Childhood and Youth: The Formative Years
I was born in the 12th year of the Taisho Era (1912-1926) of the Japanese calendar which was the year 1923 on the Western calendar, six years after the end of World War I. In Japan we still identify eras of history according to Imperial reigns. 1987 is the 62nd year of the reign of Emperor Showa. Our present Emperor has thus far reigned the longest of any in Japanese history since the first recorded Emperor, Jimmu Tenno. The present Emperor is also the 124th successor to the Imperial Throne.
My father, Yukiteru Yamamoto, was the 95th High Priest of Tsubaki. My mother, Hisao, was the daughter of the 94th generation priest. She was born in the same house that she gave birth to me. I was not destined for the office of High Priest, but as events evolved, I became not only a priest but successor to my father. The normal practice in the tradition of hereditary shrines like ours is for the oldest son to succeed the father to the High Priest's title. I was in fact, strictly speaking, the third son of my father, but legally speaking I was the second!
I had three brothers and a sister. My twin brother and I were born on August 1st and although my twin brother was born before me, for reasons that lay deep in my father's beliefs, my birth was registered as that of the second son! He named me Yukitaka and he named my brother Yukimasa. My sister was named Teruko and my yougest brother was named Yukimine. He has served with me as Negi (or senior priest) in our ranking system.
Note on Rankings in Shinto Shrines: Large Shrines which have a Guji or High Priest may also have a Gon-Guji (Associate High Priest) with one or more priests holding the rank of Negi as described followed by several Gon-Negi (or junior priests). The general name for a Shinto priest is either Shinshoku (literally Kami-employment) or Kannushi which carries more of the nuance of someone who is master in charge or guardian of the house in which the Kami resides.
Priests are required to receive a course of training at an institution approved by the Jinja Honcho or Voluntary Association of Shinto Shrines as it is called or to pass prescribed examinations in order to qualify to pass through the various ranks. The dress they wear varies according to rank, with the lowest wearing all white while the high ranks wear distinctive colors according to status. Yukitaka Yamamoto is one of the highest ranked priests in Japan in terms of qualification as well as being the High Priest of one of the nation's most prestigious shrines.
In those early years of the 20th century, my family was exceedingly poor. There were many reasons for this, but it did not hinder my father from doing his work or from raising a family. He once recollected in my presence the circumstances surrounding my birth.It seems that he had made a trip to Izumo Taisha, the Great Shrine of Izumo where he had had some kind of profound and moving experience. On returning home, my mother reported that her pregnancy had been confirmed and in due course I was born. They already had my elder brother, Yukinari who was officially supposed to succeed my father as High Priest.
In keeping with tradition, my father decided that my elder brother would succeed and why he never said, he also decided that my twin brother would become a priest. It meant therefore that my youngest brother and I would be able to seek employment in other areas of life. But life can be strange and and now it is my youngest brother and I who are carrying on the shrine tradition.
In accordance with tradition also, I was assigned a guardian Kami as was my brother twin brother Yukimasa. I was assigned Daikoku who is also enshrined at Izumo Taisha under the name of Okuni-nushi-OKami, the Kami of happiness. My twin brother's guardian was Ebisu who is the guardian Kami particularly of merchants and also of rice fields. In Japan Daikoku and Ebisu are frequently worshipped together. Both of these Kami have features about them that suggest blessings afar or even from faraway or foreign places. Perhaps some of my longings come from the character of my personal guardian Kami!
The guardian Kami of the family is Sarutahiko-OKami who is enshrined at Tsubaki Grand Shrine and under his protection and tutelage, we grew up strong and healthy.
Note on the term Kami in Japanese: The 18th century Shinto scholar Motoori Norinaga (1728-1805) described Kami as anything that can fill us with wonder and awe. It is often translated in English as "god", which gives the impression that Shinto is simple polytheism. In English, the nuance of Kami might be considered adjectival i.e. it refers to a quality which in Japan can be possessed by natural objects such as trees, rivers, waterfalls or animals. The quality these things can share is a form of immanent divinity in contrast to the transcendence attributed to the divine in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are many kinds of Kami such as the great Sarutahiko OKami of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine and the various household and guardian Kami of different places and people. In the remainder of this book, Kami is left in Japanese as in the title of the book, Kami no Michi, the way of the Kami.
At the age of six, I entered Tsubaki Jinjo Koto Shogakko, the local elementary school and went on in due course to Kanbe Chugaku, or Middle School (approximately Junior High plus some Senior High time on the American system) which was a prefectural school in Mie. Middle School in those days lasted five years and was completed prior to entering college. My twin brother and I cycled 20 kilometers each way every day taking about two hours for the return journey. Our return journey sometimes took longer because we were learning Kendo (Japanese sword fencing). We also engaged in Kangeiko or mid-winter training exercises in Judo. It was tough leaving home early on a winter's morning just to make the journey for the training, but I enjoyed it. Indeed, I recollect that I always felt frustrated and annoyed once the winter snows began to fall and the roads could not negotiated on bicycles.
In 3rd Grade I achieved Shodan (the lowest rank) and in 4th Grade I made Nidan (second rank) and in 5th Grade I became Captain of the Kendo Team. From 3rd Grade to 10th Grade at school we also ran in local Marathon races which qualified us to enter races at the Prefectural level. I remember making a record in those days of 36 minutes for the 10,000 meter race sponsored by the Prefecture.
Those were happy days indeed and I remember them very well.We managed passably in things academic also, my brother and I occasionally taking 2nd or 3rd position in class.
My father frequently made the point that "Even if you are poor, you need education in order to be able to borrow money." How realistic he was!
Only three times did I receive new clothes during those years so I suppose I didn't"t really know what being poor was. But when I think back, I realize that we were indeed really quite poor, that we lived in a very plain and modest way, although I can also say that we lived with dignity and integrity. When I finished Chugaku, the middle school under the old Japanese system, I heard my father saying to me for the first time that there really was no money for me to go further in my education and that I would have to think for myself.
So far as education was concerned, my elder brother went off to study to become a priest along with my twin brother.It was about then that I began to have the kind of longings that later matured into the dream of travelling abroad. I felt that I had the world before me, and I considered going overseas to seek my fortune in one of the areas where Japan's influence had spread. I thought of the vast country of Manchuria, of China itself or of South East Asia. I made my plans accordingly and after graduating from the school I had been attending, I applied for and succeeded in entering a specialist college called Takunan Juku. I was fortunate in securing a scholarship, otherwise I could never have managed to afford the tuition.
Note on Takunan Juku: Takunan Juku was what was called a Senmon Gakko, a vocational college according to some translations, but literally a specialist college out side the university system proper. Many of these colleges were upgraded to universities after1946 while some continued under a different designation. Takunan Juku had been established with the explicit purpose of training people to go to countries such as Indonesia to work there and assist in developing the region. When Yukitaka Yamamoto attended it, it was located first in Kodaira City beside the Kaigun Keirigakko - the Naval School of Accounting. After eight months it moved to the center of Tokyo, near the Tokyo Giants Baseball Korakuen Stadium.
Life in Takunan Juku was not much different probably from life in most military colleges. It was under the Ministry of Overseas Affairs. The Jujku-cho, or Principal was Vice-Admiral Yoshinobi Shishido. The school was organized into companies and platoons. I was a member of Platoon l or No. l Company. Our alarm call in the morning was a trumpet reveille and 11.00 p.m. was lights out. Walking in the college was forbidden. Everything had to be done at the double! The atmosphere was strict and the Professors equally so. "You are going overseas to become the soil of the South. You may not ever come back alive! Be prepared for the sacrifice" we were told on matriculation day by Mr. Kiyoshi Akita who was Minister of the Takumu-sho, the Ministry of Overseas Affairs. The tone was rather lie that used in ancient times the to the soldiers of Sparta as they were told "Come back carrying your shield or carried on it!" For the Spartans it was "Doe or die". For us it was just "Die..."
After my enrollment I began to study various subjects related to industrial and economic development for two years and was thus prepared for my departure. The study of such areas may seem remote from the kind of studies that would qualify anyone as a priest. Yet in the fulness of time, these studies proved to be highly beneficial and indeed contributed in many ways to my being more effective in the role of priest at the shrine, which in those days was a thought as far from my mind as perhaps writing this book would have been twenty years later! But such are the unexpected turns of fate! Out of the 2000 who applied at the time to enter Takunan Juku, only 100 were permitted to enter. Perhaps that in itself had some significance.
The experiences of childhood are formative years for all of us. The Japanese poet Takeji Muno wrote the words:
"Watch how children play
"When you see that you will know whether society
will progress or not."
I think this is very true. How we play influences how we deal with situations in the future, often critically. The morose child may create a morose future. He or she may grow up pessimistic or even bitter. The happy child may grow up optimistic and smiling and radiate happiness all around The Western dictum
"The child is father of the man"
contains the same folk wisdom. We become the accumulation of our experiences. I was happy in those days. I may have been but the second son of a very poor priest, but the total environment of life was superb. On those forty kilometer rides to school I began my lifelong dialogue with nature and in the company of my twin brother, who was my closest friend in those days I began to observe creation and to seek for its meaning. Through a child's eyes, everything is pure. There are no soiled or impure moments in a child's world. My childhood was a delightful blend of nature, people and absorbing activities. It helped to shape many of the hopes and expectations that I have of young people today.
At the close of my schooling I was expected to support the policy of the Government for the emancipation of the colonially dominated nations of South East Asia. Things, however, did not quite work out as I had intended. The closing months of my school days witnessed the
intensification of the various issues of contention between Japan and the United States which led into the start of that tragic conflict.
I had just turned eighteen when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place.