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A Marriage Made in Kumamoto

Updated: Jun 1

Couple on beach el-salanzo-YuNl5xei5wA-unsplash

Here is the initial edition of “When East Marries West,” written sometime in the summer of 1997. That is when I first pitched my column idea to The Japan Times. For the next eight months then, I heard nothing. 

In late March came a phone call stating that my proposal had been accepted and my column would begin in one week. At the time, there was no title, no determined word length and I intended to publish under the pen name of “Thomas Noah Wood.” 

The editor and I soon settled on title and length. But then my wife spoke from across the room: 

“Don’t be shy now. Use your real name.”

Thus, in a spur of the moment decision, the author flipped from Thomas Noah Wood to Thomas Dillon, an error all by itself. For to everyone, everywhere, I am always just “Tom.” 

But once published, the name could not be changed. The byline became “Thomas Dillon” for this and the more than 425 editions that followed.


A Marriage Made in Kumamoto - April 1, 1998


I am sometimes asked how I met my wife.

I like to say I was just walking down the street and this unknown girl rushed up and tackled me around the knees. She then picked me off the pavement and announced we were getting married.

My wife’s version is somewhat different. She has this strange recollection of me writing every day and calling every night, until she finally had to decide between getting married or losing her mind. 

I don’t know how she ever got that idea. And who knows – she might have ended up with both.

Our marriage was not made in heaven. It was made in Kumamoto.

In 1976, when I first stepped off the plane in the Emerald City of Kumamoto (in fact, nicknamed the “City of Green” in Japanese), I was perhaps the closest anyone had ever seen to a real creature from Kansas. 

I had mud-red hair and more fuzz on my upper lip than I now have on my head. My wardrobe consisted entirely of denim. 

I was a child of the ‘60s, one decade late and sort of looked like Ringo Starr might have if only he had grown up on a pig farm.

I had come to teach English. I had not the slightest intention of marrying a Japanese girl, even though I soon noticed such girls were everywhere.

Back in the States I was not an active dater. I was “timid,” a word some might read as “nerdy.”

I had another problem beside my hairy appearance and my shy demeanor. I could not communicate in Japanese.

At first, the only Japanese terms I knew were those for “Good morning” and “delicious.”

Go ahead. Try to have a conversation using just those two. All I had to do was to glance a girl and say “delicious” and she would gallop away.

At the end of my first month, my company scheduled a big meeting, set for a national holiday and promoted as voluntary. 

To show how naïve I was, I added the words “holiday” to “voluntary” and assumed I did not need to attend. Sleeping all day sounded much better.

Yet, a friend explained that, in a Japanese company, “voluntary” was a euphemism for “Be there or else.” So I went.

I am glad I did. It changed my life.

It didn’t start off well. I arrived in a jeans and windbreaker. Everyone else was wearing suits. I tried to look inconspicuous, the foreigner’s true bane.

The meeting began in a huge hall packed with hundreds of people. I understood the first “Good morning” but was lost from that point on.

I am not sure, but I think the topic was how to pluck chickens while driving. Of all the Japanese meetings, I have sat through since, this notion remains the most intriguing.

The meeting went on. We had lunch. The meeting went on. And on.

Just when I thought they were going to roll out the bedding, suddenly things came to an end.

I had only one goal: to get far away, fast.

I made the door. I made the parking lot. I was only meters from my car when I spied this guy whom I had met when recruited in America. 

He knew about as much English as I knew Japanese, the difference being he could not pronounce “delicious.” He was standing with a group of people and waved me over.

I decided to play dumb, one of my talents. I smiled, bowed and reached my car. 

But he was persistent. Reluctantly, I eased his way.

One of the people with him was a girl with big eyes. She smiled.

My world stopped.

The man struggled to introduce her, to say she had lived a year in Pennsylvania, but I didn’t hear much of anything until the girl held out her hand. And said:

“I like your country very much.”

I took that hand and responded:

“I like yours too.”

And that was it. People starting gabbing about plucking chickens or whatever and they all moved on. Leaving me hyperventilating under a tree.

I drove home in slow motion. 

Till that moment I had no intention of marrying a Japanese girl. Now my mind had changed.

I wanted to marry that girl.

Two and a half years later I did. 

My wife scoffs at this love-at-first-sight memory. She says that all she remembers is that I wouldn’t let go.

She also says it’s not love at first sight that matters anyway. It is love at last sight.

I hope we have a long way to go before that final vision. Until then, and like now, I plan to keep holding that hand.

©Tom Dillon

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