In the mid 1990s, I rented a small Sawtelle house behind Jiro Dick Kobashigawa and his wife Sumiye. For a Yonsei interested in Asian American history, it was a treat. Mr. Kobashigawa, a Kibei Nisei shared his books and writings with me, educated me about the Okinawan America experience, and talked story about the early Issei activists he knew and admired. On the outside he was a Sawtelle gardener, but on the inside, he as a thinker, a writer, a poet, a bonsai master, a world traveler, a union supporter, and a peace activist.
To capture and share just a bit of Mr. Kobashigawa’s life, I’ve written the following folktale in his honor.
Jiro and the Magic Blanket
By Tony Osumi
Once upon a time, there lived a young man named Jiro. Born of simple means he was eager to seek his fortune. Hugging his mother, father, and sibblings goodbye, he packed up his few belongings and set out on the long road of life.
In time he came upon an old Okinawan man with a curving back and walking stick. As the two men shared the path they began to talk.
“Where are you going?” asked the old man.
“To find my fortune,” answered Jiro.
“Ah, wealth,” said the old man.
“Yes,” Jiro said enthusiastically. “I want to be rich.”
In a short time the pair became friends. During the day they talked about the past, present and future and at night, everything in between. As the trail grew faint, the old man’s keen eye provided guidance. When the road grew rocky, the young man’s firm step kept the two of them safe.
After many moons they stopped at the entrance of a green forest. “It is time you continue seeking your fortune,” said the old man. Slowly he removed a sleeping blanket with star on it from his back. “Take this magic blanket, Jiro. When you find a place of true beauty, lay your blanket down and dream. In the morning, lift the blanket up and you will find your treasure.
Skeptical but curious, Jiro unrolled the blanket and traced the simple embroidery of a star with his finger. But before he could thank the old man, he was gone.
With images of silver and gold, Jiro quickly made his way deep into the forest.
On the first day Jiro spent hours looking for the perfect spot. He wandered into a cluster of giant sequoia trees. Their powerful trunks drove skyward towards heaven. Although towering figures with lofty thoughts, the massive redwoods were serene and peaceful. “This has to be the most beautiful spot in the forest,” he said as he laid down to sleep. In the morning he slowly lifted the blanket expecting to see his treasure. But there was nothing. “Maybe this wasn’t the most beautiful place in the forest,” he thought to himself.
On the second day, Jiro spent hours strolling through a meadow of rainbow colored wildflowers. He watched bee after bee return to its hive overlooking the meadow. He noticed how the community of bees built their hive, collected nectar, made honey, and defended it by swarming together when necessary. By spreading pollen and fertilizing each plant, bees helped build the forest. With dusk approaching, Jiro spread out his blanket in the middle of the meadow and breathed in the first wisps of Night Jasmine. With a sigh, he knew this was the most beautiful spot in the forest. In the morning he slowly lifted the blanket, but there was nothing. “This was certainly beautiful, but I guess I need to keep looking,” he wondered.
On the third day, Jiro spent hours studying the rings on an old tree stump. He was fascinated how each ring represented a year in the tree’s life. Some lines were almost too close to count and it told him the tree had survived many dry seasons. Rubbing the weathered trunk made Jiro feel connected to his own family. He decided this was the most beautiful place in the forest. Jiro laid out his magic blanket and leaned up against the stump for the evening. In the morning he slowly lifted the blanket, but there was nothing. “I was sure this was the place,” he said with a hint of disappointment.
On the fourth day near the edge of a bluff he found a small grove of wind swept pine trees. For hours he studied their curved trunks and swaying branches.
On the fifth day he explored riverbed rocks worn smooth and slick by the constant rush of water. With time each jagged rock was polished into a giant black pearl.
On the sixth day he watched wild salmon struggle upstream to lay their eggs. He admired the silver swimmers’ yearly return to raise another generation.
But as beautiful as these places were, Jiro never found a treasure or his fortune. Frustrated, he made his way out of the forest. “I should have known there was no such thing as a magic blanket,” he muttered.
On the seventh day, Jiro passed a farm on the outskirts of the forest. He came upon a young woman collecting water from a well. As she looked up she caught the young man’s eye. For Jiro it was hitome-bore, love at first sight. Her name was Sumi and she was equally smitten. Soon they were married.
With little money they set up home in a small log cabin. One night after fighting off the cold wind, Jiro woke up before dawn to cut some firewood. He returned as the sun was rising. Inside he found Sumi snuggled warmly under his rolled up blanket. The sun’s soft glow lit up her face.
It was beautiful. Jiro now understood that Sumi was the treasure of his life.
Once again, Jiro retraced the embroidered star with his finger. His adventure with the old man and his days in the forest filled the tiny cabin. He smiled at the old man’s cleverness. It all made sense now. The blanket had opened Jiro up to a wealth of knowledge.
From the oldest and most powerful creatures of the forest, the giant sequoias, he learned humility. In spite of his years of wisdom, Jiro remains soft-spoken and eager to listen.
From the buzzing bees, he learned teamwork and unity. He’s lived a life building solidarity and supporting working-class movements.
From the tree rings, he learned the importance of knowing your history and documenting your life. Jiro went on to record his life and those around him though poems, paintings, stories and home movies.
From the wind swept pine trees, he learned nature’s beauty and went on to recreate it by becoming a landscape gardener and bonsai master.
From the rushing river, he learned perseverance and lives each day committed to social change.
Lastly, from the spawning salmon, he learned to remember his roots and to honor those that came before him--like the Okinawan Issei activists who fought for a more fair and just world.
After their marriage, Jiro and Sumi shared a lifetime at each other’s side. They started a family and each of their children and grandchildren were wrapped in the magic of that blanket. In fact, everyone who’s met Jiro felt its warmth.
After many years, Jiro’s firm step slowed. He knew it was time to pass the blanket on. Today, you can find Jiro reaching out to young folks just like the old Okinawan man did years before. It’s time for young people to trace their own fingers on that threaded star and make the connection between their dreams and their daily lives. It’s time for a new generation to continue building a more beautiful world.
While never finding silver and gold, Jiro has lived a very rich life.