The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter 10 An ephemeral friendship and thoughts on beauty Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)
1. Doing something for others does not always benefit the recipients
Recently I was listening to an NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) program called ‘High school lecture’. In it, Mr. Kazufumi Suzuki was reading an essay by the famous Japanese tanka poet Machi Tawara, called ‘Word spectacles’. She heard the following story being told by some people sitting next to her in a coffee shop.
“Could you explain to me the meaning of the saying ‘Doing something for others does not always benefit the recipients’?”
“I’ve heard it means ‘Compassion is not for other people’s benefit’. But somehow that doesn’t seem right. I’m sorry but I can’t give you a better explanation.”
Based on this conversation, Tawara wrote an essay concerning the correct interpretation of this proverb, an explanation of why it is misunderstood, her disposition to sympathize with anybody exercising care over the usage of words (I.e., richness of vocabulary, correct understanding, appropriate selection of words to ensure the flow of the conversation, richness of topics connected with the words), and also examples of conversations demonstrating misunderstandings of certain proverbs.
The proverb ‘Doing something for others does not always benefit the recipient” has two other interpretations besides the one mentioned above.
I would like to compare the two:
(1) Doing something for others does not result in any benefit for the recipients so you should not do it.
(2) The good you do for others will cause a chain of good fortune, finally resulting in a benefit for you.
The correct explanation is (2). Tawara said that the justness of (2) is easily discernible when the Buddhist precept of ‘retribution’ is seen as being the origin of this proverb, but she felt this to be a somewhat egocentric explanation. That is to say, forgetting oneself while in the act of helping others suited her sensibilities.
Listening to this radio program, I recalled that I learned this proverb at primary (or secondary?) school. The teacher quizzed us about the meaning of this proverb, and (1) was chosen by all of the pupils except me. The teacher saying that (2) was the right answer made me happy. The reason why I answered correctly was my mother was a Japanese language teacher and my family often used such proverbs and sayings in our daily life. I’m not writing about this in order to boast that I was the only child smart enough to know the answer. Indeed, even while I was nodding in assent to Tawara’s opinion, I muttered, ‘but it’s not true.’
After I became an adult, I came to the conclusion that this proverb does not mean that you get some personal benefit through doing things for others but rather that helping others makes you aware of the significance of your own existence, and this is most important for human-beings.
Then I found another interpretation of the proverb in a Japanese- English dictionary – ‘Doing good for others is a device of God.’ This seems reasonable to me as well, as does the Bible’s ‘It’s better to be a giver than a receiver’. It reminds me of the difference in attitude towards donation between Japan and countries that have a Christian culture. That is, the tradition of donation has long been established in western societies, while we in Japan are kind and considerate on a personal level, but do not have such a strong sense of the need for donation to others outside our group. This difference can perhaps be attributed to the difference between agricultural and hunting races. In an agricultural society, due to the necessity of having to work together to fulfill the same duty, people lead a similar life, and are therefore inclined to treat outsiders coldly. On the other hand, the hunting groups of ancient western societies needed people to fill various roles, which led to a society more accepting of differences.
2. Japanese traditional card games
There are basically three traditional card games in Japan. One of them is usually used for gambling, so is omitted here.
(1) Poem cards
Since ancient times (around or before the time of Christ.), we have had long poems constructed by words or combinations of words consisting of five or seven moras. Groups of five or seven moras are well suited to singing and voicing Japanese smoothly and rhythmically. Five followed by seven can give the listener a natural and vibrant impression, while groupings of seven followed by five creates a more elegant image. So in love poems, the former is used to express a more direct feeling of love, and the latter for a more restrained approach. The ‘Man-you-shu’, (Japan’s oldest anthology, thought to have been compiled in the seventh century) has short fixed forms of verse set to the pattern of 5/7/5/7/7moras, as well as longer poems. After this age, the short fixed form of verse became the standard and was used in the making of many court-appointed anthologies until the 12th century. In the 12th century, a famous poet, Teika Fujiwara, took poems from a hundred of the best poets, who were emperors, nobles, samurais, priests and some court ladies, and compiled them into one book, Ogura’s One Poem each from 100 poets).
A set of 100 ‘Poem cards’ (Each card 2.91×2.09 inches) actually consists of two sets of 100 cards, with one set showing the full poem and a picture of the author, and the other only the second part ( consisting of 7/7moras) of the poem.
The game is usually played by 2 people, who sit opposite each other. The 50 cards selected from the set of the incomplete version of the poems are placed face up between the 2 players. Another person, a referee, reads aloud a poem from the other set of cards. The player who recognizes and then snatches the corresponding card from incomplete poem cards gets to keep the card, and the player who eventually secures the most cards is the winner. When space allows it and more than 2 people play, they played respectively under the call of one referee. The players, of course, should know all of the poems. As soon as the beginning of the poem is read, they must recall the poem and locate and snatch it up before his or her competitor. It requires a good memory as well as quick reflexes. There are many poems with similar words, and this can catch players out. Though they play sitting down on tatami mats, they sometimes collide with each other when attempting to snatch the same card. I have heard that in fast draw scenes in cowboy movies, the winner is the gunman who draws and shoots within 0.3 seconds, and this card game requires similarly fast reflexes. If Japanese became a more familiar language around the world, who knows, this game might become an Olympic event in the future!
In olden times, as well as the noble classes, this card game was played among the samurai classes and rich well-cultured families. Now, local and national competitions are held in winter. However, most people nowadays can’t be bothered to learn the 100 poems and it is no longer so popular. These cards were a little expensive for a family as poor as the boy’s but they had a set nevertheless.
(2) E-Ro-Ha cards
The Japanese language has a system of ‘Fifty sounds’ that are equivalent to the alphabet in English – ‘A-E-U-Ei-O-Ka-Ki-Ku-Ke-Ko-Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So ･・・’.
This syllabic system is said to be derived from ancient Sanskrit.
And we have another sequence of these sounds, ‘E-Ro-Ha-Ni-Ho-He-To • • •’, which sounds more like actual words rather than just a table of sounds, thus enabling us to memorize them more easily.
There is an easier version of the game that uses this system. The cards have a sentence from the poem with the first syllable of the sentence highlighted, along with a picture connected to it. These cards are similar in size to the original ‘poem cards’ and are called ‘E-Ro-Ha cards’. The game is played by laying the cards face up, and the players (any number of people will do) sit around the cards. The referee chooses a card at random and reads the sentence. For example, (E) ‘Enu mo arukeba bonito ataru’, which means ‘As the dog goes out, it bumps the bar.’ (There is a picture of a dog on the card.) (Ro) ‘Ron yori shouko’ means ‘Evidence is more trustworthy than theory or discussion’ (Picture of a straw doll). (Ha) ‘Hana yori dango’ means ‘Cake is preferred to flowers’(Picture of cakes and flowers), and so on. When a player finds the corresponding card in the group of cards, he picks it up as fast as he can. The referee continues to read out sentences from the cards until they have all been taken. The player who has the most cards is the winner. This card game is much easier than the poem card game, so was commonly played by families in the past but now, except for some parts of Japan, it has unfortunately been replaced by smartphone games.
3. Admiring beauty
I was staying in London in the first week of October 2012. The primary purpose of my visit was to attend my son’s concert, which I did soon after arriving there. If I were his mother, I would have asked my son to take me to various sightseeing spots. However, he left me to my own devices during the daytime and we met up in the evenings in a pub, where we had serious discussions over a pint of beer. Although I walked alone for miles around many interesting places during the daytime, I also found time to visit the National Gallery almost every day I was there.
As I have described in an earlier essay, my childhood was spent in a world almost without any pictures or paintings. My parents did not give me any books of paintings and, of course, there was no art gallery in my village. When I was in secondary school and the book store in my town set up a corner for paintings and art books, I went there several times to look at them but could not form any impression about them. My own earnestly painted efforts all depicted pathetically deformed shapes, which people probably imagined were intentionally abstract. However hard I tried, I could not render three-dimensional objects on paper. As a result, I always got the worst grade in art class, and my sister often made fun of me saying that I must have talent because whatever I painted, my pictures always seemed like Picasso’s. After I became an adult, I often looked at books of paintings and went to art exhibitions to try to understand the pictures. To tell the truth, I can’t claim that any of them made much impression on me. I went to Tokyo to see the Mona Lisa and spent a lot of time viewing the painting, most of the time over the shoulders and heads of other people, but I have to say that I was disappointed because it was smaller than I’d expected and the light conditions in the gallery meant the colors were not as vivid as they appeared in the books I’d seen.
Claude Monet is one of the most well-known painters in Japan, so I spent half a day gazing upon ‘Water lily and pond’ in a Chicago gallery during a business trip to the US. It was pity that the only thing I could find to say after all that effort was that the painting was beautiful. I could get some sense of its beauty but still could not understand how the outside scene had been transformed into a two-dimensional picture.
Feeling a lack of something in my character, I walked through the ancient to contemporary sections of the National Gallery and sincerely tried to obtain some understanding of the pictures. After doing this several times, I felt that the people in the old paintings, usually depicting religious subjects, all seemed to have expressionless faces, and began to become more expressive from about the time of Rembrandt in the17th century. In old Japanese pictures, however, even before the 10th century people have faces full of expression.
‘Why do all of the people in religious pictures have expressionless faces?’ I asked one of the staff in the National Gallery.
‘In religious pictures, people are painted as expressionlessly as possible in order to let you focus on God. You don’t really think that depicting facial expressions in art only started from the time of Rembrandt, do you?’ She explained to me, looking intimidatingly intelligent.
I could understand it superficially as Christianity rejecting the idolatrous, while Buddhism, on the other hand, has embraced and adapted it. Walking from the Rembrandt section up to the modern corner, I was interested to see that people’s looks became more varied. I also became aware that portraits had been painted from medieval ages in large numbers, and then suddenly became much less common from the late 19th century. This is no doubt an indication of how much business painters lost to cameramen with the advent of photography. Since that time, a reduced number of painters have struggled to establish individual styles in order to compete with photographers. As a businessman, this made sense but another question occurred to me – Why did painters continue to choose to ply their trade even though their market was shrinking? What motivates them to paint? For about a week, I was pondering this question while walking around in the National gallery. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to come up with an answer.
One day while I was walking around in the Gallery, I noticed a bright light shining some distance away through a group of visitors. I tried to keep sight of the light through the flowing crowd as I drew closer to its source. It turned out to be Monet’s ‘Water Lilies, Setting Sun’. In this picture, the sunset light is shining on the surface of a pond against a dark background of trees. The water seems transparent but it’s too dark to see the bottom of the pond. This light penetrated my mind as if a sword had been thrust there, and it created an image of the pond in the evening light which would have been beyond the capabilities of a camera to render. An involuntary shiver ran down my spine as I realized I had finally ‘got’ a painting. With my engineer’s nature, I stepped forward a couple of paces and stared at the painting to try and find out the origin of this effect and as I did so, it lost its brilliance and became just a two-dimensional surface of paint. I went back to my original position and found again the three-dimensional brilliance. I was fascinated by this and repeated the process several times. While of course I could not properly understand Monet’s painting technique, my brief insight made me feel that a change in my brain circuitry would be necessary in order to appreciate paintings. I sat on a bench outside the gallery thinking this over, gazing blankly at a sky similar to one I had seen in a painting by Turner. I thought that if you can transform a two-dimensional painting to a three-dimensional image by switching the circuitry in the brain, it must be possible to create a three-dimensional image on a canvas or piece of paper from a two-dimensional image held in the brain. That is to say, a stereoscopic (three-dimensional) image can result from the physical occurrence of binocular convergence in the brain, and conversely a two-dimensional image can be achieved by blocking this effect. You could, for example, look at something with just one eye and copy that image on to a canvas. If I had known such a simple technique sixty years ago, I would have got much better grades in my art classes.
Even though I don’t have the artistic skills of a painter, I do of course appreciate beauty in nature and the things around me. I’d briefly like to describe some of those things.
There are more than a thousand places famous for cherry blossom in Japan, which is an archipelago stretching three thousand kilometers from north to south. In Okinawa, the most southern islands, the cherry trees come into blossom in January, followed by Kyushu, the most southern of the four main lands, in March. Then the cherry blossom front, as this advancing efflorescence is called, moves gradually northwards as spring unfolds in its full glory. At last it reaches the north end of Hokkaido (the most northern island) around the end of May. We have a tradition going back more than a thousand years of holding parties under the cherry blossom. Even now, many people enjoy its beauty at spots with many cherry trees such as parks, old castles, temples, mountains etc. Nationally famous spots are visited by people from all over the country, which is said to have a bigger economic effect than the Olympic games do. Accordingly, after flowering starts in the southern islands, the advance of the cherry blossom front is widely reported and weather reports contain forecasts for its arrival date in each area.
Japan has four distinct seasons and its nature is seasonally colored by flowers such as the cherry, Japanese plum, iris, chrysanthemum etc., as well as the early spring and autumn leaves. Not surprisingly, many poems inspired by them have been written since the earliest times. This shows an interest in nature itself and/or the writer’s sentiment through explaining his interest in it. Then combinations of words of flowers, birds, the wind and the moon etc. become phrases that are understood to represent nature and the love of nature. Other natural phenomena like the movement of waves, the flow of waterfalls, rain etc. are also the subjects of many poems. Birds, the wind, the moon and the flowers prevalent in each month crop up frequently, but the cherry blossom is certainly the most common, perhaps because it is taken to express the transience of life because of the brevity of its flowering.
The autumnal leaves are thought of in a similar way. The fresh green leaves tremble in the spring breeze and under the strong summer sunshine, then turn yellow and red, wither in the autumn winds, and finally fall in the winter winds.
The full moon party described on Youtube is the same. At that time, the villagers were not rich enough to have a cherry blossom party and certainly, being busy farmers, could not have had the time to celebrate it anyway. And yet somehow they found time for full moon parties. Maybe, these parties held a special significance for a farming community, perhaps to celebrate the harvest, for example. At any rate, the change of the moon’s shape from the new moon to the full moon is easily likened to the vicissitudes of life. Also. As the moon can be seen from anywhere, it is often used as a symbol of constancy in poems lamenting the fickleness of man. This fondness for the moon has given rise to specific names for its various phases. I would briefly like to describe some of them.
13rd night: It is said to be next in beauty to the full moon. Moon viewing parties used to be held on this night,
14th night (Komochi-tsuki small full moon): It is also called ‘ Matsuyoi tsuki’. Matsuyoi means waiting for the next day’s full moon.
15th night ( Mochi-tsuki, full moon): Full moon parties were widely held,
16th night ( izayoi-no-tuski, moon of hesitation): As the moon rises later than full-moon, we feel it is hesitating to come out. It is also called Ariake-no-tsuki – the moon at sunrise, as it is still up even at dawn.
17th night ( Tachimachi-tuski, wait standing moon): The moon rises even later so you stand and eagerly wait for it to rise.
18th night (Imachi-tsuki, wait sitting moon): The moon comes even later – you have to sit and wait.
19th night (Nemachi-tsuki, wait lying moon): And even later – you have to lie down waiting.
There are similar names and explanations for the 20th night and after. There are even names for the nights before the 13th but these are not well known. This might be a result of the lack of the word ‘waiting’ in the names. Japanese culture is sometimes said to be a ‘culture of waiting’. During the middle ages, ‘commuter marriage’ was common in Japan. After marriage, the wife remained living with her parents and the husband visited her there according to his whim, and she would wait for her husband to come to her house every night, without ever being sure that he would come.
This might be one example of a link to the sentiment of waiting for the moon.
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Chapter 10 An ephemeral friendship and thoughts on beauty (1956)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)
1. The house on the hill
The boy’s house was in a small village located at the foot of a mountain, where a river went down from the mountain range and spread its width into the rice fields. At that time a dam had been built upstream, at a place that the current was not so strong, in order to supply tap water for a city. The river, running from west to east, had a highway on its north bank, along which many houses were located. From the south bank, fields spread gradually up to the house-dotted hill. A small primary school was in the center of the village and its main gate faced the highway.
In the evening of one early spring day, he went on an errand to a general store next to the primary school. It was the only store in the village. It was dusk and he happened to look over to the fields on the south side when he passed in front of the school-gate on the way back to his house. On the top of a hill, he could see a residence consisting of several buildings. One of these buildings had a pyramidal shaped roof that was emitting a light that seemed to make its windows float in the air, and he stood looking at it for a while. While almost all the people in the village spent their evenings under the light of an incandescent lamp hanging down from the ceiling, that house was lit up by a fluorescent light, and the implied affluence greatly impressed him. At that time, he was alone in the evenings and had to wait in hunger for his family to return. He imagined how different it must be for people living in that house, relaxing happily together and enjoying all the amenities of an urban life. Since then, it had become his custom to go there often in the evening and gaze dreamily at the house.
One early summer day, he was playing a game called ‘Kugisashi’ (please refer to ‘Japanese Rustic Life in the 1950s. 9 Sciencing-2’ on Youtube. In brief, it involves throwing and then sticking a nail into the ground, with the aim being to gain territory from opponents.) with friends under the big willow tree near the main gate of the primary school. Just as he was throwing a nail, he caught sight of a car kicking up dust as it came from the rice fields. Along with the other children, he watched the car approach and then ran onto the bridge after it passed and saw it enter the yard of the house with the triangular roof. As the car turned left to cross the bridge, he got a glimpse through the rear window of a girl sitting on the back seat. After that, he often thought about the girl while he was doing his chores in the evening, and this further enhanced his interest in the house with the pyramidal shaped roof.
2. Kindness does not go unrewarded
After school one day in May, the boy was idling his time away leaning on the approximately 4 meter high rock located near to the entrance of the primary schoolhouse. Before the last world war, all the primary and middle schools had a statue of Sontoku Ninomiya (Please refer to Internet information). This rock was the pedestal of the bronze statue. However, due to a shortage of materials for weapons, the statue was called upon to do its bit for the war effort, and Ninomiya then went to the front as rifles on the shoulders of soldiers. At the time this essay covers, (1955), only the pedestal remained, often being used by children who incorporated it into their games. Recently the statue has been rebuilt and replaced in about a 1000 of the 20601 schools in Japan. The statues depict Ninomiya as a boy walking while reading a book and carrying firewood on his shoulders. It was meant to teach children the importance of diligence in all areas of life by showing how Ninomiya studied hard while continuing to help his poor family with farm work.
In modern society, however, traffic conditions have entirely changed, so that reading while walking has become very dangerous. And it has also come to light that Ninomiya in fact never used to read while walking – a fiction made up by some novelist at a later date – so statues of him sitting in a chair reading have also been made. The original style, even if not completely accurate, does at least have the virtue of suggesting the very modern image of young people fiddling with their smartphone while walking.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the subject.
Leaning on a big stone that was part of a wall, the boy had been thinking back on what he had happened in school the preceding day. The teacher had announced, ‘Tomorrow we will have a commemorative photo taken. Please don’t forget it.’ After lessons that day, he was playing in the mountains and caught his pants on a branch of a tree, making a big hole under the knee. He often dirtied or tore his clothes, and because his mother was busy working as a teacher and doing housework, he usually mended or cleaned them himself. However, this time the hole was too big to repair himself, so he had to ask his mother to do it. He was waiting for a chance to ask her and then completely forgot about it. The next day, the teacher said, ‘Let’s go out now and we’ll take the photo on top of the rock.’ He suddenly remembered the gaping hole in his pants.
After climbing to the top of the rock, he tried to find a good position that would enable him to cover his embarrassment. While the cameraman was setting up his camera and other gadgets, he was still trying to think how he might camouflage the tear, but the best he came up with was just to fold up the edges of the tear and hold it together with his fingers. He waited like that anxiously and hoped that the photograph would be over quickly, because her knew his mother would give him a good telling off for shaming her if she ever noticed it. Actually, when the photo was finally developed, you could see that the knee part of the pants was swelling unnaturally, and that one leg was longer than the other. He clearly saw on his face the worry he had felt at the time but fortunately nobody, including his mother, ever commented on it.
Absent-mindedly chewing over various trivial matters in his mind, he turned his body to avoid the sunshine and found himself looking directly at the rock. Focusing on its surface, he could make out the microstructure of black bright granules in a white ceramic matrix. He was interested in the structure of the stone and how the pattern appeared to be different when he tilted his head and the angle of view was changed. This observation reminded him of a fairy tale he had read when he was a child. (For this ten -year – old boy, a mere three years ago!) In the story, it was evening and a traveler asked for a night’s lodging at a house where two brothers and a sister lived. The next morning, the oldest brother told him.’ My younger sister and I have to go out now. If you are willing to take care of our brother, you can stay here as long as you want. All you have to do is put this ointment on his eyes every morning but be sure not to get it in your own eyes.’ The man agreed and the brother and sister left. Nothing happened that day, nor the next, nor the day after that. The traveler was content to stay there and continued to discharge the light duty that was demanded of him. He did, however, begin to get curious about where the brother and sister went every day, and wondered what the mysterious ointment could be. But how could he find out what it was without experimenting a little by putting some on his own eyes? After several more days, he couldn’t stand it anymore and he succumbed to the temptation. He cautiously applied a little of the ointment to his eyes but couldn’t discern any effect. He told the younger brother that the ointment hadn’t done anything, whereupon the boy told him to look at the pond in front of the house. He did so and found that the water of the pond was so clear that he could easily see to the bottom. He was amazed when he noticed this and leaned forward to look more closely. To his surprise, he saw the brothers playing cheerfully with other children right at the bottom of the pond. They came back in the evening as usual but he didn’t mention what he’d seen to them. After that, he applied the ointment and watched the children play at the bottom of the pond every day.
Then he gradually became overtaken with the desire to join them, and finally he asked the elder brother one day when they came back home if he could go there with them. The older brother answered immediately, ‘ The only thing you were required to do to stay here was not to use the ointment on your own eyes. You have disobeyed me and now must leave.’ The next day he left the house and continued his travels. – (Since I read this fairy tale more than a half century ago, I have forgotten exactly which tale it comes from. If anybody recognizes it, please let me know)
The boy could not understand what this fairy tale meant but never forgot the image of them playing under the water. (Anyhow, if the moral of this tale is that you shouldn’t break a promise, there are many similar tales in Japan and of course, it’s the same as the story about Adam and Eve in the Bible.)
Now, he felt that the world under the water described in the fairy tale was similar to what he was experiencing with the rock. He became more and more absorbed in the microscopic world he was imagining as he gazed at it. Suddenly, a voice above his head brought him out of his hypnotic state and the stone lost its glitter.
‘Hey. What are you up to now?’ He did not notice who the person was and involuntarily braced himself by putting his hands on the stone because he feared that his face would be pushed hard against the stone, something he had seen older boys do to other unfortunate boys in his position. Fortunately this did not happen and it began to dawn on him who the boy was. It was Kaoru, a boy in the year above him. ’Ah, Kaoru-chan,’ he said.
‘Yesterday I played in the mountains all day and tired myself out, so I’ve just been sitting and lazing in the sun today,’ he replied unconvincingly. He was the youngest in his class in primary school, and inferior physically as well as academically. That made it difficult for him to find boys to play with, much less to make any real friends. Kaoru-chan was well known at that school because he always got prizes at the closing ceremony at the end of each term for his unfailingly excellent results. The boy, on the other hand, was never mentioned. As a result, there was usually nothing for them to talk about so they just looked at each other. Then the boy was surprised as Kaoru-chan started to chat to him.
‘You were alone all day at the last athletic meeting. Are you alone at home too?’
‘No. I have a mom and a sister,’ he replied becoming serious.
‘Why didn’t they come?’
‘They never come to athletic meetings, or any other school activities, for that matter.’ He reluctantly revealed the embarrassing truth – ‘My mom and sister go to the same middle school every day.’
‘Your mom goes to a middle school with your sister. What? How old is your mom?’
‘Don’t be stupid, My mom is a teacher at the school.’
‘Oh.’ Kaoru-chan looked disappointed. ‘What were you looking at until just a few minutes ago?’ Getting back to the original topic, Kaoru bent down and leaned toward the stone to try to see what the boy had been staring at. When they came nearer to each other, the boy got a whiff of Kaoru-chan’s body odor, which being different to the other loutish boys in the village didn’t induce a feeling of fear, and actually caused him to spontaneously relax. The boy was so intrigued it that he could not follow Kaoru-chan’s conversation. Of course, he could hardly tell the truth – that he had been looking for midgets and other worlds in the stone.
‘Uhh, I’ve been counting the number of black grains in this stone,’ he lied.
‘Uh-huh, they are mica grains in granite,’ Kaoru-chan said studying the rock surface steadily. Now there is a prize pupil for you! He pursued the topic. ‘What are you doing it for?’
The boy was at a loss for an answer and tried to change the subject. ‘ Kaoru-chan, did you take a bath? You smell of soap.’ Kaoru-chan was taken aback by this unexpected question and averted his eyes from the boy’s face. ‘I often see you fishing at the river in front of this school. Is it fun?’
‘Yes, of course, it’s fun. Much better than school.’ Actually, he usually caught fish for his afternoon snack, not really just for fun, but he was too ashamed to tell the truth. ‘Fishing in this river is not so much fun because you can only catch small fish. You have to go to other places for the best fishing. The big ponds in the rice fields have bigger fish and the tarns in the mountains have more beautiful fish.’
‘I’ve never been fishing. Could you teach me?’ Kaoru-chan asked him cheerfully without noticing the awkwardness the boy was feeling. No one had ever asked him that before so the boy gave an unusually direct reply. ‘OK. You can use my gear. My home is near here so I’ll go and get it. Just wait here for a moment.’
They slid down the grass-covered bank and stood at the edge of the big pond. The bait was earthworms, which they got by digging them up from the ground under the stack of rice straw used for manure in a farm yard. While most boys in the village usually used single fishing rods taken from bamboo forests, the boy had several fishing rods assembled from short rods which were bought at a stall of a seasonal festival held in the next town. He decided to let Kaoru-chan use the newest one. He made up tackle by putting together rod, fishing line, and hook.
‘ Kaoru-chan, do you know how to put bait on a hook?’
‘ No, I don’t. Show me.’
‘It’s better to choose a wriggling red earthworm. The hook looks like a question mark, and you should stick one end of the earthworm on it like this,’ he taught Kaoru-chan in a rather patronizing manner.
Kaoru-chan frowned at his first touch of the earthworm. ‘It looks like a piece of string that’s hard in places and soft in others. It kind of gives me the creeps touching it – I don’t think I can do it.’
The boy showed what was for him an unusual kindness. ‘You can’t? Give it me. I’ll do it.’
His fishing techniques, of course, were not taught by any experts but just picked up from other boys in the village. Therefore his fishing style, gear, way of looking for and choosing the best fishing place, etc. were just based on his experience.
‘ This pond is large and has big fish like carp, castle fish, crucians as well as many small kinds of fish. Big fish are out in the middle so we use long fishing rods to catch them. The short rod is for the small fish living near the shore. Of course, there are more small fish than bigger ones so you’d better go for small fish at first. Kaoru-chan, you should cast your line near to that tussock of reeds.’ He gave his instructions almost feeling like a professional. ‘At first, you don’t know the depth so you have to cast your line, and then make the appropriate adjustments between hook and float. If the float is lying down on the surface of the water, the hook must be touching the bottom. By varying the length, you can find the depth. Then you will be able to adjust the hook to the position where the fish are. ‘
If you are a fisherman yourself, you will see that the theory is sound. He set up Kaoru-chan’s rod, line, hook and float and passed it to him. Then he set about preparing his own gear.
“You know, if you speak loudly or walk around clumsily, the fish are frightened by it and swim away, so you should just keep watching your float quietly. The float moving tells you when a fish has taken the bait. At that moment, you give a slight yank to your fishing rod, so that the fish’s mouth is caught on the hook. The most difficult thing is choosing the time to yank the rod after you realize you have a bite. If you’re too quick, the fish is only nibbling at the bait and hasn’t taken the hook. And if you are too late, the fish will eat round the hook, eat all the bait and swim off” He explained clearly and quietly while Kaoru-chan watched his float, nodding to show he understood.
“ The smell of the water plants is good. What’s this one? Is it water flag?” Kaoru-chan asked.
“ It’s not water flag but I don’t know it’s name.” the boy replied. He felt a kind of fulfillment that he had never had playing by himself, and also spoke with an unfamiliar fluency. A refreshing light breeze blew over the water and enveloped them on the bank, and then it stopped abruptly.
“Ahggh-,” screamed Kaoru-chan as he lifted his rod. The end of the rod bent deeply and was shaking violently.
“Kaoru-chan, you’ve got one. Now be careful. Don’t lift your rod too quickly or the line will break. That’s right. Raise it steadily and bring the fish in. Wow, it’s a whopper. Looks like a big crucian carp.” He felt as happy as if he had landed the fish himself, even though Kaoru-chan had caught it near to the bank in an area where the boy had said there were only small fish. Kaoru-chan, of course, was delighted and exclaimed, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life!”
‘If you can’t pull the fish to your hand, land it onto the grass along the bank.’ He directed, as they did not have a net. Kaoru-chan successfully landed it on the grass but he was scared to touch it. Then the boy took it off the hook and put it into a basket immersed in the water.
“Here, I put some more bait on the hook. Cast it into the water.” He showed uncharacteristic kindness when he said, “Oh, no. You shouldn’t cast into the water grass, otherwise the line gets completely tangled. Pass me the rod and I’ll untangle it.” He devoted all his energy to helping Kaoru-chan and didn’t even touch his own rod. Meanwhile, Kaoru-chan didn’t say a word as he endeavored to faithfully follow and absorb the boy’s instructions.
After that problem was solved, he cast Kaoru-chan’s line into the water, and then he lifted his own rods. (A couple of rods were leaning against the support stand so as to be handled easily if fish took the bait.). The bait had gone. Though he was a little disappointed to realize he had been so busy looking after Kaoru-chan to notice, he continued positively, “The bait being eaten means that the fish are there.” After a while, Kaoru-chan got a bite again. This time he caught another big crucian carp, and then another, and then another. He even caught a catfish.
Reminded of what a keen fisherman had been telling him the other day, the boy spoke like a professional.
“The fish are swimming about in a shoal and now they are gathered just around the spot you are casting your line.”
Although feeling excited for Kaoru-chan, losing out to him like that had harmed his pride slightly. Usually when he felt frustrated like that after fishing, he assuaged his anger by throwing all his bait into the water and stirring it furiously with his stand, and then went home. But today such petulant behavior was inappropriate – after all, he was Kaoru-chan’s teacher. He managed to get over it after a while and continued fishing, and his persistence was rewarded when he at last caught a couple of smaller fish using his long rod.
While they were fishing, the weather deteriorated and black cloud spread in the western part of the sky. Small drops of rain started to fall making a “kiin, kiin” sound as they hit the surface of the water. The boy had always disliked this sound because somehow it penetrated to his heart.
“Ouch! Ouch!” he grimaced.
Kaoru-chan looked concerned and asked, “What’s up? Are you in pain?”
“It’s that “kiin, kiin” sound,” he said.
“What “kiin kiin” sound? Kaoru-chan asked.
“ Can’t you hear it? It’s the raindrops falling on the water. I’ve always hated it – it goes right through me.”
Kaou-chan didn’t really understand and just shook his head. Suddenly, Kaoru-chan cupped his hands over his ears and said, “If you think of it as the sound of small waves lapping on a beach, you’ll hear it differently.” The boy tried it and it worked – the sound stopped being unpleasant, but then he caught the smell of Kaoru-chan’s soap again and it momentarily froze him.
After that time, they became close friends and spent the whole summer holidays together or in the company of other boys, fishing and playing in the mountains and fields. However, Kaoru-chan never swam in the river, remaining adamantly opposed despite repeated invitations to join the other boys. “ I can’t. If my dad found out that I’d been swimming in the river he’d be mad with me,” he protested.
One day while the boys were playing together in the boy’s house, they felt hungry and ate the rice left over from breakfast that morning, pouring ‘Miso soup’ over it. This gruel was usually fed to hungry cats and was called ‘Nekomannma (cat food) but they found it was surprisingly delicious.
Another day, Kaoru-chan came to the boy’s house carrying something long and thin in a cloth bag.
“This is for you,” he said and passed it to the boy.
“What is it?” said the boy as he took it out of the bag. It was a fine-looking fishing rod. “ Wow! This is a professional’s rod – I’ve never seen another boy with such a good one. Why are you giving it to me?”
“Dad came across it in his warehouse the other day. He used to use it when he was a child and he told me I could have it. I’m happy using yours so you can have it. Besides, one good turn deserves another!” said Kaoru-chan, sounding very grown up.
Whenever they went fishing together after that, they always caught twice as many fish as he had when he fished alone. There was always enough fish for his daily snack, and some times for Kaoru-chan’s, too.
3. Bouzu – mekuri ( A kind of card game)
When the boy first started to play with Kaoru-chan, he did not know Kaoru-chan’s family. For a long time while they played together, he never asked about them as he was afraid that asking about his family might affect their friendship.
One day, Kaoru-chan said to him after school, “Today, let’s play at my house.” The place where he lived turned out to be the house he’d spent so much time gazing at and thinking about – the residence on the hill that included the building with the triangular roof. The boy was surprised to find that there weren’t any toys of games for boys in the house. The boy, like Kaoru-chan, was the only male in his family (his father lived alone working in another city.), but he had as many toys as any of the other boys in his village. This made him feel that Kaoru-chan was somewhat different to the other boys he knew – more like a girl in some ways.
They tried to play some games but nothing they tried was fun and they soon lost interest. Then they found a card game called ‘ Bouzu-mekuri ’ and started laying it out on the veranda. It’s a simple game that has a hundred cards with Japanese traditional poems and pictures of their authors, which include emperors, queens, princes, princesses, nobles, priests, serving men and ladies and samurai – all wearing 8th-12 century clothes. For more details about the cards and how the game is usually played, please check out the home page version.
4 or 5 players sit in a circle and the cards are placed in a pile in the middle with the picture facing downwards. Each player takes it in turns to pick up a card and show the picture to the other players. If you get a card with a male character, you have to immediately discard it. If you take a card with a female character, you can pick up all the discarded cards. However, if you pick up a priest card, you have to discard all of your cards. When all the cards from the pile have been turned over, the person with the most cards is the winner. Children can easily play this version of the game because it doesn’t require any special skill or ability to memorize cards that have already been played. (In the original version of the game, however, these abilities are essential.) This simple card game was usually only played in the New Year ‘s holidays. but with nothing else to play in the house on the hill they were forced to play it. Kaoru-chan’s elder sister, who the boy had seen in the car the other day, often joined them. Thereafter, the boy played there many times, but he never entered the other buildings of the residence, including the building with the triangular roof.
4. Full-moon night festival
There was a public square in the center of the village – its south side facing the river and with a fire watchtower at the northern end. Annual events were held in this square as well as in the primary school ground. This year the long rainy season that followed the summer finished earlier than in an average year, and it was clear on that day. Just as the sun was approaching the top of the mountain to the west of the village, several villagers gathered in the square and started to prepare for an event. They set up a long table next to the river and placed two big vases containing Japanese pampas grass on it. Fruit, vegetables and dishes filled another long table, which was set in front of the first. Then, starting with children and the oldest people, the villagers began to gather. The center of the square was covered with straw mats, and the villagers sat there eating and talking while the children ran about yelling in excitement. While they were chatting, the sun began to sink behind the mountain and it gradually got dark. The moon appeared in the sky above the eastern mountain range far away in the distance. The yellow rice fields spreading along the eastern side of the village were lit up by the moonlight, looking like a golden sea. The villagers celebrated the full moon on the 15th day of the 8th month in the traditional Japanese calendar (the lunar calendar) with moon viewing parties. This is when the distance between the earth and moon is at its shortest, and so it looks about 10 percent bigger and brighter than usual. Moreover, when it is seen near to mountains, it looks even more wonderful. As the moon is full on the 15th every month in the lunar calendar, it is called the 15th night.
As the moon rose high in the night sky, the party livened up and the villagers started singing folksongs. While different areas and classes celebrated the occasion with different styles and with ceremonies of varying formality, this was a farming village and they gathered to simply enjoy drinking, eating, chatting, singing and dancing. It was as bright as daylight in open areas but really dark in the shade. This strong contrast between shadow and light created a special atmosphere and stimulated the children to play various games, running in and out of the dark and light and amongst the crowd of villagers. Finally, they started to play hide-and-seek. At first, Kaoru-chan was the one searching for and chasing the other children, and next it was the turn of the child he had caught first. After they’d played the game a few times, a boy said, “ Where’s Kaoru-chan? ” The children started looking for him but couldn’t find him. As their concern grew, the adults noticed and they also joined the search.
The boy was just going off to look for Kaoru-chan when an adult said, “Some child should stay here. Hey, boy – you stay here while we look for him.” He didn’t understand why but he did what he had been told and took a seat by a group of adults, who then fell into conversation about Kaoru-chan’s family.
“In that family, only girls are ever born. The present family head is a son-in-law,” said one man.
“I have heard he tried all sorts of things to have a son,” said another.
“ Well, he wasn’t very good at it, was he? If he’d asked me, I could have told him how to do it,’ boasted the first man.
“ Oh, you mean practical training,” said one man, winking lewdly. Everybody laughed.
“ But he certainly tried, didn’t he? – seven children and six of them girls! He must have been so pleased when he finally managed it,” somebody said and everybody laughed again.
Their conversation continued.
“ Actually, I heard something about the midwife who delivered that child.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, there is a rumor that she was given quite a bit of money by the family after the child was born. What do you make of that?”
The boy had been absentmindedly watching the thin clouds drift across the sky and partially veiling the moon but gradually tuned into the conversation as it continued.
“ What are you suggesting? Are you saying that Kaoru-chan is a girl? That’s silly.”
“As they failed to have a boy after six attempts, it stands to reason that the next one would also be a girl.”
“Why on earth would they have to hide the fact that the child was actually a girl? I can’t believe they’d be that desperate to make everybody think that they’d finally had a boy, and anyway, people would find out sooner or later.”
“I cannot understand it either but that’s what I heard.”
“Ah, between men and women, there are so many things about them that are hard to understand.”
They all burst out laughing again.
The conversation continued in this way and the boy lost interest. However, he retained an impression of Kaoru-chan being gentle, graceful and neat – quite different to the other boys he knew.
The search for Kaoru-chan had been unsuccessful and they were about to wind up the party when an employee of the family on the hill appeared. He told them that Kaoru-chan had already returned home and offered them some sake, food and sweets in apology for all the trouble Kaoru-chan had caused. Everybody was greatly relieved to hear Kaoru-chan was safe and they started chatting again.
“Kidnapping used to be quite common in this area a long time ago. Of course, it hasn’t happened recently but I was really afraid that somebody had taken Kaoru-chan.
“In ancient times, there were Tengu*, mountain gods and wolves, which were all thought to take children sometimes.” The more the adults spoke, the more they warmed to the topic. The atmosphere of the full moon party was entirely spoiled and the children set out for home with their parents or other family members. The boy, of course, went home alone.
From the following day, Kaoru-chan was absent from school and the boy didn’t see him outside school, either. The light still shone from the window of the house with the triangular roof. Whenever he looked at it, he missed Kaoru-chan and remembered the pleasant times they had spent together, and he wondered why he had suddenly disappeared that night. The boy never had the chance to find out because Kaoru-chan left the village in the spring of the following year. In later years, looking at the light of the far away house at night, he often recalled the events of that summer, and eventually began to doubt that those things had actually happened.
*: Tengu is an imaginary monster living deep in the mountains. It has a manlike body, a red face, long nose and wings. It is able to fly by waving a fan and has the strength to easily defeat samuri. (This is according to Kojien – a Japanese dictionary published by Iwanami Shoten, Japan.)