Kurombo Shōwa Year 34 (1959)
black sambo / nigger / 黒んぼ 昭和 34年
“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while
a great wind is bearing me across the sky.”
Native American Ojibwa (Chippewa/Missessauga/Saulteaux ) saying
My earliest memories of life in Japan as a little child were that I played mostly. . . . alone.
In 青梅 Ōme, my birthplace in Tokyo prefecture near the sea, I played by myself most of the time. With any friends I did make during that time, I was longing for them perhaps more intensely in my wanting to forget loneliness. Playing became a deeply lonely thing.
The Ōme townof my birthplace-memory is a dream of humans and animals enveloped in a huge deep green forest with kind elderly shopkeepers and dirt roads. Tall forest trees crowded over us, covering the sky. A river creek a few minutes΄ walk away was where Mama and I would go to wash our clothes with washboards and bars of soap and buckets. Temple bells pierced the air hauntingly with their low and tireless tone, echoing through the branches, lingering through the wide open afternoons. The smell of incense people would bring for their offerings to their dead, would cling to our hanten while deer wandered softly and unhindered while the cicadas would cry. We lived in one of Jiichan, my grandfather’s, properties left from the days when my Japanese family had to give up most of their properties to the US government after the World War for US Occupation. The town nestled around a mountain, overlooking the sea. Several times a day the haunting echoes of the chugs and whistles of steam trains comforted me even while they shook the house as they flew past. It was a time when I began an intense lifelong love of trains. Steam trains were powerful, filling my imagination with the thought of being taken to other places. I saw them as elegant and ugly, simple and complex at the same time.
Tens of thousands of Japanese women were giving birth to, or already had, children of US soldiers stationed in Japan. Since my father was in the US and not to be seen, I was called Ai-no-ko, which is a term meant to exclude and demean. It is a name used to call anyone who was a so-called half-breed and meant illegitimate love-child, or child of an illegitimate union. Or I was called kurombo which means black sambo or blackie but with more of the meaning, tone and intention of nigger. Konketsuji was used in the same way later. Sometimes I would be enjoying myself in my own world peacefully; but sometimes and suddenly, stones would begin pummeling me and my legs flew me as fast as I could to hiding places, forcing me to always be on the alert for other Japanese kids who came to hurt me and my kind. I knew I wasn’t wanted at an early age. The US government didn’t want us. The US military didn’t want us. The Japanese schools didn’t want us. Some parents’ associations in Japan recommended an island where mixed-race children could be raised. For me, I knew of no such things then. All these things were acted out in the stones and words that were hurled at me once in awhile.
Peaceful brilliant rays of sunlight piercing through the dense forest tree branches while the crows began calling, often became my safe calm. On other days it was the slow and gentle drizzling rain, the thick and haunting fog that blanketed the real, or the gentle falling snow in the white chill. There were no people in the calm, save an elderly woman with a white headscarf tied behind her head, in a thick blue happi or hanten and/or mompe (or fungomi or tattsuke),1 pulling a cart full of vegetables to the store or homeward, smiling and bowing her head toward me as she pulled, sometimes offering me an apple or a watermelon from her cart. Wherever most people appeared, there was both the intense pain of suspicion alongside the powerful desire to be loved by them forever. Sometimes it seemed like every single day I had to run from the stones hitting me and bleeding me along with “kurombo da!” and “ainoko da!” At first, crying would be my response after I found a hiding place. Then later, I would cry less and resolve to not ever cry again. Crying wouldn’t take any of it away anyway, I thought. I would sit, sometimes, on a large rock in front of the temple, under the huge tree and run my fingers through the warm fur of a deer while it grazed, sometimes purring as they glanced at me.
I had three friends in my oldest memory. Seiko-chan and Chako-chan and Jirō -kun, the first two being girls and one boy. They were my only friends. They played with me only when their mothers couldn’t see them. We could only play away from their homes so they wouldn’t be punished for playing with the kurombo—the black dirty one, or ainoko—the non-Japanese one, the one with the American seed, the former enemy, the dominator, the white, the black, the blonde, the kinky-haired…whatever. Mama had exchanged words with the parents that I don’t remember. They never spoke after their initial bad words and basically ignored each other. Mama never prohibited me from playing with my friends.
I was four years old that summer day. I remember because it wasn’t long after a birthday gift from Mama. The reason I remember is that there was a specific train set I wanted that Mama bought for me. The photograph I have of that day, I remember, was taken that morning. I was playing alone in the forest that bright early afternoon like I often did.
Suddenly I see a group of tall boys wandering from higher down the mountain path towards me. Then they sauntered toward me, laughing and talking about something. They stopped and smiled at me. They must’ve been around 13 or 14 years old, I thought. The top of my head only came up to their stomachs. They offered me some apples and candies that they carried in a box wrapped in a furoshiki (like a large handkerchief). After a bit of joking around, they asked: “おい,一緒にこないか、秘密の遊び場所のところえ？ Oi!, issho ni konai ka? Himitsu no asobibasho no tokoro e?” why don’t you come with us to a secret play area? Wow. I was so happy!!! New friends!! “We’ll teach you how to play Yakyū野球 (baseball),” they said. I so appreciated this chance to make new friends. I wanted to learn to play the game that we saw on television all the time in those days. So they told me to follow them this way and so I did. Elated! We began walking and kept walking, the trail wandering through the tall forest trees. I heard them talking amongst themselves as I followed, only seeing their backs and butts as I trailed along. Soon we came to a riverbed clearing with only a light stream of clear water. I suddenly felt a sense of foreboding.
Two of them grabbled my arms roughly from behind my back on either side. Ah! Shimatta! I said to myself. I struggled to get loose but their grips dug into my shoulders and arms, pinning me in place. Then the tallest and slenderest one of the three, who stood commandingly in front of me, pulled out a big wooden baseball bat seemingly from nowhere and sneered: “お前の汚い血 は本当に僕らのように赤いのか？” Is your dirty blood red like ours, for real? It was futile to try getting away. I just stood there with my arms at my side. The bat struck at full speed on the right side of my head with a loud crack. A sting!! Then light-headed, light-headed. CRACK!!! A ringing in my head. Colors, an array of ringing colors, then white light. dizzy, another CRACK!!! Warm, hot, sounds blurred, everything turning completely white, glowing. Dark. . . . dark.
We moved across the sky. We saw you. You were alone in a huge field. Your body lay there in the expanse of grass and trees, sprawled, your head and face unrecognizable with blood and your face disfigured. You lay limp, lonely, small, vulnerable. All was quiet, save the sound of our wings and our calls. You are alone. We see. Wake up. We’ll guide you home.
I woke up with the smell of wet dirt and river water and grass gently overwhelming me. The big sky, pink and blue and dark blue and yellows, then the deep green trees, crossed my eyes as my focus became clearer. I couldn’t feel my body at first, falling at the first couple of attempts. When I was able to slowly stand upright, I felt very light, airy, breezy. There were birds I suddenly noticed flying above me in the sky. I looked at them. They were flying in a direction to my right. So I began walking, following their lead, looking up at them as well as the road ahead.
I don’t know how I got home. It was dark blue night-time by then, with a hint of pink and orange in the distance. I came home like I usually do: “Tadaima!!!” I felt very light. Mama came out to greet me. When she saw me she let out a scream, then quickly ran out of the room. “Dou shita no, Fretto!!??” she asked from the other room. I couldn’t tell her what happened. I didn’t remember at that moment. A mini-moment later Mama returned with a big towel as I had sat on the tatami floor after removing my shoes, feeling light but tired. I remember feeling the towel, then, soft and cool around my head. She didn’t say a word after this and guided me to the room with the running water. I wanted to look in the mirror to see why she screamed when she saw me. She wouldn’t let me get near a mirror. In many Japanese homes in those days where we lived, there were no sinks and flushing toilets. They were rooms with dirt floors covered with a wooden plank with a large tub and a pump from a well. She held my head under the cool wonderful-feeling water as she gently wiped me down.
After awhile, she wrapped me in a warm blanket and led me to the room with the futon on the tatami. I laid down and she covered me with the mo-ofu (woolen blanket) and began singing me gentle songs (O do ma, bon-giri bon-giri, bonkara sakya orando, bon ga hayō kurya hayō modoru) I fell asleep. I felt comfort.
When I was 23 years old, on another one of my visits to Mama at our house in New Mexico, Mama and I were having one of our usual conversations. I had moved to L.A. to devote myself to volleyball and became somewhat detached from my past and Mama. She suddenly asked, “Furetto, oboeteru? Ano hi chidarake de kaettekita toki? Daredaka wakaranai hodo kao ga tsubusarete….Do you remember that day you came home and you were completely covered in blood and your face was so crushed up I almost didn’t recognize you?” I responded—“mm…” nodding. I remember that day and now I learned how she saw me and how I was that bloody day. My mother continued: “Well I found out a couple of years later when this family came to visit me and two of the boys apologized for beating you that day. So I found out who did it. I cussed the family out that day. I got a bad reputation with the town after that. But I had a bad reputation before that anyway.” I loved my mother for this. But I knew it caused her so much pain. In some ways, I felt that I was the cause of her misery. I had dreamt about that experience off and on throughout my life, but attached no feeling to it except contempt toward life. But now, I choose to remember it as a moment of courage for both Mama and myself.
She told me, too, that she dared not take me to a hospital. Without hesitation, she decided to keep me home to heal me. She said that she didn’t trust Japanese doctors or the Americans that were training them. She tenderly kept me warm and snuggly and still, singing songs to me, turning the radio on, and wiping me with the soft towel occasionally. I found out later, through a conversation with her, that her distrust of hospitals came from the fact that she was a medical student as a young girl experienced Western domination of Japanese doctors she respected. She told me that she didn’t like how Western doctors didn’t let Japanese doctors express their knowledge and would make them lose face in front of other doctors and nurses. Also, Mama mentioned that she didn’t trust Japanese doctors with mixed-children and she was sure that sometimes the doctors and nurses might have killed me somehow, under the guise of an accident.
One of the first times I tried to talk with a teacher in Albuquerque about our family problems, between Mama and Dad, the teacher told me that I should learn to accept it, that this was the problem with people from different races coming together. But I knew plenty of people who were happy, or at least getting along, that were mixed Japanese and American, or Mexican and Indian, or some other difference between man and woman and children. Many of them were friends of ours and we would visit with each other over the years. At other times, some of these adult Americans made my parents sound like crazy people with no manners or intelligence, but surely they were, I thought, because these adults had never met my parents. They were like parrots, repeating things they read or heard, mixed with their sense of superiority. They’re civilized.
Another teacher (or I think it was a school counselor) that I began telling my troubles to told me that Black people’s passions and Japanese women’s obedience makes marriage very difficult. I, then, shut up. I thought these people were nuts. The last thing Mama was is obedient. And I never considered Dad a so-called passionate person. Little kids are not supposed to know things, as things are in the world. But as kids, we do know things. I began early to keep things to myself. It was no use. Islands and whole countries are formed without Mama, or Dad, or I there. But we play our part. It was that moment, that time, that I learned to look all around for danger. Look around. And to see smiles as not meant for me but for danger to enter. It is a blessing in many ways. Seeing below the surface of people, I would learn to survive in the coming days, months, and years.
1Hakata is similar to a kimono-like skirt. Mompe are Women’s traditional baggy trousers popular since pre-war days in Japan, usually of blue kasuri material. Hanten and Happi are a traditional jacket styles.
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