Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Captain Armour

Chigusaso, Nakacho 2-27
I didn’t believe what my friend said:
“The dormitory is still there and in use.
Take a walk in the morning and a good look.”
I roved the area over an hour.
I searched.
There remained no vestiges of my 40 year old memories.
When I met my friend, I told him I found nothing.
“I’ll take you there” he replied.
He led the way without waiting for my response.
There! There stood the two-story dorm, aged but gallant,
monstrous - ugly, under the dim pole light.
I visualized without stepping inside:
ten identical six-mat rooms facing each other across the corridor,
the communal wash stand and neighboring stall entrance.
The dorm, a home for 80 boys, two sharing each room,
fresh out of school, away from home from their homelands and families.
Gathering to work for the same company and destiny.
I heard the hollers and laughter from the hallways,
the loud yawns, coughs, and pounding, dragging slipper sounds,
the noisy off-work weekends when some prepared joint meals
(so-called caterers), others busy with laundry.
Where are they now after 40 years?
What happened to the camraderie
they thought they had established?
What happened to the ambitions they avowed and burned?

from Magee Park Poets Anthology 1998, Carlsbad, California
Poem by Rio Imamura

My first job was with a medium sized but well-reputed manufacturer of high-tech electric/electronic instruments in Musashino, in suburban Tokyo. It was 10 years after the end of World War II and Japan was about to enter into the budding postwar industrial miracle but we were not quite there yet. Newly hired in that year were just 10 graduates, including me. Luckily I was paired into a dorm flat with the famous Keio Rugger (rugby player). This dorm was located a few blocks away from the plant. The occupants in the dorm used the company dining cafeteria from morning to evening. All we had to care for were ourselves during the weekends, either dependent on delivery service in the neighborhood or cook ourselves in ‘buddy’ groups, or go out to some fancy restaurants in Shinjuku once a month or so.

Toda-san was a dorm-mate at the above Chigusa-so. One day, he brought Captain Armour to work where we established the English Speaking Club where we met on the off-work hours. Toda-san was an excellent photographer and acquainted with the captain during his picture taking field trip. The club had about 20 members who met and shared an interest in speaking English. The captain was with the Far East Air Material Command Station (FEAMCOM) at Tachikawa Air Base (decommissioned in the late 1980s and currently a multi-purpose recreational Showa Park, which includes an authentic Japanese garden). He was a dandy-looking chap and a pious Christian who enjoyed photography as a hobby, sharing a common interest with Toda-san. Captain Armour took time out of his busy schedule to join us often and brought his family once year to celebrate Christmas.

In the late 1950s, I started going on overseas business trips, including the U.S., and had several occasions to meet with the Captain and his family, who were reassigned back to Los Angeles. When I wrote my Latin American travelog, I dedicated it to the Armours who agreed to provide his foreword to the travelog. His foreword read as follows:

"Most people are destined to spend a lifetime within the borders of their own country and it is only through the eyes of others that they may see far away lands. Rio Imamura shares his recent South American travels with us in this booklet. Each page is an adventure into new and interesting places, where we learn of people who are living lives so different from ours. In our short time on this earth, many changes have been wrought among men and nations. Let us hope that the people of South America may someday share the abundance and freedom, which you and I now enjoy."

After his retirement, the Armours relocated to Grand Pass, Oregon. Although we had kept in touch while I was in the U.S., I had not seen them for 30 years. I missed them so much that I visited them before I retired and left San Diego for Japan. I was told Toda-san had visited him on his business trips to the U.S.

After entering the 2000s, I heard Captain Armour was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was under intensive family care. In 2011, a sad note came from Mrs. Armour that he passed away. For his funeral service, five children assembled - two sons were from overseas where they spent over 25 years, Steve from Brazil and Kris from the UK. The eldest, Phil, worked and retired from the U.S. Forest Service and had two daughters, Lynn and Leslie. Both were happily married and raised their families locally. The Armours are blessed with 12 grandchildren.

Captain Armour embodied our admiration of the U.S. and the promise of tomorrow for young Japanese men. He showed us by leading a radiant life. May he rest in peace.

Both Toda-san and Captain Armour appeared in a previous entry.

Monday, June 15, 2015

“Vedi Fujisan e poi muori!” (“See Fujisan and Die”)

The former Prime Minister Nakasone was said to have confided to his aide that he would not leave this world until he saw Mt. Fuji inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Center. Nakasone was presiding over the “National Congress” that was petitioning the campaign. It was in 2013 that Mt. Fuji finally got its cultural heritage designation, relieving Nakasone’s anxieties. The naturally majestic Fujisan does not really need it. Fujisan has been overly abused to date and I’m afraid the UNESCO designation might attract more climbers from overseas to aggravate the situation.

There is a legend, supported by the records of ancient Chinese “Shi-Chi” about a Chinese explorer named Xu Fu who journeyed twice to the eastern seas to look for the elixir of life between 219 BC and 210 BC on behalf of Qin Shi Huang. On each trip, Xu Fu was accompanied by thousands of crew, craftsmen of various fields, boys and girls. However, he did not return from his second journey and it is believed that he perished in Yamato (Japan), after traveling near Mt. Fuji. Xu Fu is enshrined at the foot of the mountain and around the nearby lakes.

I’ll give a quick overview of Fujisan’s cultural heritage:

When I’m walking along the Tago Coast
I can see the snow falling on the lofty peak of Mt. Fuji.

- from the most ancient Anthology of Japanese poems (8th Century)
So sung the poet Akahito Yamanobe. He is enshrined in the East Omi, near Biwa Lake, in Western Japan.

Lady Sarashina, born in Soshu Province, now a part of Chiba, in the early 1000s traveled to Kyoto with her father, Takasue Sugawara, governor of the province. The Mt. Fuji she saw from Soshu looked more dignified and awesome as she approached. She wrote in her diary that the smoke near the top which glowed after dark and the thick cover of unmelted snow gave the impression that it wore a white jacket over a dress of deep violet. The Tale of Genji, the first novel in the history of world literature, written by the Court Lady Purple, was her favorite book while in Kyoto.


Mt. Fuji became the ground of mountaineering asceticism during the Ashikaga period (1300-1500). In the middle of the Edo period (after 1600), people began making pilgrimage ascents of Mt. Fuji. Shintoists consider the peak sacred to the goddess Sakuya, while the Buddhists believe the mountain is the gateway to a different world. Their wishes included recovery from illness, good harvest, easy childbirth, stability of heart, etc. Reverence and admiration for the mountain was soon depicted in many ‘Ukiyo-e’ woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai, both completing their respective “36 views of Fujisan” since Mt. Fuji could be then seen from everywhere in Edo. Hokusai’s “Red Fuji” and the “Great Wave at Kanagawa” influenced many western artists.


In the Meiji era (after 1868), Taikan Yokoyama worked almost exclusively on Mt. Fuji. His “Mr. Fuji and soaring crane” is now printed on the back of the Japanese 1,000 yen note. Contemporary Nihonga artist Tamako Kataoka (1905-2008) left many Fujisan works. She wrote: When I stood in front of Fujisan and looked, it seemed to be saying ‘you’re not depicting me, you are not looking at me, you haven’t captured the height nor the mass. What are you looking at? Be sure that you portray me properly”. I found Tamako’s conversation with Mt. Fuji intriguing, as I associated it with “100 views of Mt. Fuji”, a novel written by Osamu Dazai (1909-1949). The writer cooped up for three months in 1938 at Misaka Pass directly facing Mt. Fuji every day and night. His lines on Mt. Fuji began with harsh slanders against the Hiroshige and Hokusai’s artistic distortions, but turned gradually to marvelous expressions of attachment. He left after regaining his strength to live, thoroughly charmed by the glamorous Diva Fuji.

The photographic medium brought totally new artistic dimensions, especially with the accelerated development of hi-tech cameras. Fuji Albums of Koyo Okada (1895-1972) dominated works by professionals as well as amateurs. On each and every New Year, hundreds of climbers / photographers compete to take better shots. My old photographer friend Todasan returns to Mt. Fuji whenever he finds time, so I consider him a Fuji specialist and I hereby wish to salute him for the photos of Mt. Fuji he gave to me as gifts, which I wish to share with you, with his permission. They are all superb shots and I’m really very proud of him.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cuba Part 7: Finca Vigia Museo

Courage is grace under pressure
(Le courage est la grâce malgré la pression)
by Ernest Hemingway

My last post on Cuban is about the hilltop “Finca Vigia”, currently “Museo Hemingway”, along with the featured furnishing of ‘Pilar’, a 12 meter long fishing boat, operated by the Cuban Finca Vigia Foundation. The venue is 8 miles east of Havana.

Hemingway’s first visit to Cuba was in 1928. It may have happened as a layover to Spain, as an exploratory trip to Key West by way of Cuba, or as the result of his second wife Pauline’s family connections. However it happened, it was his enthusiasm for sports fishing there that drew him to Cuba again in 1932 and 1933. When his “Esquire” voyage articles with Carlos Guiterrez became a hit, he purchased the Finca Vigia in 1941 and resided there until 1960, when the communist party nationalized the properties belonging to all Americans.

It was at this Finca Vigia that “An Old Man and the Sea” was written, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes respectively in 1952 and 1954. The well known story is about a lonely old fisherman’s struggle to catch a big fish and bring it back to shore through shark-infested waters. It was praised as the most powerful, style forming mastery of the art of modern narration.

However, Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Awards Ceremony in Stockholm because he was suffering from severe injuries sustained in two successive plane accidents in Africa. He read a short acceptance speech over Cuban radio, and said in closing “a writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.”

While he recuperated, he paid homage to El Cobre Sanctuary near Santiago de Cuba. Here is what he told Cubans after the visit:

"I dedicated my Nobel Prize Medal to the fishermen of Cojimar. Although I had told this story of an old man and his fish to the whole world, it is their story and they should share this medal. A medal is worn close to the heart and my heart is in Cuba. The good people of Cuba have taken me into their hearts and caused me to live here longer than I have lived anywhere else.

This is my true home. I traveled, with the medal, to Santiago de Cuba and entered the church. I knelt at the feet of the Patron Saint of Cuba and deposited the medal. Silently, I prayed for the protection, the peace and the prosperity of the warm, friendly, generous people of Cuba. In Cuba, the people accepted me unconditionally. I could breathe and be happy. It is my clear, well lighted place."

(The medal was displayed on the altar, but was stolen in the 1980s. It was safely recovered with Castro’s appeal, but had not been on public display since then.)

During the Cuban Revolution, President Kennedy made an exception and allowed Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary to return to Finca Vigia. The Cuban government approached Mary to gift the house to them, to be used as a monument to Hemingway. She negotiated Hemingway’s manuscripts from the house in exchange for the donation.

Shipment of the manuscripts was delayed because Cuba and U.S. teams (with special visas) had to collaborate on microfilming key manuscripts and the final shipping destination had not been determined. Upon her return to the U.S., Mary asked Jacqueline Onassis to store them at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and the ‘Hemingway Archive’ was established. It was in the mid 1970’s that the Cuban documents were finally unpacked in Boston. Today Boston Library boasts 100,000 pages of writing and 10,000 photos, all digitized, for Hemingway scholars and researchers.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cuba Part 6: Guajira Guantanamela

I was in New York City when this song originated in Cuba and made it to Carnegie Hall in 1963 by folk singer Pete Seeger, and the group Sandpipers later popularized the song. The song was simple and an easy song to sing if you knew some Spanish.

However, I didn’t know that the song lyrics were written by Jose Marti (1853-1895), Cuba’s 'Walt Whitman' and “El Apostol” until very recently. Marti appears on Cuba’s one peso paper bill.

I tried to confirm Marti’s poem again and again by Googling Marti’s prolific “Simple Verses”. It’s true. The quoted popular lyrics are not in sequence, making the matter somewhat confusing, but the lyric was his. Then, each lyric is followed by the old local chorus "guantanamela” (a woman from Guantanamo) popularized by Cunban Singer-Song-writer Joseito Fernandez (1908-1979). Mind you, there seems to be more than 50 versions of Guantanamela in Cuba, sung by Joseito Fernandez, Celina Cruz, La Lupe, Tito Puente, Julio Iglesia, Die Taten Hosen, Demis Roussos Pepesito Reyes, and many others. Who created Marti’s version? Did someone match up the chorus with the lines from Marti’s poem and balance them?

It was Julian Orbon (1925-1991), a Spain-born Cuban pianist / composer, who studied under Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Aaron described him once as Cuba’s rising composer. Unfortunately he chose to flee from Cuba to Mexico to teach and later settled in New York. As a result, he wasn’t recognized as a Cuban musician. Ekran Angulo, who was Julian’s disciple, worked together with Pete Seeger and was instrumental in having Pete bring it to Carnegie.

Pete Seeger visited Cuba in 1971 and met the legendary Joseito Fernandez. Joseito never once left Cuba.

Guajiro/Guajira can be interpreted in many ways, but it first referred to indigenous farmers who were considered war heroes for the independence war against the oppressive Spanish landlords that took place in Eastern Cuba: Yara, Bayamo, and Santiago de Cuba. Cuban hymns were born there and now they are sung as Cuban Anthems. Guajira Guantanamela could be more popular than the Cuban Anthem Vayamesa. Vayamesa, too, has a number of versions, of which Vayamesa Mujer is my favorite:

Mujer Bayamesa, 3rd anthem of Cuba by Sindo Garay (1867-1968)

Lleva en su alma le bayamesa
tristes recuerdos de tradiciones
cuando contempla sus verdes llanos
lagrimas vierte por sus pasiones
(In her soul, the bayamo woman carries
sad memories of old traditions
when she looks at her green pastures
tears well up in her eyes)

Guantanamera (The Sandpipers)- Bich Thuy cover by Bich_Thuy