The Land Of The Rising Sun


Forty five years ago this month (May 1970) I felt like a rock star in Japan.
Young Japanese students toting their backpacks on their way home from school in Tokyo surrounded me while offering pens and pads.

“Sign please, Mister.” they implored.

In my twenty three years on earth I had never before been asked for my autograph. I’d achieved zero notoriety back home to ever warrant such a request. Perhaps being a 6’ 4” American in this land where the average male’s height was 5’ 6” was enough to impress this very earnest group of young beseechers. Not wanting to be the Ugly American, I patiently scrawled my name, in my questionable version of the Palmer Method, on about twenty pads. I noticed that after polite bows of thank you, which I dutifully mirrored, the young boys and girls would stare at my signature even turning it to the left, right and upside down. Slowly the mystery of my elevated celebrity status revealed itself; cursive handwriting. Just as Westerners are fascinated by the painterly, clean geometric lines of Japanese script, the students were intrigued by the loops of my “J” and my “R” and the mounds of my “m”.

My one week military leave in the Land of the Rising Sun was off to a pleasant start.

Tokyo, by 1970, was already an immense, bustling city, potentially very confusing to me and my two fellow Army buddies. Upon our initial arrival we stood at a busy intersection looking for street signs when a middle aged Japanese man approached us and haltingly asked, “You lost?”. We gave him the name of our hotel and the gentleman produced a pen and a piece of paper on which he drew what looked like a series of crosses consisting of one long vertical line with two shorter horizontal lines bisecting the top.
Three of these crosses went straight up the page followed by a 90 degree right turn for the remaining four figures. After handing us this crude map the man pointed at the nearest telephone pole then back at the paper. Ah, ha. The kindly gentleman had drawn a map showing us that we would find our nearby hotel if we followed the telephone diagram he had created. Generosity and ingenuity on display mid-day in the heart of Tokyo.

That evening we stepped out of our hotel to hail a cab to take us to a night club in the famous Ginza District. Hey, we were three single G.I.’s in our twenties, it was not going to be all temples and shrines. We stood at the curb, my hailing finger raised in the air, and watched taxi after taxi pick up customers to our right and to our left. Oh, oh, were we getting our first taste of anti-Americanism? We pondered this as more and more cabbies ignored my index finger. Finally, because we were now the only potential fare in sight, a cab stopped in front of us. The young driver had a decent command of English, as we found out many Japanese do, and he laughed when we complained about not being picked up by earlier taxis. He explained that no one was picking us up because I was hailing them with one finger in the air. Seems that in this highly competitive city the number of fingers you display tells the drivers what multiple of yens showing on the meter at the end of the trip you are willing to pay. It wasn’t discrimination, it was commerce.

At the club the lights strobed off the velvet couches and velvet walls while the all girl Japanese group belted out their version of Rolling On The River. Multiple sakes, combined with our introduction to Sapporo beer, made our trip back to the hotel a perilous, but ultimately, successful venture.

The next morning, groggy, but game, we headed out to board the famous Bullet Train for the trip to the World’s Fair in Osaka. The 1970 World’s Fair had been the deciding factor why we three soldiers decided to not go home for our leaves, but to travel instead to Japan from our post at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska.

The 319 miles ride on the Bullet Train remains memorable even after four decades have passed. Traveling at the then phenomenal speed of 140 miles per hour the Bullet’s journey included a distant, but spectacular view of the majestic, still snow capped Mount Fuji which rises as a single monolith above the flat landscape. The tracks are often bordered on both sides by massive rice paddy fields. I was amazed that every one of the hundreds upon hundreds of the workers in these fields were stooped, bent over to their tasks. Not one was standing straight or stretching. I could not help but contrast this to my visions of a pot hole crew back in Rhode Island with three guys leaning on shovels, one guy staring at the hole and the crew chief off to the side having a smoke. In retrospect, it is no wonder that this tiny nation took such an unhealthy bite out of America’s automobile and electronics industries in the following decades.

The Fair itself is now just a blur of foggy images: the beautiful Japanese temples, shrines and pagodas surrounded by stunning waterscapes with brilliant flowers and glistening fish in koi ponds, the optimistic, futuristic American Pavilion and the ominously immense Russian Exhibit Hall, a massive curved, red structure topped by the malevolent sickle and hammer flags. The troops at Fort Richardson were told that we were in Alaska in case the Russian Army ever decided to invade by crossing the Bering Straits.

At a Fair eatery we attempted to down our lunches of noodles and shrimp with chopsticks the only utensils provided. As novices to this art of dining we did not fare well. In fact our futile efforts were so lame that several Japanese families recorded us on their Sony camcorders. I’m almost pleased that we were able to supply some video comic relief at their future family gatherings.

The remainder of the week raced by as we gained new insights and grew, just slightly, into more worldly young men. I have but a few faded photographs now as a reminder of this trip. I’m not even certain I correctly recall the full names of my fellow travelers, but I do precisely recall the flight back to Anchorage.

We hopped a military plane in Tokyo filled with G.I.’s returning from their one year tours of duty in Viet Nam. The loud cheers which erupted when we were “wheels down” in Anchorage and the sight of men kissing the tarmac as they left the plane remains seared into my memory to this day.
– END –

Jim Raftus

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