The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter18 Parting (1953~8, 2009)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London, UK)
Fumi Otsuki: Piano Sonatina No.2 (The first theme is based on
an English folk song, “In Bodmin Town”, and the 2nd theme is based on
an Scottish folk song,”Loch Lomond”.)
Claude Debussy (arranged by Gaston Choisnel): En Bateau L.65
Played by Fumi Otsuki (violin) and Sarah Kershaw (Pf)
30th Nov. 2022 St .Luke’s church in Sevenoaks, Kent
1. Sea (1952)
It was the beginning of May. A month ago, under cherry trees in full bloom, the boy and the other children had been welcomed into primary school. There was no kindergarten in the village, so this was an important life event for them. (Even now, entering primary school still has this feeling throughout the country and companies selling school uniforms and satchels etc. often use the phrase of ‘shiny new first graders’ in TV advertisements.) Except for the boy, the children were from farming families and were already helping with farm work, looking after younger siblings and doing other household chores. School, therefore, was something completely different for them, and they were somewhat in awe of the occasion. The boy, on the other hand, was already quite familiar with the primary school. He lived with his mother and second-oldest sister, and with his mother being a teacher, his was one of the few families in the village that didn’t get its income directly from farming. When he was at a preschool age, he couldn’t be left alone in the house, so he used to go with his sister to her primary school, and then spend the day amusing himself in the school grounds while his sister studied. Consequently, he ran around completely at ease as soon as the entrance ceremony had finished. The other children, however, were a little intimidated by their new surroundings.
That day, the boy’s school was on an excursion to the coast of the Pacific Ocean about 18km from their village. With a long bus ride up and down a narrow winding road that crossed the 400~500-meter mountain range separating the two regions, followed by what they thought would be a 30-minute walk for the children, the journey to their destination was expected to take about two and a half hours. After getting off the bus at the parking lot, they were now walking along a narrow path through fields of vegetables under a blazing sun. Fine white sand got into his shoes and made him feel uncomfortable. (The sand in his village, being coarse and dark due to the mica it contained, was quite different.) He wanted to stop and empty his shoes but was reluctant to hinder the progress of the march. The teachers had said it was only a short walk but to the boy, it already seemed like they had been walking for more than an hour. Just as he was really beginning to sweat and feel the weight of his knapsack, they came to a black pine wood, which acted as a windbreak to protect crops from the strong sea wind. Passing through the trees, they reached the sea shore at last. It was the first time in his life he had ever seen the sea.
He was shocked by what he saw. Up to then, he’d only seen photos or pictures of the sea, and he’d always imagined it to be powerful and beautiful. In his image, crests of waves in a deep blue sea surged to the shore and broke into white foam under a bright sunny sky, where white seagulls flew gracefully about. But here there were no seagulls in the dark grey sky (it had clouded over without him realising), and the sea was dark brownish-green, with the wrecks of fishing boats dotted along the shore. The waves washed upon the beach but he couldn’t hear them, his shock being so great, and he had an overwhelming feeling that the sea was somehow connected with death. He sank down weakly to the ground and was unable to move for a while.
“Well, we’ve arrived – you’re free to play on the beach,” the teacher announced. Awakened by his words, the boy looked around at the scenery again. He could now hear the sound of the waves but the image of death remained.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
And then he was lying on the sand near the water’s edge. His body was wet but he had no idea what had happened. He just remembered sitting on the beach by himself and looking at the horizon, still consumed with the feeling of death that his first sight of the sea had evoked. Looking back on it now, the author supposes that he may have been hit by some kind of freak wave, and that he was lucky not to have drowned. At the time, however, the disorienting experience made him feel that he had been changed, or even that he had been possessed by someone or something.
After that, the previously cheerful, confident boy became taciturn and docile. As he grew up, he was able to hide his inadequacies to some extent, but he never regained his former character. Even now, he still sees the sea as a kind of underworld, and misses the carefree boy that disappeared on that fateful day.
2. Parting in the winter (1951)
He didn’t know why he hated partings so much. When a visitor was leaving, he felt so sad and awkward that he would often run off in order to avoid the situation. As meetings inevitably lead to partings, the boy often shrank from meeting people in the first place. And whenever he read novels, he was deeply affected by scenes of parting in the story, but nevertheless continued reading.
“I should go now, otherwise I will miss the last bus. Your headache has gone, hasn’t it? I will back in the summer. Just try to keep your chin up until then.” His eldest sister had her overcoat and shawl on and was bending down to him trying to persuade him to let her go. They were standing on a path cleared through the snow just wide enough for one person, the soft evening sunlight shining on the snow-covered land through a gap in the clouds.
“Yoshiko, do you really have to go? My headache isn’t completely better yet. Stay a bit longer, please! Can’t you go back tomorrow?” he said, looking up at her imploringly.
“I wish I could, but I have to go back to Sendai today – school starts tomorrow. If I don’t go now, the bus will leave without me.”
Holding her shawl in her hand, she turned away and looked along the path into the distance.
She was learning weaving at a vocational school in the main city of the area, living with her father. She came back to her family in the village whenever the school had a long holiday. While she was at home, she usually took care of the boy for their mother, who, being a teacher and effectively a single mother, was always very busy. His mother was very strict with him, so he naturally became very attached to his sister. (His mother, having a traditional idea of fatherhood based on Confucianism, might have been trying to compensate for the absence of his father by being particularly hard on the boy.)
“Go back home, or you’ll catch a cold. Look! – your hands are so cold. I’ll give you my gloves, and then your hands will be warm all winter. You’ll be able to remember me whenever you wear them.”
Finally he realised that he would have to let her go. He nodded and loosened his grip of the edge of her coat. She took a step back and said, “I’ll be home again in six months, and then we’ll have some fun together, I promise.”
She said goodbye and started to walk towards the town, while he stood there gripping the gloves tightly.
The hoot of a steam train could be heard once from somewhere over the mountains, and then he was surrounded by silence. He watched his sister walking along the path, the lights above the path becoming more apparent in the gathering dark. Just at that moment, the light caught her back, and he noticed a part of the heel of one of her boots was coming off. That saddened him and he murmured to himself, “When I grow up and start earning money, I’m going to buy you some boots.” Unfortunately, over the years he forgot about it, and by the time he recalled it, it was no longer possible to give her anything.
3. A mother’s gratitude (1955)
Walking on the narrow mountain path in the dark,
I was afraid to lose my step and fall down into the valley.
I felt my hands were almost being torn off by my bulky wares.
My shoulders ached carrying the heavy baby – you.
I would still have to cook supper for the family late in the evening.
I would have to hand the day’s proceeds over to your father.
Then, his breath reeking of drink, he would give me a telling-off – “Is this all you got? What were you doing?”
I would have to apologize to him.
I felt weary and sick of everything.
I noticed lights in the valley below.
I realised they were from the restaurant area of my home town, Wakayama.
I will go back there, to that place where life had been so good, I thought.
I looked over the edge of the path, holding onto the branch of an azalea.
I felt I would be free from everything with just one more step.
You suddenly burst into tears on my shoulder.
I came to myself.
I have been able to go on living and working hard ever since.
You saved my life.
The biggest city in the northern area of Japan, where the boy’s family used to live, was attacked by 123 B-29 bombers on July 10, 1945, resulting in 1,399 deaths and 1,683 injuries. The boy’s family escaped harm by moving to the small village of his father’s family before that time. As the boy was born in December, 1945, he did not know the exact time his family moved, or what plans
for their upkeep his father had made upon quitting his job in the city.
What he did know was: They lived in a small warehouse belonging to his father’s family. His sisters were often bullied by the children in his father’s family. He was always playing by himself in the mud beside the small stream near their house. He was sometimes told off by his eldest sister for not using the skin cream he’d been prescribed for his burn injuries. When he was four years old, his mother got a job in the primary school in the centre of their village. Then he went there and back along a three-km mountain path with his mother and second-oldest sister every weekday. The following year, his family moved to the area where the school was located. His father had moved back to the city and was living by himself around that time, so effectively he disappeared from the boy’s life. During his occasional visits back to the village, his father would sometimes brag to him, “If I hadn’t decided to move from the city to the village, all of us would have died. You’ve got to admit it was a smart decision.” His mother, on the other hand, ignored him, whispering to her children behind her husband’s back, “ I wish I had stayed there and died.” Having grown up as the daughter of a family owning a restaurant in the city, working on her husband’s family’s farm was very hard for her. On top of that, she was treated harshly by his family. After the war, his family was short of money, and they had to go round the other farmhouses in the village to try to sell their household effects to make ends meet. His father bought household utensils in the city, and he and the boy’s mother peddled them to the houses located in the mountains around the village. However, his father was hardly able to sell anything, so his mother ended up doing most of that work herself. Consequently, as well as having to do the farm and housework, she also had to traipse 20 km around the mountains every day carrying her wares and her son. After she managed to get the teaching job, she had a steady income, but still things were hard for her.( As there were few professional teachers like her who had graduated from a college of primary school education, she ended up doing a lot of extra work.).
While she usually managed to cope with the hard life that fate had handed her, things occasionally got her down. People with problems often find comfort by sharing them with a confidant. Unfortunately, there was nobody suitable around her that she could unburden herself to, so she ended up getting things off her chest to her son. She would relate the problems she’d had that day, which were mostly concerned with human relations in village life and partly at her workplace. She also went on about how peaceful and comfortable life had been up to marrying his father, and how his selfishness had forced them to move around and live in extreme hardship in the last years of the war. She often concluded her laments by grumbling to herself that she wished she’d stayed in her hometown in Wakayama. Her son, often bullied by the boys in the village, empathized strongly with her stories about problems with personal relations. The boy had noticed that adults, who were generally kind to the boy, were quite harsh with his mother, which he could never understand. However, it troubled him that, although she was sympathetic and considerate as a mother and as a teacher, she relentlessly blamed others for her difficulties. After years of this, he came to recognise that most people have both good and bad points to their character.
About that time, while reading a novel by some Christian writer, this understanding posed another puzzle for him. It was a simple, heart-warming story about companionship among virtuous people. There was not even a hint of friction or unpleasantness in their dealings with each other, which was quite at odds with his own experience. He longed to live in such a place, but being well aware of the faults of the people around him, and assuming that he was no different, he always felt intimidated by people who seemed to be warmhearted and unselfish. He was long conflicted by these thoughts but eventually managed to put them to the back of his mind. Then, after being bullied and listening to his mother’s grievances, the confusion surfaced again and he became depressed. In the end, his low self-esteem led to him developing a morbid fear of meeting people*. Of course, his mother might have known there was a risk that he would be negatively affected by her constant grumbling about others, but she couldn’t help it. She had refrained from telling him about nearly jumping off the mountain path that night, but eventually confessed that to him when he was ten years old.
By then, the bullying he endured had been going on for several years, and he was so distressed by it that sometimes he could barely breathe. He kept it to himself, of course, as he did not want to give his mother anything else to worry about. So, when she told him that she’d once contemplated suicide, he just wished he could disappear and take his problems with him. Indeed, the boy was so deeply affected that his mind created a vivid image of his mother that night: exhausted after walking more than 20 kilometres carrying her son on her back and tottering along the narrow edge of the cliff, with the faint light of the moon and the faraway houses reflected on the water at the bottom of the ravine, and the beauty of the azaleas at her feet. It was easy to imagine the feeling of liberation she had felt she would get if she threw herself off the cliff, and he trembled at the thought of it. Even after he had calmed down somewhat, he still tormented himself thinking that it would have been better if he had not been born. Then several days passed and he began to understand why his mother had made such an upsetting confession to him.
He understood that she wanted to convey that no matter how hard a situation might be, he shouldn’t give in to it. He was greatly comforted realising that his mother was well aware of what he was going through. About six months later, they moved away from the village to the town and he started going to a new school, where he wasn’t bullied. He never forgot what she had confided in him that day. As an adult, as well, he grappled with his inferiority complex and continued to feel extremely uncomfortable in social situations. His wife was the only person to understand how hard he struggled when interacting with others, but she passed away when he was 63 years old. The despair he felt at that time overwhelmed him, but his mother’s words to him that day came back to him and helped him get over the loss.
* He continued to long for the kind people and caring society of his dreams. When he was in junior high school, he was introduced to Thomas More’s Utopia and he devoured it. Although he could not fully understand it, he thought that the society described in the novel was just like the one he had imagined in his childhood. And he read with admiration the monthly magazines from the Soviet Union and North Korea that his second elder sister passed on to him. He dreamed of studying at Lumumba University in Moscow in the future. Soon, however, he saw that the reality of life in these socialist countries was not as rosy as the propaganda painted it. He was deeply interested in the teachings of Confucius, reading The Analects in high school, but he soon perceived that Confucius doctrine had still not led to the formation of an ideal society, even after two thousand five hundred years. Consequently, his scepticism about human nature deepened and continued into his old age.
4. Parting with Yoshiko (2009)
6.00 AM – I got a call at home from the hospital and rushed to my wife’s bedside.
“My stomach really hurts.” She hardly ever complained of pain.
“The painkiller the doctor just gave you will start working soon,” I replied.
“I‘m scared. Hold my hand.”
I took her bloated, pallid hand.
Her face relaxed and she closed her eyes.
6:30 AM – Her fever returned.
The heat of her sweaty palm reminded me of a passage in a novel by Andre Gide that I’d read a long time ago:
‘On a hot summer day, we were walking in a green field holding hands.
My hand felt sweaty, so, without thinking about it, I let go.
It was a sign of our final parting.’
The recollection filled me with dread.
“I’ll put this tissue between our hands – they’re sweating so much.”
Yoshiko didn’t acknowledge my words, her expression unchanged – maybe due to the anaesthetic.
I held her hand softly, waiting for her to wake again.
After 10.00AM – Her fever increased.
I looked at her face and checked the monitor display.
I did it over and over again.
Suddenly, I recalled the anguished cries that had come from the family in the next room the night before, as their loved one passed from them.
I realised I’d come to the same point.
Around 12.00PM – I recovered from my stupor.
I gently tried to shake her awake.
She did not show any reaction.
I remembered the doctor saying that he wanted to use a stronger anaesthetic.
“ OK, I understand,” I managed to murmur.
Recently, as her condition had been stable, I had been feeling more optimistic.
I knew that ultimately there was no hope, but I supposed she had at least another 6 months.
However, the doctor’s expression showed that the end was near.
I, the lifelong materialist, addressed God directly and declared:
‘ Now, just because it suits you, you’re taking my wife from me, but I won’t let you!”
“Yoshiko, I’ll never give you up to either gods or devils!”
I grasped her hand tightly to keep her from them.
Around 2.00 PM – Her breathing weakened slightly.
But I realized how powerless I was against such forces and gave in to despair.
I blamed myself: ’I have always thought about myself and not been concerned about Yoshiko at all. Like that time she fell over – I just stood there looking. And now when she needs me most, I’m letting her down again. How coldhearted can you get?”
Around 9.00PM – Her breathing started to become irregular.
Her breaths became gasps.
Her breathing pattern changed gradually from ‘In/Out’ to ‘Out/In’,
0:59 AM – The doctor went away.
I feel the change in the temperature of her hand.
A harsh reality descends on me. I can hardly accept it.
Memories of Yoshiko flood back to me. I struggle to bear the grief.
She is walking on an unknown dark path. I cannot reach her.
I am overwhelmed by solitude.