“The Sanshin” by Judy S. Richardson

“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy

By June of 1965, Malcolm X had been assassinated, US troops were surging into Vietnam, Martin Luther King marched in Selma, and forty college students just a few years older than I had burned their draft cards on the Berkeley campus. And me? Although I had sat at the counter of Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was two years too late for that to matter much.

So far, I hadn’t done anything noteworthy, nor did I have any idea how I might make any difference in the world. At twenty, I was about to graduate from university with absolutely no confidence in myself. My favorite song was I Know A Place by Petula Clark because I desperately wanted to find my place in life. All I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going home to a domineering father, a compliant mother and a guest bedroom. Because that’s what I would be: an unwelcome guest expected for the short stay until she got a job or a husband.

My friend Carol signed a contract to teach in Michigan where she knew no one but was ready to explore. My friend Martha was dating a guy who kept singing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones. She laughed and told him he wouldn’t get any until he proposed. So he did.

My best choice, I decided, was to join the Peace Corps. I could do something meaningful, see the world, and seem courageous until I found out how to actually be brave.

Ray and I had been dating for two years. The sex was okay although we argued constantly. Marriage plus Ray’s promise to join the Peace Corps with me seemed just the right solution. In August I started teaching high school English to pay for Ray’s fall semester of college tuition and save enough money to enter the Peace Corps the following June.

To my surprise, I discovered I loved teaching secondary students. I hummedto a recording of Camelot or My Fair Lady as I graded themes. But, by mid-October, I had figured out that Ray never seemed to study and had the grades to prove it. Our arguments escalated into screaming, banging doors, silent treatments and my sobs. Our marriage was as turbulent as our country.

By November, the Vietnam War had escalated, Norman Morrison incinerated himself outside the Pentagon, the Man of La Mancha sang about his Impossible Dream, and Ray announced, “I joined the Green Berets.”

“But, you can’t. We’re joining the Peace Corps.”

 “I’ll make a lot more money as a soldier. Besides, winning in Vietnam is a step towards peace.”

“There’s nothing peaceful about war. We don’t belong in Vietnam.”

After I discovered I was pregnant, the Peace Corps was no longer an option anyhow. In January of 1966, we moved to El Paso, Texas. Ray strutted in his camouflage uniform. My marriage unraveled.

I liked Ray’s teachers, though—the South Vietnamese who taught their language to Special Forces soldiers at The Defense Language Institute. I loved the áo dài they gave me; when I stroked the yellow tunic and white trousers, the silk whispered to me of an ancient culture. I wished these people could win their country back, but the price was so high: too many young soldiers dying before they had even begun to live.

In June, Ray left for Okinawa. Newborn Ben and I waited in Oceanside, California near Camp Pendleton until we were cleared to follow. I loved to gaze at the Pacific Ocean lapping lazily to shore from the picture window in our apartment. On Sundays, Ben and I spread a blanket on the sand and played—gentle waves, seashells in a pail. Contented, no arguments to spoil the calm, I was in no hurry to leave. California Girls by The Beach Boys seemed like my kind of song.

I played the tapes Ray sent only after Ben had gone to sleep because I didn’t want him hearing his father shouting from across the sea. Each message held more anger than the one before.

“Shit. Fuck. Goddamn recorder chews up my tape.”

In August, Ray found housing for us. Our flight left for Okinawa in two weeks. I sobbed.


On the military plane, we sat wedged in by soldiers fresh from training, fidgety. I wondered what these young guys thought about the demonstrations and songs like Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. Nevertheless, here they were, on the way to an unwinnable war. Ben drove his Matchbox car up a soldier’s leg. Laughing, the soldier played with my toddler.

At the airport, Ray hustled us into a rusted Mazda. I placed my feet carefully to avoid the holes that humidity had eaten into the rusted floorboard. Clammy air whistled in through the open car windows, plastering my hair to my face. I watched the airfield and dreary army buildings disappear behind us. So far, the island seemed an ugly place.

When we pulled into the drive of the off-base house, I stared at the quadrilateral shaped unit—a dirty-white concrete exterior under a flat roof. Inside, the heat enveloped me. Ray held Ben fast, carrying him from room to room at a bouncy pace. They were happy together. I followed slowly, hoping for a restart in this new place. The kitchen pressed against the back wall of one long, narrow room. Three windows on the front wall cast sunshine filtered through grime onto hardwood floors. A couch and coffee table beneath the windows defined the living space. A hallway led to two bedrooms, a Japanese-style bathroom between them. The shower was in a corner, no curtain or raised tiles so water would drain into a hole the middle of the tiled floor.

On that first evening together, Ray briefed me: “Don’t go anywhere but the military base. Close the window shades to keep out the sun all day; open them at night and start the fan to suck in the cooler air. Don’t ever leave the house unlocked, even when you’re just in the yard. Don’t leave anything valuable out where anyone coming to the door could spot it. Be sure to put the chain lock on at night and push chairs against the door—a barricade to cause noise in case of stealy boys.”

I wiped moisture from my face as I listened. So many “don’ts” made me dizzy. “What are stealy boys, Ray?”

“Economic hazard. They won’t hurt you. They sneak into the off-base houses we rent. They know how to unlock the doors, but the chain latch will stop them—at least long enough to warn you. Then you make noise and they run off. Never heard of any assault, just theft.” He sounded so matter of fact that I wanted to hit him.

Two days later at four in the morning, I watched as he departed in a jeep for the military airport and Vietnam.


Most nights I did not fall asleep until sunrise and then arose with Ben two hours later. Afraid to open the windows, I dozed on the living room couch, restless in heat tempered only by a fan. I watched geckoes dart after huge cockroaches and waited for stealy boys. When the typhoons came through, I filled the bathtub so we would have a source of uncontaminated water. The humid heat cloaked me. The rain poured. Green grew everywhere.

While we were on our own, I harnessed Ben into his car seat, and off we went. Okinawa, only 67 miles long and 19 miles wide (at its widest), is, according to the military guidebook, “a rope in the open sea, the keystone of the Pacific, the Hawaii of Japan.” At Manzamo Point on the west coast, the East China Sea slapped waves against the stony beach below. Wind ruffled our hair. Okinawa burgeoned with beauty. Back then, not many tourists traveled to the Ryukyu Islands; war made it less accessible. I considered it my semi-secret paradise.

Each time Ray returned, he slept with the light on and a rifle under the bed.

“Ben might find it, Ray.”

“Keep the fucking door locked so he won’t, then.” He took a swig from the bottle set on the nightstand.

“Could you at least break it down?”

“Then what’s the point? I won’t be ready.”

“For what, Ray?”

“When I have the nightmares, I need the gun to shoot them down.”

“You can’t shoot nightmares.”

“That’s what you think, is it? Just the sight of the rifle scares them away.”

“And us, Ray. You scare us away.”

“There’s a price for everything.”

I thought I had already paid the price for the “everything” we had now.


When he left the second time, I enrolled in classes on Okinawan culture. I participated in Japanese tea ceremonies. I tried to learn Japanese, but ended up agreeing with Dave Barry, who noted that the best way to learn Japanese is to be born in Japan. I arranged flowers in the Ikebana style. I learned about costumes for traditional ceremonies.

Although Ray had warned that resentment of the U.S. military ran high in Naha, I ignored his advice and decided to go into the city. I parked the Mazda at the edge of the base and hailed a taxi from the many lined up. At first the driver scowled, but when he saw Ben climb in, he smiled.

“American soldiers bad men!” He informed me as he drove. “They leave our girls beaten on road.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, Ben wrapped tight in my arms as the cab swerved in and out of traffic.

When the driver deposited us on a main street, he said, “You come here when go back. I look for you; I take you safe.”

Passers-by stared, then stopped and asked to touch Ben’s blond, curly hair. He giggled when they patted his head. With Ben on my hip, I window-shopped until I discovered a window display of dolls in Okinawan costume. I went inside to look more closely.

“Hai sai.” a small woman came to stand beside me.

“This one is lovely,” I pointed to a doll wearing a hat ofred petals on a blue background.

“How much?”

“You don’t buy—you make in my class.”

On the spot, I signed up for a class the next day. The taxi driver was right where he had said he would be. I observed his route carefully as he drove back to the base. After that, I drove into Naha by myself.

Mrs. Higa gave me a cotton-stuffed doll, her hair of black thread already stitched strand by strand into its soft head. She showed me how to arrange a topknot. “We call this style ‘kanpuu’ and this,” she secured the topknot with a silver hairpin, “a ‘jiifaa.’  As I sewed, Ben pushed his cars on the tatami mats. First, I stitched a ryusou of dark rami cloth with large sleeve openings. Next, an obi glittering with golden branches.

“Now, we make her sanshin, the Okinawan traditional musical instrument.” I pasted snakeskin on the drum, tied three silk strings to the base of the Dou and then gently stretched them to the neck and around the pegs. When done, I brushed my fingers across the drum. I could almost hear the haunting twang of plucked notes.

“Here is the male string, here the middle, and here the female string. Each string makes a note in harmony with the others.”

“Is it like a banjo?”

“The sanshin has no frets. Without the markers, the melody is light and free. We sing between the notes to make our music.”

At first I didn’t understand what she meant. Frets, I thought, determined the positions for the correct notes and chords. When I heard the sanshin played, though, its haunting lilt, both mellow and soulful, calmed me.

I bent the doll into a kneeling pose with its fingers poised above the instrument.


Ben, too, loved the doll. He touched the clothing and the tiny instrument. “Pretty, Mommy.”


A month later, when Ray came back again, he seemed calmer. At first, he could run Matchbox cars across the floor with Ben, but after a few days, even that might end in a crash.

“Where’d this come from?” He asked when he noticed the Okinawan lady I had on display in a glass case.

“I made it in Naha, with a master doll maker.”

“I told you not to go into Naha. Stay away from the Okinawans!” He threw the doll against the wall. Glass shattered. I cleaned the mess and hid the doll.


Ray and I traveled to Japan, along with eight other officers and their wives. Although I had always wanted to see the land of The Tokaido, I felt constricted by limited time in places where wanted to linger and too much time in Tokyo, where crowds pushed at the edges of our group. At the restaurants, rice paper separated rooms. I could see shadows of others dining only feet away. The shoji screens divided space and hid clutter, but did not screen out the babble. Others laughed loudly while eating each dish of sashimi. I did not join in their conversation, swallowing with miso soup and rice balls to chase the taste of raw fish and rubbery octopus away.

We rode the bullet train to Kyoto. I peered at the countryside zooming by—fast miles through lush lands. The woodblock prints Hiroshige had drawn in 1832 came alive.

While traveling

I am all free from care.

No man knows me;

No man betrays me.

Hiroshige’s The Tokaido

At Ryoan-Ji Temple, the guide Makiko set everyone free to wander in The Rock Garden.

“I will meet you here in thirty minutes.” She bowed and left.

The others wandered on, but I settled on a stone bench. My bottom felt a cool smooth welcome. The raked sand sparkled in white space—Zen of purity.

Makiko’s shadow darkened the sand. She stood above me, tense. “You are not with the group.”

“I’m peaceful here. Only the noise of no noise.”

“Huh. Your soldiers are noisy. They do not belong here.”

“In the garden?”

“In Japan, in Vietnam. Asian countries need Asian allies, not U.S. soldiers.”

I shifted, startled. The Japanese I had encountered were courteous, not prone to offering unsolicited opinions. “It’s complicated.”

“Not complicated. Just leave.”

Makiko’s words left me no space to explain myself. I, too, wished for a peace I did not know how to find.

I longed to hear the sanshin playing Tinsagu nu Hana/The Balsam Flowers for me.

The desires of the person who lives sincerely

Will always run true

And as a result

She will prosper

But I heard only three strings clashing.

Gravel crunch behind me. Makiko bowed, was gone. She had left her shadow, though.

“Leave what?” Ray demanded.

“Makiko thinks the USA should leave Vietnam.”

“Japs. Beautiful country, but they lost the last war. This one’s ours. Forget it.”

I couldn’t, though. In that moment I knew that Ray and I could not remain together. It wasn’t complicated at all. I needed my own place, and my own peace. But I fretted until the divorce became final.

Judy Richardson lives in Richmond, Virginia. She has written numerous articles for academic journalsandthree textbooks. She has published in The Penman Review, Persimmon Tree, Lowestoft Chronicle, Whitefish Review. Wingless Dreamer, and at writerfairy.com, as well as in Stories Through the Ages: Baby Boomers Plus-2017 and Nuance, Anthology of Ventura County Writers Club, 2018. Hippocampus Magazine and Inkwell will publish her essays in Fall, 2021.