Friday, December 25, 2020

People We Lost in 2020: Remembering the Yamadas

I learned about the sudden deaths of Joe and Elizabeth Yamada in May by reading the first digitized "Footprints", the combined Spring-Summer Quarterly issues published by the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego (JAHSSD). I contacted my San Diego friends who was close to them. After my wife and I left San Diego in the mid 1990’s, our contacts with friends in the US gradually faded. What I learned from my contacts was that Joe had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, Beth was nursing him unsparingly. I understand a very fatigued Beth succumbed a few days later after Joe. I hastened my condolatory donation through JAHSSD.

Around the same time, I was pleased to receive a complimentary children’s book from another San Diego friend Write to Me by Cynthia Grady (New Mexico), illustration by Amiko Hirano (Mass). It is a 30-page booklet, published by Charlesbridge. When my translation of Joanne Oppenheim's Dear Miss Breed was published from Kashiwa Book Publishing Tokyo, I received comments from many Japanese readers to cinematize it. The story was dramatized in San Diego by Andy Lowe in early 2000. However, it never occurred to me to make it a children’s book. It is a great idea to visualize the stories for children. I salute both the producer Cynthia and the illustrator Amiko for a job well done.

I noted Joanne Oppenheim, writer of Dear Miss Breed (Scholastic) sent her memorial writing for Joe and Elizabeth to JAHSSD.

It was about half a century ago when I met Clara Breed, a fill-in secretary at the time, and Joe and Elizabeth Yamada, at the San Diego Balboa Park Japanese Friendship Garden Preparation and Funding Committee Meeting, headed by Will Happen Jr, the Honorable Japanese General Consul in San Diego. I represented my employer in the Committee. However, I did not know the relationship between Clara Breed and the Yamadas. It was after the funeral of Clara Breed that I came to know about their beautiful correspondences during their tense incarcerated camp life. In researching the childrens’ letters myself, I learned Joanne Oppenheim had started interviewing Breed’s children. I waited for her book to be published and translated it for the sake of all the young Japanese children upon returning to Japan.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

I wish to thank first the "Roka" Society in Kumamoto for the inspiration of the article, and secondly, Mataro (Matt) Miyazaki and Koji Kanatani, my mutual friends in presenting to you the artwork of “The House of Tolstoy”. Matt Miyazaki traveled to Yasnaya Polyana in Russia in June 2019, as a member of Yasuko Tanaka’s (Honorable Professor of Osaka University) “Russian Writers Study Circle Tour”. Matt painted his artwork while visiting Yasnaya Polyana and exhibited it at his coterie circle in Kyoto.

Visit to Yasnaya Polyana

The saying goes “All roads lead to Rome" or “Once out of home, you tread numerous ways to reach your destination”. Roka Tokutomi (1868-1927), a famous writer, proved it 100 years ago when he traveled alone, with conviction, from Japan to Russia at the prime age of 38. Roka’s brother, Soho Tokutomi, and a companion, visited the same place ahead of time and Roka was well versed on how they traveled. Roka took another way, a questionable one.

In April 1906, he sailed from Yokohama onboard the ss Bingo Maru (NYK Line) around the Indian Ocean. After a month and a half, Roka landed at Port Said, Egypt and wrote to Leo Tolstoy that he safely arrived at the Mediterranean. He then rode a camel to see the Nile and Great Pyramids for a few days for a breather after his long ocean journey. Roka was surprised by an unexpected 24-hour quarantine confinement at Port Said. It reminds us of the Corona Virus quarantine of the Cruise Vessel in Yokohama early this year.

Roka then spent over a month, May to June, in Jerusalem for the primary objective of this trip. He likely would've carried a number of introductions to Christian Churches. His “Pilgrim Travelog”, published in December 1906 from the Keiseisha, detailed his Jerusalem activities. My Japanese American friends in California visited Jerusalem some years ago for about a week. They said they visited Jericho, the Wailing Wall, Dead Sea, Nazareth, Sumaria. etc.

After Jerusalem, he intended to sail from Port Said and Istanbul to the Black Sea, Odessa in particular. I am curious how he conquered various barriers like time, borders, languages, etc.

Roka was accompanied by Nakamuraya (a shop owner from Istanbul) to Bosporus Strait. In those days, the bridge was yet to come. The question was how he found Nakamuraya. I guess Roka just found the store by coincidence. I had a similar experience of bumping into a Japanese American in a Mexican village and our conversation was vivacious.

Again, Nakamuraya recommended Roka to take a train to Sofia, Bulgaria and his companion saw him off at the railroad station. On board the train, he was the focus of passengers’ attention. They called him “Togo”, apparently in reference to the Japanese admiral who beat the Baltic.

It’s not clear how Roka traveled through Romania, but he reached Galati and crossed the River Donau where it almost exits to the Black Sea. At Reny, Uklaia, closely facing the Donau, Roka succeeded in purchasing a train ticket all the way to Tula! 'Banzai'! He almost made it. The rest would be an easy train ride. He could sleep for the entire trip of 1600 km!

There was one small problem. His brother Soho repeatedly reminded him that the station of Yasnaya Polyana is one small station after Tula, where the express train will not stop. Roka came from the south and arrived in Tula around midnight. The Tula station staff tried to explain to him, in Russian, in vain. Roka spoke in French to be understood, but failed. People gathered. One woman who understood English showed up at the last minute, solved the puzzle. Roka barely caught the first southbound local train before dawn.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


My favorite flower in December is the poinsettia, with its beautiful red, star-shape. It is called "Flame Leaf" in Central America, or "Flores de Noche Buena." "Shojoboku" is a Japanese name but poinsettia is more popular. I'm glad to report that a florist in Wakamastsu Ward in Kitakyushu where we reside started marketing a palm-sized brandnew poinsettia, calling it 'coinsettia' or 'princettia'. Its leaves are round and adorable."

Around the 15th Century, the sap of the plant was used to control the fever. The flower was brought to California over a 100 years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Most of the American poinsettia today now come from California. In fact, there is a town "Poinsettia" near Carlsbad where we used to live, a little north of San Diego.

The legend of the Poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Pepita and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas Festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

One Christmas Eve, Pepita and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way, they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course, other children teased them when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing because they knew they had given what they could.

Pepita and Pablo began placing the green leaves, which turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by the beautiful star-like flowers that we see today.

There's no other holiday like Christmas. Most of us, whether Christians or not, celebrate the holiday without knowing how the traditions get started or what they signify. Christmas is much more when you know some facts behind the holiday.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Retiring from Kitakyushu Toastmasters

Dear Kitakyushu Toastmasters,

After much contemplation and brooding amid the social distancing corona pandemonium world, I feel it is time for me to resign from TM. Please know that all Kitakyushu TMs will forever be in my thoughts with great admiration and deep respect.

Reflecting back, we chartered our club on August 8, 1997, the date of double infinity per the late Yasuko Nishimura, one of the cofounders. Elated in spirit, Albert Moe and I declared “let’s establish Toastmasters as a name in Japan”. Yes, we could be a club as prestigious, enjoyable, and comfortable as wearing designer blue jeans. We had four slogans. They were "1 Expand our base, 2 Put our name before the public, 3 Build new clubs from old clubs, 4 Build from youth. Club efforts surely would benefit the community."

All in a family circle, we danced and sang the YMCA song at our jovial 10th Anniversary. In the blink of an eye, the 15th Anniversary came along. We held arms and shoulders together and repeated the YMCA song and dance again. Today, the club had prospered to the level of sending a leading light in District 79, uttered Sumiko Futana, District Governor.

In addition to being a paid member, I had actively promoted activities modeled after TM for about 5 years around the 1980s at my work in California. The mission was to groom corporate personnel to better address employees. One ex-TM member in the Communication Dept. initiated semi-TM classes during off work hours. He assigned 3 speakers, 3 evaluators for the formal speeches, and selected participants randomly for impromptu speeches. We had a contest every three months or so, the winners got trophies (huge compared to those of today) apparently bought from TM HDQ in Orange County. The Club ceased to exist after he resigned from the company. That said, my TM experience easily adds up to well over 20 years.

Personally, I engaged in an around-the-world adventurous TM-trek! Chicago ‘99 was my first Toastmasters International (TMI) Conference. I enjoyed the similar experiences in Anaheim, San Antonio, Atlanta, and Washington DC in the early 2000’s. I attended sister clubs in Canada and Taiwan and then traveled to South America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Thailand. The most memorable trip was in 2014 to Kuala Lumpur, the first TMI outside of North America.

I also encountered my share of problems! I was unable to find clubs in Russia, Brazil and China in the early 2000’s. Except for Hong Kong, China had some signs of starting clubs in several major cities but it was difficult to locate them back then. Today, China has thrived with the TM movement.

At a TMI in the US, I sat with a fellow TM. We exchanged cards before exiting. It was Deepak Menom, the current International President. It is a very small world!

I THANK all Kitakyushu TMs. Thank you, Dan Rex, George Yen/Jorrie Wu, Shelly Walkers, Bob Duncan, Sara Mosher, Jiri Pscenicka, George Wagners, Petra Chorador, Lidia Covell and many other TMs, I appreciate your long friendship.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Irkutsk & Lake Baikal - Part 2: The Adventures of Kodayu Daikokuya

Mitchie and the Group took a half-day bus tour of Irkutsk before reembarking on the Trans-Siberian Train, which included visits to cathedrals, monasteries, parks, Academic Drama Theater and others. There were two spots they visited related to Japan - 1) a road sign “Kanazawa Street”, honoring the Irkutsk friendship relations with Ishikawa Prefecture and 2) a footprint epitaph of Kodayu Daikokuya (1751-1828) who spent 5 years in Irkutsk waiting for the Tsar’s permission to return to Japan. Captain Kodayu and his 17 “Heishomaru” crew, was transporting rice from Ise to Edo, when they suffered a shipwreck and became castaways at one of the Aleut islands. It was in 1782, more than half a century prior to the legendary John Manjiro’s return from the US, who served as interpreter for Commodore Perry. It took a decade for both Kodayu and Manjiro to sail back to Japan.

This blog traces Kodayu’s checkered journey highlighting his life at Irkutsk as the pivotal stopover point.

1786: Escape from the Aleut island (Kodayu crew decreased) A boat to pick up Russian seal fur hunters arrived, but was heavily damaged from a storm. Together with Russians, the Kodayu crew repaired the boat to make it sailable. During 4 years on the island, Kodayu and the crew acquired basic communication skills.

1787: Camchatsk Reporting to the Tigil-Camchatsk Governor, the crew was endowed with a cost of living as foreign nationals but rejected their plea to return to Japan. Kodayu met Barterlemy de Lesseps, uncle of Ferdinand de Lesseps here. Barterlemy was a Russian interpreter of La Peruse Pacific Survey Mission of France. He wrote about Kodayu and the Japanese castaways in his journal in 1790 - “the crew had special feeling of attachment and respect for Kodayu.”

1788: Leave for Irkutsk via Okhotsk, Vasilli, Yakutsk (2,400km) using boats, sleighs, horses, etc.

The Kodayu crew took advantage of Russian official Xotokevich who transferred to Irkutsk. Kodayu reported to Irkutsk Governor with their plea to return - to no avail and requested instead that they teach Japanese in Irkutsk. The five Japanese crew discussed how to live here for the moment without receiving a subsidy from the government. They determined to work here, or daily employment like blacksmith, copper work, dyer, etc. Meanwhile Xotokevich, who helped Kodayu travel to Irkutsk, introduced him to Kirill Laksman, a naturalist and a member of St. Petersburg Science Academy. He knew high ranked persons in the capital. Kodayu showed the copy of petition submitted to the Governor-General. Kirill promised Kodayu to do his best to realize his return to Japan, and prepared a new petition, where Kirill added the crew's return would open the way to a new trade relationship between Russia and Japan. Kodayu and the crew started to work for Kirill, developing trust and a close friendship.

Kodayu met “Tagamaru” boat castaways at Irkutsk who were teaching at the Japanese school.

1791: St. Petersburg/Tsarskoy Seio

When Kodayu met with Kirill on New Year’s day, Kirill said to Kodayu that it was strange to experience such a delay to get a reply. The petition might have been neglected on the way and had not been delivered to the Empress. There was no way other than appeal directly with the Empress. Kodayu felt that the idea was good and he was teary with joy. Kirill and Kodayu set to sleigh to St. Petersburg, 6000 km away, 200km each day, via Moscow. Kirill submitted the petition for Kodayu in February. Kirill became sick after the exhausting trip. Kodayu attended to Kirill until he fully recovered. In May the two received an invitation from Ekaterina the Great and hurried to Tsarskoy Seio. Listening to Kodayu, Ekaterina shed tears with compassion saying “how pitiful” and promised their return voyage.

Kodayu made it finally to Japan after 10 years. Contrary to Manjiro, however, Kodayu and Isokichi, one and only survivor (proving their harsh Siberian travel from frostbites mostly) had to go through semi-life prison and isolation in Edo, under Tokugawa Shogunate surveillance. One great thing was Kodayu recorded daily journals as captain and had dictated his adventures to Edo reporters which in turn became a number of modern novels. I noted an opera Kodayu which was produced in Moscow a few years ago, featuring a beautiful duet sung by Kodayu and Laksman.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Irkutsk & Lake Baikal - Part 1

My neighbor Mitchie and I share some common interests. We both have traveled to Russia. Thus, this blog - Russia Part 3, Irkutsk & Lake Baikal. He sent me the related CD photo album dated Sept 2001. He and his wife with their close kin couple (called hereafter the Group) took the Trans-Siberian Railroad together to Moscow and Saint Petersburg and stopped by Irkutsk, the so-called Paris in Southern Siberia for 3 days. My interest was Lake Baikal, as a mythical birthplace of the Japanese race, originating from the northern Mongoloid groups, and often related to the world conqueror Genghis Kahn (1162-1227). We Japanese are born with benign skin markings ‘Mongolian Spot’, which fades and disappears as we grow. Linguistically the Japanese belong to the same Ural-Althaic Languages as the Mongolian. Japan was targeted by Kublai Kahn (1215-1294), the 5th Khan and his fleet force, not once but twice. By luck, Japan was saved each time by seasonal typhoons that sank Mongolian boats.

I liked to sing Russian folk songs when I was young. “By the Lake Baikal”, a bit bleak, was my favorite, and I still remember the song by heart. The melody belongs to an anonymous Russian folklore but the lyrics in Japanese were by the famous cellist Yoritoyo Inoue (1912 - 1996) - a returnee from Siberia as a prisoner of war. I want to say he is the best and irreplaceable lyricist of the song. Upon checking the original Russian folksong, I found the song was for the exiled Decembrists in 1825 to Irkutsk, lamenting their misfortune but pledging they would bear down and stand and return home someday. Please listen to the Japanese Dark Ducks Quartet’s melody I added for your listening pleasure.

Dark Ducks version

Russian version

The first exiled people came to Siberia since the beginning of the 17th century - with the beginning of the Romanov Dynasty. Wild, remote, icy Siberia became the place of eternal exile and death of many hundreds and thousands of people disloyal to the government. The first Decembrist group from Petropavlovskaya took almost two months to reach Irkutsk. Brave wives followed. These people stayed and died in Irkutsk rather than returning. In 1917. the revolution hit with the abolition of the monarchy. Bolshevik (Reds) eventually won over the counter-revolutionaries (Whites) in 1923. The civil war chased remnants, nobles and refugees into Siberia, far out to Baikal, drowning them in watery graves.

After their overnight hotel stay in Irkutsk, Mitchie and the Group, headed for Litsvyanka (see the map), located 70 km southeast from Irkutsk, near the point where the Angara River leaves Lake Baikal. There at the mouth of the river stands the colorful Limnological Museum. They saw not only fauna and flora but enjoyed its fabulous aquarium. In 1996, Lake Baikal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Listvyanka is an old style Siberian village famous for its trade history, fish market and St. Nikolay’s Church made of logs in 1846 . It also has many scenic spots. On the way back to Irkutsk, they stopped at the Taltsy Wooden Architecture Museum in the open air. All of the structures represent the settlements of Evenks, Russians, Buryats and give an overview of the traditional home in Siberia.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Kitakyushu Next Generation Energy, Infrastructure & Logistics Projects Scramble, embracing its Quintessential High Strength Bolts, the battery of our industry!

A Happy Reiwa’s 2nd New Year to you all from Kitakyushu Japan! Yesterday (Jan 17) was a quarter century anniversary since the tragic Great Hanshin Earthquake. Kobe people had their memorial service and silent prayer in front of bamboo lanterns to mourn the victims. That was the new year I returned to Japan after retiring from the U.S. and started my ‘2nd Round’ career in Japan. I adopted Kitakyushu as my new home with the help of my sister-in-law and commenced to run the 4th English Toastmasters Club on Kyushu Island.

Kitakyushu, having accomplished a complete transformation from ”Iron Capital” to multi-cultural/diversified technology metro, is proud of its blue skies and blue sea, commissioning renewable energy projects, such as solar, biomass and off-shore wind farms in Hibikinada. In addition, the area boasts a ton of infrastructural / logistics achievements including a new monorail transport (sides of trains featuring images from “Galaxy Express 999” authored by native son Reiji Matsumoto), the largest container port terminal in western Japan, around the clock floating (offshore) passenger / cargo airport, progressive urban expressway network construction, hospitable accommodations for international conferences featuring “environmental topics” emphasizing the area’s strengths. Kitakyushu is also boosting sporting events, opening an anime/manga museum and have built a live stage performance theater complex, and hosted many film location shoots. The long, sustained effort should pay off and we expect a bright 2020 dawn to shine over Kitakyushu.

During the New Year holiday celebration, I met an old friend “Mitchie” in the neighborhood who surprised me with the news that the bolts he put his heart and soul in developing as a young engineer, was used in bedecking the ramp bridge recently straddled over the Kagoshima Railroads at the JR Yahata Station. I asked him did he mean by the “Harunomachi” Ramp, the so-called Kurosaki Bypass (5.8km between Jinnoharu and Harunamachi) to be connected to #3 National Road and eventually to the Urban Express in the near future? He said yes! Wow, I had been watching the long ramp under construction at the south side quarter block along the JR railroad since last Spring which took more than half a year in the form of overhead concrete road on the scaffold. Around October, I saw tall and heavy-duty cranes arriving for the final lifting. Unfortunately, I was hospitalized in early November and could not confirm when the work was completed. I think I read in the paper the school children in the neighborhood were invited to see it just before the opening week. Upon completion of the Kurosaki Bypass, industries that will now benefit in the Higashida District, where the century old Yahata Iron & Steel was based, consist of cogeneration, smart grids, home and building energy management systems, and medical institutions. My friend said the final lifting was done in the dead of night in late December with vehicle traffic suspended. When I visited the site in January, the work was already completed. All the clutter I saw last year was gone. Showing outside the Yahata JR Station were recorded videos of the ramp bridge being lifted by a 3,000 ton crane.

The second time I met Mitchie, he brought his ”baby” bolt and the mock photo of the bolt set on a rocket ready to go adorned with the rising sun flag, his way of rejoicing predominance of his bolts. We cheered over cups of coffee for what his bolts have achieved. Thousands of his bolts were mounted on the ramp bridge. His bolts were also used on high-rise buildings, including Abeno-Haruka Tower in Osaka, currently the tallest building in Japan, and the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower and the new Olympic Stadium recently opened with countless number of his bolts. Bolts are quintessential in airplanes, vehicles and in the space industry.

I was not an engineer but during World War II, I got mobilized for about two years as a student worker at an airplane factory, which was converted from a spinning mill. After receiving intensive training by an arsenal mechanic, I was assigned to wing panel tack riveting, using an air drill. I found caulking aluminum tack not an easy job. They often ended up deformed to be chiseled off. Today, we live in a world where mistakes are never tolerated!

Photos of ramp bridge work at night courtesy of Kawada Industries, site manager