A father's international flair

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

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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