Cultural Awakening in Japan

Story Salon                     Dan Reading poem at Onion Fall Poetry Festival 11102013

(Below was my presentation at the Story Salon this evening)

I am 15 in Japan on my first day of school with my brother Chip where Dad was stationed as a Naval Commanding Officer at Yokosuka Naval Base

Every school day at 7:00 A.M., Chip and I walked a mile to an electric train that took us to Kamakura. We caught a larger train to a city called Sushi passing a huge statue of Buddha’s mother, Maya, in Ofuna, the site of one of the most hideous concentration camps. Crowds of Japanese workers, professionals, and students nudged the person in front until the warning bell and then they shoved smiling until each car was stuffed so different than in America where touching seems forbidden. From there we boarded a grey Navy bus to Yokohama High for our first class at 8:15 A.M. The one-hour commute covered thirty miles.

Japanese Commuter Train

On my first trip, I looked around and, for the first time, realized what a member of a racial minority felt like when surrounded by people with backgrounds alien to mine, whose skin and hair color, eyes, foreheads, differed significantly from my features. I studied the faces of the people called “Japs,” in war movies, often depicted as inferior vicious buck-toothed warriors, a “yellow menace,” the allied forces had fought in World War II. Fanatic fascists who would never surrender, President Truman felt compelled to drop two atomic bombs, decimating them like so many insects.

Upon careful inspection, however, each face had a wide variety of unique characteristics. They had long or short noses, relaxed or tightened mouths, and different hair styles. Many wore hats and long, or short dresses, or silk kimonos of all colors, and black school uniforms with white shirts. Others sported three-piece suits with brief cases and wore glasses of every kind imaginable. The males had their hair slicked straight back, wavy, crew cut, or bald. Their skin pigment varied from dark to light, and every shade in between, some were clean-shaven; others had beards or a mustache.

They did not move like the automatons, or simplistic people portrayed in newsreels I had watched. The Japanese stereotypes portrayed in the movies had propagandized and prejudiced me. The Japanese were actually far more complex and distinctive.

When I attempted to communicate in my broken Japanese, they were responsive in either good or broken English, courteous, and welcoming. They seemed delighted when an American boy showed enough interest in their culture to ask a question in elementary Japanese and were as intelligent, industrious, and, often, as athletic as any American. This awareness helped me learn one of life’s most important lessons: we are all part of one race, the human race. No race, because of any attribute, over which they have no control, stands inferior, or superior, to any other.

Buddha in Kamakura Avatar

Nearby the bronze statue of the Great Buddha majestically rose above stone steps encircled by natural vegetation. A Japanese garden rested behind the immense meditating figure that induced a sense of tranquility from his facial expression, folded hands on his knees, his seated posture, and the ambiance of the surroundings. The adjacent Hachiman Shrine held the Shinto god of war and archery, in an old reddish-orange wood building with a sloping roof.

sunrise over Fuji with Torii

Located at the top of stone steps on the other side of a park, a long approach formed a tunnel ending at a large vermilion stone entrance with a black lintel known as Torii. For those who follow Shinto, this structure divides the spiritual area within from the profane region beyond. Shaped like two “T”’s their trunks straddled the cherry trees, whose white blossoms spread like dancers on branches. Petal blizzards covered the ground like pink dotted snowflakes mixed with shiny green leaves while gangs of squirrels romped, darted, and danced.

Alex(Yoshio Suzuki) Birthday Chip, Bill and Dan top left)Kamakura 1955

(Chip, Bill, Dan, top left back row at birthday party with Japanese friends from Kamakura 1955)

In another location thousands of bystanders watched a traditional spectacle featuring mounted equestrian archers in black shaggy wigs adorned in hunting costumes of feudal samurai warriors from the Kamakura period (1192-1333). The horsemen shot arrows from quivers slung across their backs as they raced at three targets set up along a straight riding ground eight hundred feet long. The turnip-head arrows made a whistling sound as they flew through the air. The large crowd loudly applauded each time an archer scored a direct hit. They shot, quickly reloaded, and launched arrows in a swift coordinated motion. A few hit all three targets that caused a thunderous roar.

cropped-daibutsu-side-cc-tarobot.jpg

  Buddha Smiles in Kamakura

Bronze folded hands and Buddha’s smiling face,

White circular blossoms from cherry trees

Smoothing the wrinkles of the human face.

Blossoms tumbling down and spreading in space,

Beckoning all to seek a world of peace.

Bronze folded hands and Buddha’s smiling face.

Nature’s beauty slowing man’s frenzied pace.

Flying buzzing pollen gathering bees,

Petals like a dancer’s dress of white lace.

Bronze folded hands and Buddha’s smiling face.

Gentle wind blowing waves upon blue seas,

Swallows flying, drifting, gliding in grace.

Archer’s arrows whistling shatter the base.

At warrior’s thunder animals freeze.

Bronze folded hands and Buddha’s smiling face.

White flowers placed at Buddha’s feet in vase.

Peaceful worshipers fall down on their knees,

Seeking enlightenment and state of grace.

Bronze folded hands and Buddha’s smiling face.

(Excerpt modified from my Memoir, All the Difference, for presentation at the Story Salon this evening)

Related Images:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box