KAICHI, THE JAPANESE SURFER, has seen the faces of dead samurai in the tubes of waves he has ridden. Since surfers are often spiritual, it should be no surprise that Japanese surfers would be especially so.
Kaichi sees ghosts often. Sometimes, as he sits in the almost empty apartments of his Japanese friends in Pacific Beach, he sees the spirits of dead cats and dogs sitting on their owners’ shoulders. He sees these things, but it is the ocean that haunts him the most, never lets go of him, so much so that he spends hours each day, in the morning and into the evening, catching waves up and down the San Diego coast. He loved the O.B. pier (until someone stole his Jeep), and Scripps, and Black’s. He’ll surf anywhere in San Diego, any time. It’s what he came here for.
There are about 50 or so of them, in their late teens or early 20s, Japanese who carry surfboards instead of cameras. They are all students, usually from wealthy families, who have come to America to consume, speak English, and surf. Not quite expatriates, these young Japanese men and women, in their stone-washed jeans and Jimmy Z surfwear, come to San Diego out of a restlessness that does not fit the image of the homogenous Japanese.
There is Kaichi, and there is Ken, and Takashi, who doesn’t surf. There is Koji and Atsushi (“the Kamikaze”), who will catch any wave and has the scars to prove it, and Hiro, who wants to become an American at all costs. There are their girlfriends who, like themselves, are in their late teens and early 20s and who have come to San Diego for the sun, and the waves, and maybe the culture.
They can stay for six months at a time, some with host families in places like La Mesa and University City, until they develop an understanding of San Diego, then move out to bare apartments in Pacific Beach and near SDSU that they furnish with rice cookers, futons, and maybe a lamp, living off phone calls home to parents and alien I-20 immigration forms that classify them as students. Although they are bright in that stunning way that Japanese students are, they mainly try to skate on the schoolwork, doing little more than trying to learn English in small language schools around the county with names like Converse and Language World.
Some go to UCSD or SDSU for their English instruction, but even there, it is often a token gesture: time put in for the I-20. They know they will return to Japan and understand that they will eventually become mere business cogs in the Asian economic juggernaut, or engineers, or import-export entrepreneurs. They will make money with an inevitability that becomes their class and culture; but for now, they are interested in (some, obsessed with) the Great American Beach.
None of them knew the others in Japan, but now they are friends, all tightly bound by a common obsession. They surf together, each buying two or three $300 surfboards that would sell for $1200 each in Japan, trying out every spot along the coast of San Diego and Mexico. They come to San Diego because Japan, in all its pristine surfside beauty, generally breaks poorly. According to Ken, who has surfed all over the Japanese coast, the only good places to bag waves are off the coast of Yokohama and up north among the ice floes.
His rough English is the best of the bunch. Of the surf at Yokohama, Ken says, “Many, many surfers are at Yokohama. The waves are not very big. When it is warm, there is much...” — he makes gestures with his fingers, searching for the word — “...plankton.”
Kaichi says that at one beach on the east coast of Japan south of Tokyo,“I dropped in and —
Ara! in the wave — I saw...a face: ancient Japanese warrior...” Koji said that at another spot, where, in the Japanese mid- dle ages, many peasants jumped to their deaths from nearby cliffs, he glanced into the water beneath his board and saw the face of a young mother and child. “Their faces were very white. Like ghost,” he said. “They were very sad,” sounding more haunted by their misery than the actual experience.
They see no ghosts in San Diego surf, but they do have scary experiences. His first month in San Diego, Ken surfed Windansea Beach, a “locals only” spot. Coming down a wave, a blond surfer cut him off. As Ken paddled out again after wiping out, the blond-haired surfer said something to him. Ken did not understand because “my English was not very good.” Ken took off on another wave, and as he paddled back out, the blond surfer shot down a wave and ran into Ken’s face with his board. In a rage, Ken waited for the blond surfer to come back out and yelled at him in his best English. The surfer looked at him with a frightened expression and paddled away. A moment later, Ken ran his hand over his face and found blood. He still has scars from the surfer’s board, and in some ways, he’s proud. Now he surfs Windansea all the time because “I’m a local now.”
Ken tells such stories to those who live here, and they gnash their teeth and apologize for others’ rudeness, but Ken says,“It is not necessary.” His father went to school in America and, with his excellent foresight, named his son Ken because it is both a Japanese and American name. Ken has seen the kindness and the rudeness in Americans and appreciates both. He says, “Some villages in Japan are the same as Tennessee. They do not like strangers.” San Diego has been especially good to him, he says, and he loves the surf. “The water tastes better, and there is not so much seaweed or plankton.”
Ken is tall and handsome and has an appealing modesty that some Americans confuse with shyness. He will be a mechanical engineer when he goes back to Japan, but he hates the Japanese business structure and the idea of joining a company for life.