NARA, JAPAN — We're in the private room of the classy Nara Hotel. Outside, tame deer wander unabashed around this historic city's five-story pagoda, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines.
Inside our room, six preschoolers careen between tables laden with Japanese food. Their parents catch up with long-parted cousins. Their grandparents - four couples, all 60-something - discreetly supervise the arrangements. And from upholstered chairs behind the microphone, great-grandparents Hiroshi Murai and his wife Toshie preside over this joyous celebration of Mr. Murai's 90th birthday.
My husband Bill Quandt, along with our daughter Lorna, Bill's sister Emmy, and I are all honored to be part of this landmark family event. Back in 1958, Bill was in the first group of American teenagers who did a summer homestay with families in Japan: He stayed with the Murais.
Mr. and Mrs. Murai refer proudly to Bill as "our American son." And keeping in good touch with the Murais for 42 years, the Quandts all certainly think of the Murais as "our Japanese family."
Back in the 1950s, many Japanese still had bad memories of the United States bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In Japan's fairly inward-looking society, it took some courage for the Murais to take a tall Californian teen into their home. Bill remembers no hostility during his stay at the Murai home in the tony central-Japan town of Ashiya - but there was a lot of joking about the gaijin (foreigner), and intense curiosity from all the neighbors' kids.
The older Murai has lived through nine decades that were tumultuous for many Japanese. From a young age, he was an entrepreneur. During World War II, he ran businesses that - separately - made electrical wire and soy sauce. These goods were considered "strategic," so he was exempt from the military service that between 1935 and 1945 cost many male countrymen their lives.
Family members say Murai judged early on that making war against the US, as Japan did with the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, was a mistake. But caution kept him from saying so openly. After the war, in the keiretsu takeover system, his soy-sauce label was put out of business by the government-backed conglomerate that owned the Kikkoman label. In the 1990s, his oldest son, Masaru, would extract something like revenge against the still-powerful keiretsu system, when the independent computer company that he founded, Compaq Japan, survived several attempts by the vast NEC conglomerate to put it out of business.
By then, Masaru (Vic), his two brothers, and brother-in-law had all become pillars of the manufacturing-led boom that marked the past 50 years of Japan's history, and that continued only somewhat dented by the financial setbacks of the 1990s. Following long tradition, those four men all sought their parents' permission, or more active intervention, to marry women who then stayed home to raise their children.
The lives of the family's next generation - now aged between 25 and 35 - already look fairly different. Some of the younger men stayed in engineering, but others have moved into other fields. Kiyoshi Murai, 32, is a sought-after composer of music for Japanese video-games.
Masaru Murai's kids all went into banking, though his daughters got sidelined by parenthood. Some of the cousins talk about careers that notably don't involve staying with one company for life.
The older generation expresses concern at how late some of the younger folks have left key decisions like marrying and having children. But for some of the younger women, the prospect of becoming stay-at-home moms seems daunting. Unlike their mothers, they've had rewarding post-college careers. And because Japan's chronic housing shortage has forced most of them to continue living with their parents, they've had plenty of money to spend on travel and other enjoyments.
Meanwhile, despite lip-service from government leaders about the need to help moms stay in the workplace, there are pitifully few day care centers or other supports for working parents - and few Japanese men seem to take any hands-on responsibility for child-rearing. (Small wonder Japan's fertility rate, at 1.4 children per woman, is one of the lowest in the world.) Masaru's son-in-law Hiroshi Senju is an exception. But he lives with his family in the US. He's a painter, and thinks American art education will be better for his kids than anything available in Japan.
The Murai family story - with its themes of survival and adaptation, and the ever-present tug between individualism and broader responsibilities - is one version of the story of many Japanese families over the past half century.
In 1995, the Murais faced another challenge when the Kobe earthquake leveled the family home in Ashiya, where in 1958 Bill had slept in a traditional reed-mat room alongside his three Japanese brothers. No family members were among the quake's 6,000 casualties. The day after the party in Nara, we visited the six-story building the Murais have built on the lot where the old house once stood. The new building has 22 apartments, 10 of which bring in a nice rental income.
The way the Murais organized the redevelopment showed the continuing influence of the keiretsus. After the quake, the family contracted with a big construction conglomerate to finance and build the new building. In return, the conglomerate gained ownership of 10 apartments, that it then sold. The Murais kept two penthouse apartments for themselves. In each of these beautiful, ultra-modern homes, space has been kept for a reed-mat room with its traditional corner for sacred Buddhist and Shinto objects.
Several family members spoke movingly about how they survived the quake, then started rebuilding. But modestly, they never said much about the role their family has played over the years, rebuilding the relations between their country and the US that were shattered during World War II.
Bill, Lorna, and I have all learned a lot about the joys of building family-to-family relations between previously hostile societies. Now, we hope to keep the ball rolling. Soon, back in Virginia, we will welcome a high-school student from eastern Russia for a year-long homestay with our family. I think I know how nervous the Murais must have been, as they awaited Bill's arrival back in '58!
*Helena Cobban, a Monitor foreign-affairs columnist and author of 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace,' (University Press of Virginia), spent much of the summer in Japan. Her column from Hiroshima will appear next Wednesday.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society