🌿 Postcard Memoir: Japan
Grandfathers At War, Aoshima Shrine, 2003
🌿 Postcard Memoir
Postcard Memoir is a section of The Creative Moment featuring a series of short stories (creative nonfiction) about my world journey, accompanied by watercolor filtered photographs. Each short story is a glimpse of a much longer adventure, like receiving a postcard in the mail.
Grandfathers At War
By Emily Lupita
Tomoko was the best friend a girl could have. I arrived in Japan a bit lost, without any Japanese language ability and by myself. Those first few months were tough. I was introduced to a local karate dojo that accepted foreigners and started attending practice there three nights a week. Tomoko started around the same time as I did, and we were paired up as partners. We’d stretch together, learn the sequences together, take our tests together, and drink tea after practice sitting next to each other. She became a sister.
Soon we were attending the optional Saturday excursions with our teacher, Hirakawa Sensei. He is known as a Shihan 師範. (Shi (師) = example or model + han (範) = master or exemplary practitioner.) As the highest level living person in his direct line of karate masters, he is revered among the members of his dojo, as well as by others from all over the world. During the three years I lived in Japan, I met visitors from Taiwan, Canada, Australia, and all over Japan who traveled to our dojo for a lesson or healing from Hirakawa Sensei. I could feel the respect, the reverence, these visitors had for him in every interaction. They bowed especially slowly and especially low. They never stood directly in front of Sensei. They didn’t want to block his light.
I revered Hirakawa Sensei as well. But by the time I left Japan, he was more of a father figure to me than what the English speaking visitors called him, a Living Master. I wonder if Tomoko felt the same way? We would ride in the back of Sensei’s car with other members of our local dojo as he drove and sang Okinawan songs with his wife sitting next to him in the front. Mrs. Hirakawa is, in her own right, a Master as well, and the heart and soul of the dojo. She is Okinawan, and Tomoko and I went to Okinawa with her and Hirawaka Sensei twice for intensive karate camps.
When together, we referred to Mr. and Mrs. Hirakawa, and to ourselves, as Hirakawa Senseitachi. 先生達 (Senseitachi ) can mean teachers, but it can also refer to the teacher and the group following them. I felt so close to this group of people they became like a family away from home. We traveled to many famous cultural sites together, including a preserved Samurai village where Hirakara Sensei’s ancestors lived, a volcano mud bath legended to grant your deepest wish, and the best sautéed eel restaurant in Japan. While touring around, Senseitachi would teach us about everything from the karate spirit to Japanese history and philosophy to local lore. Much of this was translated by other bilingual members of the dojo.
Tomoko spoke some English and I was studying Japanese. We were able to communicate with a mixture of the two languages and lots of laughter. She asked me once, as we were walking along the seaside behind Hirakawa Senseitachi on our way to Aoshima Shrine, why it was that I came to Japan. I answered, “My grandfather.”
Tomoko said, “Grandfathers at war. We are at peace.”
I smiled and paused for a moment, looking out to sea. What Tomoko didn’t know is that my grandfather was a Seabee in the US Navy. He was stationed in the Pacific during WWII. During a particularly vivid moment of my childhood, Grandpa Plum recounted the mission where he had to scuba dive in to plant bombs underneath Japanese ships.
To me, he was an old man, in the final throws of Alzheimer's as I held his hand while he drifted off to sleep. He would float in and out of lucidness, bedridden in his final days. But to Grandpa at that moment, he was a young seaman again, cast back to re-live the most terrifying moments of his life. As he told me about the pressure of the blast underwater, his eyes appeared to shift and focus on me so clearly, like he’d stepped out of time just to give me this message. “The bodies. They are thrashing. And the mouths. They are open, but no sounds come out. Underwater, it’s quiet. The only screams are in my head.”
It was the last thing he ever said to me. And that’s why I went to Japan - to find Grandpa Plum’s spirit in the water there. To bring him home.
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