The Japanese Rustic Life in 1950s. 19

The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.

Chapter19 Homeland (1954)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London, UK)


1. My much-missed hometown, Wakayama (1954)

The Japanese archipelago is a string of more than 3,000 islands in the east of Asia extending 1,300 miles between the Sea of Japan and the western Pacific Ocean. The main island, Honshu, and its other big islands – Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu – have mountain ranges (most of them with volcanoes) in the centre, which extend to the seashore to make intricately shaped geographic features. In the two seas around them, ocean currents flow from the north as well as the south, and particularly on the Pacific side, cold and warm currents collide. These complex land and sea features lead to great local climate diversity. The crops and marine products of each area are characteristic, so place and food products are strongly linked in the minds of the Japanese people. For example, people identify Yamanashi Prefecture with grapes, Aomori Prefecture with apples, Hiroshima Prefecture with oysters, etc. Some products are associated with more restricted areas, for example, lemons and olives with Shodo Island, eels with Lake Hamana, and strawberries with Mount Kuno. Farmers in Japan have striven to improve the qualities and cultivation techniques of many crops. Consequently, as well as increasing the area that a particular crop can be grown, things like taste, size, yield, tolerance to bacteria and insects etc. have also been enhanced. For example, apples were first grown in Aomori Prefecture, but now they are grown in many areas. And tea was long cultivated in Shizuoka Prefecture and the area around the city of Uji, before being followed by Saitama and Fukuoka Prefectures, with Fukuoka Prefecture now, in fact, the largest producer. However, even though they are now produced in several other areas, apples are still synonymous with Aomori, and tea with Shizuoka and Uji. There is a similar story to be told about satsumas, one of the most familiar fruits to Japanese.
Actually, there are several explanations about how the satsuma tree first arrived in Japan. The Kojiki and Nihonshiki, the oldest Japanese historical accounts, describe a satsuma tree native to Assam, India, being brought to Japan from China in the 9th century, by order of the emperor. Other sources say the tree might have arrived from Southeast Asia, and then was cultivated in the warmer areas of Japan. Among several varieties of satsuma, a sweet one was grown in the Wakayama area and was apparently a popular souvenir for people visiting from Kyoto, the capital at the time. The most popular variety of satsuma today is said to have originated either in the southern area of Kyushu island, or Wakayama. Whether it is true or not, at the beginning of the17th century the lord of Wakayama, who had a particular liking for the fruit, ordered it to be cultivated, and then it was sold in the capital, Edo (present day Tokyo). There is a famous story that a merchant from Wakayama made a large profit by selling satsumas in Edo. Even now, Wakayama produces the largest amount of the fruit, and together with its well-known history, satsumas are inseparably linked to Wakayama. However, the English name of the fruit was taken from the old name for the area at the southern end of Kyushu island. It was first introduced into the United States in 1876 by Dr. George R. Hall; and in 1878 General Van Valkenburg, then United States minister to Japan, brought in more trees. The name Satsuma was given to the variety by Mrs. Van Valkenburg. (Refer to THE CITRUS INDUSTRY Edited by Leon D. Batchelor and Herbert J. Webber, Univ. of California Press, 1948.)

It was the afternoon of a day in early autumn, several hours before the sun disappeared behind the top of the mountain. It had rained heavily for several days previously, and the boy was squatting down on the bank of the river, looking absent-mindedly at the almost overflowing muddy torrent. Uprooted trees, huge branches, and items that had belonged to families upstream were flowing away from right to left. A snake was frantically zigzagging on the surface of the raging water, trying desperately to reach the bank. The boy wanted to forget the events from earlier that day, but he couldn’t. The bullying he regularly suffered at the hands of the same group of boys wasn’t physical, but it was almost unbearable, nevertheless. His mother – fearing that the boy would turn out to be like his violent father – had strictly forbidden him to resort to physical force to settle his problems. They were all bigger than him, anyway. And if he ran away to escape, it would have been even worse when he returned to school the following day. Consequently, he felt there was nothing he could do but put up with their verbal attacks.
But today, the usual group of bullies had been joined by the boys he had been happily playing with just before, and that had really hurt. He had almost given way to his anger, which would have resulted in him getting a beating, but his mother’s warnings had prevailed. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help running away from school this time, and now he would have to face the consequences.

He could not recall what he had done between leaving school and ending up on the bank of the river. He fumed over what had happened that day, but slowly his anger faded, leaving him feeling sad and very alone.
For some reason, various fairy tales flashed through his mind. They all seemed to have a girl in some apparently hopeless predicament. Then a prince on a white horse comes along and saves her, and they live happily ever after. He remembered once asking his older sister about a book she was reading. She told him it was about a girl who was born in a rural area of England. She went through some desperate times, but finally her luck turned when an uncle died and left her his fortune.
“European novels often have a happy ending,” she said.
“What is a happy ending?” he asked her.
“It means that a story ends in a happy way. You know the fairy tale ‘Tom Thumb, don’t you’? He was born very small – about one inch tall – but he defeats an ogre to win a magic wish-granting mallet, then becomes rich, marries a beautiful princess, grows to a normal height and lives happily ever after. And yet, there are few Japanese stories that end well for the protagonists.”
The boy didn’t understand completely but he could see that the moral of the story seemed to be that after enduring hardship, happiness would follow – at least, that was the case in European countries.
He noticed a mouse about to make it to the bank after struggling on the choppy surface of the stream. He was just admiring the fortitude of the plucky little creature when a cat, lying there in ambush, pounced and claimed an easy meal. It seemed to confirm how he was feeling about his own situation: there are no fairy-tale endings in real life. His head dropped and he started aimlessly tracing patterns with his fingers in the mud.
A rough voice suddenly interrupted his self-pitying, “What are you doing?”
A young man – a worker* from a nearby farm – was standing behind him. “I was worried you were going to jump in the river. What on earth is the matter? Has school finished or are you just bunking off?”
The boy just stared at him with his mouth wide open.

In Japan, farmers usually had many children to help with work on the farm. Only the first son, groomed to be a successor, was treated with affection and care, the other sons being regarded as mere labourers. Those from families that owned unproductive land earned their keep working for richer farmers. In the 1960s, they massed into the industrial areas to work in factories, which contributed to the rapid growth of Japanese industry. The young man who spoke to the boy was one of the increasingly few people who remained in the countryside to work in the old style.

The boy had no idea how to answer the question and stood there staring stupidly at the man.
“It’s not a difficult question – what are you doing here?”
Feeling relieved that the man wasn’t pushing the questions about school now, he managed to reply,“I was just watching the river thinking where I would end up if I were in a boat.”
“Aha. I see,” the young man said knowingly upon hearing the boy speak, “ you’re not from round here, so I’m guessing some other boys were giving you a hard time and you ran away.”
“ I was born in Yamauchi, so I’m not an outsider,” the boy responded hastily.
“But you use some strange words that local people would never use. I get it -your parents came here from another area.”
“My father was born in this village,” the boy corrected him.
“I see, I see. Then what’s this all about? Are you planning to run away somewhere in a boat?”asked the young man.
“You might think a boat would be OK on this river – it doesn’t look too rough on the surface – but it’s raging below. Once you’d pushed off from the bank, you‘d start to spin and the boat would soon sink and you’d drown, of course,” he explained. “Anyway, where would you go? he continued, “this river merges with a bigger one at the next town, and then flows into the Pacific Ocean. From there you could go to Hawaii or mainland America, or anywhere in the world. You’d surely die before getting to any of those places, but where would you go if you could go anywhere?
Sendai, where his father lived, came to mind first, but he immediately discounted it when he remembered how coldly his father treated him. Then, without knowing where the answer came from, he heard himself say,”Wakayama”.
“Wakayama? Where’s that? – near Tokyo? I am going to go to Kawasaki soon. I didn’t go there when the other young guys from my village went because my family were against it. But now I am tired of working on the farm – I want to work in the big city and enjoy life. I have an idea. Let’s leave the village and go to Tokyo together. Then I’ll go to Kawasaki, and you could go to Wakayama.”
The boy knew Wakayama was much closer to Osaka than Tokyo, but he was swept along by the young man’s enthusiasm and found himself nodding in agreement in spite of himself.
“There, it’s decided. We’ll get things ready tonight and leave early tomorrow morning. Let’s meet here at 7.00, “ he said, patting the boy on the shoulder. He started to walk away but after a few steps he turned round and smiling at the boy said,” Don’t go throwing yourself in the river, now – I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

The boy watched him, thinking what would happen if they left together the next morning. He thought about his mother’s hometown,Wakayama, too. He saw in his mind satsuma orchards stretching from the hills to the sea shore; the yellowing fruit among the green leaves shaking gently in the autumn sunshine. (Actually, his mother had grown up in an urban area and had no connection to satsuma farming, but she had never told him that.) The bitter memory of what had happened that afternoon came back to him, but the prospect of a life without daily torment gave him a sense of freedom.
But how would he get to there? Going with the young man to Tokyo seemed like a good first step, and from there would be able to find his way to Wakayama. He didn’t worry about what he would do when he got there, because his mother had told him that the people there were very kind. And what would his family do after he left? He didn’t think about that at all.

Walking aimlessly along the river bank, he began to have doubts about the plan. He recalled how the young man had persuaded him to leave the village the next day, and for some reason he became suspicious. It might have been because of the treatment he’d received at the hands of the people in the village, although actually it was only the children that were unkind to him; almost all the adults were quite friendly towards him. Maybe it was just not having any real friends and having felt alone for so long, it was difficult for him to trust anyone. Then he seemed to remember seeing the young man with the ringleader of the group that was bullying him; maybe they were related. The more he thought about it, the more he felt he shouldn’t trust him.
“No, I can’t go with him to Tokyo,” he muttered to himself,“but what should I do? Should I go to school tomorrow?”
But he couldn’t forget the image of how sweet life would be without having to put up with those boys and the way they treated him.
“No, I really can’t stand it any more, so what am I going to do?”
His mother always used to say to him, “ If you want something, it’s no good relying on others – you’ve got to do things for yourself.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and said determinedly, “ I don’t need him – I can go to Wakayama by myself.”
The boy started walking again, heading now for the neighbouring town. He must have already been considering something like running away, because he’d picked up his most-valued possessions from home before going to the river bank. He checked his bag and confirmed everything was still there. The autumn sun in Japan sinks like a bucket going down a well, and he was soon surrounded by darkness. Aided by the lights along the road about 50 metres away, he followed the path, avoiding the puddles and hiding in bushes whenever anybody approached. He planned to take a bus from the town to a bigger town with a railway station. He had been there several times with his mother and sister, taking a train to the city of Sendai to visit his father. This time, he would take a train in the opposite direction, which would eventually take him to Tokyo. And how would he get to Wakayama? Well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead yet but this plan would do for now.

Entering the bus terminal, he looked around inside the waiting room to make sure there was no one there who might know him. There wasn’t; he breathed a sigh of relief. He confirmed the time of the last bus to the town with the train station, and sat down on a bench in the corner of the waiting room. A breeze started blowing through the open door, and the boy, only wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, began to shiver. There is an expression in Japanese – ‘musha-burui’ – meaning that the body shakes to summon up bravery to confront some danger or difficulty. The boy’s shaking, however, was just a passive response to his anxiety, and the cold.
The bus arrived and stopped in front of the entrance to the waiting room. He appeared to be the only passenger, but he hesitated to get on board. What held him back? – love for his family? anxiety about his future life? fear of loneliness? Many confused thoughts went through his mind as he walked slowly towards the bus. Just as he was about to step on board, a pair of strong arms encircled him from behind.
He twisted his body round.
“Mom!” he exclaimed, dropping down on his haunches.
“It’s OK. Don’t worry – everything will be alright now.” Her voice was very gentle with, unusually, just a hint of her hometown accent. He burst into tears and clung to her, feeling her warm warm embrace for only the second time in his life. And with this, his attempt to start a new life ended. Consequently, he was unable to complete an important rite of passage.

The Handball and the Lord
(lyrics by Yaso Saijo, English translation by Bre Long)

Hand-hand-handball, hand-handball
A handball slipped off someone’s hand
Where on earth did it bounce?
Over the hedges and the roofs
Toward the busy main street
The main street

What’s the parade marching there?
Kishu’s lord on his way back home
His retinue led by gold-crested boxes
His litter flanked by bearded warriors
With furred spears, yelling yak-kora-sa

Hand-hand-handball, hand-handball
It bounced onto the litter’s canopy
Hello, my honorable lord of Kishu
I hear about your mandarin grove
Pray show me if you wouldn’t mind
Wouldn’t mind

They marched along Tokai Highway
A highway lined with pine trees
While making a stop every evening
After a year the ball didn’t come back
After three years it didn’t come back
Didn’t come back

Hand-hand-handball, in the arms
Of the lord it made a long journey
To Kishu, a great sunlit country
And lived in his mandarin grove, they say
To become a shining mandarin, they say
They say

Hill of Tangerine Blossom
(Lyrics by Shogo Kato, English translation by Baby Boo)

Tangerine flowers are in bloom
Memories Road Hill Road
The blue sea that can be seen far away
The ship is hazy
While smoking black smoke
Where will the ship go?
Swayed by the waves, the shadow of the island
The whistle rang
With my mother, the hill that came sometime
That island I saw together
When I’m watching alone today
A kind mother is thought of



It is said that more than 8 million gods exist in Japan. And when you have a wish or prayer, you should take care to select the god appropriate to your request, and then, along with an offering of money, pray to that god. (Incidentally, although Shintoism and Buddhism are different religions, they have become mixed in Japan since the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century. Consequently, the principal icons of both religions are venerated.)
For example,
@ If you wish to marry, you should pray to the god of matrimony. There are many such shrines all over Japan, some of which have been long associated with marriage requests.
@ If you wish to be rich, there are gods to petition for luck with money. There are many of these, too.
@ If you wish to have child, there is the god of childbirth. Besides the many shrines and temples that cater for this, natural springs are also thought to have power in this respect.
@ For good health, any of the gods will do, although there are some gods that are specifically linked to particular parts of the body..
@ For divine intervention in the weather – again, almost all shrines and temples can accommodate you. Since the improvement in accuracy brought about by scientific forecasts, the gods are not asked to influence the weather as much as they once were. However, some shrines still hold special events where the forthcoming year’s weather is predicted by the reading of cracks in china or shells.
@ If you wish for improvement in scholastic ability, then you need to go to a Tenmangu shrine and pray to the god of learning, Michizane Sugawara. Michizane Sugawara was a 9th century nobleman famous as a politician, professor of rhetoric and history, and a writer of Chinese poetry. After his death, he was revered as a god in the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine, which is the head shrine of the 12,000 Tenmangu shrines located around Japan.
@ For success in entrance examinations for educational institutions from kindergarten to university – again, there are many shrines and temples plying a lucrative business in this area.
@ There are even several shrines dealing with supplication for rugby football.

There are tens of thousands of shrines and temples all over the country, and people routinely select one according to a specific need. The gods there wait passively to be petitioned, never taking action unless their divine intervention is directly requested.
Followers of Buddhism do not acknowledge a supreme god or deity but, in the author’s understanding, Buddha can act under the commission of God. However, Buddha doesn’t respond to direct prayers. That is to say that a person is basically responsible for everything they do. Buddha sees the result of their actions, and then judges whether they have attained nirvana, or whether they must go though another reincarnation. In Shintoism, any natural object, phenomenon, animal or plant can be regarded as having some power: sometimes it is joked that the even the head of a dead sardine becomes a god when people pray to it. Indeed, even though a mix of both religions permeates society, most Japanese do not consider themselves to be particularly spiritual. We believe that our problems will only be solved by our own actions, and although the act of praying to the gods may somewhat ease the mind, most people don’t anticipate the gods intervening directly to help them in bringing about fairy tale-type endings to their entreaties.
With Christianity, on the other hand, somebody accepts the result of their action, whether that be good or bad, as a blessing from an Almighty God (or at least, that’s how most Japanese see it). Perhaps that makes it easier for Christians to accept, what seem like to Japanese, unlikely endings to stories, and why it might seem reasonable to them that a knight on a horse appears to rescue a princess, or that an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative falls upon a troubled protagonist. (There is one sect of Buddhism, Jodo-shin-shu, that has a more European approach, teaching that one should strive to achieve something, and then entrust the result to Buddha. It’s not clear why but its teachings have many similarities to Christianity. There is one view that when this sect originated in India, its dogma was influenced by the Christianity propagated by Saint Thomas.)
The boy’s outlook on life was typically Japanese: he’d been brought up by his strict mother to unquestioningly accept his lot. In his later years, however, he realised that this was not always the best thing to do.


3. HOME TOWN (2023)

The tsunami that accompanied the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 brought about a great loss of life, the destruction of many dwellings, and radioactive contamination, forcing many people to evacuate. Many of the displaced expressed their hopes to return to their home towns one day. Today, the people who were fortunate enough to be able to go back talk about their great joy of being back home and being able to see friends, neighbours and family again. However, the people who have not been able to return and take up their lives again feel dislocated and adrift.

(1) Short poems (Japanese poem of thirty one syllables) by Takuboku Ishikawa

I had to leave my home town after being driven out by the villagers,
who had been grieving me. (Which has been grieving me?)

I have been working earnestly. But it hardly releases me from poverty. I look fixedly at my palms.

Country folk arrive at the train station from their home towns, and I go there to listen to the provincial accent of my birthplace.

I enjoy simply watching the mountain of my home town, silently with gratitude.

(2) Sentiment aroused by a rural scene by Saisei Murou

Your home town, you should think of from far away,
And sing mournfully about.
Even if you are a beggar in a strange town,
You should not return to your home town.
In a metropolis, you might shed a tear, lonely with longing for your home town.
With this heart, (feeling?/sentiment?)
I want to get back to the metropolis.
I want to get back to the metropolis.

A famous Japanese novelist said that writing novels is really hard for him because he inevitably reveals much about himself. The reader is often not satisfied just reading the story: he also often wants to try to find out about the private life of the author in order to get a deeper understanding of the work. Critics also often use their knowledge of the background of an author in their reviews. This is true not only of novels but any of the literary arts.
In my case, I usually read a novel without the need to know anything about an author’s life. However, when a poem impresses me, I am more intrigued to find out what might have inspired it. Among the above poems, I feel the former short poems (Japanese poems of thirty one syllables) are fictional, while the longer one is surely based on the author’s life.
By combining the first three poems, we get an image : a young person who came to live in a metropolis sorely misses their far-away hometown. Maybe not having yet made a success of their life keeps them from returning. Reading the third poem with this in mind, you can picture various scenes of life in the big city, as well as the longings for home. Even though it is known that the author led a pleasure-seeking life in the city, we are still able to accept his feelings for his home town as genuine. Consequently, his poems are very popular.
The longer poem (2), like the short ones, describes the nostalgic longings a man living in a big city has for his home town in the country, only this time the feelings are more passionate. The author of this poem had already achieved great fame by the time he wrote it, so a lack of success wouldn’t have been a reason to keep him from returning home. Nevertheless, he stressed that one should never go back there, no matter how attractive the memory of it might be. His readers understand that his cynicism is a result of the experiences he must have had in his home town.
The displaced victims of disasters express their love for their home town just as strongly as the authors of these poems. Of course, there are many people who are happy to live in their birthplace all their life, and many who feel a debt of gratitude to the place where they grew up. It’s uncommon for a work of literature to give a critical account of the author’s home town, and it’s even difficult to find such examples in the mass media. Does this mean that it’s rare for people to have negative thoughts about their birthplace? Or is it that it’s almost like taboo to voice such feelings? All religions, moral codes and school education urge us to respect and be grateful to our parents. However, condemnation of parents is easy to find. That seems to suggest to me that home towns are somehow more sacred than parents: that we are more strongly attached to the places where we were born and grew up than to the two human beings that created us. I think this sentiment is expressed in the fourth short poem (1).

(3) Country Home(songs of Ministry of Education)
(Lyrics by Tatsuyuki Takano  English translation by Tokue Shoda)
That mountain where I trailed the hare,
that river where I fished small fishes,
I still dream from so far away,
unforgettable is my country home.

In my childhood, I used to spend all my time enjoying myself in the hills, fields and rivers around the village where I lived, so it’s easy for me to relate to this poem. Even so, I don’t yearn for my home village at all, and I still shudder remembering the bullying I endured there. After I grew up and had occasion to go back there, I found myself looking around nervously whenever I passed somebody in the street. Maybe this kind of behaviour marks me out as abnormal: something preventing me from having the natural feelings for one’s home town that most people seem to have.
Assuming this was caused by the bullying in my childhood, I might have been able to overcome it if I’d stayed in the village until I became an adult, hard though it would have been. Saisei Murou, the author of the second poem, might have been able to process the negativity he felt about his home town through the experiences he had in other places, enabling him to regain a sense of nostalgia for the place of his birth. I tried to do the same thing but was unsuccessful; maybe I should have tried harder, or maybe I just didn’t have the ability to do so. Looking at it like this, my feelings might represent a rejection of my past life rather than a reaction to the bullying.
(From the point of view, the following three cases was imagined little bit facially.)??

(1) Affected by the mood of the society
Just after defeat in the last war, the leaders in the government and army burned many incriminating documents in an effort to shirk their responsibility for the war. The people, holding a bitter grudge against the government for the peaceful life that had been taken from them, however, had to somehow scrape a living in the aftermath of the destruction their leaders had brought about. The government deflected their anger with honeyed words: ‘Let’s forget sad memories of the past and endure the present hardships while dreaming of a wealthy and happy future.’ (These words were believed by most Japanese, though personally, I can’t say that my labours have left me feeling in any way affluent.)
At that time, I was not old enough to improve my life through my own efforts, but, of course, I was affected by the atmosphere in society. I was lucky enough to go to university (albeit the one with lowest fees) due to the hard work of my mother, while many schoolmates had to get a job after graduating from secondary school. After graduation, I worked conscientiously, earned a salary commensurate with the skills I’d acquired, and was able to contribute to society. However, I became less and less satisfied with the life I had and started to question, after overcoming the troubles of my childhood, whether I could be happier. Ever since then, I have struggled to come to terms with my past, and continually ask myself if what I’m doing with my life is right.

(2) Comparing myself with other people.
As mentioned in chapter 18 of this essay, my mother often told me about how she had overcome the hardships she’d had as a child. She was clearly trying to show me how I might be able to get through difficult times, and even be able to look back on them nostalgically one day. Unlike her, unfortunately, looking back on my childhood in the village only arouses pain and anger. Perhaps this seems strange but comparing my past to that of someone so close to me has only increased the torment I have felt.

(3) Occupational disease
Throughout my working life, I was engaged in the development of electronic devices and their materials. The essential concept of this work is to create something new by abandoning present ideas. Indeed, as soon as I’d finished developing one product, I set about trying to improve it, even suggesting how versions far in the future might be developed. Inevitably, this ingrained way of thinking affects all aspects of my daily life.
I suspect these three things have combined and prevented the growth of any feelings of affection for my home town. If my analysis is correct, I wonder if is it still possible for me to get over my negativity and have a positive regard for the place that I grew up.

Actually, I’m happy to say that recently I have been able to feel something akin to nostalgia when I look back on my life. I hope to have a chance to tell you about it some day.


The End