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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Made in Japan

Back in the 60’s during the transistor radio rage, the market was flooded with inexpensive items from Japan. Many Americans took great offense to the poor quality of the merchandise, its plastic / tinny feel left a palpable bad taste in our mouths.

One of the first things we did after the end of WWII was to invest in helping Japan get back on its feet and thrive once again as a nation. We poured money into medical treatment, infrastructure, and manufacturing to help the people of Japan. The devastation wrought at Nagasaki and Hiroshima appeared to be permanent, its yaw created a chasm so wide that no one could see across its breadth or depth.

The Japanese are a resolute and fiercely determined people. The age of the samurai saw to that. The break they needed came in the mid 50’s when they acquired the right to develop transistor chips from Motorola. Their tiny and cheap radios hit the market. The ubiquitous Made in Japan stamped on millions of articles entering the country caused many Americans to sneer at them – even though they wholeheartedly loved the merchandise.

My father was working for Mitsubishi in 1965, managing shoe factories in South Korea. There is some irony to the notion that here was a man working in the same area he first traversed in the early 50’s as a infantry soldier sent to stop the Chinese invasion of Korea.

He took me, my mother and my brother to Japan and Korea in 1966 for a three-month vacation. Our first three weeks were spent in Tokyo. Back then the dollar was very strong against the yen, and we could travel from one end of Tokyo to the other for 20 cents. Twenty years ago it was $225 for a taxi ride from Haneda Airport to a downtown hotel. Walk into a bar and you would pay $100 for a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Our hotel was across the street from the emperor Hirohito’s palace. Even though my father was stationed in western Europe for the war, he said he wanted to talk to Hirohito. He walked across the street and started banging on the giant wooden doors that kept uninvited visitors from accessing the gardens and residence inside. Most abruptly my father was surrounded by Imperial Palace guards with swords drawn. Not one to back down from a fight – even when the battle was futile, he demanded to see Hirohito. The guards moved closer.

Eventually he was escorted from the premises, a bit chagrined that he failed in his quest.

That incident aside, most of the rest of our visit there was akin to a stroll through Disneyland. At our first breakfast, I ordered some apple juice. Watching the cook skin and quarter several fresh apples, place them in a blender with other ingredients -- watching it being turned into a magical elixir, was more than amazing. Drinking freshly made juice brought me as close to an actual religious experience as I had encountered in my young life. I do believe you can say that was a turning point for me, a moment that thereafter would urge me to focus on how a food was prepared; the finesse with which the ingredients were processed.

The care in which the chef handled the apple approached reverence. The skill and precision with his knife were things I had never witnessed before. To me it appeared to be a single-minded attempt to focus all his energy on the task at hand. I would soon come to see that this was the core of Japanese life: attention to the smallest detail in a manner that assured as close to perfection as was possible in any given task.

Lunch was more than amazing; it was as close to a work of art as could be conceived under the circumstances. We were led through a garden to a shaded area near a small rocky hill. The chef prepared a wood fire under a flat rock, upon which he grilled steaks and vegetables for us. This was not ordinary meat; it was Kobe Prime Beef. Our host explained to us that the cow’s diet was augmented with beer, and young women would massage each cow daily in the field to help create a heretofore unseen type of meat Here in the U.S. today, a flank of said beef sells for $125 per pound. We paid the outrageously high price of $7.50 each for the experience that day.

Again, the chef treated all ingredients with respect and gratitude for what the earth had provided, and he was grateful to be able to share that with us. Although at 17 I was unable to articulate what I was experiencing, to the point of being oblivious – it would be decades later when I would fully grasp the significance of what had transpired that day.

I begged my father to take me to the Honda factory so I could pick up some parts for the Sport 50 I was given a year earlier. It was mind numbing to walk through a factory with 60-foot-high walls, motorcycles stacked from floor to ceiling, suspended by ropes and wire. This was as close to a teenage candy store that I would ever experience. The Japanese treated us graciously, providing me with the five dollars worth of parts I needed. Each successive encounter with Japanese culture tattooed a memory in my mind that could not be erased.

At this point in time, the insular nature of Japan was so strong that there were only a little over 60 Americans (or other foreigners) in the country. On the street, walking the boulevard, or shopping, small groups of Japanese would follow us wherever we went. They stood a respectful distance from us, observing our every move. It did not concern us in the slightest.

I did discover one item that did give us pause. While in our hotel room I noticed that a miniature red light beneath the radio in one of the end tables would glow and flicker as we talked. All of our conversations were being recorded, more than likely by the government. It did make us a bit queasy knowing we were being monitored, but since we had no sinister ulterior motives, we just let it slide.

The street below was a spectacle. The road through downtown Tokyo was eight lanes wide, with 90% of Japan riding bicycles or 50cc step-though motorcycles. Cars were an unaffordable luxury at the time – the only ones we saw on the road were taxis – and what an ‘E’ ticket ride they were!

Each cab was outfitted with several gumball style candy machines, so passengers never wanted for a quick treat. Also, each vehicle had a raised platter on a swinging arm with a Japanese GO game set on it. ‘Go’ is the Japanese strategic version of checkers. The driver and passenger would engage in combat while the taxi was in motion! The driver had a rather unique way of making left or right turns – I suspect it was a way of keeping his reaction times sharp. When approaching a right turn the driver would move to the left most lane and quickly veer across the other 4-6 lanes of traffic! This strategy stopped our hearts every time it was initiated – and remember, this was the sixties – no seatbelts.

We made many trips to the Ginza, the Tokyo shopping district. Walking into a department store was a heart thumping adventure. Decades before Costcos and Walmarts, Japanese department stores had merchandise piled 20-30 feet in the air! The craftsmanship of Japanese made goods was consistent with the rest of their culture, but we were drawn to one table with little knick-knack souvenirs, destined to travel home with us so we wouldn’t forget our trip. They seemed to be constructed differently from the other items we had examined. I picked up one of up and turned it over. Stamped in big bold letters, it read: MADE IN CALIFORNIA. We had come full circle at that point, a notion that we would recognize in the near future as a ‘goof’. During my college years we used the expression ‘being goofed on’ as referring to having a unintentional and harmless joke or prank performed on you.

My father took me to a camera store in Tokyo and bought me my first camera – a Canonet QL-19, which would catapult me into the direction I would follow for my entire life. All sales calculations in Japan at this time were done on an abacus. My father bought be one of those beaded wizards, and in less than a week I could do long multiplication and division faster than anyone could calculate on pencil and paper -- a deceptively simple but amazingly powerful device

I began to study Japanese martial arts (Judo, Karate, Aikido) not long after returning to the states. The intensity of my devotion to the martial arts began in earnest upon arriving in California in 1974 and has continued throughout my years. I learned that no task is too trivial to not make a 100% effort towards perfection. Upon returning to the dojo after a long bout of the flu, my instructor Grandmaster Takayuki Kubota, noticed that I was struggling to gain traction due to my weakened condition (I was sparring with the actor James Caan that day).

Shihan (he is now referred to as Soké – a designation for a 10th degree black belt) pulled me aside and said: ‘little by little’. I adopted that as my mantra for my entire life. Whenever I was faced with a new challenge, something that appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle, I would attack it little by little, and almost always I would succeed. While I have come to appreciate many cultures all over the world in my travels, that trip to Japan imbued me with a sense of purpose that I have found nowhere else.

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