The Little Diplomat

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An especially popular outing was cormorant fishing, still a tourist attraction, albeit not, as we enjoyed it, at an imperial retreat. It takes place at night and involves a gawky-looking black bird that has bulging eyes and a long, scrawny, crooked neck. A handler fits a ring to the cormorant’s neck just tight enough to prevent it from swallowing a fish, then sends it out, held on a long tether, to scoop up fish one by one from the water and return them to the boat. I don’t know about now, but back then the fish were left with the Japanese for their use, while we Americans dined aboard the small boats on charcoal-grilled sukiyaki washed down with sake (in ritually small amounts, for me as well).

At the annual cherry blossom festival, in March, I got to ride a horse in the parade past the emperor, no more than fifty feet distant, in his horse-drawn carriage.

But by far the most oddly exotic formal event we attended was the annual duck netting at the emperor’s private hunting lodge. This took place at a large pond with a high berm on one side. We spectators were concealed behind the berm, at such an angle as to allow us a view of the pond.

What my mother says was termed a Judas duck would be released on the pond, there to quack away until over-flying ducks joined it. Once a suitable flock had gathered, the Judas duck would paddle toward the berm, the others following. When the ducks got the proper distance inshore, a team of beaters would rise from concealed trenches on the opposite side of the pond, shouting and flailing the water with long poles. The terrified birds would take off in the opposite direction—over the berm, but from so close a point that they could clear it by only a few feet.

Waiting on the other side was a team of netters—including, if they so desired, the guests—who would scamper up the berm with large nets held aloft on long handles, snaring the fleeing ducks. Needless to say, the day ended with a sumptuous duck dinner, prepared Japanese style, marinated in soy sauce. It’s still a favorite dish of mine.

Today I get amused, open-mouthed stares when I describe duck netting, even from executive friends and acquaintances who have lately lived in Japan with some access to the higher reaches of Japanese society. Perhaps it is still an imperial ritual but long closed to Western eyes; I don’t know.

Beyond immersing ourselves in Japanese society, we were expected to help rebuild it by freely spending in it. My home, the home of my sister (who got married rather than go to Japan), and especially that of my mother bear witness to this, with artifacts from that time that far surpass in quality and uniqueness what is usually available to today’s visitor. Some were official gifts to my father, but most were bought openly.

One problem for Americans shopping there at that time was the custom of “presentos,” in which the wives of high-ranking officers would enter a store and, in the manner of policemen at a doughnut shop, request a free gift just for dropping by, or at least not refuse one if offered. As sometimes happens in such cases, the practice was a Japanese custom that got out of hand. The point was that you never accepted a presento unless it was first volunteered, but some Americans carried the practice beyond its intent.

 
 
 

My mother, a no-nonsense Midwestern farm girl, stiffly contends that while she accepted presentos, she never once hinted at receiving them (“In our position it just wasn’t right”), and she still rankles at fellow officers’ wives who did. This went for me as well. I was instructed never to accept a presento even if offered. The sole exception to this rule I clearly remember because my parents told me to accept it: a cultured pearl nearly a half-inch in diameter from the hand of Mikimoto himself, now set in a dinner ring for my wife.

Other than antiques and cultural artifacts, Japanese shopping then was pretty lean because capital industry and most large-scale commercial enterprises were still rebuilding. As a result, conventional household products like appliances usually failed quickly, and the words Made in Occupied Japan , emblazoned on all such stock, became a humorous catch phrase for shoddiness.

This may explain why much, if not most, Japanese marketing was then aimed at those most undiscriminating of American consumers, kids. Toys and other childhood trinkets were easier to make, a natural for back-yard cottage industries, which was about all the Japanese had. But at this they excelled. And they did so in the two ways in which they have become a feared and respected cliché: meticulous attention to detail and a genius for exact replication.

I was a ready customer for these wares. Barely a five-minute walk down the ridge from our house was a shopping district, the Motomachi. Today the Motomachi is an upscale outdoor urban mall with pricey shops creeping up the ridge sides and is so marked on tourist maps of Yokohama. Back then it was little more than a single rutted macadam street overlaid with a wealth of exotic scents, good and bad, lined with shacks with corrugated iron roofs, few of which had electricity but all containing never-before-seen wonders for my young senses.