The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter 12 Solitude and a true friend (1954)
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London)
He rang the doorbell, but as usual nobody came to let him in. He unlocked the door and went into the living room. The light was on but there was nobody there, even though it was around 9 o’clock. He put down his bag on the floor and plumped down exhausted on the sofa. He switched on the TV set and flicked through the channels – the evening news, variety shows, drama etc. , but nothing interested him. The sound of violin came from the music practice room along the corridor.
“You’re lagging behind the tempo! You made a mistake again! Keep to the right rhythm! Do it once more! One, two, three – go!” His wife’s angry voice could be heard over the violin sound. He muttered to himself, “ Not again!” He knew dinner wouldn’t be coming any time soon and resigned himself to having to wait till the practice ended. He sank in the sofa and started to recall the day’s events.
It was his first day at the company he had joined after quitting his job at the university, where he had been investigating industrial materials for 15 years in the faculty of engineering. In the course of his research, he identified the problems that he wanted to work on in the future, and he decided that working for an electronic parts manufacturer would give him a better chance of succeeding than continuing in the highly restricted research field that he was limited to at the university.
The reality of the situation there was totally different to what he’d naively imagined. While working at the university, he had been involved in some joint research projects with the company, so already knew quite a lot about it. In specific fields, the company usually had more advanced research technologies and equipment than the university.
The company was impressed with his research experience and left him in charge of new material development. However, the research field that he would be involved with at the company was quite different from his own, requiring him to learn some disciplines from scratch in order for projects to start and progress smoothly.
Before joining the company, he had been given a tour of the work place by one of the directors. The director told him that there was no research equipment in the places he was being shown, but he felt that implied that such equipment must be in another area of the factory, and probably this area was off limits to visitors. However, just after he came to the company, he made a complete tour of the place and realized that the company didn’t have any equipment specifically for research. He couldn’t say the director had lied to him but he certainly felt that he’d been mislead. Moreover, he found there was no established research and development system either, which meant no research and development technologies. They had been developing new products using production machines after the daily work ended, and, as the production machines were set up for a particular day’s production, it was impossible to use them for development without resetting them. He was very disappointed when he realized the situation, and had to resign himself to the fact that it would take about ten years to build a proper research and development system.
After looking around the factory, the engineers taught him how to operate the machines and do the necessary paper work. He spent half his working time trying to make a research and development plan for the project he was committed to. Having no experience in some of the areas involved, it was impossible to come up with a comprehensive strategy, but he had always had a fundamental belief that the first part of any project was to establish some kind of working plan, even if speculative information had to be used as a source to produce it.
Even after a regular eight-hour day, he could not leave work, having to attend managers’ meetings for more than four hours. In these meetings he was often unable to understand the agendas, and the thick smoke (most men smoked in those days) in the small room almost made him sick. He did not mind the 12-hour days – this was no different to when he worked at the university – but the different and unhealthy working environment put a lot of strain on him and he returned home entirely exhausted on his first working day.
As he’d changed his job completely of his own volition, he could not complain about his situation to anybody. Nevertheless, he wanted to relieve the strain by telling somebody about his problems. He would have spoken to his wife, but she was completely wrapped up in her son’s violin practice. He tried to get over the frustration he felt, telling himself that it was just the first step in realizing his life goals.
The telephone rang.
“It’s me. How’s it going? Working hard?” It was one of his friends.
“It must be tough working at a company in a totally unfamiliar environment, especially at your age. Are you coping OK?”
“Yes, but I’ve been well able to understand that the worlds of company and university are completely different, but I think things will work out.” He started to talk about the difficulties he was facing, but, moved by his friend’s concern, he couldn’t continue. His friend, being fully aware of how he felt, was silent for a few seconds before going on,“ Well, it’s bound to be hard in the beginning but hang in there – you’ll get used to it, and things will improve. Anyway, I’ll call again soon.”
He went over again and again what they had talked about, again feeling touched by how his friend had been worried about him. Mopping away the tears from his face brought him back to reality, and he noticed the sound of his son’s violin. He was playing Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, K304. Even though Mozart’s music is usually uplifting, it sounded slightly melancholy to him.
In the village on New Year’s Eve, it was the custom for people to visit the temple on the top of the mountain behind the village to give thanks for their good fortune over the past year and to ask the gods for their continued protection during the next year. They tolled the bell to renounce the 108 worldly passions which had possessed them through the year’s activities. The form varies depending on the locality or temple – in some areas a priest strikes the bell while people gathered around pray, or people pray at home to the sound of the bell coming directly from the temple, or from a famous temple via the radio. Recently some temples have received complaints that the bell is too noisy, and are limited to striking the bell in the daytime or stopping it altogether. It is sad that religious observance has decreased to such a point.
As the boy’s family had come to the village from another place (or maybe just from a lack of piety!), they ignored the custom and went to bed early, intending to get up to see the new year’s first sunrise. The three of them – his mother, sister and him – had been invited to visit the temple by neighbors. His father was back from the city for the year – end holidays but wasn’t included, because he spent most of the time away drinking with his relatives, or at least that’s how it seemed to the boy.
The boy’s life was so monotonous. In school, where pupils spent the greater part of the daytime, he did not take an interest in the class, just sleeping or thinking about playing after school, so it never really felt like he was there. When school finished, on fine days he often went to the river or lake to catch fish, spending rainy days alone bored in the house. There was also a mountain, and as the fishing was a way to get extra food to fill his stomach, he only really played when he went there. The mountain was 777 ft (238m) above sea level with forest, creeks, areas of wild grass and bare rock. Naturally, there were poisonous snakes and other dangers but he knew how to avoid them.
The area was rich in wild berry * and every summer he picked full basketfuls of them, his family enjoying a sweetness which was never tasted in any cakes.
*(Scientific name; Rubus hirsutus. Popular name; grass-berry. Area of distribution; east Asia. Genus; Raspberry. The stems have a height of about 6 inches and the leaves are grass-like. The bright red berries look similar to raspberries but are much sweeter.)
At that time, strawberries had spread from the city area to the countryside and even the people in the village could buy them at a nearby town. However, they were not sweet enough to eat without milk and sugar. Strawberries are similar to Potentilla, hebi-ichigo in Japanese, which in that region were called snake’s pillow, for it was believed that snakes slept laying their head on this berry. The villagers never ate strawberries without wondering why city people could be so fond of eating anything so unsweet. The fall was very rich in nuts and fruit such as pears, grapes, persimmons etc. In the winter he could not catch fish and there was nothing to be had in the mountain, so he was always hungry. He had to satisfy his appetite with dried persimmons, which were made by exposing the peeled bitter persimmons to the sun for several months or leaving them on the trees.
On the other hand, he could enjoy playing in the mountain throughout the year; in spring, running around under the trees with green leaves and picking the wild plants and flowers; in summer, climbing up the trees and sleighing on shale-covered slopes in the cool forest and catching the river crabs; in fall, picking fruit and sleighing on the rotten leaves; in winter, sleighing on snow-covered slopes. Of course, many wild animals such as foxes, raccoon dogs, wild boars, giant flying squirrels etc. lived there but did not show themselves, being wary of people. There were bear sightings but only a few times a year. Spending his time in this way, he tired himself out playing and basically just rested and recovered from his exertions when he was at school.
On that day (New Year’s Eve), he was excited about climbing the mountain with his family, because they rarely had a chance to go out together except for shopping in the big city a couple of times a year. Furthermore, they were going to his mountain, where he always played like it was his garden, so he was particularly cheerful before leaving their house. Fortunately, there had not been much snow that year and many people had passed along the trail before them, so they could climb smoothly without slipping.
He was cheerful and also garrulous by nature. He sometimes joined a group of gossiping women and chattered freely with them, usually dominating the conversation. At that time, he was quite a popular person but after entering primary school, he was bullied by his classmates and became taciturn and a complete loner.
In the evening at the beginning of the climb, he followed the area illuminated by the flashlights of other families and companions, then went back and forth along the line chatting gaily to everybody.
“Be careful – If you slip and fall you’ll hurt yourself,” his mother called out to him anxiously.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry – we are in my garden here!” he answered.
The other people laughed as he kept on stepping on and off the path and darting in and out of the line, taking no notice of his mother’s words of caution.
The mountain trail was wide enough for 4~5 persons at the starting point, and gradually got steeper and narrowed to a space enabling only 2 people to pass at a time. After climbing for twenty or thirty minutes, you reached the halfway point, where people usually sat on a big stone at the side of the trail and took a rest for a while. That evening, everybody was wearing long rubber boots, having presumed that the trail would be muddy, so they got tired and had to rest standing before they reached the stone.
After passing the halfway point, the mountain trail went into deep forest and started to cross a steep slope. Here, the trail narrowed and became slippy where wet fallen leaves had piled up, causing the people to walk slowly and carefully to avoid falling into the valley below.
As the boy‘s family entered the forest after passing the half point, he was some way away from them, still moving among the groups of people ascending. His mother and sister were busy chatting to other people and had almost forgotten he was there. Running on the dark trail, there was suddenly nothing under his foot and he found himself falling down the steep slope. He came to a halt at the foot of big tree far from the road due to a big pile of leaves. It was completely dark around him but far above him many flashlights were moving. It seemed impossible to climb back up there because the slope was so steep and covered with slippery leaves.
He shouted for help, and at that moment the excitement he’d felt on the trail disappeared and he thought gloomily, ‘ I’d rather die than have everybody see me down here helpless.’ He stopped shouting and crouched down at the base of a tree and considered how he might get back to the trail. He sensed a temperature difference between his left and right foot and realized he’d lost his right boot during the fall. Fortunately, the moon came out from behind the clouds at that moment and the moonlight shone on the ground through the leafless trees. Opening his eyes widely, he scanned the area above him to try and find the missing boot. “ There it is!” he exclaimed, finding the boot on some leaves at the base of a small tree just above him. In such cold and difficult conditions, it would have been too hard even for a wild mountain boy like him to get down the mountain without boots. He reached out and drew the boot to him with a small branch then put it back on, much to his relief.
It occurred to him that he might be able to cover himself in dry leaves and spend the night there. However, he remembered the time that some other boy had got into difficulty on the mountain and failed to return home – almost all the villagers gathered to go and search for him. He would have to get back home before dawn, or the same thing was likely to happen again.
Looking up at the trail far above him, he muttered to himself, ‘How can I get back home?’ The steep slope was thickly covered with the fallen leaves of oak, maple, beech etc., and it seemed surely impossible to climb up.
‘Then should I go down?’ he wondered. He could not see anything down below in the pitch black of the valley, and this scared him a little. He remembered what an old man in the village had said: “When you lose your way in the mountain, your instinct might be to descend to the valley – going down is easier than climbing up and you might think you could reach the village by walking along the river – but this is a mistake because there are many dangers in the valley. There is actually less danger on the top part of a slope, and it’s much easier to see where you are from above, so it’s best to climb up to the top of a ridge.” He went over the valley option for himself: ‘I am sure I could reach the village through the valley – the worst thing would be poisonous snakes, but it’s winter now so that’s not a problem. On the other hand, there is no proper trail along the river, so I would have to climb over big rocks the whole way – I’d probably fall into the river, get soaked and freeze to death. Yes, the valley route is dangerous.’
He thought about other possibilities: ‘I could walk along the slope and try and find a way through the trees, or just go left or right until I hit a woodcutter or animal trail, but the slope is so slippery, and it’s difficult to see very much in this moonlight.’
Then he realized that he could see faint lights from the distant village. He was staring longingly in that direction when he became aware of a shape with two small shining points about a hundred feet away. ‘What can it be?’ he thought. It began to move slowly closer to him and he could see it was a fox. When he was younger, he would have been terrified of the animal, but now he was much more scared of the prospect of being bullied by his classmates. The fox stopped moving and they stared at each other. After a few minutes it shook its’ head up and down, turned on its heels and slowly left. Then it occurred to him, the words coming to his mind and gushing out from his mouth almost instantaneously, “I can just follow the fox’s trail – it’s bound to hit a main trail sooner or later.”
After he checked out the condition of the slope immediately in front of him with a dead branch, he grasped a branch on a tree with his left hand and took a step forward, being careful not to slip on the dead leaves. He repeated the process again and again and advanced slowly.
After what seemed an eternity, he caught sight of something big between the trees – it was the big stone at the half-way point. “ Made it!” he exclaimed in relief, only to lose his footing, and he would have fallen back down the slope if he had not just managed to catch hold of a small branch. Finally, he laid himself down on the big stone, sweating profusely but more from relief than exhaustion.
Opening the front door quietly and entering into the hundred-watt light of their living room, he felt rather than saw his mother and sister staring at him. Almost collapsing on the floor, he braved a glance at his mother. Her face was beyond description, looking both angry and relieved.
“Where have you been all this time?” she said, trying to hide her emotions. He just wanted to tell her about his frightening experience and to be comforted by her, but then he thought if he told her the truth, she would just get even angrier and his scolding would go on for even longer. He decided to tell her something more plausible and just go to bed. He regained his composure and said, “On the way back, I met one of my friends who lives on the hill and stayed at his house playing with him.”
“You should not stay late at night at somebody’s house – it’s not polite,” she said, the anger welling up inside her.
“I said I should go but they said it didn’t matter, today being New Year’s Eve,” he replied quickly, not feeling confident that his explanation would satisfy her.
“And you’ve got dirt and leaves all over your face and body – how on earth did you do that?” His mother did not miss a thing.
“On the way back from my friend’s house, I slipped and fell down a slope.”
During their exchange of words, his sister, sitting by her mother, was looking at him unforgivingly.
“ Brush off the dirt and leaves quickly, wipe your face with a towel and go to bed.”
She’d believed him – he’d done it!
He went straight to his room and quickly fell asleep in the cold bed, without praying to be released from the one hundred and eight worldly passions he had stored up during the year.
It was the middle of the night a week afterwards and he was half awake and half asleep in bed. He felt a great deal of pain all over his body. It was as if he was being pressed under some great weight and could not move any part of his body. He was able to make out the shape and saw it was some kind of animal.
‘Ah, it must be the fox I saw when I was in the woods,’ he intended to shout, but no sound came out. His hands and feet were also completely paralyzed.
‘ Help – I can’t breathe!’ He eventually managed to scream. Several minutes passed and the pressing force gradually diminished. He awoke with shaking hands and covered with sweat to see his mother’s worried face before him. She hugged her son’s stiff body.
It was the first time he could ever remember her holding him like that, but there was no joy in the realization at that time. After a while his muscles relaxed and he was able to open his strongly clenched fists. She felt the change in her boy’s body and laid him down on his bed again saying, “What’s the matter? Were you having a nightmare?”
He could not reply because the image of the nightmare lingered. After she settled him back in bed, she stayed by him for a while until he calmed down and fell asleep.
The following day, he was chewing over the experience from the previous night. He was anxious about the connection between the fox that had appeared in his nightmare, and the one he had seen on the mountain. Even to this day, there are some superstitious people who believe that foxes have the power to possess people. In Japanese folk religion, everything, including inorganic matter, has a soul. A person’s soul might become an evil spirit if they die an unnatural death, and in some cases, even a living person may become a spirit. The same thing can happen with animals and inanimate objects. In that village the fox was believed to cheat people by entering a person’s body and controlling their behavior by taking over their mind – fox possession.
The boy was afraid that the fox he’d encountered that night had chased him home and possessed him. Even if he told his mother, she would not believe it, because she had been born and raised in a big city, where such superstitions were not taken seriously. On top of that, he would have to confess that he had lied that night. He did not want to deal with that, so he kept his concerns to himself.
Three days later, he had the nightmare again. This time, he could not tell what was on top of him but the pressure was lighter than the previous time, and he only cried out a few times. His mother judged it to be a simple bad dream, and, without hugging him tightly this time, tucked him back in bed.
The next day, hoping to understand the cause of his torment, he tried to recall what had happened in the nightmare but without success.
One day his sister said to him,
“On New Year’s Eve, where did you really go? Mom was worried sick about you until you came back. After we got back, she went to the home of the family we went up the mountain with to ask if they’d seen you since, and she said that if you did not come back by the next morning, she would go to ask the chief of the village to search for you. The next morning, she went to their house again to apologize for troubling them.”
Even after hearing that, he still could not bring himself to tell her the true story.
That night, he had the dream again. It was worse than before but he endured it without crying out. He had the nightmare again sometimes, but it over time became less frequent, although he still had it once every year or two until he was about twenty years old.
The phenomenon the boy experienced in his nightmare is called sleep paralysis. Some doctors dismiss it as stress-induced, and some people even put it down to supernatural causes, but there is no generally accepted explanation for it. In the author’s opinion, the boy’s nightmare was not caused by falling over the edge into the dark or the accidental meeting with a fox, but rather from feeling unwanted after his family failed to show much emotion when he returned home. Maybe this denial of affection in such a situation is a similar thing to mothers in Japan sometimes telling a disobedient child (usually boys rather than girls) that he is not her real child but was in fact found as a baby while floating in a basket on the river. The boy’s mother sometimes said the same thing to him. He usually did not believe her, but sometimes he felt it might possibly be true.
Possibly the recurrence of his nightmare might be attributed to the remorse he felt for having worried his mother. If he had apologized to his mother as soon as his sister told him what his mother did on that New Year’s Eve night, his stress might have been relieved naturally. The inconsistency of thought and behavior that his stubborn character caused has remained a constant all through his life.