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It's not just a Christmas tree; it's a statement

A Buddhist with strong ties to both Japan and America is caretaker for a family heirloom that has stood 70 years, in tragedy and war.

December 23, 2007|Eric Talmadge | Associated Press

TOKYO — Warren Nobuaki Iwatake's family has seen more than its share of calamity.

When he was a child, his father was lost at sea off Hawaii. With no breadwinner, his family was forced to move to Japan, where Iwatake was drafted during the war. He lost a brother when the bomb fell on Hiroshima.

But through it all, one thing has remained constant.

The tree.

His parents bought it in 1937, and his family has brought it out every Christmas since, without fail, even during wartime when that meant risking arrest.

"This tree was a shining light because it was a symbol of unity in my family," Iwatake, now 84, said as he and his wife put the final touches on the frail, 3-foot-tall heirloom that is, once again this year, the centerpiece of their small, neatly kept Tokyo apartment.

"We have put this tree up every year for 70 years."

Christianity

Though he considers himself Buddhist, Iwatake was raised in a Christian tradition. He still keeps a photo of the tiny wooden church on Maui where he and his five brothers went to services and Sunday school.

Christmas was always a special time.

His father worked at a merchandise store, and Iwatake remembers the day he came home with a tree. It was just metal and plastic, the kind of decoration that can be placed on a table or in a corner somewhere. He got a string of lights too, the kind with big bulbs.

Soon after, his father died in a fishing accident. His body was never found.

Iwatake's mother had relatives in Japan, so she took Iwatake's younger brothers there. Iwatake stayed behind to graduate from high school. In 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he moved to Japan too.

"Things were pretty bad," he said. "There were war clouds hanging everywhere."

The United States and Britain were the enemy, and Japan clamped down on overt displays of anything Western, including Christianity. Though they had grown up speaking English, Iwatake and his brothers communicated solely in Japanese, and did their best to hide their past.

But their mother refused to give up on the tree.

"She was in charge, and she wanted to put it up," Iwatake said. "During the war years, we had to do that in secret, because in wartime Japan it was not welcome. We could have been arrested."

To keep the neighbors from asking questions, his mother found a place for it in the back of their house, on the second floor, away from the windows.

"We were afraid they would report it to the police, or become suspicious about why we were harboring Western things," he said. "But we were brought up in the American way of life. It is something that you cannot forget. It really is something from the heart."

The year after that first Christmas in Hiroshima, Iwatake went to Tokyo to study economics at a university. At Christmas, he directed a school play, a nativity story, again keeping it secret so that the authorities wouldn't get involved.

Then, in 1943, he was drafted and sent to Chichijima.

Wartime

Chichijima is a tiny, obscure island. To get there, you go out to the middle of nowhere and turn south.

In 1944, Iwatake boarded a transport ship from Yokohama to assume his duties at a radio-monitoring post on the remote crag. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine, but he survived and was put on an oil tanker.

On the island, Iwatake's English skills were put to use listening in on U.S. military communications and keeping watch over a handful of captured American pilots, whose planes had been shot down on their way to or from bombing raids on Tokyo.

One day, he was in the hills digging bunkers when he heard that a plane had just been shot down. He saw a lone pilot on a bright yellow life raft paddling furiously away from the island. American planes provided cover, and the U.S. submarine Finback surfaced and collected him.

The aviator was 20-year-old George H.W. Bush, who would later become president. Iwatake met him years later and went back with him to the island. Signed photos of the two, smiling, are placed prominently around Iwatake's apartment.

But another American left a deeper impression.

Captured prisoners of war were forced to monitor U.S. radio traffic. One of them was Warren Vaughn, a Texan.

"One night after a bath, we were walking back and I fell into a bomb pit," Iwatake said. "It was pitch black and I couldn't get out. He reached to me and said to take his hand. He pulled me out."

Vaughn was monitoring the day Iwo Jima fell. Japan's defeat was virtually assured. Soon after, several naval officers called Vaughn and took him to the beach. "He turned before he left and gave me a sad look," Iwatake said.

For no apparent reason, Vaughn was beheaded, and his body dumped into the sea.

The atrocities committed against the POWs -- which included acts of cannibalism -- remained largely a secret for the next 50 years. But Iwatake said he did not want Vaughn's memory to die.

"I thought the best way of remembering him was to adopt his first name," Iwatake said.

After the war

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