The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter 11 A Great Man (1954)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London)
The definition of a great man
1.The great men described in the moral textbooks of compulsory education
The author is an ordinary engineer who has many inventions including one or two world firsts in a limited field to his credit, but hopefully it is not too impudent for him to comment on the three great men described on Youtube. What makes these men ‘great’ seems to be difficult to define clearly. Wikipedia has a long list of great people, defining them as people who stand out in history because they achieved remarkable results. Many of them are monarchs and their relatives.
However, history tells us that sometimes these kings, queens and princes were quite ordinary and achieved nothing of note and sometimes were clearly incompetent. Therefore, this definition seems wanting. The Youtube part of this essay mentioned the stories of great people that were taught in primary school classes, so the people described in the moral textbooks of compulsory education (published by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan) were investigated, particularly in reference to the differences between Japan as a militaristic nation (1942~1944) and as pacifistic one (present, 2015).
The number of people listed is less than 40. (The emperor and his relatives were listed many times, so they were omitted from this investigation.) There are only two great men common to the textbooks of both eras, and they are both military men. It’s not surprising that many men from the services were chosen when Japan was a militaristic nation, but even now, the textbooks of a nation supposedly striving for peace contain the examples of one or two astronauts, who surely share a responsibility for at least some developments in the armaments field. This fact alone gives us an indication of what the government’s long-term intentions are.
The textbooks of the militaristic era were written less than a century after the new government had been established, and the selection of people was intended to create an impression of the legitimacy of the emperor and the power of the new government.
On the other hand, textbooks at the present feature people from various fields such as business, art, science, history, sports, entertainment etc., and the emperor isn’t included. Those regarded as ‘especially superior’ were chosen for their popularity, excellence of performance or contributions to public welfare. There are no politicians or soldiers.
Edward Jenner is the only foreigner in the prewar textbook and there are six people in the present one – Jean Henri Fabre, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Pierre de Coubertin, Anne Frank and Mahatma Gandhi.
Accordingly, the selection of “great people” is influenced by government policy, and cannot be regarded as impartial. The influence of these choices can be seen in the fact that recently astronauts are highly regarded by children, and many aspire to become astronauts in the future. As it seems clear that much of the research done in space exploration is tied up with the development of weapons, this really frightens me.
Kinjiro Ninomiya and Hideyo Noguchi were the two people selected for textbooks of both eras. They are described as follows –
2. Kinjiro Ninomiya (1787 – 1856)
He was born into what was originally a relatively rich farming family. However, at the age of five, a large storm and subsequent flooding destroyed their fields and severely damaged their house. Unable to work their land properly, the family became impoverished and the young Ninomiya was forced into doing manual labour on engineering projects and making straw sandals. When he was twelve years old, his father died and he took over the running of the family farm. At sixteen years old, his mother died and they were again hit by devastating floods. The family was broken up and the three children were taken to live with different relatives. This was not done out of sympathy but rather an eagerness to gain an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.
Kinjiro Ninomiya was first taken in by his grandfather’s family, and then moved to other members of his family. He studied hard and earned money with side jobs while working for his relatives. By the time he was twenty years old, he was able to rebuild the family home and restore their fields with the money he had saved. He then let his fields to other farmers and started working as a manservant in a samurai family. Through studying by himself and his experience there, he learnt a lot about the management and running of samurai families, and gradually came to be given jobs with more and more responsibility. Then he was asked to save both his mother’s family and the head of his family from economic difficulties. Performing this work successfully, the head of his family recommended him to the daimyo’s chief retainer for a role in reorganizing his personal finances and paying off considerable debt. In about four years he was able to pay off the whole amount of the debt – about 470 thousand pounds (66 million yen)- and made a profit of 140 thousand pounds. Despite his spectacular success, he never received a penny for his efforts. His indifference to personal gain and his remarkable ability with economic management were applauded by people in his area. This led to him receiving many requests to help out from villages with financial difficulties, as well as from samurai families. He performed these duties successfully and was awarded samurai status by the local government. His good reputation came to the attention of the national government and spread among the daimyos. He took on an endless line of projects connected with financial rescue, the development of farming fields, farming economics etc., and was busy up to his death. The projects he initiated are said to number over 600, and his long stays in area while working on projects led to the town being named after him.
His method was based on thrift and the efficient management of farming, which samurai living in rural districts relied on financially. This was achieved by such means as increasing the area under cultivation by reclaiming land, and selecting crops based on local climate and other regional factors. In my opinion, he was successful because he had both the knowledge and practical ability to carry out reforms in farming management, the need for which had arisen because of the limitations of the feudal system. Within the system, there were four levels of hierarchy – one ruling class (samurai) and three ruled classes (farmer, craftsman and merchant). (In addition to those classes, there were a special upper class consisting of the emperor and the nobility, and a bottom class of people that included criminals and people not on any family register). The samurai depended financially on the tax they received from various industrial activities. As Mr. Ninomiya lived in a rural district, the local government and samurai families depended mostly on the tax of crops. Agricultural practice at the time enabled farmers to make a comfortable living in usual years, but its inadequacies led to bankruptcy and farm closures in times of natural disaster.
The samurai class, being the administrators of their land, should have taken measures against the possible occurrence of such crises but they spent their income irresponsibly and had nothing saved in reserve. Consequently, neither the samurai or the farmers had any plans for response to natural disasters, so there were frequent nationwide famines.
Mr. Ninomiya learned farming techniques and management from working with the farmers, and, as a result of his unfortunate experiences when he was younger, knew deeply the importance of putting aside money to cope with the effects of natural disasters. Furthermore, he had also mastered financial management while working for samurai families. His unique talent, therefore, came from his experience bridging divisions within the class system. His know-how was especially valuable to the samurai class, who up to that time had never governed with any understanding of farming. Moreover, he reformed unhelpful farming systems, not just politically but often also by leading the physical labor needed to implement the changes.
Now many Japanese companies have a management concept of ‘on-the-spot decision-making’ or ‘hands-on approach’, which means managers should take the initiative with there-and-then decisions. This may have come about because of Ninomiya’s ideas.
School textbooks tend to emphasize his selfless attitude and how he strived, in the midst of poverty, to overcome hardship and improve the life of people in the community by eliminating waste and more prudent use of funds. However, many of his successful farming methods are applicable to other areas of management, and this may be why he is considered to be a great person.
3. Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928)
Hideyo Noguchi, bacteriologist, is familiar to all Japanese. He became a medical doctor in Japan, worked in the U.S. at the University of Pennsylvania, and then became a research fellow of Rockefeller University. He had great strides in his studies on yellow fever, snake poison etc., and died in Ghana while further studying yellow fever. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, which had never been given to a Japanese at that time. (The first Japanese Noble Prize winner was Hideki Yukawa, being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1949.)
Hideyo Noguchi was born into a farming family in the Tohoku district (the northeastern part of Japan). He lost the use of his left hand after burning it badly in the fireplace at home when he was one year old. This disability led to him being bullied at school. However, his teacher recognized his ability and paid for him to have surgery. The operation was successful and because of it, the young Noguchi came to understand the importance of medicine. He applied himself to his studies and became a medical doctor and bacteriologist.
When the author of this essay learned about Dr. Noguchi as a child, he felt a deep kinship with him, as he was also badly burnt in his infancy and bullied at school as a consequence. However, he could not help feeling that many things had been left out from the simplified version of the story that appeared in the textbook. The operation and relief from bullying that followed was surely the starting point of ‘an initiation process’ in his success story. Neither the teacher or the textbook mentioned any of the essential episodes of this process, for example – how chances arose for him and how he took them, how he strove to realize his ability, and, unlike the story about
Ninomiya, there were no details about his private life. These omissions left the author feeling deeply unsatisfied with the account.
The story of Dr. Noguchi left the boy (the author in his childhood) feeling tormented by his bottled-up feelings about his situation. The burn scars he had on his face that resulted in the bullying were not physically restricting, and so didn’t require surgery, and even if the scar tissue had been removed, all the attention it would have caused would have surely increased the bullying. This led him to feel that he had missed out on a similar opportunity to start a process that might have helped him to overcome his problems. In the end, the anguish he felt about this spoiled his admiration for Dr. Noguchi.
Leaving aside his personal feelings, the success story of Dr. Noguchi was further investigated, but only the following was found.
Simon Flexner (1863-1946), the famous USA bacteriologist, came to Japan when Dr. Noguchi was in university. At that time, medical organizations in Japan were completely dependent on German medicine, and it was very rare for them to have an English-speaking doctor. Dr. Noguchi could speak English, so acted as his guide. He tried to persuade Professor Flexner to offer him a job in the USA but without success. Then, under his own initiative and without the professor’s consent, Dr. Noguchi went to the USA. Professor Flexner reluctantly employed him as a private researcher to study snake venom. From that time, he worked diligently under the professor and achieved excellent results with that research. He also obtained noteworthy results with his research into the causes of yellow fever, eventually dying in Ghana while continuing his studies. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times on account of his work.
It appears that there are people who are not happy with the way his success story is related in textbooks – indeed, there is quite a lot of criticism of Dr. Noguchi and his work. However, even if this criticism were valid, it ought not to diminish his achievements. It might be the case that there are simply not many private stories that demonstrate an ‘ initiation process’, and this could be the reason why descriptions of his personal life are limited to his childhood.
In conclusion, it can be said that the main reasons that Ninomiya and Noguchi are considered ‘great’ are, of course, their remarkable accomplishments and the hard work they achieved them with.
During Noguchi’s lifetime, there were several medical scientists in Japan whose achievements were equally or even more impressive than his, and several scientists had already accomplished advanced results in other fields as well – remarkable when you think that it was only half a century since western science had been introduced to Japan. However, they were not considered for the Nobel Prize due to a lack of nominators in Japan. On the other hand, Dr. Noguchi was in the USA, which might have led to him being nominated 3 times.
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. It’s climate changes gradually from the south to the north according to the shifting seasons. The rainy season is in June and July, and this promotes the growth of rice, the main crop, throughout the country. The Japanese plum also ripens at this time, and accordingly the kanji characters used to write ‘rainy season’ are the ones for plum and rain. The boy lived in the northern part of the mainland, which usually had its rainy season from the end of June to the middle of July.
In that year, the rainy season ended unusually early and the sun beat down hard every day even in early July. The sunlight did not pour directly into the classroom due to the high position of the sun, but it heated up the school and made the pupils sweat. Sometimes there was a breeze and it dried their sweat, so it wasn’t so bad. That day, the boy was sitting on a chair next to the window, looking outside with a blank look on his face. The cicadas started chirping energetically and the leaves rustled in a strong wind. It was noisy outdoors. No, that’s not quite true –actually the teacher’s voice was louder but the boy’s thoughts were flying somewhere outside the classroom.
Suddenly the teacher’s voice seemed to get louder. Well, it would be more accurate to say that the boy became interested in what the teacher was saying.
“Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a great person with a kind heart, loving his childhood friends dearly. One day, his rich parents bought Albert a very nice hat, but he did not wear it because he wanted to wear an ordinary one like his poor friends. This shows that even as a child he thought of others, an example of the philanthropy he would become famous for as an adult.”
‘No, that’s rubbish!’ The boy almost said aloud, ‘That’s definitely not true. There is another more selfish reason that he did not want to wear the nice hat.’
In the boy’s village, children were always on the lookout for somebody to bully. This person was chosen on the slightest difference from others, irrespective of wealth and ability. His family lived on his mother’s earnings as a teacher, while almost all other families were farmers. Such a tiny difference was a good enough reason to single somebody out for bullying. On top of that, he had a burn scar on his face, which often made him a target.
One day, his mother bought a cloth hat for him but he never wore it. All the village boys wore a tatty straw one, so he knew that if he wore the new cloth hat when he was with them, that would definitely be another reason for the boys to bully him. Of course, he kept the fact that he was getting bullied secret from his mother as he did not want to make her sad. (Being so wrapped up with her work might have been why she failed to notice the hard time her boy was having.) Teachers at that time certainly didn’t pay enough attention to bullying, which still seems to be the case today. She did not know why he continually refused to wear it and finally tried to compel him to do so.
He wore it only one time when he went to a big city far from the village. He didn’t have any problems and the experience taught him that the people around him in his village were narrow-minded and unaccepting of differences in other people. Therefore, this biased view made him conclude that Dr. Schweitzer must have been afraid of bullying too. Of course, the village boys didn’t think the story of Dr. Schweitzer was true – it was just a story in their textbook. Later, he studied Dr. Schweitzer’s achievements, and was embarrassed to think how he had regarded him at that time. However, whenever he heard anything about the lives of great men, he could not stop himself doubting the truth about it. Anyway, he has since tended not to read such stories.
2. Johann Carl Friedrich Gauß
It was the beginning of autumn andthe boy had been gazing blankly out of the classroom through the window as usual. This area had another, shorter rainy season in September, and it was raining on that day. Puddles could be seen here and there in the schoolyard, and the branches of a big willow were shaking in the strong wind and rain. The view from the window sometimes became unclear in the intermittent heavy rain, and it reminded him of a rainy scene depicted in some Chinese painting. He made plans for what he would do after school – these didn’t include studying, of course. The thick cloud would be good for fishing, but the heavy rain would make it difficult to see the fish biting, and it was a little bit too early to pick chestnuts. He finally decided that it would be better to stay inside and read. Maybe he would look at the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales his mother had bought, or a children’s novel, or his elder sister’s textbooks with all their pictures and maps of the world. He had looked at the chapter about Slovenia containing a picture of a pretty girl many times. His mother never bought him comic books, saying that reading things like that would make him stupid. (The comic books were drawn by great cartoonists such as Osamu Tezuka, who is much respected nowadays.)
He suddenly remembered he was now in his mathematics class – a subject that he was not good at. Pupils had to write their answers on the blackboard more often than in other classes. Unfortunately, the boy always became nervous when he had to speak or do anything in front of people, so he came to his dislike the subject, and that surely resulted in the poor assessment given to him by the teacher. That day, as a short break from the lesson, the teacher related to them a story of a great mathematician.
“Gauss, the great mathematician, was born in Germany, and exhibited his splendid talent from his childhood. Here is my question for you all.
What is the sum of integers from one to ten?”
The boy instantly came up with the answer of fifty-five.
The teacher continued, “Does anybody know the answer? Raise your hand.”
He, however, did not lift his hand.
The teacher said, “You clearly can’t come up with the answer so easily, but little Gauss had the same question in his school, and he was able to give the answer as fifty-five in no time – a mathematical genius can calculate that fast.”
The boy was unimpressed. He did not think that such a simple calculation test was a convincing example of genius. How did he calculate it, then?
The image of the number array from one to ten sprang in his mind. He connected one to nine, two to eight, three to seven, and four to six with an arrow, and then added ten and five to make fifty-five. This instantly led to the answer. He felt anybody should be able to do that without any help from a teacher.
He momentarily thought that if that test was truly an indication of mathematical ability, even if he were not exceptional like Professor Gauss, he might be able to become professor of the mathematics someday. However, he couldn’t overcome his feeling that he wasn’t good at this subject, and subsequently never had much interest in mathematics. Later in life he came across the episode about Professor Gauss again and found that the teacher had in fact asked for the sum of the integers from 1 to 100, and the young Gauss had replied correctly immediately. As he couldn’t even get an image of the necessary number array in his small brain, he felt somewhat more convinced by this account.
Why had the textbook used the ‘one to ten’ example? (At the moment of writing this essay, the author doesn’t know whether the story about Professor Gauss was written in a textbook or a teaching manual.) Possibly the author of the Japanese version had considered that the ‘one to ten’ story would be easier for the pupils to understand the genius of Professor Gauss – the ‘one to a hundred’ version being way beyond their comprehension. But hadn’t he felt that by doing so he didn’t do justice to the great mathematician? On the other hand, that being able to add up the integers from one to ten is not a proper way to assess mathematical talent is surely proved by the unremarkable life of the author of this essay!
Great people earned their fame by their fantastic achievements, and relating these achievements precisely would never have led to the misunderstandings just described. However, the textbook made the mistake of trying to convey their greatness with trivial incidents, greatly underestimating the instinctive ability of children to understand without the need for oversimplification.
Consequently, the boy learned in that class that textbooks are not always right. This understanding has been useful to his various studies since, and even contributed to a certain innovation in some cases.
3. George Washington
Children living in an agricultural mountain village had a busy time doing farming work and taking care of their siblings every day after school. As his family didn’t earn their living from farming, the boy had to only draw up water from the well and carry it about a hundred meters in a bucket to a water container a couple of times a day. Then he could play as much as he liked every afternoon. (Of course, he did no inclination to study.)
Sometimes children were temporarily released from their duties and played with him. In the evening, they left him alone and went back home in twos and threes and resumed their chores, which included such things as tidying farming equipment up, heating the bath, preparing the dinner etc. He enjoyed playing together with the other children so much and he hated it when they left. Probably because of that, he continued to dislike evenings for a long time after.
Now, he was sitting on one of the branches of a persimmon tree on a farmer’s land next to his house. While he was gazing absent-mindedly at the view around him in the lingering evening light, he heard a familiar step. He could hardly believe his ears because his mother usually came home after dark – she never came back at that time. When the sound of her footsteps got closer, and then stopped under his persimmon tree, he held on to another branch and leaned out of the tree to see her.
“What are you doing up there?” she said.
“Ah, it’s you, mom – I thought so.” At that moment, there was a loud crack as the branch broke and he fell to the ground heavily. As the same thing had happened to him many times before, he was instinctively able to break his fall and avoid serious injury. He did feel some pain but not wanting to worry her, he stood up straight and didn’t show it.
She shouted at him, “What were you doing up there? Now you’ve broken the branch and it’s not our tree.
You must go and apologize to them.”
“Why should I apologize?” He muttered to himself. It was true that the persimmon tree was on their neighbor’s property, but they never tended to it and always left the fruit on the tree every year. To the boy it was just like a wild tree and besides that, it was so big that breaking one smallish branch didn’t seem important.
“Why should I apologize to them?”
She replied sternly, “If you damage somebody’s property, of course you should apologize to the owner. Go and apologize – now!” He knew that if he continued to argue, he wouldn’t be allowed inside their house and he would have to go without dinner, so he reluctantly went to apologize to the farmer’s family.
The head of the family said to him kindly, “That tree is nothing special to us – it just happens to be there on our land – there’s no need to apologize.”
” That’s just what I thought,” the boy said to himself.
A few years later, he learned the story about George Washington damaging a tree and could understand his mother’s intention at last. Consequently, the reason he was never able to hold a very high position, even in a small company, might be put down to his lack of the kindness that Washington had displayed. The one thing he learned from the episode was that the persimmon tree is more easily damaged than most trees.
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) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London)
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 to take out the card from the place. When the player take out the card in the competitor’s side, he can move one card from own side to other’s side. The player whose side eventually run out ofthe 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.
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.)