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Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005
Special to The Japan Times
"Listen," said Nishizawa-san.
"I'm listening," I said.
He was silent. He seemed to have forgotten my presence altogether. This was typical. There were sounds all around us -- music, a TV talk show, a girl giggling somewhat hysterically, almost fiercely -- but Nishizawa-san had the gift of silence. When he looked up at last from his beer, his expression behind his thick spectacles was somehow that of a doctor examining a patient whose life hung in the balance. "The husband," he said.
Another pause, and then, nodding his head as if in agreement with something or somebody, he murmured, "Find him."
"Find who? What . . ."
He smiled faintly. "The husband. Who else?"
I laughed out loud. A waitress passing with a tray full of beers looked at me in mild surprise. I lowered my eyes. Find the husband -- sure, why not? The police, private detectives, even a psychic medium had tried and failed to find him years ago, but I, with no resources, just out of school, little enough professional skill, a novice among novices, was to soar over all obstacles and pluck the vanished spouse out of thin air! What a story that would make!
Nishizawa-san said nothing. Nor did I. I was used to this. He was a thinker rather than a talker, and for some reason it suited him to have me with him as he sank into thought. Why me? I don't know. Maybe because I betrayed no impatience. I felt none. I liked his silence.
He emerged suddenly from his reverie, as he invariably did. Downing the last of his beer, he slapped his glass on the table, uttered a loud "Ah!" of satisfaction, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and rose heavily to his feet. "Come, Kato-kun! Back to work."
From my very first day, he seemed to take an interest in me. He took me under his wing. He was one of those men whose careers stall and sputter, for some reason or perhaps none (I sometimes wondered if, in his case, it might have had something to do with his unsightly bulk; he was a short, fat little man; we called him "the Buddha" behind his back) -- and that's it, they're washed up at 40.
Despite his evident brilliance, maybe in part because of it, he'd been transferred to the Aomori bureau and then left to rot there. Not that he ever showed bitterness. Quite the contrary. "Journalism," he liked to say, "is whatever a journalist makes of it. A good newsman can find stories anywhere." He never tired of repeating that -- over beer, over coffee, over breakfast. . . . Yes, we even had breakfast together sometimes.
I was one of four junior reporters under his supervision. The other three thought only of doing their time and moving on -- to Tokyo, Washington, Europe, "the real world," where "real news" called for "real reporting." I, less ambitious, less restless, the despair of my no-nonsense father-in-law-to-be (who feared for his daughter's future with such a "refugee from reality"), appealed to him. He had reached a time of life where he needed a disciple, I think, and I was handy.
The man who had disappeared was a midlevel department store executive, by all accounts competent at his work, content in his home life and comfortably off financially. Then one day, 4 1/2 years before I came to town, he simply vanished. Not a word to anyone; not a clue to his whereabouts. It caused quite a stir -- newswise, I mean -- and then time passed, other things came along (for even in Aomori things do happen) and it was more or less forgotten.
Very early on, under Nishizawa-san's tutelage, I developed a kind of specialty: getting local reactions to international events. "Excuse me sir, pardon me ma'am, what do you think of Sadat's peace mission to Israel, the Shah of Iran's visit to Washington, the arrest of Son of Sam, the death of Elvis?" "Splendid, excellent," beamed my mentor.
"OK," he said one day, "you've passed your probation. Supposing you try something a little more . . . a little deeper." He filled me in on the background and assigned me to interview the missing man's wife. A "human interest" story, he called it, using the English words. "Find out how she's been coping, if she has any idea what happened, whether she has any hope of ever seeing him again. You know. Human interest."
My heart sank. I imagined her banging the phone down in my ear, slamming the door in my face: How dare I exploit a personal tragedy for public titillation? But no. When at last I worked up the courage to call, I found her quite friendly, almost as if she'd been expecting me. Come on over, she said; she had little enough to do; whatever time was convenient for me would be fine with her. "And . . . a photographer?" I stammered, afraid of pressing my luck. Over the telephone came a faint metallic laugh. My timidity was amusing her. The photographer too, she assured me, would be most welcome.
The interview went well. Maeda-san (that was her name) made me feel a little like a schoolboy being entertained by a friend's mother with milk and cookies. She seemed to be taking care of me; soon my friend would come home, and she would retire graciously to her matronly chores.
She sat for photographs and answered all my questions, sincerely, forthrightly, with just the faintest hint of condescension in her tone, as if to say, "You'll understand better when you're older." Another might have resented that; not I. My shyness evaporated, my voice stopped trembling; in fact it grew taut with indignation as I blurted out at one point that any husband who could walk out on such a wife was an unconscionable brute.
She smiled. "No, no," she said. "You mustn't say that." She was 51 years old, but when she smiled she could have passed for 30. "It's complicated. You see, he was a man who all his life, even as a boy -- for I knew him as a boy -- all his life he had a kind of . . . its hard to describe . . . a yearning for freedom. Here, let me show you something."
She left the room, returning a moment later with a book in her hand, a slim volume with a green cover. Faded rather than tattered, it nonetheless looked very, very old. Handing it to me, she said, "Do you know the poet Taneda Santoka? Probably not, he's not well known, though he does have his followers. My husband was one -- secretly of course. Imagine if his company had known! It's not the sort of thing you talk about. If you want to understand my husband's character, you can do no better than read this."
Taneda Santoka, I learned from the preface, was a wandering, homeless, penniless beggar-poet who died in 1940. He wore a monk's garb and had been ordained a Zen priest but, rootless to the core (his mother's suicide when he was 10 seems to have permanently unhinged him), he was attached to no temple and begged not so much as a religious discipline, like other monks, but simply to feed himself as he walked, aimless and alone, drunk when he could afford to be, from town to town, flophouse to flophouse. Such was his life. And as he walked, he wrote -- little snippets of poems the experts call "free-verse haiku."
"He was a disciple of Taneda Santoka," I said, handing Nishizawa-san the book.
"Do you know him?"
"Santoka? Yes, certainly."
"Really. What do you think of his poems? They don't do a thing for me."
"Well, they're an acquired taste."
" 'Hurry down the road/ never look back' -- that's a poem? Or this: 'Tree fallen down/ sitting on it.' "
"Maeda-san said if I wanted to understand her husband, I should read the poems."
"She meant read them. Not glance at them."
I was not destined to make a career in journalism. My father-in-law-to-be had a better idea, which he unfolded to me one Saturday afternoon when I was home in Tokyo for the weekend. If writing was what I was interested in, he had connections in the Foreign Ministry -- how did a post in its PR section sound? There was an opening. The salary would be nearly double, and of course, it would save me having to languish for heaven only knew how many years in -- the very name made him wince -- Aomori. I would be right at the center of things. "In five years you'll have enough material for a book."
I didn't know about that, but Kana-chan, my fiancee, joined her pleas to his, with a vehemence that rather surprised me. "We're adults now," she said.
"Adults have to make a living."
"I make a living."
"I mean an adult living."
"And this opening," her father put in, "will not be there forever."
"It's simply too painful, being away from my fiancee," I explained to Nishizawa-san.
"I understand," he said. His manner was cool, distant. Well it might be, I thought. From his point of view -- from mine too, in a way -- I had betrayed our special relationship.
"We'll keep in touch," I said.
He nodded vaguely, then turned his attention back to his typewriter. If I wanted to go, the sullen arch of his massive back seemed to say, he wouldn't keep me.
Maeda-san, when I called on her to say goodbye, was more cordial. She served tea, and then, seeming suddenly to think of something, said, "Wait." She withdrew briefly and came back with the faded old green book I had borrowed and returned months earlier. "Won't you keep this? I'd be so pleased if you would."
"Oh, but . . ."
"Well . . . Do you know," I said, to cover my embarrassment, "that my editor actually suggested I try to find your husband?"
"Yes. He thought it would make a great followup story."
"So it would, I suppose, but . . . how?"
"How? 'How' doesn't interest him. 'How' is for other people to worry about. He's a kind of visionary, you see. He gets these ideas in his head."
One day, three years later, I received a phone call from Nishizawa-san. He chuckled at my surprise. "Do you know," he said amiably, his resentment evidently forgotten, "every time I get a press release from the Foreign Ministry I catch myself wondering if you wrote it? Sometimes I'm pretty sure I detect your style."
"My style! I don't have a style. If I ever had one, it's long gone."
"They knocked it out of you, did they? How do you like the Reagan landslide, eh?"
"Listen. Have you ever thought of doing a little freelancing on the side?"
"Do you remember the missing husband? Maeda?"
"Yes . . ."
"I think I know where you'll find him."
"Oh, but . . ." I closed my eyes. Didn't it occur to him that he might be imposing? I began to protest that I was busy, terribly busy, up to my ears, but he cut me short and launched into his explanation. The current issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Maelstrom -- did I know it? -- featured an article on homeless people in Tokyo. One segment focused on Ueno Park. "And there's a quote," Nishizawa-san wound up triumphantly, "from . . . well, he's not named, of course, but I'm pretty sure he's your man."
"The quote is, 'After all, alone is best. Weeds.' "
I waited for him to go on; in vain. "So?"
"So! What's the matter with you, Kato-kun? Santoka! It's one of his best poems. You even quoted it in your article!"
"Right," I murmured, remembering.
"He frequents the vicinity of Shinobazu Pond. Find him. Talk to him. Your story has materialized at last. Do you hear me? Are you listening?"
"I'm listening, I'm listening."
What season was it? You hardly knew. It was June, the middle of the rainy season, and yet no rain had fallen in days; it was as hot and sticky as midsummer. Maybe that's why I felt out of sorts. That, and the fact that, Sunday morning of all mornings, on the one day in the week I rejoiced in owing no obligation to the outside world, I was, despite the heat, despite the week's accumulation of stress and fatigue -- compounded, incidentally, by the advent of a new boss (an idiot, a perfect idiot; where do they dig up these people?), setting out as though against my will -- it was against my will! -- for Ueno Park.
Kanako, my wife, tried to talk me out of it, and even the baby, all of 7 months old, seemed with his toothless cooing to reproach me for setting out on a fool's errand.
"I know," I said to him as his tiny hand clutched my middle finger with all its strength. "You're right. But what can I do?"
"You can tell that Nishizawa of yours that you no longer work for him and are not at his beck and call, that's what you can do," said Kana.
"It's not a question of being at his beck and call."
"No? What is it, then?"
I sighed. "I hardly know myself. He kept saying, 'It's your story, it's your story'; if I didn't want to write it, fine, he'd send someone else, no problem 'but it's your story.' When a man like Nishizawa-san talks to you like that . . ."
"What do you mean, 'a man like Nishizawa-san'?"
"It's hard to explain." I pulled my finger free, drawing a wail of protest from the little one, and pecked my wife on her sweaty forehead. "Please. Try to understand . . ."
"There's nothing to understand."
Shinobazu Pond was choked with the lotus flowers it is famous for. A photograph of it would have looked so tranquil -- but a photograph, of course, would have conveyed nothing of the tinny radios that all the food-stall vendors and many of the homeless men had -- all tuned, it seemed, to different stations. Opposite the pond is a scrubby little children's park, but there were no children there. Instead, worn-out, blank-faced men with vacant eyes, some old, some not, sat on the slide and the swings, staring down at the earth as if to make it generate something.
I hadn't slept well the night before. I had lain awake, staring into the dark and imagining heaven knows what, scenes whose vividness only increased with their incoherence. Bleary-eyed, a heaviness in my head and a ringing in my ears, I made a leisurely circuit around the pond, trying to imagine I was just another casual Sunday-morning stroller but all the while thinking, "How am I going to meet this man? How will I know him? And what on earth will I say to him if I do meet him? Why am I here? Why didn't I tell Nishizawa-san to take his damned 'story' and . . ."
"What do you want?"
I jumped. He was an old man, bearded and ragged as old homeless men tend to be, but not at all threatening, and he smiled at my extreme discomposure.
"Don't be afraid," he said gently. "I won't hurt you."
The idea of someone in his debilitated condition hurting me was faintly comical, and I smiled back at him. "You startled me," I said.
"I am the head priest of this temple, the commander of this fortress, the king of this kingdom. What is it you want? Whatever your business here might be, I am the man to apply to."
"I see." A madman, obviously. "I'm looking for a man named Maeda. Perhaps you know him?"
"Maeda? Maeda? Of course I know Maeda. Everyone knows Maeda."
"Really! I had no idea he was so . . . so illustrious."
"Oh yes, yes, a most illustrious man, most illustrious."
"Can you take me to him?"
"I can do better than that. I can take you to the tree he hanged himself from."
"Hanged himself! Surely you're mistaken."
"Mistaken, am I? Yano!" -- this to another homeless man, even more ragged, disheveled and infirm than he himself, who was shuffling aimlessly along not far off. Yano turned, squinted, and, recognizing the "king," acknowledged him with a smile that was joyful and hideous at the same time.
"Yano, this gentleman is looking for Maeda."
"Ha ha!" laughed Yano.
"Tell him where Maeda is."
"Where I wish I was."
"You know the way there."
"Yes, but it needs courage. The guards at the gate are terrible."
"Maeda braved them."
"I never said I was the man Maeda was."
"You! You're not even the man you were. Ha ha!"
"Kato-san! Kato-san! Wake up!"
"Eh? What? Why?"
"It's raining, that's why. We'll get soaked."
"So? Later the sun'll come out and dry us. It always does."
"And I'm sleepy. Do you know that once upon a time I had a career, a family? I was dreaming about them just now. Why the hell'd you have to wake me, damn you!"
"A career? A family?"
"I had everything. I was young. I was going places."
"Places? What places? Shinobazu Pond, that's where you were going!"
"By a long, circuitous path. A long, circuitous path, my lad. Santoka said it best: 'The deeper I go, the deeper I go -- green mountains.' "
"Let's go somewhere out of the rain."
" 'Alone is best. Weeds.' Leave me alone."
"Whatever you say, boss."
My disciple withdrew. Drawing my overcoat over my head, I curled up on my bench and drifted back to sleep.
Michael Hoffman is the author of "The Coat that Covers Him and Other Stories" (www.imcbook.net).