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Saturday, April 24, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Man who watched tide come in goes out


I held the "fude" calligraphy pen and watched the paper absorb the first dab of ink as the tip of the pen touched the envelope. In my best possible "gaijin kanji," I wrote "gokoryou" along with my name in "katakana" at the bottom. Into this envelope I put a 5,000 yen bill.

If you live in the city, it is easy to get a crisp new 5,000 yen bill from the cash machine, but on the island where I live, there are no cash machines, so we iron out old bills to make them look new and respectable. As I pushed the iron across the bill, hoping I hadn't set the iron too high, the starch residue on the bottom of the iron made the bill stiff -- stiff as a cadaver, I thought.

I had come back from a jog on the beach in the morning, around 6 a.m. When I approached my house, my neighbor Kazuko was standing at her door in her pajamas talking to a white-haired man from our neighborhood. This was the first time I had ever seen Kazu-chan in her pajamas -- something must be wrong.

When the white-haired man left, I went over to her. "What's wrong?"

"Nakagawa-san has died," she said, pointing to the tiny one-room tin house about 100 meters away.

"You mean the guy with no teeth? The guy who always stood at the port watching the tide go in and out?"

"Yes," she said. "He had no relatives." There was much activity around his house now as the neighbors went busily in and out carrying things. The four corrugated walls were painted blue, and a red roof sported a rain gutter running down one corner of the house. A single cable from a utility pole dropped down to the middle of the roof, bringing electricity in the form of one bare light bulb hanging down in the middle of the six-mat room. I watched as a woman took down a forgotten pair of pants from a clothesline made of two bamboo sticks with a string tied between them.

After so many "Good evenings" and so many smiles exchanged with this man, I only just then knew his name. He was a long, lanky man who talked by just smiling and nodding at people as they walked by. Day after day he stood by the port, driven outside by the heat inside his little room. There by the sea, in a squat position watching the tide come in and go out, he was in tune with the rhythms of the sea. As he watched the glow of the sunrise and the shadows cast by the mountains at sunset, he was more in tune with nature than we humans tend to be these days. From the port, he saw everything; nothing passed him by.

Like me, he too watched the fisherman leave the port at dusk for another night at sea. He too heard the fish jump at night and the engines of tankers out at sea passing our little island on their way to bigger ports. He too knew the sound of a cargo ship's anchor hitting the sea bottom as the crew bedded down for the night. These are the things we silently shared -- two people who knew nothing about each other except that they both enjoyed the same things. We shared the same rhythm of life.

These are the people, no matter how small, who make up our lives and shape our memories. Their absence is a constant reminder that the past has given value to the present.

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