When I graduated from college in May of 1977, I was promoted to 2nd Lt. in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. After a period of infantry and specialty training in May of 1978, I was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) at 2nd Marine Air Wing Headquarters, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Since my days in college I had an abiding interest in the history and culture of Japan and the other Confucian societies of North Asia. One day, while discussing this interest with a fellow Marine Officer, he suggested that I request to be assigned to Japan. I began to think about it and discuss it with my wife whereupon I decided to make a request for orders to Japan.
In June of 1979, I received orders to report to the 1st Marine Air Wing in Okinawa, Japan and about that time I was promoted to 1st Lt. in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. While waiting to proceed overseas, I began to read as many books as I could about Japan and the Japanese people. My intention was to learn and understand this new experience and to make the best of my time when I was in Japan. I also began to study the language. Fortunately, my father in law, at the time, was a fluent speaker and I was able to get some experience with the Japanese pronunciation by listening to basic phrases and expressions. Suddenly, before I was scheduled to report to Okinawa my orders were changed and I was directed to report to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. Little did I know at that time what was in store for me at this location but I would soon enough come to regard this change of orders as a real blessing.
In accordance with my orders, I made plans for my family and arrangements for my travel to Japan. This would be my first trip away from my home on the east coast of the United States as well as my first trip overseas. After a stop in Hawaii and a side trip to Australia, I flew from Honolulu to Tokyo, Japan. I landed at Narita Airport in the first week of October 1979 and after passing through customs, I made my way to the terminal area. Fortunately for me, most of the signs were in English as well as Japanese but I was now beginning to get the sense that I was in a different country where most of the people did not speak my language. In any case, the helpful Japanese travel guides directed me to the shuttle bus and instructed me to take that bus from the airport to the local train station. From there they told me I would be able to take the train to Tokyo, whereupon I would be able to get a long distance train to Iwakuni. My recollection is that it was in the late afternoon when I began my journey from the airport at Narita. The shuttle bus was a short ride to the train station and when I disembarked I suddenly realized how "alone” I was in this new and foreign land. I could not read any of the signs or speak enough of the language. In due course, some young school girls asked me in English if they could help. I told them I would like to go to Tokyo and then catch a train to Iwakuni. They were kind enough to help me buy a ticket and they rode along with me in the same car. Once I arrived at the Tokyo main station they told me it was time to get off and said good bye. I was grateful for their help but I had no idea what awaited me. It was late in the afternoon by that time and little did I know what was going to happen next.
As I made my way up the stairs from the local train and into the main area of the station, I was suddenly made well aware of the fact that I was "alone” and unable to communicate. There was a rush of people and loud announcements as they made their way to the various trains. I of course, realized that I had to get a train to Iwakuni but I did not know the schedule or even how far away it was from Tokyo. My father in law, who had lived in Japan during the Pacific War and had been a student in a military school, gave me a basic lesson in the geography of Japan before I began my travel overseas. However, as I stared at the huge sign with all the trains and destinations, the only thing I could understand was time since the Japanese rail lines use military time which of course was very familiar to me.
As a Marine, I started to size up the situation and plan my options. Tokyo is a large city and like many places people were going about their business without regard to my problem, which understandably, was not apparent to them as they rushed to embark upon a train. In the course of trying to decide what I should do and as many thoughts ran though my head, I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder and heard in perfect English "Sir, can I help you?” As I was quickly turning around I said "Man you sure can” thinking that the person behind me must be an American. Much to my surprise I realized that I was facing a young Japanese business man who was a little bit older than my age. He continued on by saying "Where are you going?” I replied "Iwakuni”, whereupon he said "I am going to Iwakuni also, do you have a ticket?” I said "No and I have no idea how to get one”. In haste he told me "Look the last train to Iwakuni is leaving in 10 minutes, give me some money and I will get a ticket for you but we have to hurry.” So, I reached into my pocket and took out all the Yen that I had exchanged at the airport for US Dollars. The business man took the money and disappeared in a rush.
At that point my American skepticism began to set in and I thought to myself as the minutes passed, "mister you have been conned”. The image of Grand Central Station in New York City and some hustler taking advantage of a visitor kept flashing through my mind. As I waited for this gentleman to return with a ticket and as I contemplated the possibility that he would not return, I began to think about the books I had read prior to my trip overseas. Dr. Suzuki’s books on Zen Buddhism and Edwin Reischauer’s books on Japan came to my mind. I started to focus on what they had both noted in their books. That the average Japanese citizen lives by a code of honor which I knew is expressed in the Japanese word "giri”. Finally, I resolved in my mind that this event would be for me a random "experiment” which would test the veracity of those authors and their statements about the code of honor and that if I lost all my money that this would be the "price” of testing their claims about the Japanese people.
While in the mist of my thoughts and as the time grew short, there suddenly reappeared that young business man running at full speed while saying to me "Hurry the train is leaving in 2 minutes there is no time to waste”. Instantly, I grabbed my bag and began to run after him at full tilt. Down the stairs and around the corner we went like two mad men and just at the last second, as the conductor waved the red flag, we jumped onto the train. The train was the "Shinkansen” and as we sped along we began to get to know each other better. My new friend Narishima-san told me, all the while speaking impeccable English, that he was a salesman for the Yoshida Corporation and that his company was a famous maker of dental office equipment. I related to him that I was an officer in the Marine Corps and that I was traveling to Japan for the first time to take up my new assignment at the Marine Air Station, Iwakuni. At one point as we raced along, he alerted me to look out the window and in the evening sunset I got my first glimpse of Fuji-san the iconic image of Japan.
After sometime he said "You must be hungry after such a long trip?”, and when the hostess came by he ordered some food and drink. Knowing that I had no more Japanese Yen he paid the bill and I began to have my first taste of wasabi, sushi, dried squid and Kirin beer. During our meal he said in passing, "By the way the money you had was not enough to cover your ticket.” I apologized for being short-handed but he dismissed it saying "how could you know ahead of time what it would cost.” In due course we arrived in Kyoto. At that point my friend told me that we would need to change trains and board a slow moving sleeper car for the remainder of the trip to Iwakuni. As we settled into our sleeping berths I began to review the events of the last few hours since I had arrived in Japan and to understand what the honor code "giri” means to the Japanese people. Soon enough I would learn the extent of the decency and honor of the Japanese people, even though I already experienced more than any stranger ever expected.
As the train rattled along in the night we made our way slowly toward Iwakuni. I dosed off for a while but in the early morning I heard the voice of my new friend say "Gijin-san we are almost at Iwakuni. It is time to wake up and get ready.” I awoke and prepared myself along with Narishima-san. After we were finished we had a cup of green tea and he said "I will be getting off at the next stop but you must go on and get off at the following stop because it is closer to the military base”. Then, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and handed me an amount of Japanese Yen whereupon he said "You do not have any money but you will need to take a taxi to the military base so take this and you can pay me later.”
Needless to say, I was stunned and humbled by the kindness of this decent and honorable man. That day I realized that I learned an object lesson about human relations which has stayed with me for the all of my life. In addition, I learned about the decency and honor of the average Japanese citizen. While living in Japan I would have many other experiences which would re-enforce the lessons I learned that day but none were as powerful as Narishima-san’s kindness to a stranger who was "alone”. Later during my time in Japan I was able to on occasion meet Narishima-san and repay his money and kindness. Unfortunately, since I returned to the United States in 1980 I have not been able to contact him again. However, though we have not been able to meet, I believe we are connected by the events of that day and if in the future we were to meet once again it would be a reunion of old friends. If it is not to be and we never meet again, then I am sure the Karma of his good works will live on forever together with my respect for and debt to the Japanese people.More Public Affairs
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