Nichijo: The Testimony of John
In thirteen years, the threat of execution had become such a routine part of my environment that it held no terror. Like one who had come to accept a terminal illness, I held no fear of it. Like the drone of an ocean liner's engines, constant during a long crossing, reminders of my jeopardy had become unnoticeable background.
Now that threat had become noticeable because it had suddenly stopped. The end of my official persecution made me realize again what enormous pressure I had been under and how much my responses had been suppressed. My release warranted a celebration, of course, and there were many dinners and parties to congratulate me and honor my attorneys. Finally the parties were over and sobriety returned and what lay before me was the task of finding my way through "real life".
The postwar years in the Army had presented their own form of hell, insinuations, rumors, harassment, oblique charges and investigations without conclusion. The years awaiting trail and the trials themselves had been an improvement in one important sense: the government had had to make its charges in the open, where they could be dealt with; challenged, confronted, countered, disproved. In the years following my trials, persecution was slow in fading away, and it had taken on some new forms. In particular it was the curse of having been convicted in the press and thereby in the public memory. Such media myths do not include the reversal of their condemnation. There had been small items in the newspapers announcing the reversal of my conviction, the dismissal of the second trial, and the subsequent Supreme Court decision. In comparison to the sensational fanfare that had announced the government's fable, and the dramatic headlines that had crowned me "Tokyo John" and "The Traitor of Corregidor", my exit from the public's attention had been inaudible. I hadn't been victorious, I hadn't won acquittal; I had merely maneuvered the government to a stalemate. In the public eye, I had gotten off on a technicality. In my own mind, I had deserved to win an acquittal: it was the government that had gotten off on a technicality.
I had been corresponding with a girl from Pennsylvania while I was imprisoned and she came down to Baltimore to meet me and to help me celebrate. In a short while, we were married, and returned to her hometown. I held several jobs for a short while as a carpenter, a gas station attendant and as an orderly at St. Mary's Hospital. I finally found work at the Spear Carbon Works. I had been completely honest about my legal history when I applied for work, and the management was willing to accept it. The company held several government contracts, however, some of them having to do with nuclear weapons, and management got the word that they would have to let me go. There would continue to be semi-official harassment.
The government continued to be an impediment to my rehabilitation in a more direct way as well. I reopened the matter of my VA benefits and unpaid bonuses but received only terse bureaucratic replies, citing regulations that deny VA benefits to persons convicted of treason. In spite of the reversal of the conviction and the dismissal of the new indictment, portions of the government continued to act officially on the thesis that I had been guilty, and had escaped on a technical issue. The Veteran's Administration seemed to make its own interpretation of Supreme Court pronouncements.
In the minds of many people, armchair jurors in the media trial, I was guilty but had escaped official punishment on a fluke. My name and picture had been so much before the public that I was often recognized in the streets, and even more often when I was introduced by name. I never knew what to expect when I was recognized; sometimes it was, "Gee, I'm glad to meet you... it sure was a raw deal you got there..."; sometimes it was, "It's you, you lousy traitor!"; and more than once I was physically attacked.
The ten years following my release from legal jeopardy was an unhappy odyssey, which I would come to describe as dragging an enormous shipwreck of a reputation through the hostile swamps the government and the media had created for me. It was like the period of postwar Army enlistment in which a dossier of suspicions had followed me from camp to camp, interfering with all of my associations. It was something there was no way of confronting; there was no arena in which to take on my accusers; there was no forum in which to clear the air.
My employment was often foreshortened by the discovery of my reputation or by the direction of my unseen persecutors, and if I did anything that was noteworthy enough to be mentioned in the papers, some reporter would research my past and write a follow-up article that would renew the entire affair. I increasingly confined my activities to working among the poor, the underprivileged and the sick: doing social welfare work with the Salvation Army and supporting myself working at hospitals.
From time to time I would be asked to give a talk on Buddhism, which boosted my spirits temporarily, and it reminded me of the higher calling I had once chosen and the paradise I had enjoyed at Minobu. I had gotten sidetracked...a horrible war, years of imprisonment, an exile within the military, long years a political prisoner, and now, social exile within the civilian population. I didn't want to drag my shipwreck back to Minobu. In a sense, I had begun to believe the government's portrait of my character ...I felt unworthy of Minobu.
My second wife had been unable to deal with it all, and I could hardly blame her. We divorced. My third wife had fared little better. We had moved to Virginia where I had family ties, but she was unhappy there far from her friends and her own family, and we divorced as well.
It was the winter of 1964, and I was unable to keep up the payments on our car by myself, so I let it go. I had no money and worse, I had no inspiration. I just left one day heading north. I had enough bus fare to make it to Washington, D.C., and that's all. I stayed overnight in a gospel mission there, and the next day hitchhiked north to Baltimore, where I had found work before. I checked the situation at all the hospitals with no luck. I spent the night in a rescue mission again. The next day I continued hitchhiking north into Pennsylvania. I was dropped off near the town of Williamsport and began walking, I didn't know where to. It was snowing and my clothes were inadequate for the cold and my shipwreck seemed especially burdensome. I was walking along the road in the snow reviewing all the times someone had been trying to kill me and I began entertaining the idea that it would have been just as well if I had allowed it to happen ...if I had been killed long ago. If a bomb had fallen on me running across the smoldering moonscape of Corregidor, if I had been judged a spy by the Japanese tribunal and shot down like Captain Thomson; if I had been beheaded for offering ice water to a Japanese field marshal; if I had succumbed to the injection given me in Malinta Hospital; if I had died of beri-beri at Karenko; if American bombs had fallen on Radio Tokyo; if I had burned in the electric chair at Sing-Sing like the Rosenbergs. Finally, there was no other motive to put one foot in front of the other, and I stopped. I moved myself a short distance off the road and lay down in the snow. Snow fell lightly on my face and began to cover me and I just let myself go.
A family that lived nearby found me several hours later. They had seen my shoulder sticking out of a mound of snow by the roadside. I was stiff and nearly dead. I awoke in a warm bed piled high with blankets and hot water bottles. I was in the home of a family of devout Christians more than willing to nurse a helpless stranger back to health. I remembered the icy heart with which I had resolved to die, but I could not prevent it from thawing in the warm bed of their unselfishness. I had truly been reborn.
They encouraged me to stay as long as I needed to regain my strength, both physical and spiritual. Their love was all that I had needed. Like all of my darkest moments, help had appeared from an unexpected source. I had reached the bottom, the very bottom, and it had found me there, too. I found a job at the Polyclinic Hospital in Williamsport, sometimes working in the emergency room and on ambulance runs, and life was slowly rebuilt in the material sense; my inner strength had been totally renewed by the family of good Samaritans. One day in a Japanese grocery store where I had gone to pick up some of my favorite foods, I was introduced to Ralph Lindquist. He was a successful young insurance salesman who was an ardent enthusiast of karate.
While he was in the military forces in Korea he had become interested in Buddhism. On an R & R leave in Japan he had entered a Zen temple. No one there could speak English and he could speak no Japanese, but he had been able to go along with the routine and fit himself in. He meditated a great deal and had some dramatic flashes of insight. When he had returned to the U. S. and had taken up residence on the east coast, he had been unable to locate any English speaking Buddhist priests or teachers until he had run across me. The first time we met we talked for at least ten hours without stopping.
Ralph had formed a karate dojo (place of training) and wanted me to come and teach conversational Japanese to his members. Several members became interested in Buddhism and I began to hold classes in that, too. The questions of the students teach the teacher, and in answering them, I reviewed for myself all I had ever known about Buddhism.
It had been over twenty years since I left Minobu, and the Lord Abbot who had been my master had passed away and there had been several others in the meantime. One day, I received a message from Murano Senchu, a priest of the Nichiren school in Japan. The message announced that the present Lord Abbot, Fujii Nichijo, was coming to America as a representative of the world's Buddhists to a special session of the United Nations. The message outlined the Lord Abbot's itinerary and invited me to join his entourage.
I was unable to join them at the special U.N. session in San Francisco's Cow Palace, or at the conference with top Mormons in Salt Lake City. When the party arrived in New York, I caught up with them in the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel. I kneeled on the carpeted floor before the Lord Abbot. The Lord Abbot helped me up and greeted me warmly. I was invited to join the entourage on their trip to Canada, where the Lord Abbot was to conduct services for a large Japanese community there. The services were followed by a banquet and sitting with a magnificent Japanese feast before me, I was handed a note, written in the Lord Abbot's own hand..."We are waiting for you at Minobu."
Of course I wanted to go, it would take a little while to prepare myself but I definitely would go. Returning to Pennsylvania I quickly settled my affairs and got in contact with my old master, Reverend Aoiyagi Shoho, now the Bishop Nippo. I had last seen Nippo at Minobu in 1941. In 1951, while I was being held at West Street, Nippo had come all the way from Argentina but hadn't been allowed to see me. I had heard Nippo's voice chanting from the sidewalk below. Now, in 1965, Nippo was in Sacramento, California and I arranged to join him there.
Bishop Nippo had spent the war in the Tokyo area, often living in subway stations, caring for homeless children, orphans of the American bombing raids. After the war, he had returned to the United States, had started a temple in Salt Lake City, and then one in Argentina.
I spent the last five months of 1965 with Nippo in Sacramento, refreshing my memory and cleansing myself of twenty years of living amid the world's degradations. I conducted the Sunday school in English, and lectured to English-speaking groups outside the temple, and worked at a local hospital. By the end of the year, I was ready, and had saved enough money for my passage to Japan. On New Year's Day, 1966, I sailed from San Francisco aboard the Golden Bear. It was the last time I ever set foot on the U.S. Mainland.
2015 John Oliver