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Making choices, taking orders while in Japan

A fairly well-known aphorism is “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” the origins of which are unknown to me.

In a rather long life, there have been a good many times when I have spoken up — sometimes to my own detriment.

However, there does remain an event a good many years ago when I did not speak up that lingers in my memory with some regret. It’s in regard to this that I have not “held my peace” — at least not to myself.)

The scene was — if you can believe it — the stage at a huge public meeting hall in Tokyo, Japan.

I lived in Tokyo for a time following Navy service which had included being stationed at Yokosuka, a short train ride from Tokyo. I was one of the judges for several one-act plays presented in English by students from Tokyo universities, of which there are several.

I happened upon this improbable role as I — for a relatively short time — worked for a Tokyo English language newspaper, The Asahi Evening News, during which time I also taught English in Tokyo.

I was not the newspaper’s original choice for being a judge of a competitive staging of plays delivered in English by Japanese students. Jack Sellers, an experienced journalist at the newspaper, was to have taken this Sunday evening assignment, but feeling ill, he had asked me to fill in for him. I agreed, even though I had scant knowledge of what I was getting into.

Since so many years have intervened, I don’t remember much about a couple of the one-act plays offered.

But two do stand out in my memory.

One was a British farce, and involved much antic behavior by the Japanese youths. Although their acting may have been adroit, I found the presentation absurd. The second “Twilight Crane” based on Japanese folklore, represented the influence of animism, or spiritualism, on Japanese culture.

A young peasant farmer rescues a crane, which a hunter has shot with an arrow.

To repay him, the crane turns herself into a beautiful young woman who moves into his abode as his wife.

But each evening she disappears behind a sliding door, and makes him promise not to look in to see what she is doing, although there is the consistent sound of a working loom, and in the morning she emerges with a bolt of beautiful cloth.

But the woman becomes thinner and thinner even as the farmer sells the cloth at the nearby village at a good price.

After many days of this, his curiosity does get the best of the farmer, and he peeks into the room behind the sliding door and finds that his wife has again become a crane and that she is plucking the feathers from her blood spotted body to weave into cloth on the loom.

At the discovery of her secret, the crane flies away.

I thought that the lighting, sound efforts and acting of this folkloric tale were very good, and that it was the best of that evening’s offerings.

But the other judges, who were from the British and American embassies as well as from the Japanese publishing industry, disagreed and decided, as I recall, that the British farce was the best choice.

One of the judges, a Briton, told me that the crane story was just an easy vehicle for a very attractive young Japanese woman, implying that my choice was based solely on the beauty of the female lead. That may have been a factor, but I had been swayed by the quality of the entire offering by the Tokyo University students.

One by one from a podium at the center of the stage, the judges expressed their opinions to a sea of young Japanese faces upturned from their seats in the huge auditorium.

I was not asked to speak. The judges possibly did not like my choice of the poignant Japanese tale as the best, or thought that as a last-minute choice for the panel I would not have been up to giving an extemporaneous talk before such a huge audience.

I imagine those in the audience wondered why one person on the panel did not present his views, and although my omission was a relief to me at the time, it certainly was humiliating.

When I look back on the experience today, I believe that I should have been encouraged to present my views and given a few moments to collect my thoughts.

I also believe that in the name of fairness and respect for artistry, I should have requested the opportunity, although my view today that I could have adequately done so may be just wishful thinking.

Throughout Asia, the crane is a symbol of happiness and eternal youth.

In Japan, the crane symbolizes good fortune and longevity because of its fabled life span of a thousand years. The crane is a favorite subject of Haiku poetry and the tradition of origami, or paper folding.

On the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, Ainu women do a dance based on the mating dance of male cranes. The Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Japan.

An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane.

After World War II the crane came to symbolize peace and what had befallen the innocent victims of the war through the story of Sadako Sasaki and her thousand origami cranes.

Sadako suffered from leukemia as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and knowing that she was dying, she made a thousand origami cranes before her death at age 12.

After her death she became internationally recognized as a symbol of the innocent victims of war and remains a heroine today to many Japanese girls.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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