“SPAM Cans, Rice Balls and Pearls” by Bruce Muench

SPAM Cans, Rice Balls and Pearls

Over 60 years ago, an American man from Illinois and an Uwajima man from Japan met and found common ground at the end of World War II. It led to a friendship free of prejudice, fear, or bitterness.

Their story is told in “SPAM Cans, Rice Balls and Pearls: Snippets of Memory from World War II” (2002) by Bruce Muench, a book that is part memoir and part novel, “a story of two young men from opposite sides of the Pacific, how they happened to meet and what they said to each other” (page viii).

Bruce Muench was born in Des Plains, Illinois. He joined the navy in 1944 at age 17, and was a radioman aboard the Shipley Bay before being stationed at Kwajelein, an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Muench “resented authority that wasn’t tempered with humor” (page 76), and some of his insubordination landed him with guard duty.

Akio Yamazaki was born in Uwajima, Japan, spent two years at the University of California at Berkeley, and was a radio intercept interpreter stationed on the Island of Moen in Truk. Like his father Tomasu, he was a Christian in a country that is mainly Shino and Buddhist; his uncle Sadatake was a commercial fisherman and cultured pearl entrepreneur. He was an interpreter during the Japanese war trials.

They met in 1945 for a few days in Kwajelein. They were not soldiers in combat, their lives were not in danger (except perhaps, in Muench’s case, from boredom), and they were far from home, but they made the choice to reach out to each other. They shared their stories and experiences about nature, family, and food. They continued their friendship until 1959, then lost touch with each other, and reconnected again in 1983.

Muench reflects upon different attitudes towards individual life – in American culture survival was paramount, but in Japanese culture capture was a disgrace. He makes an interesting observation about individual freedom and the role of government: “Both fishermen and farmers tended to be independent in their behavior. Their lives depend upon the whims of nature rather than upon any government” (page 120).

And he has an unexpected proposal for future wars: “If it were up to me, I would propose an international law that all future wars must be fought by people over 65 years of age, like myself. That way war could become much more subdued and not many people would be killed, because of the frequent breaks to go to the bathroom and to the drug store” (page 152).

What about the SPAM cans, rice balls and pearls? Muench considered SPAM “a delicacy” and used empty SPAM cans to collect shells, turning them into tombs for sea creatures. The rice balls symbolize nourishment through prayer. And the pearls are another symbol of common ground, a Japanese doctor (Yamazaki’s father) and Mississippi fishermen talking excited about the business of harvesting pearls and button-making.

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