Running on Rhapsody - Albert Saijo, the world's 'oldest asian hippie' and inspiration for kerouac's 'Baso,' raps about writing and life in the '60s

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
"I take great pains with my writing, although it does get
easier with time, in that I take for granted that
by now I should know grammar."

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor

"What's keeping me is that I know George will get better
and live and teach and that's the joyful truth and George knows
I know this, that's why he's playing this game with me, the
magic game of glad freedom which is what Zen or for that matter
the Japanese soul ultimately means."

-- Jack Kerouac, "Big Sur"

JACK Kerouac described his "Zen master" friend George Baso in "Big Sur" as being "just 5 feet 5 and a few pounds over that and so clean ... His answers come like an old man's (he's only 30)."

Baso's spirit was a little harder to read. Intrigued by Baso's serene demeanor, Kerouac credited him with a magical possession of the secret meaning of life.

Albert Saijo, the inspiration for the fictional Baso, is now 71 and the physical description still fits. His tidy, well-tended appearance still gives up no secrets. You'd think he spent most of his life as a Zen gardener, instead of a wild man.

Saijo felt the urge to "turn on, tune in and drop out" in the '50s, long before Timothy Leary coined the flower child mantra. Although Saijo still sees himself as the "oldest Asian hippie," his roots are in the Beat Generation of thinking youths born to a puritanical, repressive 1950s America still shell-shocked by the Depression, World War II and the A-bomb. It was an America that wanted no more than to put on a happy face.

The Beats, as Kerouac and his fraternity of writers were known, wanted to lift that false mask. Through novels such as "Dharma Bums," "Big Sur" and "On the Road," Kerouac led young America to the flip side of '50s conformity.

"Civilization always has to have that element that wants to go to a single voice, a single way of doing things. Then we have more restrictions, more laws, and nobody questions whether this is right or wrong," Saijo said in an interview this week.

The private Saijo left most of the writing, fame and glory to the likes of Kerouac, poet Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. But now Saijo, who moved to Volcano on the Big Island from Northern California six years ago, is about to get his turn in the limelight with his collection of prose and musings, "Outspeaks a Rhapsody," due from Bamboo Ridge in July.

The prospect makes him nervous. "I've always been a private person, and yet here I am, offering myself on a platter. It was my ambition to tell the world what I think of it. All it is is one guy telling what it's like to be a male human in the 20th century as he looks at the world after 70 years."


Excerpt from "Animal Rhapsode,"
Albert Saijo's "Outspeaks a Rhapsody"

"Outspeaks a Rhapsody" takes the form of a series of stream-of-consciousness rants and rhapsodies on topics such as the pain ("Analgesia -- Land of Pain Free") and the horrors of a technological society ("Luddite Manque"). Nevertheless, Saijo doesn't subscribe to Kerouac's mode of "spontaneous prose;" that is, making no changes once words are on paper. "I take great pains with my writing, although it does get easier with time, in that I take for granted that by now I should know grammar."

Saijo calls himself an amateur, even after publishing "The Backpacker," an out-of-print 1970s how-to on treading lightly upon the great outdoors in the days before The North Face and satellite navigation, and "Trip Trap," a collaborative memoir of a trek from Los Angeles to New York with Welch and Kerouac.

Saijo met Kerouac in the basement of a YWCA in San Francisco's Chinatown, where Human Potential Movement pioneer David Hunter was conducting classes. Kerouac and Saijo became fast friends, bound by an interest in Zen Buddhism, cool jazz, wanderlust, and at first, booze.

"Jack was an interesting guy, but right off, you have to realize he was an alcoholic, and it colored his view of the world," Saijo said. Kerouac died in 1969 of a massive abdominal hemorrhage said to have been brought on by drink.

Saijo survived by moving on to other substances, saying he became a "reborn human" in the '60s. "In the '50s, people were fueling themselves with coffee, booze and marijuana," he said. "The '60s were based on far stronger, more insightful, revelatory substances -- LSD, peyote, mushrooms.

"These things offered a way of looking at the world in a new way, not the way that they were brought up. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but reality can be a downer," he said. "The drugs put us on a new trip, helping us to get around this background and transcend it in order to get into a space that was a little more congenial."

Reality was too dismal to face. Saijo learned early, for instance, not to trust government. In 1942, Saijo and his family were pulled from their California home and interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, just for being of Japanese ancestry at a time the nation was at war with Japan.

"I knew what it meant economically and politically. It was cruel, it was awful being behind barbed wire, surrounded by armed guards and search lights," he said. "But it was also an adventure. I mean, getting pulled out of your house in the middle of the night, being taken to a strange place ... it was fascinating, and I've always been curious, questioning why things are the way they are."

Perhaps it was because his family lost everything when Saijo was young, that he never developed a passion for material goods. He doesn't even own copies of his books. To this day, he said, "I've always been on the fringe so it's home to me."

Never one to be restrained by the notion of a career, or being trapped by four walls, he got through life performing odd jobs. After an "instructional" marriage in his 30s that lasted seven years, he met a teacher named Laura and remarried. That marriage has endured 20 years, based on love, compatibility and a lot of patience on her part, he said.

The two found success in finding rundown homes, restoring them and reselling them.

In earlier years, when he was on his own, Saijo said he needed little to survive, save a knapsack on his back. In the late '50s and early '60s he had often headed to the high Sierras in an attempt to "be primitive" and return to nature and innocence.

This included going on a vision quest and fasting for 45 days, which he did in order to find an answer a great Bible mystery. The prophets somehow ended up going into the desert and fasting for 40 days. "Why was 40 the magic number? Why not 30 days, or 20?" I wanted to find out what the hell was going on," Saijo said.

What he found, he said, was "You go through a physical death process. Your mind becomes extremely clear, extremely calm. You feel no hunger. Your body feels light and comfortable. It's the purest high one can achieve. There's no chemical buzz. It's just the body turning itself on."

He plans to write a book about fasting, and says it is best done alone. "When someone else is there to take care of you, they get worried, they want to cook you good things to eat, they want to call in a doctor. What you really need is quiet and solitude."

Saijo just completed a 40-day fast earlier this year, saying he wanted to know whether a 71-year-old body could handle a fast as well as a 30-year-old one.

"It still works," he said.

In spite of his lifelong search for answers to the human predicament, little has changed since the days Saijo first saw human beings foundering. The problems -- which he says include over-population, unbridled commercialism, racism and incessant wars -- have gotten worse.

Saijo moved to the Big Island because "I got tired of living in a white-male dominant society. That sounds racist but after 60 years you think there must be another way. I find Hawaii more realistic. I like the interracial society, even though politics are bull---- wherever you go."

Still, he said, "When you begin to look at history, it's not one group or nation that's the bad guy. It's the human trip," he said. "We've become animals that have lost connection with our Earth nature. Some people take the Bible seriously when it says that humans have dominion over Earth. It puts you in an exploitive mode, which is destroying the Earth."

But Saijo doesn't become frustrated or angry. With all the restraint of a Zen master, he says that preaching never works.

"All you can do is do something with your personal life. Ask yourself how you are supporting what is happening out there and how can you take energy away from this madness."

So you wanna write?

We asked the following writers for the one tip they would pass on to fledgling writers to help them churn out their own novel:

Nora Okja Keller, author of "Comfort Woman": "Pick a time of day, set those hours and make yourself sit down and write, whether you have something to say or not. Something's gotta come out and if you have something on paper, at least you have something to work with, rather than a blank page."

Gary Pak, author of "The Watcher of Waipuna," whose latest book is "Ricepaper Airplane": "Work. Just read and write. That's what I do. It's really a labor of love. You have to love the process and not the noun, saying, 'Oh, I'm a writer.' You need to spend a lot of time revising and getting the words right. It sounds simple and I'm not trying to be corny or anything like that, but just write. And read. Don't even think of publishing."

Albert Saijo, author of "Outspeaks a Rhapsody": "Find your own voice. When you get started the tendency is to try to write like your favorite writers. When you find your own voice you'll recognize it because you'll be able to say, 'That's how I talk, that's how I think.' "

Lois-Ann Yamanaka, author of "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theater," "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers" and "Blu's Hanging": "I tell people to start by keeping a journal. Some people, they do mental kind, like 'Today I went to the market ...' No. You did not do that. You thought, you felt. In my journal writing I use a lot of word play, like trying to use verbs in a way they haven't been used before. It's the most magical thing. Verbs and color. If you're aware of those two things alone, your art will reach a higher level."

Pacific Writers Conference

Albert Saijo will be among the writers participating in the 1997 Pacific Writers Institute at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a joint project of the UH and San Jose State University.

Saijo will read from "Outspeaks a Rhapsody" at 2 p.m. July 6 in the UH Art Building Auditorium. The free "New Works" event will also feature Lois-Ann Yamanaka ("Blu's Hanging"), Nora Okja Keller ("Comfort Woman") and Gary Pak ("Ricepaper Airplane"). Other events follow:

July 1 -- David Mura and Li-Young Lee give a free reading at 7:30 p.m. in the UH Art Building Auditorium. Mura is the award-winning poet and author of "Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei" (1991) and a new memoir, "Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity." Lee's acclaimed poetry volumes are "Rose" and "The City in Which I Love You." He has also written a book of memoirs, "The Winged Seed."

July 2 -- "In Our Own Words," James Grant Benton, Haunani Bernardino, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Luis Francia and Darrell Lumpanel discuss the language issues facing Pacific writers and their responsibility as cultural image-makers; 7:30 p.m. in Krauss Hall's Yukiyoshi Room; free. Arnold Hiura moderates.

July 6 -- "Regional Constructions of Local Identity," panel discussion on critical thinking in local and regional literature, 1 p.m. July 6 in the UH Art Building Auditorium; free. Panelists are Sylvia Watanabe, Wendy Motooka, Joe Wo and Puanani Burgess.

July 7 -- "Arkaeology," performance poetry by Genny Lim, with accompaniment by composer-pianist Jon Jang. At 7:30 p.m. in UH Orvis Auditorium. Admission is $10 general or $8 for students, seniors, UH faculty and staff.

July 9 -- "The Place of Hawai'i/Pacific Writing in World Literature," panelists Vilsoni Hereniko, Punani Burgess and John Griffin discuss the outlook for writers in the "Pacific era," 7:30 p.m. in the Krauss Hall Yukiyoshi Room; free. Marie Hara will moderate.

July 10 -- Yusef Komunyakaa and Carolyn Lei-lanilau read from their works at 7:30 p.m. in Krauss Hall's Yukiyoshi Room; free.

Call 956-3836 for schedule updates. For course information, call 956-7866.

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