The Japanese Rustic Life in 1950s. 20

The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.

Chapter 20
Not understanding the appeal of Bing Crosby (1955)

Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London, UK)

Not understanding the appeal of Bing Crosby (1955)

The boy was at his father’s place in the city. It was a two-storied terrace house on a back street off the high street, which had been cheaply built on a burned-out area caused by a US air strike in March 1945. His father was running a ramen-noodle shop on the ground floor and living on the first floor. The boy’s family, his mother and two sisters, lived in a village about 40km far from the city. On that day, they were visiting his father. The boy hadn’t been told the reason for their visit, but for several years they’d been going to see him, always at a different house, a couple of times a year.
It was winter. As his mother worked as a teacher, they went there on Dec. 24, the start of the winter holidays of her school, and also the boy’s birthday. Although few people were aware of the background to it, this day was already known to be Christmas Eve by almost all Japanese at the time (1960s), with many families having a Christmas dinner and giving presents to their children. Although it is not a national holiday, that the day is celebrated is due to the work of missionaries since the reopening of Japan to the outside world in 1854.

At one time, Christmas Eve was just an excuse for adults to have parties at restaurants and behave boisterously in the streets. Indeed, it had become something of a social problem. It took a long time to settle down to the quieter, more family-oriented occasion – with most fathers hurrying home with Christmas cake and parents giving their children presents from Santa Claus – described in this essay. However, the birth of Jesus Christ was only celebrated at church by Christians and a few non-Christian people who appreciated the solemnness of the Eucharist. (Most Japanese visit their family grave on the Buddhist national holidays for the spring and autumn equinoxes, and the memorial service day for ancestors, August 15. The first day of the year is also celebrated by Buddhists. At this time, families get together for a special dinner and presents are given to children. Strangely, however, few people know or celebrate the birthday of Buddha.
Whenever the boy was asked when his birthday was, people said: “How considerate you were to be born at Christmas — your parents only have to prepare one present!” This always made him feel like he was losing out, but his mother told him another reason why she was grateful he was born on Christmas Eve. Just before and after the 24th, several family members had died, and had he been born on one of those inauspicious days, his mother would surely have been given a hard time by her relatives. Although he was happy to hear that his timely arrival had spared his mother such misfortune, he was a little disappointed that the timing of his birth didn’t have a more positive story associated with it.

Soon after his family arrived at his father’s house, he cooked ramen for everybody. The boy was very fond of his father’s ramen. It contained frizzled Chinese noodles, bamboo shoots, finely chopped leeks, dried pressed seaweed, and sliced roast pork. The soup was based on an original recipe for ramen – a traditional Japanese stock and chicken bones extract – and quite different from those commonly used nowadays. He was supremely confident about the smooth and soft, but not too soft, texture of the noodles, and the simple yet deep flavour of the broth he had perfected. Indeed, his noodles retained just the right degree of stiffness – one of main factors in the taste of this dish – until the last mouthful was swallowed. When noodles become soft before finishing the meal eating at an average speed, we feel that we are eating udon(soft noodles) rather than ramen. In order to keep customers eating at the carefully calculated speed, his father often chided them for reading a book or magazine while eating, telling them, “It is not good for your health eating and reading at the same time – concentrate on your meal.” And he was similarly insistent that customers respected his soup, reminding those who looked like they might be about to leave with too much of the precious liquid remaining in the bowl, “The soup is an important part of the dish, so make sure you drink it all before you leave.” As a result, he gained a reputation for being somewhat eccentric, but his shop remained popular in spite of this.
At that time, ramen shops were usually just street stalls or run out of a shabby house. They were at the bottom of the hierarchy of shops, with department stores at the top. His father probably had an inferiority complex about his line of work and was trying to set up another outlet for his business talent. To that end, he was employing a part-timer in the ramen shop at the time of the boy’s visit. Soon after, he would quit the ramen shop, explaining:
“Recently my new business has taken off and I had to leave everything at the ramen shop to the part-timer. Consequently, my high standards were not maintained and there were many complaints. On top of that, he was skimming the takings, so profits have really gone down.”
When the boy later thought about his father’s words, and how many different jobs he’d had, he knew he wasn’t telling the truth. It was easy to see that the reason he changed his work so often was down to his obvious lack of endurance. His mother had always tried to impress on him that one has a responsibility after taking on a job, and that even if the job is hard, it will get better if you stick at it. His father, however, always gave up when he encountered any difficulty, which no doubt explains why his mother had been left to bring up the family by herself. And so she harped on about how the boy should hold on to a job once he’d committed himself to doing it. Unfortunately, her well-intentioned advice was in vain: the boy, like his father, would go on to change his job several times, although his reason for doing so was quite different to his father’s.

After lunch, the boy and his sister went to look around in the shopping street nearby.
“Be careful of American soldiers. If you see any, you should hide yourselves immediately,” their mother warned as they walked off. Actually, the American soldiers stationed in the city at that time were part of the UN force. It had snowed the day before but now the snow had turned to slush. The shopping district was in full swing Christmas mode: Jingle Bells blared out from each store, and somewhat strangely considering Japan had just lost the war, shop windows were brimming with commodities. They looked at each store as they walked cheerfully along the slippery pavement. The boy, attracted by the delicious aroma, looked longingly at the different rolls and loaves in a bakery, imagining how wonderful it would be to be able to eat his fill of them. His sister found a clothes shop and stood transfixed by the colourful dresses in the shop window. Walking a little further, they came across a musical instruments shop. They both often listened to music on the radio, but the heavenly music being played here was so much more beautiful, and altogether different to the seasonal jingles emanating from the other shops. They listened attentively to the music for a while, not hearing any of the extraneous noises around them.
“Chokochan(His sister’s nickname)), let’s go back home,” the boy said to his sister, shivering with cold from the snow falling down the back of his neck.
“Yes, we should; otherwise, Mom will worry.”
Nearing the front of their father’s shop, they became aware of their mother’s voice coming from inside. They’d never heard her speak in such angry tones, and they stopped in their tracks.
“Who is this? Is she your daughter or your girlfriend?” their mother shouted. Their father answered in a muffled voice, so they could not hear what he said.
“I certainly heard her call you, ‘Father’, so is that it?”, their mother persisted in an even louder voice. Then her voice dropped, and the following conversation could only be heard in snatches. Later, they were able to piece together what had happened. After the boy and his sister had left their father’s place to look around the shops, a young woman came into the shop, announcing her arrival with the words, “Dad, it’s me.” Their father, flustered, tried to say something, but when the young woman noticed his wife, she ran out saying,” I’ll come back later.” His wife immediately imagined that, living alone for so long in the city, he’d got involved with this young woman, or even that she was the result of a relationship he’d had long before. He desperately tried to make an excuse: “I just helped her out once, and now she sometimes comes for ramen and we chat – that’s all.”
“If that’s the best explanation you can come up with, I’m going home now and I never want to see you gain”, their mother shouted, tears running down her cheeks.
In what seemed to be a lull in their argument, their children called out loudly, “We’re back”, and walked into the shop. Their mother, looking about 10 years older than usual, wiped away her tears and said, “Customers will be arriving soon so go upstairs.” She seemed to have collected herself and was ready for a second round with her husband. They didn’t dare to question her and at once climbed the ladder to the first floor, closing the hatch after them.

They were idly sitting around the hibachi (a traditional ceramic heating bowl of about 30 cm in diameter and 40 cm height, which contains burning charcoal). They could hear snatches of the conversation between their parents going on downstairs, but they were tired after their long day and soon fell asleep.

The silence was broken by the sound of a window suddenly being opened, followed by their elder sister shouting: “Etchan, Chokochan – wake up!”
The boy woke up, his head aching intensely. He looked over to his sister and saw her holding her head in her hands.
Their older sister angrily scolded their parents: “You’re always telling us we should make sure the window is open whenever we use the hibachi, but you two were too busy arguing to remember to open the window when you lit it – Etchan and Chokochan could have died!”
Their mother bit her lip and guiltily replied, “I’m usually so careful – I don’t know what to say.” Seeing the children were OK, their father, who had been watching everything from the top of the ladder, went back down to his shop, being sure to leave the hatch door open.
All the family, minus their father, were gathered together talking upstairs, and things felt a bit more like home. His two sisters and mother chatted excitedly about shopping the next day. They listed all the things – clothes, fabrics, books etc. – that they would buy, without even a thought as to how they would ever be able to carry everything home. Feeling left out, as he usually did at such times, the boy just gazed out at the shopping street outside. He was just beginning to nod off when he heard a woman’s voice coming from downstairs. Their father was talking too, looking up to where his family were with a worried look on his face. They stopped talking and listened intently. His father and the woman seemed to be arguing about something, repeating the same thing over and over again. It became clear that she was the lover – at that time, the so-called ‘only’ – of an American soldier. Sometimes he was violent with her and she ran away, taking refuge in their father’s ramen shop. The same thing had happened again and she was pleading with their father to let her hide upstairs above the shop, only this time, unfortunately for her, the family were there. Their father was trying everything he could to persuade her to leave.
All of a sudden, his mother went down the ladder. The young lady was surprised by her appearance but probably realised that this woman was the wife of the ramen shop owner. His mother gripped the woman’s shoulders tightly and pushed her to the ladder leading to the first floor. The children stared speechlessly. “Quickly, get upstairs – now!” Her voice had the authority of a teacher and the woman obeyed immediately. No sooner had she shut the hatch door when the front door of the shop was noisily opened.
“Where’s my girl? We saw her come in here. Tell us where she is or we’ll smash up your shop,” the American soldier’s heavily accented English rang out in the shop. Their father murmured some reply but they couldn’t catch it.
“We saw her come through the door – she’s gotta be in here. Don’t try to be smart with me – tell me now or I’ll kill you – where is she?!”
The interpreter accompanying the soldier said something they couldn’t hear properly upstairs, but the boy had already imagined what had been said.
The sound of furniture being angrily thrown around and more shouting went on for several minutes, before they heard their father say, “OK. Stop! – she left through that side door.”
It went quiet for a moment and then they heard the front door being slammed shut.
After the boy calmed down, he became aware of the strains of an American pop song coming from the street.

White Christmas (song by Bing Crosby written by Irving Berlin)
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree-tops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
“May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white”

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
“May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white”

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Listening to the song, he remembered the events of that day.
He could not understand the lyrics of the song but the warm melody put him in mind of one of the happy, well-off American families he had seen in movies. “I don’t really get it,” he muttered to himself before falling into a deep sleep.

The End

At the moment of completing my essays, I would like to express my thanks to Paul Harris for his efforts in correcting my English.