In the Beginning

My grandfather, Kanekichi Yamamoto, was born in Yatsuo Japan – a small town outside of Toyama, on the Sea of Japan. While where he was born is known, when he was born is up to some dispute. Some references state he was in his 40’s in the 1930s. Others say he was in his 20’s in the 1920s. He often acknowledged that he was born on February 29, 1900. However, he observed his birthday on March 1. “Too complicated,” he would claim, “to be born on leap day of a leap year. But, I age 4 times more slowly because I only have ¼ as many birthdays.” No one ever questioned this; however, my father Hidekichi (or George), his eldest son, realized that 1900 was not a leap year only in the mid-1970s, years after Kanekichi had passed. Much to his surprise, my dad admitted he had been fooled for years, and lamented that he hoped to play such a joke on people, especially his sons, too. For the record, Kanekichi’s gravestone says he was born in 1901 on March 1. It was a small act of deception; maybe this one was harmless. It was a joke that Kanekichi had played on everyone. Maybe it was one of a many of slights that intentionally obfuscated history in a greater story arc.Kanekichi was the second child of his father, Sutejiro. His older brother, Ichiro, was two years his senior. He had 3 younger sisters, Haruko, Hanuko, and Ayoko.

Sometime in the early 1900’s Sutejiro took his family to Yokosuka in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan, 75 km south of Tokyo. Yokosuka was the major naval port for the Japanese Imperial Fleet during the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Overlooking the shipyard, the Yamamoto homestead was an expansive compound of a few buildings. The city, like most of Japan, was quite poor but modernizing. The compound was rich in history and value, as though it belong in centuries past.

It was symbolic of the transition of Japan during the Meiji Period. The late 19th century Japan like many countries, was in transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Japan was largely a poor country that was still ruled by a declining feudal system of the shogunate. While powerful for centuries, the role of the samurai and shogun had been largely diminished to that of administration. The samurai lived in the faded glory of the past. The rise of industrialization has enabled Japan to be an emergent superpower in the East. The compound symbolized the proud roots of Japan’s past. Yet, it was a viewport into the future, as one looked to the many Naval ships in port.

Kanekichi often contemplated this in his youth. What was happening to Japan? Where was it going? Why was his life and family different than those around? When he walked outside the family compound, he wondered, why was life outside so different?

May 5, 1910, Boys’ Day

Mitsuru Toyama

It was 10 AM. Kanekichi had been up for hours, since sunrise. He sat outside by himself, within the confines of the Yamamoto compound. From his vantage point, he had a view of the main house. He saw his father there, talking to an older man. The man had visited on a few occasions. The gentleman had a distinctive, dominating, and scary presence. His dress was very formal but definitely not in a modern way. Everything about him did not say modern. They had visited for about an hour. He had seen his older brother, Ichiro come and go into the house. There, the man presented my brother a present, proxied through his father. The present was encased in a wooden box. They did not open the box. Respectfully and gratefully, Ichiro acknowledged this offering and quickly left the house. Sutejiro and the man continued on for another half hour or so. The man seemingly offered something in words, Sutejiro respectfully accepted them. Then, all most abruptly, the man rises, and from the shadows of nowhere, several men, the mysterious man’s “entourage,” appeared. They slowly made there way to the entrance of the compound and depart.

This man had visited often in the past and continued to do so in the future, each time with a small group of men, who Kanekichi realized were “security.” Each visit seemed quite important and detailed. Sutejiro seemingly always came away with a few “tasks” that needed to be taken care of. Kanekichi had not decided if this man was a friend, a boss, or a just a collaborator of some sort. But his arrival (and departure) was always something of great importance. On this day, Kanekichi learned his name was “Toyama.”

After Toyama had left, Sutejiro walked towards Kanekichi.

“Are you ready to go?” His father asked. It really wasn’t a question. Rather, more of a statement or command. He father did not ask much. He was not demanding but sure in what he said and what he wanted.

He was ready. Kanekichi had prepared himself earlier that morning. He had quietly bathed in the family furo and dressed himself in the clothes his mother had laid out for him early in the morning. As he dressed, he noticed that a suit cuff button that was loose the night before was now repaired and securely attached. His mother noticed the unraveling and reattached the button the night before. Small attention to details, was valued by both his mother and father. He looked in the mirror. Indeed, all was in place.

He wondered why he was wearing his “Sunday best” – a western styled suit. He wore it infrequently, and wondered, but did not question, why this day was like no other. He knew, though, it was a special day. A special special day. Large koinobori flags flew outside the house.

It was Boys Day. However, this was much more special for his older brother, the family’s first son. The house was elaborately filled with many offerings to Ichiro. At least two dozen Samurai helmets, the traditional Boys Day gift, dotted the household. Years, if not decades or centuries, of such gifts were brought out. A few new gifts had trickled in over the morning as well. Toyama’s gift remained unopened. Even without opening it, all know what it probably contained – yet another military helmet (a kabuto) but one of most grandeur.

Ichiro reveled in joy and happiness. This was his day.

Kanekichi watched and observed. He was respectful but not jealous. It was on this day he first realized his position as “second son.” As a 9 year old, his demeanor was quite mature. Perhaps he got this from observing his father. He too was somewhat nonplussed by the celebration of this day. Respectful and observant, he allowed eldest son this day. The gifts poured in, his son was happy, so he was happy for him. But he himself was somewhat distant from the joy. Kanekichi followed his father’s lead.

Kanekichi did not answer his father’s call. Rather, he stood up and straightened his suit. He followed his father to the entrance of the compound. His brother awaited them.

Together, they stepped out of the compound. A car was waiting. Today, this might not be so impressive. However, realize in 1910, there were few cars. It was quite unusual. A small crowed watched curiously.

The driver and another man quickly got out of the car and opened the doors for Sutejiro and his two sons. Both men were in full naval regalia – impeccably clean white uniforms, hat, and gloves -- the full specification. The passenger and Sutejiro chatted briefly, to confirm who they were and where they were going. Sutejiro and his sons entered the car, the navy men closed the door behind them, and they drove away. The crowd dispersed, excited to what they had just seen but unsure of what they had just seen.

The car was a marvel, the latest of transportation technology. Powered by gasoline (or perhaps steam), the car squeaks and groans and leaves a plumb of smoke in its trail as the Yamamotos make their way down to the Yokosuka naval station. It’s a short 5-minute ride – a journey that would have been over a half hour had they walked. After a 1-minute stop at the gate to the naval base, the car arrived at the side of a battleship. A large battleship. Kanekichi spied the Japanese Imperial Naval flag at the stern and read the lettering on the side – Mikasa.

Two officers were waiting for their arrival. As the car pulled up, both doors were opened and Sutejiro and sons exited the car. Yet another officer came down the gangplank to meet them. No words were exchanged, but they were led up the plank, with officers and enlisted men saluting as they make their way. A slow walk through the ship led them to the Admiral’s dining quarters – at least that what Kanekichi thought it was. A small number of men, also officers dressed in navy whites, stood in the back of the room. Sutijiro and his boys sat and waited.
Kanekichi was too young to fully understand the significance of all that was happening. After all, he was only 9 years old. However, he does know it was significant. In 1910, five years had passed since Japan had defeated Russia in a surprise Naval victory. The Mikasa was the flagship under the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro. The Mikasa was severely damaged and sunk during battle in 1905, but refloated and ready for duty. It was perhaps still the jewel of the Imperial Navy. This Kanekichi knew. What he did not know was why he, or more importantly, his father, was here.
Admiral Heihachiro Togo
Only two minutes had passed. Admiral Togo quietly enters the room from the front. All officers quickly rise and are standing at attention. They are quickly dismissed. Sutejiro and Admiral Togo shook hands and embrace. Well, embrace only as much a stern men embraced. Kanekichi watched intently but not so much as to attract attention. His brother, Ichiro, while equally well behaved and polite, does not sense the gravity of the situation. Togo, like Toyama earlier in the day, was an impressive man. He was distinctive and dominating with much gravitas. And, like Toyama, he was quite scary looking. His dark eyes intimidated. It was as though he could injure you by just a stare. As leader of the Imperial Fleet, such command was not so surprising.

Sutejiro and Togo chat. At first, their discussion was quite colloquial; two men catching up. Kanekichi did not quite understand how his father knew Togo. He listened for clues. Their discussion was not quite “small talk” – it was too formal and stifled for that. Yet, references to common friends and family were made in both directions. And, on occasion, a reference was made to someone named “Tanaka.”

The conversation abruptly changed from the personal to “business.” It was too much for Kanekichi. Togo talked quickly, directly, and convincingly about many topics. It was a fluid integration of actions of the Imperial Navy, the reign of Emperor Meiji, and transformation of Japan as an industrial power. In a single breathe, Togo articulated the role of Meiji, Toyama (yes, the man just at the house), and Yamamoto. Kanekichi took it all in – but not sure what was “real” or what was just chatter among friends.

Sutijiro contemplated what he had just heard, bowing to acknowledge. But, before more words could be spoken, a dozen or so officers entered the dining room, standing at attention. Apparently, it was lunchtime. Togo acknowledges the officers, all sat down, and lunch service began.

It was curry; vegetables – onions, carrots, potatoes – and pork over rice and a spicy sauce. It was all new to Kanekichi. It was an interesting western influence on Japan. Although, ironically, while coming from British, it wass pretty clear it was co-opted from India. Kanekichi enjoyed the curry, yet it was strange. The flavors were foreign, and meat of any kind was still a bit novel. Tastes from lands far away piqued his curiosity.
Isoroku Takano
Lunch was quickly over. All officers, including Admiral Togo had left, except one; Isoroku Takano. Sutejiro at first did not recognize Takano among the other officers. Togo knew Takano knew Yamamoto, and arranged for Takano to escort Yamamoto and his sons on disembarkment. Takano and Yamamoto exchanged small talk and pleasantries. Like his informal talks with Togo, Takano asked questions about friends and family, but in an all too familiar formal way. And, Takano gave Ichiro with a present – another wooden box – proxied through Sutijiro. It was an offering from Admiral Togo. All read the inscription but, again, the box was not opened. Sutijiro hands the box Ichiro, and all four stood up and exited the dining room.

Takano led the way. However, instead of taking them directly to the starboard side plank, he guided them down the portside of the ship, around to stern. They stopped at the flagpole, where several flags fly. Takano slowly and deliberately lowered the Japanese Imperial Naval flag, unclipped it from its line, and neatly folded it in retirement. He handed the flag to Sutijiro, who then in turn handed it to the young Kanekichi. This undoubtedly, was quite bewildering to most, including Kanekichi. Lowering and removing the flag from the flagship, only to hand it to a civilian? Somehow that protocol was lost on the young Yamamoto.

The four continued up the starboard side, and down the disembarkment plank. Two rows of officers, probably two dozen in all, stood in attention. The doors to the car swung open, the Yamamotos climbed in, and they are swept away to their compound on the top of the hill. Kanekichi clutched the flag tightly against his chest with both hands.

Who are these people? Why are they in our life? Whoever they are, they somehow shape who we are -- who I am, Kanekichi thought to himself. However, it will not dictate who I become.
Indeed, it was quite a special, special day.

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