The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter13 A Wavering Mind (1955)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London)
1. Souvenir from Hokkaido
Recently, Hokkaido, one of four main islands and located in the northern part of Japan, has become well known to people from Taiwan and other south east Asian countries. There are many skiing resorts, wonderful winter landscapes and beautiful wild flowers, which mostly bloom at the same time due to the long cold winter season, and a delicious mainly marine products-based cuisine. Of course, the other main-islands of Japan, (Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku) and many of the small islands have similar attractions. However, Hokkaido, with its very different vast, open landscapes and the distinctive culture of the indigenous Ainu people, attracts many Japanese as well.
From the latter half of the nineteen-sixties and throughout the nineteen-seventies, tourism in Hokkaido became very popular among under-graduates. Especially in the summer holidays, they packed a big rucksack and went to Aomori station by train along the Tohoku main line of the national rail road (present JR), and then on to Hakodate in Hokkaido by ferry. (This service was greatly reduced when an undersea tunnel linking Hokkaido and Honshu was completed in 1988.) From Hakodate, they usually spent more than two weeks traveling around Hokkaido on foot and using public transport. Walking around with their arms and legs sticking out from their huge rucksacks, they reminded people of crabs and so came to be called “crab people”.
The reason why students found Hokkaido attractive might have been as follows. The islands of Japan except for Hokkaido have generally a warm climate and typical East Asian scenery, with rice fields spreading out from the rivers coming down form the high mountains and many small houses packed together in the towns. Hokkaido, on the other hand, has a temperate climate and landscapes resembling North America and some parts of Europe, with wide wheat fields and grasslands stretching endlessly, white birch forests and large white painted houses in big gardens. After the economic recovery that followed the last world war, people prospered and had a surplus to spend, many using it to travel. A lot of students wanted to travel around the US or Europe but could not afford it, so they headed to Hokkaido in droves as a cheap alternative.
He also traveled around Hokkaido with two friends in the summer of his second year in university. The itinerary was planned by his friends and included: sightseeing and enjoying squid and other delicious seafood in Hakodate; the clock tower, statue of Dr. William Smith Clark and roads lined with poplar trees in Hokkaido University in Sapporo; climbing Daisetsu mountain, taking in the spectacular scenery at Mashu lake (actually we could not see anything because of dense fog.) ; the beautiful coast at Erimo cape (Later to become famous after it was depicted in the lyrics of a popular song.) ; a wild flower garden next to the coast and an old prison for dangerous criminals in Monbetsu; visiting an Ainu village and taking a hot bath at Noboribetsu hot-spring, and so on. This was a very common plan. He didn’t have any ideas of his own, so he just went along with it.
(Anyhow, Hokkaido has lots of more attractive places than those of their itinerary. Check it out on the internet if you’re interested, and if you ever have a chance to go there, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.)
Why do people want to go sightseeing? Perhaps for the following reasons:
• To relieve the accumulated stress of daily life.
• To enjoy natural scenery or the architecture and cultural attractions of cities.
• To relive famous historical stories while looking at places connected to them.
• To simply enjoy walking or traveling on trains, buses, ships and planes.
• To meet and chat with the people living in a place one has never been before.
• To enjoy the cuisine of a particular area.
• To look for souvenirs. (This includes shopping for branded goods in cities or airports etc.)
People from nearly every country usually buy souvenirs for their family and acquaintances when they travel and naturally, sightseeing spots always have souvenir shops. Most Japanese feel obligated to buy souvenirs when they go somewhere, and sometimes people even relieve themselves of the burden by buying souvenirs beforehand from the many souvenir shops in Tokyo that have famous souvenirs from all over the world.
He also looked around souvenir shops to buy things for his family wherever he went on a trip. Getting things for his sisters was no problem but finding something for his mother was a different matter. Being a dutiful son, he was always on the look out for something to get her and it even began to weigh on his mind a bit in the latter part of a trip, to the point where he sometimes lost interest in sightseeing. (That’s probably why he struggles to remember much about his Hokkaido trip!)
When he got back from Hokkaido he gave his family a somewhat exaggerated and sometimes completely fictitious account of his experiences there. He gave his sisters their souvenirs, which they seemed quite happy with. His mother, on the other hand, started to look glum when she realized there was nothing for her. He knew she was disappointed and wanted to apologize but could not make up his mind whether she’d believe him if he told her that he had tried hard to find something for her but there was nothing suitable. In the end he did not say anything. Later he realized that it would have been better to buy her something, even if he knew she would not like it, or at least he should have told her how hard he’d looked. He still regrets it to this day. It’s always been difficult for him to get over the embarrassment he feels when expressing his feelings, and his wife often used to say, “You can’t expect people to understand how you’re feeling if you don’t tell them.”
2. On the Train
He was now on the local train going from the city of the main factory of his company to the small town where the partner company he was now working for was located. That morning, he had proposed his project plan for new business in an executive meeting, but he could not get approval for it. It was a bold plan aiming to drastically increase business in an economically difficult situation by introducing exciting new products to the market, but it needed some initial investment of money, and this made the directors reluctant to endorse it.
After the meeting, he was still fuming about the board’s indecisiveness. He’d often seen the same unwillingness to make bold decisions, and the consequent loss of business to competitors. He imagined that subsidiary companies must always be similarly frustrated by their parent company, but as a low level manager responsible for business development, it was up to him to come up with a reasonable plan that would convince the board to give the project the go ahead. So he was on his way back to the partner company in order to discuss how they might be able to reduce the investment cost.
He usually sat facing the direction of travel and watched the changing view through the window. This time, however, the result of the meeting weighed on his mind so much that he took out the meeting documents and started thinking about the business plan as soon as he sat down.
He stopped reading and looked up momentarily to consider a difficult point, whereupon he noticed a fresh-faced girl sitting on the opposite seat. She was modestly dressed and not wearing any makeup. He guessed that she was going to the city to start a job, having just graduated from high school. Consumed in his thoughts about her, she suddenly looked up and their eyes met, causing him to hurriedly look down again at his papers.
The train started to pull out of the station and he concentrated on his work again, only to be made aware of the girl again when she stood up and brushed against his knee. She seemed to be trying to open the window. He could not see why she wanted to do so on such a cold spring day, and moved to the aisle seat in anticipation of the cold gust that her action would no doubt result in. The window was stiff and she was struggling to open it. While he was wondering whether he should help her or not, she managed to pull up the window. In the end, as the train was not running so fast, it was not so cold in the carriage. When the train passed the last of the houses of the town and came out into the rice fields, she leaned through the window. Fearing that she might be about to throw herself out, he stood up in readiness to grab her. The train accelerated gradually and approached a crossing, and she started waving her hands. He looked out of the window and saw two small children standing at the crossing waving back to her.
She must be saying farewell to her young brothers, not expecting to see them again for some time. He was feeling pleased with himself that he’d read her situation correctly and thought about waving to the boys, too, but he could not bring himself to do it. He reproached himself for not being to override his self-consciousness.
3. Getting into jazz
He was working in Phoenix, AZ, US. During his stay there, he struggled to cope with many problems. Buddhism says a man is burdened with 108 earthly desires, and that the stress built up in their pursuit can be dissipated by hearing the sound of a bell in the temple struck 108 times on Dec. 31. However, he was in the US and it was summer, so he did not have recourse
to the solace that might have given him. His biggest concern was his work. Given the chance to work on long-cherished projects of his own, he had moved to a new company to research and develop these ideas. Unfor-tunately he had not been able to convince the company to take up his ideas and start development. When he negotiated the move to the new company, the director who had asked him to join the company initially had assured him that he would be given the opportunity to achieve his goals, and in that respect the director had kept his promise. The director told him that he could not make the final decision himself, but he would get the chance to talk with the president of the company, and if he himself could persuade the president that his R&D had potential, the project would get approval.
Since starting work at the new company, he had met the president many times to try to convince him of the business feasibility and the social value of his ideas, but without success. With Japanese companies, especially electronic device makers, he’d seen that they are enthusiastic about creating new products that can be sold at a high price, but hesitate to develop low-priced products that would require time to achieve significant profits. Moreover, even if the development seemed feasible, the investment needed to see it through to mass production was judged to be too big and would involve a risk of bankruptcy. It has to be admitted that his poor presentation technique did not help matters, either. And so he had moved to a new company, where it seemed he would have more chance to get his ideas accepted. However, even though he had many more opportunities to use his talent there, he was still coming up against the same problems.
The most urgent problem he had was to resolve an impasse they’d reached in a joint project with another company. This was mainly due to the difficulty of doing experiments using the many defective machines at the experimental facility in Phoenix, where permanent magnetic powders were produced. He had located and fixed almost all of the problems and was left with one to solve. This was the vacuum seal around the shaft supplying the rotating movement to the big roll in the vacuum chamber. This machine used a magnetic fluid vacuum seal, which was usual in high vacuum machines such as the vacuum chamber in semiconductor production processes. He knew that magnetic substances can cause unforeseen problems in the areas surrounding them, so he proposed changing the magnetic fluid vacuum seal for a conventional rubber ring. They flatly refused to let him, insisting that magnetic sealing was standard specification in that facility. In his experience, Japanese usually adopt a more pragmatic approach when some part of a machine is found to be unsuitable for purpose and are more willing to alter things written on standard specification sheets.
After discussing it many times, he finally convinced them to change to a rubber ring, promising to take full responsibility if it did not work.
When the test run started, people from all over the factory gathered around the machine. They looked disappointed when the vacuum pump started and the machine reached the designated vacuum level without any trouble. For the next step, the rotation of the shaft was started and after a while, the vacuum level in the chamber suddenly fell. Air seemed to be getting into the chamber through the rubber seal. The spectators clapped mockingly. Panicking on the inside, he forced himself to stay calm and instructed the technician to break up the rubber seal part to see what had happened, and was surprised to see there was no lubricating grease. Without lubrication, the rubber is naturally torn off by friction as the shaft rotates and causes the vacuum to break down. The technician must have forgotten to apply the lubricating grease when he was setting up the machine. He instructed the technician to lubricate the rubber and reassemble the part, and then they started the test again. As he’d expected, the machine worked without any trouble. The workers went back to their positions looking disappointed. During the test, he climbed up and down the eight meters height machine again and again in 45 degree Celsius heat, leaving him completely worn out when it was finished.
Driving back to the hotel from the company, he was going over in his mind again and again what had just happened at the factory. He became aware of some jazz playing on the car radio. It was a sax solo that consisted of a simple development of a theme and had many repeated phrases, maybe due to the poor improvisational skills of the player rather than by intention. While listening to a repeated phrase, he heard the sound of the sax as a human voice singing actual words, and what’s more they were English words!
Paul Hindemith described the process of enjoying music in something like the following way: “The sound waves arrive at the ear and are transmitted to the brain as neuron signals. Then they are mixed with the listener’s feelings and experiences to produce a musical image. When this image coincides with his expectation, it is said to be pleasing, and the greater the degree of coincidence, the greater the satisfaction.” This is what his ears and brain had done with the music, causing him to hear the notes of the sax transformed into words. He’d never been able to understand jazz very well, but he felt he might be beginning to get it.
At the end of the 1950s, late-night radio programs were popular among young people. As a primary school boy already tucked up in bed, he remembers his sister staying up studying for her university entry examination while listening to them. The programs often played US jazz and hits from the US charts. He heard a random mixture of Dixieland, swing, and contemporary jazz and pop songs by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis etc. He could not understand English at all so he just followed the melody and rhythm, but he could not get anything out of it. Listening to classical music, on the other hand, gave him continuously changing visual images which were like a dream.
Perhaps understanding American music was just beyond a young boy from a rural area of Japan. However, being a boy, female jazz vocalists singing softly, sometimes almost whispering, held a mysterious attraction for him. After studying English in junior high school, he hoped he would be able to understand the lyrics and enjoy jazz more, but English was difficult. Finally, he did get to like Benny Goodman and even ended up playing the clarinet in the brass band at junior high school.
Now in Phoenix, his revelation about the music cutting through his confused thoughts and worries about work, he felt some satisfaction that he had understood something about the attraction of jazz.
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A Big Catfish
Primary schools in Japan have long holidays in summer and winter. On the last day of the semesters, the children are given lots of homework to keep them in the habit of studying. It consists of a problem booklet for the main subjects, with extra space to write compositions and a diary. They are also expected to complete a special project, the subject of which they are free to choose themselves. The boy’s mother, who was the teacher of the primary school he attended, announced to him on the first day of the holiday,
“You should remember what happened six months ago.”
The boy just had to stand there as she continued,
“ The last time, you left your homework until the last 3 days of the holiday, and then cried all the time because you said you couldn’t finish it. In the end, we had to do everything for you. I remember I had to write your composition, and your sister did a painting and finished the questions for the main subjects. She even hurriedly made a booklet of botanical specimens she’d collected around our house for your special project. She did her best in the short time she’d had but I felt really ashamed when one of my colleague’s remarked cynically that it looked like your son spent the whole holiday just playing around your house. And it was not just the last time – you’re the same every summer and winter holiday. It makes me sad to think how unfortunate I am to have such a lazy, unmotivated boy. I used to do all the work myself, and your sister did, of course. Why can’t you?”
At the beginning of the holidays, he made the plan of study and tried to keep to it every day before going off to play with his friends. However, the problem booklet had many difficult questions (The booklet was edited in line with the average educational level, which was higher than the boy’s school.), so he answered the easy problems and put aside the difficult ones to ask his family later. Almost everyday his mother asked him if he was doing his homework, but she never asked to see what he’d done. The special project was always a headache for him. He was not good at painting or calligraphy, and although he was good at craft, he could not think of anything he could make at home. He could have done another plant growth project, but many children did that and he hated doing the same thing as everybody else. Astronomical observation was a possibility but, like the plant growth project, he would have had to work on it everyday, and he did not want to do that. Besides, his family did not have a telescope and his school did not, either. Every morning he tried to think of a theme for the project but never came up with anything. He always left home telling himself he would think about it while playing. It did cross his mind occasionally, but it only spoiled his fun. He eventually made a few futile efforts, but he quickly abandoned them and went back to playing. In the end he saw that he would have to rely on his mother and sister to help in the last few days of the holiday as usual, and he continued to deceive his mother that he was on top of his work. He was now able to devote his time to enjoying himself.
In the summer holidays, he went fishing, caught insects and picked plants in the forest, played in the garden and swam in the rivers and ponds nearby. Even in the northern part of Japan where he lived, the daytime temperature often rose above 30 degrees, so swimming and playing in the water were the main activities on fine days.
There was no swimming pool in his village. The river flowing through the village had a dam for drinking water in the upper reaches and ponds for farming in the lower reaches, but it was prohibited to swim there because it was too deep. Where the river flowed from the mountain area and into the plain, there was another small dam that had been constructed to irrigate rice fields on the outskirts of the village. It was slow moving and shallow, so the children played there. The big trees on both banks cast a cool shade on the water surface, creating a comfortable place for swimming. The bottom was covered in a coarse sand, so even when the children – who were always naked, which nobody thought anything of at the time – played energetically in this splendid natural pool, the water never got muddy.
One day, almost all the children in the village gathered there and were playing in the water under the clear sky. An older boy noticed a bus that was about to cross a narrow bridge about seventy feet downstream from the dam. He quickly recognized that the passengers were all children of a similar age to them from a neighboring town. He jeered at them, “Stupid townies!” The other children heard his shout and stood up and all joined in, “Stupid townies! Stupid townies!” Of course, the children on the bus stuck their faces out of the windows and shouted back, “Stupid hicks!” The children in the river did not understand ‘hicks’, so that they just shouted back, “Idiots!”
The boy, standing behind the children, could not see what all the fuss was about and submerged his body in the cool water. Just as he did so, something slippery momentarily brushed against his back. Turning around, he could see a big black shape and shouted, “There’s a big fish right next to me!” All the children stopped jeering and looked round at him. An older boy reacted immediately and directions to the other children, “Let’s form a line at the sluice gate. Then we’ll hold hands and make a double circle around the fish, tighten the circles gradually and move it into the shore.” As the village children played together every day and had learnt how to cooperate from the farming work they did, they could follow the older boy’s instructions quickly and efficiently. As they closed the circle and moved closer to the bank, the water became shallow and the whole shape of the fish could be seen clearly. It was a big catfish about seven feet long. Nobody had ever seen such a big catfish before. The young children were afraid and clung to the elder boys at first, but they were country children and would never allow their fear to cause them to blunder and let such a prize escape. They could not believe that such a big catfish inhabited their small river deep in the mountains. The dam did have some deep parts, but their total area did not seem a big enough habitat for such a big catfish. As catfish usually lived in muddy beds in the lower reaches of river, it might have been carried from the lower reaches to the dam when the river flooded after heavy rain.
“Girls should stay behind the boys,” the leader shouted, feeling that, unlike the boys, the girls were not used to catching fish and might panic and allow the fish to break through their cordon and escape. The girls changed their position and the boys promptly covered the openings. A few brave girls remained and stood with the boys at the front.
“Keep quiet and carry on driving it towards the shore. Whatever you do, don’t startle it. Slowly does it – that’s the way.” The leader shouted out his orders, apparently not aware that his booming voice contradicted his call for silence. As the circle of children around the big fish gradually tightened, it was pushed into the shallows until its dorsal fin broke the surface of the water, shaking slowly in the glaring light and making gentle ripples. The boy was fascinated and just gazed at it through the dazzling sunlight reflected by the water surface. Strangely, it felt like he was watching moonlight shimmering on a hot summer night.
‘Waahhh,’ the boy next to him cried as he dived towards the catfish, trying to cover it with the net he was holding in readiness. The fish jumped over the boy as he fell forward in the water and broke through the circle and escaped. The leader stamped his feet in rage and scolded him, “You idiot ! That was too soon. Why didn’t you wait for me to tell you?” The other children just stood around looking vacant.
The older boy soon regained his calm and set about organizing the children to pursue the escaped catfish. He saw his father directing the people working on his farm everyday, so it came naturally to him.
“ I want you two to go to the sluice gate for the rice fields, and you two – go to the dam sluice gate. And you two – go over to the marshy area and check there. The rest of us will look for it in the pool over there.” Following the leader’s instructions, the boy joined the group going to the pool. He was good at diving under water, though he could only swim using doggie paddle, but more importantly, he was excellent at catching fish with his bare hands.
The pool was about 18~21 feet wide and 7 feet deep at its deepest point at the rock wall of the northern shore, and gradually got shallower towards the other side. In the upper reaches, a group of big rocks formed a small waterfall just above the pool. The water flowing over it was warmed by the sun. However, some water seeped down through the rocks and sprang up cold from the bottom of the pool. The change in temperature between the upper and lower layers was so abrupt that once somebody had died of a heart attack while swimming there, and people were always warned to be careful when they entered the water there.
But this was no ordinary catfish, so they did not think about the danger. The boy carefully selected a place where the water was springing up and stood in the warm flow, submerging his face in the water to search for the fish. The sunlight filtered down through the trees in pillars of light and danced near the surface of the water, attracting many small fish to the spot. His concentration being easily disturbed, the enchanting scene soon made him forget his mission and he drifted off in his thoughts. Eventually realizing that he needed to breathe, he took his face out of the water, whereupon he remembered what he was supposed to be doing and put his face under the water again and started searching in earnest. He came to concentrate his efforts in the murky depths of the water near the north shore, because in his experience catfish tended to stay near the bottom away from the light.
Suddenly the leader, who was also searching in the same place shouted loudly, “I found it!” He’d probably been able to find it because he was tall and able to wade into the deepest places.
“Guard the sluice gate and the overflow place like before, and someone give me a bamboo pole,” he commanded. The bamboo pole would be used to drive the fish out from the deep and into the shallows.
“Everybody ready? Here we go,” he said and started to stir the water with the pole. The boy dipped his face into the water and looked toward the fish. The water was less muddy here due to the sandy bottom, so he could clearly see the catfish coming slowly towards him. “It’s coming. It’s getting closer – ahh, it’s gone into the reedy area over there.” The leader immediately barked new orders, “Quickly now – surround the reeds, and you people at the sluice gate and the overflow – hold your position.”
The children started to make for the point indicated by the leader, struggling not to slip on the sandy bottom as they hurried in their excitement. They made a circle around the point indicated by the leader and started to tighten it as before. This time, he was determined the big fish would not escape.
Somebody behind the boy shouted, “Hey, you three girls. Get up on the concrete levee and keep watch.” Looking round, he saw that it was the second oldest boy. He’d realized that the reedy area was near the levee, and that if the fish got into that area it might be able to escape by jumping over the levee. The boy admired the older boy’s quick perception of the situation, no doubt as a result of the experience he’d acquired fishing for his poor farmer family.
The big cat fish was driven into the reeds, and its dorsal fin could again be seen protruding from the surface of the water. “ There are sharp spines on the fin so be careful,” the oldest boy cautioned. The boy had caught catfish himself many times and already knew that they had sharp spines in their dorsal and pectoral fins. The boy thought this was a mistake. The leader should have told them this before they started chasing the fish, because telling them suddenly now would only make the children nervous and lead to failure again.
The leader stood with his net ready and shouted more instructions, “You people downstream – one step forward, and you lot upstream, too. That’s it – drive it towards me.” The trap was closing. Then all of a sudden a boy screamed and loud splashing could be heard. The smallest boy guarding the lowest reaches near the concrete dam had fallen over and was lying on his back. He was the son of the richest farmer in the village and had just tagged along with the others out of curiosity. He was not used to catching fish. He must have been frightened by what the leader had said about the sharp spines, and he’d just jumped aside when the fish came directly towards him, letting it escape. The tension of the chase instantly disappeared and was replaced by profound disappointment.
“OK, it got away again. Never mind. Let’s find it again and make a fresh start,” the leader shouted, refusing to be discouraged. The children, now laughing about what had happened, broke up into groups to look for the fish.
The boy was often told off for things he did, so he was used to reflecting on his mistakes. Laying his hot body in the cool water and taking in the scent of the water plants broken by the children in their unsuccessful endeavors to catch the fish, he started to think about what had gone wrong. He could not fault the leader’s tactics or orders, and yet they’d failed to catch the fish twice. During its escape, the catfish seemed to only target smaller children with no experience of catching big fish like that. Maybe it would be better to involve only boys who’d done it before, who would not panic if the fish suddenly swam towards them. But in that case, there would not be enough people. He pondered over many different approaches but being in the habit of playing by himself and not used to coordinating the members of a group, he could not come up with anything. The only option was to think of a way he could do it by himself.
He got up and waded in the water over to the pool where the catfish had hidden before, the sand tickling as it squeezed through his toes. When the depth of the water was up to his neck, he dipped his face into the water and began looking for the fish. The leader, being taller than him, was searching for it in the deeper upper reaches. The fish must be hiding in some dark corner of the pool, maybe under leaves or behind rocks. It would not be so easy to find this time. While he was concentrating on his search, he heard a woman’s voice some way off call, “Yasuo-chan, come here.” He looked up and could see that it was the leader’s mother. Their house was near to the dam, and she was calling him from their garden.
“Ahh, not now – really? OK, I’m coming,” he said, and he reluctantly handed his net to the second oldest boy as he left. The boy was worried that loosing the leader would result in everybody giving up, and just as he expected, almost all the children forgot about the big fish and went back to playing in the water as before. Only two boys, the one with the net and himself, were still searching for it. They were afraid to go out of their depth so stood on the edge of the deeper water, stretching out their arms to probe as far as they could with long bamboo poles. The bamboo poles were unexpectedly buoyant, and they had to use their full strength to reach into the depths and stir the murky bottom as they searched.
His partner seemed to be gradually losing interest. The boy usually soon tired of most things but perversely tended to stick to things that others soon lost interest in. He continued looking but did not have any luck locating the fish with the bamboo pole, so he assumed it had already swum away from the deep area. Dipping his face under the surface again and again, he checked areas near the concrete wall, behind rocks, and amongst tussocks of water plants.
He lost track of time. Then when he was crawling on his hands and knees in an area of tussocks, he felt something slimy touch the finger of his right hand. Immediately realizing it was the catfish, he instinctively turned his body and braced to face it. He wasn’t sure how he would be able to catch hold of the slippy skin, but he just thrust his hands forward firmly. Somehow his right hand ended up deep inside the fish, where he found something solid that he could grasp and just held on with all his might. The big fish jumped up from the water with such force that the boy was thrown on his back, but he kept hold of his prize.
He was struggling to breathe and just managed to get his head above the surface, coughing up all the water he’d swallowed.
“Yotchan, I got it! Help me!” he screamed. (Yotchan was the nickname of his partner, Yoshio.)
“Help!!!” His cry echoed around the dam and could even be heard in the village. Yotchan was looking for the fish in an area quite far from him, but he immediately understood the situation and shouted, “Etchan caught the catfish. Come on everybody- let’s help him!” (Etchan was the boy’s nickname.)
He could not remember how many times he was pulled down under the water by the raging fish, desperately resurfacing and gasping for breath, but it never crossed his mind to release his grip on it. He sometimes managed to glance around for an instant and saw the others coming to his aid. Losing their step on the loose sand as they struggled to wade through the water to help him, it seemed to the boy as if he was watching a slow-motion video of their actions.
“Whatever you do, don’t let go,” said his erstwhile partner as he approached, no doubt more worried about losing the fish than the boy’s safety. He supported the boy’s back with his hands and shouted to the
children, “Boys, try to get hold of the fish. You girls, try to pull Etchan towards the shore.” The boys who’d handled catfish before kept hold of it as it floated in the water, while taking care not to get stabbed by the spines. The rest of them helped the girls to get the boy closer to the shore little by little. He could not help feeling proud that he was the one who’d actually caught the catfish and basked in the glory as the children brought him to the shore, but not being used to being the centre of attention, he also felt a bit embarrassed.
Many children were standing round a big wooden tub in the center of the farmer’s garden. Of course, the big catfish was in it. The tub was only four feet in radius, so the fish had to contort its body to fit inside. A net covered the tub in order that the fish would not be able to jump out it if it struggled.
“I have never seen such a big catfish!” all the children agreed.
An adult came over and said, “Well, it is certainly enormous but I have seen a bigger one. When I was a soldier in China, I saw one caught in the Yellow river – must have been ten feet long, and the river was so wide that you couldn’t see the opposite bank.” The children were unimpressed. They were aware that there were probably bigger catfish somewhere in the world, but they knew that the man’s words were just a tall story.
“Well, you found and caught it – it’s up to you to decide what to do with it,” the leader said to the boy. He had always been picked on by the other children in the village, so he was not sure how to respond to being treated as one of them. He started to think: By rights it was his, of course, but what would happen if he took it home? He usually picked the fruit and caught the fish that served as his afternoon snack, but this fish was just too big. There were no refrigerators in the village, and raw fish would go off over one night in the summer. How about if he asked his mother to cook it? No, that would not work. His mother had grown up in the big city and got all her food from grocery stores. Even when he brought wild vegetables home, she immediately threw them away. When he found mushrooms, she always got angry and said things like, “Do you expect us to eat them? How do you know they’re not poisonous?” There was one exception. When he took home a mushroom he’d found growing on the base of a zelkova tree near to their home, a farmer who was visiting their home at the time said, “This mushroom is not poisonous and it’s delicious in miso soup.” He was known as the mushroom professor in the village, so she readily accepted his advice and put it in the miso-soup that night, and it was indeed delicious.
He imagined what would happen if she saw the fish. It was three times the length of their chopping board and would look like a whale to her, so she would just say that we can’t eat it and throw it away. He had caught catfish and eaten them cooked so many times before, so he knew how good they tasted. It was too good to throw away and he did not want to cause his mother any trouble, so he decided to give it away.
The leader saw the confused look on the boy’s face and asked, “What’s the matter? Are you OK?”
“Uhhh. Yes,” he replied, not really knowing what to say.
“I said you can take it home – nobody’s going to complain. It’s yours,” the leader assured him.
“But I don’t want it. Give it to somebody,” he mumbled.
“What? Hey, you’re crying. What’s the matter?” The leader tenderly put his hand on the boy’s head out of concern.
He so wanted to return home as the proud hunter who’d caught the big catfish, but that meant throwing it away. The only thing to do was give it to someone else, but that would make it feel as if all his efforts had been for nothing, and that’s why he was crying.
“ I hurt my chest when I was fighting with the fish,” he lied to the leader, adding in a tearful voice, “Anyway, I don’t want it. Give it to somebody else.” He did actually graze his chest badly while struggling with the fish, and whenever he was swimming during the rest of the summer holidays, he was proud to show off the scar. Everybody knew how he’d got it.