Friday, January 23, 2015

Kiyoshi Aki


"The first principle of Judo requires that we learn to fall as well as throw. - Jigoro Kano, the "father" of Judo
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In 1964, when I was in 3rd grade, my parents were involved in the American Field Service, a worthwhile organization that matched international students with American families so that they might experience a senior year in an American high school and both parties could come to appreciate one another's cultures.

Through the Sixties we would host a number of students; Juan from Costa Rica, whose descriptions of the lush beaches and rolling surf of his home still makes me long to build a retirement home there; Bob, a student from Australia who taught me the words to "Waltzing Matilda", including the rude ones; Ignatz, a student from Austria who was a fan of Formula One automobile racing [yes, friends, he's the one to blame]; and Carlos, a student from Mexico who would start crossing himself when we watched horror/monster movies.  My favorite, though, was easily Kiyoshi Aki.

Kiyo was seventeen when he came to live with us.  His English was terrific and, after his tutelage, my Japanese wasn't bad.  The only word that gave him difficulty was "ketchup", so I suggested the alternative pronunciation of "catsup", of which he approved.  I was a skinny kid, something that Kiyo noted by squeezing my flexed bicep and suggesting that I eat more spinach [yes, Popeye cartoons were popular in Tokyo], so he would take me into the backyard and teach me something that was only seen in James Bond movies: judo holds and throws.

When it was my turn to represent at "show and tell" at school, I brought Kiyo.  He spoke of Japanese culture, taught us some words and phrases, gave an example of flower arranging and its purpose, helped the class compose a haiku, and then had the two of us throw one another around in a judo demonstration.  The teacher told my parents that it was the best show and tell of the term; my classmates were fascinated with a culture very different than that of mid-century Ohio.

Yes, it was a great success.  For about two days.

Then, our weekly neighborhood newspaper published a letter from a local police commander whose son was one of my classmates.  In it the captain complained that his son and the tender children of the classroom had been exposed to some "Jap" without the knowledge or permission of the parents.  He claimed his son had been traumatized by nightmares of "our boys at Pearl Harbor" [gee, I wonder who fed his son those lurid images] and that the school better do something about it.  He stirred up others, of course, in a meringue of bigotry.  The next day our principal paid an unprecedented visit to our classroom to tell us about Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese necessitated the use of the atomic bomb. It was all a bit of a puzzle to us that so many adults were so concerned about a war that had concluded more than a decade before any of us were born.

Meanwhile, at the high school, Kiyo, who was a straight A student, suddenly started to have "difficulty" with his homework and tests.  Teachers and coaches who had no issues with him before began to find all sorts of things wrong with his work.  My mother, who at the time was working on the school board, was outraged at this subterranean attack on someone under her protection and used all of her rabble-rousing skills [which were considerable] to counter the bigots, and I remember my father, who was a quiet man and Kiyo's teacher as well as American host, standing at a public meeting and simply stating, "There's nothing wrong with this boy's school work."  So rare were Dad's comments and so determined his mien that I remember that pretty much ended discussion.

Still, the AFS, with discretion being the better part of valor, decided to let Kiyo escape from the tender mercies of the Buckeye State's less sane residents and return to Japan, thus denying him the chance to graduate from an American high school.  He and I were saddened by this, of course, but inevitably I said farewell to my Japanese buddy, judo partner, and surrogate big brother.  I remember one of the friendlier teachers saying to my dad, "I hope he can make something of himself after this."  As it turned out, she needn't have worried.

Kiyo returned to Japan, graduated from high school and university, where he distinguished himself, and then, with a college friend, started a school for the study of foreign language.  He understood that the zeitgeist in Japan was on the verge of fueling an economic re-birth with everyone from elementary school students to captains of industry desiring to learn English and the other western languages.  His school expanded and expanded again so that Aeon Corporation is one of the biggest private language schools in the world.

He also did not let his experience in early-'60's Ohio sour him on western culture and people.  Through his work he met an American woman of Italian descent whom he married; their daughter, Angela Aki, is a well-known pop music artist in Japan and Hawaii whose compositions are also featured in video and computer games.  [An aside; Angela was educated at the 'Iolani School in Honolulu, which is one of the premier schools of The Episcopal Church.]

While I was only eight or nine years old, I look back on Kiyoshi's and my parents' reaction as representative of the finer portions of their characters.  As noted, Kiyo did not retreat into racial bitterness, my parents used the occasion strongly to stand for what they understood to be the basic tenet of their Christian faith [namely, hospitality], and I saw what it was to participate in what William Blake would poetically characterize as "mental fight" on behalf of a friend.

I suppose, now that I can recollect these events after many decades and with a small portion of experienced wisdom, that what Kiyo was doing was merely an extension of the first two lessons of Judo: Learn to fall, then learn to get up again, quickly and balanced.