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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

Bill Oka was handsome, athletic, and a born salesman with a winning smile. His English, though broken, got him a job with Sale and Frazer, an Anglo-American trading company in Yokohama – Mr. Frazer being American and Mr. Sale, British. His first coup was to sell a new coupling system to the railways, which had been nationalized early in the 20th century. That prompted Mr. Frazer and Mr. Sale to send their employee on a field trip to the United States and England, visiting the Baldwin locomotive works in Pittsburgh and the Victor Talking Machine Company in London.

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En route, Bill's ship stopped in Honolulu, where he met my mother, whose father was Japanese consul general in the city. It was love at first sight. She was pretty and loved balls. He could be the life of the party when he dressed up as an American sailor with a black eye patch. He carried on a torrid correspondence with her, and, on the return voyage back across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, proposed, and she accepted.

Even when his salary was modest, my father did things in style. My mother told me that when he walked down the Ginza in his yukata, his summer kimono, he would turn the eyes of all the women shopping at the fashionable stores on the street. With some of his fellow salesmen at Sale and Frazer, he bought a horse, of which he owned an eighth-share. "The tail was mine," he told me. Later he bought a Model T roadster, in the same way.

When the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor), of which Sale and Frazer had been agent, began making records and record players in Japan, my father was made branch manager and also head of the artists' division.

In those days, if you were a Caruso or a Heifetz, your records had a red label; records for pop singers were given black labels. My father insisted that the great kabuki actors of Japan deserved a red label, and when the home office demurred, he created a white label especially for the stars of classical Japanese dance and singing.

As I grew older, he took me to the dressing rooms of famous kabuki actors like Onoe Kikugoro the Fifth and Ichimura Uzaemon the 15th, where I sat uncomfortably with my legs tucked under me. Meanwhile, my father chatted with his hosts as they were putting the last touches on their facial makeup, a task they never left to underlings.

The first million-record sale my father achieved was with a samisen-accompanied song called "Tokyo Ondo" (Rhythm of Tokyo) sung by the geisha performer Katsutaro. (A samisen is a three-stringed plucked instrument.)

My father boasted that no matter how late he dined with his show business friends and clients, he always was in his office promptly by 9 o'clock. Breakfast around 7 was the one meal of the day he had with us – sometimes toast and cornflakes, sometimes rice and miso soup. Some evenings, if he had no other engagements, he would take us to his favorite sushi restaurant on the Ginza.

It was my mother who got him to play golf. She had dabbled with it in Honolulu, but she told him it would help him get to know fellow businessmen. Once he took it up in earnest, with a handicap in single digits, she became a golf widow. But later, when the children were grown, the nightmare of World War II had ended, and Japan was on a new trajectory of economic growth, she and he traveled together for his Rotary International gatherings in the US, Europe, and Mexico. It was a lifelong partnership that began in romantic Hawaii and that drew the two closer to each other as her friends became his friends and his friends hers.