“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” ~Winston Churchill
“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” ~Sophocles
“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” ~Japanese Proverb
At varied and sometimes unexpected moments in life, we all experience doubt and crisis in faith of some sort or another. This variety of distress can be confounded when it involves core beliefs of a body long held in high esteem, or, perhaps worse case, when it simply compromises the honor and integrity of a friend, shipmate, or peoples familial. Although this story seems to be excessively focused on the very recent purchase of my truck in our first weeks on Okinawa, the conspicuous moral imperative that lies beneath centers on the very character of the United States Marine Corps and bushidō (honor). Before the nonfictional car-buying tale begins in earnest, what exactly is “bushido,” and what is its tie to Okinawa and Japan?
Bushidō (武士道?), literally “the way of the warrior,” is a Japanese word for the way of the samurai life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry, which may be much better known in the West.
Bushidō originates from the samurai moral code stressing frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor unto death. Born from Neo-Confucianism during times of peace in Japan and following Confucian texts, bushidō was also influenced by Shinto and Zen Buddhism, allowing the violent existence of the samurai to be tempered by more religious-based wisdom and serenity. Bushidō developed between the 9th and 20th centuries, while numerous translated documents dating from the 12th to 16th centuries demonstrate its wide influence across the whole of Japan. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), aspects of bushidō became formalized into Japanese feudal law.
The word was first used in Japan during the 17th century, and came into common usage in Japan and the West after the 1899 publication of Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan. In Bushido (1899), Inazō wrote, “…Bushidō, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe…. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten…. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.” Similarly, in his text Feudal and Modern Japan (1896), historian Arthur May Knapp wrote, “The samurai of thirty years ago had behind him a thousand years of training in the law of honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice…. It was not needed to create or establish them. As a child he had but to be instructed, as indeed he was from his earliest years, in the etiquette of self-immolation.”
Under the bushidō ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could only regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide). In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded, which offered a way to end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.
Bushidō was widely practiced, varying little over time, and across the geographic and socio-economic backgrounds of the samurai, who at one time represented a small but substantial and substantially powerful segment of the Japanese population. The first Meiji era census at the end of the 19th century counted 1,282,000 members of the “high samurai” (allowed to ride a horse), and 492,000 members of the “low samurai” (allowed to wear two swords but not to ride a horse), in a country of about 25 million.
Bushidō includes compassion for those of lower station, and for the preservation of one’s name. Early bushidō literature further enforces the requirement to conduct oneself with calmness, fairness, justice, and propriety. The relationship between learning and the way of the warrior is clearly articulated, one being a natural partner to the other. Other parts of the bushidō philosophy cover methods of raising children, appearance, and grooming, but all of this may be seen as part of one’s constant preparation for death — to
die a good death with one’s honor intact, the ultimate aim in a life lived according to bushidō. Indeed, a “good death” is its own reward, and by no means assurance of future rewards in the afterlife. Notable samurai have throughout history held such aims or beliefs of reward in the afterlife in disdain, or at least have expressed the awareness that their station — as it involves killing — precludes such reward, especially in Buddhism, an extremely pacifist and nonviolent belief system. In fact, reinforcing this notion, the soul of a noble warrior suffering in hell or as a lingering spirit is a common motif in Japanese art and literature.
The Bushidō code is typified by seven virtues: Courage (勇氣 yūki), Benevolence (仁 jin), Respect (禮 rei), Honesty (誠 makoto), Honor (名誉 meiyo), and Loyalty (忠義 chūgi). However, there are additional virtues strongly associated with the code, which include Piety (孝 kō), Wisdom (智 chi), and Care for the Aged (悌 tei). And it is in these tenets that the American military itself defines its set of core values in our modern age. Well, except for caring for our old. We as a people and country really are shameful in that regard…and although the VA has gotten exponentially better than, say, of the Vietnam era days, there still are massive shortfalls in the care owed to our veterans. In any case, the US Navy and Marine Corps today utilize HONOR, COURAGE, and COMMITMENT as their own succinct form of bushidō. Although not nearly as intense as of days old and past, the contemporary military struggles to maintain and uphold our own flavor of the “way of the warrior.”
Now, about that truck….
Jody and I would scope the used-car lot on Kadena Air Base daily, sometimes twice so. We moved at the end of the PCS/moving season here, so the vehicle selection was rather slim, and if there is one thing that is true on this island, it is this: a good deal won’t last until tomorrow.
We spied a terrific looking truck/SUV, recognizable as a familiar model seen on the streets back home. Although we were looking for a Toyota “Surf,” nothing more than a 4-Runner, those models are very hard to come by, and what was available was offered only at a premium often not worth paying. Personally, I wanted something with size and power to haul scuba diving gear all over the island, and also needed 4-wheel drive in order to get to a couple of special dive sites up north. Plus, with Jody driving naked and all, we needed something a bit less lewd and lascivious. This truck offered all, was in great condition, and although it was priced on the higher end of our desired spectrum, it was after all the right color: WHITE.
I called the owner on a Sunday morning, not wanting to chance losing this opportunity. “Chris” cheerfully answers, and when I ask how long the truck was on the lot, he replied that he had just put it there the previous night. Not thinking he would want to burn a weekend on showing the vehicle, I asked about seeing the car on Monday, but he responded with a better idea: “How’bout this afternoon?” We arranged a meet, and meet we did.
The Isuzu Wizard is the exact equivalent to the Rodeo back home. Except with a much cooler name…and steering wheel on the wrong side. Seriously, how many cowboys are there really in our country? I bet fewer than there are fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter! The car drove really soundly – beefy, heavy, a powerful V6, torque-on-demand to all wheels, or full 4-wheel all with the turn of a knob on the dash. The car came with many extras: tow bar, removable bike rack, and spare parts (timing belt, new fog lights, brake pads and discs, new plugs) to boot. It had relatively new tires, new front-end brakes, was low mileage for its vintage, and the AC was super cold, as advertised (of course).
Oh, and did I mention that the rear wheel mud flaps were labeled “Mu”? Anyone who knows anything about Pokémon knows that Mu is the stuff of legend, the most powerful pocket monster around, one that can learn any monster’s moves, and can transform itself at will to emulate whatever it desires. In fact, Mew is thought to be the single ancestor of the entire pocket monster race!
Fine. Mu is actually spelled Mew (in Pokémon land), but that rather ruins this part of the story – along with the wizardly connection the truck shares with Japan…and with the craze that swept the country and my kids’ imaginations in the late 90s. And, since I’m a math-lete, the pronunciation of “Mew” is the same as the Greek symbol “μ” so often used in the world of figures.
Chris was a senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the US Marine Corps, working for the Marine Air Wing headquarters staff on higher-order maintenance and logistics issues. He was cheerful, friendly, and very excited about showing off his vehicle, and talking me through all the work he had done, along with all its eccentricities, which all vehicles have, but which are seldom acknowledged upfront in a potential sale. He was selling the vehicle since he upgraded his wife/life to a minivan – not sure that’s really an upgrade, but probably is a smarter move on Okinawa after he showed me the areas where his wife had scraped the truck on who knows what. This truck is a BIG vehicle for Okinawa.
I was so impressed after driving the car, and after establishing a camaraderie with Chris that I told him that I wasn’t even going to haggle, that I felt his vehicle and his word were both well worth his asking price of $4,500. So, we decided to close the deal with a security deposit by personal check of $500 to hold the vehicle until we could meet on Tuesday to actually purchase the car.
Initially we agreed that the purchase would be executed through personal check. On Monday, however, Chris texted me and asked if we could meet and setup an electronic transfer of funds that evening. I took this to mean that perhaps he was worried about our funds-follow-through, and not without good basis; selling anything in exchange for a piece of paper carries some risk, and at this amount of money, the risk is great. Okay, I thought; although this was a bit odd, it was not out of the ordinary.
We met and figured out how to transfer the necessary funds, even though I was equally as leery about paying for property not yet received. Our debit and his credit were executed using a mobile app, and both Jody and Chris were utilizing the same bank (USAA), it still required 24 hours to clear for both parties. It probably wouldn’t be completely processed by the next morning, when the title and official ownership of the vehicle would be transferred. No worries, he says. Good to go.
We meet on Tuesday morning, and the transfer goes without issue. He even mentioned that he topped the tank off that morning for me, and I thought to myself, what a great transaction this was turning out to be. He was in uniform, as was Jody, so there was no question as to rank and last names; it’s easy enough to track military members down on this island if something truly criminal was to happen. We parted ways, me happily with keys in hand to my new wheels, and Chris with cash almost in hand. Jody went to drive naked. Again.
The truck drove fine.
Until Wednesday night….
First I noticed the rear-wheel torque indicator lights on the dash were inoperative. Funny, the truck still drove…and it’s rear-wheel drive…. BUT, when I cycled the “Torque on Demand” (TOD) rotary knob to “4WH,” the front wheel torque lights would simply flash, showing them not locked in, even though I can feel the 4-wheel drive kick-in through the steering wheel. Confusing. And not what I wanted in a “new” used truck. Oh, and on startup, when the dash lights all come on in test mode, those rear-wheel lights did NOT light up…. Could this be a bulb issue, one which is wired in series that was keeping the torque system from working properly? Or, was it a $1,000 set of sensors at the wheels that are known to fail on this model??
Okay, about that last point. Lesson learned on this purchase: DO YOUR RESEARCH ONLINE before buying something you know little about. When looking online, I also noticed that the gas mileage for this vehicle was between 15-18 mpg (city), and that it required premium gas or better (93 octane). I was literally watching the gas gauge move every time I ran to base and back home, AND, the military offers one and only one grade of gas island-wide, and it is 86 octane. Yes, you read that right – 86. I didn’t even know such fuel was made or avaialbe.
Next the truck starts to idle extremely rough, with the RPM dropping to ~500, and bouncing up and down 200-300. On initial acceleration it felt as if the car was missing and chugging, until the RPM came up into the 1600-1800 range, where the truck ran fine…. This was MUCH more disturbing that the torque issues outlined above.
I call Chris that night – no answer, and left a voicemail. I texted him, with no response. No response from someone who was always on the ball and raring to go. “Oh boy, this is not good,” I think.
I call again Thursday morning. No answer; another voicemail left. I text again, and then again, both with no response…. Now I am thinking that he dumped a lemon on me, and has washed his hands of the whole situation. After this realization, and a slew of cuss words directed at Chris and the notion of being had by someone that should hold honor in much higher regard, I resolve to do what I can with and for the truck. I can’t sell it for 90 days, so I have to make do best I can, at least in the short term.
Now, it happens that I wanted to get the bicycle rack of the back of the truck, to improve mileage but more so to allow the rear door to open all the way. Since we have yet to get our shipments of “stuff” from the states, we are devoid of tools. I decide to hit the Camp Foster Auto Hobby Shop, where I know that I can at least borrow tools, if not get help with the vehicle.
We arrive there and after the required paperwork and tool inventory, we are given an auto berth and turned loose as pretend mechanics. I have to admit that using a pneumatic socket driver is pretty ding-dang cool and easy, and off comes the bike rack. And since that exhausted my automotive know-how, I start asking about the truck….
Turns out the mechanics there know the truck – and Chris – quite well. They asked if I just purchased the truck; “why yes, yes I did. What do you know about Chris and the work he did on it?”
“Chris is good people,” one responds.
I was informed that Chris did a GREAT job with the work he did on the truck, emphasizing that he bought all new parts directly from the states, and that he worked closely with the mechanics at the shop to ensure that he did everything correctly. They also stated that for the last month or so, he was constantly in the shop every weekend doing a lot of work on the car. He was characterized as “good people,” and the shop mechanics blamed the engine on not only the low octane gas available on base, but also on the poor quality of low-octane gas provided to the Americans. Seems the island has a large issue with water in the gas…. Funny though, it doesn’t seem to affect the jet fuel; I’ll just say that the airplanes are not falling out, or chugging through the skies.
This notion of Chris is clearly at odds with the one developing in my mind. I had thought, after not hearing a word from Chris since the sale, of sending him a text stating something to the sort, “You are the type of scumbag that give enlisted and the Corps a bad name….” I wanted to question his honor in the whole affair, and maybe even try and track him down.
But something I learned long ago is that such types of overly emotional and reactive impulsive responses are made much too easy in the digital age. And, no matter the situation (with very few exceptions), it’s best to wait at least 24 hours before hitting send on anything so potentially inflammatory. So I wait, and think about it over the long Labor Day weekend….
The truck continues to run rough, and the TOD system continues to improperly function. I put an engine/fuel cleaner in the tank (“Sea Foam”), which does little. I continue to stew, about the less than optimum purchase, AND about what kind of character Chris was actually turning out to be. But I do not act. Not yet.
And then there is a phone call Tuesday morning. It’s Chris!
He immediately starts to apologize for not responding sooner. Turns out he was released early from work the previous Thursday, and got an early start to an off-island adventure vacation with his wife and family among the surrounding islands. He was due back on Monday, but couldn’t get back due to the seas from Tropical Storm Toraji, and had only gotten back on-island that day. He was appalled at what I was probably thinking about him not responding, he was sickened by my problems with the vehicle, and he was determined to “make things right” with the truck. We followed up with some texts about meeting later in the day, one where I asked him that no matter what, he needed to at least “meet me in the middle” when it came to the truck repairs – which I still expected to be substantial.
Turns out he spent the rest of Tuesday researching the issues we spoke of over the phone, and after missing each other that afternoon and most of the day on Wednesday, he decided he needed to come by my place ASAP after he was freed from work that afternoon. He came ready, tools in hand and parts in car, ready to make things right.
In true aircraft-mechanic-showing-the-aircraft-aircrew how it’s done, he immediately got in the truck, started it, noticed the rear wheel torque lights out (which should be on and solid green), and simply tapped the dash. The indicator lights came on instantly, and the torque and 4-wheel drive system worked (completely), and has ever since.
I was soooooo embarrassed. I’m an old-school A-6E Intruder guy, where we literally kicked and punched various boxes and instruments to help to get things to work, let alone work properly. But this notion of a mechanic so effortlessly and succinctly schooling a highly trained and over-educated pilot is seriously a tale as old as time in the military.
Next he took it for a drive and immediately noticed the missing and chugging, and turned and looked at me and stated that this was not the truck he sold to me the previous week. His research pointed to a couple of possible issues; having pressure-washed the engine just prior to the sale, the electrical plugs and leads from the electronic ignition to the plugs might have been fouled. He cleaned them all. And, since he had just put in after-market plugs, he bought a set of spec plugs and changed all of them – right there in my building’s parking lot. The plugs were definitely fouled, showing a heavy rust-colored coating, indicative of water in the fuel. Thanks military. Only the finest for our troops, right??
After at least 90 minutes of working on the car, we took her out again. The truck ran powerfully smooth, with no chugs, no hesitation, and no misfires. The TOD system was cycled numerous times, and worked without exception. He finally packed up his tools and supplies, and left, but only after a couple of calls from his wife…. He was determined to make sure we were square with each other, and with the truck.
The truck continues to run without issue. Chris texted me numerous times Thursday and Friday to check on the vehicle, and even called Friday afternoon to make sure there were no other issues as he was going to be unreachable most of the weekend. We both have big scuba diving plans, and chatted about getting together sometime to do some dives together….
In the end, it was exactly his honor that Chris was concerned about. And his own personal bushido implored him to act in defense of honor.
Honor. Bushidō. They are central elements of a life worth living, and a worthy life lived well. It is also the first of the United States Marine Corps’ core values: Honor, Courage, Commitment. When I questioned Chris’ honor and character, along with his military affiliation, I was in actuality rushing to judgment against both he and his Corps, without the requisite knowledge to do so.
As the opening Japanese proverb entreats, even when Chris’s character was in dire question, I should have kept more faith with his numerous friends, the Marine Corps. Their character can be summed up in two nearly immortal words linked through long service, selfless sacrifice, and the strongest brotherhood: Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful.
Next time you find yourself facing a crisis of faith, give faith a chance. Faith may very well pleasantly surprise you.
And thank goodness I never sent a nasty text!
- Harakiri (1962) and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) (reelantagonist.wordpress.com)
- The Honourable and Complex Life of a Samurai (factualfacts.com)
- 19th-Century Samurai Training Text Deciphered (livescience.com)