Bridge to Tokyo
Sag Harbor, a Hamptons village where you can still feel the breath of the old whaling town it used to be. The wharf, home to seagulls in winter, is filled in summer with gleaming yachts – sometimes a city block long – and hundreds of smaller boats. Main Street’s old buildings refurbished, some are now welcoming restaurants, patrons spilling onto the sidewalks. One of them was started by a man from a different world, far away in distance and culture: Sen, the trendsetting restaurant, exotic in it’s origin but melded into the sensibility of the Hamptons, a 22-year old mainstay of the wonderful food scene. But for almost other-worldly chance happenings, it would not be there. How it came to be is an unusual story involving the unexpected journey of one woman.
It’s 1973 – a memorable year as President Nixon sought to secure a second term.
Now, startling news was emerging…the Watergate scandal! Yet another page in the book of ‘tricky Dick’ Nixon.
At the time I was a fashion illustrator in New York City, working on staff for a department store. What I really wanted was to do courtroom artwork. Terrific at drawing very fast, I could capture people and gestures accurately in seconds, an unusual skill developed studying with a brilliant teacher. So I signed up with ABC and CBS network news and unexpectedly landed right in the middle of what became the most infamous political event in the dirtiest political campaign of modern times – Nixon’s Watergate.
Cameras were not allowed in courtrooms, so news bureaus sent out their own court artists to capture hearings and trials in drawings for the evening news. Every morning both ABC and CBS would call to ask me to cover a hearing somewhere in the States. It was artist’s heaven.
My first assignment took me to Florida for the Donald Segretti hearing. A lawyer, he was a political operative for President Nixon’s ‘Committee to Re-elect the President’. Segretti was an integral part of the well- financed ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against certain Democratic Senators. Among other things, he and his cohorts were charged with stealing ‘Citizens for Muskie’ stationary and sending out a bogus letter accusing Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson of fathering an illegitimate child with a teenager, and of being arrested for homosexuality in the 1950s. This and more landed Segretti in jail.
For the first hearing, seven court artists, each representing a different news bureau, waited in the empty courtroom on the first row of seats across from the judge. Suddenly the courtroom doors flew open with a bang and Segretti, a short man with arms handcuffed behind his back, was quickly escorted through the door flanked by two burly cops, each holding one of his arms. They sailed past us and stood way to the left, facing the judge. By someone’s count, Segretti was there 1½ minutes. The judge banged the gavel and the three turned around and quickly left.
All the other artists, who had worked together and knew each other well, flew into a huddle, their backs to me. They were chattering about how fast this had been. None of them got anything on paper. They were anxiously figuring out what to do: “let’s get to my office, I have pictures there, we can trade, we can use each others pictures and get something ….”
I was able to get a quick drawing of Segretti and his escorts coming in, and another of him standing in front of the judge, diminutive between the two hulking officers. I walked out of the courtroom and handed them to my bureau’s waiting cameraman. He shot them and raced back to the bureau with his catch. They were the first to appear on television because I was able to capture Segretti while in the courtroom.
Over the months I received daily calls from the 2 bureaus. Then one day in July, CBS called, telling me that since I was their best court reportage artist, they wanted me to take on the first Watergate trial, scheduled to start soon after the New Year. I was thrilled! But then panicked, realizing I had just signed a contract to go to Japan for a six-month fashion job. I told this to the news chief.
“When are you leaving?” he asked. The project started in August. “O.K., Six months and you’ll be back in January, right? That’s perfect. The first Watergate trial starts in February, you got it.” YESS, I said, I’m on!
So, I went to Japan for six months and stayed for 37 years.
It was an odyssey during which I became more adept at reportage, honing my skills in two exotic and little- recorded Japanese traditions: The Sumo world and Kabuki Theater. I discovered that even the Japanese had little access to either of these worlds.
I came to live and work among people so different from anyone I had ever known, so very beautiful and colorful in ways I could never have imagined. They existed in a world apart. We connected through my drawings because they could see themselves captured on my paper, and they loved it. So, unbelievably, they allowed me to tag along and granted me a place in their lives.
It was a major transition for me. I was an outsider in a uniquely traditional world, normally closed, particularly to women and foreigners. It was an adventure that connected me with a beautiful man from the southern island of Kyushu, a man with no formal education, but one who was wise in many ways. He was a man who had lived a psychologically and emotionally tortured young life but now was Sekitori (a top division sumo wrestler), his fighting name, Iwatora.
When he was ten, Iwatora’s father, a former policeman who had become addicted to gambling, lost their family home to the yakuza. One day he left the house, never to return. That same day Iwatora’s mother ran off, leaving Iwatora and his three brothers, ages four through eleven, alone. Twenty-four hours later the gangsters arrived and took over the house, tossing the boys into the street
Iwatora believes it was the guidance of his guardian angels that brought him to Sumo at the age of thirteen. He was a small man for this world of huge men, and too young. It was because he was an orphan that he was allowed to join Sumo early.
Through talent and ‘guts sumo’ (throwing yourself into the fight with every fiber of your being), and motivated by his boyhood tragedy, Iwatora was determined to become famous, to reach the top division and compete in the tournaments that were broadcast daily on television. He hoped his mother would see him on TV and want him again…
He made it, but like some celebrities, for all the glorious and enviable facade, he was broken and fearful inside.
I was drawn to this man. We married, and our sons, 35 years later can often be seen at Sag Harbor’s SEN restaurant, where they have worked for so long to perfect the Japanese restaurant their father started years before.
The brothers, who spent their earliest life in Bridgehampton, are connected to each other with invisible bonds so strong they cannot be imagined; bonds created not by will but by deeply intricate and complex happenstance. I left their father when they were toddlers and took them to Tokyo. On his own now, Iwatora, a great chef using skills learned living in the communal Sumo stable, partnered with another restaurateur on the East End and started Sen.
The boys grew up in Tokyo, rolling around on the tatami mats with the sons of the great kabuki actors. As very little children, they sat with the grand champions in the dressing rooms at the Sumo tournaments while their mother created the famous drawings of these athletes. They grew up in the families of Sumo and Kabuki, which became natural worlds to them.
As teenagers, they’d travel from Tokyo to Sag Harbor during summer vacations to work in the restaurant and get to know their father. After finishing school, studying Kabuki dance in Japan and Hula in Hawaii with masters, they chose to move home to Sag Harbor, and Sen.
I missed covering Watergate as “the best reportage artist”, and missed innumerable opportunities in the New York I loved. Instead I spent decades sitting in the practice stables of the Sumo world, capturing the moves of huge men in gleaming topknots who spoke a language that took me years to learn. I documented the gorgeous Kabuki actors as they dressed for the stage and as they performed.
Was it the right choice? I never questioned it. But SEN and the two brothers now exist because of it. During the 37 years I was in Japan, reporters often asked me, “why Sumo?” . I never had an answer, but they did.
“It was written in your book before you were born”.