Статьи Скотта Гормана (Scott Gorman)

January 13, 2009

The Right Kind of War for a Beautiful Sunday Afternoon

It was Sunday, a beautiful, sunny autumn afternoon. Normally I would be walking the dog in Storvik Park, or polishing off a couple of bagels at the table outside my front door, finishing the sports section.

But on this particular afternoon, rather than being dressed in my usual early fall uniform of shorts and a sweatshirt, I stood at attention in battle garb, holding a musket, in the ranks among fellow soldiers, ready to do battle for the honor of town and Taisho.

I knew that spending six months in Kisakata, Anacortes’ sister city by the Sea of Japan, would offer me the opportunity to experience many new things. But there is no way I could have ever pre-supposed this. Yet there I was, looming like some sort of ghostly giant over most of my fellow warriors from Kisakata, trying to stare down the troops from the neighboring town of Yuza as they laughed and pointed at me.

Hey, I didn’t blame them. I would be laughing and pointing at me, too. Just who the hell was this huge gaijin, anyway? Fortunately though, like my fellows and our opponents, I was in danger only of losing a few layers of skin on my hands, or perhaps my dignity, such as it is, but not my life. Our battle would consist only of a serious tug-of-war here on a level field by the sea in Misaki Park, on the borderline between Akita and Yamagata prefectures, and between Kisakata and Yuza.

Our leader, a carpenter who was for the day a fierce warlord, was trying to pump us up: Ganbatte kudasai, he cried! That meant that we should have fighting spirit. In his white robe, his almost-shaved head wrapped in a twisted cloth headband, he was starting to scare me half to death, even though I knew this was a peaceful sort of war (if only they were all so). He marched us in quick time to the center of the field, where we each picked up a portion of the three-pronged rope, a massive braided thing that was gripped on the other end by the citizens of Yuza. We prepared to heave-ho. I was sweating under my paper uniform, the Mariners’ cap perched precariously on my head held in place only by the string of the paper helmet tied under my chin.

Our Taisho (princess), a local high school girl borne on a litter and dressed in a gorgeous and authentic (non-paper) costume, addressed her Yuza counterpart, reading what I guessed was a list of grievances. Then the two took their place outside the battle zone, and we prepared to pull with all our strength. My compatriots looked to me, among the biggest pullers, to help redeem them from losses in this contest the two previous years, which cost my adopted town a couple of meters of park land to their neighbors to the south. Oh Lord. Didn’t they know I was a big softie? Well, they soon would.

About a hundred and forty years ago, the battles that took place on this spot or nearby were not for fun and bragging rights, but very much for real. On one side were the armies of the Shogun, one in a long line of military dictators who was desperately trying to retain power. On the other were the forces loyal to the Emperor who would later be known to history as Meiji, grandfather to Hirohito, now in death called Showa, the nation’s Emperor during its brutal occupation of Korea and China and its devastating war with the United States. From the 1600s until the mid-18th Century, the Emperor had little power. Now forces had come together to change that, and the face of Japan forever.

Modern Japan was formed after these battles were done. The Emperor came to be regarded as a living god by the common people. The state religion known as Shinto would be upheld and help unify the nation but also start it down a militaristic and imperialist path that would lead to ruination for many nations, including ultimately Japan herself. Many of the ideas and customs held by the nation’s leadership to be whole and ancient and immutable were actually pieced together bit by bit to enhance political and social power, according to both Japanese and foreign historians. At the end of that road were a pair of mushroom clouds, the likes of which the world can never afford to see again. At the start of a new road was cooperation between bitter enemies. And one of the sons of the “victorious” party ended up here, ready to give it all he had for his new friends and the town that had embraced him. It was an unlikely sort of miracle, a peaceful conclusion dressed up as war, and my head was spinning.

That rotating head is a common feeling for me these days. When I walk on the grounds of Kanmanji Temple, a thousand years old, I think I can hear the words of the Buddhist priest who went over the head of the Daimyo, the local lord, to beseech a prince to save much of the beautiful landscape I see every day. The Daimyo, no environmentalist he, wanted the landscape broken up so the peasants could cultivate more rice, which was known throughout the nation as the best in Japan. To this day, when you mention Akita rice, even in faraway Tokyo, people nod their heads sagely and look ready to eat, now.

But the Prince saved the land. Of course, this being Japan, he wasn’t about to do the same for the priest, who everyone agreed had to be clapped in irons and tossed into prison for his lese majesty. He died there in 1822, and was probably kept far away from any windows so he could not see the beauty his bravery had preserved. And even today, there’s not to my knowledge even a tourist lodging named for him.

It is in his honor that I go once a week to the temple, pay my 300 yen (about $2.50) admission fee, and spend an hour or two picking up garbage. I’m not talking about leavings from the beer and whiskey and bento boxes left by people beside the graves for the benefit of their ancestors long gone: I’m referring to the candy wrappers, pop cans, and plastic bags dropped by worshippers along the path as they walk the grounds of this sacred place. That confuses me, but I make no judgments. I checked around to make sure no one would be offended, and hearing no objections, I began this simple service which makes me very happy. People are so good to me here, and I can do little for them. So I do this small thing, and people smile at me and encourage me. I appreciate it.

Alas, at Misaki Park, straining and heaving and basically being the helpless twit I am, there was little I could do to save Kisakata. Yuza won again, and the borderline between the two towns moved further into what used to be our territory. Thankfully, no one held it against me. It was generally acknowledged that all of us, me included, had done our best and therefore no shame was imparted to anyone.

We’ll get ’em next year! Oh, right, I won’t be here then. There, I’ve improved the chances already.

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