In 1993, a company hired me to teach English intensives for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF). Once or twice a month, I flew north to Chitose in Hokkaido or south to Nyutaberu in Kyushu or some other city for five days. It was great. Lieutenants picked me up in military limos, insisting I ride in back. I climbed into and inspected the cockpits of F-15 Eagles and F-4 Phantoms. No one cared that I had no military background, and little-by-little I learned the ropes. There were some memorable moments.
Kvetching in Komatsu
Captain Yuji Hirayama’s little apartment in Komatsu on the Japan Sea coast is cold. My ten JASDF officers sit clumped together around at a flimsy table on the floor. Yuji has cut a circular hole in the middle for the nabe-burner. The big miso soup bowl sits on top, filled with cabbage, chunks of white fish, tofu squares, mushrooms, daikon.
Hirayama is not how you’d visualize a Japanese military officer. Quick to smile, chunky and round with thick eyebrows and a big moustache, he favors Peruvian panchos on liberty. He has traveled the world like a Japanese hippie, gesticulating more than speaking. He takes out a brush and repaints his car when he thinks its color needs to change, and when he wanted a convertible, he ripped the roof off and used an umbrella when it rained. In a snapshot, a truck has run his car off the road and down a hillside. He poses in front of his totaled car in sunglasses with thumbs up.
Yuji’s apartment is a whirl of florescent bulbs and French folk music cassettes and spinning optical vortexes on the walls. He serves us blue Swedish vodka that kicks like a horse. Speaking of horses, the animal itself is on the table: soft red horse-meat sashimi which I sample guiltily, wondering why one mammal’s flesh seems less violable than another’s.
In a darker part of the room a florescent moon map hangs on the wall over the TV, where on videotape glow chimerical blue and orange Nepalese temples; indifferent monks float along to shimmering space music. The Swedish vodka and the ethereal imagery let me briefly escape my teacher’s mask, my endless, empty chatter. I close my eyes and see only music.
Later, in the karaoke bar, they forget about me. My songs won’t come up on the machine and the awful Japanese pop songs came crunching out like kewpie-doll music, forcing my drunken fighter pilots to sing completely out of their range. In the videos, devastated women resigned to endless romantic tragedy stand on Tokyo bridges staring down at cynical young men sucking cigarettes. And my guys suck on theirs until there is no air, only the acrid fumes of Planet Nicotine. Lieutenant Yamaguchi, who gets in his F-15 every day and does things in the sky that would turn me inside out, is up on the table singing Japanese rock, doing a kind of strip tease where he caresses various parts of his body with tissue paper and shouts into his microphone, “Thank You…….Thank You……..THANK YOU…!!!”.
Finally, the god of consumer electronics lets me sing my all-time karaoke favorite, “Pink Cadillac.” I feel my performance, passionate from long denial (vocals delayed are vocals denied) finally makes clear what rock n’ roll really is. I sing the delicious lyric about Cadillac’s superiority to Hondas and Subarus. Then I escape into the night.
But the next evening at the airport lounge there is no escape. I sit among raincoat-clad salarymen shrouded in billowing clouds of smoke. On TV, frozen-faced politicians perform ritual meetings, shuffling technocrat documents on conference tables, their eyes shifting in transparent calculation. Around me, salarymen are going back to Tokyo, tobacco wraiths with mucus-laden bronchia, afflicted, afflicting others.
My flight is uneventful, but riding home afterward on the Train Of The Drunken Salarymen, the knees of a sleeping-while-standing one next to me keep giving out. I brace him hard against the wall with my body, but his head slumps onto my arm and he collapses halfway to the floor several times. I call him names under my breath as other subway zombies press against me and stare unseeingly ahead. Why am I so mad? They deal with it every day, I do it occasionally. My pain is an aging jazz dilettante’s, wondering why he created this kind of world for himself, and why he never wandered the world like Sgt. Hirayama.
Hittle and Missle
My flyboys are having problems. Last month, Lt. Suda’s F-4 caught fire while he was landing. They say he jumped out and stood there crying as the trucks hosed it down in vain. Lt. Suda had been in my first class at Komatsu, and I’d seen him at the on base bon-odori summer festival at the end of that week. I was buying tako-aki (octopus cooked in batter – fabulous!) when I looked up into his eyes. He was staring unseeingly at me through red, baggy orbs, 10 yards away, drunk as a skunk. Alcohol turns most Japanese faces bright red; his was somewhere beyond crimson. His stunning young wife, in a summertime kimono, led him over to say hello as best he could. He’d just been fished out of the ocean after “exposure training” for downed pilots – that explained a lot. Still, he’d always been a little spaced in class, and when I heard of his accident I wondered.
Then the other day at Komatsu Air Base on the western side of Honshu, my Capt. Hino, a short koala-bear of a guy you’d never expect to see coming at you at Mach 2 in a McDonnell-Douglas-Mitsubishi F-15 Eagle, screwed up and shot down a brother F-15 in combat training exercises. With great good luck, the other pilot survived the missile and the always-dangerous ejection, parachuting down close to a fishing boat. Still, it was the lead story on the national news. Something shorted out possibly, but apparently Hino really wasn’t supposed to press the fire button during scrambles where they use live missiles.
First time I met him he was a First Lieutenant, next class they’d promoted him to Captain. After the mishap. when the third series of classes rolled around, he had disappeared. In the papers last week he was Lieutenant Hino again. (1/15/97 Note: Lt. Hino now works at Fuchu Base in Tokyo. He is now, logically, an intelligence officer.)
Fidgeting in Fuchu
I am at this moment surrounded by Japanese Air Force officers who are in crisis because later today they have to simulate a combined meeting with United States Air Force to train Japanese pilots to refuel their F-15’s from the KC-135 tankers.
Article Nine, the famous “Renunciation of War” chapter of the Japanese constitution, states “…the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation…” and to accomplish this “…land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Right. The fighters are okay — they’re defensive – but the KC-135 tanker is a highly controversial weapons system, as it would allow the Japanese government to project power much farther out from its inoffensive islands.
Actually it may be a moot point, as rumor has it they already have such tankers but don’t talk about it. Anyway, the KC-135 English drill is the agenda of my company, whose courses are designed by ex-U.S.-military types, and it seems to mimic the American military’s desire for a Japan willing respond actively whenever the U.S. deems it necessary. In other words, Japan as a pet falcon.
Anyway, no one so far has come over to my desk to ask me whether they should use the F-15E single-seater or the F-15DJ double-seater or what time they should deploy the KC-135’s into what air space or how many sorties they can schedule each day or whether they should conduct simultaneous Patriot Missile exercises using the returning F-15’s as an aggressor force. And they certainly will not inquire if John Coltrane’s work on tenor was superior to his work on soprano — even though Major Ueki, a tall, thin moustachioed Nipponese version of Duke Ellington, says he used to play sax. They killed off his tenor soul long ago, leaving only a quiet grace and cultivated manners.
In an early morning dream, I stood at my desk and saw my Apple Powerbook covered with mildew, its screen clouded with a mushy black mold. On awakening, I lay mulling over the previous day’s car trip to Iruma Base, the heavy traffic, and a near accident I’d had. I should probably take the train today, I thought. I got out up from my futon, stumbled to my computer and tuned it on; it was fine. So I got in the car, stopping briefly at a 7-11 at 6:30 AM to make some copies, and hit the freeway. Shooting north, an orange Rising Sun on my left, “I Can See Clearly Now” played brightly on my the car radio.
Ten minutes later I was stopped cold in bumper to bumper traffic — illogical, as I was headed away from Tokyo in the morning rush hour. I decided to take a look at the Powerbook as I inched along. Reaching around behind me, to one side and then another, finding nothing, still finding nothing, the fact began to sink in that it really was not there, that I had left it on the floor next to the copy machine in the 7-11.
Computers keep so much of our lives inside them, and there was lots of mine on this that I’d not backed up properly. (Like this book. ) I was now in a gridlock with an exit several kilometers away. There was the sweaty airyness you feel in the face of disaster. To my left, some cars were heading into a rest stop, and without knowing why I sidled over and got off the freeway. Cruising down the frontage road, I passed the accident on my right. A new red Toyota van sat in the middle lane, its driver’s-side front end smashed nearly all the way in. Beyond was the on-ramp from the rest stop and empty freeway ahead.
I got off the throughway in another five minutes, turned and headed back to Tokyo. On the way, I reflected that without the accident I would never have noticed the computer missing until much later. I speculated about a universe which sent you warning dreams and then, if they were ignored, totaled other people’s cars to bring matters to your attention. It took another hour to crawl through the dreamlike rush hour traffic, my anxiety becoming hyper-anxiety, until finally the 7-11 loomed before me. The place was filled with customers, working guys buying coffee and box lunches, but this was still Japan: next to the copy machine, my computer sat ignored and undisturbed in its case.
Traffic was much heavier now at 8AM. An inner voice told me to take the car back home and get on the train. As I reached a turnaround point and waited for a green arrow, I grudgingly decided to head home. Should I call the office? At that moment, I saw a woman in the next lane talking animatedly, a woman strongly resembling the secretary in our office who liaises with JASDF. The Double wordlessly told me that she didn’t want to know what was happening, did not want anyone on base or in the office to know, that I should proceed on in my car, that the event was over. I kept going and reached Iruma through minimal traffic.
That day our class had been assigned to an old wooden, colonial-style building in the back of the base, housing a Japanese Air Force Museum. Downstairs was a weather-beaten stone statue of a WWII pilot looking at the sky for returning Zeros. The museum had a full-size weapons control room and plastic models of every jet JASDF and the Americans have flown since 1945. And at the end of the hall I found the pièce de résistance: a sky-blue, half-scale model of the one-man rocket bombs they dropped out of their bombers for kamikaze pilots to ride down onto the decks of U.S. warships. On the walls were photographs of smiling young men carrying cherry blossoms, grasping each other’s hands as they flew off on their last missions.
Upstairs, in a wood-paneled room, my ten sergeants were waiting. They had been watching videos of the Blue Angels flying upside down at 500 miles per hour, 100 feet off the ground, on a screen the size of my car. No one important had been informed that I was late. One sergeant told me firmly, “Don’t worry about time.”
In the classroom, behind my desk I found an austere, detailed portrait of Emperor Hirohito in full military uniform seated at a desk before a semicircle of twenty or thirty officers and politicians. Below it, on a little gold plate, it read,
“Last Council in the Imperial Presence”.
All heads were bowed, with one man’s, the Prime Minister’s probably, just a little lower than the rest. The historical moment sank in. Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay in ashes. Tokyo was in ruins. Three million Japanese dead. Their collective realization leapt physically from the picture:
“Jesus!! Did we fuck up!!”
Some would say the Japanese are perfectly suited to plumb these depths of personal shame. But evidence shows the guilt felt in that room was not particularly applied to suffering beyond Japan. These totalitarians had failed in their quest for national and racial supremacy. They had failed their Emperor and their samurai ancestors. But there was not much of what we would consider a moral compass to affect them, no Christian heritage toward which, for instance, German civilization could repair. Thus, for the next fifty years, they could pretend there had been few or no war crimes, that the horror story of Nanking was just Japan-bashing. The Japanese military had just fucked up, bravely crashing into the sea of history, like many other Japanese heroes whose failures the Japanese actually find aesthetically preferable to victory. Which is perhaps why this tableau of humiliation could remain in its place of honor here for fifty years.
Of course, all atrocities were not made in Tokyo. One commonsensical idea has never been answered to my satisfaction. Why didn’t the U.S. drop its warning in the Pacific, say at the entrance to Tokyo Bay? Such a cataclysm would have staggered the minds of the Japanese militarists. Failure to detonate? They could try till they got it right. Then if the Japanese still resisted, the deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be indisputably placed at their feet. Amazingly, Edward Teller himself argued for this approach.
This disregard of an obvious chance to avoid slaughter reveals the Allied mind-set in 1945. Early on, Roosevelt and Churchill had denounced Hitler’s London bombings and the barbarities of Nanking and vowed that the democracies would never follow suit. These promises proved empty. War inescapably breeds revenge, so rather than demonstrate Armageddon to the Japanese, Truman chose to inflict it. After all, it was no worse than the razing of cities that been carried out with conventional bombing. I suppose we cannot judge them, we were not there, did not feel what they felt. But one cannot justify the horror by saying it was the only way to avoid ground combat in Japan. There was an alternative.
Anyway, my own personal challenges demand attention, not the mistakes of history. I must work toward self-actualization, toward reconciliation with my dark side. I must follow my bliss, hone my instincts and most important, by always knowing the location of my Powerbook, prevent the destruction of late-model red Toyota vans in Japan and, for all I know, the entire Universe. I can see that now, clearly.
The Big Brass
I was sitting in a Fukuoka karaoke bar after my lounge-lizard performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” In the moment, the left leg of the Commanding General of the Western Sector of the Japanese Air Force was pressed deliberately, intimately, against mine as he stroked his little Italian moustache and mumbled jovialities. Somebody was explaining how Kyushu women really obey their husbands, and I was really trying not to say to them, “In the States we have a lot of trouble with women, and with the Darkies too.”
Instead, I told the general, yes, U.S. forces stationed here really should learn more Japanese, and eventually he and his hot leg went away happy. I guess. They say we Americans use first names too quickly, but when you’re drinking with the men, some Japanese men can be really fast with their whole fucking bodies. When his conversational interest in me abated, I felt a kind of cosmic shudder as he detached his body from mine, like an abductee from whom an alien has just removed his probe.
That night in the presence of the big brass, I wasn’t always sure when to stand or move or sit down. No problem. Two different times one of my students guided me with a gentle hand on my ass. This wasn’t hot-blooded pro football cameradie. This wasn’t “Tora! Tora! Tora!” This was “Tuchas! Tuchas! Tuchas!” Where’s the airport. Please.
Munching in Misawa
At Misawa on the far north coast of Honshu Island is 47 year-old Major Yamamoto. Though he is commander of the Misawa Periodic Maintenance Squadron (outside his “office” are always three or four big F-1 fighter-bombers in various stages of repair), he’s easily the sweetest little 5’1″ guy I’ve met in the military, an Aikido master who holds private classes three times a week, and a big fan of teacher Arnie. He looks if anything a little older than me, but I will die first: despite his teddy bear appearance, he’s in great shape, a physical disciplinarian who feels he must keep up with the younger officers. He’s got this elfin smile he flashes that lights up a room and embodies precisely what the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” must be trying to say. He took me to lunch everyday of this week and was impossible to defeat at the cash register.
We went one night to this surreal onsen, a hot spring to end all hot springs. They build hotel resorts around them, of course, but in this case, a vast underground spa materialized as a series of rock-walled indoor lakes, one the size of a huge, roundish swimming pool with great rocks rising from place to place out of knee-deep water. Everywhere amid the subterranean scene were sculpted concrete trees rising up, their trunks and branches truncated at the ceiling. Thus was created a semi-underground world where huge trees seem to extend into another space. Large waterfalls invited you under them, where the hot waters pounded your shoulders.
After enjoying all this, we went to a little sushi parlor where the master was painstakingly fishing a squid out of his big tank, and before I knew it had anything to do with me, the squid’s still slowly wiggling appendages were placed before us for consumption. The suckers even held on to the plate as I tried to lift them with my hashi. I chewed them quickly so I couldn’t feel anything moving. With a cheerful Aikido master/Air Force Major at my side, there was really no choice.
Yamamoto told me to enjoy the feeling of the squid wiggling in my mouth.
“Next time,” I promised. Talk is cheap.