Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Life Remembered: Toshiya Kuge

For three years, D.C. Roe has hosted an annual remembrance of those lost on September 11, 2001. Please click on the logo to the left for a link to other remembrances this year.
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Long ago there lived in Japan an old man whose name was Hamaguchi. His farmhouse stood on the edge of a plateau, a flat, open space on the side of a mountain. Behind, the mountain rose in lofty wooded peaks. In front, it sloped gently down to the sea. At the foot of the mountain along the shore was the little village, made up of a hundred or more thatched houses and a great temple.

One afternoon in late summer Hamaguchi sat on the balcony of his house and watched the people in the village below. With him was his grandson, a lad of ten. The rice crop had been very fine, and the villagers were holding their harvest festival. All the shops were closed, and the streets were gayly decorated with ropes of straw and paper lanterns. The villagers in bright-colored clothing were about to join in the harvest dance.

Beyond the village Hamaguchi could see the vast blue sea, wrinkling under the bright after noon sun. Suddenly there came a slight shock. The house rocked three or four times and then stood still. Hamaguchi had felt many earth quakes in his time, and he was not at all frightened until he looked toward the sea.

The water had become dark green and very rough. The tide had suddenly changed --- the sea was running swiftly away from the land! The villagers stopped their dancing, and ran to the shore to watch. None of them knew what this strange thing meant. But the old man on the mountain had seen one such sight as a little child. He knew what the sea would do. There was no time to send a message to the village, nor to ring the big bell in the temple, and yet the people must be warned.

"Yone!" he called to his little grandson. "Light a torch! Quick!"

The boy was puzzled, but he asked no questions. He kindled the torch at once. The old man ran to the fields, where hundreds of rice stacks stood awaiting sale. It was all his wealth. He ran from one stack to another, applying the torch to each. The dry stalks caught fire quickly, and soon the red flames were shooting upward, and the smoke was rising in great columns to join the wind clouds in the sky.

Yone ran after his grandfather, shouting and crying, "Grandfather! Grandfather! Why? Why are you setting fire to the rice?"

The old man had no time to answer, but ran on, firing stack after stack. The high wind caught the sparks and loose brands and carried them farther, until the fields were all ablaze.

The watcher in the temple saw the fire, and set the big bell booming, and the people turned from the sea to look. In Japan every one in the village must give help in time of fire. No sooner did the people see that Hamaguchi's rice stacks were on fire than they began to run. Like a swarm of ants they climbed the mountain --- young men and boys, women and girls, old folk, mothers with babies on their backs, even little children joined in the race to put out the fire.

But when they reached the plateau, it was too late. The flames had already eaten the stacks of beautiful rice.

"It is too bad," the people exclaimed. "How did it happen?"

"Grandfather did it," cried Yone. "With a torch he set fire to the rice. He is mad."

In amazement the people stared at Hamaguchi. "You did this thing !" they cried. "You set fire to the rice fields! "

"Look toward the sea," said the old man, "and know my purpose."

The people turned and looked. Far out they saw a great wall of water sweeping toward them more swiftly than a bird flies. It was the returning sea!

The people shrieked, but their voices were lost in a great sound, deeper than thunder, as the wall of water struck the side of the mountain. The hills shook, and were drenched in a great burst of foam.

When the cloud of spray had disappeared, the people saw a wild sea raving over their village. Great angry waves seethed and tumbled above the house-tops. They rolled away roaring, tearing out houses and trees and great rocks, and bearing them off. Again the wall of water struck, and again and again, with less force each time. At last it fell back once more in its former bed.

The people stood speechless on the side of the mountain. The village was gone; the temple was gone; the fields had been torn away. Nothing was left of their homes but a few straw roofs that floated on the water. But every man and woman and child was safe on the mountain side.

Then the people knew why old Hamaguchi had set fire to the rice. There he stood among them, as poor as any. And they fell on their knees to thank him.

As a little girl-- maybe 3 or 4 years old, I recall my mother telling me Japanese fables and folk stories-- This one and a story about the Little Peachboy are the two I remember the most. I thought this story of sacrifice fitting to share what little I have been able to learn about a young man named Toshiya Kuge.

Toshiya Kuge-san was born in 1981. His parents, Hajime and Yachiyo Kuge must have been proud of their son. He graduated in 1999 from Kitano High School. While in high school he was a good student and was the goalie for his high school soccer team. However, his preference was American football and was a linebacker his freshman year at Waseda University wearing a maroon jersey with number ninety-five. He loved the National Football League and would watch football via satellite in the middle of the night in Japan. He had a poster of the San Francisco 49ers on his bedroom wall, but his favorite team was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He was in his sophomore year at the prestigious Waseda University studying design and creation of materials at the School of Science and Engineering. In the spring of 2001 he attended an intensive 4 week class at the University of Utah to improve his English speaking and writing skills. In an essay for this class he wrote, "he wanted to be friends with people and to study in America."

After his time at the University of Utah, Toshiya went home to Toyonaka City to spend the summer with family and friends before coming back in August 2001 to the United States and Canada- part vacation - part preparation-- Vacation was to go to whale watching, horseback riding and rafting at Jasper National Park-- Preparation was for his goal to scout out a university for his graduate degree. Among the items he took on this trip was his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.

"He longed to come to America, " said Toshiya's mother,Yachiyo Kuge. "Perhaps he liked the freedom. He loved the language and the music. And sports. He wanted to play sports there."
From the few accounts I have been able to locate, he was friendly and outgoing with all he encountered. He wanted to visit Niagara Falls from both the Canadian and American sides. He had a passion for the big outdoors. On his rafting trip to Jasper he befriended and shared a lunch with two women from Chicago- Kristine White and Debbie Schiies.

On that fateful day, September 11, 2001 Kuge-san was on his way home to go back to school at Waseda. Instead, he and the other brave souls aboard United Flight 93 lost their lives in an attempt to take back their hijacked plane. This young man- his entire life ahead of him stolen and gone in an instant by haters of freedom and liberty. We will never have the good fortune of knowing what this young man could have contributed to our lives---.

In April 2004, Toshiya Kuge was recognized by Professor Shirai, President of Waseda University and was awarded the status of Alumna.

It is important to remember that Americans were not the only souls lost on that dreadful day- 234 people from other countries are counted in the numbers... from those 234 foreigners, 24 were from Japan.

So, I share this fable about the burning rice fields with you--- Although profoundly sad, it is a story of sacrifice and a keen understanding of a greater good. I want to believe--- I need to believe that the men and women who lost their lives that awful day were not in vain, but stand over us as guardian angels to remind us to stay vigilant and to never forget and never ever allow this to happen again.

A Life Remembered,

Toshiya Kuge
1981 - 2001

Resources:Japan Times
Ongoing Tales
Among the Heroes - United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back, by Jere Longman
Waseda University article
Find a Grave

2012: I remember Louis J. Nacke II
2011: I remember Jeremy Glick.
2011: I remember Mark Bingham.
2010: I remember Don and Jean Peterson.
2009: I remember Hilda Marcin.
2008: I remember Toshiya Kuge.
2007: I remember Tom Burnett.
2007: I remember Deora Bodley.
2006: I remember Marion Britton.