Jesse Ventura sat in the Shinto temple for a privileged ceremony. The governor of Minnesota was wrapped in an omigoromo--a white vest, a symbol of purification. The chief priest waved leaves of a sakaki tree over Ventura to chase away evil. The guest was given the honor of offering a wreath symbolizing a pure heart, alerting the gods to this gift with three bows and two claps.
"Governor, what was the significance of the ceremony you were in?" asked the television reporters when he emerged from the temple.
"Well, we got up. We got down. We spoke some words I was not familiar with," replied the governor.
It is hard to tell, sometimes, when Jesse Ventura's shtick ends and when he is truly wandering off into uncharted territory.
The Reform Party maverick who took the Minnesota state house a year ago has played on that uncertainty to keep the spotlight focused on his first overseas visit, a 10-day sojourn to Tokyo and Osaka.
The governor's official reason for being here is to talk about trade between Minnesota and Japanese companies. The Japanese are "a very important customer," he says.
The unofficial reason: the Mall of America.
The Japanese love the mall, located just outside Minneapolis. They fly 11 hours nonstop on one of Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines' daily flights to land virtually next door to it. The mall is a 78-acre shopping gluttoneria, and the Japanese shoppers feast. With the difference between bargain-basement American prices and sky-high Japanese prices, an ambitious shopper can recoup the $770 airfare.
They also go for the golf--450 courses, low greens fees, almost no waiting, touts the governor. If there's snow, well, try skiing or snowmobiling, he says.
Oh, and there are reruns of "Little House on the Prairie." The Japanese are "really hot on that," an aide to the governor said of the 1974-84 television series set in Minnesota.
Japanese are the state's largest group of visitors. And they are sure to love the Minnesota governor, his aides contend. The Japanese love wrestling, they rightly point out, and Ventura is a former wrestler who performed here. They are also disaffected voters who favor third-party candidates like Ventura, the aides further maintain. That is only nominally true--one party has been in power here, with brief interruptions, for 45 years.
"Japan is following me personally very closely," Ventura said in May, when he announced the trip.
Well, not really.
"Jesse Ventura. Never heard of that person," said Hideo Iawi, 34, a music company employee whose reaction was typical of a random sampling on a busy Tokyo street. "Oh, yes, I have a vague memory that some kind of big wrestler became governor of some state in America. . . ."
It is sometimes unclear if Ventura is playing to an audience here or at home. He has been mentioned, over his proffered protestations, as a Reform Party candidate for president. In Tokyo, he has jammed his schedule with a steady diet of interviews touting Minnesota and dishing politics as he shuffles from shrine to trade group, from speech to supermarket grip-and-grin.
All of this is done with enough theatrics to keep the TV lights on. Ventura has mugged with partners from his two visits here in the early 1980s as a professional wrestler. His first stop after his arrival Tuesday was a sumo shrine where he scoffed that the granite measurements of past grand champions were no bigger than his one-time opponent, Andre the Giant.
The governor has used the traveling press corps as his foil, and the Minnesota reporters have gone along in good humor.
"We're waiting for him to insult the Japanese people," said one reporter on the trip.
It's unlikely to happen. The Japanese are tolerant of, even amused by, foreigners ignorant of their many social rules. And, so far, Ventura has been the obliging guest. Everything about Japan is wonderful, he says. The Japanese are so polite. Tokyo is so clean. He retells a touching tale about a Japanese boy who befriended the hulking wrestler 17 years ago, though the point is a bit obscure--something cuddly like hospitality and kindness.
He clearly loves being back at his old wrestling grounds--now as a winner.
"This time," he said with a smug draw upon his cigar, "I don't have to carry my own bags."