12. Reading Silence Aloud

A few weeks later, I went back to the farmhouse to oversee some work on the kura and spent the night alone. In the evening, I sat on the engawa next to the paper lantern, reading the final chapters of Endō’s Silence aloud. Later that night, I went to bed in the tatami room you had used, and lay down in the futon you had slept in.

God, how I wished you had been there with me.


10. The Second Night

When I woke the following morning, I found you in the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee.

“How did you sleep?” I asked.

“Like a baby. Thank you for . . .”

“Don’t mention it.”

“It’s really nice here,” you said, placing a hot mug of coffee before me. “Do you like it with sugar and milk?”

“With milk and sugar is exactly how I like it.”

“Me, too.”

“Thank you.”

“So, do you often bring students here?”

“Often? No.”

“That’s a shame.”

“But I try to do this weekend camp every autumn.”

“I wish you had brought us here earlier.”

“Oh?”

“It’s so peaceful in the morning.”

“It is,” I said, taking a sip of the coffee. Hmm, not bad.

“A place like this, you can really forget your troubles.”

“Troubles? You’ve got troubles?”

“Who doesn’t in this day and age?”

“True. So, what’s eating you the most?”

“Job-hunting.”[1]

“Oh?”

“The company I was hoping to work for never called me back for a final interview . . .”

“Sorry to hear . . .”

“It’s okay. I had offers at two other companies and now I can’t decide which one to take.”

“Perhaps I can help.”

“Okay, Sensei. What would you do then if you were offered a job with a smaller design-related company here in Hakata or a major general construction company in Tōkyō?”

“I guess it would depend on the nature of the work, the possibilities for the future, the people I was going to work with . . .”

“Exactly, but . . .”

“But what? What’s holding you back from either?”

“Well, one is too big and the other is too small.”

“And the company you were hoping to work at was . . .”

“Just right.”

“Ah, Goldilocks.”

“Excuse me? Gorudy-what?”

“Goldilocks.” And so, I related to you the fairy tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

“Just right,” you said again with a sigh.

“What are the drawbacks, then, of either company?”

“The size of the local company is a real turnoff. I have sempai[2] working for smaller companies and they never seem to have any time off. They like what they do, of course, but they normally don’t finish work until ten, eleven at night. My father died from karōshi.[3] The last thing I want to do is work myself to death, too. I want to have a life outside of my job; you know, that work-life balance people are talking about.”

“I hear you. And the larger company?”

“The work would probably be less interesting, but the benefits would be better. The chances for promotion and travel are better, too. And, if I didn’t like it, I could always quit and work for a smaller company. It’s more difficult the other way around.”

“True. So, what’s stopping you?”

“Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō?”

“I’d have to live in Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō’s fun! Why wouldn’t you want to live there?”

“I’ve lived my whole life here in Fukuoka. This is all I know. I mean, what would you do?”

I put my coffee mug down. “You’re asking someone who left his hometown to move almost halfway around the world and never once looked back. Tōkyō’s only an hour and a half away by plane. It’s not like you’d be living on the moon.”

And with that, the others, still muddled from last night’s binge, started to drag themselves out of the bedrooms into the kitchen.

After breakfast, we spent the morning doing odd repairs, such as repapering the shōji doors, chopping wood—something which none of you had ever done before—and cleaning out the kura storehouse,[4] which I was going to convert into a shosai, or private library. Later in the day, a sakan shokunin, or a plaster craftsman, came in to begin work on the kura. He showed us how to scrape the top layer of plaster down to the shitanuri, or inner layer of clay, first with gennō hammers and then with a scraping bar.

By the time we had finished three hours later, we were all covered in two hundred-year-old dust and straw. Squeezing into back of the plasterer’s minivan, we drove to a nearby supā-sentō bathhouse[5] to clean up and have dinner. Then, it was back to the old farmhouse to finish off the bottles of imo jōchū and nihonshu we had opened the night before.

Like the previous night, you and I were the last two up. And, once again, you came to where I was sitting on the engawa and asked me if I would read to you. I could tell, though, a bedtime story that was not really what you wanted from me.

As I read, you rolled over toward me and rested your head on my thigh, facing upward. I put the book down and slowly, timidly placed my arm across your chest, my hand on your shoulder.

I remember feeling unsure of myself, eager and yet terrified of what might happen.

“Last July . . .” you began.

“Yeah?”

“Last July, when we went to Kitsuki and got caught in the rain and took shelter under the eaves of that old samurai house . . .” And, pausing, you took my hand and placed in on your breast. “I wanted you to kiss me.”

I could feel that you were not wearing a bra; your breast was firm, the nipple hard under my ring finger.

I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry. The words tumbled out: “I, um, wanted to, but that . . . that damn official. What timing! If only . . .”

And you held my hand tightly against your breast and raised your chin as if to invite me to finish my words with action. I leant down to kiss you, but as I did the image of my wife crying and my sons’ faces twisted in pain flashed for a second through my mind, and I hesitated.

Sensei?”

My hand relaxed.

“What’s the matter, Sensei?”

“Everything,” I sighed.

“But . . . I love you.”

But so does my wife, so do my children . . .

I removed my hand, reluctantly I should confess, from your breast, and straightened up.

“I can’t . . . As much as I want to . . . I can’t . . . I shouldn’t.

“Don’t you like me?”

“I do. More than you know it, I do. I have liked you and wanted you ever since you first came to my office last year.”

“Then why stop now?”

“You must believe me when I tell you that stopping is the hardest thing for me to do.”

And then I lied. I told you I hesitated for your sake when in fact it was fear that was holding me back. Mind you, not the fear that my wife would find out. Rather, the fear that the full force of karma would come crashing down on me and rob me of everything—my content, my happiness, my success, my family . . .

Sensei?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a man of your word?”

“I like to think that I am.”

“Then promise me one thing.”

“Promise you what?”

“I’m probably going to take that job in Tōkyō, after all, meaning that come late March, I will have to move away from here. I may return every now and again for the holidays, but . . .” Your words trailing off, you pushed yourself up off of the floor, then knelt before me. “If we ever happen to meet, say, in Tōkyō, or here,  or even in Kanazawa . . . What I mean to say is, if fate deems it right for us to be together, kiss me then. Promise me that.”

What did I have to lose?

“I promise,” I said.

And with that, you stood up, and, never once looking back towards me to give me a second chance I would have surely taken, disappeared into your room. The sound of the fusuma closing behind you resonated like regret.


 

[1] Much of the fourth year of a college student’s life in Japan is occupied with job-hunting. In 2015, there was an effort to shorten the job-hunting season by having it start in the spring, or the first semester of the last year of college, and finish by late summer, but many companies had difficulty making hiring decisions in a timely manner. In 2016, the government relented and permitted companies to start the multi-stage hiring process a few months earlier.

              In 2014, the old system was still in place, whereby third year students like Kana would begin investigating companies near the end of the second (autumn) semester, have interviews the following spring, in the first semester of their fourth and final year, and receive job offers as early as July or as late as autumn.

[2] Sempai (先輩) is an upperclassman or someone senior in age who acts as a mentor. This mentor system can be seen in all levels of education, sports, business, and other organizations. Even children in kindergarten use the term sempai when referring to children older or cleverer than themselves.

[3] Karōshi (過労死, literally, “excess”, ka + “labor”, + “death”, shi) is death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.

[4] Kura (倉or蔵) is a traditional Japanese storehouse usually built with a wooden frame and thick fire-proof walls made of bamboo lathing and clay.

[5] A sentō is a public bath, typically located in an older residential area. A supā-sentō or “super sentō” is a much larger facility offering a variety of spas, baths, Jacuzzis, saunas, and so on. Where the smaller sentō are something of a dying breed, the supā-sentō have been growing in popularity.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

9. At the farmhouse

Once a year, usually in early autumn when the weather tends to be cool and dry, I invite my seminar students to a two-hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse I own in the countryside just west of Fukuoka city.

Despite the grave reservations of my wife, I went ahead and purchased the house which had been in shambles after years of neglect. I knew it had potential, though.

“It’s a fixer-upper,” I insisted, using a word that could not be translated into Japanese. If the typical house in Japan lost all its value after only fifteen years or so, a house that was over two-hundred years would surely be a money pit.

Sitting on twenty-five hundred tsubo (坪) or about two acres of land,[1] the farmhouse was built in a traditional style with a hardened earthen floor called doma (土間) at the entrance, an internal veranda, or hiroshiki (広敷), covered with thick planks of hardwood flooring, and a hearth called an irori (囲炉裏) in the center of the room. There were exposed beams of sturdy, good-quality timber throughout; the lumber alone made purchasing the house a no-brainer to me.

The purpose of those weekend camps was to, one, reinforce what I had been trying to instill in the students—namely, the notion that old didn’t have to mean uncomfortable or inconvenient; two, demonstrate how modern architecture and convenience could be tastefully incorporated into traditional design; and, three, introduce the students to traditional modes of carpentry and home maintenance.

One year, for instance, I invited a craftsman to show the students how to make clay walls. (I had to bring the craftsman back in half a year later to redo the wall the students had made because the quality was so poor, but the kids had fun all the same.) Another year, we helped thatch the roof of a neighboring farmhouse. As far as I know, the roof does not leak. I could be wrong, though.

After several years of renovation projects, the old house had become a source of pride, and had been written up by several magazines and papers. Even my wife came to see the sense in my having bought it and now enjoyed taking the boys out one weekend every month to let them run around and get their “yayas” out.

In the summer months, our boys collect insects and frogs, climb trees in a nearby forest, and help the neighbors plant rice. In the autumn, they return to help harvest the rice, and to pick the fruits and vegetables grown by some farmers to whom I leased the arable land for free in order to keep the farmland in use.

 

My seminar class and I arrived at the farmhouse on a Friday evening. After everyone had settled into their rooms, we came together in the kitchen and prepared dinner: a nabé hot pot made of thin slices of pork, kimchi, hakusai (napa cabbage), and tōfu that was flavored with miso, ground sesame, ginger, kochujang paste, chives, chicken bouillon, and nihonshu or saké.[2]

We drank imo jōchū,[3] nihonshu, and beer as we cooked, drank as we ate, drank as we cleaned up, and continued drinking late into the evening. One by one students retired to their rooms, but you remained, tidying up after the others had had passed out or gone to bed. When you finished putting the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, you came to where I sat cross-legged on the engawa, reading.[4]

“Do you read to your children?” you asked, sitting down next to me.

“I do. Or at least I try to every day. Why?”

“My father never read to me.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“He never had the time.”

“No time? It doesn’t take much . . .”

“He always came home late from work, long after I’d gone to bed. And on the weekends, he slept all day. Come to think of it, the only memories I have of my father are of him sleeping.”

“Surely, you talk to him from time to . . .”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s okay. It’s not as if there was anything to miss.”

There was a blunt frankness to the way you spoke that I always admired—so different from the typical young Japanese woman—but this water ran a little too cold.

“How old were you when he passed away?”

“Ten? Eleven? I don’t remember exactly, but what I do remember was seeing him in the casket, a halo of flowers around his head, and thinking how at peace he looked, like he was in the deepest, most comfortable sleep. He died from overwork, they say. The company paid some compensation to my mother, but it was really only a token amount . . . I don’t really want to talk about it. Read to me. Read to me, Sensei.”

So, I read to you. Do you remember what I read? You probably don’t. I read to you from the English translation of Endō Shūsaku’s Chinmoku (Silence).

And as I read, you fell asleep. I put the book down and looked at you, the way the shadows from a paper lantern played on your features. I wanted to kiss you, but I didn’t dare.

Instead, I picked you up, as I often do with my own children, and carried you inside, laying you down on the sofa and placed a kaké-buton quilt over you, a pillow under your head.[5]

And as I turned the light off, you murmured in your sleep, “O-yasumi, Tōchan.”[6]


[1] One tsubo (坪) is equivalent to 3.306 square meters or 3.954 square yards. One acre equals 1,224.1 tsubo. Before metric was adopted in 1924, the Japanese used a traditional system of measurement called Shakkan-hō (尺貫法) which was Chinese in origin. It was officially adopted in Japan in 701. Today Shakkan-hō is still used in real estate and farming.

One tsubo is equal to the area covered by two standard tatami mats, laid side by side. The area covered by a single tatami mat is called one (畳), and measures 1.653 square meters or 1.979 square yards. Rooms in Japanese homes are measured in . A standard six- room will have the same area as that of a traditional Japanese-style room covered with six tatami mats.

Keep in mind that the size of tatami mats can vary from region to region. In Kyōto, where tatami are larger and measure 0.96m by 1.91m, they are referred to as Kyōma (京間) tatami. Tatami in the Nagoya region, which measure 0.91m by 1.82m, are called ainoma (合の間, lit., “in-between”) tatami. It is one of these ai-no-ma tatami that equals one (畳), and measures 1.653m2. Two ai-no-ma tatami, side by side, equal one tsubo (坪). And, in the Kantō region, Edoma (江戸間) or Kantōma (関東間) tatami are smaller, measuring 0.88 m by 1.76 m. Got that? There may be a test later.

[2] In Japanese, the word saké (酒) can refer to any alcoholic drink. If you order “saké” in Kagoshima, for example, you will be served imo jōchū (shōchū made from sweet potatoes); in Okinawa you will be served awamori (a clear liquor made by distilling long-grained rice from Thailand). Nihonshu (日本酒, lit. “Japanese liquor”) is the rice wine most Westerners are familiar with.

[3] Imo jōchū (芋焼酎) is a distilled beverage primarily from Kagoshima prefecture (Satsuma) that is made from sweet potatoes (which are known outside of Kagoshima as satsuma imo). There are many different kinds of shōchū produced in Japan, the chief ingredient of which—be that barely (mugi), rice (komé), buckwheat (soba), brown sugar (kokutō) or even chestnuts, sesame seeds, and so on—depends on the region in which it is made.

[4] An engawa (縁側) is the wooden strip of flooring just outside the windows and wooden storm shutters of a traditional Japanese home. It is protected from rain and snow by the overhanging hisashi (庇) or eaves.

[5] A shiki-buton (敷き布団) is the thick cotton mattress that is laid out on the tatami floor and on which you sleep. The duvet-like quilt that covers you is called a kaké-buton (掛け布団).

[6]O-yasumi, Tō-chan” (おやすみ、父ちゃん) means “Good night, Daddy”.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.