World War II Lives On At Tiny Japanese Bar

FUKUOKA, Japan — I walked deep into the Nakasu pleasure district of Fukuoka, looking for a legend. Painted ladies were strolling off to the private clubs — six to a building, building after building. Suited touts whispered "special massage inside" as I pressed on with a piece of paper in my hand for 3-3-4 Nakasu. After going around the block twice and being misdirected by a policeman, I stopped in a music store hoping for help with directions.

A 30-ish clerk was sitting behind the counter thumbing through a magazine.

"Bushido bar," I said, using the word for the Japanese warrior code. He screwed his face up with a slight frown, signaling that he didn't understand.

"Anchor," I said.

"Ah, anchor ...," he echoed, and came from behind the counter. He walked me to the doorway and pointed at a small sign high on a building across the street. There was a Japanese rising sun, the symbol of the battle flag.

I had found the infamous Anchor Bar, the place where I had heard that Japan's fight in World War II is celebrated in drink and song.

I took the elevator up three stories and exited into a narrow corridor with a door at the end festooned with a ship's portal. I could hear singing inside. I took a breath and stepped in. The martial karaoke was deafening as a 40-ish man in a suit sang along to a video of Japanese World War II troops, battleships on the high seas and marching soldiers. The man behind the bar looked mildly surprised at my entry, then signaled for me to take a seat in the middle of the five patrons in the bar that night. He wore a white imperial Navy uniform, as did the other bartenders, including the one older woman.

"A beer," I said with a smile.

"Hai," he replied, Japanese for yes.

A bell clanged, one of the bartenders shouted through a bullhorn and the next customer began singing along to the martial tune in the bar's songbooks. I received a copy, along with some salty bar munchies, a warm towel to wipe my face and hands, a small salad of pasta in mayonnaise-like sauce and a big Sapporo beer served with a napkin bearing the silhouette of the great World War II battleship Yamato.

The woman poured the glass. I slugged it down. She poured again. I eyed a picture of a turn-of-an-early-20th-century battleship. "Tsushima?" I said, naming the great Japanese victory over the Russians in 1905.

There was a picture of a World War II kamikaze suicide jet on the wall nearby. "Baka," I tried, recalling that was the suicide jet's name. There was a little pause as the bartender looked away. When I told the story of the bar to my son later, he corrected me that the Japanese called the suicide jet "Ohka" meaning "cherry blossom." The name "Baka" was what the American troops targeted by the death machine called it.

In Japanese, Baka means "idiot." Oops.

I tried another word, "Chiran," the name of the famous kamikaze base in Kyushu, south of Fukuoka. I was trying, and showing a little knowledge of my environment seemed to put everyone a little more at ease

As the songs continued, I got up and wandered around the tiny bar. There were uniform coats of the imperial army and navy, which singers could put on for the karaoke. A few U.S. uniforms, too. I had heard there were Nazi uniforms, but saw none on the rack. On the walls were pictures of generals and admirals, battleships and airplanes. The Zero. The Kate. A rare Japanese version of the German ME-163 rocket jet.

Old rising sun flags hung on the walls. One of the bartenders came over and opened the songbook to a picture of a tall American standing next to Emperor Hirohito.

"MacArthur," the man said.

"Hai," I replied.

I wondered what the lyrics might be to the song. A sad one about the old order moved aside by the victor. But perhaps the very presence of the bar meant that old order had not totally disappeared.

Yet, little seemed sinister here. Just unsettling. I could never imagine a place in Germany where people openly met each night to put on Waffen SS uniforms and sing the "Horst Wessel Lied" under photos of Adolf Hitler.

But this was a bar, not a museum. The customers didn't want depictions of the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March starring down from the wall while they slurped their lagers. Here, all was honor and sacrifice. The emperor. The flag. The sword. Misty-eyed songs about the sacrifice of the kamikazes whose name means "divine wind" in Japan.

I have little fear that the Anchor Bar will become trendy, a rallying point for a new generation of militarists. The bartenders were mostly elderly or middle-age, the buttons straining on their uniforms. The sparse group of patrons, all men in their 40s and 50s, were forgoing the traditional businessman's evening with girls with too much makeup and hair extensions to come to a tiny bar to get drunk and sing war songs from more than a half century ago.

I finished my beer. The bartender did a rolling motion with his finger — meaning "another?" I shook my head and made a cross with my index fingers, the sign "bring me the bill." The woman in the imperial navy outfit jotted it down: 3.000 yen. About 30 bucks. Steep for a beer. But there was a little time travel thrown into the bargain.

The bartender took my uneaten crackers, dropped them in a bag and wrapped them up to go. Then he took a headband down off the wall, the kind that kamikaze pilots wore, showed it to me and put it in the bag. I bid "arigato" — thank you — and "sayonara" as the bartenders all bowed deeply. The woman swung from behind the bar and walked me to the little alcove with the elevator, pressed the button and silently waited with me. I entered the elevator and turned; she bowed and said, "Thank you for coming."

The doors slid shut. I pressed 1. A moment later, the door opened and a woman with a huge teased pile of brunette hair and a short red dress with a neckline slit down nearly to her navel stepped in before realizing I was stepping out. "Sumimasen," she stuttered — "excuse me." We pivoted around each other and she headed to a club upstairs (not the Anchor), while I left 1941 for the real world.