Ralph’s Zabuton

Some years ago, at my brother-in-law’s wedding, I was informed that the father of the bride was a sumo fan, and so I sought out Ralph Tsuha at the reception and we had a wonderful conversation about the sport and our favorite rikishi. Ralph was a gentleman, and a gentle man; small in stature, he had a twinkle in his eye and was wonderful company. Some time later, a sumo seat cushion, a zabuton, arrived in the mail from Okinawa, certainly one of the most unusual, unexpected and wonderful gifts I had ever received.

Sumo seat cushions are given to those in the good seats, for comfort, and are occasionally put into service in another role: After a particularly good match, they are thrown into the air to express the crowd’s approval and excitement. After a bad match, they may be thrown into the ring to express the opposite.

Ralph’s zabuton came with a translation, for which I was grateful. The top line was from the sponsor: “Okinawa Coca-Cola Bottling Co.” The four center symbols, clockwise from the top right were “Ozeki” (champion), “Kirishima,” “Akebono,” “Konishiki,” i.e. the rank and names of the three top stars of the day’s basho. The two bottom lines noted that this tournament, in 1992, was the 20th in Okinawa.

Ralph died a few days ago, and I was reminded of the brief time we spent together. From our conversation alone, I would never have guessed at the extraordinary courage of this man. Born in Hawaii in 1924 to Japanese parents, he entered the U.S. Army in 1944 as an interpreter and was attached to the 6th Marine division. On April 2, 1945, he waded across 100 yards of sea water onto the beach at Yomitan San, Okinawa, his parents’ homeland. With characteristic modesty, Ralph noted in his service record that his job was to “help the rebuilding of Okinawa.”

What he did not write down is that one of his first jobs was to enter caves where people had taken refuge, and persuade them, using only his parents’ native tongue and his own sincerity, not to resist or take their own lives, but to come out, where they would be treated well. Surely he never knew who or what reception awaited him when he walked into the caves, but he went, and doubtless saved many lives by doing so.

His decorations included the Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon with one Bronze Star, the WWII Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Japanese Occupation (Okinawa) Medal, and the Army Presidential Unit Citation to the Military Intelligence Service for extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy, 1 May 1942 to 2 September 1945. I remember his love and pride in his family, his love of sumo, his kindness, and his quiet but extraordinary courage.


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