Waxing Poetic

Times Staff Writer

An Oxnard gardener who puts pen to paper in the ancient Japanese art of tanka recalls being honored by Emperor Hirohito for a delicate, courtly submission to an annual competition.

As Emperor Hirohito lays dying in Tokyo, Himechika Yamashita reminisces in Oxnard.

The 70-year-old nursery owner recalls the time nine years ago when one of his five-line, 31-syllable poems--written in the 2,000-year-old Japanese poetic form known as tanka --beat out more than 30,000 other entries and won for him a royal audience.

There, at an annual New Year's Day celebration in Tokyo's Imperial Palace, the celery grower's poem was one of 11 recited by professional poetry readers before Hirohito, the man whom the Japanese until 1946 revered as a divinity.

Today, Yamashita ponders his fateful encounter with Hirohito each morning when he flips on a Japanese TV cable station to devour the latest news about the 87-year-old emperor, who has pancreatic cancer.

"I have a lot of sorrow and will be saddened . . . because I got to meet him and was honored by him," Yamashita said through a translator, his nephew, John Akune.

Yamashita recalls his disbelief when the telegram arrived at his tract home with the impeccably trimmed bonsai trees, summoning him to Japan with all expenses paid. He recalls embarrassment at his paltry high school education and apprehension about mingling with scholars and learned poets in Fukiage Palace, located in a lush green oasis at Tokyo's center.

But most of all, Yamashita recalls his pride as Hirohito sat on a dais just 6 feet away and thanked him, an obscure Oxnard gardener, for penning such a delicate and courtly poem.

"This is a nationally known competition," said Peter Nosco, a professor of Japanese culture at USC. "It's an extraordinary, remarkable honor that is much coveted throughout Japan."

Yamashita is a small, frail man who is almost swallowed up by the soft recesses of his living room couch. As he talks, he presses his hands together between his knees and focuses on a Japanese landscape painting across the room. But the words that spill forth are clear and strong, capturing the poignant legacy he shares with all West Coast Japanese-Americans of his generation.

Yamashita's parents were immigrants who owned a small grocery on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. They called their first son Himechika, an unusual and prophetic name that means "Japanese-American of Good Will."

The family moved to Japan when the boy was 2, settling in the southern village of Kagoshima, population 500. There, Yamashita learned the trade of chicken-sexing--the skill of distinguishing day-old male chicks from the egg-producing females.

In 1937, with war clouds astir in Japan, the 19-year-old youth, who had retained his U.S. citizenship, returned to the land of his birth, where peace and economic opportunity abounded.

After all, "I was an American," Yamashita said proudly, his tanned face crinkling into a smile.

Trips to Idaho

He quickly found work at a cousin's farm in San Pedro and a sister's nursery in Inglewood. He also made trips to Idaho to work as a chicken-sexer. It was then, while pining for his family and traversing the broad expanses of the American West, that Yamashita felt the poetic muse stir.

"Every time I experienced something different, I would write it down," he said.

He also joined a group of Japanese poets who met monthly in Los Angeles to critique each others' works.

Although Yamashita had left the brewing war behind, it followed him across the Pacific. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, soon after, in what is now recognized as a shameful episode in American history, the federal government ordered all Japanese Americans to leave the West Coast and, within months, began interning them in camps like Manzanar in California's Owens Valley.

Rather than face internment, Yamashita and his relatives abandoned their property and fled to Denver, where they opened a new nursery.

'Couldn't Be Helped'

Today, Yamashita says he bears no grudges.

"It couldn't be helped," he said. "I am an American citizen and I understand why it was done."

But the budding poet also understood the anguish of his fellow Nisei--American children of immigrant Japanese parents--who had been uprooted and thrust into a harsh and often hostile new life.

In a poem that has been included in a Japanese anthology, Yamashita wrote:

"I am afraid

I have to bury my remains here

In the soil of Colorado.

I am too old to see the end of War,"

Said our old man.

Yamashita did see the war's end. He moved back to Southern California with his relatives and started the Oriental Gardens nursery in Port Hueneme. He also found a bride, via an arranged marriage set up by a family friend in Japan.

In 1964, Yamashita opened his own business--the small, family-run Santa Clara nursery--which sells farmers celery plants that Yamashita grows in greenhouses from seed. Still active in the nursery, he often puts in 10-hour days during busy seasons.

Ties to Cultural Home

Over the years, the gardener-poet has maintained strong ties to his cultural home, subscribing to a Los Angeles-based Japanese-language newspaper and a cable TV station. Yamashita is also active in the Buddhist Church of Oxnard and a local bonsai tree society.

Poetry isn't his only artistic passion, however. Yamashita also enjoys shigin , the early 19th-Century Edo-period style of singing Chinese poems in an intense solo performance and is active in a shigin group.

His wife, Noriko, speaks almost no English. Their home is filled with Japanese paintings, red silk pillows, scrolls and porcelain Buddhas sitting amid a jumble of trophies, plaques and loving cups. They are inscribed with Yamashita's name, souvenirs of Japanese poetry contests from Los Angeles to Denver.

Yamashita keeps a note pad near his bed and often wakes up at night to jot down ideas. He writes exclusively in tanka --a form of waka , the short Japanese poetic form that dates from the 10th Century and is the most traditional and hallowed of the poetic genres.

The Japanese have no tradition of lyric, narrative poetry like Milton's "Paradise Lost" or Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Nosco said, although tanka poems can be linked to produce longer stories.

Ancient Forms of Chanting

Earl Miner, who wrote "An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry," says that the Japanese showed a "slow but constant tendency toward fragmentation and the development of shorter and shorter units" and that the syllabic configuration of tanka may be patterned after ancient forms of singing or chanting.

Yamashita adheres to this form, often juxtaposing a statement of universal relevance with one of personal feeling. The poems also gain resonance from the implied allusions: autumn winds to signify waning romance, for instance.

The poem that won Yamashita laurels in Japan, however, was inspired by a gambling trip to Las Vegas--one of his favorite pilgrimages.

Yamashita has been entering the annual Japanese competitions since 1960, each year submitting a poem on a designated topic, such as "cherry tree," "water" or "bridge." But a replay of his 1979 fame remains elusive.

On Monday, Yamashita shyly pulled out his entry for this year: a sheet of parchment filled with delicate Japanese characters on the theme: "clear blue sky."

"My parents wanted me to be a bridge between Japan and America," Yamashita says, reflecting on the name his parents optimistically bestowed upon him some 70 years ago.

"I am very lucky. I have been much honored."

Spring in all its fullness

Descends upon the unbroken sands

Of the Nevada desert.

At the end of a sand hill

A mirage wafts into view.

With a fishing rod

On my shoulder

I climb down the narrow ravine

Hearing the sound of rapids

In the depth of silence.

--Himechika Yamashita

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