The year before that first trip to Arkansas, Bobby and I convened under very different circumstances, in our wives’ homeland of Okinawa. This was not my first trip to Japan. I had visited six years earlier, but to the mainland islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Okinawa, I would discover, is an entirely different affair. An island kingdom for centuries before it was annexed by Japan in 1878, the Okinawa islands developed a unique culture that was heavily influenced by China. At the end of World War II the tiny archipelago was acquired by the United States as a war spoil. After twenty-seven years of occupation, Okinawa reverted to Japan with the stipulation that it continue housing one of largest U.S. military installations in the world. With this history, to suggest that Okinawa is representative of mainstream Japanese culture is akin to suggesting that Puerto Rico is representative of mainstream U.S. culture. I was about to experience culture shock all over again. Bobby, however, had visited his wife’s family before. He would prove to be an indispensable comrade on this trip.
The Man and the Family
There is too much to tell about this remarkable place and the character of its people for this brief account. Besides, Okinawa is not a place for explaining. It is a place for doing. Just like that first night with the Flyes at Minako’s house a year earlier, in Okinawa one begins with intimacy and works toward familiarity.
One of my favorite memories with Bobby in Okinawa concerned an outing with Minako’s father in search of a golf course that was never found. Since no one speaks any English, and Bobby and I spoke barely a survival level of Japanese, we were left to our own devices. The wives certainly weren’t going to translate, and even on those rare occasions when they did, no one was listening anyway. Minako and Naomi’s family, with its large contingent of relatives who arrive and depart unannounced at all hours, are more focused on shoving food and drink into guests’ mouths, than hearing what might come out of them. Kojiro Sahira, the sisters’ father, was a man just entering a post-wealth stage of life. At one time he’d owned several properties, which had now been reduced to one, a gas station still under construction. He had built a marvelous house with glistening wood floors and a tatami banquet room with elaborately carved transom pieces (ramma), as well as a garden replete with dwarf pines, papaya, and a pond with carp the size of small cats. “Jichama,” as he was affectionately known, decided that the men would go golfing, an important rite of passage for prospective husbands, that being me in this case.
So there we were, on a small highway headed north completely unable to communicate with our host, but immensely enjoying each other’s company. At one point, Jichama pulled onto a side road and stopped above a cliff overlooking the East China Sea. Two men in jimbei and wide-brimmed straw hats were squatting on the rocks fishing with long poles. Neither of them appeared to know where the golf course was located, and Jichama, who’d clambered awkwardly halfway down the steep rock slope turned about with a grunt and a dismissive wave of his hand.
Back in the car, and down the road we came to the intersection leading back onto the highway. To our astonishment, Jichama did not pull back onto the highway, but spun the car about, blocking the intersection and offering his broadside to the oncoming traffic. Putting it in park, he stepped out and approached the growing line of cars backing up behind us. “What in hell is he doing?” I said incredulously. I can’t recall Bobby’s exact words, but he chuckled and said something to the effect that Jichama was going to find that golf course one way or another. And that’s just what Jichama did, making his way down the line, talking to several drivers, before giving up and returning to the car.
Eventually Jichama gave up the search and instead took us to the Bankoku Shinryukan, an impressive resort and convention center set on a small peninsula before an extensive coral reef. In about two weeks this hotel would host the G8 Summit, and preparations were underway, with a conspicuous number of police and other officials milling about. Jichama wandered this way and that, entering dining halls and crossing terraces with no particular aim. Bobby and I followed along, chatting as I snapped pictures. Next to the hotel was a marine park with a long pier extending across the teal and emerald hues of the reef to an underwater observatory. Standing in a room beneath the sea, Bobby and I watched as fish in every imaginable color and patterning sailed past the portholes. It was like a scene from The Beatles animated classic, “Yellow Submarine”. Jichama tottered about disinterestedly, waiting for us to have our fill. “You know,” said Bobby, “when we look out these windows, we see all these amazing tropical fish. But when they look out, they see breakfast. That’s bacon and eggs swimming by out there.” We laughed about that all the way back to the car.
There were many other episodes in Okinawa, but sadly, Bobby only stayed two weeks, while I would stay a full two months. He had to fly back on his own for work. During our short time together, I had a friend and sounding board at a time when my fiancé really needed to focus on her family. Wherever we went, though, I was always impressed by Bobby’s amiability and relaxed mien. He was a man who was comfortable in his life, such that location had no bearing on it. You could put him anywhere and he’d make a heartfelt connection with whoever was there. I recall a day in Itoman at the dragon boat races when a toddler waved at him. He was completely charmed by the child and said hello as we were making our way to the car. I took a picture of the scene, one that captures his open spirit well. For some, this might seem a trivial moment, but for me, especially the “me” of that time, I needed a model of how to be open to others, and to be spontaneous. This was another of the important lessons Bobby taught me without saying a word.
Another critical lesson I learned from Bobby was the primacy of family. I had been raised in the late ‘70s in northern California. It was a time and place of dislocation and disassociation for many, and my family was at the epicenter of rapid, often negative social changes. My parents had divorced when I was seven, sparking years of contentious court battles over custody. My father, who was the stable parent, and with whom I preferred to live, was kept at arm’s length by my wounded and vindictive mother. Cynicism had deeply sunk its claws in me, and what “family” was and should be was something of which I’d only had glimpses. On the morning Bobby was to leave for the airport he wrote a letter for Naomi to read to all of us once he was gone. I didn’t find out about it until Naomi shared it, but I recall Bobby acting strangely that morning.
I was just stepping out of the bathroom after my shower and he was coming down the hall. I said something, along the lines of good morning and he glanced awkwardly at me without a word, quickly making his way downstairs. There were tears in his eyes. I immediately assumed he’d had a fight with Naomi, and when I asked Mina if she knew what was going on, she said he was just having a hard time leaving. Here was an outwardly strong man, very much a rural man, not the kind of man, according to my stereotypes, whom I’d expect to display emotion openly. Consciously or not, I wondered why he was such a mess. It wasn’t like anybody died or anything.
Later, after tearful embraces at the airport, Naomi read the letter to the family, translating it into Japanese. Again, there wasn’t a dry eye among us. I can’t recall details of the letter, but he’d written a full page about the importance of family. I was a veritable essay on the subject, and I remember thinking that I’d never considered family from such a serious perspective. For me, family was something I’d diminished in my mind all of my life, and yet here I was about to start a new one with Mina and her young son from a previous marriage. Moreover, I was in Okinawa meeting her family, people from an older culture where divorce is not an acceptable solution, and marriage outside of one’s ethnicity is suspect. Bobby’s letter made me sit up straight and start thinking more seriously.
Bobby was part of this process of opening and unfolding in my life, and I suspect I took his lesson to heart in ways I wasn’t aware of at the time. Several weeks later I was getting on a plane home and I didn’t just cry, I sobbed along with everyone else. The day I left Okinawa I loved Minako’s family no less intensely than my own. That we’ve sustained and developed our marriage for all these years can in part be attributed to the example of husband and father that Bobby modeled for me.