An American island in a Japanese sea
At home, it was miso soup and reverence for the emperor; at school, it
The five years I spent at the American School in Japan are suffused in a golden glow. Physically I was in Tokyo, but for six hours every weekday I was on an American island in a Japanese sea. From second grade on I made the daily commute myself by streetcar and elevated train. In Tokyo, even today, it's not unusual for small children to commute an hour or more to their schools.
After I started commuting to school by myself, my mother prepared no more lunches for me. I ate, as did most of my classmates, in the school cafeteria. Whereas I had rice and miso soup at home, at school I had hamburgers and hot dogs, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, apple pie and ice cream. I developed a taste for bread smeared with peanut butter and jam. We even had rice pudding, which most of my Japanese friends would consider outlandish.
My American island was actually an international island, for although the curriculum and the teachers were totally American, my fellow pupils were of many nationalities: Argentine, Dutch, English, Javanese, Mexican, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and, of course, Japanese. One of my best friends was Albert Kobayashi, who was a Nisei. Another was Boris, who was Russian. And then there was Donald MacGregor. Despite his name, he spoke English with a strong Russian accent, for his mother was Russian.
At his large, neighborhood Japanese school, my kindergarten pal, Jun-chan, was learning his "I-ro-ha," the Japanese equivalent of our ABCs, and reciting his multiplication tables in a high singsong - "twice two is four...." I don't remember in what order I learned my lessons, but I do know that the teaching laid much more emphasis on the individual. We learned by doing. There was always one project or another to keep us occupied, whether it was keeping rabbits - and finding how quickly they multiplied - or participating in a mock constitutional convention (in which I played Alexander Hamilton).
History and geography were favorite subjects. I believe we started with the pyramids of Egypt and the cuneiforms of Chaldea, then got into European and American history in fourth grade or so. We enacted Columbus arguing with skeptics that the earth was really round. We crossed the stormy Atlantic with the Pilgrims in the Mayflower, and heard about the origins of Thanksgiving. We pretended to be Indians on the warpath. We reenacted the Boston Tea Party, recited Patrick Henry's immortal lines, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" And Nathan Hale's:"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
The multinational nature of our class also gave us a great education in current events - and in understanding some of the differences between nations. On the playground we were all one. Clover covered the soccer field, and we often went looking for four-leafed ones. My first experimental kiss came during one such search. My hoped-for girlfriend immediately jumped up and rushed into the classroom, exclaiming to my great embarrassment, "Takashi kissed me!"
But in the classroom, different points of view about historical events and even religion emerged. Just as the American Revolution was important to most of the class, we discovered that the Mexican Revolution was important to a classmate from that country.
As for religion, we had just read Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees" ("I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree"), the last stanza of which reads, "Poems are made by fools like me,/ but only God can make a tree." Donald, the boy with a Russian mother, piped up and said, "I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist." Most of us had never heard the word, and our teacher had to explain what it meant. As I recall, she was scrupulously neutral in her statements, but that is how the word "atheist" entered my vocabulary.
Even Stalin's great purge touched our lives. The year after I left the American School, almost all the diplomats in the Soviet Embassy, including the families of most of the Russians in my class, were suddenly recalled to Moscow. Most of them were never heard from again.
Japanese troops occupied Manchuria, the three northeastern provinces of China, in 1932. They seemed on their way to occupying large tracts of North China, also. Some of my friends from American missionary families worried about the growth of militarism in Japan.
But my perspective was purely personal. My mother's cousin, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, often came to stay with us. I loved his visits because he was an amateur magician and was always showing me new card tricks. Occasionally he would talk about how the Imperial Army was fighting "bandits" in Manchuria, but I never paid much attention to what he was saying.
Nobody told me, in so many words, but I soon worked out for myself that in almost everything I did or learned, there were two distinct aspects: the Western and the Japanese. The two aspects coexisted in consciousness, but never merged. At school I spoke English and thought in English. I learned Longfellow's "Hiawatha" and Whittier's "Snowbound." I learned about the Civil War and how Lincoln freed the slaves.
Outside school, and partially at home, I spoke Japanese and did much of my thinking in that language. On New Year's Day I woke up early to worship at the Meiji Shrine with my father and thousands of others. The shrine, a severely plain wooden structure, was surrounded by a thick forest of cedars, pines, and cryptomeria. As my father, brother, and I trudged along in the silent crowd, I could see my breath and inhale the woodsy flavor of the trees. Before clapping our hands and bowing in unison before the shrine, we washed our hands and gargled with sacred water.
FOR me, the act was just a ceremony. For my father, it meant a great deal more. Meiji was the emperor under whom feudalism was abolished and Japan became a modern state. If it were not for the changes brought about at the outset of Meiji's reign, my father - and consequently I - would have begun and ended his days as a poor farmer in the countryside far from Tokyo.
So which "me" was me? The one that went to the American School and learned about freedom, or the one that went to the Meiji Shrine and was taught reverence for the emperor? I didn't worry about these questions until I was in my teens, and there was no blinding light that struck me until years later. But that is another story.
*The author's first remembrance of growing up in Japan ran Feb. 11.