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    Diary From Japan:
    Tom and Noriko land on Okinawa; while Actor Gene Hackman Gives Mom's Friend a Free Painting

    Blast Tokyo Bureau

    September has always been a time of travel for my wife Noriko and I. This year we visited Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture -- and the site of the largest ever air, sea and land battle.

    For most Japanese, Okinawa is a place of fun and sun. A scuba-diving paradise. We went there to visit two of our best friends, Steve and Ikuko Trussell. We did not swim, however, as Steve is "afraid of sharks." But we toured the entire island and had a great time, nonetheless. The best part for me was visiting various World War II battle sites. And drinking Orion beer, the local brew.

    And now a little history: On June 13, 1945, a unit of U.S. Marines found the "Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters" on Okinawa, an extensive network of tunnels carved deep into a hill below Naha Airfield under the command of Admiral Minoru Ota. The HQ had electricity, hot-and-cold running water, medical facilities, lavishly-furnished officers' quarters, an operations room and much more. Nowadays, as a tourist attraction, it is merely a dank, concrete maze. But fascinating, nonetheless.

    The Naval Base Force, as it was known to U.S. Forces, was charged with defending the island's Oroku Peninsula. When the Marines took it, they dubbed it "Admiral's Hill." According to a memorial at the entrance, 4,000 Japanese soldiers committed suicide in there rather than face surrender. Deep inside, two days after finding it, the Americans found the bodies of Ota and his five senior officers. Their throats had been slashed. They were dressed in crisp, clean uniforms. Ota left behind this poem:

    "How could we rejoice over our birth
    But to die an honorable death
    under the Emperor's flag."

    Mom and Dad do Europe

    As Noriko and I were exploring the wilds of Okinawa, Mom and Dad Diederich were conquering Europe. They both retired earlier this year, and decided to treat themselves to a cruise aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. Five days of luxury from New York to London. The actor Gene Hackman was also on board. Mom said he "looked taller and younger in person."

    Gene Hackman is cool. He can play the heavy or the hero with equal perfection. Apparently he can also paint. Mom and Dad were having tea one afternoon, and were chatting with one of their new friends, "a nice European woman," according to Mom. Anyway, the woman said that this "nice, middle-aged man" sat across from her during a painting class. "He was a fast painter; he finished so much faster than the rest of us," the woman told my parents. "I told him so, and he said that he had painted me. He showed me the painting, and it was so good that I offered to pay him for it. But he would have none of that. 'You can have it,' he told me. Well, I asked him to sign his name, and he did. It wasn't until later, back in my cabin, that my husband told me that 'Gene Hackman' was a famous Hollywood actor."

    No More Beer

    I just spent two fun-filled weeks in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. I'd never had an ulcer before, so it came as quite a surprise. It was a weird experience.

    On Sept. 30, I called in sick with a bad stomach ache. And I NEVER call in sick. Mainly because my company offers its employees zero--as in nil, none, nada, nashi -- sick days. A few days later, that Sunday, my stomach started to hurt at work. At first I thought I was just hungry, but the pain didn't go away after lunch.

    The next morning I felt a little peaked, but good enough to go into work. I rode my bicycle to the subway station, as I normally do, but noticed that other people were passing me. Passing me. This simply never happens, as I am usually a speedy rider. After all, I have a life to lead.

    Then, while walking from Tokyo Station to the office, I started to sweat and my heart began to pound like mad. I thought I was having a heart attack. I turn 32 on Nov. 10 and am in fairly decent physical condition these days, as I've been exercising, so I knew something was very wrong. I nearly passed out several times before I arrived at the office.

    Oddly enough, my stomach didn't hurt at all. But the rest of me felt like dirt. I went home, had the wife call a doctor, and eventually ended up in the hospital. My blood count was half of what it should have been, and the doctor said if it dropped any further I'd require a blood transfusion.

    The only trouble: my blood type is 0 negative and only .5% of Japanese have that type. 0 negative is the universal donor -- anyone can receive it, but people with 0 negative can only get 0 negative.

    "I've contacted the Japanese Red Cross, and they are searching. But so far, they said they don't have any 0 negative blood," the doctor told me, obviously unaware that this knowledge did little to help my stress-sensitive ulcer. At this point I was in bed with an IV stuck in my arm.

    He came back a few hours later and told me that the Red Cross had managed to track down one liter. This was a drop in the bucket and would do little to save me if an operation was needed. Fortunately, the bleeding stopped and I didn't need a transfusion -- or an operation.

    Apparently I had a peptic ulcer in my duodenum, sometimes referred to as the lower stomach. The doctors stuck a gastrocam down my throat and filmed the sucker before and after treatment. After two weeks, the crater that had been my ulcer had filled in and only a small reddish area remained.

    Noriko has been a great nurse during my convalescence. The doctor ordered me to miss another week of work, totally destroying my remaining vacation days. To make matters worse, I can no longer eat spicy foods, drink alcohol, take aspirin, have stress of any kind, have any fun.

    Well, I guess it beats being dead.