Writer’s Digest 75th Annual Writing Competition, 2006
Japanese Carp: A Memoir
In a cave overgrown with jungle brush and vines our Okinawan landlord hid while American soldiers terrorized the island during World War II. After the war relatives found him in an orphanage. As an older man he owned a walled compound that our sedan would slow down and turn into when we came home. One of my brothers always sat sandwhiched between mom and dad in the front. Our baby brother would drool in his car seat while my other brother and I bobbed our heads asleep on either side.
Just outside our landlord’s compound was overcrowding and poverty. Houses could barely be distinguished from each other with only rare swatches of vegetation between them. But on the hills beyond dense jungle encroached. Humidity carried the smells of the sea and the banyan trees dangling their vines, the elephant ears pushing through the bamboo bushes. At the horizon the East China Sea rippled onto the shore. Once we found a glass ball lost from an ancient fishing net there.
An average man at his height could look through the geometric shaped bricks to our landlord’s tailored lawn and trees, grand home, and hill top apartment building. An incline led down to where our landlord and my family lived. Descending to the house we drove under Japanese shade bushes, neatly clipped and tied, trellising the slope. There as the drive leveled we parked our sedan next to our landlord’s black one; a silver steed mounted at its helm. Of his home’s three stories of off-white stucco he shared the top two with us. The third floor was really just a roof-patio with antannae and water tanks. We lived on the second floor almost entirely encircled by another sizeable patio. From this patio my dad taught us the names of the aircraft which routinely rumbled our house overhead. F-15 Eagle fighter planes, C-5 cargo jumbo jets, UH-1 Huey helicopters, KC-135 air refueling tankers (that’s the one he flew); the SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance plane. Our neighbors didn’t look at the planes; they plugged their ears.
We played with the kids in our neighborhood. Since they could not speak English we developed code. For instance, they communicated how mad their moms got for playing with us by holding up fingers; the more fingers, the madder their moms.
Only visible from our landlord’s house, his private rock garden was just outside the gates. Every morning our landlord entered it; to his left he first bowed gravely to the stone bust of his father. Lifting the dipper resting below the bust he caught water flowing from a bamboo pipe into a rock basin. After pouring some of the water over his hands he toasted his father with the dipper then tipped his head back and drank. The overflow from the basin trickled down onto a path of smooth white and grey stones rambling toward his pond. Lush greenery shaped with ties and pruning scissors dotted the garden; each sprig of grass flowering equally distant and separate from its neighbors. In the water our landlord’s prize-winning carp gently rippled and churned the surface. At its narrow neck an arched stone bridge crossed the pond leading to an eight foot high smooth grey rock. Another rock, a leg in diameter, barely leaned over the water.
The rock was cool to the touch. There with my fists stretching my face skin and my head hanging over the pond I watched the carps’ fins and tails navigating their yellow, peach, and gold shimmering bodies. They circulated and scattered, crossed paths, or turned sharply wriggling under the stone bridge. The sun was warm. Cicadas harangued rhythmically on the trees and the water gurlged softly. I could smell grass and fish food. Twice daily our landlord tapped a small designated pepple calling the carp to him for pellets of food. Order and simplicity reigned these carp. After the feeding was over, the fish community under the textured glass, bellies full, began finding niches in the pool to rest in. My feet once crossed in the air, with time and heat, lost the wind that kept them masted. They dipped then straightened, my brow twitching slightly. The feet dipped and straightened, then finally laid to rest gently.
The proximity of the crowing defibrillated my lifeless body. And not knowing where I was, barely kept balance without falling into the water. I reported the incident straight away to my mother who came to watch me from our patio.
In 1945, as the American invasion grew imminent, Japanese leaders told Okinawans the enemy wouldn’t differentiate between military and civilians. As the American fleet neared Okinawa’s shores, families ran to the jungled hills for haven in caves. My landlord, a small boy, lived in one for months. Much of his family died around him of disease. Somehow he got to an orphanage for displaced children. He met his future wife there.
“What was that? I almost fell in!” I said to my mom. I didn’t appreciate the rooster’s presence. The rooster’s crowing destroyed my peace in the Japanese garden. “The garden was so calm until he bought that…rooster!”
“Shhhh. You’ll get used to it,” my mom said.
My brothers and I loved our favorite park for its unusually large marble slides. The slides extended almost the entire twenty feet wide of about a ten-foot high hill. We especially loved them because our parents played on them with us. We rarely explored the rest of the park, though. It was mostly just walking trails; our parents told us not to walk alone on them because of the “Beware of Rattlesnake” signs sticking out of the underbrush to each side.
At the top of the park’s small hill a memorial plaque stood alone at an observation point. Just above that plaque out of the park boundaries, a sign on a chain-link fence in both English and Japanese read, “Beware of Land Mines!” Farther down, in an overgrown area beside the park, other stone memorials were partially hidden with moss and vines. My dad read to us from his guidebook about the park. During the war families lived there in caves to hide from the Americans. This park commemorated the many people who died in the area. Soldiers had placed land mines around the caves to protect the families. How did my landlord live as a boy in those dark overgrown caves?
By June 1945 over twelve thousand Americans and one hundred and ten thousand Japanese died. Some call the battle of Okinawa the bloodiest in the Pacific Campaign. To the north of the island a memorial plaque marks a spot Americans call Suicide Cliffs. The Japanese call it something more dignified.
Because of the proximity of the neighborhood buildings, endless nooks and crannies beckoned us children all under four feet. On an exploring day down a new street my brothers and I noticed a small rickety house boarded at the windows. In the yard in front a paragraph of Japanese was written on a sign.
“Let’s hijak it.” We bounded ahead.
Stealthily cutting open the side screen door netting we squeezed between the wood planks into the house. The desecrated wood framing, scattered glass, and broken appliances set the stage for our pirate take-over. Something fell in the next room–crash!
My fingers reached nervously to twirl my frizzy curls.
My brothers broke to glance at me, “Oh, be quiet! You’re such a girl,” they said, then went back to scheming. I joined them bravely for the house heist. After our pirate imaginating we left. We recruited ourselves into GIs deciding to take an undercover route home…through the neighbor’s bamboo grove, which is where we got caught. The neighbor, who spotted us both in the house and then trampling through his grove, told our landlord who pulled my dad aside. That night came the spankings. We submitted as captured soldiers for punishment. Apparently the sign we ignored in front of the house forbid trespassers and attached a hefty fine.
I fidgeted that night worrying about getting dad in trouble with the Japanese. My curls drooped in the pooled sweat on my futon even though the fan was going all night. The next day I tugged my dad’s sleeve for him to face me. With one of my legs twisting across the other and my head down I said, “I’ll pay the money if you want, dad.”
He laughed. Of course he was the source of my scanty allowance.
“We’re immune from Japanese law. If we get in trouble it would be through US military law. They won’t do anything.”
“Oh.” Relieved, I took a deep breath then went looking for the boys.
After months of playing with Japanese kids living in a flat next door, their mother finally invited us over. The experience was one of only a few in over five years for us to see inside one of our neighbor’s homes. My landlord owned their flat, too. Their door opened to a tiled floor surrounded with cubby holes. We slipped our shoes off and donned a pair of plastic slippers that neatly lay in a row one step higher. Their mother sat us down at a table in the morning for breakfast. We communicated in shy smiles. She served spaghetti, though not spaghetti we were used to. I wished we had come at lunch time and ate slowly, hardly concealing my distaste.
“Mom, guess what? Japanese people eat spaghetti for breakfast.”
“I don’t think they eat spaghetti for breakfast, honey. They’re trying to make you feel at home with American food.”
The Japanese signed an agreement after World War II to disband its entire military and submit to American protection. Only recently Japan has slowly begun to remilitarize despite a majority who resist the efforts feeling they have seen enough war. The Japanese government still regularly contributes financially to America’s military requests, generously helping in the Iraqi wars.
Three seasons divde the year in Okinawa: Rainy, Summer, and Typhoon seasons. During the typhoon season, before we closed our storm shutters and grabbed our flash lights for an imminent storm, a warm rain flushed our patio filling it to the level of our drains two inches above the floor. Mom got our swim suits on and readied our hot wheels for a half hour of splashing and racing. The torrential rain muffled our giggling and screaming. It was like playing under a gentle water fall. Our hair stuck to our faces. Slowly with the wind gaining strength our footing grew unsteady. We played drunk. Our mother, though, looked to the sky, “It’s time to come in now.”
“Just five more minutes, plea–ea–ease?” we said, and then splash and slide we pretended not to hear her.
But suddenly the wind grew stronger and even we realized we could not withstand it much longer. In a previous typhoon the wind lifted our outside freezer and threw it across the patio. We went inside. We were all subject to typhoons, but in our landlord’s compound we weathered better than some of our neighbors. We didn’t know the extent of the damage, though. We couldn’t communicate with our neighbors very well.
My landlord spoke English only my dad understood. I liked him a lot. When we returned to the United States Dad left the military and I started learning Japanese. I missed seeing the flood of black hair, but most of all; I missed my landlord with his cultured bows and rock garden.