Saturday, December 03, 2011

Meeting with Mr. Clive Williams Nicol.

On a day when a cold rain started to fall, I met with the famed writer Clive Williams Nicol. The severe weather was fitting, as Mr. Nicol is a man who has traveled in wilderness, one trip taking him to the North Pole.

Mr. Nicol is one of these rare people who can combine the fire of passion with the coolness of intelligence. He has written extensively and deeply about nature. It is all about experience, and you need to reflect on your own mind in order to write well in this genre.

Listening to Mr. Nicol is like hearking to an old oak tree. You feel the flow of time embodied in the shape of a man, and you have the desire to attain that maturity when you are old. That becomes your inspired ambition.

With Mr. Clive Williams Nicol

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The absolute nature of separation.

There is nothing more interesting than the enigma of time. The future becomes the present, and the present turns into the past. Once the transformation is over, there is no going back.

In psychology, people talk about the specious moment, and there is a fundamental asymmetry to that. The duration of the present is usually described in milliseconds, but that is strangely insufficient. The essence of transformation would not be captured in milliseconds. We need other ways to describe the specious moment.

The key question here is to deal with the transformation in an explicit manner. The transformation is happening all the time, even as I write these sentences.

This morning I find myself in Washington DC. I just finished my breakfast. Some moments ago, I was waiting for the breakfast to arrive, and there is no going back to that recent past. The absolute nature of separation is one of the fundamental aspects of our experience, and yet we have not successfully described it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The no-show of iPhone 5 was only a minor disappointment compared to the absence of the wizard.

This morning, I woke up to find a world without iPhone 5.

The revision to iPhone 4S was a good and sensible one, although my enthusiasm at this moment is not strong enough to make me rush to update my iPhone 4 straight away. The delivery by Tim Cook was impressive. The Apple stock will surely recover in due time. But there was something deeper and disturbing last night (JST).

The wizard is gone. There would be no more “one more thing”. Our hearts would not be throbbing in anticipation of a world-changing gadget. There would be no more Steve Jobs on stage, and the world would forever be a place minus that particular enchantment.

When we were kids, we looked up at our parents as if they were wizards. Nothing was impossible for dad. Mom would give me the most incredible present on my birthday. As we grow up, these expectations waned. We inevitably realized that mom and dad were ordinary human beings, with their own limits and shortcomings. We found ourselves independent and grownup when there were no more “wizard elements” in our parents.

It seemed that we never grew out of Steve Jobs. Steve was always a wizard, smiling rather mischievously, coming back to stage, with the now immortal “one more thing”. These days are gone forever, much to our regret.

Apple fans care about the health of Steve Jobs as dearly as their own greying parents. Long live Steve! Probably it is a good idea for Steve to stay away from the chores of running a company. Somehow, we probably took it for granted for too long that Steve would be wizard for us forever. Perhaps it is time were on our own, however strange it might feel.

Yesterday, observing the stage without the former CEO, we realized that it was now time for the growing pains. The no-show of iPhone 5 was only a minor disappointment compared to the absence of the wizard.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Loosening order, new realities

It is difficult to characterize a particular era, especially when one is living in it. The last couple of decades have been marked by many unexpected events (beautifully argued as "black swans" by Taleb) and newly emerging value systems. To use a musical metaphor, we are listening to many exotic and new pieces, but they are so numerous now that we have almost forgotten that they were once novel. Many things we take for granted today were rarities and oddities only a few decades ago. How fast the human brain adapts to a changing environment! And we keep marching.

I was studying in the United Kingdom in the middle of the 1990s. I remember quite vividly when a BBC anchorman remarked to an IT guy speaking live from the West Coast via satellite that "you do not have to wear a tie and a jacket when you are a millionaire". This idea, that a businessperson with power and wealth does not necessarily have to dress "seriously", is such a cliche nowadays that it is almost not worth mentioning it. We are so accustomed to millionaires and billionaires dressed in T-shirts and jeans, looking like complete nerds (in many cases they actually are in a big way). Indeed, there is no apparent "correlation" between the way one dresses and one's degree of affluence any more. Class is gone, as far as outward looks are concerned. Nowadays a restaurant imposing a strict dress code looks almost moron. "Smart casual" is perhaps the only acceptable dress code, apart from, perhaps, no dress code at all.

Once, attending a conference in Googleplex, I noticed that there was a rather nice looking young fellow. It was none other than Mr. Larry Page himself. Mr. Page must have been worth billions of dollars then, but his outlook did not tell. There were a few admiring girls around Mr. Page, but that could happen to any nice fellow about his age. Judging from how he looked, he could have been a graduate student. Actually, Mr. Page was probably a graduate student in his spirit. Remaining a graduate student in spirit is probably the name of the game and the strength of a company like Google.

There have been several defining moments in the history of information technology. When Jack Kilby conceived the idea to implement circuits on a silicon chip, he was laying down the formula for a whole industry. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin hit upon the idea to analyze the web as a graph structure, they were effectively bootstrapping themselves to super-successful entrepreneurship. When Mark Zuckerberg was dumped by his girlfriend, his unique method of revenge, putting a pair of girl's faces on a webpage asking the visitors to click which was hotter, opened the door to the most successful social network service, the Facebook.

The general trend of the information revolution, combined with the procession of globalization, where people from various cultural backgrounds are brought together to interact, have led to the loosening of the old orders, and emergence of new ones. The evolution/revolution happens in unexpected and haphazard steps, challenging assumptions, upsetting notions.
When put in a state of chaos, we seek order and meanings. A religion, an ideology, a value system, a theory, an empirical evidence, an illusion. We are always in search of life-saving ideas. We are badly in need of one now, in this remarkable era of transitions and redefinitions. Ideas come, ideas go. And some stick and remain, through a mysterious process of evolution of memes.

(Fragment from a book I am writing, codenamed "Malmesbury")

Saturday, July 02, 2011

This is entropy!

The novelist Yoshinori Shimizu once wrote a masterpiece titled "Don't talk about entropy on your date". This humorous short story (written in Japanese) depicts how a science student, once he starts talking about entropy, gets carried away and forgets to take care of his lover, only to be dumped. Serves him right, right?

Don't talk about entropy on your date. This is a very valuable piece of advice for certain kinds of people, including myself. The subject of entropy is so fascinating, deep, and engrossing that it is really a danger to start talking about it.

Oh, you don't know what entropy is? Well, in a nutshell, it is a measure of the...wait, don't get me started. I will never stop.
Mr. Masanobu Koike, a long-time editor for the great literary critic Hideo Kobayashi, told me this fascinating story. One evening, Kobayashi drank with his artist friend in Tokyo. On their way back to Kamakura, Kobayashi started talking about entropy.

Kobayashi was a man of incredibly broad and deep learning. He once discussed at length the philosophy of Henri Bergson, in a famous unfinished work titled "Reflections".

They talked all the way on the train, but the artist friend did not understand what entropy was. Getting off the train at Kamakura station, they kept talking, walking along the road that runs parallel to the precincts of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

As the artist friend did not get it, Kobayashi became all the more excited. While explaining entropy, Kobayashi got closer and closer to the artist friend, with the result that the artist was cornered towards the shallow stream along the road, until finally, he lost balance and dropped into the water.

Splash! The artist lay on his back, quite surprised and bewildered, wet all over. He looked up at Kobayashi, who triumphantly said, "now you see? This is entropy!"

We don't know how and if the artist got even.

I sometimes visit the beautiful old residence of Hideo Kobayashi on the mountain. Getting of the train at Kamakura station, and passing the aforementioned road, I tend to remember this great story of a passionate intellect. With entropy even Hideo Kobayashi can be carried away.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Perhaps fireworks are mirrors.

The great Fireworks Festival of Nagaoka started, I learned on my last visit, after the city was burned to ashes during the Second World War. Thus the beauty and splendor are dedicated to the souls of the dead. Most of the onlookers would probably be unaware of the significance of the airy show. That's OK. The fireworks work for our aesthetics even in sheer ignorance.

We were standing on the snow, and were looking at the fireworks above, an annual winter display of the magnificent technology. Although on a smaller scale compared to the summer one, it was still grand. There was an eerie quality of the beautiful, lived and experienced, enshrouded by the cold.

Takumi was standing next to me. He has been my sidekick ever since I met him when I was teaching at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

Takumi is a terror to many girls. He is known as "P. Ueda". The prefix comes from the fact that the subject of his oil painting is mainly his private part. He claims that his thing is shaped like the Jaguar emblem.

We were standing on the white field, far from the cheering crowd. All of a sudden, Takumi started to tell me about his mother. She left home when he was six years old, never to return. The next day an aunt came, and made him the first milk coffee of his life. He has not seen his mother ever since.

It is not clear, to this day, what made Takumi tell me the story of the tragedy of his life on that evening, in the show, shivering from cold, looking up at the great display of the fireworks. Maybe it had something to do with the souls. Perhaps fireworks are mirrors.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cannot go to school.

I recently met a few pupils who had extraordinary characters. And they can't go to school. Chatting with them, looking at their faces, they appear quite normal, lively, and thoughtful. And yet they cannot go to school. Something within them apparently tells them that going to school is not such a good idea. And I must say that, as far as I could trust my intuition facing them, that it was a sensible choice.

In a country where "home schooling" is an exotic idea, if a boy or a girl boycotts school attendance, parents panic and teachers reproach. Because there is such a narrow range of what could be considered to be "normal behavior", once a pupil steps out of the fairway there's a tremendous pressure to go back.

Talking with headmasters and chairman of the educational board, I sometimes feel that the disease is in the system, rather than in the pupils who boycott it. The air of conformity is so thick that it is suffocating, rather than life saving. If you can go to school, that's fine. Myself, I could go to school everyday and rather liked the experience. But if a child finds it difficult to go to school, that's fine and normal, too. The disease is not in the child. The disease is in the society that enforces conformity, where "home schooling" is still an exotic and "illegal" idea, after all these years.

Monday, June 27, 2011

First bitterness.

As can be observed from my earlier blog entry (Red bag was the object of desire), I was fond of coffee flavor as a child. Coffee, however, always meant a sweet drink. I never took black coffee. Actually, properly ground and brewed coffee was not so ubiquitous when I was a child.

It was therefore only at the age of 11 that I had a proper black coffee. I was with my mother's sister in a bar, in the southern city of Kokura. My aunt was a woman of the world. She had a wide knowledge of the pleasant and the adorable. She was a gateway into the grown-up world, at least in the eyes of the child.

On that day, for some reason I did not quite comprehend, the bar was open in the afternoon, and I was there, in the ambience of sophistication and posh. My aunt offered me to buy anything I wanted. I looked at the menu, and was quick to see that the most expensive item in the soft drinks was the "blue mountain" coffee.

"Blue mountain coffee, if you please", I said timidly. My aunt looked at me with her big round eyes. "You're a child, and yet you crave for the best", she said. "All right then, a blue mountain coffee. But listen, since you're taking it, no sugar or milk. You've got to drink it black. OK?"

I said fine. My heart was pounding wild as I took my very first taste of the black coffee. To this day, I remember quite vividly the sensation of the black liquid going into my system. It was the encounter with my life's first bitterness. And I didn't regret it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My father and the motorbike

Ever since my infancy, I knew one thing for sure. My father was not the type of person who would ride on a motorbike. He might drive a car (he actually did and still does), but he would never ride a motorbike.

So strong was my conviction, that I was quite shocked when my father started taking lessons. Soon he got a rather big motorbike. He would put me in the back seat, and ride in the countryside. Apparently, it was the thing to do for man. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis.

One day, I was walking with my friends towards the playground. In the distance, I noticed a policeman questioning a couple of people. My friends started to say "the police has captured someone! The police has captured someone!" I tried not to look in the direction, and suggested, very casually, that we take alternative routes.

Actually, it was none other than my father, with my grandfather. Apparently, the police was questioning them, for not wearing the helmet. Oh, God, that was embarrassing. My friends kept making fun of the unfortunate couple, while I prayed that my father would not look in my direction. Fortunately, none of my friends there recognized the face of my father.

When we were safely in the playground, I sighed a deep sigh of relief. I then apologized, in my heart, for ignoring a family member (actually, two family members) in a socially perilous situation. When I met my father that evening for dinner, I did not say anything about the incident. My father hushed about it too.

Soon after this day of embarrassment, my father had a minor accident on the motorbike and had his collarbone broken. He was hospitalized for one month. After he got out of the hospital, he got rid of the motorbike. I never saw a motorbike again in my house. The midlife crisis of my father was over.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Under the board, there is hell.

One of the things that really surprises and impresses me is the resilience of people who have been afflicted by the tsunami disaster. In particular, fishermen and their families seem to have a philosophical resignation for whatever the ocean inflicts upon them.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting one of the most severely damaged areas. I talked with a boy who escaped up the hill behind his house. From where he was, the ocean could not be seen. His grandfather happened to be standing at a place where the sea could be observed, and yelled out that the tsunami was coming. The boy and grandparents fled, grabbing weeds, treading on rocks and boughs, escaping for their life.

Fortunately, they could make a narrow escape. The water came to up the boy's foot, and the waist of grandpa, as then the tsunami began to recede. They stayed in the mountain overnight, shivering in the cold. The next morning, the rescue and relief came.

When I asked the boy if he wanted to live near the sea again, he said yes. Considering the flight that he had, and the complete destruction of his house, this answer seems surprising. But then the philosophy about the ocean is deeply different. His father is a fisherman. A fisherman's life is in and from the ocean. A fishermen faces the forces of mother nature. That's is the name of the profession. Nature is usually benevolent, but can become quite savage from time to time.

Among the Japanese fisherman, there is a saying "under the board, there is hell". Below the safety of the board of the ship, the vast ocean is lurking, which can become brutal at any moment, and when that happens, there is no resisting the unleashed energy. Humans are at the mercy of the forces of nature, ever since the beginning of time, now, and in the future forever.

Under the board, there is hell. This philosophy of fisherman is probably true for all of us, even in the bright lights of civilization. We sometimes forget that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

We just sat on the river bank, and watched the water flow.

Youth is about wondering, not knowing why or how, and making many mistakes.

As I look back, my college days were full of wonders and mistakes. And the figure of a fat man was always with me.

His name is Ken Shiotani. He is a fat philosopher at large, meaning he has no job. His wife supports him. It is amazing to think that he worked for Japanese government once. That's where he met his wife. Now he has achieved a status of the "Totoro" character in Hayao Miyazaki's film. Nobody knows why he is here, but he is here anyway. And he is incredibly clever. He is too clever to make a living in this vulgar world.

I met Ken Shiotani as I entered college, and have been with him ever since. Once, we were lying on the bank of the Sumida River, with a can of beer each in our hands. We were making confessions about girls, as well as discussing difficult questions in Physics and Mathematics.

It was dusk, and many lovers were strolling the river bank in couples. They saw us, two blokes, drinking beer, speaking nonsense. They took the natural reaction of avoiding us, not coming to within a 10 meter radius of where we were lying. Maybe they thought that we were homeless people. We were dressed quite shabbily. Once I was refused by a restaurant owner when I tried to enter with Ken Shiotani. For some strange reasons, Ken Shiotani is always wearing a pair of sandals. Even in the middle of winter. Maybe that's why he looks like a retired sumo wrestler.

In any case, that evening, when Ken Shiotani and I lay on the bank of the Sumida River, drinking beer, talking about girls, physics, and mathematics, abhorred like pests by the well-meaning couples, stands as an epitome of my bohemian days. We were ignorant, full of hope, and did not know where we were going. We just sat on the river bank, and watched the water flow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Boy's eye in the keyhole.

Once I was in the restroom of a railway terminal. It was what some people would call "no.2". As I was sitting there, I noticed that there was a footstep outside. Incredibly, an eye looked into my private space through the keyhole. It was a small boy, about 5 years old.

The boy looked into the toilet quite eagerly. His eye showed all the symptoms of earnestness and concentration. Naturally I felt strange, but then understood.

The boy apparently wanted to go to the toilet so desperately. An emergency situation. It was apparently "no.2". If it had been "no.1", the boy would have gone the other way. As the boy was so intent on going to the toilet, he was looking into the otherwise private space, to see who was there, and what he was up to.

Fortunately for the boy, I was just about to finish. So I said, "wait, I will be finished very soon. Just wait!"
After flushing, I opened the door. A cute boy hurried into the toilet, noticeably relieved.

As I went back to the corridors of the terminal building, I could not help smiling. How desperate the boy must have been! To this day, I remember the very intent expression of the boy's eye in the keyhole. It reminded me of a wild rabbit I once encountered out there in Scotland.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Octopus Woman of Wales

I stayed in England for two years, and have been returning to the country ever since. I found the English true to the reputation world wide. Reserved, masters of understatements.

Therefore it was a shock to learn an alternative culture different from the English. One day I traveled to Wales. I got on the train to reach Cardiff. On the way to St. David's, Britain's smallest city, I dropped off the station and went into a pub.

The pub was fairly crowded at the middle of the day. There was a group of people near the window, making a merry music. A man was playing the guitar, and men and women were singing to the music. As I look back, that scene itself was already a rarity, to an eye accustomed to the English reservedness.

I found a seat at the bar, and sipped a pint of local ale. The music making folks had apparently been drinking quite a few pints of beer themselves, judging from the merriment of their noise.

Suddenly, a woman stood up, and started walking. She came towards me dancing, moving her arms and legs like an octopus. As she passed by me, something incredible happened. She grabbed my private part, squeezed it, and went on walking, dancing like an octopus.

I was naturally shocked and was still aghast, when the woman returned from the restroom. She was still dancing like an octopus. I anticipated a repeat.

My anticipation went unanswered. The victim this time was a gentleman sitting a few stools away. The octopus woman walked dancing, and grabbed the private part of that gentleman, squeezed it, and went back to the music group, dancing like an octopus.

People laughed, the gentleman laughed, and I laughed at last, recovering from repercussions of the unknown. Maybe things were different in Wales. Take it easy, and let things go. After a few pints and a bathing in the sun of a golden afternoon, I began to understand the Welsh way of life.

I have encountered many strange things in my life, but my private part has been squeezed by a woman only once. Here's to the octopus woman of Wales.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Once in a lifetime you notice an entirely new universe, and see that stars are shining in a great constellation. In the naive belief that they're near, you try to reach out, only to realize the formidable distance between the sources of light and your good self.

At those moments, you feel so desperate. You feel that the distance is never to be overcome. You can only yearn for the stars, and are forever bound to the earth. You feel so miserable and tiny.

And yet, here's a thought that might make you relax. True, you may never reach the stars. True, you might not become a member of the constellation yourself. However, it remains that you have seen it. There are lives led quite happily without ever knowing the existence of the new universe that you are craving for. People living in blissful ignorance. You, who have looked up at the sky, and noticed the stars shining, are nearer to that space than before.

Even if you cannot reach the stars physically, lights have already started to shine within yourself. You may think that stars shine only in the heavenly space. But one day, you might find a little tiny luminance within your heart, independent of the constellation above, but inspired by, and enlivened through, a subtle resonance between your good self and the unreachable stars.

When this happens, you would smile like you have never smiled before. And I'd love to see that smile. Maybe I would love the smile better than the constellations.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Red bag was the object of desire.

When I was at kindergarten, there were two kinds of bags for milk money. Each morning we would bring 50 yen for the milk provided at lunch. White bag was for the ordinary milk, and red bag was for the coffee-flavored one.

In the morning, we would put the milk money bag into a wooden box, with our names on it. Some were white, others were red. Somehow, my mother got an idea into her head that I was never allowed to bring the red bag to kindergarten. I looked with a painful agony and wishfu longing at the red bags that my friends brought and joyfully put into the wooden box.

Red bag was the dream of my life. Red bag was the object of desire. There was nothing more adorable than the sight of a red bag
in the wooden box. I remember it vividly even now.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Yellow umbrella.

It is rainy season in Japan now, so that every day is almost certainly wet. I can't say I enjoy this time of the year so much. I am a walker, and do not like to carry around an umbrella. I do, however, have a cherished memory associated with the rainy season. It started with an umbrella.

I was 9, a 3rd grader in the elementary school. One day it was raining hard, and I was alone in the classroom. It was dark inside and outside. I was feeling lonely. I don't recall why I lingered on in the classroom. Maybe I left something behind and returned to get it. I was a careless boy then, and probably still am.

Feeling the pain, I went to the window, and looked on the school ground. There was not a soul there, except a classmate of mine. It was Kumiko. Kumiko held a yellow umbrella, and walked alone in the pouring rain, in the middle of the school ground.

I do not know how it happened. Kumiko seemed so small, so isolated, and yet she carried on with her steps, holding the yellow umbrella, walking towards the school gate, perhaps in pain like myself. Exactly at that moment, I realized that Kumiko was dear to me. It was the first time in my life that I ever realized that someone was so special in my heart. It was a moment of love.

Thus, the rainy season is somehow associated with the image of Kumiko, with a yellow umbrella, walking alone in the school ground. When I think about it, the raindrops becomes tears from a past long gone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Other people are mirrors.

Other people are mirrors. In them, you see the reflection of your own self. Sometimes the reflections are distorted, but they are still helpful in coming to terms with yourself.

Often it so happens that you express at length your deepest passion, what you value, only to be ridiculed and ignored in the end. It has not come across to the listener. Your eloquent expressions have fallen on deaf ears. At those moments, you feel as if you have been betrayed by the world, and you start secretly licking your wounds. And yet, what is actually happening then is a beautiful self-recognition. You have come to your true self by stumbling on the rocky surface of miscommunication.

At other occasions the resonance is overwhelming, sometimes almost frightening. You feel your own idea appreciated and absorbed by the other party. It starts going to and fro between you and him (her), until the energy is magnified and reach a truly phenomenal dimension. You embrace the bliss of living, and being together becomes magic.

Whether resulting in resonance or rejection, other people are always mirrors, reflecting ourselves in a yet unelucidated mathematics of transpersonal infection.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

But the anger is there.

Since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on 11th March 2011, I have visited the tsunami-afflicted areas twice.

Once I was drove a hired car from the Sendai station myself. I was unable to leave the vehicle, haunted by what I saw. I did not have any connections to make myself useful for the people in need. I could merely witness, feeling inexplicably and deeply guilty, unable to make sense of what was happening and what had happened.

On the second occasion, I visited a temporary school for junior high students who lost their houses by the tsunami. They were all up and going, smiles on their faces. The headmaster told me that despite their optimistic outlooks they have experienced worse than nightmares. On the night they escaped into the mountains, many elderly people passed away. It was a cold night. Some had fled just wearing t-shirts. And yet, on the day that I went, their faces were all smiles and forward looking.

I have been spending many hours thinking what I could do. The destruction caused by the tsunami is beyond belief. Miles, literally miles of habitats washed away. Entire communities lost forever.

I don't know how it is, but the only way I can seek atonement is by changing. To make this nation, which has been stagnant for a couple of decades now, go in a new direction. To reinvent myself, so that I am more open, more linked, more outgoing.

And there is deep anger at the stagnation of Japan in general. I know the connection is illogical. The indignation at the inability of the nation to change has nothing to do with the brutal physical force in the shape of tsunami. But the anger is there. It has to change.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The trip (I)

It was in the earl days of May, 2011, that I found myself finally on a Tohoku Shinkansen train bound for Sendai.

It was a trip mixed with apprehension and remorse. Apprehension, as I did not quite know what to expect. I was planning to hire a car. Would the road be OK? Will I be able to get gas? Remorse, as the trip was somewhat overdue. I would have liked to travel to the devastated area earlier, helping people in need in any way I could. But simply couldn't. I suspect it was partly a question of schedule and partly inaptitude lurking in my personal traits. I was simply unable to find a temporal or psychological "window" to travel to the afflicted areas, no matter what the consequences might be.

A few weeks earlier, I was having conversation with Nobuto Ariyoshi, Chief Producer of "The Professionals" program on NHK, in which I played the role of the castor for more than 4 years. Nobuto and I are very close personal friends.

I was telling Nobuto about my plan, and revealed that I would probably walk from the Sendai station towards the sea, thus making myself independent of any means of transportation. "You should definitely go to Onagawa", Nobuto said. "You should head towards where the Maine Pal building used to be."

Nobuto went for a few weeks to the NHK outposts in the Sendai area, helping his colleagues report on the state of the region and people's tremendous efforts towards recovery in the afflicted area. Nobuto said he had seen scenes of damage beyond description. "It goes on and on and on", Nobuto said. "Even with our best efforts as tv journalists, we simply could not cover everything. There are many unreported sufferings, unnoticed by the world, silently endured by those affected. You should definitely go there yourself and see how it is"

It was perhaps Nobuto's words that finally pushed my back to venture into the most severely damaged areas. I decided to go to Onagawa as Nobuto suggested, and witness the devastation by myself. I felt that I had a duty to experience it, almost like a moral imperative, and report it to the larger world in my own words, to record and not to forget, what happened to many innocent lives.

Preparation for the trip was an uneasy one. I had to think what I could do, once getting there. Would I have a chance to talk to the small kids in the refugee camps? Would they be pleased, if I had a few snacks to share? How about a few boxes of "Mushroom Mountain" and "Bamboo Village" chocolates, two definitive favorites of Japanese children? Or should I bring some interesting books that the kids can read in the long afternoons in the school gym, where they and their families are taking refuge? Should I consider helping people with the clearing of debris, an indispensable action in the process towards recovery?

It was difficult to assess the situation beforehand. There were reports of too many materials being sent to the relief camps. Books are difficult to match, people having different preferences and interests. I felt somewhat shy of bringing my own books. Probably I would appear too presumptuous.

After much thought, I finally came to the conclusion that I should go anyway, without any definite plans to do any specific volunteer works. It is quite possible that I may be unable to visit the relief camps in a proper way, without a prior arrangement. I may just have to observe, and see what I can do, perhaps not on the spot, but on the intermediate to long terms. Of course, should some opportunities arise where I could be of any help, I would and should be prepared. I put a pair of thick cotton gloves, and a pack of masks into my backpack. Finally, I set off.

As the Tohoku Shinkansen train left the platform, there was much formality and perhaps a little bit of tension on the train bound for Sendai. "In the event of an earthquake, the train would make an emergency stop", the train conductor warned in a carefully worded announcement. The digital news flash above the door of the car carried a special message, expressing condolences to the people in Tohoku for the tremendous loss, and hoping for a recovery. When I walked out onto the deck to go to the toilet, there was a man in black suits, wearing the Japan Railway Company badge. Apparently, this gentleman, most probably a management high in the rank, was stationed there on the train to see to it that everything was going as planned.

It was quite understandable that they were taking these precautions. The Tohoku Shinkansen train, the pride of Japan Railway East Company, had resumed its operations only a few days earlier. The Tohoku line was severely damaged by the earthquake. The resumption of Shinkansen service, after a hectic recovery effort in defiance of aftershocks and threat of power shortages, was regarded by many to symbolize the hope that things, somehow, would slowly go back to normal again, if not immediately for the better.

As the bullet train approached Sendai station, I looked for signs of damage inflicted by the earthquake. There were blue sheets here and there on the house roofs, indicating an ongoing repair process. Apart from those visual signs of irregularities, the city of Sendai seemed to be up and going.

Getting off the train at Sendai station, I began to see signs of recovery. People in the corridors were smiling, briskly going on with their own businesses. Pupils in school uniforms were chatting loudly, as any healthy teenagers would do. Store clerks were selling at the top of their voices local delicacies and souvenirs. I was heartened to see these testimonials of the energy and determination of the Sendai people to make life tick, no matter what.

I slipped into the rental car office. I could only reserve an outdated model. I would have preferred a hybrid car, which would have alleviated worries about the need to refill gas on the way.

Gas was a natural theme for our conversation. "Would you fill the gas before you return the vehicle?" asked the store clerk in a polite manner. "Sure," I said. "I wonder if there would be any trouble with the gas stations?" At that time, memories were still fresh with images of people lining up for the gas, in the days after the earthquake. There was a high profile tragedy of a man who was lining up to fill some gas for his daughter at night, taking warmth from a heater, fell asleep, and was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. "The gas stands are quite all right", the man in uniform answered. "At least within the city of Sendai."

The store clerk took me to the car park. The number plate was that of Okinawa. Presumably, they had to take in cars from the tropical island to fill the shortage of rental cars in Sendai area. The car was small, but functioning excellently. You could not expect less from a Japanese car rental company.

It was thus with a little anxiety and trepidation that I got on the road to Ishinomaki and Onagawa. Honestly, I did not know what to expect. For sure, I have seen the coverage of the tsunami disaster and the devastation inflicted upon the region. However, as Nobuto said, the damage was apparently too severe and widespread to give a full coverage. I just had to see and take in, in order to start things in earnest, my way.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan.)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Everybody is different, everybody is good.

After leaving the city of Hagi, we went on a seaside route, heading towards the hot spring town of Nagatoyumoto. "Yumoto" (literally meaning the source of hot water) is a common denominator for many hot spring places in Japan. Our designated lodging for the evening was Otani Sanso, which has a reputation of wonderful service and food, combined with, needless to say, an excellent bathing experience in hot water.

On the way to the hot spring town, I was looking out of the car window with an idle heart. The impressions felt at the school under the pine tree was still very much alive within me. What are we going to do? In the flow of consciousness, in the aftermath of an intensive encounter, I was taking it somewhat easy, absorbing with interest the passing coastal scenery of the Sea of Japan.

At a turn, a roadside sign attracted my attention. "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum", it said. Misuzu Kaneko is a household name in Japan, famous for her poems, which are poignant and vibrant, verging on being almost beyond belief, that such words could ever come out of a human mind.

"Everybody is different, everybody is good", she wrote in one of her well-known masterpieces. Thus to praise diversity is a politically correct cliche nowadays. Given the context and age in which these words were churned out, Misuzu's words are almost like miracles. Misuzu's poetry provides such a wonderful and gentle penetrator into the human soul, moving people, inducing them to be fundamentally better.

"I cannot spread my hands and fly. Birds are unable to run fast on the ground like me. When I shake my body, I don't make an enchanting sound. Bells do not know many songs as I do. Bells, birds, and me. Everybody is different, everybody is good."
Misuzu's works are in plain and simple Japanese, so that even a small child can understand and appreciate them. The philosophy expressed is deep. It resonates well with the traditional sensitivity of the Japanese for the changing and the perishing, including their own lives. The appreciation of the pathos of things ("mononoaware").

Reading her poems, one feels that Misuzu's heart is always with the suppressed and defeated. In one of her poems, Misuzu portrays the joys of fisherman at great harvest, contrasting it with the mourning processions of fish in the ocean weeping for the lost ones.

Misuzu was born in 1903, and her short life ended in 1930. She was only 26. Her marriage to an untruthful and profligate husband resulted in much misery and a prolonged battle over the custody of their only daughter. Finally, Misuzu could not take it any more. The poet took poison, escaping from the miseries of life.

Thus, from a practical point of view, Misuzu's life might have been a tragedy. However, the purifying effect of Misuzu's genius meant that the sufferings and torments had no trace in her works. Reading her lines, one would not suspect the ups and downs (mostly downs) of her personal life. Actually, it comes as a great shock for many of Misuzu's poem lovers, to get to know the actual history of her existence.

The very magic of Misuzu's poetry resides thus in the cleansing process. The secret of creativity is to hide its sources, said Albert Einstein. Misuzu's life and her works are great lessons for humanity, telling us that it is possible to remain mellow and pure after unspeakable afflictions. Turning sour as a reaction to hardships is not necessarily a natural course of things. People from children to mature adults simply adore Misuzu's lyrics. Perhaps we can all sense, without even knowing why, the existence of a deep, and embracing love in what Misuzu writes.

The roadside sign for "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum" brought all these reflections within me. We were passing the seaside town of Senzaki, where the poet with a gentle heart was born and lived. It is probably fitting, I thought, that I remembered Misuzu Kaneko at this time of difficulty. Maybe we can learn a lot of things from the lovely poems of Misuzu. Perhaps we can all be like children again. Then we could derive strength from the audacity of youth.

The sun was inclined towards the west as our car arrived at Otani Sanso. There was one hour or so before supper. At such times, I always make a point of walking around, trying to get to know the area, acquainting myself with the ambience of the land. After casual conversations, I discovered that my editor and photographer preferred a dip in hot water to physical activities. I thus set out alone, exploring on my own the tranquil charms of the town of Nagatoyumoto.

There was a river just in front of the hotel, and a small path led gently to the riverbank. It was clearly a stroll designed to entertain the whimsical and easygoing hearts of people coming to relax in the hot spring. The route was flat and effortless, inducing one to go into deep thoughts.

It was only a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, and the connotations were inescapable. The town of Nagatoyumoto was far from the sea and there was no real danger of a tsunami. However, the river flow reminded me of the numerous towns in the ocean side exposed to and perished by the savage forces of the tidal waves. Suddenly I felt like crying.

How many people would you say there are, in this quiet and lovely town of Nagatoyumoto? One thousand? Maybe two thousand. It is such a small and beautiful town. The traces of history, the tiny workings of the everyday, are the building blocks for this community. The breathings and touches of people are recorded and expressed in every tiny nuance of the town. There is nothing more beautiful than the venerable, peaceful tranquility of a historical community.

And yet, in Tohoku, numerous communities were lost as the result of the earthquake. Houses where memories had been kept, tiny paths children hed been using to go to school over the years, pa and ma shops where laughter and opinions had been exchanged, were lost forever, in the brutal wave caused by the tremors of earth's crest.

There is no atonement for such a loss. It is, simply and precisely put, irreparable. I thought to myself, trying to come to terms with the unexpected surge of emotion.

Walking along the serene flow of the river, I cast my eyes on the loveliness of the town of Nagatoyumoto. After what we have experienced in the earthquake, appreciation has perhaps become deeper and more lasting. You learn to take pleasure in the smallest of things, like a pot of plant placed in a garden corner.

Everybody is different, everybody is good. I thought of Misuzu Kaneko again. Her creations have been inspiring and giving a lot of courage to people. Did she ever come to find solace in the hot water here, I wondered. Did she ever have a moment of tranquility, when comfort came her way, rather than she offering the world words of sunshine?

At that moment, I felt as if my personal happiness depended very much on the answer.

I sincerely hoped she did.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan. This essay is a sequel to "School under the pine tree".)