Thursday, January 20, 2011

Japan - A Whole Other World

What happened to Dave? I can hear it now, the whispering that Dave has gone nuts. I was going against the cultural grain. I was marrying a Japanese. And, no matter how much they tried to hide their feelings, their true feelings came through; a slip here, a word there. I got the hint. I exceeded the bounds of normalcy and they didn't like it and they couldn't get over it. But, if that wasn't enough, there was one more thing that astonished my family, at least in my imagination, perhaps more than marrying a Japanese, and which this series of stories about Japan will eventually describe to the best that my memory can recall: I became a Buddhist. I have to warn you. By the end of these stories, you will not have a satisfactory answer if you're looking for a reason. All I can tell you is that my sojourn into both of those experiences certainly was interesting. The truth is probably that I got some rebellious satisfaction out of imagining all of the fuss back home. On the other hand, everyone back home were more than likely carrying on their normal lives and not giving me much thought at all. Whatever the case, I have no regrets.

Being faced with racial prejudices was inevitable, I believe, since I married a woman of a different race. I think I can honestly say that race never occurs to me unless someone else brings it up, putting the subject in my face, either directly or in subtle hints or innuendo. When I hear someone bring up the subject, make a racial comment for or against racial conflicts or circumstances and then say that they're not prejudiced, I am barely able to not laugh out loud, and sometimes I do laugh. There are some, relatively few I think, who are silent on the subject, never claiming prejudices one way or another, who appear to not be effected by most, if not all, of those feelings or cultural lessons, or whatever it is that causes racial prejudices. I appear to have been one of them, but I have to add a caveat to that. For example, for a number of years after two assignments in Saigon, I was very critical of Vietnamese generally for a while. I eventually figured out that what I really disliked was not the Vietnamese people, but the South Vietnamese government that cheated us and the circumstances that got us into the Vietnam mess. Another example was that it didn't take too many visits to Olongapo to turn me against Filipinos to some extent, but I had to deal with the contradiction that I had some very good Filipino friends. So, in the end, I came to realize that it wasn't Filipinos I disliked, it was the corruption and poverty that created a city like Olongapo. Rumor was, back then, that Naples, Italy was the sister city to Olongapo in regards to corruption, prostitution and crime. That raises the question that had I visited Naples, would I have disliked Italians? Sailor towns like Olongapo were very rough cities. Japan and the city Yokosuka, however, was an entirely different world and I fell in love with the place.

When I arrived in Yokosuka, Japan in cold November 1966, I figured that I had toughened up and knew what I was getting into; just one more place that I had better watch out for the bad guys. My skin was pretty thick and I was alert for scams, cheats, pickpockets and criminals. I had already narrowly escaped four or five times nearly getting killed or injured in Saigon, Vietnam. I had barely escaped or been sucked into four or five bar fights, just as dangerous as Saigon bombs, in Olongapo, Philippines, Saigon and Hong Kong; some I tried to escape from but couldn't, and some that my big mouth precipitated. I'd been taken by sly bar girls and ripped off by shrewed card players and con artists, and had my wallet stolen by slick-fingered pickpockets on Shit River Bridge. I'd played tricks on shipmates on the USS Princeton that backfired and made me sick with worry and got me a chewing out by the CO and XO. I spent an evening at a police station on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles for loitering (there must have been thousands of loiterers on Sunset Strip in LA) and was late getting back to the ship, which prompted another visit to the XO. And, I stumbled into a couple of motor cycle gang hangouts in Long Beach and only God and good luck got me out of those messes. If anyone accused me of not praying, I can tell them that that is an absolute falsehood. I prayed many times and with such sincerity that I could have put a preacher to shame - and I always promised something if I could just get out of the scrape I was in. So, when I checked in to the Branch Oceanographic Office at Yokosuka, Japan, for two years of shore duty, I thought I already knew what to expect in Japan and I could handle just about anything that came my way to keep out of trouble. It would be no different than those other sailor towns, whether in the U.S. or overseas. Just another sailor town.

Within a few days, I was bewildered and confused about Japan. I didn't make friends with other sailors immediately since most of my coworkers had been in Japan for awhile and they already had ties that kept them busy. So, I explored the base and Yokosuka alone for that first week or two. It didn't take me long to visit Honcho Street, the nightclub district, that just happened to be less than a hundred steps outside of the main gate to the base. But, of course that's where it was at. I didn't expect anything less. It shouldn't be a surprise, either, that the nightclub I chose to hang out in over those first few months was nearly the first one on Honcho Street from the main gate; The Eagle. Nobody can accuse me of taking the long, roundabout path for a beer or entertainment. I took the shortest distance from A to B.

I've always had a knack for quickly picking up the language of the country I visited, whether Vietnam, Philippines or Japan. It didn't take me long to speak a limited vocabulary with the correct tone inflection and without an American accent. I had a selfish reason for doing that. I learned early that the best way to endear oneself to the natives of a country is to speak and act like they do; to mimic them. Within a few visits to the Eagle, they knew me and they called me by name; Dabu-San, pronounced Day-bu-San, Mr. Dave. They couldn't pronounce the "ve" in Dave. In a few more visits, Dabu-San became Dabu-Chan. Chan is a term of endearment reserved for trusted good friends and family, close to a literal translation of "Dear friend." I was hooked.

My hard-nosed tactics to avoid buying drinks didn't work in Japan, such as "sit there if you want, but I'm not buying drinks." That usually brought laughter and the joke was on me. They knew better than I did that I wouldn't stay or come back just to sit alone at a table. I changed tactics. "Okani nai," I learned to say, "no money," to which they responded "Uso, Dabu-Chan," that I learned meant "You lie, dear friend Dave." Uso could be an accusation of an outright lie, an insult, or a small white lie, depending on the tone. "Uso!" with an abrupt exclamation was an insult. "Usooo," with a rise and fall in tone, meant a small white lie and was not an insult, especially when said with an endearing term like Chan. In a matter of weeks, I learned a half-dozen or so words and phrases, gestures and customs that are the most prominent in Japanese daily life and all of it had to do with courtesy, etiquette, honor, duty, loyalty, filial piety and respect, a glimpse into Bushido, literally "The way of the warrior," a code of conduct woven into the culture that the Japanese live in. My Japanese education began.

It wasn't enough to simply learn the behavior and language. When and how to use them and with what inflection was just as, if not more, important. "Go-me-na-sai," (Sorry) was more formal than "Go-men Nei" said to a closer friend, and if you said "No, i-eh (ee-eh)" respectfully, you needed to add sorry, literally "I'm sorry, but no." Everyone bowed, a slight bow was fine unless in a formal setting, then a deeper, stiffer bow was required, but both should be sincere. "I-ra-shai!" (Welcome!), a store clerk or owner shouted with a bow, each time I entered a Japanese establishment, to which etiquette required a "Thank you," "Do-mo-a-ri-ga-to," formally or "Do-mo" informally. My baby-face looks and my quick study of the language always got giggles and twitters from the Japanese around me. I guess I haven't lost all of it to forgetfulness. In Sweden last year while I was waiting on the hotel patio for Chris, two Japanese women sat down as I was getting up to go back inside, and one ask me for a light. I lit their cigarettes. "Do-mo-a-ri-ga-to," (thank you) one said, and bowed slightly. "Do-i-ta-shi-ma-shi-te," (you're welcome) I said, and returned the bow. Both were giggling and talking excitedly as I walked back into the hotel. Such a small effort to learn what I could of another culture and language had a huge effect. It didn't take me long to make Japanese friends on Honcho Street. I never sat alone whether I bought the drinks or, as it turned out, they did.

I lost my wallet in that first or second month in Japan. Fortunately, I had learned long before I came to Japan to never carry my Military I. D. Card in my wallet, since the first thing a pickpocket will take is the wallet. I carried my I. D. Card safely in my jumper or shirt pocket. Losing it would cause me untold disciplinary problems and typically a Personnel Office was in no hurry to replace a carelessly lost I. D. Card. "Tough shit," they said, "you can pick up your card next week," which usually meant that I would be restricted to base until I got a new one. I couldn't get through the gate without it. And, of course, my punishment for being careless could have been another 30-day restriction on top of that. We protected our I. D. Cards.

Losing my wallet was only a temporary setback. I discovered the loss that night as I undressed for bed. My first thoughts, after a few strong words of disappointment, was likely that I would spend my time on base until the next payday, eating at the base cafeteria and getting what entertainment I could from free base activities. I had no money. Really. But, the next day, Rick, another Yokosuka-based sailor who had become a friend that I met at the Eagle, stopped by my workplace and told me that the Eagle bartender had my wallet. And, since the Oceanographic Office was relatively small, consisting of three large rooms, one the Officer in Charge's office, one a reception/Yeoman office and the last where I and two coworkers worked, the long chart room where we kept the maps and ocean charts and all of our inventory, requisition and report records, everyone heard Rick's announcement that my wallet was found. Everyone gathered most mornings in the chart room for coffee and conversation, chatter and a general bull session. If there ever was a Navy office where a group of sailors had so little to do to stay busy, it was that office. Something new to talk about was like a new treat thrown to a pack of wolves; they were on it in seconds. I, the green and inexperienced newbie to Japan, was the treat and "they" were the wolves. They immediately got to the point. It went something like this.

"Don't sweat it," Lieutenant Charppels said, "you'll get everything back." Charppels, our Officer in Charge, was a Mustang, a naval officer who came up through the enlisted ranks, a Quartermaster, the Navy's shipboard navigator. Nothing could rankle him and he never got excited. He had a trophy case full of tennis trophies from competitions between U. S. bases located in Japan. He could also pitch the fastest under-handed softball pitch I've ever seen. "Can you catch a softball?" he asked early after I arrived. "Sure," I said, so I was his catcher when he practiced. The first time he stepped off about forty feet in the chart room, in an isle between the wall and the chart shelves, I asked, "Are you sure you don't want to go outside?" I was worried that he would throw a wild pitch and hit a shelf and there would be no telling where the ball would go. "Nope," he said, "I won't hit anything but your glove." And, he did. Also on that occasion, after the first ten or so pitches and he began throwing faster pitches, he must have noticed the look of pain on my face. "Do you want more padding in that glove?" he asked, "get some paper towels and fold them up in your glove. That will take some of the sting out of it." It did, but my hand was still as red as a beat from catching his pitches. He had served on a number of ships in the South Pacific during World War II and eventually ended up on a Patrol Torpedo Boat (PT Boat) in the same squadron that President John Kennedy was in.

"Careless!" said Petty Officer First Class David Middleton, my immediate supervisor. "You need to pay more attention. You should be restricted to base," he said, in his usual condescending tone. He preached along that line for five minutes. Middleton was a hard on my case, daily, and by then I knew that I'd never be able to please him. He checked everything I did down to the "t." If we had a rare busy day, perhaps issuing twenty or thirty charts, he would review every single stock card for mistakes after I recorded the issue quantity, recalculated high, low and order limits and typed up orders, if needed. If he found a single mistake in thirty issues, he made me do all thirty again. He rarely found a mistake, perhaps one every three months or so. About a year later after having gone through his checks several times and he ordered me to redo all of the work, I had had enough. I asked him, "did you just go through all of the cards for today?" "Yes," he said. "And, you found only this one that needed redone?" I pointed to the erroneous card. "Yes," he said. "Then I'll redo that one. You can kiss my ass for the rest of them." We each had a private discussion with Lieutenant Charppels over my sudden rebellion. Middleton's daily audits didn't stop, but I never had to redo all stock card entries when he found one or two mistakes. It was Middleton who suggested that I was available for the 1967 five-month temporary duty and second assignment to Saigon. I didn't care much for Middleton. In fact, he became my example of a supervisor I never intended to be. In later years I took every opportunity to counsel supervisors who acted like him. Middleton was married to a Filipino and rarely left the base.

Riley and another David, both Yeomen, and Jeff, a Quartermaster, all agreed with Charppels. "You'll get it back," they all said. Yeoman Riley, unlike the rest of us who did occasionally have work to do, had absolutely nothing to do, or perhaps it is better to say that he did nothing productive whether he should have or not. He spent all day, every day, sitting in the reception area reading the Stars and Stripes Newspaper looking for English and grammar mistakes, and searching for an article to read to his English as a second language class that he held in the city. He loved to find a funny or ironic newspaper article and read it to us. Personally, I've always had difficulty getting a good understanding when listening to somebody else read something, but Riley expected either immediate laughter or a full discussion. I guess I didn't meet his expectation since I usually didn't try to participate. I once went with him to his English class to a very cold, unheated classroom. It turned out to be a place where Japanese spent most of their time conversing in English, with very little instruction or guidance from Riley, and they paid him for it. I was disappointed. Riley was unmarried and lived in the barracks. I never saw him with a woman, American or Japanese, or in a club. My opinion at the time was that he was a little strange. He was also cheap. He wouldn't spend a penny if he could help it or if he could get someone else to pay.

David, our second Yeoman, and a Seaman, the lowest rank in the office, was the office gofer. He typed all letters and messages, picked up and delivered the mail, made the coffee, picked up supplies and took care of any administrative duty that needed to be done. He rented a house off base and, over time, had various roommates that came and went. I recall that he had a girl back home, so he spent nearly all of his time either at his apartment or at work. He never complained, did his job, and waited for his enlistment to end. Occasionally, him and I would have dinner at the off-base Enlisted Club and take in a show at the Rendezvous Room; a touring band, singer or comedian sponsored by the USO.

Jeff, our Quartermaster, was the busiest of all. He processed the monthly oceanographic chart corrections, the long printouts of pen and ink changes to ocean navigational charts. The Washington D. C. Oceanographic Office sent corrections to be made in ink to charts instead of printing new charts. He complained constantly of how minor some of the corrections were, such as a depth correction of only a few feet in deep water. What did a few feet matter in 400 feet of water? "Idiots!" he'd yell and go on for thirty minutes about the idiots in Washington, and he refused to make those kind of corrections. Other changes, however, kept him casually occupied for fifteen to twenty days a month processing an entire list of corrections. Jeff was newly married to a Japanese a few months before my arrival. He planned to leave the navy when his enlistment was up and return to Nebraska or Kansas (I recall one of the western plains states) with his wife. After my experience with a non-English speaking wife, I always wondered how he faired.

So, the discussion that morning went on for an hour, engraved in my memory mostly because of Middleton's criticism. He was relentless, while Charppels tried to calmly temper Middleton's preaching. It was Charppels' point that the Japanese honor-based culture simply didn't allow for theft in the society and Middleton, while not quite disagreeing with his boss, blamed me if my wallet was found by that rare Japanese thief. "Ah, things happen," Charppels would say, dismissing Middleton's criticism, but Middleton would aim his response at me. But, after it was over, I gained a deeper understanding of Japanese culture rather than focusing on Middleton's opinion. That night I returned to the Eagle and retrieved my wallet. Not a thing was missing, nor had the bartender opened it or counted the money. "How much is in it?" I asked him. "Yosh! Wa-ka-ta-nai!" he said, emphatically, "What! I don't know!" That "Yosh!" has various meanings, in this case a challenge to a question about his integrity, in others it might emphasize determination in achievement or battle. It's a masculine term, usually used by men. There is really no literal translation in English. Fortunately by that very early date, I knew enough to say, although somewhat inappropriately but innocently, "Go-me-na-sai, oni-san," mimicking what I'd heard, roughly translating to "I apologize, honorable brother," and I bowed slightly. He laughed, "call me Tanaka-San," he said in English. I searched him out many times to have a beer with him over my years in Japan long after I left the Eagle behind. He was always happy to see me.

Japan went through a significant cultural change as a result of the post-war occupation, mostly because they discovered that Americans were not the devils they thought we were. In the 1950s, they began to copy American fads, pig tails, bobby socks, rock and roll, and industrial methods and trends. By the '60s, young Japanese were into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the American hippie movement and industry was on its way to surpass American industry from junk products to high quality products. By 1966, there were three really hot night-life spots in the greater Tokyo area: Yokosuka, where Japanese could experience the latest American trends directly from American sailors; Yokohama, a 30-minute train ride from Yokosuka where four or five popular nightclubs were located and popular Japanese bands played, mocking the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others; and the Tokyo Ginza that had the best nightclubs, restaurants, department stores and high fashion shops in Japan. All of these places were within a short train ride of each other. Poverty was not a major issue in Japan. Girls gravitated to the hot spots for fun, adventure and excitement, not because they were forced to by poverty like they were in the Philippines or Vietnam. So, we had easy access to transportation, the trains and Japanese cars, and we never had a problem finding a girl and a place to go. It was a completely different atmosphere and culture for me. I could drop my guard and enjoy myself - safely. What a time!


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