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A father's international flair

As Japan opened up after World War I, he seized opportunities to travel and found love.

By Takashi Oka / April 30, 2009

We had just finished breakfast, and my father, who usually left early for his Saturday game of golf, was in a rare talkative mood. "So," he said, motioning me to sit down, "you're nearly14. Let me tell you what I was doing when I was your age.

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"Every morning," he began, "I would get up at 4:30 and go off to the paddy fields to catch dojo – mudfish. They are small fish, as you know – not worth much. But people like to put them in a fish stew, and when I had a bucketful, I would take them to the market. I'd bring the money home, usually not even 1 yen [then worth about 50 cents], and give them to my mother. I know your mother gives you chores each morning – mop the floors and brush my shoes. Just don't forget what I was doing at your age."

Continuing his story, he recalled that he had been born in Tomioka, 200 miles north of Tokyo – a city I had never visited. His father was a Zen Buddhist priest without many parishioners. "So my mother had to scrimp and save to bring up her seven children, of whom I was the last. When I was 7, my parents sent me off to be an apprentice in a temple in the next town.

"But I was miserable, and soon came running home. The next day, my mother sent me back. Again, I ran home. After the third time, my mother said I could stay, but only if I helped out even a bit with the family income. That's what took me to the paddy fields to catch mudfish, even on cold winter mornings."

Later, my father's oldest brother, 18 years his senior, brought the whole family to Tokyo to live with him. He had joined the railroad at an early age and had worked his way up to become stationmaster of Shimbashi, a major station on the line to Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka. The job came with a gold-braided stationmaster's cap and an official residence, modest but adequate to house his parents, brothers, and sisters. My uncle also got my father his first real job with the railways, earning a couple of yen – less than a dollar – per month. He worked his way through night school, studied English with an American missionary in Yokohama, and was baptized William – much to the distress of my devoutly Buddhist grandmother. His teacher called him Bill, a name he proudly adopted.

Those were heady days for Japan. The country had emerged from 200 years of feudal isolation in 1854, when Commodore Perry and his Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay (then called Edo), and forced the Tokugawa Shogunate to open its door to foreign trade. Japan modernized, Westernized, and won two short wars in quick succession – with China in 1894-95 and with Russia in 1904-05. World War I sparked Japan's first big economic boom. While the Europeans fought each other, Japan exported an increasing range of goods, from textiles to cement and steel. And that boom enabled my father to meet my mother.