By William J.Bryan, Jr.
One cold and blustery October afternoon in 1989, I heard a timid knock at the door of our home in Lincoln, Neb. Mother was busy preparing the evening meal, so I went to the door and opened it.
There, beside an enormous bag that seemed almost as large as he was, stood a thin Japanese youth, hat in hand, bowing almost to the ground. A pair of piercing brown eyes looked anxiously at me from beneath a shock of straight black hair. We were both speechless.
As we stood there transfixed, Mother called from the back of the house, "Who is it, William?" When he saw Mother, our visitor again made three low bows. Slowly, as though each word were an effort, he said, "My American mother, I am come to your foot."
Such was was my introduction to Yashichiro Yamashita, who was to become my "adopted" brother, my companion and friend.2
Yashichiro's journey to our doorstep had begun nearly two years before, when my father, the Democratic Party's candidate for the Presidency of the United States, was in the midst of the election campaign of 1896. Mother had taken on the monumental task of handling the personal mail that poured in from all parts of the world, and one day she opened a bulky letter postmarked "Kagoshima, Japan." It was several pages long, written, as we learned later, with a Japanese brush pen, and expressed in Japanese-schoolboy English that was both picturesque and difficult to understand. The Letter was addressed to "My dearest American Parents," and was signed Yashichiro Yamashita.
We had never heard of Yashichiro, but his letter stated that he was a student at an intermediate school and also served as an English translator for a Yokohama newspaper. His home was in Kagoshima, at the southernmost tip of Japan. He had read much about America and become particularly interested in Father's campaign speeches pleading for world peace and international understanding. All this, he wrote, had inspired his sole ambition in life; to go to America and study under my father's direction, so that he might return to Japan and be a help to his people.
The letter told us that he had discussed the matter at great length with his parents; that his father had offered to sell his farm in order to supply the passage money; that he had therefore decided to "adopt" my parents, and would come to our home just as soon as he could complete the necessary arrangements.
Mother was impressed with the sincerity of the letter and wrote a courteous reply. She explained that while she commended Yashichiro's ambition to be a help to his people, she had three children of her own to raise and educate, and could not assume additional responsibility. She felt that his would end the matter.3
A few months later another letter came. This one was addressed to "My dearest custodians," In it Yashichiro explained that his family had had difficulty in finding a buyer for the farm, but they were still hopeful that it might be sold. This, we thought, was distinctly encouraging. Yashichiro would probably never be able to raise the money for his trip.
Months rolled by and the matter was was almost forgotten when, in the spring of 1898, a third letter caught us wholly off guard. This letter, from San Francisco, announced Yashichiro's arrival in America! He wrote that he had not realized Lincoln, Neb, was so far from San Francisco, and that he had not provided enough money. He assured us that we need not worry, however; he had found employment and would hasten to Nebraska as soon as he had saved enough money for a ticket.
We know now that there was no time to be lost. Father wrote immediately to one of his political friends in San Francisco, urging him to learn at any cost the whereabouts of Yamashita, and to explain personally to him that under no circumstances would we be able to take him into the family. When Father's friend reported that his message had been delivered, we assumed that the matter was finally ended.4
The next word we had from this determined young man came when he himself appeared at our door and announced, "My American mother, I am come to your foot."
Mother decided to take Yamashita in for the night, and to defer until the next day the bad news she intended to give him. That "next day" never came. For Yamashita quickly endeared himself to us.
He could speak practically no English, but he could read and write it well. When we began firing questions at him, he produced a pencil and paper and, in a clear and legible hand, wrote, "Write question please." Thus began an extraordinary session of silent communication that lasted far into that night.
Yamashita's written replies told us that he burned with a consuming desire to serve his people. He begged for an opportunity to get an American education. He assured us that he would not become a financial burden; that he was strong and accustomed to labor, and would do any kind of work to repay his expenses.
In the morning we held a family conference. We agreed that Yamashita's intelligence and sincerity entitled him to some assistance. We could not turn away a stranger in a strange land. Father and Mother decided to let him remain for a time, until they could get him satisfactorily located elsewhere, and perhaps started in school.
Thus it was that Y.Bryan Yamashita --- he had already adopted our name --- became a member of the family and was given a "start" that lasted for more than five years, until he had completed his course at the University of Nebraska.5
Yama ( as we came to call him ) was a bundle of energy. He helped in the kitchen, where he not only made the dishes and glassware shine but never broke a single piece. in our back-yard vegetable garden he made every beet, carrot and radish his personal responsibility, and carried on a furious war against bugs. My mother loved peonies; Yama set himself the task of growing the most splendid in our neighborhood --- and succeeded brilliantly.
Whenever my family needed their carriage, he seemed to know it without being told. The horses, groomed and harnessed, and the carriage, newly dusted, would be waiting at the door. He kept the stables spotless, shoveled snow, cut grass, swept and polished the house. In everything he did he set an example of tireless industry that was difficult for us children to follow.
All this willing labor was done in spare time, for study was Yama's chief delight. he was an insatiable reader and all through those years, long after the rest of the house was dark, the gas light still burned in his room while he pored over his books.
Our family often gathered at the piano on Sunday nights to sing hymns, and between Father and Yama strange sounds emerged. Father, despite his magnificent speaking voice, could not carry a tune. Yama was not much better. But both made up in vigor what hey lacked in tone.
Yama loved baseball, but played with more energy than finesse. He became equally fond of picnics, and never missed one. Still, he always found time to work at odd jobs all over town. How much he earned we never knew, but after six years he had saved enough to pay his passage back to Japan and to live there until he found a job.6
We youngsters missed him terribly, and when my family started on a world tour several years later we insisted that we must see Yama in Japan. Father wrote him, giving our arrival date.
A huge crowd was waiting to meet us on the Yokohama dock. And there, in the front rank, dressed in frock coat and silk hat, surrounded by family and friends and bearing an enormous bouquet for Mother, was Y. Bryan Yamashita.
He insisted upon staying with us during most of our travels through the islands, serving as our official guide and interpreter. When we visited his home village, the whole population turned out to greet "Yashichiro's American family." The schools were dismissed for the occasion, and the children in their bright kimonos lined the streets, each holding a large Japanese or American flag. As we rode in our jinrikishas between the lines of smiling faces, Yama proudly leading the way, the children waved their flags and shouted, "Banzai! Banzai!" There was no mistaking the heart-warming friendship with which we were greeted.
At Yama's grade school Father planted a curious young camphor tree with a double trunk. These two trunks would flourish together, Father promised in his brief dedicatory speech, exactly as would the growing friendship between the United States and Japan which they symbolized. It was a moving and significant tribute, inspired by the example of a young country lad who was dedicated to serving his fellow men.7
Yama's dream of a life of service was largely fulfilled. He did become a help to his people. He did not occupy any important public post but, known to Japanese leaders as an authority on things American, he served behind the government scenes as a counselor to those in front. Japanese-American friendship was always his greatest concern. The Japanese-American Review stated that the "adopted son of William Jennings Bryan played an active part at the Paris Conference" in 1919, and that he was "prominent" at the Washington Disarmament Conference in 1921.
For several years Yama wrote us frequently, but after Father died in 1925 we heard less often from him. Still he did report occasionally about himself and his wife, and in one letter announced, "Am so joyful to tell you a beautiful daughter is brought between us."8
One summer day in 1938, when I was living in Washington, there came a knock at my door. Opening it, I found standing there a small Japanese man, hat in hand. The same dark eyes looked intently from beneath a shock of straight black hair --- but not the hair was streaked with gray.
"I have come," Yama said, "because it is the the 13th year."
Seeing that I was mystified, he explained that it was a custom among his people to make a pilgrimage to an ancestor's grave during the 13th year after that ancestor's death, to show undying respect for the departed.
Yashichiro Bryan Yamashita had made a pilgrimage to America from faraway Japan, in order to stand for a brief hour before my father's grave in Arlington, and to bow his head in silent reverence for his adopted American parents. He had brought with him several squares of crimson silk, embroidered with Father's name and his own, which he solemnly distributed among my family to commemorate the event. He stayed a few days, then returned to Japan. I never saw him again, for he died a few years later.
Until the war intervened, Yama's family continued to send us photographs showing the progress of the camphor tree. After the war we received a sorrowful letter from Yama's daughter, enclosing a picture which showed the fireblasted tree. It had been burned in an air raid.
But two years later came a new photograph. The blasted stump was vigorously putting out fresh green shoots. "Even war," wrote Yam's daughter, "cannot destroy the true friendship of true friends."