I lived in the small village of Fujino (Wisteria fields) on Omatta San’s 400 year old farm in Oji San’s wonderful 20 tatami second floor flat, just above his workshop. Oji San was a 78 year old farmer, bamboo basket maker, the Kanagawa-Ken croquet champion, skirt chaser and the chrysanthemum growing king. Every morning, once the mist settled I looked out at a 600 year old shrine with an equally old sugi tree, a lush valley and Oji San’s flowers.
Somehow he was brave enough to let a gaijin woman with eclectic friends (Tibetan Lamas, Penan forest dwellers w/blow pipes, activists, painters, dancers, organic farmers, etc.) and a penchant for painting save the forest banners, constructing dragons and building Aborigine stage sets stay on his property. He even let me garden! I kept the neighbours talkin’, and he, unfazed, would come by, smile and say "ja Toraishi san naaaani o yateiru kana! Mo iro iro kana! Omoshiroi na!" Then off he’d go wearing his old tattered straw hat to putter in his vegetable patch.
Beside my flat was Oji San’s O Kura, a rich ochre coloured adobe mud storage shed with 500cm thick walls, a steep ceramic tiled roof that bore the family’s crest. It had been there as long as his family had, and in the heat of a summer afternoon he could be found sleeping on its cool black iron wood second floor. It was once the store of the family’s harvest, when I lived there it stored junk. One day in a coffee fuel injected energetic frenzy, I took it upon myself to clean it out. Amongst old rusty nails, tools, stacks of wood & farm implements, I found Oji San’s WWII helmet.
I was stunned! This patient man, who let me live there in spite of my lack of conventions, what the neighbours said, who welcomed all my guests, who lovingly tended his prize winning chrysanthemums every morning, was in that war! The war where the Japanese committed unspeakable atrocities, the war that has, to this day, kept Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, the people of Borneo, Philippinos and so on seething in hatred and anger toward the Japanese. My Oji San! Should I hate him? Be weary of him? Was he one of those? Did he rape Korean Women? Did he torture? If he did, did he do so blindly? Did he do it at all? Did he try to stop bad behaviour? Did he turn a blind eye? Where did he serve?
A few weeks later, there was a ceremony at the Sagamiko dam, the next village down river from Fujino, in memory of the Korean Prisoners of war who suffered and died in its construction. Infrastructures everywhere have slavery and suffering embedded in them. The Dam is also the graveyard for those who fell into the cement during its construction. Unlike the focused and unyielding systematic deprogramming & reprogramming of post WWII German society, Japan remains in a silent form of denial. Do not wake sleeping cats is what I was told! Just the mention of war atrocities can cause deep political schisms. The friends who orchestrated this ceremony patiently conducted political and social maneuvering for over 25 years to get a small metal plaque by the lake.
My friend Mark was visiting, he loved riding up to Fujino on his motorbike from Tokyo. He is a bit accident prone and has a lead foot, always an exciting ride! He offered me a lift to the ceremony, and I needed a helmet. Next think I know, I am on the back of Mark’s bike, doin’ a hundred K up and down windy mountain roads, with the afternoon sun on our backs, and wearing Oji San’s military helmet on my way to the unveiling of a Korean prisoner of war commemoration plaque. Sometimes life is just like a cubist painting. The complexities of war and peace became so much clearer on that day!
Mark dropped me off, and there I was, alone, listening to a solemn prayer, and concealing the helmet behind my back. The mourners and I got on board a ship, monks chanting, and in the middle of the Sagamiko human made lake, we scattered chrysanthemums to the lost souls of war.