Bridge of folk art: mastering an intercultural skill

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in borderlands,community,culture,friendship,home,identity,society

Watermelon words by dosankodebbie

By DEBORAH DAVIDSON

Japan is the only home I have ever known. Yet, born to non-Japanese parents, married to a non-Japanese man, and with two non-Japanese children, every day is a struggle to get people to see past the physical characteristics that mark me as an outsider, or gaijin.

I’m native in the language and love the country, especially the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido that is my home, but Japanese folk art Etegami most helps bridge the divide.

Hand-painted images with a few thoughtful words, the Japanese use this traditional form of mail art to mark the changing of seasons, to express appreciation for a gift, to rejoice in a friend’s good fortune, or to share news. I was bitten by the Etegami bug while working as a cross-cultural adviser in rural Hokkaido.

Experience had taught me that the best way to be accepted by taciturn villagers was to work alongside them in silence, rather than engaging in conversation.

Waratah blossom by dosankodebbie

I joined community activities such as Tree-planting Day in May and Beach-Cleaning Day in July. During the Summer Festival I steamed pork buns under a tent in the wilting heat. The community gradually got used to me and forgot I was gaijin.

The biggest change in my status, however, came after I joined the Etegami club. Thrilled to have new blood, the older members sighed over my feeble early efforts and rejoiced when my skill improved.

I can no longer imagine life without Etegami. It satisfies my soul and continues to shrink the gap between me and those who might otherwise keep me at a distance.

Blue Dragonfly by dosankodebbie

What skill have you mastered that shrinks a gap of perception in your life?

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Deborah Davidson has been translating professionally for over thirty years; everything from patents and business contracts to Ainu folklore and the novels of best-selling Japanese author Miura Ayako.
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Editor note: If you love these playful images like we do, here’s where you can purchase items imprinted with them.


  • eiko gustavson

    the drawings are very beautiful and artfully done. thank you, debbie!

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    Great post, Debbie, and one I especially relate to since the tagline of my business is “sharing the common language of craft”. I bridged the language gap with the women of my husband’s family through knitting (after disastrous attempts to slap bread dough inside a ragingly hot clay oven. Yarn I can handle!) Expressing ourselves through our hands is very effective means of communication, and as much as I love to talk, I know what I make explains ‘me’ more than my non-fluent Turkish could ever do.

    Your art has a language of its own – have already earmarked at least one to inspire me in my workshop. Thank you!

    • dosankodebbie

      Yay! A fellow craftsperson! Thank you for your kind encouragement. Yes, I also feel that what I make explains “me” in a way for which words alone are insufficient. Especially in a culture that often uses verbal communication to hide true thoughts rather than to reveal them.

      • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

        I can see how you’d be attracted to this subtle art and could find ways to express yourself in ways that would not be culturally acceptable verbally. Somewhat like ‘oya’ crochetwork in Turkey – a means of communication between women of a village that the men or outsiders would not understand.

  • julia simens

    I love the feeling you get when eyes connect up and you realize that no words are necessary. When we used to “feed the needy” in Nigeria my two children would be very quiet all day working hand in hand with the locals to feed hundreds of people. It was in the car ride home that they shared in words how the day impacted them.

  • julia simens

    I love the feeling you get when eyes connect up and you realize that no words are necessary. When we used to “feed the needy” in Nigeria my two children would be very quiet all day working hand in hand with the locals to feed hundreds of people. It was in the car ride home that they shared in words how the day impacted them.

    • dosankodebbie

      Your comment flooded my mind with memories of when I took my teenage daughter to work with me in the outdoor food distribution station for the many people who had been forced from their homes after the disastrous Hanshin Earthquake (Osaka/Kobe area, Japan) in 1995. We were living in Osaka at the time and had suffered in the earthquake ourselves, but working alongside others in similar circumstances, and assisting the people who were even worse off than we were, was a truly humbling experience. My daughter and I have never discussed it, but I know that the earthquake and the food distribution experience contribute to our closeness as adults today. Shared experiences are a strong bond, not only with family, but between strangers as well.

  • julia simens

    I love the feeling you get when eyes connect up and you realize that no words are necessary. When we used to “feed the needy” in Nigeria my two children would be very quiet all day working hand in hand with the locals to feed hundreds of people. It was in the car ride home that they shared in words how the day impacted them.

  • Mari Juniper

    What a wonderful post, Debbie! Indeed, from my indirect contact with Japanese and Chinese cultures, silence and attention are the best way to engage with traditional folks. :)

    • dosankodebbie

      That is so true. The worst possible results come from an inconsistency between one’s words and one’s actions, so you might as well keep the talk to a minimum. On the other hand, most people, traditional or not, breath a lot more freely when they realize “the foreigner” can speak their language. Don’t you think?

      • http://about.me/anastasia.ashman Anastasia

        Yes, I agree people can relax when they realize you speak a common language — even if it’s not of the tongue — such as, the art and craft of etegami!

    • http://about.me/anastasia.ashman Anastasia

      Mari, as my husband said about the day I’d meet his non-English speaking Turkish mother “the language barrier won’t matter, it’s what you do, not what you say”. A (terrifying!) reminder that we’re saying quite a bit with our actions…

      Thanks for this, Debbie. I think your etegami positively pops on the white screen! I’m thinking about your final question and will be back…

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  • Anonymous

    This doesn’t answer your question, but just was thinking of that very old adage while reading your piece – “actions speak louder than words”. I know many people who bridge culture through art and craft … it seems to be its own language.

    • dosankodebbie

      I once served on a panel with a restaurant chef-owner and a jazz musician. I remember saying I envied them their careers because food and music communicate straight to the senses, leaping over language barriers, whereas my profession (translating) has to maneuver a more complicated path of reasoning and verbal language to reach people who may be unfamiliar with the logic system or values of the source language. Yet, the truth is, I do so love words. And Etegami is the perfect folk art for me because it combines words and images. The artwork speaks to the senses, and the words speak to the mind.

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