A Visit to Japan

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Shig Murao is in Japan as part of the American occupying force after the war. He visits an uncle who served in Okinawa as a second lieutenant in the Japanese army.


But his uncle is not happy to see him, an American soldier. Shig reads the hate and fear on his uncle’s face and realizes he is the enemy. After five minutes, he decides, “Shit, I’m out of here.”



In 1984, after Shig’s mother died, his nephew John decided to take some of his grandmother’s ashes to the family grave in Chiran. Shig had spent time in Japan in the mid-1940s, as part of the American occupation force. He had returned once in 1961. Now he decided that he wanted to join John on the trip and would pay for the trip.


John explained that traveling around Japan on public transit would not be easy. By then Shig had suffered his third stroke and needed a cane and leg brace to walk. The train stations were not equipped with escalators or elevators, and one often had to walk long distances up and down stairways to make transfers.

Shig started training for the trip by walking from his Grant Avenue apartment to Golden Gate Park and back, a distance of some ten miles. To increase his strength, he began carrying a heavy bookbag along on the walks.


To raise money for the trip, Shig now began filling his bookbag with first editions he had collected after his split with City Lights. Walking the four  miles to Green Apple Books, or another used bookstore, he would sell the books and add his day’s take to the trip fund. By spring 1986 he was strong enough to make the trip and had sold enough books to pay for it.


The first stop on their trip was Kyoto, where John and Shig spent much of their time at an expat cafe called Honyara-Do. The cafe was a favorite of Shoji Yagasaki and Yuzuru Katagiri, whom Shig had met in 1959, when they came to San Francisco to study English.


(Shoji, a small man with yellow teeth who smoked incessantly, was a devotee of Japanese-American literature. He wrote and translated under the penname Nakayama Yo and, apart from Allen Ginsberg, was the only friend deemed important enough to receive regular mailings of Shig’s Review.)


At the cafe, Shig “was engaging and full of life,” says John.  “He was kind of a celebrity, because everyone knew who he was.”


Many students and colleagues of Shoji and Yuzuru, who both taught at Kyoto Seika University, came to meet him there and pay their respects.


Rebecca Jennison, an American teacher at Kyoto Seika, remembers Shig’s visit as a time notable for the “vibrant, live atmosphere of poetry, dialogue, and a unique kind of transnational exchange.”


In Nagasaki, Shig and John visited Shig’s uncle Shigeo, a Buddhist monk. Shig had not contacted him in advance, because he was worried that advance notice would initiate an elaborate, expensive banquet. Instead, Shig called Shigeo from their inn upon their arrival. Shigeo came right over, and when the hostess served tea, commented on how bad it was.


“Shig barely stifled a laugh, shocked at how direct Shigeo was after the twenty-five years or so since Shig had last seen him,” John recalls.


The incident proved the perfect ice-breaker, and the conversation flowed smoothly from there. It was a perfect illustration of a Japanese proverb Shig often quoted: “The mother-in-law farted, and everyone relaxed.”


From Nagasaki they proceeded to Kagoshima Prefecture to visit Chiran, where Shig’s father grew up. When Japanese visit their home village, the ritual of ohaka mairi, a visit to the family grave, is an important obligation. John and Shig made their pilgrimage to the Murao family ohaka and placed Ume’s ashes there.


By 1986, the Murao estate had been sold and no members of the Murao family were left in Chiran. Even so, Shig was able to visit the house where his father had grown up.


“He just sat there with this big grin on his face and tried to soak up every corner of the house,” remembers John.


They also visited the elegant Sata family estate where Shig’s mother, the former Ume Sata, had lived after becoming orphaned.


The opulence of the estate served as a reminder that the Sata family had much higher status than the Murao family. They had been on the winning side in the battles between the Genji and the Heike, which dated back to the twelfth century, while the Murao family had been on the losing side.

Another of Shig’s goals for the trip was to see the statue of Saigo Takamori in the city of Kagoshima. Saigo—whose last battle provided the historical basis of the 2003 film The Last Samurai—held a special place in Shig’s heart.


A photo of Saigo was prominently displayed in the Murao family’s Seattle home before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Shig vividly remembered his father taking the photo down on December 7, 1941. The same photo occupied a revered spot in Shig’s Grant Avenue apartment.


Shig approached the statue with reverence, commented on how much it resembled the photo he had grown up with, and announced that he could now leave Japan.




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Copyright information here.

Honyara-Do Cafe in Kyoto, 2006.

Photo by Shoko Ishikawa.

Shig and friend Shoji Yagasaki in Kyoto, 1986. Photo by John Murao.

Statue of Saigo Takamori in Kagoshima’s Central Park.

Photographer unknown.

In Nagasaki, John and Shig visited Shig’s uncle Shigeo, a Buddhist monk. Upon their arrival, he came to their inn and immediately disparaged the tea served by the hostess.


“Shig barely stifled a laugh, shocked at how direct Shigeo was after the 25 years or so since he had last seen him,” John recalls.


The incident proved the perfect ice-breaker, and the conversation flowed smoothly from there. It was a perfect illustration of a Japanese proverb Shig often quoted: “The mother-in-law farted, and everyone relaxed.”

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)Dream_Job_2.html

AT THE
COUNTER:
THE EARLY
YEARS
(1953)At_the_Counter.html

SHIG’S
INNER
CIRCLE
(1953)Inner_Circle_2.html


THE
HOWL
TRIAL
(1957)The_Howl_Trial_2.html


SHIG’S HEYDAY AT
CITY LIGHTS
(1960)CL_a_la_Shig_2.html


THE END
OF AN
ERA
(1975)End_of_a_Era_2.html


10:00 A.M.
AT THE
TRIESTE
(1975)10_00_A.M._%40Trieste_2.html


LIFE AFTER
CITY LIGHTS
(1976)Life_After_CL_2.html


A SAMURAI
FAMILY
(1920)Samura_family_2.html



SHIG’S
PLACE
(1976)Shigs_Place.html



SHIG’S
REVIEW
(1983)Shigs_Review_2.html


THE
FINAL
CHAPTER
(1984)Final_Chapter_2.html