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A Pink Kimono From a Japanese Mother

LAST night I put on the kimono Mrs. Fukuchi made for me before I left Tokyo. It is white with five-petaled pink flowers. As I struggled to tie the broad red obi around my waist I thought about Mrs. Fukuchi for the first time since the wedding picture I mailed to her went unacknowledged. The blue-eyed dolls introduced me to the Fukuchi family. Before World War II, some American and Japanese communities exchanged dolls as a gesture of friendship. The blue-eyed dolls from America were hidden at some risk to their Japanese saviors during the war.

Mr. Fukuchi, an elementary school principal from the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo, was part of a delegation which took the dolls on a visit ``home'' to the United States. I met him when I interpreted for them during a brief summer visit to my parents. Mr. Fukuchi invited me to meet his family when I returned to Tokyo.

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Mrs. Fukuchi became my Japanese mother. Her daughter was studying piano in Germany. ``If I take care of you, someone is looking after our Masumi over there,'' she said.

Whenever life in Tokyo overwhelmed me, I'd call Mrs. Fukuchi to ask, ``Can I visit you this weekend?''

At the Fukuchi's, we talked, ate, and watched TV for hours. Like most Japanese houses, the Fukuchi's lacked central heating. So we sat on the tatami-matted floors with our legs under a table skirted by a blanket reaching to the floor.

The bottom of the table surface held a caged heating element to warm our legs. The only other heat in the room came from a charcoal-burning hibachi, about as big as a Chinese garden stool.

When my shoulders hurt from lugging the heavy dictionaries needed for my research, Mrs. Fukuchi comforted me. She knitted me mafuraa, long beautiful scarves. The gray, burnt-orange, and deep-red scarf had pockets at the end for my perpetually icy hands and it blended beautifully with the peach-colored raincoat I wore. Now I sport it with a long gray winter coat.

MRS. FUKUCHI never asked me for anything in return. Oh, I think there was some mention of my helping their son, the soft-spoken Satoshi, with his English. But he resisted my attempts at conversation. I had to content myself with bringing sweet, sticky Japanese cakes to express my gratitude for Mrs. Fukuchi's warmth.

Before I left Tokyo for good, Mrs. Fukuchi and her husband gave me a proper send-off. They rarely ventured from their village to urban Tokyo, but I still have the matchbox from the crab restaurant in the busy downtown district where we ate dinner. The kimono I wore last night was their farewell present. Mrs. Fukuchi picked out the fabrics specially to complement my foreign coloring.

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I wrote to the Fukuchis from the United States, but I never heard back. Not even a postcard. It couldn't have been the language barrier. I knew their English was poor, so I wrote in Japanese.

``Could I have committed some unintentional offense?'' I asked my anthropologist friend, whose stint in Tokyo had overlapped with mine.

``Not likely,'' she said. She had a similar experience with her Tokyo landlady. Face-to-face meetings are a key to sustaining Japanese friendships. Some, though not all, crumble without the creation of new shared experiences.

WEARING my kimono reminded me of the sadness I felt. I've spent 20 years trying to understand Japan, but still so many things escape me.

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