What can we learn from the artifacts of a life left behind? If walls could speak – what would they tell us?
Perhaps every dwelling has a story to tell – but a memoir about an ancient Japanese farmhouse, and the American journalist and his Japanese friend who transformed it into a living symbol of craftsmanship and culture, captivated the imagination of filmmaker Davina Pardo – just as her short documentary, Minka, captured mine.
I was intrigued by the idea of telling a person’s story through their home, and of this particular house as a vessel of memory.
Minka was inspired by this book, written by American journalist John Roderick, who had a celebrated career with the Associated Press reporting on evolving political and cultural changes in China and Japan, following WWII. Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, chronicles Roderick’s later years living in his adopted homeland, Japan, and the simple but elegant home constructed for him by his friend, Yoshihiro Takashita.
Roderick reported for the AP over five decades. Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive noted:
John was equal part lion and bon vivant. The result was a courageous reporter, elegant writer and marvelous storyteller.
The AP honored him with the rare title of Special Correspondent. His reporting helped shape American opinion on China. Still, with all his accomplishments as a journalist, he lived a challenging and rootless existence.
In thirty years as an AP reporter and foreign correspondent, I owned nothing of real value and didn’t want to… Mine had been… a carefree, rootless, vagabond life.
After years of that “vagabond life,” he found himself longing for something missing – a sense of belonging and a place he could call home. He would find both in the land he once hated – Japan.
John Roderick’s Early Days
John Roderick was born at the start of WWI in rural Waterville, Maine, and orphaned at 16. He wrote for his high school and college papers and joined the Associated Press in 1937. Four years later, in “a day which will live in infamy,” Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. War was declared and Japan became a hated enemy.
A mixture of fact, fiction and propaganda… persuaded me, and millions of other Americans, that Japan was evil and the Japanese were monsters, buck-toothed, near-sighted, slow-witted, and cruel.
John joined the army and was sent to Yale to learn Japanese as an interpreter. The Office of Strategic Services recruited him and sent him to China. At the war’s end, John rejoined the AP and flew to Yan’an, the besieged capital of the Chinese communists, to cover Mao Tse-tung and his revolutionaries in their fight to take over China.
For seven months, Roderick lived in a cave alongside Mao and other Chinese communists leaders as they plotted to wrest power from the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai-shek. Roderick at first admired Mao and chronicled his rise. Later, he reported on the Chinese leader “turning from agrarian idealist to dictatorial tyrant.” For many in the West, it was Roderick’s journalism that helped part the bamboo curtain surrounding Chairman Mao and communist China.
Roderick also covered the Partition of Palestine and early days of Israeli independence, and reported on the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu that seized control of Viet Nam from the French. Often he found himself witness to a clash of cultures and ideology. Perhaps life in China would someday offer the opportunity for a more peaceful, reflective life.
I loved the Chinese and their culture so much I planned to end my career and retire in Beijing. When I lived there in 1947, it was a sleepy, dusty city of scholars, philosophers, and unfocused dreamers. I felt I had the qualifications—it didn’t take much— to become one of those dreamers.
Roderick and Japan
Then, in 1959, the AP sent him to report on Japan’s re-emergence as one of the world’s superpowers. Arriving in Japan, he began to see a former enemy with new eyes.
“I expected to find the city peopled with the cruel and unattractive stereotypes of wartime propaganda… After years of hating the Japanese, I suddenly found them attractive, intelligent and enthusiastic about democracy and its freedoms… I was willing to stop thinking of the Japanese as enemies and tentatively consider recognizing them as friends.”
Among his newfound Japanese friends, Roderick became close with a young man, Yoshihiro Takishita (Yochan), who shared a similar rural upbringing and nostalgia for a simpler time.
Yochan was not an ordinary young man. For one thing he had an American sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a disdain for conventions. His relationship to his parents, and to me, could be described as affectionate, leavened with a large dose of bantering.
As their friendship grew, Yoshihiro’s family also befriended John and even found him a home – a 250-year-old hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof held together by wooden pegs and joinery.
It was located in a distant hamlet, about to be abandoned and washed away by flooding. With Yoshihiro’s encouragement, and not wanting to disappoint the Takashita family, Roderick said “yes” to the farmhouse and the price of 5,000 yen.
5,000 yen in those days was the equivalent of fourteen U.S. dollars. I could hardly believe my ears. Hate it though I did, and though I didn’t want it at any price, I recognized that this drafty but magnificent old house was worth considerably more than that.
Roderick’s Minka Home
From a review of Roderick’s book:
Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years.
But Roderick’s reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him.
Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.
From these humble beginnings, Roderick’s minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton.
Yoshihiro took charge of reconstructing the minka.
I was an amateur, but I knew it had been done in Japan before, many times. Those old houses were built by carpenters who were really architects as well as craftsmen.
A few years after the minka was built, Yoshihiro married and, encouraged by John, developed a successful business in Japanese antiques. He became a leading architect in reconstructing Japanese farmhouses and eventually rebuilt over forty minkas, including elaborate projects in Argentina and Hawaii.
My kind of Japanese minka farmhouse is a shrine… All I know is that there is some kind of mystery of the space of these houses that gives a kind of healing power. It’s very comforting.
The Japanese government honored Roderick with its Order of the Sacred Treasure. In his later years, he adopted Yochan to insure their minka would be passed on to him when John died.
Roderick, thinking back on his relationship with Yochan and his family, wrote:
It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than forty years. The Takishitas have become my surrogate family, Yochan my adopted son. Because of them, our lives have changed and my long journey to Japan, which began in unreasoning hatred, has turned to love.
Davina Pardo’s Film, Minka
As Roderick’s health declined, Davina Pardo flew to Japan, hoping to capture his story, but John passed away a few days before she arrived. It fell to Yochan to tell the story of his friend and adopted father, John Roderick, and his beloved minka home.
“We had always thought of it as a film about memory, but the tone changed; it became more of an elegy to John and a story about loss. Otherwise, our sense of the house as a metaphor for a relationship stayed consistent.”
Here’s the film. It runs 15 minutes, so find a quiet time to watch.
I love the gentle pace and sensibility of this video, the moments of stillness and the use of natural sound. The imagery too, evokes the simple beauty of the minka as Yochan, with a gentle dignity, tells us John’s story and the story of their home. There’s sadness there, a sense of loss and the memory of joyful times, too. More so, as narrator Yochan brings a sense of distance and respect that gives the piece an elegaic quality.
I think the minka and friendship with Yochan and his family finally gave John a sense of belonging and served as a relief to the hurly burly of life as a foreign correspondent.
When I first saw this film, I felt like I was being welcomed into a space that sheltered an extraordinary friendship. John Roderick came to Japan with a certain trepidation and found instead a sense of place, a home and something deeper… love.
I saw that the backbone and resolve of Japan lay… in the enduring values of the villages: hard work, communal spirit, fatalism, love and respect for nature, superstition, religious fervor, and a refusal to admit defeat no matter what the odds they face.
I hope you enjoyed the video and this post. Please send me your comments and share your thoughts. And thanks for reading.