JAPAN: My father 1: Papa”s Songs – 1940 to 1956

Papa loved to sing.  He had an enormously resonant voice.  I remember often hearing Papa’s  voice distinctive from a congregation of hundreds.  He was aware of that too and wondered aloud if he should donate his vocal cords to a medical school.  He should have said that in his will, because his death was so sudden and unexpected that nobody thought of anything like donating his organs.  He was only 50 years old when he died in his sleep.

As I said, Papa loved to sing, and he taught us kids many songs. He often sang for us as we walked.   There were many of Papa’s songs.  But unfortunately, I can remember only four.  I looked up some old song books – children’s and otherwise –  and  tried to find the origins of those songs.  I also hoped that I would be able to remember forgotten ones if I looked at old songs in those books.  I could not find any of them.  Sometimes, I wonder if some of the songs he sang were his own creation.

Just before World War II began, the Mitsuis lived in the minister’s  apartment in Ginza Methodist Church.  It stood right in the middle of downtown Tokyo.  But after a few months, we moved from the apartment in the church building to a rented house in the Setagaya District of Tokyo.  Setagaya today is very much in the heart of urban Tokyo.  But in those days, it was still outside of the urban sprawl.  I don’t know why we moved.  Probably it was because my parents thought Ginza was too much downtown for children to grow up.  In the woods in Setagaya, there still stood old feudal estates, which had probably belonged to a magistrate or a sheriff during the feudal Tokugawa period a century before.  My uncle used to practice archery in that estate.  Farms and barns stood in the fields.  New housing developments  were just beginning here and there.  We had no bath in our newly-built rented house.  So, we went to a public communal bath house.   I remember that going to the bath-house was a lot of fun.  We could see the moon between branches of huge zelkova trees as we were walking back from the bath.  Papa sang this song in those moonlit evenings

Mr. Moon, are you traveling
Alone in the sky tonight?
There are sardine clouds
In front of you.
There are flying fish
Behind you, too.
Help yourself when you are hungry.
They make delicious dinner. *

* Note: This is, and other songs in this chapter are, a literal translation of the original Japanese lyrics.  I attempted to be more faithful to the meaning of the lyrics rather than to the rhythm of the music.  In other words, the words do not necessarily match the music.

There must have been a few more verses, but I don’t remember them Papa was a romantic and enjoyed traveling alone.  He loved people but he enjoyed solitude too.  He also loved to eat very much.  Maybe that’s why I remember this song.  It reminds me of Papa so much.

When Papa was transferred from Tobe Methodist Church in Yokohama to Ginza Methodist Church in Tokyo, he was in his early thirties.  He was young and inexperienced and did many outrageous things.  That’s why I remember him being lots of fun during those days.  I remember the week he got high school boys together and held a Sumo Wrestling tournament in a largest room in the manse.  At the end of the week, the floor was a total wreck; tatami mats, floor boards and supporting beams, the whole thing.  I don’t exactly remember why it had to be held indoors.  It must have been winter.  Next week, he mobilized the same boys to fix the floor.  At another time, he pushed all the pews to the corners of the sanctuary and stacked them all up to make room for a Kendo (Japanese Fencing) tournament.  On another occasion, there was an almighty commotion on the roof of the church.  My great grand-mother found kids playing up there.  So she told them to stop instantly and come down. To her surprise, the first one who came down the ladder was Papa, the minister of the church.  It’s a wonder that the bishop let him stay  in that church for a full term of four years.

This is why his appointment to a famous church in a big city came as a big surprise, even though it was in a position of mere Assistant Minister.   Many people came to congratulate Papa for his promotion.   The tone of their comments were sort of like, “How did you pull that off?”  But it sounded as though it was  an unexpected surprise for him, too.   It was before the church union, still in the time of the Methodist Church in Japan with its episcopal system like that of the Methodist Church in the United States.  I wonder if bishops made such surprise appointments from time to time.  At any rate, he was to be Assistant Minister to his former teacher, Dr. Saburo Imai, who was known for his stirring oratory and great sermons.  My father might have decided to accept the appointment to Ginza Church to help his old teacher and as a temporary stepping stone to get into Tokyo, where his adopted family lived.  But Dr. Imai died suddenly after only a few months, and Papa ended up being the Minister-in-Charge.  He must have then resolved to be a little bit more cautious and respectable.  He stopped being fun in Ginza.  I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that a song he taught us during those days seemed to be dealing with the question of real versus fake prophets.

There is an old clock
On the  tower of an ancient castle.
Everyday, the clock loses a minute or two.
Villagers know nothing about this.
Looking at the clock on the castle
In the morning and in the evening,
The villagers correct theirs.

Eventually, the Moon begins to shine
In the dark sky, at noon.
And the working day ends
Before dews have yet dried.

Villagers know  nothing about this still.
Looking at the clock of the castle,
They correct theirs just like
They have been doing for years.

It’s only the swallows
Who know what’s going on.
But, though they know
What’s wrong with the clock,
They are only birds.
They loop the loop in the sky
Not telling anything.

Another reason my father may have accepted the job in Ginza was to be closer to where his adopted family lived.  My father was adopted by my mother’s grand parents to continue the Mitsui’s family name.  He left his birth family and quit medical school against the wishes of his parents to go to the theological school.  My maternal great-grandparents had lost their sons in the Russo-Japan War at the beginning of the 20th century.  They adopted my mother at birth.  She grew up as a Mitsui and married my father who changed his name to Mitsui, and became an adopted son.  This is a common practice in Japan even today when there is no male heir to continue the family name.  The Mitsuis were a relatively well-to-do family.  I remember the big estate in Shibuya in the centre of Tokyo, where my grand parents, aunts and an uncle lived.  There were several tenement houses within the estate.    By the time I came to Canada, we did not own any property nor any money.  How we lost everything is a mystery which nobody of my parents’ generation spoke about.  So I never asked.  But I remember, when we lived in Setagaya, my father went to the court often with my maternal grandfather.  I have no idea if my parents’ decision to move to Tokyo had anything to do with the demise of the Mitsui fortune.

As the war neared the end, Papa’s pastoral work became very difficult.  By then, we were living in Setagaya, somewhat away from the centre of the city in Ginza, and were not fully aware of what was happening to my father’s life.  I was told later that he was often called to the Special Police Unit.  This was a special security police force that watched citizens for their seditious thoughts.  Papa did not come home from time to time.   Rumors had it that he spent quite a few nights in the detention centre.   He never spoke to us about it.  For the reason I mentioned the above and for other reasons, the time we kids could spend with Papa became very precious.

During those days when Papa was home, all six of us – Papa, Mama, three sisters, and me often sang the following action song.  We made a circle holding hands, and walked around in the circle singing, “It’s opening, it’s opening.”  We made the circle bigger as we sang “It’s opening.”  As it became smaller we sang, “It’s closing” until the circle was so small we were almost hugging each other.

“It’s opening, it’s opening.
What is it that is opening?
A lotus flower is opening.
Soon, evening comes,
And it closes in no time.

It’s closing, it’s closing.
What is it that is closing?
A lotus flower is closing.
Soon, morning comes,
And it opens in no time.”

We sang this song going around the circle over and over again.  We did this until we began to perspire.  I must have been 8 or 9 years old, when the boys of that age normally should not have been seen playing with girls, especially with one’s own sisters.  Taeko was a year younger, Junko six years younger and Kokko seven years younger.  Kokko must have just started to walk.  I now wonder why this is such a fond memory for me.  I can think of two reasons.  For one thing, we were so happy that Papa was at home with us.  Another reason is the fact that Taeko and I did not have friends outside of the Sunday School.  Because we lived away from the church, the Sunday School friends were not nearby to play with us on weekdays.  At school, teachers and class mates called us “American spies” and bullied us.  On many days, I didn’t want to go to school.  I lied a few times faking a stomach ache, and stayed home.  The situation became a little better after I became friends with the boy next door, whose father happened to be a navy captain.  When my aunt married a widower lieutenant colonel army doctor, the abuse stopped.  But I never made friends at school during the war.

The war was coming to its inevitable  conclusion and the nightly air raids became more devastating than ever.  The government decreed that all school children must be evacuated from the large cities.  Those who did not have any connections with the countryside through friends or relatives were moved to the make-shift boarding schools, which were set up in many large buildings in the mountains or country villages.  My sisters moved with Mama to my grandfather’s village in the Yamanashi Prefecture, on the west side of Mount Fuji.  I moved to Numazu City, where Papa had served his first pastoral charge, because there was no Grade 7 in  grandfather’s village.  I stayed with a family of former parishioners of Papa’s – Mr. and Mrs. Wada.  Mr. Wada was blind and a massage therapist.

Many children who were moved to the temporary residential schools were homesick.  Mothers of those children became nervous wrecks from worrying about them.  So Papa began to visit those schools for evacuee children.  He carried a paper picture show with him called “A Narrow Path in the Back Country.” *

* The paper picture show was sort of like the slide show to tell stories with still pictures – photographs or more often painted pictures.  It was a popular form of entertainment for Japanese children during the early 20th Century.

It was the story of a 17th century Haiku master, called Basho – a monk who loved to travel.  In fact, he traveled all his creative life on foot and wrote Haiku about the places he visited.  Papa showed the picture show to the children everywhere.  There was a song that went with it which he sang.  The song was based on Basho’s Haiku and his journey.  The song became my favorite.  Unfortunately I remember only the first verse:

“It is so precious!
Traveling has become my home.
I follow a narrow path
Covered with tall green grass.
Shoulder straps of my back pack
Are hard on my tired old bones,
But my staff is ever so comforting.
Futara mountain in May
Is full of young green leaves
Dancing in the sunbeams.”

Papa’s life was like the life of Basho – the life of a sojourner.  Basho traveled many places writing Haiku as he did.  Papa traveled through his life singing.  Eventually, he went back to his real home probably singing all his favorite songs.

Tad Mitsui
February 6, 2001
Lethbridge, Alberta

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