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Susan Page

The Language Of Friendship

(from left) Miyoko Hamada, Susan (Page) and Maj. John Ditto, and Kazuhiko, Hamada’s son, in December 1967 in Iwakuni, Japan | Photo from Susan Page

The country of Japan is both fondly familiar and formidably foreign.

We go way back, Japan and I. Just shy of 45 years, to be exact. But this visit to my second-favorite country in the world was to be bittersweet. It would, I thought, be a sad sayonara to a dear, old Japanese friend, age 85.

“Oh, Susan, please … just one more time … I hope. Please, Iwakuni, one more time,” she said often on the phone. To be clear, Miyoko’s English is far better than my Japanese. Nevertheless, we communicate … oddly. I copy how she says English words and add my basic Nihongo, which often elicits a quizzical face and “Nani?” meaning “what?”

Worried, I had a mutual Japanese friend translate her medical diagnosis: atrial fibrillation (AFIB), an irregular heartbeat that can cause strokes. She also has advanced osteoporosis and chronic pain keeping her house-bound.

My last visit to Iwakuni was more than five years ago. The picturesque little town is in Yamaguchi prefecture on Japan’s main Honshu Island. It lies just south of Hiroshima on the breathtaking Seto-Naikai (Inland Sea). The historic wooden arch bridge, Kintaikyo, over the Nishiki River originating in 1673 is Iwakuni’s main tourist draw, particularly when cherry blossoms bloom – a spectacular, allergy-activating experience. Japanese consider Iwakuni “the country,” and it has that feel. Its homes and businesses snake around and between verdant mountains of red pine and native oak as if to mimic its three intersecting rivers, the Monzen, Imazu and Nishiki.

Having U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni – my introduction to military life as a young bride in 1967 – gives the town some political clout. In fact, after years of complex and sometimes rancorous negotiations, it appears that at least part of Navy Carrier Air Wing Five eventually will relocate to the Iwakuni base, doubling its size. When my husband, Jerry (Coffee), and I arrived last month for an eight-day visit with Miyoko, we were astounded at the scale and scope of new base construction.

My familiar old haunts are rapidly becoming extinct, like the Quonset hut where my late husband, John Ditto, and I spent part of our honeymoon – with another Marine in the adjoining room! The historic base headquarters building is now an admin building set for possible demolition, according to base commander Col. Robert Boucher. The Japanese Imperial Navy built the base in 1939, and it’s believed that the loft over the foyer is where Adm. Yamamoto planned the Pearl Harbor attack.

Robert J. Hanyok writes in Catching the Fox Unaware that, on Nov. 12, 1941, Adm. Yamamoto was aboard his flagship, the battleship Nagato, at the Iwakuni Air base. In the book The Pacific War: From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, Daniel Marston writes that “on November 13, Admiral Yamamoto gathered his commanders of the combined fleet to discuss the concrete plan to attack Pearl Harbor at Iwakuni Air Base.”

And why is this important in a story about visiting my ailing friend Miyoko? Because what occurs on base is deeply important to her. She and her husband, Toshihiko, built a thriving business in Iwakuni long ago and spent a lifetime fostering friendly relations with the Marine Corps – with Americans. As venerable members of the Iwakuni Chamber of Commerce, they hold a permanent VIP invitation to major events on base. Never mind that the Hiroshima atomic bomb left Miyoko motherless and traumatized. She thought she’d never be matched with a good husband without her mother to guide the Miai process. But after 65 years, Miyoko still adores her perfect match, Toshihiko, 87, faithfully at her elbow guiding her every painful step.

When I first saw my always-energetic friend, her fragile state was shocking. Bent and slow, she seemed to have forgotten our “pidgin,” speaking in fast Japanese as if I understood. Finally, I stopped saying “English, please” and just listened. But, as days passed, a change occurred. Dinners with friends and lively talk ignited a spark. Her pace increased and “our English” returned. Thankfully, she’s not near death. But she has outlived her dearest friends, she’s in pain, her children and grandchildren are busy. She’s lonely.

Navigating its train stations reminds me how frustratingly foreign Japan can be. Yet navigating the stations of human relationship reminds me how all of us speak the same language.

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