Sugiyama’s Desk

My dad, my mom, me, and my sister on vacation just outside of Kobe

From 1990 to 1997 my family lived in Kobe, Japan. My dad got a job teaching at a branch campus of Edmonds Community College and my mom, my sister and I were all along for the ride. My experience of Kobe was very different from his. I was a dreamy eight year old, rather indignant at being moved in the middle of the school year to a country where no one could pronounce my name. “It’s hard for Japanese people to make those sounds.” My dad explained. “CAITlin. CAITlin. What’s so hard about it?” I crankily replied. I eventually came to terms with being called “Ke-to-rin”, I took karate and tea ceremony and came to enjoy many parts of my Kobe years, all though I held on fiercely to my American identity, and I never got used to being told by adults what a fantastic experience I was being given and how they hoped I appreciated it.

Me practicing tea ceremony

My dad, on the other hand, loved Japan and threw himself wholeheartedly into learning the language and culture. He made kanji cards on little one ring binders and carried them around everywhere, constantly quizzing himself. He learned the art of wearing a business suit, he made friends with the Japanese staff at the college, played tennis and sang karaoke with them at a little bar called Licky Tomato. Not all the American staff at the college were as enamored with the country or as dedicated and hardworking as he was, so he was promoted quickly. During the later years he was Dean of Students and on the front lines of dealing with the corruption and mismanagement the branch campus faced from both its American president back home, and its Japanese sponsor.

I was largely unaware of all the problems the campus faced at the time, but I could tell how stressed my dad was. As a child I only heard whispers, the fact that the president of Edmonds back in the states had been indicted, the struggle to get a new sponsor in Japan who was actually interested in running a college, rather than a front for his political campaigns. As a child I enjoyed playing in the large stone foyer of the campus, or watching videos in the library, both largely empty of actually community college students.

What little I do know about what went on during the Kobe years I know from Dad’s play. After we left Kobe for Tokyo my dad started writing a novel about the experience, and after we returned to Seattle and after the divorce, he took a class in solo performance, and adapted the themes of the novel into a solo show called Up Your Head! He performed Up Your Head! in the Seattle Fringe Festival back in 2003 and I ended up directing it, one of my few directorial attempts and one of my favorite memories of us working together.

photo 4

The poster for Up Your Head!

The play was constructed as a series of monologues. The main character, Marcus, was an American ex-pat working at a Japanese branch campus, there was a Japanese love interest which whom he had theological discussions by way of courtship, there were monologues about the no mixing rule of eastern and western cultural elements within Japan “Sashimi is delicious, don’t eat it with bread”, about Funny English “There is a Japanese baseball team whose slogan is Hit, Foot, Get”, there was the thinly veiled story of the failed campus, and bookending the whole thing, was Sugiyama.

I don’t know if Sugiyama was based on a real person, or just a good story he’d been told back in Japan. I was thinking about blocking, set designs, which songs should go with which scene breaks, so I didn’t think to press him for details about the source material, I just wanted to put on a good show.

It’s one of many things I’ll never get to ask him now. For all that we shared, for all the advice he imparted and superstitions he instilled and personal history he spun into entertaining tales, there are corresponding losses. Big events in my life he will never be a part of, decisions I’ll have to make without his input, and the facts and fictions of even our shared personal history that will forever he left unsorted.

Me and Dad at Himeji Castle

Sugiyama’s Desk

This story is adapted from the script my dad’s solo show UP YOUR HEAD! I have condensed it a little and left out a lot of the Japanese/English doubling that worked much better in performance than it does written.

Japan is a country of ritualized speech. You come to work in the morning and say “Ohayou gozaimasu!”(good morning) and you will always be answered back “Ohayou gozaimasu.” When you leave the office, “Saki ni shitsurei shimasu..” (excuse me while I leave before you) the answer: “O tsukaresama deshita” (Thank you for your hard work). It never changes, and it you’re smart, you can use the ritual as a kind of protection.

One day Sugiyama came into the office and his desk was gone. No desk, just an empty space where it used to be. He knew what it meant, they are letting him go. Undaunted Sugiyama went and stood in the empty space. He took a file from his briefcase and pretended to read. Other people in the office looked at him sideways from behind their hands and computers. Sugiyama stared them down, “Ohayo gozaimassssssssssssssssssu”. What could they do? Ritualized speech, they had to answer: “Ohayo gozaimasu, ohayo gozaimasu”. After two hours his coworker Kato approached timidly and informed Suyama that the boss wants to see him right now. Sugiyama is cool, “I am a little busy right now.” Kato is agitated, “Sugiyama-san! You must come right now!” Sugiyama pulls out a calendar and consults it “Would 2pm be convenient?” Kato rushes off in a state but returns quickly to inform Sugiyama that 2pm is indeed acceptable. At 2pm they are all waiting for him; the Bucho, the Kacho, Kato-san, next to Kato there is box with Sugiyama’s name on it. The boss is casual, “Ah, Sugiyama-san, how long has it been, 20 years? You must be tired, what I wouldn’t do for a rest myself, how I envy you. Well, anything to say?” “Yes,” Sugiyama says, “There is one thing.”

“And what’s that?”

“I regret to inform you that my desk is missing.”


“It is most inconvenient.”


“What do you advise?”

“Ehhh, Kato-san, give him the box!” And they present Sugiyama with the box containing all his possessions, which he accepts like a prize. “Arigatou gozaimasu, I now return to my post. Excuse me.” And he went back and stood in the place where his desk had been until 7pm when he went home. The next day he returned, and the day after that, and they kept paying him, because he hadn’t resigned yet. This went on for six months, and at the end of that time his bosses offered him a years pay with bonuses JUST to go away, and Sugiyama graciously accepted.

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