An uncomfortable question

Christchurch. Colombo. Pittsburgh. El Paso. Plans for Pueblo.

Thoughts turn over and over like compost.

Warm, fragrant, perhaps giving life to a seed.

Or perhaps just decomposing.

A few years ago an acquaintance from the Midwest asked me, “What do you dislike most about being Jewish?” He had just been extolling the apparent achievements of my people, and now he wanted to know my views on the downside of Semitic blood. Maybe he was trying to come from a good place–hence the praise–but the question put me off. Without giving much thought about how to wrap my response in gentleness, I quipped, “There are plenty of people in the world who would like us dead.”

I’m not sure what he really made of my words. But the question pulled all sorts of thoughts to mind. Some memories come whether summoned or not: I don’t open a drawer and reach in to retrieve something, rather the drawer opens and things fly out. When I first attended a synagogue in St. Louis, I noticed the old man outside wishing a peaceful sabbath to all who entered. And I noticed the heavy doors, the locks, the exposing windows. I noticed every single exit. Despite the locks and intercom, the synagogue is welcoming to all. An African-American man, perhaps destitute or homeless, comes in during the high holidays. When everyone sings, he stands with us, shoulder to shoulder, but clutches a King James Bible close to his face, whispering passages to himself under a hundred voices. Everyone knows him and everyone welcomes him. This warms me. But the openness of the place also gave me fear. When I dropped my son off for Hebrew school for the first time, I remembered the Kansas City shooting. And then I left him in the care of others. A hostage to fate—as an old professor once told me.

When Pittsburgh happened, I felt like sending an email to the man who asked what I disliked about being a Jew. This is what I meant. But I decided against it. If he remembered asking me the question, he didn’t need to be reminded with a terse note from across the sea. If he didn’t recall, then I suppose a note wouldn’t likely make much of a difference anyway. Perhaps. Or so I told myself.

As many Muslims in Christchurch asserted in the aftermath, they will still attend services at a mosque. They remain true to their faith. To avoid a holy place is to let the side of terror win. They are right. There is no doubt. And despite any fears I bore at the time, I went to synagogue and let my son pursue his interest in that part of his heritage. But that doesn’t mean that I forget about the people who mean harm. It doesn’t mean that I can simply turn off the impulse to look for the exits and imagine a way out if something evil follows us in. And no, I would never bring a weapon, steel death strapped to my hip, into a place where there is song and life.

So that is my answer to the worst thing about being Jewish. While I don’t know what it’s like for other people and members of other tribes, I imagine we might share similar sentiments. From that place perhaps we can find ways for life to proceed.

Remembering this day

Eight years ago, my son woke up from his nap in horror.

The entire world is shaking. I pull him under our dining room table as glasses in cupboards shatter against each other. Books fall from shelves. My son shrieks over and over, “Daddy! Make it stop!” I can only say that we must wait. But the shaking will not stop. More things fall, the apartment building creaks and groans. I recall Haiti and the hundreds of thousands who perished just a few months earlier in Port-au-Prince. Afraid that all will collapse, I pick up my son and make my way to our apartment’s entrance hall, the whole building still heaving. One panicked thought pounds and pounds and pounds in mind: we will not die here.

As I tie my shoes, the world begins to settle. I put on my son’s shoes at the tail end of the great earthquake and we head out into the cold March day. Nothing could ever feel more like shelter than the broad, open sky. Friends, strangers, and acquaintances all stand in the narrow street. We join their ranks and wait. An aftershock courses through underfoot—stronger than any earthquake I had felt before this day, but weaker than what we had just experienced. The aftershocks will come persistently in all hours for the next few weeks until they become quotidian as the breeze. But soon I lose one thread binding me to reality: sometimes, especially when I read, the beating of my own heart vibrates through my body enough to fool me into thinking that the ground is shaking. These phantom quakes rarely come now, but they still do come. When one arrives, I find something hanging in our house—swaying or still?—to let me know if the quake’s epicenter is within me or somewhere under these islands.

The trauma of those days has abated for us. For many people here, however, it has not. They are not in their homes, nor on the land and villages of home. Loved ones will not return from the sea or the ground. To live is to have a relationship with suffering as well as joy. Comparing suffering is perhaps a fool’s endeavor: an old Russian writer once noted that each sorrow is unique while everyone’s happiness is the same. This is the part that one would say the uniqueness can bind us to each other, and please be good to all souls whose paths you cross. There is nothing wrong with such a sentiment—it is noble and true. I would only add that empathy is even more precious. Trying to know how others feel leads to a deeper kindness, a deeper bond. Even if it is beyond comprehension, try to know anyway. Ruminate. Draw out from your own life to grasp—or even just begin to grasp—what storms others confront. Whether successful or not, there is the gift of dignity, the gift of feeling humanity in someone else.

Declines

A disserting sketch….

After a series of unfortunate events, the Energetic Brain Club (a dementia prevention club) changed locations and met at Mrs. Takiguchi’s home, just a few doors down from Mrs. Ishikawa’s creaky house. But this too turned out to be a temporary arrangement. After an extended period of forgetfulness, mild enough to let pass, Mrs. Takiguchi’s decline into dementia became too great a barrier to overcome. Although her sharp wit and opinions remain intact, dementia removed much of her ability to forge new memories. Even frequent repetition rarely made things remain in mind. The signs were clear enough. Two copies of the same book of Japanese and Chinese proverbs, bought on different days from the same store, sat in her living room. “This book looked interesting when I was shopping,” she said, handing me one volume. I flipped through the pages and found a Chinese proverb a doctor had used to describe the nurses when they were teasing him:

四面楚歌 (shimen soka). “In four directions, the songs of Chu.”

[Meaning] An expression of loneliness when one is surrounded by enemies.

[Origin] At the Battle of Gaixia, Xiang Yu of Chu was surrounded by Gaozu’s (Liu Bang) forces. When night fell, Xiang Yu heard the Han soldiers riotously singing Chu songs from the four directions and fell into sorrow, believing that the Han had already conquered the people of Chu.[1]

Now juxtaposed with Mrs. Takiguchi’s diagnosis and her decline, the sorrow and inevitability of Xiang Yu’s situation acquired a new meaning. I kept proverb to myself and willfully ignored the second copy on a cluttered table.

“There’s a lot to be learned. Don’t you agree?” Her ensuing description of the book was nearly word for word what it would the following month when the Energetic Brain Club met again. The turns of vocabulary and pithy expressions appeared like fixed rails. You only had to nudge Mrs. Takiguchi for her to traverse the same pattern of thought. And each time she was delighted to talk about the proverbs and wisdom they bear.

I had learned patience with dementia while preparing food at Persimmon Center. Each time I participated, a man, Mr. Wakaume, came around from the elderly daycare center wing with two elderly women and a care worker. Every time he saw me, there was a profound look of surprise. The following conversation ensued, nearly verbatim if I chose not to deviate from the well-trodden path:

“Where are you from?” Mr. Wakaume inquires.

“I’m from America, and you?”

It is an absurd question. In line with common beliefs, Mr. Wakaume’s appearance, language, and cultural appropriateness would undeniably mark him as Japanese from Japan. But it always makes him chuckle, so I repeat the question each time. He replies, “Japan, Japan, yes I’m from Japan. What are you doing here?”

“Volunteering and learning about Persimmon Center.”

“Are you a student?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“I am mechanic for airplane,” he forces out the sentence in English.

“That sounds quite complicated. You must be very skilled.” Each time Mr. Wakaume smiles with a hint of humility at the praise.

“Do you like living in Japan?”

“Yes I do.” (Sometimes I return the question to him, continuing the absurdity that gives him smiles. But on most days, I let him move unimpeded to the next question.)

“What about nattō [納豆]?” asks Mr. Wakaume, referring to fermented soybeans that have a very distinct odor. Foreigners are not supposed to be able to handle nattō.

“I had some this morning—over rice with a raw egg on top,” I reply. It’s usually true, but always gives Mr. Wakaume another smile. The conversation may linger with other foods that are notoriously difficult for foreign palettes, but eventually their walk must continue, and I need to return to cooking.

“Enjoy your morning,” I say.

“Do your best for cooking!”

“Thank you.

“I think we’ll continue our walk,” Mr. Wakaume concludes.

The care worker and the attendees of the elderly daycare give smiles and words of thanks and go on their way. For more than a year, this episode repeated in nearly identical fashion at 10:30 am on the first and third Thursday of each month. For Mr. Wakaume, each time was novel experience. But as his dementia progressed, he became more difficult for the care workers. Mr. Wakaume often overflowed with frustration when he could not comprehend what was going on. The care workers appeared as enemies to him and he often attempted to leave the daycare wing. The Persimmon Center employees at the front desk were ready and found gentle ways to delay him. Usually, they would listen to his complaints. Yet this too was simply a stage. As neural connections in his mind further atrophied, Mr. Wakaume’s coordination weakened. Walking became a struggle and his escapes slowly came to an end.

Once dementia progressed beyond a far buoy for Mrs. Takiguchi, time distorted. She began to live in a mottled state of remembrance of years long passed, imagination of the future, and the singularity of the present. But the latter dissolves in minutes, as do recollections of any new plans. Remembering to look at the calendar in the morning is now of little help since its contents vanish as though her mind were exhaling thoughts back into the atmosphere. At the same time, old memories are losing distinctness and growing confused. What has become most potent is the immediate present. For one club meeting, Mrs. Terao was the first to arrive. She rang the doorbell and waited. She rang it again, and after a time Mrs. Takiguchi appeared, somewhat flustered, and inquired, “Hello, what business do you have here today?” This left Mrs. Terao confused. Had she come on the wrong day? Was the meeting supposed to be held elsewhere? Soon enough, though, Mrs. Yamada arrived alleviated the confusion. Mrs. Takiguchi could only laugh and say, “I can’t remember anything, but welcome! Welcome!” The next meeting, Mrs. Yamada arrived just as Mrs. Takiguchi was leaving for an errand. Apparently, a sudden urge to buy food had overcome Mrs. Takiguchi, but she could not recall what, exactly, she needed from the store.

At one of the final meetings Mrs. Takiguchi was present, the women discussed an upcoming friendship association luncheon to be held at the clinic. Mrs. Takiguchi spoke up, “That sounds wonderful. I haven’t been to a luncheon in such a long time.” Mrs. Fujii took Mrs. Takiguchi’s hand in her own and invited her. Soon the room was lively as Mrs. Yamada and the women worked out how to bring Mrs. Takiguchi to the clinic and see her home afterwards. An extra meal needed to be prepared. Mrs. Fujii kept Mrs. Takiguchi’s hand in hers for the entirety of the conversation, the same way schoolgirls 80 years their junior show friendship.

On the day of the luncheon, Mrs. Yamada arrived at Mrs. Takiguchi’s home at 11 a.m. as she had promised and penciled in on Mrs. Takiguchi’s large calendar hanging on the wall beside the refrigerator. The luncheon was scheduled for noon, so they had plenty of time. But when she entered Mrs. Takiguchi’s home, Mrs. Yamada found Mrs. Takiguchi in pajamas on the couch with the television blaring and her daughter trying to coax her into getting dressed for the day. Mrs. Takiguchi was in no mood to leave her couch, let alone change and travel the short distance to the luncheon, which she had forgotten. And so Mrs. Yamada took leave of Mrs. Takiguchi and her apologetic daughter, and went to the luncheon alone.

The Energetic Brain Club met at Mrs. Takiguchi’s home the following month and all was normal. No one spoke of the luncheon and Mrs. Takiguchi passionately described toiling in a factory to make flares and parachutes during the war. It was a story we had heard before, but most of the members had forgotten and listened closely. Some asked the same questions they had during the first telling months before. With or without dementia, minds appear to ply the same routes, evincing the same curiosities and emotions. In one sense, people are freed to feel the fascinations wholly fresh and anew; from another angle, humans appear to be much more like Rube Goldberg machines or even simple windup toys. The mechanisms pushing forward are not always clear, but individuals trod along the same paths.

This was the final meeting at Mrs. Takiguchi’s house. Summer and its long, hot days were coming. Mrs. Takiguchi’s daughter was worried about her mother’s safety. If she was unable to complete the normal routines of dressing and eating by herself, long periods unattended in the heat could bring harm. Judging by Mrs. Takiguchi’s difficulty with remotes and forgetting to turn off the television, she could not be counted on to use the air-conditioning when necessary. Her life could slip away. With reluctance and after absorbing more than a few sharp words, Mrs. Takiguchi’s daughter brought her to short term facility. It was just for the summer, she told her mother. Mrs. Yamada visited on a few occasions, but it was obvious that there would be no return home. Mrs. Takiguchi, for her part, was fascinated by all the people around her—and unconcerned about returning home. As she had done with the Energetic Brain Club, she regaled Mrs. Yamada about the others in the facility, their interesting lives and accomplishments. Perhaps some of her stories were stitched from older memories and then knotted upon the newer relations, a confused assemblage of recollection and imagination. Mrs. Yamada was not sure. In any case, everyone at the Energetic Brain Club agreed that the facility suited Mrs. Takiguchi. It wasn’t too far from home and her daughter visited often.

The conclusion of Mrs. Takiguchi’s residence at home is an example of things working out. Her daughter was near and engaged; friendship association members checked up on her with regularity. The support and attention Mrs. Takiguchi likely allowed her to maintain a residence, even if somewhat lonely, in the place that she desired. In all the conversations in the Energetic Brain Club, she never expressed a wish to leave. In this regard, she differed quite a bit from Mrs. Ishikawa. Solitude brought loneliness to both, but Mrs. Takiguchi was content at home with the quiet hours as her companion. And so nearby friends and kin, along with a small squad of home helpers and regular visits to elderly daycare, enabled Mrs. Takiguchi to squeeze two years of life at home following a diagnosis of dementia and a failing ability to walk. Her outlook remained oriented toward future pursuits. In May, shortly before her entrance into a facility, she heard that I would be giving a lecture on my research. Without hesitation, Mrs. Takiguchi promptly found a pencil and a piece of paper. “Please do tell when and where it will be,” she requested formally. “I would very much like to hear what you have learned.” Her clouded eyes fixed on mine. A second passed and a few women began to speak about difficulty and distance—it would be arduous a trip for Mrs. Takiguchi, who needed a wheelchair for anything further than 50 meters—but Mrs. Yamada swiftly shushed them. This was a matter of dignity rather pragmatic concerns. Feelings, from moment to moment, took precedence. I gave Mrs. Takiguchi the details and she wrote them down dutifully. With an unsteady hand, she placed the small slip of paper on the crowded table, in with other short notes, notices, and one of her two copies of the book of proverbs.

[1] According to the historical records, Xiang Yu managed to slip out of the trap set by Gaozu. However, he escaped only with a few hundred soldiers out of a hundred thousand, the rest deserting and abandoning the conflict with the Han. After a long and bloody pursuit, Xiang Yu committed suicide rather being taken alive by the Gaozu’s forces. The demise of Xiang Yu was a major turning point in the Chu-Han conflict that would result in the establishment of the Han Dynasty with Gaozu as the emperor of China.

 

A short jaunt to Hakata

Hakata is an energetic city in Kyushu. After I gave a lecture, a group took me out for a reception. In the usual fashion, we consumed a meal of several small courses accompanied by a two-hour all-you-can-drink session. Inherent in the drinking are little social rituals. Beer comes in large dark bottles that are continually emptied into little glasses. However, you are not to pour your own. If you find your glass empty, take a bottle and top off someone else’s glass—whether it needs more beer or not. The favor will be promptly returned. Small glasses require frequent pours and keeps the conversation running. Conversation. Despite the official reason for being in Hakata, travel for lectures always provides a chance to hear more about what is going on in other places. Research is never really over. One project in a small town south of Hakata is a kodomo shokudō (子ども食堂), literally “child cafeteria.” In recent years, such cafeterias have sprouted here and there in places of poverty. They give children a chance to have a nice, home-cooked meal once a month. Parents may also come, often volunteering in the kitchen. Great steaming vats of curry—full of carrots and potatoes and ground beef—are common fare. To avoid stigmatization, though, this and other child cafeterias are open to all children. Organizers fear that any form of limitation to those who are truly in need will result in bullying or ostracization (nakama hazure 仲間外れ) of the participants. Or, simply, no one will come to be branded with a mark of poverty.

After filling my already full glass, obliging me to fill her empty glass, one of the organizers explains that they convinced a local food co-operative to provide all the ingredients. Their area is quite poor with one in four children residing in impoverished households that receive some sort of assistance. Despite the rural locale, more than 100 people attend each cafeteria gathering.

“The children come very, very hungry,” the organizer says.

“Really? Do you know the families well?” asks a man who works at a hospital far from the cafeteria’s neighborhood.

“I bet the children tell you honestly, don’t they?” I offer. Enough time volunteering at free tutoring sessions impressed upon me how open children can be about their situations to adults. Perhaps the shame of poverty isn’t as acute when confessed to older generations.

The organizer smiles, and then chuckles as if recalling a specific instance. “Oh yes, they’re very honest. They say, ‘I’m so hungry.’ If you ask, they’ll tell you they didn’t eat breakfast or dinner the night before.”

“Why? Do they just not have the food?” asks the man.

“Their parents know that their children can eat all they want at the child cafeteria, so they send them hungry. The little children eat and eat and go home with great big round bellies.”

So it goes. The other organizer then waxes about the robust health of the town, attributing it to the lack of additives and preservatives in the food. Farmers eat their own fresh produce. But can they afford anything else? In their poverty and hunger, were the residents simply denied the pleasures of sugar, fat, and plenty that their upper-class brethren enjoy? In a perverse way, I thought about trading a few years of health for more the luxuries of food. But the organizers know all-too-well what the context is. And so they feed the hungry children of their town one day each month.

Interrupting my incipient brooding on the monthly fasts and the meals of poverty, a young manager refills my half empty glass. His is empty. “Oh, sorry I didn’t notice,” I offer the usual apology, and fill his glass. But more than beer, he wants a question to be answered.

“Did you play sports when you were younger?” the young bespectacled manager asks. “You’re very tall. Basketball?”

We ease into a conversation about basketball and the NBA, Jordan versus Magic. Such is the miscellany of these gatherings. Any questions bottled up during the hours of lecture and discussion now emerge. Sports is a usual topic, and so are Michael Moore’s Sicko, my ethnic origins, and peculiar state of US politics. Like fruit ripening, the harder thoughts of the day soften with drink. Soon, we leave the formal restaurant for an underground ramen joint. Under bright bare bulbs, businessmen in suits are drinking and laughing and smoking. It is loud and warm and fragrant. One of the organizers of the child cafeteria slips away to smoke as well. As drink began to weigh on eyelids and minds, talk shifts from health and poverty to cabarets and illicit affairs. Kyushu dialects emerge as formality is cast aside from intimacy in conversation. When the salty noodle soup with leek and pork are gone, the night comes to an end, our bellies round and full.

32

Life

Summer is the time for cicadas to sing. Rather than take a bus back from a community center tucked deep into the sprawl, I like to walk back through neighborhoods and listen. Near the parks, it can be deafening as the lusty voices fill up all space, thicken the air. But as I draw nearer to a train station, the bustle of car engines and vanishing green snuffs out the melody.

One particularly hot afternoon, after I left behind cicada song and went into the station’s rush of people, I glimpsed a police car rolling slowly down the street. I felt eyes upon me, but I often feel eyes upon me, police and otherwise. I do not blend in well. It’s usually nothing. But a few moments later, there were words slung toward me from the rear. I turned and two officers were swiftly making their way toward me. Again, I thought.

“Show me your residence card,” said one. If you don’t have this on your person, you will most likely be arrested and detained. It is the law and fines can be steep. And you’ll have to call someone to bring the card to where you are being held. I start to get out my wallet and ask, “Why did you stop me? Did I do something suspicious?” In principle, they aren’t supposed to stop me for nothing. But they do anyway, based on their “judgment.” And now people are watching as if I’ve done something to merit the officers’ suspicion.

“Why would you ask such a question?” asked the other one, his voice sharp. Now he comes quite close, likely a technique to put you ill at ease. It worked and I felt a rush inside that quickened my heart. This is how it always goes, or at least, how it always went until I grew accustomed to being stopped on account of my “foreign” appearance.

“I asked because you stopped me and not someone else. Why didn’t you stop that person over there?” I nodded toward to a young woman passing by as I fumbled open my wallet. Seeing my residence card gave a flush of relief. I handed it to the officer who had been silent.

“We just have to make sure,” said the other, still too close, still breaking the unspoken rules of space.

“Do you normally stop people who look foreign to you?” I pushed.

“No, no, not at all. Most of the people we stop like this are Japanese,” replied the one who stands too close, eyeing me up and down.

“Huh.” I didn’t believe him. But here is the shape power: I have done nothing; they could take me in for something as minor as a raised voice. Or maybe something else. I am at their mercy.

“Here you go,” said the quiet officer and returns my residence card. He smiled and expelled heavily accented English, “Thank you. See you again.” The final phrase is what school children learn for saying goodbye. I’ve taught it hundreds of times. Then they are off to the patrol car and I am left alone. All the eyes upon me slipped away. In less than a minute, all those who saw are gone and new people filter past, their minds on other matters.

Every time I pass an officer or police car, I feel the same tingle of unease. Do I have my residence card? Will they stop me for some other reason? And then what?

After living as a largely invisible minority in the US, I am a visible one here. A few nights ago, a police officer decided to speak honestly. On this occasion, I was stopped in Shibuya. Three officers hopped out of the patrol car and formed a nice little v with me in the middle. Maybe they thought I might run. Maybe this is how they train. After the business of showing my ID and a cursory search of my pockets and backpack, never pleasant, I asked the same questions. In short, why? The smiling officer chirped, “We stopped you because foreigners don’t normally come this far from the station.” It didn’t matter that it was the neighborhood where I live and it was my normal walk home. “What can I do to prevent this from happening again and again?” I asked, just to see what they might would say. “I’m sorry, but nothing,” was the smiling answer. And then we parted.

But there is another side. As wretched as profiling is, I never wonder about guns or the tenuousness of my own life. The police are armed, but I never imagine that through some peculiar needle of misfortune that they will sling metal into my body. Statistics bear this out. In 2016, there were six fatal shootings in all of Japan and the police were responsible for none. The officers who stop me know that the chance of me being armed is next to nil. Despite the keen racial edge, we have an unspoken understanding that excludes guns from our interaction. Because I look the way I do, I am hassled and searched. They have to power to choose what comes next. Each time we will have, more or less, the same conversation. And I’ll mention it to the ward representatives I know, again and again. And I will continue to believe that I won’t be shot.

#31

Bathing and Marriage

Bathing in Japan has its own rituals. You shower seated on a tiny stool. Once clean, you soak in the tub. Contemporary bathtubs have all sorts of settings to draw or keep the water at a desired temperature. A filled tub is usually used by each family member in turn. Smaller families sometimes keep the same water for a second or third day. In winter, yuzu may float in the water and scent skin with citrus. Most washing machines have hoses that can suck the bathwater to use in laundry.

Parents, primarily mothers, tend to bathe with their children up through elementary school. Google (in Japanese) “when should you stop bathing with your children?” and you’ll get a sampling of the debates about choosing the appropriate time to stop. There are warnings that boys who continue to bathe with their mothers end up having slight delays in reaching maturity. Even after bathing together at home concludes, trips up into the mountains at resorts with hot springs are standard fare. But you’ll be bathing with strangers of the same sex, along with family members. As a doctor put it to me one night on a retreat at a hot springs, “There is a naked culture to Japan.”

At a “forget the year party” (jp. bōnenkai 忘年会) with a dozen nurses, the topic of bathing arose between glasses of beer. Mrs. Seko asks all the women gathered, “Do you bathe with your husband?” Several nurses nodded that they do, but sometimes it is nothing more than a moment as they pass in the doorway. A few contend that the space of steam and water is a setting to talk and be close. Bathing together is a chance to tie fraying strings into knots of intimacy.

Not all subscribe to that notion. “No!” exclaims Mrs. Kawagoe, one of the nurses. “Why would you ever need to do such a thing?!? I would never bathe with my husband. Never.” On top of her words, everything in her thin body, from the purse in her brow to suddenly unsettled hands to rapid glances about the table, eyes frantically searching for even the faintest glimmer of agreement, sings of revulsion. With horror curdling in her voice, she cuts further, “Why would you need to do that? Why? I don’t understand.”

“I throw out the hot water in the tub if my husband uses it,” chimes in Mrs. Gotō. “I wouldn’t put myself in that water.”

“What a waste! All that hot water…” says Mrs. Seko to a chorus of agreeing murmurs. “What about laundry?”

“Everything goes in the washing machine, but I’m not going to hang up his clothes next to mine. No way,” Mrs. Gotō says with cool confidence and takes a drink of foamy beer.

“Me neither. I don’t want it to look like we’re some sort of close couple,” chirps Mrs. Kawagoe, still unsettled, eyes still searching about.

And the conversation swings to the pub. It has been refurbished, and now clean rows of light bulbs hang down, filaments glowing with warmth against in the winter draft. As I chat with Mrs. Gotō about a patient, Mrs. Seko’s voice comes into my ear like a barbed dart, “One verse,”

“Huh?”

“Failure,” she laughs. “You’re supposed to recite a poem. No hesitation.”

#29

Disserting sketch….

小石川植物園の桜 066jpg

Along the Meguro River in Tokyo, dark branches of cherry trees hang over the water and concrete banks. Each April, the branches open with layers upon layers of tessellating blossoms, each the palest shade of pink. From bridges and paved paths overlooking the banks, people capture the views with cell phones. More serious hobbyists lug black camera shells, switching lenses with new possibilities.

Elsewhere in Tokyo, cherries inhabit shrines, temples, quiet graveyards, and wide avenues that buses ply. When days lengthen and the chill of winter subsides, cherries blush in small pools amidst the prison-gray architecture. For a few weeks, Tokyo changes. The city can quiver with loneliness while its denizens hurry off to hidden spaces of fluorescent lights to work. Conversation among strangers is sparse. During a morning commute, despite the forced intimacy of warm, scented bodies packed into trains and subways, there is nary a thread of connection. Faces flit in and out of view, swiftly forgotten. Ear buds and the glittering screens of smart phones heighten a sense of isolation. But in this season, the pink buds and pale blossoms are things that all can share. They bring a pause in the rush and a casual glance among strangers as they look upon the same blossoms. The moments pass, but sentiments linger.

At the larger parks, the appearance of petals calls for viewing parties. Although families and friends gather, this is often an affair of work. Offices sections rope off rectangular patches below the blossoms, and then spread out blue tarps. Careful to remove shoes before stepping onto the tarps, small platoons of office workers deliver food to the middle: chips, squid jerky, trays of sushi, sweets, fried battered balls with chewy octopus chunks at the center. The food is joined by 12-packs of beer, tall plastic bottles of tea and sweet drinks, and small disposable cups for drinking. The same rules of a pub apply here: pour others’ drinks, but not your own.

Even in the morning, drunken revelry commences between blossom and tarp. Faces redden, while cool winds carry laughter and loud banter. Enormous bins for trash and recycling fill on the first day, and seem to remain full even when their contents are removed. By the second day, the odor of old beer settles into the soil under the cherry trees and will linger throughout the blossom viewing season. Along with human revelers, crows feast. They fly low, the rush of their wings coming into your ear between shrill calls. But there is a certain beauty to their darkness in this season. Against the pale blossoms, black feathers and thick black beaks glisten.

There are dozens of varieties of cherry. Weeping cherry, mountain cherry, winter cherry, dawn cherry—to name a few. When the season comes, weather forecasts will also note the progress of the “cherry blossom front” (jp. sakura zensen) as it slowly creeps up the archipelago to northern clines. But in Tokyo and the rest of Japan, the cherry blossom front marks the bloom of one particular type of cherry, the somei yoshino. In the poetic tradition of Japan, this particular variant is quite new, likely bred into existence early in the Meiji era (1868-1912). When old poets gazed upon cherry blossoms and found beauty in their impermanence, they were likely looking at mountain cherries or eight-fold cherries. Even Bashō, whose revolutionary turn brought images of pissing horses and brothels to poetry, was centuries early. But when Japan was making overtures of friendship to the US in the early 1900s with gifts of flowering trees, somei yoshino were included and still reside in Washington DC soil.

For somei yoshino, existence wholly depends on gardeners. The trees are all clones, each and every one. Fruits are tiny, the seeds sterile. Somei yoshino pollen still retains a measure of potency and will mingle with other varieties of cherry. Fresh young saplings rise, but with different traits. Without the careful nurturing of clippings, somei yoshino would slip away from this earth, relegated to memories and pixels as well as poetry. They are a fitting metaphor for contemporary Japan: a place of beauty, old and invented traditions, but in need of care.

The botanist who coined the name somei yoshino was the head of Koshikawa Botanical Gardens. Founded in the 1600s, it was garden for medicinal plants. For a time, an early hospital occupied a part of the garden’s grounds. Now it is run by Tokyo University. One section of the garden contains a grove of somei yoshino.

I visited most recently on a day when the sky was equally splotched with white and bright blue. It was still morning, air not yet warmed by the sun, but there were already hundreds of visitors in the garden. Most came equipped with cameras and cell phones, and also snacks for small picnics. An occasional blue tarp sat in the shade, but this was not the carnival of Ueno or Yoyogi. People had come on rather demure outings to take in the blossoms in the warmth of spring. On quiet dates, a few young couples strolled and found spots on stone benches. A few small groups of young mothers with toddlers sat in the shade. You could hear their voices shift back and forth between singsong tones of conversation and scolding notes slung at their children who found a gleeful mischief. A few tears wetted young cheeks.

Most visitors, though, had already seen more than sixty seasons of cherry blossoms pass. Many used canes and shuffled along the rows of gnarled, old cherries. Elderly women, who far outnumbered their male counterparts, covered their heads in hats. Below they wore light jackets and polyester pants, and often carried small backpacks or handbags. Old men who strolled the garden appeared mildly formal with sport coats and slacks and leather shoes.

Eavesdropping was not difficult. Many of the elderly spoke in loud voices, in order to penetrate the dimming ability to hear in their peers and themselves. They spoke of the blossoms, naturally, but also of friends and family and other outings. But after bouts of conversation, many would find their way to one of the benches below the dark branches lit with pale blossoms. It was late in the season, and petals were beginning to fall in the wind. They came to rest on the damp ground, bright against the bare earth and green of patches of moss and trampled grasses. One woman gazed upward for a long spell, a dark cane resting in against her knee. And then she looked to the woman seated next to her and they began to talk and smile and point to the blossoms above and below.

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