My link to America, my best friend

Soon after the fall term had started at the American School in Tokyo, a new girl came into our fourth-grade classroom. Auburn- haired, with sparkling blue eyes, Barbara Curtis sat in the row next to mine and swept me off my feet. She told me she had lived most of her life in exotic Harbin, Manchuria, where her father was manager of an American bank. Harbin in those days had a large Russian population, and Barbara spoke Russian as fluently as English.

The next week, I was crushed when my new friend was promoted to fifth grade. But she had, in the meantime, introduced me to her younger brother Jack. For the next several years, until he went off to boarding school in Connecticut, he and I were best friends.

Blue-eyed like his sister and blond-haired, Jack was my living link to an America I knew only through magazines, books, and movies. To me, Jack's home epitomized the affluence and splendor of the American dream.

The Curtises lived in a handsome stucco mansion in a fashionable area of downtown Tokyo. The minute I stepped over the threshold, I knew I was in America. A Capehart record player stood in the entrance hall. These were the days of 78-r.p.m. records, and I never tired of asking Jack to put the machine on. As soon as one side of the record came to an end, a mechanical arm would reach out, turn the record over, and play the other side.

Every room in the house, including Jack's bedroom, seemed enormous. My creaky wooden house had a coal stove in the living room and a small stove, for charcoal briquettes, in the dining room. Otherwise, even in winter, we depended on the sun for heat. But Jack's house had central heating, and you could go from room to room and never feel the difference in temperature.

For Japanese then, "Western," or "American" meant grand, luxurious, substantial. Things Japanese could be delicate and exquisite, but were small, fragile, breakable. Western culture was said to be a culture of stone, while Japanese culture was one of wood and paper. Western things, whether houses or furniture or machinery, were built to last. In earthquake-prone Japan, most things were replaceable. The Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan's holiest temple, was a simple wooden structure, rebuilt every 20 years.

My own house, like that of many middle-class Japanese, was semi-Western, with both Western- and Japanese-style rooms. It was comfortable enough, but it could not compare in luxury and sense of permanence with Jack's house. Oh, to live in a country where every house was like Jack's!

Yet, at a deeper level, I was not envious of Jack. One part of me wanted to participate in the American dream. But another part of me was not uncomfortable with my Japanese background. Every Japanese is inured to the coexistence of things Japanese and things Western from an early age. My father wore Western clothes to work and a kimono at breakfast. Like almost all Japanese households, we had a set of tableware and cutlery for Western food, and another set for Japanese food. Art, music, dance, theater - almost everything we do or appreciate, we do in sets of two: Japanese and Western. We are not even conscious of making a differentiation, it is so instinctive.

Be that as it may, once our summer holidays arrived, the disparity between our modes of living ceased to matter. We, the Curtises, and many other Japanese and Americans escaped the muggy heat of Tokyo by moving to the mountain resort of Karuizawa. The resort sat on a plateau 3,000 feet above sea level. It took four hours by train, most of the last hour spent chugging up the mountains pushed by two electric locomotives.

What I loved about Karuizawa was that many of my American School friends, including Jack, spent their summers there, too. And unlike Tokyo, we could easily bicycle back and forth to each other's homes. For the duration of the summer, my American island in a Japanese sea was transported to Karuizawa.

Actually, we were a motley international crowd - not only Americans and English-speaking Japanese, but Argentines, Mexicans, Turks, French, Germans, Russians - a representative slice of the American School community. And, as in other countries, there was a differentiation between the summer residents and the locals, who were entirely Japanese and never seemed to tire of gaping at the outlandish antics of their visitors.

My house and Jack's were within five minutes of each other, and if we were not in one we were sure to be in the other. We went swimming in the ice-cold Andrews's pool, owned by a Canadian businessman and made available to the summer community. We joined a hiking club - our longest trek being an all-day uphill excursion to a dairy with Jersey cows and kerosene lamps. We slept on the straw-matted floor and told each other ghost stories till we fell asleep.

The game of Monopoly was the rage in those days, and we would foolishly take a board up to my favorite perch in a huge fir tree. Inevitably, tokens and houses would drop and we would have to scramble down to find them.

Summer came to an end all too soon, and it would be time to head back to city life, which in the first few weeks always seemed so much more constricted than the carefree days in Karuizawa. Jack, too, eventually went off to boarding school in America. He came back once, for the summer, when we were in our teens. He helped me look after a goat I had bought. But by then, Japan had been at war in China for three years, and though we did not know it, Pearl Harbor loomed on the horizon.

I shall skip over the painful war years. Brought up to become a bridge someday between Japan and America, I felt my whole life had become pointless. In Karuizawa, I would bicycle past Jack's empty house, wondering when and how the fighting would end and whether our friendship could ever be restored.

WHEN peace finally returned to Japan, I was a college student and working part time as a translator for the American military-occupation authorities. I'd heard nothing from the Curtises and had no idea what had happened to them.

One day I was sitting at my desk working on a translation of a Japanese politician's diary, when my boss, a Nisei lieutenant, came to my desk and said, "There's someone asking for you." I looked up, and there, in a second-lieutenant's uniform, was Jack! He had studied Japanese in the Army, and been assigned to the very unit in which I was working. Neither of us will ever forget the exuberance of that moment. And our friendship, so dramatically renewed, has continued ever since.

Other essays about the author's childhood in Japan appeared Jan. 31, 2000, Aug. 19, 1999, June 24, 1999, and Feb. 11, 1999.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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