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My Farmhouse in Japan: A Breakfast to Remember

by John Roderick
  

On the afternoon of Sunday December 7, 1941, I began to hate Japan and the Japanese, a nation and a race I hardly knew.

I was twenty-six then, the only editor on duty in the Portland, Maine, bureau of the Associated Press. It seemed like a quiet, eventless Sunday until the bells on our teletype machines began clanging, waking me from the daydream into which I had fallen.

The urgent message read:

JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR

The details came clattering over the teletypes: Carrier-based Imperial Japanese Navy bombers armed with torpedoes had, without warning, destroyed much of the U.S. fleet moored at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Eight battleships were sunk or severely damaged, 188 aircraft destroyed, 2,280 military men killed, and 1,109 wounded. Sixty-eight civilians also died.

The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt described December 7 as “a date which will live in infamy” and congress declared war on Japan.

In the twenty-first century, the enemy is less visible, harder to pin down. He operates from secret headquarters and strikes at many targets hard to identify and defend. But there was no question about the enemy in 1941. It was Imperial Japan. A mixture of fact, fiction, and propaganda over the war years persuaded me, and millions of other Americans, that Japan was evil and the Japanese were monsters, buck-toothed, near-sighted, slow-witted, and cruel.

Inducted into the army in 1942, I studied the Japanese language at Yale University as part of a War Department program to train enough interpreters for the occupation of a defeated Japan.

My teachers, Japanese interned for the war’s duration, were pleasant enough, but my revulsion persisted. The Bataan Death March in the Philippines, which took the lives of many American prisoners of war, and later atrocities increased my distaste for Japan and the Japanese.

Minka with man on porch.When the war ended in 1945, I became an AP foreign corres-pondent in China. Becoming a foreign correspondent opened up a whole new, thrilling world for me. Within a month I was in Yanan living in a cave in the beleaguered capital of the Chinese communists and hobnobbing with their leader, Mao Tse-tung. I reported the harsh march of events that would lead to their conquest of all China in 1949.

From there I went to Amman, Transjordan, and reported the birth of Israel and the Arab world’s attempt to stifle it in its cradle. Postwar London and Paris, my dream city, followed, and then French Indochina, reporting the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

In Saigon, I got an invitation in 1954 from a friend in Japan to visit Tokyo on my vacation. World War II had ended nine years before. I decided to accept.

I expected to find the city peopled with the cruel and unattractive stereotypes of wartime propaganda. I met instead a new generation of Japanese, embittered by the war their elders had foisted on their country and eager to learn about their American conquerors, who had conducted the military occupation firmly, which they expected, but also with compassion and intelligence, which they had not.

These Japanese were young, anti-war, and more pro-American than many Frenchmen I had known in Paris.

After years of hating the Japanese, I suddenly found them attractive, intelligent, and enthusiastic about democracy and its freedoms. Most young Japanese were sick and tired of militarism. They were eager to sample the privileges of democracy, to demonstrate and protest, which they did almost daily, without risking torture or imprisonment. Though they had little say in writing the American-sponsored “no war” constitution, they embraced it fervently. The roots of their pacifist credentials were visible in the destroyed cities and millions of war dead. Ashamed to be labeled pariahs, they yearned almost achingly to rejoin the family of civilized nations. I was willing to stop thinking of the Japanese as enemies and tentatively consider recognizing them as friends.

I talked to some diehard militarists, but they were few and no longer respected. They had nothing new or original to say; defeat had robbed them of their old, discredited, jingoist arguments.

Over the next five years, I returned to Japan on vacations from Paris and Hong Kong until, in 1959, AP gave me what I had once least wanted and now eagerly sought—assignment to Tokyo.

Besides admiring the defeated people, I found that I also liked Japan because in many ways it reminded me of China, where I had spent the first three years of my overseas career. In fact, I loved the Chinese and their culture so much I planned to end my career and retire in Beijing. When I lived there in 1947, it was a sleepy, dusty city of scholars, philosophers, and unfocused dreamers. I felt I had the qualifications—it didn’t take much— to become one of those dreamers.

Mao, conqueror of China in 1949, shattered my plans. Instead of acting like the poet he had been, he became an absolute dictator, turned China into a nation of robots. He converted Beijing into a noisy, busy, regimented metropolis as clunky and uninspired as cold-war Moscow.

Minka under construction.It was not what I wanted, so I said good-bye to my illusions of a Chinese Shangri-La.

Over the centuries Japan, I found, had been influenced by its giant neighbor. Wherever I turned, I saw Chinese influence in Japanese religion, paintings, sculpture, literature, law, music, the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and government. Even the  ideographs of its language were borrowed from China. But the Japanese made what they had taken peculiarly and markedly
their own.

Though I had loved China and the Chinese and had met some congenial communists, such as its premier, Chou En-lai, I chafed under the rigid controls and wrong-headed dogmatism of the communist system. I was thrilled by the yeasty, noisy, free-wheeling democracy of postwar Japan and glad to say and write what I pleased without worrying what some communist bureaucrat would think. Too many Americans, I thought, valued democracy only when they lost it. To enjoy these freedoms alongside a culture so closely resembling that of the ancient Chinese seemed more than I deserved. It suited me down to the ground.

But what I had loved about the Japanese in 1959—their relaxed way of life, willingness to talk endlessly about politics, art, music, literature, the theater, and sex—by 1964 had been sacrificed to the new god of industrialization.

The change was gradual. Almost from scratch, the Japanese began to rebuild their shattered economy. Those five years were devoted to rebuilding what before the war had been a booming industrial scene, and was now in ruins. When Tokyo was awarded the 1964 Olympic games, the rebuilding took off in a surge of relieved, grateful, and dedicated enthusiasm.

Yesterday’s students graduated and began looking for work. Older Japanese with skills found more opportunities opening up with the rise of offices and factories. Those who had been demonstrating in the streets for political reforms found themselves preoccupied with new chances to earn money. A full rice bowl did much to change political perspectives.

The Japanese I had known abandoned me to join the huge work force in what I thought of as the same old rat race—the contest for industrial power and wealth, which I had hoped was a thing of the past. Others called it an economic miracle as the Japanese rose from the ashes of defeat to once again make Japan into a superpower. It was, I believed, a mistake. Life was simpler, and many people seemed happier in those pre-industrialization days than they had been before. As the race intensified, thousands of new factories spewed smoke into the air, spilled metallic poisons into the rivers and streams, and polluted the earth. In Tokyo in mid-afternoon one could barely see more than a few hundred yards into the distance.

Discouraged and disillusioned, I made plans to leave. Paris beckoned. The skies there were clear, the wine plentiful, the French preferred the good life to one based solely on material wealth.

In the midst of these preparations, I met a young Japanese man named Yoshihiro Takishita, familiarly known as “Yochan.” He introduced me to his parents in his hometown, the Gifu mountain city of Shirotori, 350 miles from Tokyo. His father, Katoji, was a ramrod-straight ex–Imperial Army cavalryman, his mother, Kazu, a rosy-cheeked kimono maker still young-looking and energetic, was an amateur historian who regaled me with stories of the Gifu mountains.

Interior of minka.They embraced me with an enthusiasm that astonished, then pleased me. It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than forty years. The Takishitas have become my surrogate family, Yochan my adopted son. Because of them, our lives have changed and my long journey to Japan, which began in unreasoning hatred, has turned to love.

On subsequent visits I got to meet the farmers, carpenters, shopkeepers, sake brewers, timber workers, and small-town politicians of this rural city.

I saw that the backbone and resolve of Japan lay not in the seething big cities but in the enduring values of the villages: hard work, communal spirit, fatalism, love and respect for nature, superstition, religious fervor, and a refusal to admit defeat no matter what the odds they face. The industry and teamwork they foster and the natural skills they have mastered are the key elements of Japan’s economic greatness. It is why, despite an almost total lack of natural resources, its economy now ranks second only to that of the United States.

When Yochan, witty, amusing, and optimistic, joined me in my rented house in Tokyo, I decided to stay in the country. Japan appealed to me not only as a good story but also as a place to live and work. Japanese culture and a newly acquired Japanese family, the Takishitas, were attractions I could not resist. There was something more: the Japanese themselves. Their pro-American friendliness and affection, honesty, sincerity, and unfailing courtesy I found refreshing. And their spare, clean, uncluttered lifestyle struck an answering chord. They seemed to be everything I wasn’t and wanted to be.

Their extraordinary cultural accomplishments: folding-screen paintings, in which they excelled, the kabuki and noh theaters, calligraphy, woodblock prints, the many and colorful country and religious festivals fascinated me. And finally, and for me, importantly, their cuisine. Composed of the choicest natural ingredients, unchanged by few spices, served in an elegant setting, it was a new, and to me, exciting taste sensation.

All these things left a vivid impression on the small-city Maine boy that I was. They contributed to making me feel remarkably at home in this once-hated country.

Closer view of minka construction.After the Olympic Games, we moved to another rented house in Kamakura, on the coast thirty-five miles southwest of Tokyo. By this time, far from thinking of leaving, I began to envision the possibility of spending many more years in Japan.

The subject came up during breakfast one day. Our frisky little black dog, Hoagy Carmichael, frantically chased butterflies in the garden. The sun, rising red-faced over the distant bay, made me feel, like Voltaire’s Candide, that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

“What a beautiful place,” I said to Yochan. “I wish I could buy a house like this, any house, in Japan. No more rent, no more nasty landladies.”

It was idle talk, not to be taken seriously. In thirty years as an AP reporter and foreign correspondent, I owned nothing of real value and didn’t want to. When tempted to do so, I remembered Thoreau’s warning that we think we have things but, in fact, things have us.

Mine had been, until then, a carefree, rootless, vagabond life. With my new family, that was changing. I felt a responsibility in my dealings with the Takishitas, particularly Yochan, that I had never experienced before. He bridged the gap in our ages by treating me exactly as he didKatoji. They were more like brothers than father and son in the way they joked and played together, calling each other by their first names.

Quick-witted and ebullient, Yochan beguiled me with his boyish smile and bantering manner. But I had yet to discover that, like Katoji, once he made up his mind to do something, he was almost frighteningly unstoppable.

Yochan said nothing then but two months later, out of the blue, he asked: “John-san, did you really mean it when you said you’d like a house of your own in Japan?”

I paused. “Why yes,” I replied. “But it was only wishful thinking. A dream, really. I don’t have enough money.”

He frowned. “Well, I took you seriously. My parents have found some old farmhouses, called minkas, not far from Shirotori. You might be able to buy one cheaply.”

“No matter how cheap, I’m afraid I could not afford it,” I replied.

Yochan shrugged.

“They’ve gone to a great deal of trouble,” he said. “You could at least take a look at them.”

John Roderick during construction.Since we had met two years earlier, Yochan’s family had been wonderfully kind to me. They had almost literally adopted me, a large American so recently an enemy, and at their insistence I had taken Yochan, their youngest son, under my wing during his student days.

Not that I needed any persuasion. From the beginning, despite the differences in our ages, race, and culture, we hit it off. At first I was John-san, the honorable John, but soon after it was just plain John, in the same way that he called his father and mother by their first names, something almost unheard of in relationships between Japanese parents and children. But Yochan was not an ordinary young man. For one thing he had an American sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a disdain for conventions. His relationship to his parents, and to me, could be described as affectionate, leavened with a large dose of bantering.

By the time Yochan mentioned the minkas to me I regarded the Takishitas as surrogate family. I loved them too much to do anything that might upset them. They had gone out of their way to find a house they thought I might afford. It would have been churlish to disillusion them, so I decided to play the game. The next day, Yochan and I met Katoji and Kazu in Shirotori, their hometown, spent the night there, and set out by taxi soon after breakfast for the remote hamlet of Ise.

Ise is in Fukui prefecture, an hour and a half from Shirotori, well off the main road that connects to the Gifu mountains. The area is wild and lonely, ideal for anyone seeking, for whatever reason, to hide from his fellow humans.

Our taxi came to a halt before a cluster of about a dozen thatch-roofed farmhouses that, at first glance, seemed to have been battered in a recent battle. Six or seven were in various stages of destruction, roofs gone, walls crumbled, timbers sticking out like bones that had broken through their outer skins. There were vacant places where others had stood. Only six or seven had survived.

I looked at Yochan. He indicated he would explain later.

Silently, we walked through one house after another until we came to the one Kazu and Katoji liked best. It was a monster of a house. I had seen farmhouses in my native Maine and many in Europe. None was like this. Thirty feet high, its steep, thatched snow roof scowled down at me like an enraged elephant. Its size and height terrified me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the reaction of the Takishitas, mère, père, et fils. Katoji and Kazu looked as though they were gazing on the newly discovered Egyptian tomb of King Tut. The rapture on their faces was reflected on Yochan’s who, like me, was seeing it for the first time.

I wondered whether we were looking at the same house. We were.

When we stepped inside my wonder, and distaste, increased. It was cold, damp, cobwebby, dirty, and forbidding. I could barely discern through the gloom the immense posts and beams that held up the massive roof. My reluctant admiration at seeing these architectural wonders evaporated at the sight of the wide wooden planks that made up the floor. A floor like no other I had ever seen, it rose several feet in the air above a second floor of pounded dirt called a doma. The entire edifice was all too large, too strange, and too overpowering. It left me with a feeling of unease. Even if I could have afforded it—I assumed the price would be as high as its roof—this was not the house for me.

Minka construction.Though I plainly saw how they felt, I could not believe that the Takishitas seriously thought I would want such a monstrously big, obviously unheatable, and darkly repelling structure as my home. But, even as I reasoned that surely they were too sensible to harbor such ideas, I realized, with a pang, that they could and did.

I have always been sensitive to the feelings of others, a trait that borders on weakness. Because I loved them and understood their motives, I decided to remain silent while the Takishitas led me through this wildly improbable, never-dreamed-of, house-hunting nightmare. Out of politeness, I looked interested, but ultimately, and with a show of regret, I was determined to say no. Firmly.

The owner, a friendly, short, flush-faced, middle-aged man joined us a few minutes later.

“My name,” he announced after bowing deeply, “is Nomura. You honor me by visiting my modest home. The house you are sitting in was built in 1734, and I am the head man of the village.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“My ancestors were members of the Heike,” he continued. “They built the first house on this spot in the twelfth century.”

This bit of historical lore aroused me from my total lack of interest in the house-hunting proceedings. I had heard of the Heike. They were Japan’s most celebrated losers. A military clan based in Osaka, they fought the Minamoto, based in Kamakura, for mastery of Japan in the twelfth century. After crushing them in a series of bloody battles, the Minamoto hunted them down almost to the last man. Few escaped. The Japanese see in their tragic end a sad commentary on the evanescence of life and a lesson in humility; even the most powerful must one day die and their works crumble into dust. The few descendants of the Heike enjoy a fame comparable to that of a home-run king or a movie star.

I looked at this small, meek-looking man with new respect.

“Even though I am an American, I have read about the Heike,” I said. “They are well-known in Kamakura where I live. Your ancestors were brave and tragic people.”

He bowed even more deeply.

“My honorable ancestor found safety here in 1188 after fleeing the victorious Minamoto in a famous battle,” he said. “This house has many memories. And I hate to part with it. But that’s fate. Shikataga nai. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Katoji cleared his throat.

“It is kind of you to consider selling this stately home to John-san,” he said, looking first at me, then at him.

“I would consider it an honor to give it to so famous an American journalist,” he said. “I have been assured he loves and respects Japanese culture and that he will cherish it as his own.”

I listened to this exchange in a daze, not quite sure about whom they were talking. Events were speeding up bewilderingly.

I felt like a drowning man going down for the third and last time.

I was losing control of the situation. This was not the scenario I had so confidently envisaged.

In this state of stunned confusion I heard Katoji’s voice, faint and distant, saying to Nomura-san, “And how much, in your great and benevolent generosity, are you asking for this truly splendid house?”

The answer was short and to the point.

“Would 5,000 yen be alright?” Nomura-san asked.

This figure startled me out of my torpor. I am a numb-skull at figures, but I knew that 5,000 yen in those days was the equivalent of fourteen U.S. dollars. I could hardly believe my ears. Hate it though I did, and though I didn’t want it at any price, I recognized that his drafty but magnificent old house was worth considerably more than that.

John RoderickWere these country people playing a joke on me, an innocent American? I didn’t have time to ask. The Takishitas’ faces lit up like sunrise over Mt. Fuji. Yochan beamed at me. Feeling foolish, I smiled weakly back.

Even after it had seeped into my consciousness that, instead of buying the old minka, I was being given it, my stunned mind refused to accept the fact. During what seemed an endless silence, I sat there saying nothing as all eyes were turned expectantly on me. Yochan made it clear I should accept.

Unwilling to make a scene but feeling foolish, I reached into my pocket and extracted the 5,000 yen—the price of a good lunch for one in Tokyo—and handed it to Nomura-san, who bowed yet again. The Takashitas applauded.

Briskly, Yochan produced a piece of paper and a pen and made out a rough bill of sale, which Nomura-san signed. Then a law student at Waseda University, this would be Yochan’s first and last legal act. We didn’t know it then, but the events of that day ended whatever youthful dreams he had had of being a lawyer.

I was now the reluctant owner of a huge minka I did not want, which I had acquired for a price I could not refuse.

“What the hell,” I thought, “am I going to do with this damn thing?”

I smiled for the benefit of the Takishitas and Nomura-san. Anyone could have seen that I didn’t mean it. But their euphoria was so great they thought it was the real thing.

  

John Roderick was an Associated Press foreign correspondent in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East for almost 40 years. He lives part of the year in Hawaii and part of the year in his minka in Kamakura, Japan.

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This essay is the first chapter of John Roderick's new book, Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). It is reprinted with permission.
 

Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, by John Roderick.

 

All photographs courtesy John Roderick and Princeton Architectural Press.

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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