Oishi Iwao


I met Oishi-san within a month of moving to Tokyo. At first I thought his name was the Japanese word for “delicious,” which looks basically the same when written in Roman characters. “Delicious,” however, has a short “o” and a long “i”: oishii. My teacher was “Ooishi,” with a long “o” like the city Osaka. The name means “big stone.”

I had gone to the city office the week before to register as a foreign resident, and the clerk had given me a pamphlet for a Japanese class taught by local volunteers. When I ducked through the door of the classroom, Oishi-san was waiting on the tatami mat floor. The other students were mostly young housewives from Vietnam and China; I was the only man. At the time, Oishi was the only male teacher, so everyone thought we’d make a good pair. The match was sealed when we discovered that both of us spoke Indonesian (Oishi worked in Java for several years).

After a year of meeting almost every week, Oishi still greets me with an Indonesian “good morning.” That’s Oishi-san. He was there to teach me Japanese, but he was just as happy to speak any other language, and had no interest in formal language instruction. There were no grammar lessons and no textbooks; instead he preferred to digress on Japanese trade policy, feudal history, and the obscene size of American steaks. Through these conversations, I got fragments of Oishi’s own life story: his childhood in the war, and his years as a salary man in the midst of Japan’s economic boom. After our final class in July, I asked Oishi if we could meet one more time, just to talk about his life and experiences. He agreed.

* * *

Oishi Iwao was born in 1931 on the southern island of Kyushu. At that time Japan was feeling the worldwide economic depression, and his father had moved south to teach in a middle school. The family was not wealthy, even though they were descended from the samurai warrior class. In social rank, this had placed their ancestors clearly above merchants and craftsmen, but it did not guarantee a good income. The Oishi family were low-ranked samurai, which in feudal times meant they had to work part time as school teachers or farm a small plot of land.

In 1934 the Oishi family moved back to Tokyo, just as Japan’s militarists began were expanding their influence in the government. One morning in 1936, Oisihi heard gunshots near his house, an attempted coup by a group of young officers. The coup failed, but actually served to accelerate the rise of militarism. A year later Japan invaded China. Oishi remained in Tokyo until the war began to deteriorate and young children were sent out of the city for safety. By 1944, his school was cancelled entirely and the children instructed to go out and plant rice. Food was scarce then. Japan was cut off from the world by American submarines, and the nation’s farmers had all been sent to the front. Oishi gathered food by day, and listened to the air raids at night. As Oishi tells it, Japan didn’t sleep for one and a half years, just listened to the planes, bombs and guns.

Oishi never seemed troubled by his memories. He leaned back in his chair and laughed as he described his endless school vacation, and used his hands to pantomime planting rice seedlings, or the pumping of anti-aircraft guns. Then with great detail and detachment, he went over the routes taken by the B-29 bombers as they devastated the nation’s great cities: Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Fukuoka.

Oishi’s account of life during wartime was not the oppressive ordeal I had imagined.  In fact, he remembers the war as a quiet time, peaceful even. By 1945, all the factories were destroyed, their chimneys shattered. There were no cars, and no gasoline to drive them; electricity worked only a few hours a day. The buildings were leveled and the sky free of smog. Every day, Mt. Fuji was clearly visible in the distance. Today it can only be seen from tall buildings on the few days when the haze moves off the city.

Oishi was relieved when the end came; if the war had dragged on any longer he would have been drafted to fight. Like most Japanese, he listened to the surrender broadcast on August 15, 1945. The emperor’s voice was awkward, his intonation swooping up and down strangely. It was the first time he had addressed his people, and the first time Oishi had heard the voice of his lord. Apparently it was uncomfortable for both of them: Oishi stopped listening and doesn’t remember most of the speech.

The surrender broadcast was one of many unprecedented events to come in the occupation, the beginning of so much change. Oishi was raised in a country mobilized for total war. He didn’t tip his cap and bow to teachers; he said good morning with a military salute, and ended each school day with a “banzai” cheer in praise of the emperor and armed forces. But in the fall of 1945, militarism and blind loyalty were out. Democracy was in, and the American soldiers, reviled enemies just months before, strolled the streets of Tokyo. Oishi said: “If I had been the age I am now, I could not have adjusted, but I was young and my brain could change.” He always described dramatic episodes in this plain fashion, as if shedding fifteen years of indoctrination was as difficult as forgetting the name of a chance acquaintance.

* * *

Oishi was part of the first generation to reach adulthood in modern Japan, and in many ways his story captures the spirit of the time. He soaked in American movies, especially the westerns of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. He was there in 1951 when the San Francisco Seals featuring Joe DiMaggio came to Japan for the first time. They played an exhibition game at Korakuen Stadium, which just a few years earlier had been filled with vegetable plots and anti-aircraft guns. Oishi told me that baseball had actually continued through most of the war years, despite the game’s American roots. The militarists simply demanded that all borrowed English phrases: homu rān, cābu bāru, sutoraiku, be replaced with native Japanese words. Still, the war had taken its toll on Japanese baseball, and the 1951 Tokyo Giants were no match for the Seals. The exhibition game marked another first: the introduction of Coca-Cola to Japan. Oishi tasted a bottle but the drink was too sweet and burned his throat. The second bottle was tolerable and by the third he kind of liked it.

During this time, Oishi made up the schooling he had missed during his endless wartime vacation, and left devastated Tokyo to study metallurgy in the northern city of Sendai. College-educated workers were so scarce in those years that Oishi immediately found work at an engine manufacturing company. One of their biggest clients was actually the American military, which incidentally was also one of the keys to Japan’s rapid economic recovery. Japan’s war industries, only recently dismantled, were remobilized to support the American war effort in Korea. Oishi’s company repaired tank and truck engines, which required him to study their English manuals, as well as the entire system of American manufacturing and quality control.

Many years later, his company provided the same service during the Vietnam War. This time, however, The Detroit auto makers that built the engines were starting to feel the competition from Japanese companies, and weren’t willing to share information. The military was unable or unwilling to mediate an agreement, so Oishi and his team simply took the tanks apart and measured every valve, cylinter, piston and crankshaft. Even with this added labor, his company could supply the replacement parts faster and cheaper than Detroit.

Oishi was the quintessential Japanese salaryman. He came in early and stayed late. He worked over forty years at the same company, starting on the production floor and ending in a top office. He worked through all of Japan’s remarkable recovery from a war-shattered nation to a modern marvel. Oishi finally retired in the late 1990’s, then completed a second bachelor’s degree, and settled into his current routine of reading, biking, teaching, and watching television.

* * *

Some of these stories I have heard a number of times, like the first Coca-Cola, the view of Mt. Fuji, and the plate-sized steak he encountered in his first business trip to Kentucky. Our final session, however, was the first time that he told me of his life from beginning to end. It took a while, and when we finished, he asked if I would like to visit his family’s cemetery plot. The temple that housed the cemetery was nearby, and I had no plans for the day, so we braved the heat and headed for the bus stop.

It is always a little strange when you know a person only in a specific context, and then your relationship suddenly steps into a new setting. I had only ever seen Oishi in the low, wood-paneled rooms of the community center; we had never stood on the street together. Perhaps we looked odd to others as well: a 25-year old foreigner and an 83-year old Japanese man riding the city bus. The discomfort didn’t last, and Oishi proved to be just as informative outside the classroom as he was inside. He pointed out his father’s old neighborhood, which later became a post-war black market, and is now a discount shopping street. A few blocks later we got off on a non-descript street. The temple was set back from the road and surrounded by apartment buildings. It was not a place you would go unless you had a specific reason. This temple, like many others, doubles as a kind of funeral home. There was an air-conditioned entrance area with a water cooler and a basket of rice crackers. We took a seat to cool down. Oishi said it was unusually quiet that day, perhaps because it was just after Obon, a Buddhist festival in which almost all Japanese visit family graves to honor their ancestors.

The Oishi family grave is about one meter square and solid stone, with a small tray for holding incense and flowers. On the side are the names of Oishi’s parents, their dates of birth, and death. Oishi tapped the base with his foot to show where a stone slab slides open when the ashes of the dead are placed inside. He said there was still plenty of room, that it was big enough for him to stand in. I know he was just trying to explain the size of the chamber, but I couldn’t shake the image of his body, interred whole, resting here beneath rows of stone alters behind the non-descript temple surrounded by apartment buildings.

Oishi Grave

The last time I went to the community center for my weekly lesson, a few of the other teachers joined Oishi and I in our side classroom (Oishi’s back has been bothering him so he prefers to sit at a table rather than on the floor in the main classroom). All of the teachers are elderly, and that day I was quizzing them about how Japan has changed in their lifetimes. They all offered their memories, but at one point one of the teachers, I believe it was Fujimoto-san, explained an important distinction. She said that her perspective and Oishi’s were fundamentally different, because he was born before the war, and she was born afterwards. She had never known the old Japan. Oishi, I realized, was the only one who had. He was the only member of the generation that had crossed the divide alive, and lived on to build the modern nation of Japan. That generation is slowly turning to ash, and its memories turning to stories. I am so glad for the chance to hear Oishi’s. 


Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

When I left Japan last week, I was an established regular at the Ruby Room Tuesday Open-Mic. Here I shared the stage with beat-boxing virtuosos, amateur girl groups, international MCs, and loop-pedal composers, plus the usual abundance of acoustic singer-songwriters. This video is from my farewell performance; it features my good friends Tomo and Rob.

I actually met Tomo at the Ruby Room the first time I went there. I must have looked lonely, because he walked right up to me and started talking. We met up over the weekend and played obscure Beatles songs, and the next week took the stage at the Open-Mic. Six months later, I am gone. The words make the time look short, like maybe I shouldn’t even use phrases like “established regular” and “good friends.” Wasn’t I really just a passerby? Maybe, but it didn’t feel that way when I was there. It felt normal; I was just another man with a guitar and a couple buddies. I showed up after work in my half-buttoned dress shirt and nodded to the bartender for a beer. That was always my favorite feeling while abroad: feeling normal. The Ruby Room was eccentric and unpredictable, but it made me feel normal.

Yasukuni Jinja


August is a loaded month in Japan. On August 6th and 9th, the country remembers the atomic bombings, on the 15th, the day of total surrender and the end of World War II. These dates still carry political significance for different groups: last week peace activists gathered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to protest the world’s nuclear arsenals, and this week, nationalists will mourn the loss of what they call “The Great Pacific War.” They will meet here at Yasukuni Jinja, which has always been associated with Japan’s armed forces, and though I won’t be here to witness the event, I have spent a few Sundays taking in the scene at Japan’s most controversial shrine.

The old folks have a harmonica rotation, each performer doing a few numbers before passing the microphone and enjoying a beer on the patio of the shrine’s food hall. When the music gets exciting, one of the other gentlemen rises from the picnic bench and sings along, a little shaky on his feet. I hesitate to assign these performers a certain political ideology just based on their choice of location, but the rising sun banner and old-fashioned repertoire give me the impression of nostalgia for the old Japan. These are the kinds of songs that right-wing activists broadcast from their black vans that race through Tokyo on the weekends. In fact, one of the vans is often parked at Yasukuni while the driver smokes, snacks, and chats with his crew. Then he is off, urging Japan to reclaim its lost glory, denouncing China’s expanding influence, and tormenting Korean nationals who have made their home in this city.


The shrine itself seems to share the nationalist sentiment. The military museum here tells of how the Japanese Army bravely fought to unite Asia under one roof. The weekly antique market is filled wartime memorabilia: flags, uniforms, helmets, and empty bullet casings. A few years ago the shrine hosted a song contest based on love of country, with submissions that celebrated kamikaze suicide pilots and the “Great East Asian Holy War.” Yasukuni even has its own patriotic souvenirs. These bean-filled sweets commemorate “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Abe’s new economic policy for shaking Japan out of its protracted slump.


Hanging around the shops and food hall are all kinds of colorful characters. One of my first times at Yasukuni, an older man sat down and lectured me on the bravery of Hideki Tōjō, the wartime Prime Minister and convicted war criminal who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. On another occasion, a friend of mine was approached by an American man ranting about how Obama was ruining the country. Apparently radical conservatives of all nations stick together. Almost every time I come here, there is a lone man in an Imperial Army uniform marching the parade ground with a shouldered rifle and rising sun flag.

At this point it would be fair to ask why I spend so much time hanging around this place chatting with right wing nationalists. I think part of it is history: my morbid fascination with the World War II era. But as Yasukuni demonstrates, those years are not a sealed and forgotten chapter. They hang heavily on the politics of East Asia, especially now as Japan is engaged in territorial disputes with both China and Korea. Every time a prominent Japanese leader visits Yasukuni Shrine, or the education ministry tries to change its history textbooks, these countries erupt in protests.

Within Japan as well, the signs of resurgent nationalism are impossible to miss. Earlier this year a prominent politician caused a stir by attempting to justify the use of sex slaves by the Imperial Army. Since then, conservatives have swung into power with such force that they are pushing for a long coveted goal: revising the American-drafted constitution that forbids the use of armed force. Conservatives have dreamed of amending this section since the day the occupation ended, and now it looks more possible than ever.

This is an interesting moment for Japan, and even though I return to my own country today, I will continue to follow events in this part of the world. Like all countries, Japan is struggling to define a national identity that can be a source of pride, and to understand past events in a way that gives those events meaning. Nationalism and nostalgia are a result, one that can be found in every nation. In that regard, Yasukuni Jinja is not so much an outrage, as a reminder of the power of memory and identity.

Sources: http://japanfocus.org/-Yuki-TANAKA/2746

Notes from Japanese Class


Kaze ga fuku to Okeya ga moukaru

The wind blows and the bucket maker prospers

The logic goes like this: the wind blows sand in people’s eyes, turning them blind. They naturally learn to play the shamisen, a traditional 3-stringed instrument. The strings are made from catguts, so this new wave of blind musicians decimates the population of stray cats, causing the number of rats to surge. The rats chew out the bottoms of wooden bathtubs, making more work for the okeya. Therefore, in a strong wind is a boon for the bucket-maker: the consequences of one event are far-reaching and unpredictable.

Japanese is full of these kotowaza, old sayings. I study the language with elderly volunteers, who as you might expect are ripe with such expressions. Somehow an explanation of causative verb forms spilled into this strange chain of cause and effect. I like how the entire middle portion of the chain is left unsaid, inferred by only the first and final link. I wonder if most people today even remember why the wind favors the bucket-maker.

Northern Song

DSC_0481My students often tell me that they want to study in America because it is a diverse nation, while Japan, as everyone knows, is homogenous: all Japanese are Japanese. That idea of Japan as a single race is generally accepted here, with a few asterisks, one of which is the Ainu people from the northern island of Hokkaido. The Ainu have lived here for millennia, before the ancestors of modern Japanese ever arrived on these islands. Their ethnic heritage is distinct from other East Asians, and their religion, language, and music are completely their own. Here is a brief recording I made last week of some Ainu music in eastern Hokkaido.

Before you picture this music being performed around a fire in a mountaintop village, I should probably describe the actual scene. We are in a long, slate-gray performance hall in a lakeside resort town. The hall is at one end of the “Ainu Village,” basically a hill-side parking lot lined with souvenir shops: carved wooden facades hung on squat concrete buildings. A PA system broadcasts Ainu jaw-harp music, and a mini-van with a rooftop speaker entreats tourists to view the next performance.

The guidebook had told me I was “leaving Japan without leaving Japan,” but the shopkeepers bowed and spoke polite Japanese like everywhere else. It told me that the Ainu look different: heavy, hairy, and fair-skinned, but most of the people around the “village” could walk through Tokyo without standing out. It still felt like Japan; there were even droning broadcast speakers and designated photo-op areas. It was easy to reach the conclusion that the Ainu are assimilated, that their culture is only preserved for commercial purposes, that my students are right, and the gravitational pull of sameness reaches all the way out to these northern Islands.

Just before showtime, I saw a heavy-set young woman in a hooded sweatshirt come around the side of the hall and pass backstage. A moment later she emerged on stage in traditional Ainu garb: a knee-length blue coat embroidered with antler-shaped patterns and a similarly styled headband. As she began to sing the first song, the one you are listening to, I had to wonder: is it just a chore that she does a few times a day for extra cash? Does she even understand the words she is saying? Her face gave me no clues. Then, later in the performance, she joined with another woman to do a play song that was like a game of keep-away. One singer held a wooden tray over her head, dropping it to her side as soon as the other woman lunged for it. After a few tries they both started laughing on stage. It was nice to see. For that moment at least it wasn’t just a show or museum piece. It was two women playing a silly game, and it looked like fun.