Tora! Tora! Tora! (Japanese: トラ・トラ・トラ) is a 1970 American-Japanese war film that dramatizes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer and stars an ensemble cast, including Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, Sō Yamamura, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore and Jason Robards, and uses Isoroku (Admiral) Yamamoto’s famous quote, saying the attacks would only serve to “… awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve….” The title of the film is the Japanese code-word used to indicate that complete surprise had been achieved over Hawaii. Tora (虎, pronounced [tòɽá]) literally means “tiger,” but in this case it actually served a duality, encompassing both the strength, stamina, and agility of the carnivorous hunter t which it refers, as well as an acronym for “totsugeki raigeki” (突撃雷撃, “lightning attack”).
That’s all well and good.
But “Tora” is also the name of my Okinawan-born cat, adopted by my then family in 1999.
We had left the states on “surprise” orders to Japan. At the time I was what the Navy labels one as “Not Physically Qualified” (NPQ) for flight, suffering from chronic and debilitating back pain and serious sciatica resulting from a severe back injury in high school. Due to this status, I was not slated for a Department Head squadron tour, and since such billeting is required to advance in the aviation community, I become for Naval Aviation the proverbial round peg that can fit most any square hole. Are there are always a lot of squares that no one wants anything to do with.
So, after 9 months of living overseas in Italy (they “stashed” me there on short-notice after a reservist backed out of NATO-based orders), I came home to reassignment to somewhere I had, and never had any intention of living, let alone traveling: Japan. It was a one-two-three combo knockout blow.
Or so I thought at the time.
Combo #1, a stiff right jab to the nose: “You’re getting orders to Japan.” I stumble back a step, somewhat dazed by the sharp pain of the words.
Combo #2, crossing blow from the left to the check: “It’s a non-flying job.” Confusion starts to reign as the throbbing realization of not being able to fly sets in.
Combo #3, a right hook square on the chin: “…and you’ll be assigned to a ship….” Tunnel visions and stars orbiting my psyche as I think about being “stuck” on a boat for months and years at a time….
Down to the mat I go, unreactive and stiff as a board, bouncing lightly upon first strike. But as quickly as the Detailer – the guy who assigns orders (jobs) every two to three years – dropped me with this TKO, his gloves were found to be over-weighted with a healthy dose of misinformation. The fight was called; a draw ensued.
It wasn’t Japan, but Okinawa to which I was being assigned. And there is a serious difference between the two. It’s like trying to call Hawaiian or Puerto Rican culture as the same as “American.” Okinawa happens to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, all just an easy shore-dive away.
While it was a non-flying job, I was able to maintain flying status the whole time, which meant I didn’t have to give up my special “Flight Pay,” which at the time made up a significant portion of my pay. Discretionary income became very important for scuba diving, and using the island as a hoping-off point for some massive travels.
And, most importantly, I was not assigned to a ship, but to a Flag Staff on Okinawa while ashore, and when required to go underway, I was assigned to an Amphibious Squadron Staff, which is in no way, shape or form to be confused with “ship’s company.” Who the hell joins the Navy to be ship’s company anyhow?!?
The news had to be broken to the family, which, at the time in mid-winter of 1999, was made up of my spouse, my two kids Danny (10) and Naomi (6), and our cat “Tiger.” My ex took the news well; she’s one to take on adventure, in particular those involving traveling in and around Asian (she’s of API descent, a mix of European and Philippine blood lines). While we were most worried about our daughter Naomi, it was Daniel, our son, who took the news the hardest. And, as you may know from reading my previous blogs, all my cats speak Spanish and I can barely understand a word. I really have no idea how Tiger felt.
It certainly didn’t interrupt her sleep schedule.
My ex and I decided that since this move involved so many unknowns, extra expense, and quarantine issues regarding our cat, that it was best to leave our cat in the United States, were at least there is a fellow immigrant feline fraternity for her to converse with. I had strong suspicions that cats in Japan would not only NOT speak Spanish, they would frown upon such a furry fake amidst their company. We found a great home for Tiger with a good friend, and in order to make this arrangement palatable to my daughter – a tomcat like me (at least in character) – I had to promise her that as soon as we were settled on Okinawa we would rescue a cat and bring her home….
Fast forward a few months and we are moving into our home in Okinawa, a very large multi-story, multi-bedroom “mansion” worthy of most connotations of the word (but a word often misused and abused by the Japanese!). We went to the shelter on Kadena Air Force Base, and strolled through the strays and rescues. It’s a daunting process, trying to determine which furriness would become fast and ferocious friends. I pointed one cat out in particular to Naomi and the family – a clam, quiet cat with salt and pepper whiskers who was demure and classed amidst the wild chatter and meowing of every other cat scrambling for a quick escape. She literally was not making a sound, and simply tracked our movements with an interesting gaze from the depths of her cage.
“How’bout this one?” The staff comes over and says she’s a stray, probably about 3-4 months old, current on all her shots, and still with claws.
“Look at how clam and classy she is, and I love her black and white whiskers!” It doesn’t take much to convince a six-year-old homesick little girl who’s missing one of her best four-legged friends.
On the way home we start to brainstorm for a name. We already knew that “Neko” was Japanese for kitten (we tried to keep a stray kitten in our temporary lodging, but got busted by management), and that didn’t seem fitting. We threw around a lot of the more obvious names, playing on characteristic of our new-found friend. None of the suggestions, from any of us, seemed to be…quite…right.
And then I said, “How’bout ‘Tora’?”
My ex, sitting in the passenger seat of our car, looks over at me while thumbing through her Japanese dictionary. While she’s searching, my son asks “Why, what does that mean?”
“Well, it’s a word from a movie I saw a long time ago called Tora Tora Tora.” To tell you the truth, I had no idea of its meaning, literally nor its use in the attack on Pearl harbor. “I’m not sure what it means.”
“’Tora’ means Tiger in Japanese,” my ex proclaims with a knowing smile.
“That’s it, that’s it!!” Naomi quickly shoots back, excited about the coincidence of this particular label.
The Desiderata states clearly that the universe unfolds pretty much how it should, and this was one of those times in life where all the right pieces fit all the right places. We named this newest Okinawan addition to our family to recognize both her felis catus heritage, as well her spatial and temporal relationship to the piece of our American family left back in the states.
Tora is still with us today, and lives with Naomi in South Florida. Except Naomi is now a 20 year-old college student, and Tora is a distinguished and less active but more charming old lady at 14. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen her since leaving Okinawa (the second time) in 2005 during separation prior to divorce, but she will always live on in my heart as one of most favorite and cherished “my cats.”
Cleo, our current cat traveling to Japan, has large paws to fill in Okinawa this time around, but I do believe that she is filled with, as the Admiral hauntingly proclaimed, a terrible resolve to be surprisingly victorious….
Tora, Tora, Tora!!!