Another Polish Son in Japan

On duty at the Westin in Kyoto, Janusz Mytko.
On duty at the Westin in Kyoto, Janusz Mytko.

Planning my trip to Japan, I looked for a Polish-Japanese connection, searching the web for “Polish” and “Japanese.” First up was a Japanese advertising page for Gofun Nail Polish. Strike one.

Revising my search I discovered a more interesting story of the Polish diaspora, an account from Japan Times of how “Haiku brought together Polish-Japanese couple.” It’s a good example of how Poles have dispersed from their central European island, historically surrounded by aggressors, to places far flung—and of the way they have been embraced by their adopted lands. Krakow-born Karina Jancewicz-Ota met her future husband via the Internet when she was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in the Polish city. The story made me remember how enamored I was, as an American college student in the 1960s, with Japan and haiku after reading the Japanese-influenced poetry and translations of Gary Snyder, who studied Zen Buddhism in Kyoto.

Next, I revisited one of my favorite Polish-Japanese connections, a 1999 video of Polish chanteuse Basia Trzetrzelewska singing “So Nice” accompanied by the brilliant Japanese violinist Hakase Taro.  It still makes me happy to watch it and to know that Basia enjoyed enormous popularity in Japan, right up there with the French impressionists.

The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tokyo website informed me that “Japan is Poland’s main economic partner in Asia and there is a huge potential to further intensify the bilateral economic relationship.” Poland and Japan, the embassy website goes on to say, “though geographically distant, have become increasingly close because of so many things that bind us historically and the numerous values we share. Today we assess the political relations between Poland and Japan as excellent, even exemplary.” In March 2010, in Cancun, Mexico, the Ministers of Economy of Poland and Japan signed a Memorandum of Cooperation in the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy in Poland, and thevery good performance of the Polish economy in 2009 and 2010 has drawn the attention of Japanese investors,” says the embassy.

I also learned that Poland and Japan are conducting a vigorous cultural exchange. Many Polish universities offer Japanese studies; in Japan, Polish literature, film, and fine arts enjoy considerable interest. Thanks to efforts by Polish  film director Andrzej Wajda and other representatives of the two nations, the Japanese Art and Technology Center opened in Krakow in 1994. Ever since, it has been acquainting Poles with the remarkable history and culture of Japan, according to the embassy. I also learned that the Polish-Japanese Institute of Information Technology was founded in 1994 on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the governments of Poland and Japan.

Meanwhile, the express train from Tokyo to Kyoto is a cool break from the relentless August heat wave that’s turning this tourist into tempura. The Japanese rail system puts the Amtrak line from Chicago to Detroit (which I rode just a couple weeks ago) completely to shame. And my search for Polish-Japanese connections is about to take a surprising turn.

Arriving at the Westin Miyako, we are met by a decidedly not Japanese bellhop who turns out to be a Polish guy name Janusz Mytko. His English is as flawless as his Japanese. Janusz is curious about how we guessed so quickly that he was Polish. I explain to him in Polish that I am a Polish American and everything about him, especially his accent, was a giveaway. But it was really more than that–it was something about his studied English and thoughtful answers and his modest explanation of how he made the extraordinary leap from student in Warsaw to bellhop in Kyoto. I want to talk more, but he is on duty, so we chat on the way to the room and agree to meet for tea at the Kyoto International Community House.

Turns out 34-year-old  Janusz is a scholar and student of Japanese language and history, studying at Kyoto University and hopping to the bell to pay the bills. He explains that he is originally from Nowy Dwór, a Warsaw suburb; studied at Warsaw University; and has lived in Japan for nine of the past 14 years. He is hoping to get a scholarship to continue his studies and eventually a teaching position.

Januez Mytko, Polish student of Japanese language and culture.
Janusz Mytko, Polish student of Japanese language and culture.

I asked Janusz to talk about difficulties he has had adjusting to the Japanese lifestyle. Learning to “eat some sort of creature” pops into his mind, like watching a live octopus cut up in front of you and then eating the raw bits. He laughs and explains that he was also surprised by the literalness of the Japanese menu. For example, he once ordered something named  “sparrows,” thinking it might be named like gołąbki (literally “pigeons”),  the Polish name for stuffed cabbages. But no, he was served actual sparrows on a skewer.

As a historian, Janusz corroborates an obscure story I found online about how in 1920 Japan saved 765 Polish orphans who had been exiled with their families to Siberia and helped them return to Poland–when no other country would.  “There is even a film about it,” says Janusz, “which has raised awareness of the story in Japan. People here sometimes ask me about it.”  In the wake of World War II, the story was forgotten, but in 1993 Nagao Hyodo became Japanese ambassador to Poland, heard the story in Warsaw, tracked down seven of the Siberian children, and invited them to the embassy.  They were all over 80 years old. One of them came with a grandchild. One of them came in a wheelchair. One woman came into the embassy and said, “I really wanted to come here even if it meant I had to crawl. I’ve been wanting to visit Japan again and wanting to say ‘Thank you’ to the Japanese. But I haven’t been able to do it, so had given up. Then I got the invitation card from the Japanese embassy; …the embassy is a part of its country, Japan. That meant I would be able to visit Japan and to say thank you to the Japanese. Today, my dream has come true. I have nothing more to wish for.” After saying that, she cried. Ambassador Hyodo and the other people there all cried too. The Siberia children had never forgotten the great warm-heartedness of the Japanese. They showed the ambassador some Japanese gifts they had kept for more than 70 years.

Later during my stay in Japan, the Polish American poet and writer John Guzlowski coincidentally posted a link to his six beautiful poems about the monk Ikkyû, written in the style of Japanese haiku, and published in the Buddhist Poetry Review. My search for a Polish-Japanese connection ended with a reading of Guzlowski’s short poem number three:

Ikkyū sits

in the marketplace

and tries to explain


 Here’s what he says

to a soldier:

 A tree is

the palm of my hand

and the face

of all there is

in the universe

to wonder about.

 It is the tree to heaven

and its roots start

in my heart and yours.


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One Response to “Another Polish Son in Japan”

  1. Hi Leonard,
    I love this post! So many connections between Poland and Japan that I never knew about–specifically, Japan’s heroic act in saving 765 orphans exiled to Siberia. I was aware of the two countries’ strong economic ties, very much akin to Poland’s current strong economic ties with Germany. Quite ironic when you consider these three countries’ relationships 70 years ago. Time marches on!


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