Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The Japanese and I
A war baby, I was fed, while growing up, with stories about the difficult war years and the uneasy peace of the Japanese occupation.
It should have been easy for me to hate the Hapon but the ambivalent stories impressed upon me made it hard for me to indict them absolutely. Sure, I heard later accounts about “Japanese atrocities “ (why does that phrase sound almost like a cliché?), how the Japanese treacherously bombed Pearl Harbor, how 10,000 Filipino and American soldiers perished in the Bataan Death March, how Japanese soldiers used some Pinays for personal "comfort." But maybe because my immediate family was largely spared of wartime catastrophes, with no one dead nor hurt nor gravely abused, the tales twice told me were mostly benign.
The first story happened on Day 1 of my chequered life.
From Gagalangin, Tondo where we lived to Ermita where the Philippine General Hospital was located was an hour’s distance by karetela (horse-drawn carriage). My long expectant mom, whose time finally had come, would have preferred to be whisked away in a cab for she sensed, by dint of experience, the baby inside her was in a hurry to get out. But alas, taxis were as hard to come by those days as American Spam luncheon meat and Hereford corned beef were hard to buy. Sure enough, whby the time the karetela ho-hooed to a stop, its seats and floor had been splattered with placental blood, with baby’s head already bobbing out. My dad, by then a bundle of nerves, clambered down so hurriedly he almost slipped by the pavement. Who would happen to come by and steady him with a swift hand but a Japanese officer who, summarizing the situation in one sweeping glance, later helped lift anxious mother and half-born infant from out of the carriage into the hospital’s obstetric unit?
When I was a toddler, another friendly Japanese soldier came into my life, or so my Lola loved to tell me. He was a sentry who would pass by our house to and from work. I reminded him of his own daughter whom he sorely missed, he would tell my Lola who subbed as my guardian every time my mom tended her rice store at the talipapa. For the entitlement to pinch my cheeks and make goo-goo eyes at me, the Japanese would give me pieces of bubble gum and candy.
These stories are, of course, third-person accounts but were told and retold so many times I sometimes confuse the memory of the telling with first-hand memory. Actually, it would take about 30 years more before I made my first true Japanese friend.
The Nagoya International Training Center, Nagoya, Japan, where I was sent on a fellowship training on small business promotion by my office in 1974, became both school and home to me for three months.
I arrived at the Center in the early evening after a two-hour trip by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. The train ride had been pleasant but uneventful and I was reading a pocketbook some of the time -- until we reached tall, snow capped mountain ranges partly hidden by blue gray clouds -- whereupon a couple of Japanese gentlemen suddenly rose from their seats to jolt me away from my book, almost frantically pointing outward. “Look, Fuji, Fuji!” they chimed. Truly, what right had I to bury my nose on a banal story when I could feast my eyes on splendor and majesty just by looking out the window?! I was grateful for the magnificent eyeful, but more than that, I was amazed how proud they were of their Mt. Fuji and – as I found out later -- of many things Japanese.
I fell in love with the Japanese people overnight.