The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


March 2014
The Left-handed Groom
By Robert Whiting

Every American who comes to Japan has his (or her) own story about getting hooked on the local culture.

I have heard my share of these tales, and the strangest of them has to be that of a Tokyo lawyer named Ray Bushell, who spent 50 years here.

When Bushell arrived in Japan in early September 1945 as the young commander of a Merchant Marine sea-air rescue boat, he soon found himself in the middle of a “left-handed marriage.”

A slender, bespectacled attorney from New York, Bushell had been put in charge of an army crew stationed in the Philippines and ordered to transport them to Japan. Caught on the tail end of a typhoon, he headed for Wakanoura in the Kii Peninsula and docked at the small fishing port of Shiotsu.

Bushell led a patrol that marched through the main street of the town, where everything was shut down, windows were closed and shuttered, and there was no movement whatsoever.

One young boy slowly came out to look. Then another. Bushell’s men doled out candy to the children and then some K-rations and, little by little, the adults started coming out.

A few days later, Bushell met a man named Hashizume, the village Shinto priest and schoolteacher, who understood the written English word much better than the spoken one. It was a condition that forced the two men to communicate through notes. Nonetheless, the two quickly became friends.

In one conversation, Bushell asked Hashizume about girls. What were the possibilities of some female companionship, he inquired. Hashizume allowed that, as Bushell was captain of the ship, he certainly deserved some attention in that regard.

“Many families came here from Wakayama,” Hashizume said in one note. “They were burned out in bombing raids. They live here with relatives. Some of them have daughters and are in dire need of money.”

At that time, it was not entirely unusual to barter off the daughter if the family was in dire financial straits. The implied message was that a deal might be discreetly orchestrated that would solve Bushell’s problem.

Despite the language handicap, Hashizume arranged for a series of candidates for Bushell’s perusal. Bushell would spend several nights at Hashizume’s house, where candidates would be brought in for their auditions.

The first, an extremely shy 17-year-old, arrived without a clue as to what she was supposed to do. Told to climb into the futon, she did so still wearing her undergarments and yukata.

When Hashizume’s wife, monitoring events from behind an adjoining shoji door in the next room, called out to the girl, telling her what was expected, the frightened young creature fled in terror.

Fortunately for the honored guest, subsequent interviews went more smoothly. Bushell entertained several teenagers in his sleeping quarters at Hashizume’s house, trying out each one as best he could before settling on one he liked.

Some might have suspected ulterior motives on the part of the village head, given the circumstances, but Bushell was not a combat veteran. He was a trusting soul who believed in the basic honesty of his fellow man and in his own ability to read human nature. His trusting character worked to his benefit.

Hashizume made arrangements to meet and talk with the chosen girl’s father before allowing the relationship to proceed any further. He and Bushell invited the man for a sake drinking session in Hashizume’s living room.

Each time the father spoke, Bushell and Hashizume swapped notes back and forth. The father insisted that he was not trying to sell his daughter, but it was just that the family could not afford to keep her, given that their house had burned down during the war and they had little to eat, and so forth. Of course, any arrangement would have to be discreet.

Eventually an agreement was reached and a contract was drawn up. Bushell would pay ¥1,000 (about $67 at the time) for six months of the daughter’s services, plus a bonus of ¥100. It was a sizable amount of money, given that one could buy a pound of fresh shrimp for ¥10.

The girl seemed happy to participate in the transaction, if it pleased her father and helped her family. But, Bushell was told, the two would have to marry. It was a matter of propriety. It should not look to the rest of the village as though the father were actually selling his own daughter.

However, Bushell was told he had nothing to worry about because Hashizume would be performing the wedding ceremony and he would manage it so that the nuptials would be technically invalid. He would do this by performing a left-handed ceremony.

In a Shinto wedding rite, it was standard for the bride to be seated on the man’s right. In this case, however, the seating arrangements would be different.

On the appointed day, Hashizume performed the ritual at the local shrine. According to custom, three sake dishes (small, medium, and large) were sipped three times by the bride and groom, while the priest incanted the magic words—but with one big difference: the bride was ensconced on Bushell’s left, thereby voiding the marriage.

Bushell and his new “wife” slept together for the next six months. He would arrive at Hashizume’s house every evening after duty on his vessel, and his temporary spouse would have the futons laid out on the tatami floor.

At the end of a six-month honeymoon, as fate would have it, he was ordered elsewhere and was thus forced to say his goodbyes. He would never see her again. (He later heard that she had returned to her family’s home and eventually remarried—this time for real in a right-handed ceremony).

It was, as Bushell liked to say, quite an introduction to Japan. From the experience, he concluded the Japanese were an eminently generous, as well as pragmatic, people. This view was reinforced many times over the following decades, after Bushell became one of a group of some 70 foreign lawyers given special permission by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to practice in Japan. With approval from the Japanese bar, he opened a firm with Tokyo lawyer Shin Asahina.

He also came to believe the Japanese legal system was more merciful than the American one. He saw numerous people, who had committed crimes and were genuinely sorry, sentenced to lenient sentences or, often, doing no more than writing an apology.

He liked to tell the story of a case he witnessed in 1953, in which three young GIs had gotten drunk, run out of money, and stolen some from a cab driver, roughing him up somewhat in the process.

In those days drunkenness was often a mitigating factor in certain types of cases. According to Article 39 of the Criminal Code, “An act of a person of unsound mind is not punishable.” Drunkenness was considered being of unsound mind, partly because there were so many instances of drunk driving in those days of limited traffic, so the judges applied this article in court very liberally.

In this particular case, the GIs pleaded not guilty due to their unfortunate state of inebriation. The judge asked the first soldier, “How many beers did you drink?” The youth answered, “Five large bottles.” The judge asked the second soldier the same question and he replied “Four bottles.” Then he asked the third who answered “Three.” The judge decided to test them in court.

Adjourning for the day, the judge ordered the court officers to bring in a case of Kirin Obin beer. At the next session, each GI was ordered to drink the amount that he had told the judge he had consumed on the night of the assault. Then the soldiers were questioned.

By the time the soldiers had drunk the beers, the judge decided they were indeed not responsible for their actions, invoking Article 39 and its application to drunkenness. As a result, he gave them each a suspended sentence of 18 months and the GIs walked out of court as free men.

Bushell was also noted for being a defender of the Japanese way. During the height of trade friction between the United States and Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was one of the few Westerners who took the Japanese side in the dispute and argued that, to his mind, the Japanese were more democratic than the Americans, the very people who were supposed to have introduced the concept.

“People say America is a democracy, but in reality it’s not,” he said. “In business, if the word from the boss comes down, everyone has to obey. The American boss is an autocrat. He thinks he has to show profit in the next quarter or he’s screwed.

“The Japanese, by contrast, start from the bottom up. They get a consensus . . . in business, at least. They think in the long term.

“It’s we who should learn from them.”

Bushell went on to run a successful business, dealing mostly with commercial law. Further, he became an avid fan and collector of netsuke (finely carved ivory figurines from the 17th to 20th centuries).

His collection would grow to be one of the most formidable in the world, valued at several million dollars, with some pieces worth over $200,000. (Among the record prices for a netsuke is $416,000—an ivory shishi, sold at Bonhams in London).

Bushell sold many pieces through Christie’s and Bonhams, making himself wealthy in the process. He also donated over 900 pieces to one of the best art museums in the world, the Pavilion of Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the condition that the collection would be kept on permanent display.

Bushell wrote eight books on netsuke and, by the time he passed away in 1998 in San Francisco, he was regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject as well as one of its greatest benefactors.

He believed he owed much of his success to Hashizume, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship.

“He made me want to stay in Japan and learn as much as I could about the culture,” said Bushell in an interview in 1995. “If I hadn’t met him, who knows how my life might have turned out.”



Robert Whiting, 71, is an author and journalist who has written several books on modern Japanese culture, including You Gotta Have Wa and Tokyo Underworld.
Whiting first came to Japan in 1962 with the US Air Force Intelligence, where he worked for the National Security Agency in the U-2 program. He graduated from Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1969 with a degree in Japanese politics.
He went on to became an informal advisor with the Higashi Nakano wing of Tokyo’s second-largest criminal gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Japan as an editor until 1972.
His first book was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.