Matched through the Monitor's Mail Bag column

Letters full of teenage small talk marked the start of a lifelong friendship between a Japanese girl and an American family.

Scott Wallace - staff

"Our country is very pretty right now ... for it is full of many kinds of flowers." This was the introductory statement above Fumiko's name in the July 20, 1951, edition of this newspaper's Mail Bag, a periodic column for young people worldwide who wanted pen pals.

Intrigued, my sister, Rozanne, began writing to this Japanese girl. Their letters were full of teenage small talk – similar to local friends chatting. They wrote about the subjects they studied in school. They shared common experiences. They described the weather and their mutual excitement about staying home from school on a snowy day.

They even contrasted their behavior in a similar situation: a boring social studies class. My sister mentioned passing notes to girlfriends during it. Fumiko explained how Japanese students were taught to respect all teachers and would never think about such an exchange in their strict classrooms.

It was easy for my sister to compose letters in her native language, of course, but in the beginning, Fumiko had to work hard to reply in English. She looked up many words in the dictionary.

After graduation, Fumiko married Takao, a prominent Japanese pioneer in aeronomy, the atmospheric branch of geophysics. Because of Takao's new theories, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., invited him to continue his research there in 1962.

I was attending college nearby at that time, and since my sister lived in Missouri, I was the first of us to meet the young couple. They treated me to dinner at a Japanese restaurant and taught me how to use pointed, lacquered Japanese chopsticks to eat tempura (vegetables and fish fried in batter).

A month later, I arrived at their apartment with a baby gift. It was a plush stuffed green frog for their infant. That day, as I cradled Haruo in my arms, I began thinking of him as my "Japanese son."

Fumiko and I have kept in touch ever since we met that fall. About 10 years ago, my husband and I visited Tokyo. Haruo – all grown up – was our excellent local guide and spoke fluent English. Several years later, he and I met for pizza in London where he was a doctoral scholar in International Relations at Oxford University.

Each December, Fumiko and I exchange holiday greetings. Sometimes she encloses a desk calendar decorated with artistic flowers made from Japanese wood block prints. And whenever I travel abroad, I always mail her a colorful picture postcard.

Last year, I decided to return to Japan. Haruo planned to meet me in the lobby of my hotel so he could escort me to his mother's house by train. I tried to wait patiently. Every time I heard the elevator ding and saw the door open, I watched for him to emerge. But he surprised me by walking up the stairway instead.

When I finally saw Haruo, I jumped up from the couch. He began to bow in the traditional Japanese way, but I grabbed him and gave him a big American hug.

During our visit in her home, Fumiko served green tea, banana cake, and something I thought of as "pomaceous rabbits" – apples artistically cut to resemble bunnies. After a brief bath in cold, salted water, these partially peeled raw apple segments (whiter because of their soak) didn't turn brown, and their red skin ears turned up, I learned. These fruit figures are typical of the way Japanese beautifully present food and flowers.

As I sat in her home, I felt comfortable asking Fumiko a personal question: "Why did you request Mail Bag pen pals from the United States?"

"During World War II, I had been taught to hate the American 'demons,' " she said. "Even as a child, I had questioned this enmity and challenged the wisdom of being told to commit suicide if subjugated. I decided I wanted to become friends with Americans instead. To be friends means to understand and love each other. You cannot hate the person you really know. That is the way to world peace. I feel special pride that this childhood goal was fulfilled."

I was deeply moved.

"Do they still have the Mail Bag?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"When did it stop?"

Shrugging my shoulders, I answered, "Not sure."

"Too bad," she said. "But I made the best use of it!" The Japanese teenager who began the correspondence by looking up so many words in a Japanese/English dictionary eventually became a private English tutor.

All too soon, it was time to leave. My Japanese friend and I walked arm in arm to the train station and then gave each other an extended hug.

Before we finally parted, Fumiko had one last comment on her long-lasting pen pal experience: "The Mail Bag gave me an opportunity not only to improve my English but to widen my circle of friendship for over a half-century."

I suspect many other Mail Baggers have wonderful stories to share, too.

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