Friday, April 17, 2009

The Song that Sent Bobby Kennedy to the Podium

(Photo courtesy of Josephine Ong)

"Yuyake Koyakeno Akatonbo Owarete Mitanowa Itsuno Hika?"

"Homeways on pre sunset
When was it that I saw them on Mom's back?
Color deepening red dragonflies!"

While waiting for the Newbury Park Library to open in California, my wife and I browsed the gallery of local artists and sculptors next door. Among the large frame mountain and oceanic paintings, we found two modest sized photographs of a red dragonfly perched on the point of a reed, absolutely still. We marveled at the work for a while.

As I was exiting the gallery, my wife beckoned me to return to the gallery. She was talking with an elderly gentleman on duty. She introduced him to me as the photographer of the red dragonfly. Apparently he noticed that we showed interest in his work and wanted to talk to us. I wrote out the above lyrics from a Japanese children's song and told him it is a popular song called "Akatonbo".

On my drive back home from the library I recalled a 1962 incident involving this particular "Akatonbo" song and the then U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's visit to Waseda University in Tokyo, witnessed by one of the students in attendance. He was a student from Taiwan, experiencing changes in life, language and culture. He related the incident to his fellow countrymen, asking them if the Taiwanese had a song like Akatonbo that could unify divided minds when it is most needed.

After dinner that night I recounted the following tale to my wife, daughter and her husband.

I was under the impression that Bobby Kennedy visited Waseda University by request and a transcript of his speech would be available. I was working in New York at that time. Information was not readily accessible in those days as it is today. After searching through all available speeches by Bobby Kennedy, I was not able to find a copy of that particular speech. To this day I have not been able to find his Waseda speech.

Upon returning to Japan to retire, I started digging again, especially for the Waseda speech. Then I ran across a blog written by the Taiwanese student described above. He wrote that Bobby Kennedy was not officially scheduled to speak that day. It was a day of student debates. Bobby happened to attend the debate with hopes of getting a chance to speak.

The eventful debate was chaotic from the start. As time went on, it took a turn for the worse, escalated into antagonism, and the division was driven further apart uncontrollably. Bobby stood on stage perplexed and bewildered. A depressed mood fell over the crowd with no rescue in sight. Suddenly someone started singing or humming from the corner of the auditorium, inaudible at first, then gradually the lyrics took shape and fell into rhythm of the song "Akatonbo." More and more people joined in, forming a chorus. Everyone was singing with one voice, loud and proud, forgetting hatred and erasing the chaos. The Akatonbo song eventually restored civility and invited Bobby to take the podium. Students, afresh from the song, were eager to listen to what he had to say.

After years of searching, I found that Bobby did speak to the students. On his return to the U.S., Bobby published his account of his travels in a book entitled Just Friends and Brave Enemies. He used the royalties from the book to create the Robert Kennedy Scholarship, which he donated to Waseda University.

Here's my translation of the complete song:

Homeways on pre sunset
When was it that I saw them last on Mom's back?
Color deepening red dragonflies!

Blurred in memory is the day
When the mountain field mulberries
picked and carried in a small basket?

At age 15 my beloved maid got married
I haven't heard from her since
My first love!

Greg Irwin, an American songwriter translated the lyrics differently by ryhthm and tone.

Dragonflies as red as sunset
Back when I was young
In twilight skies there on her back I ride
when the day was done

Mountain field in late November
Long ago it seems
Mulberry trees and treasures we would gather
Was it only just a dream

Just fifteen she went away one day
Married then so young

Like a sister lost. I loved and missed her
Letters never seemed to come

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