Sadao

April 21, 2010

My father-in-law passed away on Saturday. Sadao Nagakuni was born in 1942 in Katsurahama, Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku, the smallest and least populated island in Japan. He lived through the occupation of Japan following World War II but he was too young to remember much of it. He loved to swim in the ocean when he was a child, even though it was prohibited because of the rough surf.

My father-in-law passed away on Saturday.

Sadao Nagakuni was born in 1942 in Katsurahama, Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku, the smallest and least populated island in Japan. He lived through the occupation of Japan following World War II but he was too young to remember much of it. He loved to swim in the ocean when he was a child, even though it was prohibited because of the rough surf. He put himself through school as a guitar player in a “Hawaiian band” that would play in beer halls. He loved classical guitar and his favorite artist was the Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia. Nagakuni-san developed a method of playing traditional Japanese melodies with a flamenco/Spanish styling that was exquisitely beautiful and quite unlike anything I had ever heard. 

As a young man, Nagakuni-san was forced to work in his father’s factory making water tanks to hold fresh seafood. My father-in-law didn’t get along with his father and moved away from Shikoku to Tokyo where he met his wife. They settled in Osaka, the second largest city in Japan and started a company that designed, built and serviced water tanks to hold live seafood, mostly for restaurants and seafood suppliers.

In the early days of their marriage they had no money to rent a house so they lived in the workshop where they built the water tanks and slept on a futon in the corner of the building.

In Japan, you can judge the quality of a restaurant by the way they display their fish and seafood, Nagakuni-san created elaborate and beautiful and functional water tank/display systems for clients all over Japan. When Rika introduced us, her father treated me to many wonderful meals all over Osaka. He knew all the owners because they were his clients and we received VIP treatment wherever we ate.

Japan remains a very culturally closed and homogenous society. At the time that Rika and I became engaged I was stationed at the US Naval Hospital in Okinawa and relations between the Japanese and the US military were very strained because of some heinous and criminal behavior by one or two members of the more than 40,000 active duty members stationed in Japan. US military members were spit on and harassed by the Japanese in the streets of Okinawa.

None of that seemed to bother Sadao. I remember sitting at a lunch counter with him eating teriyaki and beef bowls surrounded by muttering construction workers and clucking housewives while we tried to communicate through his limited English and my nonexistent Japanese. We must have made a strange duo. I’m left to wonder if he ever wished that his daughter had fallen in love with a Japanese guy because he only ever treated me as his son-in-law.

Sadao suffered a cerebral aneurysm bleed in 2002 which robbed him of many of his cognitive faculties. Physically he appeared fine and he was even able to still play the guitar although not as easily or fluently as before and he would often play the same song over and over again for hours. It still sounded beautiful to me.

For the past several years, Nagakuni-san required around-the-clock supervision for his own safety. We saw him last March and visited with him several times and he remembered me and our daughter and surprisingly our son, whom he had only met once before. He reportedly woke up Saturday morning, walked out to the lounge area, sat down in front of the TV to watch the morning news show and didn’t respond when they called him for breakfast.

Sadao Nagakuni was a quiet man with an easy smile and a deep laugh. He worked hard, helped neighbors and strangers alike, was honest and generous to a fault and raised my wife and her brother in a loving and disciplined home. He was one of the millions of men that live their lives honorably and productively with a quiet nobility that are the soul of the family and the engine of the world. I will miss him.

Sayonara Nagakuni-san.