The fifth day of the fifth month each year is Children’s Day in Japan. It’s been an official national holiday there since 1948, though it traditionally celebrated sons.
Yoshikazu and Mie Tsurumi had two daughters.
“Traditionally, there is a pole from which three carp-shaped windsocks are flown each Children’s Day, one representing the father and mother and son,” said Kazuko Wohlers of Tacoma, one of the Tsurumis’ daughters. “My father never got to fly one.”
A boy finally entered the family in August 1997 when Kazuko and her husband Douglas Wohlers delivered a son at Tacoma General Hospital.
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They named him Zen, which means “virtuous” in Japanese.
Almost before they got him home, a huge package arrived from Kazuko’s parents in Japan. It held a large collapsible flag pole and three immense carp-shaped streamers.
“I doubt it could be mailed today,” Douglas said.
Now 17 and about to graduate from Curtis High School, Zen has grown up seeing that pole and those streamers each May 5.
“Looking back at the photos my mom has taken, it’s been part of my growing up,” Zen said. “My Japanese culture was always stressed, my parents pushed me to keep up my Japanese language and culture.
“I think this is probably the last year we’ll fly it. I’m going to Montana State in August. So my dad and I put it up together on Sunday.”
The Japanese tradition began in ancient times. The carp are symbols of strength — they swim upstream — and in the wind, the flags look like fish swimming.
“They’re as common on Children’s Day in Japan as Christmas trees are here at Christmas,” Kazuko said. “There, the carp flags are two or three feet long. The ones my father sent are much larger; the one that flies on top is five meters long (about 15 feet).”
The Tsurumis’ wait for a male child in the family was a long one. Yoshikazu turned 90 this year and was 73 when Zen was born. Kazuko and Douglas didn’t even marry until Yoshikazu was 70.
Douglas Wohlers’ father also had a connection to Japan, though his was job-related.
“My father worked in the State Department, and I was born in Pakistan, and we lived in Japan for a time,” Douglas said. “He was from Washington, but until I graduated from high school in Kansas, I’d never been here.
“At that point, my father took a part time job at the University of Puget Sound and lived in Olympia. I joined him.”
Douglas attended Western Washington University in Bellingham, which is where he met Kazuko, a foreign exchange student.
An international courtship followed.
“I was here for one year, then returned to Japan, and we wrote a lot of letters and made a lot of expensive telephone calls,” Kazuko said. “When Douglas graduated here with a master’s degree in education, he came to Japan and taught English, then economics at a university level.
“We dated 6 ½ years.”
That seemed a long courtship to her, so she took advantage of a work opportunity in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“You know the saying, ‘Distance makes the heart grow fonder?’ ” Douglas said. “That was her strategy …”
It worked. While he was in Japan and she in Canada, Douglas proposed. The two were married in Japan, then moved to Olympia to look for a teaching job in the Northwest. He applied to schools from Seattle to Olympia.
“I applied for a job teaching social studies in University Place, along with 150 other teachers,” Douglas said. “It turned out, Curtis High School was beginning a Japanese language program. I asked how many applicants they had for that spot and they said ‘Three.’
“I applied and got the job.”
He still works at Curtis, where Zen is the student body president this year. Zen’s Japanese language courses, however, were taken through the Running Start program at Tacoma Community College.
“When he was about nine, we started taking him out of school late in the spring semester and sending him to Japan to stay with his grandparents,” Douglas said. “He went to school there, learned the language and culture.”
On his visits, Zen was asked one question annually.
“My grandfather asked if we were still flying the carp on Children’s Day,” Zen said.
And on the fifth day of the fifth month each year, Kazuko would take pictures to prove it.
“I always wait for a windy day, because they photograph much better then,” Kazuko said. “I take them and send them to my parents.”