"Bakatare" Means ’Nice Man’ · 18 July 2007
Grandpa Miyoshi was a man of many talents. He was a truck farmer (which means he had a small vegetable farm from which he hauled vegetables in his truck, not that he grew trucks). He also did genetic engineering by cross pollinating different varieties of tomatoes to make his own. He was also a talented athlete. I remember playing stickball one time and Grandpa just took one swing and hit the ball over everybody’s heads and into the chicken coop. It was an out of the park home run! We kids also found a kendo trophy from long ago. Apparently, Grandpa had gotten second in a tournament in Japan before he came to America. He must have been really good because he was about 18 when he immigrated. Besides all of these qualities that I remember, Grandpa Miyoshi had two that stand out above the rest. He was a great fisherman and he was a funny man.
We used to go to Wyoming to fish in the summertime. Sometimes we would go for a couple days; sometimes we would go for about a week. On those trips, we used to have lots of fun doing lots of different activities. Sometimes we would float down the river. When we floated the river, we did not have float tubes or waders as they have now. We had a pair of Grandpa’s short rubber boots that we would let fill up with water and pull us downstream 20 or 30 yards (we learned to do that in the ditches on the farm). We also threw rocks into the water or skipped them in calmer water. When we were too close to where Grandpa was fishing, he would yell, “You bakatare kids!” We knew we should go somewhere else when he yelled that. It was the same thing he yelled at us when we swam in the ditch at the farm or did other dumb stuff. (We knew that “bakatare” was Japanese for “dummy” or “stupidhead” but we just replied in our heads, “Grandpa is upset at something we are doing so we ought to quit but we won’t just yet.”) We tried to catch horned toads (which we always called and still call, “horny toads”) and sometimes we even fished.
I remember having our own private fishing derby once. It was a given that Grandpa was the best fisherman because of the amount and size of the fish he always caught. But just this one time, I caught a bigger fish! I almost even lost it. As I was bringing it up to shore, it flopped back into the water. I had just taken out the hook so I jumped after the fish to get it. If the fish had not been worn out, I would have just had another fish story but instead, I had a huge trout. And it was lots bigger than the eight-incher that Grandpa had caught – both longer and fatter. I was so happy that I had beaten Grandpa and he was equally upset that he had been beaten. At least it seemed that way.
Another fun thing that we got to do on the fishing trips actually came on the trip from Greeley, Colorado to our fishing spot in Wyoming. We got to ride on the top part of the camper above the truck cab. A couple times, Russell, Greg, and I got to go with Grandpa and Grandma. Just the five of us. A couple times we rode in the camper and I remember a couple times just going in the car for day trips.
On one of the camper trips when Russell, Greg, and I got to go with Grandpa and Grandma, we went with their next door neighbors and good friends, Willie and Jean. Willie and Jean were farmers too so they could go fishing when Grandpa and Grandma could. We used to see Willie and Jean a fair amount in the summer. Usually after or around nap time (right after lunch which they all called dinner) in the hot part of the day, Willie and Jean would come over and everybody would visit. Everybody always had a good time just visiting. That was one of the fun parts about the fishing trip too.
In the mornings of those fishing trips, Grandpa would always get up early to catch his fish. Then around noon, everybody would eat dinner and sit around and visit. We kids would fish whenever we got up and whenever we were not floating down the river, throwing rocks, or catching horny toads. In the evening after we had eaten the fish we all caught that day and after the sun had gone down, we all sat around in the camper enjoying each other’s company. Just visiting.
One night, Grandpa, Grandma, Willie, and Jean were all sitting around the table in the camper visiting and having a few drinks while Russell, Greg, and I were above the cab watching them. After a little whiskey and beer (I don’t think that Grandma ever had any that night or ever), the adults were a little rowdy. There was no singing or dancing but the conversation that night was hilarious to everybody.
I do not remember what they were talking about that night but sometime during the visiting, Grandpa called Willie a bakatare. It was all in good fun and Grandpa laughed when he said it (you can get away with saying just about anything when you smile). Willie asked what that meant and Grandpa said, “Bakatare means ‘nice man.’”
Willie looked at Grandpa’s smiling face and said, “No.” Then he looked to Grandma who had almost laughed and could hardly keep a straight face, “Hamako, what does bakatare mean?”
She went along with the gag but the laugh came out as she said, “It means ‘nice man.’”
Willie seemed to be satisfied So he said, “Well, Charles, you are a bakatare too.”
Grandpa laughed, slapped Willie on the back and said, “No. You bakatare.”
Willie thought that Grandpa was just being modest and deferential so he insisted, “You are bakatare too.”
Grandma was laughing so hard that she was crying and Jean was hooting with everybody else. Up in the bed above the cab, we knew what bakatare really meant so we were laughing too. Willie thought that Grandpa was pulling his leg about the meaning of the word but Grandpa kept insisting that bakatare meant ‘nice man’ so Willie kept insisting that Grandpa was a bakatare too.
Looking back, I think that Willie and Jean knew almost from the start that bakatare was not ‘nice man’ but Willie enjoyed the fun of calling Grandpa bakatare and being called bakatare by Grandpa. They had so much fun that it did not really matter what bakatare really meant. They called each other bakatare all night it seemed and everybody laughed until their guts hurt.
I have come to find out that in Japan, bakatare is not a very nice word. And I know that in this day and age, it is not acceptable to call people “dummy” or “stupidhead.” But because of that one night on that one fishing trip, I sometimes still think that bakatare really does mean ‘nice man.’ I am sure that it did for Willie and Grandpa.
© 2007 Michael T. Miyoshi
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From Long Walks Home unpublished.
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