Photo of Aketo Honda’s home in Kosamachi, Kumamoto.
Aketo Honda’s home in Kosamachi, Kumamoto.

Gail Honda

Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at gail.honda@hawaii.rr.com and 808-942-4783.

The following is a progress report Gail Honda wrote during her stay in Japan from July 1991 to January 1993 as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow at Hitotsubashi University Institute of Economic Research in Tökyö. She was there to gather data for her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago on the effects on national health of the industrialization and militarization of the 1910s-1940s, culminating in the Pacific War. The Fulbright grant was administered through the Japan-United States Educational Commission. Honda’s bimonthly report is addressed to then-JUSEC executive director Caroline Matano Yang and covers the period of October and November 1992. In October, she had visited her father’s furusato in Kosamachi, Kumamoto Prefecture, with her parents.

October opened with a visit from my parents (father’s second, mother’s fourth since I’ve been here). November closed with a visit from my aunt (her second) and my mother (her fifth). In between, I feel as though I single-handedly boosted stock in Japan Railway Company, All Nippon Airways, and omiyage shops with trips to Köbe, Ösaka (twice), Oita, Kumamoto and Toyama (second).

Photo of Sadao Honda in front of a family gravestone
Sadao Honda in front of a family gravestone engraved with the names of Honda Kakuzaemon, his grandfather; Honda Seki, his grandmother; and Honda Hajime, his eldest brother, who was born in Hawai‘i, but died at age 4. (Photos courtesy Gail Honda)

My parents and I first traveled to Köbe, where my father was stationed for a year during the Occupation. He recognized very little from 46 years ago. We spent a day with friends in Ösaka and boarded the steamship Sunflower for Beppu on the island of Kyüshü. Upon our arrival in the onsen (hot springs) capital, we rode into Oita City, where Mr. Miyamoto, the education superintendent, had granted me an interview and scheduled a day of sightseeing for us. We were escorted to the prefectural art museum; a mountain temple populated with monkeys and their droppings; and an aquarium, where fish and octopus performed hoop tricks and otters cracked shellfish open on their bellies. On our own, we saw a lot of fat alligators in the 8 Hells hotsprings. A highlight was staying in the teahouse — which must have been a 72-mat room — of an onsen ryokan (inn), which had been arranged for us by Mr. Miyamoto.

From Beppu we took the lumbering local train to Kumamoto City through golden hills bursting with cosmos flowers. I had an interview scheduled with Mr. Oomori, head of the Department of Health and Physical Education at the prefectural Ministry of Education office. In addition, my father’s parents are from the neighboring countryside of Kosamachi and we had been excited about meeting my father’s relatives. Tucked away in my father’s duffel were photographs of his last visit to Kosamachi, when he had been stationed as a GI during the Occupation. Back then, he said, he had been treated royally. He had been allowed to take the first bath (right next to the kitchen, where the women were preparing the meal) and was the only one at the meal given a big fish to eat. Everyone else at the table shared the only other fish. He brought them American canned goods like corned beef hash and pork and beans because Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur had encouraged the Japanese American GIs to visit their relatives in Japan, but told them not to eat their relatives’ food because the Japanese were starving.

Forty-six years later, with family in tow, he was accorded the same warm welcome. We were picked up by my father’s cousin, Shizuko Sakai, and her daughter Kazuko and whisked off to the small village of Nakayokota to the home of Aketo Honda. Aketo, the unofficial mayor of Kosamachi and keeper of the family grave, is both a son of my father’s second cousin on my father’s father’s side and a son of my father’s first cousin on my father’s mother’s side. Aketo is married to Kozue, who is my father’s first cousin on my father’s mother’s side and the cousin of Aketo’s mother.

Anyway, Aketo graciously showed us the furuyashiki (founding estate land) nestled among chestnut trees where my great-grandfather Kakuzaemon staked out his home and dug a stream that, over 100 years later, continues to cut through the enveloping hillsides. We paid homage to our ancestors’ graves and were treated to a seven-course fresh ayu (sweetfish) luncheon at an outdoor restaurant built over a rushing river from which the ayu are caught. Other Kumamoto specialties we sampled during our stay included basashi (horsemeat sashimi), chanko-nabe (stew eaten by sumö wrestlers), and a sashimi-ed tai (sea bream) that continued to flap its gills, open and close its mouth and roll its eyeballs during the course of the meal.

The week after my parents returned to Hawai‘i, I was graciously treated to lunch at a French restaurant by Fulbright alumnus Mr. Teruaki Konishi, co-chairman of J.P. Morgan Securities Asia Ltd. The following day, I traveled to Ösaka again for a conference on social and economic history, where I met fellow historical demographers and scheduled a presentation of my research results for Jan. 8. No sooner had I returned than I began preparing for my second research trip to Toyama, this time to the village of Ota. The quality of data I was shown and the support the townspeople provided were extraordinary. A friend I had made from my previous trip drove me to Gokayama through the dazzling mountains at the peak of their autumn beauty. The memories of my trips to Toyama (a third followed in December) and the budding friendships they nurtured I hold as amongst the most treasured of my stay in Japan.

Once back in Tökyö, I was invited to a sumptuous French dinner by the Fulbright hospitality committee chairman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hiroshige Takasawa. My cousin, living in California at the time, and her husband, a senior vice president at Nissan North America, were touring Tökyö with top Nissan dealers, so I joined the tour for the weekend. We visited Asakusa and the Imperial Palace, had lunch at the New Otani and stayed at a beautifully appointed suite at the Okura. The following week, I had the pleasure of meeting the current year’s Fulbrighters at the GARIOA (Government Aid and Relief in Occupied Areas) reception and hearing Professor Robert Bellah speak at the Mike Mansfield Lecture. I also gave a talk titled “Public Morals and Popular Media: Legal and Cultural Aspects of Censorship” at a Matsushita Electric Company study group.

Two days later, my mother and her youngest sister, JoAnne Trask, flew into town. JoAnne is a natori in the Hanayagi school of dance in Hawai‘i and was especially looking forward to the afternoon kabuki performance I had planned for them. Once we got to the Kabuki-za, she discovered, much to her surprise, that a good friend of hers, national treasure Kataoka Nizaemon, was starring in the final act. So, afterwards, we went backstage, met the entire Kataoka family and were invited to the following week’s evening performance by Nizaemon’s son, onnagata (female role) specialist Hidetaro.

To wrap up the whirlwind month of November, my mother, aunt and I were invited to a Noh recital by Fulbright alumnus Dr. Masashi Yasumoto (he himself was performing) and to Toshi no Ichi (year-end) festivities and the former Yoshiwara red light district, once again by the ever-gracious Takasawas.

Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at gail.honda@hawaii.rr.com and 808-942-4783.

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