As the island of Singapore came into view off the starboard deck of the Al-Sabbiyah, the climate of the Indian Ocean became unbearably hot and humid. The most comfortable spot I could find outside of my cabin was on the bow of the ship, where the rain of moisture from the surge of the waves cooled my skin from the heat of the burning sun. I would sit there for hours, gazing out over the vast expanse of ocean at the huge cumulonimbus clouds arrayed like an endless row of monsters standing in line on the horizon. I often enjoyed the spectacle of large schools of small fish piling up like a wriggling hill on the surface of the water: jumping, jostling, glittering scales in the bright sunlight. Everything I had seen so far was so new and unexpected that I was constantly filled with wonder at the world previously unknown to me, and I stood amazed by the endless drama composed by the mighty author of Nature.
By this time, I had begun giving private lessons to a young British second officer by the name of John, who was, incidentally, the very same officer who had initiated a knife attack against me during a previous demonstration. In return for lessons from me, John taught me about cricket – the rules of which have yet to make sense to me even today. The lessons were held each day on the side deck of the officer’s quarters whenever he was free from duty, and I looked forward to them as a way to pass the time on the long voyage to England.
I found the service on the ship to be most excellent. A young Indian man was assigned to my cabin to tend to daily needs and serve any sort of drink or food I might want. All types of alcohol were freely available, including whiskey, gin, rum, beer and brandy, a limitless supply of cigars and cigarettes were at my disposal and tea was served in my cabin at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. This was all on top of three full meals offered in the officers’ dining room seven days a week.
Most of the foods prepared were ones I had never tasted before, my favorite of which was the curry that was served every day with plentiful rice – a staple of my diet. Although I found the curry itself to be too hot and spicy for my taste, I quickly learned to mellow it down by adding various combinations of dried fruits, pickled mango (chutney), onions, cucumbers and other condiments that were made available at each meal. To my amusement I noted that with the exception of the Indian servants, I was the only non-Englishman in the officers’ dining room.
Up to this point every aspect of the journey had gone smoothly and without incident until around the time we reached the middle of the Indian Ocean, when I found myself faced with serious trouble. All of the crewmen aboard the Al-Sabbiyah were Indian, and their living area was situated in the compartment below deck. I would see them working outside day after day, hour after hour in the blazing sun, scrubbing the deck and walls, washing and repainting all surfaces on the ship. I befriended a young Indian crewman who possessed an open and friendly character. With the help of my dictionary we enjoyed many casual conversations, and I learned much about his life. He was 24 years old, from New Delhi married and the proud father of two little girls he missed very much. He invited me to visit his living quarters below decks, where he showed me pictures of his wife and children. I enjoyed a cup of hot black tea with him and his roommates. The room was small and cramped, and the air was steamy and heavy with the smell of curry spices and engine oil. The next day I reciprocated by inviting him to my cabin for a beer and conversation. As our friendship deepened, I found him to be a person of strong intellect and character, and we continued to visit each other for many days, all the time completely unaware of the fact that our activities were strictly against the rules of the ship.
One morning the purser approached me and politely requested that I comply with the ship’s policy by ceasing my visits to the crewmen’s quarters below deck and by refraining from inviting crewmen to my cabin. He stated I must understand that no crewman was allowed to enter any area of the ship occupied by British personnel unless specifically ordered to do so. I understood the purser’s message well, however, I did not take him seriously at all. I saw the rule as at best a bad joke, and at worst an anachronism – a lingering ghost of British imperialism that was supposed to have been conquered at the expense of much precious blood and many lives. The rule struck me as a nasty bit of racial discrimination, and I was not interested in heeding the officer’s request – after all, I am a man from Asia – the same continent as the Indian crew on this boat! I did not reveal my thoughts to the purser, and I ignored his request. My visits with the crewmen went on without interruption.
Shortly thereafter I was approached again by the same officer, who stated unequivocally that my behavior was unacceptable and that upon the order of the captain I was to stop visits with the crewmen immediately. The officer was an elderly British gentleman who spoke softly and slowly with a clear accent, leaving no room for me to misinterpret his message. I did not respond directly to him with a “yes” or “no,” but began to understand the meaning within his words – the captain’s order was one that could not be ignored as long as I was onboard this ship. I decided to find my Indian friend and discuss the issue with him.
The next day I sought him out on deck and found him behind the wall of the side deck standing amidst a large crowd of Indian crewmen and addressing them in great earnest. I immediately sensed the intense atmosphere of the crowd and knew that something had happened. As soon as my friend saw me, he grabbed my arm and led me to his compartment while the entire crowd followed close behind. The narrow passageway was soon filled with young Indian men, and I could see by their interest and attention that my friend was seen as a leader among them. When we reached the privacy of his room, my friend told me that he had received the same message from the purser that I had, and that he would not only not obey the order, but that he was planning a work strike in protest! I considered his words carefully, and although I was certain the consequences of such an action would have little impact on me as a first-class guest of the shipping company, I knew that my friend and his mates faced serious consequences should they go ahead with their plans to strike.
That evening I invited my friend to my cabin in the hopes of convincing him to give up the idea of a work strike. I implored him to consider the possibility of them not only losing their jobs, but of possibly facing criminal charges as well. These things together would have a terrible impact on their families at home, while the English would lose nothing. As far as I could see, there was no chance for them to make any substantial gains, much less win this battle. It was extremely difficult for me support my own words, as I wholeheartedly understood his motives and ideals, and would probably have done the same thing had I been in his position. Nonetheless, I could not let them suffer meaninglessly for a cause that was simply hopeless in the cultural climate of the times. We talked and argued for hours, and close to dawn I finally succeeded in convincing him to abandon his plan. I saw tears streaming down his cheeks as we shook hands, promised to keep in touch and said goodbye.
I realized that I was largely responsible for this incident due to my own immaturity, ignorance and insensitivity to long established traditions and cultural beliefs. It did not matter whether I liked it or not, or that I saw such policy as inhumane and unjust; it was the harsh reality of the world and the times. Today it is a gift to me – I took it into myself as a koan, the seed of which I planted deep in my consciousness to keep working on for the rest of my life.
Meanwhile, the Al-Sabbiyah steamed onward into the Arabian Sea, entered the Persian Gulf and stopped for two days at a small port on the southern tip of Iran. It was April 15, 1966. Out of curiosity I went on shore to see what I could find of interest. I saw oil refineries standing so close together they seemed piled on top of each other, but not a single human being. I walked for a few yards and spotted an iron fence at the end of the main road, so I climbed over it and continued walking up the dirt road in my search for any inhabitants of the area. The sun was blistering hot and the air was extremely dry. Everywhere I looked there lay a fine powder of yellowish dust. Beyond the hills I could see a beach – a sort of inlet surrounded by tall palm trees. I walked down to the beach and took a picture of myself standing against one of the trees, and then continued walking over the hills.
After a few miles I saw a house in the distance, and as I drew nearer, it appeared to be some kind of bar or restaurant. Several locals were sitting at an outside table in the garden, drinking and playing cards. I was extremely thirsty from walking for so long in the hot, dry weather, so I passed through the people sitting outside, entered the house and asked for a bottle of beer at the counter inside.
The moment I entered the house, the entire room fell silent, and I looked around to see everyone staring at me. I could feel the intensity of the atmosphere increase as the man sitting behind the counter and I struggled to understand each other’s questions. Meanwhile, all of the people sitting outside streamed into the room and joined the crowd that had formed around me. I gathered that the questions the man behind the counter was asking me had to do with who I was, how I had gotten there and what I wanted, and I tried in vain to tell him that I was a Japanese Aikido teacher who was on his way to England to teach Aikido and that I wanted a beer!!
He seemed to understand that I was Japanese, but did not understand the word “Aikido,” so I changed it to “Jujitsu,” and to my utter surprise he understood! “Jujitsu! Jujitsu!” he shouted repeatedly to the people surrounding me, while I nodded and smiled and hoped my beer would be coming soon. Then the people around me started saying loudly, “Japanese!” and “Jujitsu!” and suddenly the intense air in the room melted down into a warm and friendly atmosphere. Someone offered me a bottle of water while 0thers stepped forward to shake hands with me, and still others touched my arm and shoulder as if to see if I was a real man. I felt proud and happy to be a Japanese man and a martial artist who found that people living in the middle of nowhere, halfway across the globe, recognized the word jujitsu and demonstrated such respect.
This happy moment didn’t last very long, as I soon found myself surrounded by four heavily armed police officers, who took me outside and compelled me to sit between two of them in the rear of their vehicle as they drove me back to the ship. They escorted me onto the Al-Sabbiyah where one of the police officers exchanged a few words with the purser of the ship. I was set free after a paper was signed by the ship’s officer and received no more than a disdainful look from him for my repeated mischief.
After leaving Iran, the Al-Sabbiyah entered the Red Sea. One night before we were due to set ashore at the Port of Suez, I was informed by the purser that the ship had been ordered to change its course and head for Africa. He went on to say that after arrival in Africa, I would be transferred to the Lalistan – a 7,000 ton tanker owned by the same company, which was headed for Hamburg, Germany. After setting ashore in Hamburg I would then be flown to London at the company’s expense.
After facing a few minor difficulties en route to London, I finally arrived at Heathrow Airport on May 5, 1966 – six weeks after my departure from the Port of Sasebo, Japan.
As I wrote this article I realized for the first time in forty years that the sudden change of course of the Al-Sabbiyah to Africa may not have necessarily been by “company order,” but perhaps more so a means by which the officers of the ship could avoid any potential problems resulting from my friendship with the Indian crewmen. As I think of this it causes me great concern for the fate of those crewmen, however I am helpless to find out what may have happened now that 40 years have passed, and no communication was maintained with any of those crewmen.
Around 10 years ago when I was relocating the dojo from Fairmount Avenue to Adams Avenue (in San Diego, California), I was caught by a wild idea that keeping all of my old diaries was meaningless, so I burned them all. I had started keeping notebook diaries during the time I was an uchideshi at Hombu Dojo back in 1950 and had continued until I left the U.K. in 1976. I thought I had destroyed all of them, however, two notebooks survived from my time in the U.K. during the early-to-late 70s, and a few pieces of rough paper on which I had recorded my adventures during the first two weeks of my journey aboard the Al-Sabbiyah.
All the details I have recalled and written as the Biran article series “After Forty Years,” have been more or less an accurate record of events taken from a few rough papers densely written in pencil that somehow survived the years and the flames.
Most of the memories related to the rest of my trip after departure from the Port of Suez have faded from my memory – not only because of the destruction of my diaries, but also because the bitterness of my experience on the Al-Sabbiyah in the Indian Ocean so consumed my thoughts and memory, that everything else paled in comparison. When I recall these events, I sense that something deep inside of me has shifted since that time.
I have a vague vision and misty image of the Lalistan steaming up the Suez Canal and moving steadily into the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar passing on the port side, and the cold rayish color of the North Sea on the way to Hamburg, Germany – nothing more.