I’m always amazed at these photos a July 4th fireworks display in Yokohama sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The Japanese were incredibly skilled at using fireworks to create images of the American flag and the White House of the Independence day celebration. July 4th was always a big deal in Yokohama. I never really understood what Independence Day was all about, but I enjoyed the festivities that always started the summer and came just a few weeks before Japan’s O-Bon, festival of the spirits. Boith were excuses for big parties.
My mother would often take us to a a U.S. military base (Yokohama had several American bases filled with homes, schools, movie theaters and teen clubs.) There would always be a marching band, usually from the navy, playing Sousa tunes. Sometimes an aircraft carrier would be moored nearby and open to visitors. There would be potato sack races, three-legged races and tug-of-wars with massive ropes. Best of all there were grilled hamburgers and, if we were lucky, American ice cream made with real cream, not frozen milk like most of the Japanese ice cream.
One year, there were even motorboats for the kids to drive around a course. I was only eight at the time, and so wasn’t allowed to drive a boat and I always envied the other kids. Sasagawa Ryoichi, who had once been imprisoned as a war criminal and later became a billionaire operating boat-races used for gambling, had arranged for the kids to use the boats for public relations. Much later I nterviewed Sasagawa, who was then on a campaign to win the Nobel peace prize and was the single largest private donor to the United Nations. He bragged about how he had piloted his private plane to Europe to visit Hitler and Mussolini. (He said he met Il Duce, but missed Hitler who was on a trip.)
In evening, after the festivities, there would be fireworks at the base. But more often we would go home and Dad would take us up to the roof of Helm House where we got a great view of grander fireworks paid for, I assume, by the American Consulate, which was just a few blocks away.
It was pretty easy to buy fireworks in Japan at any time of year and so my friends and I often enjoyed playing with the dozens of varieties for sale. There were the little bead-like fireworks that you used a sling shot to hit against the wall to make them explode. The Chinese variety you would throw at someone’s feet and the machine-gun ratatat would make people jump. Then really explosive ones we used, cruelly, to blow up ant hills. I learned my lesson.
I was about 9. I was bicycling home when I came across my brother and his friends playing with them. They would put a firecracker in a bottle and cork it up. When the firecracker exploded, the cork would shoot into the sky. But then someone had the bright idea of screwing a cap on the bottle. This time all the older kids scattered. I stood there stupidly with my bike wondering what was going on.
I didn’t know what hit me. Kids were screaming and my mother ran out of the house. (I was always getting into accidents.) She picked me up and ran to the street where she flagged down a cab to take us the one block to the hospital. Blood was pouring from my face. The doctor took a look at my torn eyeball and said he would have to remove it. My mother asked him to him to wait. She called a friend who knew a leading Japanese eye surgeon who happened to be in Yokohama and was able to save my eye.
The picture on the right shows me as a cub scout helping raise the flag on July 4th at a U.S. military base in Yokohama. I’m the one at the end of the line with the huge patch over my eye. For Halloween that year, four month later, I was still wearing a patch, but my mother made me a pirates outfit and replaced the white patch with a much nicer black one. To this day I have a section of my iris missing, which prevents my pupil from adjusting to the glare
Today the only kind of fireworks I like are sprinklers. My favorites are the Japanese sprinklers that are little more than a string. You light them and a little blob gathers at the bottom of the string from which shoot tiny sparks.
Here is a picture of me lighting the larger sprinklers for Mariko during the summer of 1992, soon after we adopted her. I loved to watch Mariko’s eyes light up as she looked at the sparks fly.