My father had a heart attack a few days ago, and rather than waiting until he’s dead to write an obituary, I thought it’d be more appropriate to write a birthday tribute (he’s 86 today) while he’s still here beside me in the hospital room. It’s personal, but at least peripherally related to the World part of Akemi’s Anime World, and part of the reason this site exists.
In particular, I wanted to state in public that my father is a great man. Normally the measure of greatness is such that only the most exceptional have any hope of attaining it, but his most outwardly exceptional quality is one that anyone has the ability to emulate.
My father has a resume that includes everything from owning a miniature golf course, to being a sign painter, to odd-jobbing his way across the US with a buddy in a crank-start Model A Ford, to raising five children split across two families. At the peak of his career in the museum field, he was the head of a state historical society, with dozens of properties and a couple hundred employees. That might well rank as “great,” and would probably feature prominently in an obituary, but that has nothing to do with why I consider him great.
He also fought in World War II, which managed to get his entire generation labeled as “great,” but it also wasn’t that that made him great in my eyes—it’s what he did after he came home.
When my father was 16 years old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. When he was 17, he enlisted as a US Marine and was sent to fight in the Pacific Theater. He spent the remainder of his teenage years alternating between being violently seasick on ships floating around the South Pacific and trudging around hot, rainy jungle islands swatting mosquitos and sleeping in holes filled with mud.
He was a radio operator, so was lucky enough to not see much front-line combat. He was also unlucky enough to hide under a jeep from incoming machine gun fire, to tiptoe behind a brash commander through the middle of a minefield, to watch a bullet-riddled Kamikaze fighter heading directly for his ship and hope the antiaircraft fire would bring it down before it reached him, to witness from a distance Okinawan women who’d been told that the Americans would do unspeakable things to them jump off of cliffs with their children rather than be captured.
Again, none of those things are what marked him as a great human being; the point of the list is that he spent the beginning of his adulthood stuck in the middle of a war halfway around the globe witnessing and experiencing horrors I can only imagine while a lot of Japanese people he had never met tried to kill him.
A little over fifty years later, at almost exactly the same age he was reading about a new enemy bombing Hawaii, his son (that would be me) began studying Japanese. At the same age he was in boot camp, I began dating a Japanese woman who had come to the US to study English. A few years later, at around the same age he was cheering the end of the war and his chance to finally get back home, I was flying to Japan to propose to her. It would be harder to imagine a starker contrast between the life path of father and son.
And that is what made him great: Never once, from the day he drove me to my first Japanese class, to the day he met my conversation partner, to the day I decided to marry her, to our tenth anniversary, to today, did he express the slightest hint of prejudice or disapproval. Indeed, so far as I have any reason to believe, never did he even feel either. On the contrary, he always did everything he could to teach me to treat every other human being with respect, and to genuinely welcome the woman I loved as if she was his own daughter.
That, in my opinion, is the mark of true greatness. Not the fighting of a war, but the willingness to forgive after one.
Not all of us, thankfully, have the opportunity to have our humanity tested so strongly. I, for one, pray that I never do. But everyone has the opportunity to practice it, and indeed the world would be so much better of a place if we all did. My father taught me—through action, not words—that any time someone expresses prejudice, all I need know is that if he could leave his enmity in the past, anyone can.
As my father struggled with leukemia and chemotherapy, every time I saw him the second question he asked was how Akemi, his daughter-in-law stranded in Japan after the earthquake, was doing. As he lay in a hospital bed after a heart attack, one of the things he went out of his way to ask from his potential deathbed was whether she had made it back from Japan without incident.
And to me, for all the interesting, dramatic, and important things my father did during his life, the simple smile on his face when he first saw Akemi after she finally made it home is the true, indelible mark of a great man.
Happy birthday, dad.
[Addendum: My father died quietly of complications from his various illnesses about a month after I wrote this. He did, however, have the chance to read it himself (and confirm the historical accuracy). A traditional obituary can be found here.]