be any truth to this belief, M will remain unmarried for a very long time.
All five first-grade classes at UNIS had a turn at coming to the apartment on 43rd and Second, and it was weeks before I finally put the dolls back in their boxes, and the books back on the shelves.
Not only was show and tell a breeze, birthday cakes were no sweat as well. There was no need to scour the whole of Manhattan for a birthday cake that would impress even the savviest kid in the class. I simply baked a cake that was large enough for children with big appetites to have an extra slice, covered it with frosting, and topped it with lots and lots of origami animals. While the children contemplated which slice came with which paper animal, the volunteer moms calculated the amount of money that did not go into the pocket of a professional baker.
The UN Day was celebrated in a big way at UNIS. All the junior school children came dressed in their national costumes, and took part in a parade around the whole school. Lots of photographs were taken, and they were always included in the yearbooks whose pages often featured children in costumes other than cowboy boots and hats.
Girls at the ages of three and seven, and boys at the ages of five and seven celebrate the Shichigosan Festival every year on November 15th, and the girls are dressed in a kimono, many for the first time, for a visit to the local Shinto shrine to pray for growth and good health.
M never had the chance to dress in a kimono to visit a shrine, but I believe that she wore her Shichigosan kimono more often than most Japanese girls living in Japan. She paraded in her pink kimono once a year for UN Day, and she was invariably photographed by people other than her mother. She is shown in her first grade class picture wearing her pink kimono, and she was once asked to wear her pink kimono, and sing “We Are The World” before a lot of very important people. There is a photograph of her with the mother of Crown Princess Masako taken on that day.
The power of the Japanese national costume to attract attention is such that I often suggest that my husband wear the hakama, the male version of the kimono, to his UN meetings, preferably the ones that he is chairing.
At UNIS, M did not have to do much to be special. She was a Japanese girl in a kimono with a set of exquiste Hina dolls, and a mother who could fold pieces of paper into all sorts of animals. Upon returning to Japan, M enrolled at the American School in Japan where most of the girls, Japanese and foreign, have put on a kimono, had their own Hina dolls, and could themselves turn paper into animals. She was no longer so special, and she was going to learn this on the six o’clock news.
Which child has not dreamt of being on television. And it is not only children who want to be seen on television. A great majority of adults want their faces on televsion as well, and that is why we see grown men jostling each other before cameras filming reporters reciting the number of death casualties in a war or famine.
Although I do not see M cunningly maneuver her way towards a television camera, she did say once while watching the Emperor and Empress talk to their guests during the annual autumn party held in the garden of the Akasaka Palace, that she plans to be invited to one of those gatherings when she was all grown up, and that she was going to be standing in the very front line so that I could see her on television wearing a beautiful kimono. I guessed that I was not going to be in the front line with her. I was not even going to be with her at this gathering. I was going to be home watching her on television.
The very pretty Ms. Crane, M’s third grade homeroom teacher, understood the fascination children had with being on television. When TV Tokyo asked to film her class for a feature story on the six o’clock news, she agreed, and all the children got very excited. They were all going to be on television.
The eternal pessimist in me began mapping out pick-up-the-pieces strategies.
M came home with a letter from Ms. Crane informing the parents of the date and time the TV Tokyo television cameras were coming to school. The children were going to be asked questions on reading, and M knew a lot about reading. Of all the children in Ms. Crane’s class, she had the most stars in her Reading Wheel, a teaching tool that Ms. Crane used to encourage the children to read.
M began to plan what she was going to wear to her debut on the six o’clock news.
TV Tokyo came, as scheduled, with their lights, cameras and microphones, and a very well-dressed female reporter with a list of questions on reading that the producers thought would be of interest to their Japanese viewers.
All the well-dressed and well-behaved children in Ms. Crane’s class had a turn at the microphone, and they all gave careful thought to their answers. M was very pleased with her own response, and like everyone else, she looked forward to being on the next day’s six o’clock news
In the meantime, my brain was working overtime thinking of all the worst case scenarios.
The fateful day arrived. I normally do not watch TV Tokyo’s six o’clock news. I found the news on another station much more to my liking, but if they were willing to give Ms. Crane and her class their five minutes worth of fame, I was going to give them a chance to win me over.
Like all news programs, this one started with the major events of the day, and worked its way to the less important ones. About half-way through, just a few minutes before the weather girl came on, the feature story of the day was introduced, and the very familiar façade of ASIJ was on television.
M had been sitting on the couch with me, but she moved closer to the television screen full of excitement and anticipation.
As feature stories go, it was all right. The children spoke about the importance of reading, introduced the books they read, and tried to outdo each other when asked about the number of pages they read in a day.
The feature story was on the subject of reading at the American School in Japan, a non-Japanese school, and to the Japanese viewers of TV Tokyo, an American school was for American children, in the same way that a Japanese school was for Japanese children.
And with this feature story, TV Tokyo was making an attempt to give its viewers a non-Japanese perspective to reading. An international perspective. Japan was then as now very much in love with the word internationalization.
Unfortunately for M and all the other Japanese and Asian children in Ms. Crane’s class, the producers of TV Tokyo defined American children as those with blond hair and blue eyes, and only the children with the right genes had their faces and words immortalized on television.
The feature story ended. A series of commercials went on air, followed by the weather girl who had no idea that the weather in our miniscule apartment was turning rainy.
M was bitterly disappointed. In her devastation, she began to cry. She answered her question with such eloquence that Ms. Crane thought it was worth mentioning in her evaluation report. It may have been the best answer in class, but it was not the answer that TV Tokyo wanted to hear, or more likely, the answer was not from someone they wanted to hear from. The answer itself really did not matter.
Time for mommy talk. Time to tell M that this was another character-building experience, our code word for all things not nice.
Mommy: M, I don’t really remember who was on TV. Do you?
I was lying, but it was all right. I had a very good excuse.
M: Yes. Daniel. Jaclyn. Sam, Megan. And Jeffrey. He said he read a hundred pages a day.
She remembered everyone of them. I was convinced that M had a photographic memory. And so did I.
Mommy: Now, what do they all have in common?
Mommy: Did all of you say something for the lady reporter?
Mommy: All of you? Including Danny, Tom, Florence, Yuh and Grace?
I named all the Japanese and Japanese-looking Asian children.
Mommy: I wonder why none of them were on TV.
Mommy: Did any of the children on TV have black hair?
M: I don’t think so.
Mommy: Don’t you find that very interesting?
M was a perceptive child. Very perceptive. The result of being an only child, I thought. And it did not take long for her to understand that although everyone gave good answers, not all the best answers made it to the final cut. Before long, we were talking about her Jewish friend Lila who always wore the wackiest cowboy hats and boots, and yet was never photographed for the yearbook until the year her mother dressed her in a Mexican costume.
She remembered how sad the twins Megan and Kevin were on UN Day because being Americans, they did not have colorful costumes to wear, and they did not like wearing cowboy hats and boots. The twins’ mother Marian once thought of dressing them in Native American headdresses, but reconsidered because both children had blond hair. And even the kindergarten children know that Native Americans have black hair.
M learned the difference between being special, being different, and being the best. And that at times, being the best was just not good enough.
And she learned these very important lessons in life from watching television.
Makes me wonder why parents complain about their children watching too much television.