A Cultural Awakening in Japan

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Every school day at 7:00 AM, Chip and I walked a mile to a small electric train that took us to the city’s main station. 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. Enormous crowds of Japanese workers, professionals, and students shoved the person in front until each car was stuffed. From there we walked to a square and boarded a grey Navy bus to Yokohama High School (YoHi) in time to arrive for our first class at 8:15 AM. The one-hour commute covered thirty miles.


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. These people appeared from what was presented to me, as inferior. 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 understand one of life’s greatest 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.

   A Cultural Awakening in Japan

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 ambience of the surroundings. The adjacent Hatchiman Shrine held the Shinto god of war and archery, in an old reddish-orange wood building with a sloping roof.

Located at the top of stone steps on the other side of a park, a long approach formed a tunnel ending at a large vermillion 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.


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, pulled out, and launched arrows in a swift coordinated motion. A few hit all three targets that caused a thunderous roar.


I shared first trumpet with a senior for the YoHi orchestra and became first trumpet my sophomore year performing solos that made me contribute my individual ability, as well as meld with the orchestra like a teammate. My instrument was a Martin that had gold plating and fancy carvings and Dad played at MPMA while in high school. Chip and I were in the Jazz band that met weekly during lunch playing Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug, “In the Mood,”  “Moonlight Serenade,” and other popular tunes.

Our six feet six inch director, Paul Mayerson arranged for us to collaborate with a Japanese high school’s orchestra on music from both our cultures. We practiced for two weeks in anticipation of the performance. Paul required the males to dress in dark suits, white shirts, and ties. The females wore formal dresses. We all put on our best shoes and made sure they shined. He led us into an auditorium for the performance that buzzed with two languages mixing in a mumbled chatter. We entered in single file down one aisle while our Japanese counterparts marched in an adjacent one in their black school uniforms with white collars. We took every other seat to make room for the Japanese musicians.

I welcomed the Japanese trumpet players on both sides, “Konichi Wa” and they responded, “Good Afternoon.” To my left sat another first trumpeter with a music stand we shared. It seemed to me none of us could converse beyond the simple words we spoke with our language barrier. How could they expect us to read the music, as I hadn’t learned to decipher Japanese calligraphy consisting of Kanji, and Kana? However, our sheet music contained no written language, but only international symbols for notes, emphasis, rhythm, beat, and volume, so a musician from any background could play. Paul had prepared us for another moment of cultural enlightenment.

Gigantic Paul and the diminutive Japanese director, barely five feet in stature, stood before us with raised white batons. My juvenile sense of humor kicked in as I thought they resembled a Great Dane and a Chihuahua at a formal dog show trying to corral a herd of puppies. Total silence ended the idle talk and my smile as our leaders led us for our first piece.

They moved their bodies about with arms changing positions in rhythmic patterns like synchronized dancers. From our first notes to the last, we spoke an international musical language with our instruments that erased our cultural differences while we entertained the audience and ourselves. We played Japanese and American popular and traditional songs to appeal to our multicultural listeners. When we finished, we stood, bowed to the audience, and shook hands with our new friends.


Upon leaving I noticed murals depicting the traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the large hall outside the auditorium. One had Buddha seated in a field of flowers with a serene expression on his face. Others had bamboo shoots randomly rising to the blue sky, and a tranquil sunset behind Mt. Fuji. A female host explained, “The Japanese tea ceremony originated in Zen Buddhism. Its guiding philosophy rests on Wa, which means Harmony. Kei - Respect, Sei - Purity, and Jaku - Serenity.” How germane that the images of the display echoed our music? My desire to experience this land’s images and ideals were enhanced by a new harmony within me. My previous prejudice melted into appreciation.


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