Zen and the Art of Storytelling: The Hon. Jim McDermott

When Jim McDermott retires from the US Congress on January 3, 2017, he’ll be ending a 45-year career in public service. Anyone who has the pleasure of spending time with him knows that he is also a storyteller, drawing on his Irish heritage and the long Gaelic tradition of oral histories. The best way to feature Mr. McDermott would be in the format of an interview radio show or podcast, or in a living room during a blizzard sipping hot cocoa. Unfortunately, we’re just not set up for that here at InProfile, so you’ll have to settle for a multitude of block quotes. Trust when we say that there’s a longer story (told passionately, sometimes even with impressions) behind almost every anecdote we reference here.

McDermott is a longtime supporter of US-Japan relations, serving for over a decade as Chair of The Congressional Study Group on Japan, a member of the Japan-US Friendship Commission, a regular participant in the US-Japan Legislative Exchange Program, and a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold & Silver Star. His interest in the Land of the Rising Sun began well before he came to Congress though:

Well, I grew up in a white suburb outside Chicago, and I didn’t know any people of color. Period. There was one person of color in my high school. So when I went to college, I had a roommate who was Japanese American [David Sakura]. One day, we were sitting around, and he told about being raised in the [internment] camp, in Minidoka. And of course, I didn’t believe him, and he said, “No, it’s true.” […]
His family had been a part of a small group of Japanese who worked at a mill in Eatonville, WA, and one day they were there, and then the next day they weren’t there. And the people of Eatonville never knew what happen to them. They just went away.

They stayed in touch, and when McDermott ultimately moved to Seattle, he reconnected with the Sakura family and got to know the community. The stories and experiences made a lasting impression on him.

When McDermott was elected to Congress, the US and Japan weren’t on the greatest of terms:

This was 1989, and Japan was booming, and everyone was saying “Japan Inc.” and we have to start doing the “Toyota model” and that Toyota showed us how the automobile industry should be run. And we had Members of Congress from Maryland over here on the steps of the Capitol bashing Toshiba electronics [two years earlier].

By this time, McDermott had deepened his connection to Japan through studies of Buddhism, Zen practices, Japanese ink wash painting, called sumi-e (墨絵). McDermott saw an opportunity to help and approached his mentor from Washington State, Tom Foley, who had been elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives a few months earlier. “We had to put a counterweight to what was happening and so I got involved in it,” said McDermott.

He started traveling to Japan regularly, and would eventually make over 40 visits during his tenure. In fact, McDermott is one of the most travelled Members of Congress, having represented the United States House of Representatives dozens of times on five continents. “I belong to a group of 435 people who think we run the world,” said McDermott. “So it would be important for us to know what’s going on in the world, wouldn’t it? And that’s the bottom line.”

Beyond knowing the events of the world stage, he has also taken the time to get to know its players. Americans, he explains, want to fly in, make a deal, and be gone on the next plane. In reality, it rarely works that way, especially throughout Asia. “You’ve got to get to know people. And the only way people trust you is if they know you.”

As a result of his regular visits, he has gotten to know young politicians who would go on to be ministry officials. He’s seen the children of some leaders replace their parents. He’s seen a growing number of women enter the scene. And as his Japanese counterparts have gotten to know him, they have been comfortable enough to put away their prepared statements and instead sit and talk.

At the top of the list of his many experiences is the evening of December 7, 1991, 50 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One of Speaker Foley’s Japanese friends suggested that a small group of Americans visit Hiroshima that same night as a show of solidarity. They held a memorial service at a Methodist church there, which had a bell that was cracked when the atomic bomb fell. Damaged, the bell did not ring out when struck, but made a hollow “thunk thunk,” a sound which nonetheless resonated internally, if not audibly.

His second most memorable visit involves some show-and-tell. Sitting atop a purpose-built shelf on his office wall is a squat, red doll, about two feet in diameter. The doll, known as a Daruma (達磨) has the face of a bearded man on it, albeit without any eyes.

By Crisco 1492 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“That’s there because when I said I wanted to help with Japan, Tom Foley put me on these various organizations,” said McDermott. Foley warned him not to treat this work as just resume-building, but to make sure he really committed to going to the appropriate meetings and conferences.

In 1993, the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum was founded. He was supposed to travel with Senator Bill Roth, but Roth backed out, and in turn, McDermott decided to cancel his participation too:

Well, one morning I got a call from Tom Foley, and Tom said ‘Jim pack your bag, you’re going to Japan.’ I said, ‘I’m in Seattle, I don’t have my passport.’ ‘Pack your bag, you’re going to Japan!’ He told me to go down to my office. So I went down to my office and there was the Consul General from Japan. […] He’s there with a blank sheet of paper, and he took one of my campaign brochures and cut my picture out. He put some glue on it, stuck it in the middle of the paper. Then he wrote all over it in Japanese and then stamped it, folded it in three, put it in an envelope and handed it to me. I took that envelope, went out to United Airlines, and got on a plane and flew to Japan.

At the conference, he was seated next to former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a powerful statesman, who was chaired the proceedings for the next three days. Two weeks later, after McDermott had returned home, a great big box appeared with the Daruma doll inside and a note from Nakasone saying, “Thank you for coming and participating. I wanted you to have a little souvenir.”

Many Japanese display a Daruma doll outside of their campaign offices, blackening one eye at the beginning of the race, and the other upon being successfully elected. “But I’ve never blackened either eye because I always said if I have a tough race then I’ll use it,” said McDermott. “I’m saving my good fortune.”

There are no more tough races for McDermott on the horizon, at least for a congressional seat. He announced in early 2016 he would retire at the end of the 114th Congress. What then does January 4, 2017 hold for McDermott?

Perhaps he’ll return to sumi-e painting. A self-professed autodidact, he picked up the practice after only a few formal lessons. But hundreds of pieces later, it has become an integral part of his life:

Zen Buddhism has a number of disciplines and one of them is, of course, meditation. And I was no good at that; I fell asleep. I could never get my mind to nothingness. But the painting intrigued me and to be a good painter you have to become one with the brush. And you have to be able to block out the rest of the world and focus on a piece of paper. Miles Davis said that sumi-e painting is like playing the trumpet because when you blow a note you can never get it back. You can never change it, it is gone. Well the same is true with the brush. Once you’ve put the ink on the rice paper, it’s done. So you have to know at that moment — you’ve got to be right with the brush and know that this is what I want the stroke to look like. It’s a way of focusing — it’s a meditational art form that requires you to — you can’t do it in a crowded room with a bunch of people talking. I guess you can, but never for me; its always been meditation.
The Sumi-e painting “Green Lake Moon,” by McDermott, was auctioned in March 2014 during a benefit for Seattle’s Wing Lake Museum. (Courtesy Jim McDermott)

Even then if the act of painting is a solitary one, it is also one of the many ways he connects with others. He believes in the thirteen letters inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum — “out of many, one.”

I’ve said in meeting in Seattle that it’s quite unlike that I would have volunteered out of a prison camp to go to war for the American Army. That takes way more grit than I have. The Sakuras were out there. There’s a very famous picture of the 4 Sakura brothers going into the military on the same day. Everyone in the camp hated their mother for letting them all go. Everyone in the camp said, you need to keep one son in the camp to take care of you. And she said, “We’re Americans.”

This feeling of unity is what drives him to often wear a bolo tie, which he considers a sign of respect for the American Indian and Latino population of the United States. “We’re devolving in Congress into tribes, away from the idea that unity,” said McDermott. “No, I don’t want that way. It will not work that way because we’re too diverse as a country. No tribe is big enough.”

by Andrew Loeb Shoenig, with special thanks to Alexis Ayano Terai and Steven West; October 2016