Later, my father's oldest brother, 18 years his senior, brought the whole family to Tokyo to live with him. He had joined the railroad at an early age and had worked his way up to become stationmaster of Shimbashi, a major station on the line to Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka. The job came with a gold-braided stationmaster's cap and an official residence, modest but adequate to house his parents, brothers, and sisters. My uncle also got my father his first real job with the railways, earning a couple of yen – less than a dollar – per month. He worked his way through night school, studied English with an American missionary in Yokohama, and was baptized William – much to the distress of my devoutly Buddhist grandmother. His teacher called him Bill, a name he proudly adopted.
Those were heady days for Japan. The country had emerged from 200 years of feudal isolation in 1854, when Commodore Perry and his Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay (then called Edo), and forced the Tokugawa Shogunate to open its door to foreign trade. Japan modernized, Westernized, and won two short wars in quick succession – with China in 1894-95 and with Russia in 1904-05. World War I sparked Japan's first big economic boom. While the Europeans fought each other, Japan exported an increasing range of goods, from textiles to cement and steel. And that boom enabled my father to meet my mother.
Bill Oka was handsome, athletic, and a born salesman with a winning smile. His English, though broken, got him a job with Sale and Frazer, an Anglo-American trading company in Yokohama – Mr. Frazer being American and Mr. Sale, British. His first coup was to sell a new coupling system to the railways, which had been nationalized early in the 20th century. That prompted Mr. Frazer and Mr. Sale to send their employee on a field trip to the United States and England, visiting the Baldwin locomotive works in Pittsburgh and the Victor Talking Machine Company in London.