The tiny close community of a small village used to be the whole world for me who was born to a farming family living in a rural area of Japan. The sole window to the outside world was TV through which I had encountered what I had never seen in my daily life.
Back in those days, Japanese TV dramas were made and shot in the capital city of Japan, Tokyo. The city view and the people’s way of living in Tokyo looked so cool. Everything from fashion to lifestyle was completely different from things in Kyoto where I lived. On TV, Tokyo seemed like a future world decades ahead to me. I was hooked by one particular weekly crime drama which was shot on location all around Tokyo. Every location looked as if it had been in a Western country and the detectives in the drama were extremely stylish. I was absorbed in seeing that exotic world every week and had spent the other six days of the week waiting for the drama. As soon as I finished watching that show, I would rush into my room and write out the entire show in the notebook. I reproduced all the lines of characters and all the settings by depending on my memory. Since there was no way to record a TV program as a video cassette recorder was yet to come, I read my notebook over and over again to watch it inside my head until the next show was on air. In hindsight, the world of TV dramas was fictional which didn’t exist even in Tokyo, but I was too young to realize that.
Years went by and I became a musician. By the time two years have passed since I joined my first band, the band not only had played gigs around Kyoto but also had made guest appearances and had our songs played on local radio shows from time to time. We had made some connections with music producers who came down to the western part of Japan from Tokyo as judges for some live contests. However, our progress was limited because all the major music labels of Japan were based in Tokyo. My partner and I began to consider moving our base to Tokyo as we were geographically too far off to make a career in music.
Moving to Tokyo was a big deal to me. While I seldom attended, it meant I would quit college once and for all. As a much more serious matter, an old Japanese custom didn’t allow a successor of the family, that was me, to leave home. For me, leaving home meant abandoning my family and all the privileges. Although it seemed crazy to throw away everything when I had no idea how to live on as a musician in Tokyo, I felt living there would be better than staying in my family’s home for the rest of my life. I preferred eating hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s to eating home-grown vegetables from my family’s fields every single day. I knew it wouldn’t be healthy, but at least I would be able to eat what I chose, when I wanted. To sum up, moving to Tokyo was all about freedom. I was more than willing to jump into the free world where I would make all choices by myself instead of the old fixed rules and customs.
Oddly enough, things went unexpectedly smoothly once I made up my mind to move to Tokyo. Various kinds of obstructions that had been seemingly difficult to be cleared resolved themselves almost magically. The moving day arrived sooner than I had imagined.
I was waiting for the bullet train bound for Tokyo on the platform in Kyoto Station. A friend of mine came to see me off. She was surprised that she was the only one for me there. “Even your parents don’t see you off?” she sounded bewildered. I wondered what awaited me in the outside world of my window. I was both looking forward to it and afraid.
I came across a website on which custom-made T-shirts, caps and tote bags are made and sold worldwide. Since I have been in a financial crunch lately, I could make and sell T-shirts with my poor drawing on them there. I browsed others’ merchandise which designs looked professional and like works of art. Looking at them, it was obvious that my daub had no part to play there. I tried to look for some other possible designs of my own.
It was when the idea of kanji struck me. Kanji means Chinese characters in Japanese and one of three character sets used for Japanese. That character set is prevalent in Japan and most Japanese names contain it. My name also consists of three kanji characters. When I lived in the U.S. and Canada and my signature was required at shops or other businesses, the salesclerk who looked at it curiously often expressed how cool it was. I sometimes saw a person wearing a T-shirt that had kanji on it, but mostly it didn’t make sense or it had an awkward meaning. That was probably because someone who didn’t have enough knowledge about kanji made the shirt easily. While I understood that the person wearing it didn’t know her or his shirt was telling an absurd thing to the public, I couldn’t help giggling secretly. I even spotted those who tattooed that weird kind of kanji. As a native of Japan, I thought I could make kanji merchandise with proper meanings and decided to give it a try.
Every kanji has its meaning. For instance, my first name is comprised of two kanji characters one of which means ‘excellent’ and the other means ‘beautiful’, and they are read ‘Hidemi’ together. Because of the character’s meaning, my name is embarrassing, I admit. Japanese parents put their expectations and wishes into a name when they name their child. A child’s name reflects their parents’ taste and personality. They wish her or him to be gentle, or to be kind, and they choose the corresponding kanji for their child’s name in most cases. Sometimes a name seems destined specifically for a politician, or a name aims to endure life. As for my partner’s name, its meaning is to be dutiful to one’s parents. Both his parents have already deceased and whether he fulfilled their wish or not is uncertain. Japanese people have to live with carrying bittersweet names on their shoulders.
When I was little, I asked my grandmother on my mother’s side what kanji characters were used for her name Fuki. She told me that Fuki was her nickname and her real name was Fukiko by three kanji characters with the meaning of ‘wealthy’, ‘noble’ and ‘child’ respectively. I had sent her a New Year card or a Christmas card every year by that name with those kanji characters for decades until she passed away. When I attended her funeral, I saw a placard hung at the entrance of a small shabby prefabricated funeral home. It showed whose funeral this was. Although the funeral took place according to officially registered documents, my grandmother’s name on the placard wasn’t what she had told me. Her name was actually Fuki, not Fukiko, and kanji wasn’t used for it. There is a different character set in Japan called katakana, which represents only sound without meaning like the alphabet. Her real name was in those characters, not in kanji. I asked my mother if she had known that. My mother said she also had thought her name was Fukiko in kanji since she was a child. I wondered how many family members of hers had known her real name. At least her own child and grandchild hadn’t. I suppose that she wanted to be wealthy and noble, for which she chose the kanji characters, and named herself.
I chose kanji for my first custom-made T-shirt. They mean ‘hope’.