My parents told me very little about their families and ancestors. The only thing they told me a lot about was how little food they had during WWII. Because they didn't have white rice, I was sure they didn't have any candies. But maybe an exception would be Sakuma-Drops.
A few weeks ago, I happened to type, "You're a life-saver" to Mary Wilkinson on her blog, and I thought about Lifesavers. I love Lifesavers and their shining colors. The hard candy jumped to Sakuma-Drops which is a similar Japanese product. Then, I continued writing what my mother told me about it. I tend to digress, so I vacillated whether I should submit my small comment or not.
I was probably in high school. My mother and I were in our tiny dining/living room, and I was shaking a can of Sakuma-Drops looking for an orange one. Cling, cling, cling. Sakuma-Drops do not stick to each other or our fingers. Cling, clung...
Mom, too many white drops are in it, I say, Who likes menthol?
"They're like tooth paste, she says, It used to be mostly all fruit flavors. You know, our relative used to run this company."
When was that?
"Before WWII. We used it for gifts when we made a visit to people."
What happened to the company?
"Sold it to someone, I guess."
As I said before, I tend to digress. Maybe I should declare it in the beginning. It's only fair to readers. But anyhow, I thought my comment seemed harmless. I hit enter. I made a cup of green tea and sat down. And then I regretted it. I thought sometimes digression was good, and sometimes, bad. But as any mistakes I've ever made in my life, I learn them only after I make them. Never before. This is my problem. I pondered why exactly I regretted it. I became curious about this regret.
With those issues in mind, I went on reading a Sumathi's blog about Freedom, and that somehow led me to the subject of Class and Caste systems. I read an Abdelwahab's message: Islam does not segregate for racial, color, or creed. Well, I had no idea.
I asked a few people around me about it. They didn't know that either. So I thought about it.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, there is a scene. He is on a plane either from Europe to the Middle East, or the Middle East to Africa. On the plane, he sees black crews. He goes to the cabin and peeks inside. In the cockpit, a pilot or pilots are also blacks.
I was reading the book in the 80s. I compared my feeling when I went to Europe the first time, although it wasn't the Middle East. To me, black adults and children seemed softer in Paris and London than in Los Angeles. But I couldn't tell about pilots because I hadn't gone to see cockpits. I thought, wait, Malcolm X must be right because he is a black.
I read the same paragraph again. His shock emerged in my head. I sat beside him.
I thought about different cultures. I wondered if one type of prejudice was absent, then nature caused the other type. Even today, class and caste systems seem unmovable in some countries.
Wait. Wait. Not long ago, Japanese society was class systems, and in my opinion, the Meiji Restoration was a revolution. Probably Japanese didn't shed as much blood as French did, but I think the impact was similar.
After the Restoration and many years afterward, a large number of Japanese lost properties and paychecks. Those people and their descendants pursed their lips tight. If they complained of their misfortune, they would end up being ridiculed or becoming a target of jealousy, and their situation could be fatal. Arson must have been common. Keeping quiet was the only way. So the noble and samurai class people swallowed their pride and lived on.
But, who cares about the privileged, right? That's been the only sentiment around. It had been the utmost taboo in Japan for former privileged people and their descendants to talk about their sufferings. That was understandable. But they are people, too. We can't deny it. As I read more and more Japanese books, mostly historical, I became aware of prejudiced point of views. Like Shiba Ryotaro-no relation to the Indian goddess of Shiba, for instance, he focuses on the lower rank samurai as though nobody else went through sufferings. I'm definitely not a fan of a noble, General Nogi at all, but when Shiba Ryotaro attacks him in his writings again and again and again beating the frail dead ghost, I can't help but see true ugliness of the class system.
And most of the samurai films I watched growing up depicted nobles as stupid and nasty. We human beings probably have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other out of hatred. Those people are like Mao Zedong's Red Guards. I think this is one of the reasons why we had the class system to begin with. In the beginning of our history, a group of people created a class system to defend themselves from hatred, so it created more hatred, and it snowballed.
In his memoir, a great grandson of the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, wrote that he is afraid to have a relationship with any woman because he fears that he might make her pregnant. He is a photographer and the same age as I. He's never been married. He seemed perfectly healthy, but I thought that statement alone explained to me about what happened to his family. He lives in a small condominium with his mother.
Going back to Sakuma-Drops, I thought it odd that I never heard the family name, Sakuma, as our relative. I looked at the web site of Sakuma-Seika in Wikipedia. The founder, Sakuma Soujirou, was born in Chiba Prefecture and went to Tokyo at age 13 to work for a traditional sweets artisan. In 1908, he succeeded in making Sakuma-Style-Drops using citric acid. The drops are coated with fine white powder and won't stick to fingers even during humid summer. It was his invention. He guarded his recipe in a safe.
Sakuma Soujuro seemed to belong to a merchant class. So I thought maybe my mother's large extended family had a rebel female...like me, and she married Sakuma Soujuro. In those days, ordinary women married to the same or the higher social class, and marriages were arranged. Their marriage could have been a scandal.
Wow! A couple passionately fell in love. They faced relatives' opposition. Perhaps, they talked about dying together from the top of the highest cliff in a cold northern countryside, or maybe they discussed about running away to China. A generous man might have appeared like Aladdin on a Persian carpet and helped them establish their sweets company.
This theory of mine has a solid base. I know a living example and foreign novels. My grandparents on my mother's side probably married out of love although it looked arranged. I lived with my grandfather, so I can tell. I trust my instinct. To give you a revealing reason, in his seventies, he used to watch Miss Universe Pageants with my brother, and when he went to a hot spring trip on a community charter bus, he danced with an American woman tourist at the cocktail lounge of his Inn. I was very impressed with that incident.
Anyhow, he married Yoshimura Toyo who was the second daughter of Yoshimura Heishichi the 4th. He was the owner of a silk-dye business and a politician. For some reason, I used to think he was also a descendant of a samurai. Probably we had a thick samurai air in the house. So, I think Yoshimura Heishichi belonged to a merchant class. I guess it was okay for men to marry a woman of the lower class. But what about the other way?
I googled about the company and found a blog. It is written by an author of a Japanese Sweets history, and my understanding of it is as below.
In 1920, Sakuma Soujirou (or Shojuro) established Sakuma-Seika, written as 佐久間製菓. In 1925, he died, and Sakuma Hisao took over the company. And before WWII, the business faced a crisis, so Sakuma Hisao scouted Yamada Hirotaka from his business relations and appointed him director. Yamada is my mother's maiden name. I don't know how we're related, but now I'm more interested in the history of the company. The story sounds more stimulating than a lovers' scandal. Anyway, this man successfully restored the operation, promoted, and began producing a chocolate product. For those contributions, he eventually became the president of the company in 1937.
In 1937, the company changed a part of the name from Kanji to katakana:
佐久間製菓 toサクマ製菓. Both are pronounced as Sakuma-Seika, but the use of katakana made the image modern. Then, the Manchurian Incident happened. It was the beginning of WWII, and in 1944, the government's war efforts pushed the company to shut down. WWII ended in August 1945.
The story gets very complicated regarding their companies' locations, symbols, and trademarks along with their names. Besides, the information on the Web is written with redundancy, and the sentence structures are not parallel. To sum up, five similar companies existed at one time, but they were reduced to two, and the following two companies ended up in court.
In 1948, Yokokura Sinnosuke, a former head-clerk of the company, reestablished the Sakuma-Seika. It is written as 佐久間製菓.
In 1949, the third son of Yamada Hirotaka, the former president, reestablished the Sakuma-Seika. It is written as サクマ製菓.
Both names are pronounced as Sakuma-Seika.
It seems a strange court decision. The judge ended up allowing both companies to survive. That's all I know. A scandalous love story is out. Instead, I imagine a controversial court drama about democracy vs. the class system. Japan lost the war. After that, people tried to crush former authorities and the class system at every opportunity. All the people were oppressed. It was a new era and a turn for underprivileged. Everything changed then, and large extended families crumbled and dispersed. That was the reason my mother didn't know what exactly happened to the company and the relatives.
Because of my research, I now know that the Sakuma-Drops can I was shaking was red and belonged to佐久間製菓. Their cans contain eight menthols. And the cans of サクマ製菓 are green and contain only three menthols. I hope to confirm these facts later.
Last year, I had much more energy in finding out about my ancestors. I thought
I could trace some of them easily to the 14th century. I wanted to leave my children some accurate documents about our roots. So when the subject of family records came up in a Japanese writing workshop, I told a 70ish Japanese writer about my interest. He said,
"Why do you want to know that?"
For my children, I said, They don't speak Japanese.
"What do they do with it? Why do you care about that? It isn't like you. It isn't like Amano-san at all," he said with a disgusted face as though I was committing a sin.
It isn't like ME? Why is that?
He lifted his chin.
What's wrong with wanting to find out my own roots? He doesn't know me well. But then, he isn't alone in giving such negative reaction. I think I became desensitized after living in the U.S. for 35 years.
This past spring, I attended a Japanese history lecture. The lecturer was talking about the interviews he conducted in Gunma Prefecture. The interviewee was a descendant of a very prosperous silk merchant at the turn of the 20th century. The room was packed. The lecturer referred to the merchant often as Yoshimura. My grandmother on my mother's side grew up in Gunma, and her last name was Yoshimura.
I raised my hand and asked him about the name Yoshimura. He said Yoshimura was short of Yoshimura-ya, and it was the name of the shop, not the last name of the merchant. I understood it, but I wondered why the merchant named their shop Yoshimura-ya when their last name was not. If I were an interviewer, I'd ask the question. After all, Yoshimura sounded most likely someone's last name. But I didn't say that. Instead, I told him about my great grandfather's silk-dye business, and his last name, Yoshimura. He pursed his lips. I said,
I'd like to research about my ancestors.
"Silk businesses were all over Gunma," he said.
I understand, but I have the address. I'd been there when I was a child. I had a tour of an o-kura storage. They used to have three o-kura.
There is an old saying: one o-kura storage yields one millionaire. He straightened his back and said in a loud voice,
"My ancestors were farmers. But they were the head of the community. I'm sure they were quite influential then."
I stopped. I guess I've forgotten how not to ask questions. I thought Japan hasn't changed a bit. It's still the class society in spirit. Among the descendants of the class system, competitiveness, jealousy or pride related to it must be high. It's like sex and religions. People avoid the subjects. When someone is speaking in a logical way, and out of blue, he or she becomes emotional, I think about this possibility. I wonder what the audience thought about my questions. They hardly asked questions. They only giggled. I thought no wonder my mother kept quiet about her relatives even to me.
Going back to Sakuma-Drops, I thought about a hidden drama behind the company
サクマ製菓. The old photo I saw once appeared in my head. I was at my aunt's house, paging through a photo album. It was the following year after my mother died. She died in 1996. On the 5x7 photo, my mother in a kimono stood at the top right corner. She was about 15, and the occasion was a New Year family party.
In the middle of the front row, great grandfather, the patriarch of the family, sat next to a young man in an army uniform. I asked my aunt who he was. She said he was Colonel Koumoto. She asked me if I knew him.
No, I said.
"Don't you know the Manchurian Incident?"
She told me that he was the author of the well-known memoir in which he confessed that he was the party guilty of setting the bomb that killed the prime minister of China. Her words shocked me. The incident is a part of the Manchurian Incident, and it is considered to be the beginning of WWII.
I didn't know what to think. I thought about my Chinese and Korean friends. What do they think about this? It took me a while, but I felt as though enemies and families were fused into one and could not separate like the male and female of the Indian goddess, Shiba. I didn't think the Colonel executed the order on his own. In the photo, the eldest son was absent. My grandfather was the third son.
My research on foot could be bumpy. So I typed a keyword in Google. My great grandfather name picked up a Web site related to Shiba Ryotaro's novel about the Russo Japanese War. The site showed that Akashi Motojirou was a friend of my great grandfather. I was surprised, but I was pretty sure of the information because his first name was unique.
The author depicts a scene that on the day of a celebration, Yamada Kikan goes to congratulate Akashi on his new post, the 7th governor of Taiwan. After the celebration party, Akashi invites Yamada to his hotel room, and they talk until very late at night. So Yamada ended up sleeping over there.
Until then, it never occurred to me to search the Web for my family history. But reading the above information, I began to see the kind of connection the president of Sakuma-Seika had. To make a large quantity of candy, the company needed a good contact for importing sugar. Taiwan had to be a good producer of sugar canes.
After WWII, five similar companies sprang up, and at the end, two ended in court. During the lawsuit, the government's focus was to rebuild the country fast, and at the same time, to crumble and destroy the class system from the foundation. The judge must have recognized the contribution the former president had made, but out of the context of the history and according to the traditional and socialistic decisions, he granted a right to the other company also. That's what I think without any further research.
Come to think of it, I learned a lot from Shiba Ryotaro. He was very good at changing subjects. He just wrote, "I change the subject" in single line. Then off he went without any explanation or a transitional phrase. He was almost comical. At first, I resented it. But he did it again and again. I ignored it. He kept doing it over again.
I change the subject.
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman, there is a scene in the beginning chapter. The author arrives in Beirut. This is in the early 80s. After three or four months after his arrival to the city, he vacates his luxurious flat to avoid problems. The political tension is mounting and coming from Palestinian Refugees camps. Shots are fired sporadically in Beirut, and squatters start to occupy posh buildings. The author makes an arrangement so that some of his Palestinian assistant's family occupies his flat.
Meantime, the situation is getting worse at the refugee camps and elsewhere. A large family of Palestinians shows up at the doorstep of the flat with their clothes spilling out from the corners of their suitcases. The Palestinian assistant's wife and their three young daughters are inside the flat. Their dark eyes meet with other dark eyes.
I don't know where the Palestinian refugee family goes. Next scene is a bombing. Not just a flat but the whole building is destroyed, and all the people die.
How many levels of the tragedy is that? I shake my head. All the tragedies are multi-layered, and like searching black berries, if we change angles, we see more. Islam does not discriminate against race, color, or creed. Then is it a class war?
Outsiders like me cannot see the class issues in news or documents. I find a small thing, and I become curious. I trace it and follow its path, and sometimes I get obsessed. I think about it sitting down and walking. But it always comes to this point. I can't get obsessed for the things I have no control over.
But I can write all about it and in any way I want!