Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo
The Bishop's Birthday
What a twisted tale of torment. Nichijo was deeply scarred by the events we've just described here. Yet to spend time with him in all his various haunts around Hilo and Puna, when the conversation wasn't about Buddhism, it was about laughter and the enjoyment of present company.
By August 6, 1984, his 67th birthday, we knew each other pretty well. I was giving him a ride to his birthday celebration at a restaurant in Hilo. I picked him up at his dojo behind Pahoa and we stopped at the Pahoa Cash and Carry for a half pint of brandy. By the time we reached Keaau 8 miles later, he required another half pint from Akiyama Store. And one more stop before we continued on to Hilo, the Hongwanji, across the street and a few doors down. "It's my birthday, and I must honor my parents!"
Hongwanji is a popular form of Buddhism and most of the Japanese people in the Hawaiian Islands are so affiliated, and many attend Sunday services. A Hongwanji has the same layout as a Christian church. There are pews with an aisle down the middle, an altar at the front, a lectern from which the priest would expound the topic of the week and a raised choir box on the right. Except for the substitution the Amida Buddha for Jesus; a Baptist, Presbyterian or Catholic would feel right at home.
He invited me to go in with him. I reached the doors first and started to open one when I stopped. "Nichijo, there's already some kind of service going on in there!" He nodded, reached into his robe and pulled out a string of ojuzu beads. He said some words in Japanese, and then placed the beads around my neck. "It's all right," he said, "We are Buddhist priests!" We entered, walked to the front and sat down in the first row. After a few minutes sitting in respectful silence, he got up, approached the altar, lit some incense and paid homage to his parents in Japanese. We soon left and were on our way to Hilo. I have never passed myself off as a Buddhist priest, or even a Buddhist, but I treasure the beads and the story of how I got them.
As in most of the arenas of his life, Nichijo had earned a broad spectrum of reputations in East Hawaii in the 1980's. Many of my friends had encountered him in a variety of venues, and most of them had an outrageous story to tell about this complex character. Some people had a distaste of him, for one reason or another. To those of us who spent any time with him; he was funny, emotional, entertaining, histrionic, mercurial, uproarious, flamboyant, sometimes drunk, theatrical, problematic and fearless. And as zany as he could be at times, he was a serious Buddhist scholar and priest. At a public event commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Hilo Civic Center, Nichijo was standing in full robes on the platform with other robed clerics and local dignitaries, it was he that delivered the lead-off invocation. Apparently, he was the highest-ranking Buddhist Bishop in the Hawaiian Islands. He could get the island Mayor on the phone. He could get the Governor on the phone. He could get somebody out of jail on just his say-so. And like I described earlier, he could get his way at the Social Security Office.
He was gay, of course. He had enjoyed relations with several serious girlfriends, including three marriages, but he made no secret that his preference was for men. "Gay as a tree full of owls!" he would say of himself. I don't quite understand the reference, but I quote it here faithfully, as his self-portrait.
We decided to skirt the gay issue in the telling of his story. In the decision of the Appellate Court, "...No authority has been cited that homosexuality indicates a propensity to disregard the obligation of an oath. The sole purpose and effect of this examination was to humiliate and degrade the defendant and increase the probability that he would be convicted, not for the crime charged, but for his general unsavory character." It was prosecution dirty tricks that tried to connect the facts of his sexual orientation with treasonous acts, and should never have been part of the trial and, hence, not part of the chapters we call "The Testimony of John Provoo". In a more enlightened time, it would not have mattered.
I am not an investigative reporter and I invite more professional researchers to fill in the gaps in this narrative. In 1984 I corroborated what I could with the resources of the Hilo Library and their New York Times archive on microfilm. I don't have answers to the questions we've raised. I can only relate what Nichijo believed: that from the time he was identified as gay while working undercover in Manila, it was an element of the matrix of suspicion surrounding him. In the early 1950's, the Hoover-McCarthy-Cohn cabal conducted an anti-gay witch hunt that was nearly the equal of their anti-communist "Red Scare" often conflating the two as enemies of the state. Blacklisting and purges of gays and communists from important positions both in government and public life were everyday news stories. That mindset was certainly part of the post-war Justice Department's prosecution of Nichijo and many others.
Concerning other mysteries, my theories would only be slightly more informed than anyone who had read this book. The full story of the POW broadcast program has not been told. The roles of Ince and Cousens; and their handlers Ikeda and Domoto, has not been told. Were Iva Toguri and John Provoo responsible for what occurred at Radio Tokyo? Of course not, but they were the only ones punished. Was there a conspiracy to obscure the true facts? Obviously, but I don't know the who, the what or the why.
I am just the scribe in this telling. I am following the blueprint left for me by this departed friend. I am a carpenter who picked up a hitchhiker one day in rural Hawaii. And as we drove around country roads in my old pickup truck, I listened to his stories, and I wrote them down. He wanted to make sure that the unique thread of history he had witnessed was not lost, and I promised to bring it to light after he was gone.
There's one last thing that Nichijo told me that I want to share, and then I'll just leave it at that. I'm not even sure it's a Buddhist idea. Perhaps some reader can enlighten me. In my studies, I had never heard it before. He said, "Your life is allegorical; It's telling you a story."
John Oliver, October 2014
Copyright © 2015 John Oliver