CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: Leftover Sukiyaki & Saito-san

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By W.T. Wimpy Hiroto

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(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on April 28, 2010.)

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Preparing to reheat leftover sukiyaki for dinner this evening, my immediate problem turns out to be a lack of juice. It’s too dry. It needs liquid. I couldn’t find the wife’s collection of old Japanese cookbooks but was not dismayed. Although I’ve never so much as tried to make gravy, what could be so challenging about creating some shiru?

I had just boiled asparagus spears so I saved some of the greenish water (in memory of Earth Day), adding a quarter of cubed tofu under a slow heat. I grated quite a bit of shoga, cut up three green onions and then couldn’t find anything else in the refrig bins. Searching the cupboard I found some old Mirin and when no one was looking, a pinch of Ajinomoto. MSG ain’t HGH, right? I almost forgot adding shoyu and sugar. In the end I was sure there was no danger of poisoning but a spike in blood pressure was a concern.

Well, folks, I poured the concoction into a frying pan full of Otomi-san sukiyaki, heated it up and wound up enjoying as tasty a Jappo meal as I have had in eons! I was so bloody full of myself I spent the rest of the evening congratulating myself in Japanese! It was memorable. Really.

Mr. Saito was the head cook for the 1067th Engineers,  Headquarters Company, 1st Corps, Kyoto, Japan. (Ashamed to say I can’t remember ever asking what his first name was.) Once a month I would be a guest at his  home and he always served sukiyaki, knowing it was my favorite; somehow always finding meat, not an easy task in occupied Japan. Even though a privileged employee of the military, he never stole or pilfered anything. It was a year before he would accept gifts from me. Soap, sugar, cigarettes, liquor. He had a relative in California who would send him letters through me and I, in turn, would send APO mail for Saito to Berkeley.

Although industrial Japan was leveled by B-19 bombing raids in 1945, Kyoto was spared by our military. We were quartered in Budoku-den, a former Japanese officers’ BOQ, adjacent to Kyoto’s famous Heian Shrine. The only physical reminder of the war at Saito-san’s modest home were missing wood slats in the ceiling and surrounding walls.  Explanation:  In case of a bombing or catastrophic earthquake, there would be building material available to start over again.

Saito-san’s next door neighbor would occasionally join us to share a bottle of Kirin or Suntory (both rot gut in 1946-47). Abe worked 12-14 hour days and nights as a pedi-car operator, a rickshaw hooked onto a bicycle. Mostly GI customers. Mostly drunks. Stories of being demeaned, beaten and cheated out of fares were all too commonplace. But he continued, undeterred. He was hopeful of building a fleet of charcoal-driven taxis. Somebody beat him to the punch but they couldn’t navigate the Higashiyama incline, a sort of automotive litmus test of the time. (The most popular GI cabaret was high atop that mountain.)

After almost three years of experiencing the revival of Japan together in our own personal way, I had a final sayonara sukiyaki dinner with my dear friend. I gifted him with a collection of V(ictory)-discs, 18-inch recordings made by America’s top singers and musicians specifically for overseas troops—not for commercial sale or use. Saito-san had developed an insatiable lust for American music and artists—ranging from Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey to alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins.  He, in turn, promised to take care of all that was important to Wimpy-san.   We knew we would never see each other again.

In playful moments he would teasingly refer to me as “Zero-san,” bringing smiles to the faces of the C.O. and Sgt. Major; they assuming it was a title of respect, something to do with the famous fighter plane, the Mitsubishi Zero.  Little did they realize it was Saito’s private joke regarding  my poor command of the Japanese language.

Being the only Jappo in the company throughout my overseas stint, I had cultivated the belief that I could speak and understood the language. I might have been a young hiyo-ko but I could see an opportunity when it hit me in the face. So whenever the company commander or first sergeant wanted to convey a message to compound employees or work crews, they would pass along the orders to me. I, in turn, would contact Saito-san in the mess hall and have him explain to the workers what had to be done. A lovely arrangement.

All these years later when realizing what the Japanese people had to overcome after unconditional surrender, it is simply mind-boggling! And eerily parallel to what we confronted and overcame after evacuation.
You can doubt DNA at your own risk. (Damn, we’re good!)
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W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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