Dr. Ellen Weinauer
World Literature – ENG 203
December x, 2002
The Shoes Aren't All That!
Kojima Nobuo uses three distinctive personalities in “The American School” to
illustrate the importance of accepting one's cultural heritage. The use of shoes as a
cultural representation of the western world and the English language play an important
role in shaping each character. While Yamada strives to become enlightened in the
western ways, Michiko only half-heartedly accepts certain aspects. Isa, on the other
hand, scorns western culture altogether.
Kojima’s first character, Yamada, is well versed in Japanese militarism. While
serving as a captain in the Japanese officer training school Yamada even beheads a
number of prisoners of war, some of which are “yanks”. Interestingly though it is
Yamada who upon first glance appears to have adapted best to the western ways of his
conquerors. Yamada’s insistence to speak English only and his choice to wear a pair of
hard to find leather shoes further this idea. He also protests both the use of a whistle and
marching in a “solid phalanx” which is clearly reminiscent of the rigid Japanese
Like Yamada, Michiko also appears to have wholly adopted the ways of the west.
For the trip to the American school, she arrives dressed in a plaid suit complete with high
heels and a hat. She is very fluent in English and on several occasions has “English
duals” with Yamada. During the trip, however, Michiko’s subtle actions suggest
otherwise. Michiko on several occasions openly follows Japanese custom and shows
“true goodwill” by giving Isa a can of cheese and later by sharing chocolate with her
fellow instructors both of which she received from passing soldiers. These actions are
evidence that while on the surface Michiko is able to accept certain aspects of western
culture she has no intention to forsake her own.
Isa, on the other hand, immediately demonstrates his contempt for western culture
when he openly disagrees with Yamada’s insistence that the group only speaks English in
front of their host and although he disagrees, he eventually defers. Like Yamada, Isa
begins their journey wearing a pair of leather shoes. He does so, however, only as a
means to maintain his job. Because of his timid nature and his unassuming position
within the social structure, Isa internalizes his protest of western culture.
As the journey progresses the leather shoes become too much for Isa both
physically and mental. Isa is not accustomed to wearing the shoes and they begin to
cause blisters on his feet. Moreover, the shoes remind Isa of “walking the western path”.
As the pain causes him to slow, the group begins to slow. Shibamoto therefore consents
to Isa removing his shoes and walking between Yamada and the others. After removing
the shoes, Isa strides “along unshod and full of purpose, a shy but spirited little man in
the jaws of adversity”. Isa’s renewed since of self reminds Michiko of her husband as he
headed off to war. Yamada, on the other hand, is simply happy that order returns to the
group. This incident signals the development of a rift between these characters as the
paths of their chosen cultural character cross.
On the journey, Isa slips through his protective circle and goes into a field to
relieve himself. An old adversary, an American soldier, confronts him. Isa attempts to
flee but the soldier, with Yamada’s help, drags him back to the road and puts him into the
jeep. As Isa rides with the soldier to the American school Michiko laughs to herself, and
feels relieved at the “removal of the burden that Isa had become for her.”
Along the way, the soldier humiliates Isa by forcing him to repeat the phrase, “I
am truly very sorry to have kept you waiting.” A phrase Isa had thought appropriate
during his first encounter with the soldier and that he had meant as a sign of respect but
the soldier “only stared at him coldly and uncomprehendingly.” Nonetheless, Isa arrives
at the compound frightened but unscathed.
Isa, resting at the fence of the schoolyard, reluctantly puts his shoes back on. As
he listens to the girls on the playground talk, he thinks to himself, “It is foolish for
Japanese to speak this language like foreigners. If they do, it makes them foreigners, too.
And that is a real disgrace.” Isa’s disdain for the western culture and language begins to
make him sick at the thought of even uttering a word in English. When the American
schoolmistress leads him into the school to care for his feet, he chooses only to nod in
response to her questions.
As the rest of the group arrives at the school and their tour begins many cross-
cultural misunderstandings occur. The group, hearing the language spoken casually,
believes their English to be much better because of the mistakes in grammar. They also
mistake the children’s individual artistic expression for lack of ability and they
considered the open display of affections by two students as rude. Nonetheless, the
teachers continue the tour talking amongst themselves.
While Michiko and Yamada talk, she confirms for Yamada that Isa “really does
hate English.” Afterwards, Michiko realizes the significance of her actions and that her
references “to Isa as him” in English would normally be considered a betrayal of trust in
Japanese. She then understood what Isa meant by “when you spoke it you stopped being
yourself”. Michiko decided then to remove herself from Yamada’s influence and
returned to Isa’s side. Upon her return, she asks Isa to borrow his chopsticks. This
demonstrates her desire to maintain her cultural identity and gives Isa confidence in his
position. Jealous of Michiko and Isa’s interaction, Yamada forces Isa to externalize his
protest against western culture by requesting a “face off with him in a demonstration
class”. Isa going to attack Yamada offers his chopsticks to Michiko. As she reaches for
them, however, she loses her balance in her high heels and falls. A crowd quickly
gathers to see what happened. Yamada, hoping to smooth things over, lies to the
American principal. The principle then forbids two things that Yamada had requested.
Yamada, stunned, leads the rest of the group out of the school leaving Isa behind.
Yamada’s actions bring him no closer to enlightenment concerning western
culture, instead they cause further disconnect. Isa’s use of silence and shoes to protest
strengthens his own cultural identity and in the end helps to win the respect of Michiko.
Ironically, Isa’s pride and nationalism are much closer to the American values than
Yamada’s insincere and superficial behavior and help him to maintain his own sense of