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Jim Hutton and Cary Grant in Walk, Don’t Run
My knowledge of Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics begins and ends with the wonderful Cary Grant film Walk, Don’t Run. Otherwise, I know almost nothing except that Japan was not the Superpower it is today.
The boys in this fictionalized memoir (written for middle grade students, but enjoyable for any age) are 2-4 years older than my brother, so 6 to 8 years older than me. That would make them around 70 today.
[Apologies–I must have learned of this book through a blog, but I’ve tried to retrace my steps and cannot. If I find where I first read about this book, I will update the post.]
“[Their family] and many other people living around them, had begun to prefer the new Tokyo over the old. He wondered if this was good or bad.”
Month-by-month, this book tells the story of two brothers and their very ordinary life in a company owned subdivision in Tokyo around the time of the Olympics in ’64. Unlike the mothers in my world in’64, theirs works in an electronics factory and the father works for the company that owns the house. Their home is one typical of the Tokyo of that day–small, a few rooms, not bathing facilitates. They go out to bathe each night at a communal bathhouse which was very normal then. The boys argue and slack-off on studying and prefer TV and playing with their friends to doing chores or homework. Very normal anywhere. But, along the way, they are growing up and seeing their world with greater clarity.
Kazuo, the main character and the older of the two brothers, is growing weary of his mother saying “During the war….” and of his father, when he occasionally drank too much of ranting at him to study and get a good degree and not make the mistakes he had made. Kazuo dreams of running as fast as the American Sprinter, Bob Hayes. He practices Hayes’ low start over and over hoping to improve. His group of friends include the local butcher’s son and a Korean-Japanese boy whose father is a scrap man. These friends and their stories help Kazuo to see the world around him through more mature eyes as the story progresses. His teacher is a kind man who encourages instead of berating his students. When he shares that he, too, goes out to bathe, Kazuo feels better about himself.
Like all children, Yasuo, the younger brother, isn’t always as attuned to social cues as his parents might like him to be. Once such scene that broke my heart in more than one way occurred during the family’s dinner out at New Year’s. Next to them, an older couple was eating–the woman holding a doll. Yasuo realized she was holding a doll, but nonetheless asks what his name is. As a parent I winced, but as an older person now, I rejoiced. He noticed the lady and treated her kindly. Her husband also rejoiced. No matter that the curried rice they had ordered was sub-par and overpriced. I loved that scene.
Kazuo is very taken with American culture–he watches Leave it to Beaver and other American TV shows, but he hates the milk they are given to drink at school–a legacy of the occupation and a good-faith effort to improve the nutrition of Japanese children. But how does the American culture of Wally and the Beaver’s nice life square with Agent Orange and the Vietnam war that is all over t.v. and makes his mother complain that she doesn’t want to hear more about war.
I remember the Vietnam Was vividly on t.v., but the thoughts on the war and the mother’s talk about World War II as she experienced were educational for me even at my age. Woke culture of today is easy to lampoon with it’s language of “lenses” to “view” events though and the exercise of “agency” or the exposure of “privilege.” But it does a good thing too–it makes us stop and look at events through the eyes of others. The mother’s story of the bombings and of Vietnam made me stop and reflect on their side of the story. This even though a cousin resigned his officer’s commission over our decisions in Vietnam and completed his tour of duty as an enlisted man. It takes a well written book to do that.
I loved reading Kazuo’s story. I loved the ordinary everyday aspects of it. I loved hearing about dinner and play and how they bathed. I nearly cried when Minoru’s family voluntarily repatriates to North Korea knowing what their fate would be. I wish Mr. Honda had been my teacher.
This is a wonderful book. An absolute delight. I highly recommend it.
J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1964 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fisher Udagawa
Here’s a fun memory from the book–read the book to understand.