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Dr. Grauer's Column - 先生 (A Sensei)
Dr. Grauer's Column - 先生 (A Sensei)

先生 (A Sensei)

"Better than a thousand days of study is one day with a great teacher."
—Japanese Proverb

The Japanese have a word for teacher, sensei, but it means more than what we're used to in the U.S. when we call someone teacher. Of all the fascinating people who have shown me the meaning of being a teacher, sensei even, the Miyazakis are around the top of that list. They are my teachers.

Japanese sensei traditionally were revered and had followings marked by loving loyalty. They became elder statesmen worthy of a lifetime of respect and devotion. The sensei understands life. The sensei models respect for all living things.

This story begins in the 1980s, as I was nearing the completion of my doctoral studies at the University of San Diego, specializing in global education. I hardly felt like a sensei, grand master of anything, or wise elder entitled to loving loyalty. However, I had somehow learned about a man called Jon Wicklund who was principal and one of the founders of a small, new school in Tokyo that offered a dual language immersion program for Japanese kids: English and Japanese. I have always loved meeting school founders. I wasted no time in contacting him, telling him we could set up an exchange with our students in Rancho Santa Fe, California, where I was helping found and run a private school.

Wicklund replied with a plane ticket and hotel reservations.

A student of mine, Yoichi Miyazaki, was fascinated with my plans. Little did I know his father would become my sensei—or I his. Yoichi's dad, Yoshio "Yoshi" Miyazaki, was living near Tokyo, in Hiyama, as a businessman and entrepreneur and doing extremely well in the red-hot Japanese economy. So, when it came time for me fly to Tokyo, Yoichi drove to Los Angeles, met me by surprise at the Japan Airlines check-in, and told me they had disposed of my tickets. Here were first class tickets that I must use. "Take these."

After several years of work in a small private school and having just completed 5 years of graduate school, I was quite broke, and this was the second time I had ever flown first class. I could barely afford gas for my car. Yoichi escorted me to the gate and noticed that my camera lens was pretty quirky, told me he knew I'd get good photos anyway, then off I went.


Tokyo, Japan

I arrived in Tokyo airport and there was Mr. Miyazaki, waving and smiling. We had never met before, and he walked me out to a chauffeur-driven, cream-colored, Rolls Royce convertible Cornische and, on a gorgeous autumn day, delivered me to Wicklund. After a reception and tea at Wicklund's school, Interpacific Japan, I was escorted to my hotel room, a sliver of a room. I lay down on the bed and, after more than 30 hours of travel, quickly disappeared into unconsciousness.

The next morning, or whatever it was, I lifted up my head and had no idea where I was, and turned on the television. One after another, skiers attacked a slalom course down a snowy hillside to the sound of "Love Shack." "I'm heading down the Atlanta Highwayyyyy... ...Looking for the lovvvvve getaway ... ..."

The long flight with champagne, the Rolls Royce, the school reception in hectic Shinjuku, waking up to the B-52s in a room shaped like a long closet all mixed into a surrealistic concoction ... I came to, set out with a sense of comedy for a lovely day visiting Interpacific Japan meeting students and parents. At the school, I visited classes, then we set up the conditions for the student exchange, and at last Wicklund delivered me out front where I was met again by Mr. Miyazaki.

This time his chauffeur had a large, Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, and we boarded and headed for the Yokohama Grand Hotel, a dark-wooded, classically appointed place down to the rice paper screens, thick robes, and exotic scents. When I got to my deluxe room overlooking Yokohama Bay, there on the pillow lay a pro-quality, telephoto zoom lens that would have cost me at least a full paycheck—"from the Miyazakis." The next day, off we went by bullet train, south past Mount Fuji, to Kyoto where I had a private escort to the Nijō Castle of the Shogun, the Golden Pavilion, and a private dojo. Then, off to Nara we went for a stay at the legendary Hotel Nara, built in 1909, for dinner of Kobe beef, an ornate tea ceremony, and kabuki theater. Checking out of the hotel, a little book called "The Teaching of Buddha" with pages alternatively in English and Japanese called out to me and no sooner had I picked it up than Mr. Miyazaki, noticing my curiosity, was paying for it. This was the start of fascinating study in Buddhist teachings which, oddly enough, immediately related extremely well to the leadership studies I had just completed at the University of San Diego. In the book, the Buddha was referred to as "the world's greatest teacher," and I was fascinated by that. This study continues, though I am still a beginner after 30 years.

Suddenly, just as we are checking out, we hear: the Rolling Stones are performing tonight in Tokyo. Mr. Miyazaki quickly calls for a helicopter to take us there, but it turns out the schedule is too tight and we haven't enough time to make it. No matter, we board the bullet train, are met in Tokyo by the Rolls, and are taken to the 5-star Okura Hotel, best in Tokyo, where I found myself in a steam bath next to the Stones' stage manager.


Tokyo, Japan

The next day, it is time to leave. We tour the Imperial Palace grounds before lunch in the Palace Hotel, Tokyo, overlooking the palace. Mr. Miyazaki presented his farewell: "I have only one important, final request. Please try the Crêpes Suzette." And I did.

A year snapped by, Yoichi was a senior and I had gone off and established The Grauer School as a grades 9-12 independent school in a small storefront in Encinitas. Then news came. The Japanese market crashed and Mr. Miyazaki burst a blood vessel in his brain—a stroke. He pulled out of Japan entirely, moved in with his family in La Jolla and started a sushi bar called Hiyama, while his beautiful wife Madoka started a successful Kumon tutoring business. The first time I went to Hiyama restaurant, there he was smiling and healthy in a Mickey Mouse tee shirt, becoming a Californian. Soon they enrolled their next oldest son, Kazuhito, in the freshman class at Grauer, class of 1998. Kazu was a brilliant engineer and, after Cal Berkeley, joined the great, Japanese firm Nikon.

I went to Hiyama three or four times and my best efforts to pay were completely hopeless, every time. No matter, because I had no idea what I was receiving anyway, so exotic, bountiful, and lavish were all my feasts and those of anyone I brought with me. One time I brought my mother Priscilla along with Sally and our very small daughter, Audrey. The sushi platter the chef prepared was too grand to carry out, so they placed it on a barrow of sorts and wheeled it out, and we gorged on every imaginable, artistic creation of Japanese cuisine and washed it all down with Asahi Super Dry. After an array of colorful, springy and gelatinous desserts shaped into patterns and molds, soaked in syrups, they brought out toys and dresses for Audrey.

Sensei translates normally as just teacher, but the term has a different life in Japan. It is a term that carries overtones of reverence, art, mastery, and authority. In Japan, though modern times are changing things a little, the teacher is a paragon, historically expected to devote his life to their noble profession. In the U.S., teachers are compared with librarians while in Japan they are compared with doctors. The first thing in the morning the Japanese child is expected to bow to the teacher, who is a teacher of the whole child. If the child is caught shoplifting, for instance, the teacher is usually alerted before the parent—"Why have I not taught better?" the sensei will ask himself. Age and wisdom are embedded in the concept of teaching, much as they are in the much better-known Sanskrit term, guru.


Dr. Grauer, displaying items he has collected from indigenous tribes around the world to Grauer students - October 9, 2017

I don't know about wisdom, but I'm definitely getting old. As a teacher over the years, I have received abundant gifts both real and intrinsic through the kindness of patron families, even my house; ever since the school has become nonprofit, these gifts go to the school foundation and permanent endowment to be passed through the generations. But it is highly unlikely that any generosity or respect I have or will know in my lifetime will ever surpass the phenomenal, humbling and stunning if not surreal treatment I received at the hands of the Miyazaki family, who taught me so much about honor even though I was supposedly the teacher. In fact, I dare conclude that if someone is not your sensei, you will never truly be theirs.

I'd be a fool to think these gifts came because of anything I personally earned. I was a sensei because they made me out to be one. From the standpoint of this elegant and honorable Japanese family, they were behaving the way they understood people should naturally behave when engaging with anyone who rightfully carries the title and position: teacher.

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