We Americans were looked upon by the Hong Kong Chinese with blatant avarice laced with overt contempt. In the Philippines the look was of blatant avarice laced with awe and good-humored contempt. In Japan the look was more of curiosity laced with patient forbearance, cultured avarice and polite contempt. Given a choice, I found the last attitude to be the least inhibiting. In addition, Japan was the only country visited where I was allowed momentary glimpses into the venerable, mysterious "Oriental Mind."
I had been exposed briefly to the illusive Oriental Mind while attending the San Diego Nichiren "Shoshu" Buddhist Temple in 1969. I was intrigued by things seen and experienced at the time and hoped that during our visits to Japan some of it would rub off on me. The following is an excerpt from a letter to Mom dated September 30, 1971, regarding Yokosuka (ya KOO ska), our most-visited Japanese port of call:
"Since my last letter I've been to Subic Bay, Philippines, again and the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Both places have their interesting points, but I cared for neither as a place to live. I must stay with Yokosuka, Japan, as my most liked port. The Philippines are being forced to grow into the twentieth century too fast, and they're going through many dangerous political and economic changes. Their inflation is high (floating currency), and corruption is commonplace in government.
"I've written before about my relish for Japan. I was no less enthusiastic when we went there this month for fourteen days. I'm sure I wouldn't mind living there, though I doubt I ever will. The people are usually very wise, usually very honest, usually willing to serve to the best of their abilities. They also have very high moral standards and credible philosophies. Americans would do well by associating with such people. The Japanese people show affection easily and are able to conduct business with admirable honesty and yet still make a good profit . . . .."
The only Japanese ports the U.S.S. Midway visited were Yokosuka and Sasebo, though sailors struck out to explore other cities. Available forms of transportation such as subways, monorails, trains, buses and taxis, were comfortable, inexpensive and easily accessible. Also, the country was politically stable except occasional violent demonstrations by radical students against their country's support of US foreign policy. Another tension point was strained relations between the Japanese and US governments. Japan had been angered because the United States did not consult with them before adopting our new China policy, or devaluating the dollar.
Japan, known by its inhabitants as Nippon, "origin of the sun," consisted of more than 1,000 islands, though we only visited two. Yokosuka was on south-central Honshu island approximately forty miles south of Tokyo and on the southwestern side of Tokyo Bay, almost at its mouth. Sasebo was on northwestern Kyushu island near where the East China Sea and the Korea Strait meet. Sasebo was about thirty-five mountainous miles northwest of Nagasaki.
Nippon was not without its share of dangers and taboos. For example, we were warned never to go into an establishment that displayed only Japanese writing at the outside entrance. This subtlety meant that non-Japanese-speaking people were not welcome, a fact that some of us had to have driven home through experience. Those in the know strongly advised against jaywalking. Anyone crossing illegally was fair game to any nearby driver with homicidal (or Anglophobia) tendencies. We also were warned against renting a car because of the legal ramifications should we be involved in an accident. From what I gathered, if I had an accident and was driving, being a foreigner the fault automatically would be mine.
Yokohama was a short distance north of Yokosuka and was an industrial city known for being the most modern in Japan. It had been a tiny fishing village when Commodore Matthew Perry visited the place in 1854. By 1923 it was developing into a leading seaport city. That year it was virtually destroyed by an earthquake. Subsequently it was rebuilt into a modern industrial metropolis that figured prominently in Japan's World War II war machine. Bombings by the Allies caused extensive destruction resulting in another remodernization.
Yokosuka was home to an important Japanese naval base, which we have occupied since the end of the war. Tunnels, now mostly filled-in, were blasted into its hills by World War II Japanese to be used as supply and personnel bunkers should the base be attacked. These tunnel openings were the only war scars I saw on the land. Everything else denoted peace, ancient culture and burgeoning prosperity.
The COMSEVENTHFLT flagship was the U.S.S. Oklahoma City stationed in Yokosuka Harbor. This ship had been the duty location of my friend Roark for two years. He was on the scene shortly after the Midway's arrival to show me around the city. The tour included the Ginza District (a large shopping area near the base) and his "bachelor pad" in the hills high above the harbor. The pad was a classic Japanese house. It was complete with kerosene space heater; sliding, rice paper doors between rooms; a futon for a bed; and a binjo. The binjo was an in-house, outhouse-type toilet with open sewage channel extending into the back yard. It was in the closed-off, back part of the house. The front, or living room picture window afforded an awe-inspiring view of the city and Yokosuka Harbor below.
A few days after my initial introduction to Yokosuka, some friends and I decided to go see the "Great Buddha." This was a giant statue/temple to Sakyamuni Buddha in the city of Kamakura. Kamakura was a short distance west and north of Yokosuka requiring a train ride, my first ever. The day started out overcast and drizzly, but the weather improved to just overcast. At a stop on the way I purchased a bowl of noodle soup from a little old woman, who then proceeded to show me her technique of using chopsticks.
While we were en route to Kamakura, the landscape and houses gliding by the train windows impressed me. Everything looked manicured and otherwise well tended. Each house showed a different personality to its neighbors, as if the owners had a high degree of individuality mixed in with their evidently strong sense of communality. Nowhere did I see the cluttered, littered, weed-infested yards so common in the States. I figured that the high degree of attention and care was due to the scarcity and high premium placed on Japanese land.
The train arrived at the Kamakura terminal, from where Westfield, Macaby, Griffin, Spilman, Baumgardner, Watts and I began the long walk to The Sacred Gardens of Buddha. Provided for this purpose was a long, shady mall that guided us to the Gardens' gate. It then continued on through the Gardens to the gate on the other side and beyond. Japanese pilgrims and foreign visitors crowded the mall. Gates into and out of the Gardens stood near the center of knolls over which we had to walk when entering or leaving. The gates through which we passed were not closable but were merely symbols, probably Shinto, delineating entrance to sacred ground.
It was a long walk from the station to the gate. Then it was another long walk through The Sacred Gardens before arriving at our destination. In the Gardens, and along the mall, there were many small shrines, larger temples, and places to buy religious items, souvenirs and the like. One of the first sacred places we came to was a pagoda, where we drank water from a sacred well. At another location I purchased a book entitled The Teachings of Buddha, offered for sale by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhism Promoting Foundation). This was an enlightened corporation sponsored by industrialist Mr. Yehan Numata for the promotion of world peace through Buddha Consciousness. There was also an extensive and picturesque lotus pond.
Finally we arrived at the statue of and temple/shrine to Sakyamuni Buddha. It towered about two or three stories high, and a person could enter a door in the back and walk up a flight of stairs to an inner temple. Two barred windows looked out from the back, and their opened shutters, when viewed from the side, made The Buddha look like he had little wings.
Buddha sat pensively, legs crossed, belly flat, in his loose-fitting sarong, hair in tight, natty curls, ears exaggeratedly long, arms resting in lap with finger tips of the left hand symmetrically touching those of the right. He was impressive and life-like, as though he could come alive at any moment to tell devotees of his meditations. Once he was protected from the elements by an encompassing temple. However, that building was destroyed long ago either by a typhoon or an earthquake. [One of the largest statues of The Buddha in the world is at Nara, a town near Osaka. At that location the temple building still stands.]
We spent a couple of hours at The Sacred Gardens exploring the grounds and watching the people before beginning the long trek back. By the time the seven of us had left the gate and were passing through Kamakura, we were getting thirsty. Two of the city's streets ran parallel to the mall, one on each side. We were looking across these streets for a likely place to stop for a drink, when Watts spotted a possibility. He pointed to a glass-fronted store that looked like it might be an old bar. A hoary, unlit, neon Coca ColaR advertisement protruded from the facade.
Armed with curiosity and unquenched thirsts we left the mall, crossed the street and walked into the place. What met our eyes was a completely helter-skelter layout. Piles of lumber were lying about, and there was only one table. An easel stood in the corner holding a large, artist's pad displaying what looked to be a table design. There was a liquor bar, its surface littered with model airplanes, paints and piles of records. The strong smell of incense wafted, and coming at us with too high of volume was the tune "Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation" from Santana's new album Caravanserai. The thoughts going through our heads were that the place was "out of sight" (terrific—beyond the realm of the everyday), a real "happening" (Age of Aquarius enlightened phenomenon), "bad" (good). I had seen interesting thematic restaurants, bars and coffee houses in San Francisco, but none that I had seen were this spontaneous and unpretentious.
Four Japanese men were inside when we entered. They immediately sprang to attentiveness, scurrying about to collect chairs and other things on which we could sit. They were approximately our age and had been drinking KirinR beer around the only table. We all ordered Kirin, as we replaced the table's original occupants. Then two very strange things happened. One man left the premises to obtain the ordered libation. The others gathered some glasses so we could share their beer. It finally struck us that we had not stumbled onto a quaint bar but had invaded the private workshop of four furniture designer/builders.
Despite the error, the men apparently had graciously accepted the role of being hosts. They extended to us the role of being honored guests. The situation had become a definite happening. As we sat around drinking beer and saki we exchanged names. They were Akira Kato, Tanasawa, Tagushi and Karagushi. Since we did not speak Japanese, and our hosts did not speak English, communication was difficult. It consisted of a variety of hand signs/gestures, smatterings of pigeon English on their part and butchered Japanese, hastily looked up in Macaby's little English-to-Japanese dictionary, on ours. During one of my schmaltzier moments I drew an outline of the United States on one side of a piece of paper and a semblance of Japan on the other. From each came a hand, and they clasped over the Pacific in friendship.
The afternoon wore on. After a while, Tanasawa departed and soon returned with sushi. The sushi rolls contained fishy tasting sea vegetables packed in sticky rice and in turn wrapped in seaweed. They were delicious and my first exposure to the wonderful world of sushi. All the time we continued to drink and make a form of conversation.
Early evening found us still unwilling to call it a day, abusing the role of being honored guests. Then Kato asked if we would like a ride back to Yokosuka by way of a normally all-Japanese discotheque in that city. Although we were not eager to leave, we knew that it was nearly time to go, anyway. So with our yes, Tanasawa and Karagushi departed and returned with, respectively, a Cadillac and a Toyota. Then the eleven of us began the long journey back to Yokosuka, chauffeured by very inebriated drivers. The short distance seemed long due to slow, heavy traffic and all-city driving.
The discotheque occupied the second floor of a Ginza District building. There we found a room filled (packed) with young bobbysoxers: young girls in knee-length skirts, white blouses and saddle shoes, and slick-haired young men in high-water jeans and penny loafers, with everybody wearing white socks. When we first entered they were dancing to a blaring jukebox playing the hit tune "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—a song included on that group's 4 Way Street album. They played that 45 RPM record several times while we were there. (O-HI'-o in Japanese means "hello." However, if you listen to the rest of the words, the song was probably meant to be an insult to us military folks.)
Our four hosts-now-sponsors cleared it for us to dance with the girls and then remained for a short while before leaving us amid fond farewells. We stayed about an hour. Then it was time to find a restaurant. It had been a long day, and now we were both starving and drunk. As we sat eating we reflected exuberantly upon the events of the afternoon and evening. To my knowledge, none of us at the time even dimly suspected that we might have unduly imposed ourselves upon Japanese hospitality. We just thought of the afternoon and evening as a happening, out of any mortal's control, and dictated solely by the whims of Fate.
Two years after the above encounter I was thinking about that special day when I wrote the following ode to friendship. It was 1973, I was back in Michigan, and happenings were rare. Kato had given me a mailing address, so I sent him a letter and a copy of the ode. Unfortunately, the letter was returned and marked "undeliverable as addressed." Perhaps someday he, Tanasawa, Tagushi and Karagushi will read this.
A friendship can be covered up
By the accumulated dusts
Of eroding time . . .
When the winds of memory blow
The dust flies and It's eternal,
Ethereal life . . . ignites
The heart as old.
The civilians generally treated us well. Evidently some old emotional war scars remained, however. The Midway was in port at Yokosuka shortly before the twenty-sixth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every television set in every store that I passed one day in the Ginza District was tuned to a station portraying an animated version of the events. I could not understand what was said, but I recall feeling uneasy because of the focus on the holocausts.
Some friends and I decided to see Mt. Fuji on that particular day, a decision we did not make until late morning. Ahead of us was a long train ride followed by some bus travel. The first train went from Yokosuka to Tokyo, where we transferred to another. I could not believe how gigantic and crowded the Tokyo Station was. The station's TV sets also were tuned to programs about the bombings. After reaching the end of the spur we took a bus to the end of its line.
Metcalf, Spilman and I arrived shortly before the sun set on Her Majesty. Mt. Fuji's beauty far surpassed mere vindication of my expectations. En route we had learned that she was the most perfectly cone-shaped volcano in the world. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving we discovered that our bus, which had since departed, was the last one of the day. We learned this from a smiling taxi driver who was waiting around like a vulture after carrion. After a brief stay and view of Mt. Fuji, we let him drive us back to the town at spur's end. By now the sun had set, and we had to be back to the ship in time for the mid-watch.
We learned that it would be a while before the next train arrived. Meanwhile, we felt like drowning the wait in beer. However, the only tavern we saw that was within walking distance had only Japanese writing over its entrance. We knew this meant "no Americans welcome." Our thirsts finally overrode our caution, and we entered the establishment in search of Kirin. As we walked through the door conversation stopped, and all eyes turned our way. It was just like one of those old-time westerns, when the villain walks through the saloon door and a hush falls on the place. The woman standing behind the bar seemed very nervous and let us know, by a frown and a shaking of her head, that we should not be there. When that did not deter us she quickly gave us the beer and took the money. Not wanting to linger in a place where we obviously were not welcome, we started for the door. As we approached the exit a short, middle-aged man with bowed legs and close-cropped hair stormed through the front door shouting at us in a near-screaming voice. He continued his loud, relentless harangue until we had left the premises. Not knowing if there would be further repercussions from our tactless invasion, the three of us remained circumspect until the train arrived and we were on our way back. The little fellow was no doubt the hero of that tavern for years to come.
We were Americans, not-always-subtle representatives of arguably the greatest temporal power on Earth. The world was our toy box, and our meat and potatoes naiveté let some of us plod through the rice paper delicacies of Eastern culture with heavy boots. Yet there were times when meat and potatoes met with rice paper on neutral ground, and these experiences, at least for me, were memorable.
Our last port of call before leaving Westpac in 1971 was Sasebo. The ship arrived there on August 20 and stayed until the Fourth of September. Saturday, the day before we left, Spilman and I decided to go out and see a few last sights. We got a late start, and since the city of Nagasaki was a three-hour train ride away, we decided to stay with Sasebo. Outside the base we hailed a taxi and told the driver to take us to the top of a nearby mountain. At the top we stumbled onto the Oriana Hotel, a place filled with rosy-cheeked Britishers. There was a party going on, which we, of course, crashed. (Sometimes for the sake of adventure and experience fools must rush in). In the center of a large room adjoining the dining room there was a large, fountain-like arrangement of oysters-on-the-half-shell in a bed of ice. We helped ourselves to a few morsels (my first tastes of smoked, raw oysters) with nary an objection coming from the formally attired, curious guests. Then Spilman snapped a few pictures of the Midway in the harbor far below through the dining room's picture windows, and we left.
We saw what we could of the mountain then asked the driver to take us back to the city. It was Spilman's brainstorm that we go to a university. It took us awhile to communicate this wish to the driver, but he eventually got the message and took us to a medium-size college embedded in extensive, open grounds. We walked around looking for noticeable differences between the school's architecture and what we would expect to see in the States, with none noted. Next we watched practice in a kendo martial arts class at the gym for about half an hour.
We left the gym and were walking across campus when two students approached us and asked if we would come and correct the grammar of their English language class. When we said yes the two students led us to a nearby open field, where about six other students were rehearsing O. Henry's play "The Last Leaf." They treated us to sodas, and we sat through the entire play correcting translations and pronunciations. Miniko (mi NEE ko), one of the girls, apologized for the massacre of word and phrase pronunciations. She explained that such patterns were not part of their own language structure. Oy and Kay, the two boys who had originally invited us, said they were about to enter competition with an English class from another school. This was the reason for the Saturday practice.
Generally they were quite good, and corrections were few. After the rehearsal was over, we bid farewell. We had invited them back to the ship with us for a tour, but they had politely declined saying their group was to be in another competition that night. Spilman and I then watched an outdoor karate class for awhile before flagging down another taxi. En route to base we passed a large group of uniformed Cub Scouts, mustered on the steps in front of a building to have their picture taken.
The Scouts were only one of many similarities I noticed between the peoples of Japan and the United States. One aspect of the Japanese people was readily adapting to western ways. Yet it was their other part, their Eastern persona, formed out of lifetimes of constant association with ancient culture, of which I was envious. The hoped-for spiritual and holistic transformation in my life never occurred, and it appeared that my meat and potatoes upbringing kept me barred from ever achieving the change.
Unhappily, Race consciousness and Place consciousness are very real enemies to anyone wanting to experience the richness known to exist on other side of these artificial barriers.
Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige
Last modified: Saturday September 25, 1999
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