Post Road Magazine #11

Walking Backwards in Takamatsu

Linda Lancione Moyer

A high-rise hotel room overlooking the Takamatsu harbor, on the island of Shikoku, Japan. Pat and Gail have gone off for the afternoon with the Okawaharas, a family of indigo dyers who are our hosts here, but I've begged off. We've been in Japan ten days, each day soaked and wrung out with new people and impressions. Despite its many delights, this trip has had a somber undertow, due not only to the ongoing war in Iraq but also to the day we've spent in Hiroshima. Now I just want to stare out at the container ships that cut through yellow mist rising off the inland sea and sort out what I've seen and heard. But look, here's more! A bonsai-like tree-but eight feet tall-being loaded onto a ferry from a flatbed truck. And look, an elderly man crossing the highway in the elevated, glassed-in pedestrian walkway. Only one thing is askew-he's walking backwards.

We're in Japan because Pat-a fiber artist and professor of art at the University of Hawaii-has been invited to give a series of lectures and workshops. It's late May 2003, shortly after a vainglorious George W. Bush declared his victory in Iraq, so I'm relieved to be away from the jingoism and overheated patriotism that has engulfed our country. Immersed in looking at baskets, kimonos, and handmade paper, I've tried to lose myself in the world of fiber art.

But pictures of the wounded on stretchers and of looters carting off unprotected cultural treasures are not so easily put aside. And Pat's partner Gail, a writer and editor with a long history of social engagement, has contributed two items to our itinerary which have led us back to another war: Hiroshima and this trip to Shikoku. Her now 94-year-old Aunt Carmen was stationed here with the U. S. occupation forces. In part because I'm carrying my pain and shame about the actions of my country with me, Japan is proving to be a place to come face-to-face with the inexorable onslaughts of history, rather than escape them.

I didn't want to go to Hiroshima.

The current world situation was depressing enough, I argued, without having to face the nuclear destruction our country had brought about, a horror we could never remedy.

But Gail was adamant.

"I'm an American," she said quietly but firmly. "If I'm going to Japan, Hiroshima is on the itinerary. I need to walk that ground to better understand what happened there, since it changed how we live in the world forever."

Still, I dreaded it, though at the Hiroshima train station I brightened with the pleasure of meeting Izumi, a young artist and Hiroshima native who had studied with a colleague of Pat's. He was a smiling, polite thirty-year-old with a gelled crew cut and a crisply pressed batik shirt. We three women in our sixties squeezed into his tiny Honda with our day packs, and he drove to the memorial park and museum, Japanese rock music blasting from the radio.

In preparation, we'd been reading a memoir of an A-bomb survivor, written in the form of letters to his dead wife, a victim of radiation poisoning: Letters from the End of the World, by Toyofumi Ogura. As we traversed the enormous city with its seven gleaming rivers laid across it like giant silver fingers, I remembered that, after the explosion, so many of the bridges were destroyed that Ogura had to walk for miles to get home to his family, past people making their way in the opposite direction, charred, featureless, thirsty, skin peeling from their bones. In those first hours, of course, no one knew what had hit them-it seemed more like a natural disaster than a weapon. Now I was jangled by the dissonance between the images from the book that reeled across my mind and the tranquil, brilliant white city before our eyes.

When we arrived at the original ground zero, we stared up at the one remnant left standing-the skeletal structure of the Industry Promotion Hall that cut the sky like barrel staves. In the hazy heat, we dutifully read the inscriptions on the white marble monuments in Peace Park and photographed the colorful masses of origami cranes made by Japanese schoolchildren and heaped on the monuments. The schoolchildren themselves, brought in by the busload on class field trips, were uniformed and quiet, with the few cutups hastily shushed by their young teachers.

The first wing of the museum was dedicated to aerial photographs, maps, and statistics-tonnage, death toll-and governed by a rigidly dispassionate historical accounting. The second section-designed to break the heart-was devoted to artifacts and stories: a half-melted Buddha, ordinary glass bottles fused into shapes of terrible beauty, photographs of kimono designs scorched onto people's backs. In response to a call for artifacts, a father had dug up a tricycle that he'd buried in his backyard 40 years earlier alongside the body of his three-year-old son.

I plodded through the exhibit halls with heavy limbs, my head full of Toyofumi Ogura's narration. The war was lost already, he wrote, the government on the verge of surrender. In his view, the population hated what the emperor was doing and was looking to the Americans for liberation.

Two of my uncles served with the Navy in the Pacific. One, Uncle Jim, was at Hiroshima two months after the bombing. "Yes, it was horrible," my aunt told me, "but we all cheered when the bomb dropped because it meant the war was over."

The exhibit ends with a poem written by a survivor:

Cannas Blooming in the Scorched Earth

That autumn

in Hiroshima where it was said

"for 75 years nothing will grow"

new buds sprouted.

In the green that came back to life

among the ruins

people recovered

their living hopes and courage.

For me, hope in Hiroshima came from the thriving modern city itself, which the Japanese began to rebuild only a few days after the explosion, and from Izumi, our guide. Close to the age of my own sons, he surely didn't think of the city of his birth primarily as the place that had been destroyed by the A-bomb. Talk with this sweet, confident young man over a clay pot of eel and rice on the nearby island of Miyajima buoyed my spirits; he was a joyful surfer with a Korean girlfriend, eager to go teach in Brazil on a Japanese government sponsored Peace Corps-style program.

Nevertheless, my heart was still heavy the next day, when we visited Kyoto's Saiho-ji temple and its venerable garden, where some of the mosses were 400 years old. Taking solace in the moss-carpeted grounds -the dense green pierced by scarlet azaleas-we sat in a simple wooden shelter and talked for a long time about the dark forces at play in the world. Especially appalling was Bush's decision to test tactical nuclear weapons.

After a while we fell silent. Pat and Gail's heads tilted toward each other, white hair next to gray. They looked tired and somber. We were each weighed down by one unspoken question: what should we be doing? In the museum, we'd seen a moving display of letters from the mayor of Hiroshima, written in protest to the head of state each time a country carried out a nuclear test. Coming from this visible figure, it was a powerful stance, full of moral authority. But we were artists and writers toiling in obscurity.

Then, in the quiet, I thought of a piece Pat had made during a recent gathering of local and international artists in rural Australia. On the site of a World War I training camp, she'd come upon an old rusted cot with a tree trunk growing up through it, perhaps the bed of a soldier on his way to Gallipoli or another battle of the War to End all Wars. With her heart full of the soldiers we were shipping off to Iraq, she had imprinted on a sheet of gut-her signature medium-the pattern of the rusted cot and

the protruding tree. The result, a luminous, partially rolled scroll called "Marker," captured that remnant of war as it disappeared under nature's inexorable takeover. The piece both witnessed to the past and transformed it, and reminded me how art helps us endure and make sense of the world.

"Walking backwards is a healthy form of exercise," the older man at Takamatsu hotel desk said in careful English. "It employs muscles not ordinarily used when we walk." Then he lowered his voice and added, with a small smile, "Some people believe walking backwards is like karmic reversal, allowing you to correct sins and mistakes of the past."

I was born on January 15, 1942, a few weeks after the December 7th bombing of Pearl Harbor. Letters to my parents from my Uncle Joe, stationed there on the USS Rigel, bear a three-cent stamp showing an eagle with its wings spread in a V for victory. The lower left-hand corner of the envelope bears the censor's round stamp, hand initialed in elegant script. The bandeau across the eagle's breast, white on a purple ground, reads WIN THE WAR.

Received your letter on December 1st and planned to answer immediately but due to unforeseen circumstances I had to postpone the matter, he writes. I suppose by this time I'm an uncle. When are you sending the cigar?

Only recently I learned that several men died or were injured on the Rigel and that 150 holes were blown in its port quarter. A launch from that ship rescued 50 men from the flaming sea.

After the attack, there were nightly blackouts on the Pacific coast- my parents feared they wouldn't be allowed to make the half-hour drive from our house east of the Berkeley hills to the hospital in Oakland.

From the pictures she looks like her mother. That's a good break for her.

Pearl Harbor was the historical event closest to my entry into the world, just as the bombing of Cambodia and the shootings of students at Kent State are linked to my elder son's first year.

As a girl, hearing my parents talk about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I imagined a graceful body of water encircled with a lei of pearls. A few years ago, I visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial to better understand Uncle Joe after he died, just as Gail was seeking now to grasp the significance of her aunt's life in Japan. Only then did I take in that 2,403 people had died there, 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians.

"I'd never buy a Jap car."


"Hon', I was at Pearl Harbor."

In Japanese there's an expression, na ru ho do, which means "Oh, now I understand, where I had not gotten it before."

Two thousand, four hundred and three people-almost as many as died on September 11, 2001.

The basic premise of Ronald Takaki's book, Hiroshima, is that the nuclear weapons used against Japan were dropped out of racial hatred and revenge for Pearl Harbor. In the same way, many have suggested that our bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq are revenge for 9/11. The injured giant wreaks a disproportionate, and inappropriate, revenge.

In both cases, what followed victory was that charged word: occupation. As we traveled around Japan, we tracked the situation in Iraq through the English-language newspapers and glimpses of CNN, watching the much-cheered "victory" devolve into what promised to be a long, messy, and unwelcome American stay. But only one person we met in Japan, Genyu Sokyu, a Buddhist priest who was also a novelist, raised the issue of Iraq with us. At dinner in a ryokan, he cracked open a bottle of sake and proceeded to harshly criticize both the U.S. government and his own, which had joined the U.S. coalition despite widespread popular opposition. The Japanese press referred to Prime Minister Koizumi as "Bush's lapdog," he said.

Later in the evening, Genyu Sokyu told us he'd written a novel about a Buddhist monk befriending an isolated Christian woman on her deathbed; he seemed to be studying us for our reaction. "Isn't it normal that we should care for each other?" I said, wishing it were so. I wondered if the story-as yet untranslated into English-were allegorical but was limited by language from asking.

The next day, Tomoko Ishida, an award-winning artist and Genyusan's wife, led us through an exhibit of her work in a local museum, a room filled with ethereal, floating sculptures made from thousands of koyori-small twisted papers-that she'd salvaged from the wrappings of temple gifts. Attached to long strands of monofilament suspended from the ceiling, they wafted in the air and cast delicate, watery shadows, hinting at a fragile scrim between this world and the unknown. She'd created a dominion of movement and light, soothing and ineffable.

As for that other, long-ago occupation, whenever we mentioned that Gail's aunt had been stationed on Shikoku with the U.S. occupying forces, we experienced reactions that-perhaps naively-we hadn't anticipated.

For example, just before arriving in Takamatsu, we'd spent the night at Muryoko-in, a Shingon Buddhist monastery in the small mountain city of Koyasan. After early morning chanting in the temple, the abbot invited us to tea in his study, along with a handful of other monastery guests, all middle-aged Japanese. Seated around a low, square table, we made

stilted conversation-Kurt, a multi-lingual Swiss monk, acting as interpreter-while the abbot poured tea and a young novice set out trays of prettily wrapped, delicate sweets.

When told our next stop was Shikoku, the abbot asked, "Are you making the pilgrimage?" He looked pleased but puzzled. Shikoku was the birth place of Kobo Daishi, the 9th century founder of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. To this day, Kobo Daishi's followers make pilgrimages there, traveling to the island's 88 temples on foot.

"A pilgrimage of sorts," said Gail. "My aunt used to live on Shikoku."

A flurry of Japanese ensued. "She lives on Shikoku now?"

"No." She hesitated. "A long time ago."

"When exactly?"

Gail seemed reluctant to give the dates. When she finally said "1946 to 1951," a frisson traveled through the overheated room. Nothing was said for several seconds, but the mood had darkened. Had we blundered by mentioning the occupation? By evoking memories in our hosts of a time of suffering and shame? We'd tumbled into cultural waters beyond our depth, with no one to rescue us.

Finally, someone at the abbot's table suggested raising the shoji screens to get a little air, and we were treated to a view of the interior garden with its raked paths and blooming azaleas.

Gail's aunt's assignment as a civilian with the U.S. occupying forces was "to teach democratic practices and equal rights to Japanese women at the grass roots," as she put it in her memoir, Wave Rings in the Water, My Years with the Women of Postwar Japan. Conscientious and principled, Carmen Johnson embodied the softer face of the U.S. victory. Knowing that food was scarce, she had requested that meals not be prepared for her when she made her rounds of the island's small towns. Due to her good nature and sensitivity, her stay on Shikoku seems to have been a triumph of personal diplomacy. She'd maintained years-long correspondences and had been invited back several times, the latest when she was in her eighties.

Nevertheless, that first morning on Takamatsu, I watched anxiously as Gail presented the elder Mr. Okawahara, our indigo dyer host, with a copy of her aunt's book in Japanese. This chronicle of her personal experience was largely unreflective about the war and the occupation. Nevertheless, in view of the reaction we'd just experienced at the Buddhist temple, I wondered if the Okawaharas might take offense at this gift, but Mr. Okawahara-a wiry, spry man in his seventies-had taken it eagerly, exclaiming at photographs of the author side by side with people he remembered, a few still alive. In the late forties, during the occupation, he would have been in his early teens.

For three days, Makoto and Akiko Okawahara, the son and daughter

in-law, helped us explore Shikoku. On our last night, the Okawaharas invited us home for a family-style meal. Earlier, in the courtyard studio of their Takamatsu home, we had glimpsed young apprentices, supervised by the elder Mr. Okawahara, pulling long, dark strips of cloth from great vats, while others, emblazoned with traditional white designs, were suspended under the overhanging roof to dry. The family had been indigo dyers on Shikoku for seven generations.

Now, in their crowded kitchen, their nine-year-old grandson sat reading a fat volume of Harry Potter in Japanese while his younger sister giggled at us from behind pudgy fingers. Mr. Okawahara brought Aunt Carmen's memoir to the low table with him, his face soft and unreadable, and gently set it down beside his plate where it lay during the entire meal. As Mrs. Okawahara handed down food from the stove-broiled fish, rice with peas, delicately flavored broad beans, an unfamiliar vegetable which proved to be burdock root, and a bowl of pickled umeboshi-Japanese plums-she told us through her daughter-in-law, Akiko, that she knew when you travel you didn't get enough vegetables! Touched, we weary and grateful women remembered for a moment what it was to be mothered.

After we'd eaten, Mr. Okawahara took up Aunt Carmen's book in both hands and, through Akiko, told us he'd sat up late reading it. Then he sprang up from the table, went to the calendar on the wall, and pointed to August 6th and August 9th, the dates the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next, he aimed his finger at August 16th. This was the day the American soldiers arrived on Shikoku to begin the occupation, he explained, but . . . they'd forgotten the U.S. flag!

As he told this story, he twisted his head and looked heavenward, as if to say, "How strange, that such an efficient, conquering army . . . " When soldiers came to young Okawahara-san's father for help, he stenciled the stars and stripes for them right there on the premises. Our storyteller's face shone with pleasure as he recounted this.

In the pause that followed, a soft smile traveled around the table as each of us came to recognize what an exceptional moment this was. Together, we strangers had picked our way back through the rendings and stitchings of history to remember an odd confluence of postwar circumstances-that flag, Aunt Carmen's sojourn here-events that occurred so long ago that issues of pride or patriotism, victory or defeat had leached out of them, leaving only wonder and pleasure that so many years later we were together around that low table.

For that brief respite, the wars that rage-and would rage-in other parts of the world were forgotten. •

Linda Lancione Moyer, author of two poetry chapbooks and two travel books, writes poetry, essays, and fiction. Her work has appeared in Atlanta Review, CrazyHorse, The MacGuffin, Madison Review, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore and Chrysalis Reader, among other publications. Formerly, she taught English as a Second Language in community colleges. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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