A small plane was landing on a runway. Beyond it was a blue ocean with white wave crests beneath a cloudy sky that was beginning to be cracked and show a glimpse of the blue sky with a ray of sunlight. That was what I was gazing blankly at through a glass wall of the lounge over coffee and vegetable juice at the small local airport in Japan. Then a thick rainbow appeared from the sea surface toward the sky. It didn’t arc but stretched upright like a big pillar. I hoped it was a good omen.
When I faced financial difficulty and my income decreased sharply last year, I was resigned not to be able to afford a trip ever again. But as it turned out, I have taken a trip much more than I had ever done before in a year because the Japanese government subsidized to save the struggling travel industry so that I could enjoy a hotel stay with a minimal amount of money by using the benefit. I am such an unprincipled person who willingly make use of a bill when it comes to benefits while I usually criticize the government. And here, I was having a good time at the exclusive lounge for holders of a credit card with a premium status that I obtained by the credit card company’s promotion for first-year-free membership. Of course I am going to cancel the card within the first year during which I make the most of it by taking advantage of free stuff as much as possible. My decreased income hasn’t improved at all, yet I manage to hang onto my life persistently although it seemed all over one year ago.
I used to be sulky all the time when I was a child. I would constantly grumble and complain to my parents and they frequently asked me why I couldn’t be thankful for anything even a little bit. I still don’t know why I behaved like that, but I certainly had been discontent with pretty much everything as far as I can remember. It could have been nasty meals, could have been a tense atmosphere living with my grandparents, or could have been pressure from an unspoken rule to become a successor of the family as a firstborn. In any case, I was simply surrounded by what I didn’t like. Although my family was wealthy in those days, I didn’t find anything to be thankful for as a child.
I remained the same in my twenties. I was filled with anger everyday though I managed to leave home and live on my own as a musician instead of succeeding the family. I had craved for fame that I couldn’t get no matter how hard I tried. I bore a strong grudge against major record labels and the Japanese society as a whole that wouldn’t appreciate me. I couldn’t see one single thing that I should be thankful for. Everything in the world looked hostile to me.
Now I got old and thankful for being able to continue to do what I want to do for my life while I still have neither money nor fame. I have learned that one can find a way to live somehow unless one loses oneself. I finished my last glass of free drinks after so many glasses of it at the lounge while seeing a small plane blasting down the runway and taking off. I left the lounge with my partner and headed down to the airport lobby with the escalator. There, I found a gigantic Christmas tree against the backdrop of a beautiful twilight sky out of the window. Watching the glittering Christmas tree, I felt blessed, and thankful as well.
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’.
I had constantly troubled my parents by asking reasons for about everything in the world when I was little. “Why did that person say that?” “Why does this go this way?” Too many things in the world didn’t seem reasonable to me. Among them, the reason for people’s behavior was chiefly mysterious. My parents had been fed up with my unstoppable assault of questions and their answers had become stuck to “You’ll understand when you grow up.” Now I’m grown-up, and yet I still don’t understand anything.
Why do many shoppers choose a list-price package on the shelf right next to ones with half-price stickers? Why do they come to the supermarket without bringing their shopping bags but pay additionally for harmful plastic bags instead? Why is driving a luxury car by paying outrageously a status symbol while accidents and natural disasters caused by environmental destruction kill people? Why do people throw away clothes that are still wearable? Why do people replace appliances that are perfectly working to new ones? Why do people leave and discard food or drink that they pay for or order by themselves?
Why do I bring travel amenities like toothbrushes or combs from the hotel to my home where they have been stored in cardboard boxes to the amount of what I would never use them all up before I die? Why don’t I feel like throwing away old receipts and tattered socks? Why can’t I get up in the morning like most people do? Why do I have every night dreams that are too vivid to distinguish from reality? Why do I do everything slower than others although I do it in a great hurry each time with trembling hands? Why do I always button my shirt one hole down? Why don’t I have friends? Why have I felt an urge to wash my hands each and every time when I touch something since long before the pandemic? Why has the government kept giving so much money since the pandemic?
Why do people keep getting married while marriage doesn’t make them happy? Why do people have children who consume their money and aspirations?
Why did my mother lie to the doctor that she hurt her arm when she tried to get something heavy from the top shelf and it fell on her although in truth her injury was inflicted by a chair that my sister had thrown at her? Why did my father suddenly send me a letter in which he lashed out at me severely and at the same time, enclose some money for me? Why did my parents do so many terrible things to me who was their own child?
Why don’t I stop wondering why? It would be easy and at peace if I could swallow everything and accept it simply as the way it is.
It has gotten warmer little by little and spring is near. Shortly, cherry blossoms are blooming here and there around Japan, making a usually somber country beautiful. Cherry blossoms mean the season to begin a new year at a school and an office in Japan. It was spring when I entered elementary school and this time of year reminds me of how I felt at that time.At Japanese schools, the whole school assembly is held once a week. I remember the first assembly at the elementary school held in the schoolyard. The school had a large number of students, close to 2,000. They gathered in the schoolyard to listen to a principal’s weekly address, lined up in neat rows by the class and the grade. As I was in the first grade, my row was near the edge of the yard. I glanced at the far side of it, where the sixth-graders stood in line. They were tall and looked like grown-ups to me.And all of a sudden, a strong sense of claustrophobia seized me. I realized that I would keep coming to this school until I grew that big. Considering the excruciating two years I spent at kindergarten, coming here for six years seemed forever and torture. On top of that, it wouldn’t end there. Three years at junior high school and another three years at high school would follow. My mother had already talked about a college then, too. The day I would be freed from school I loathed so much would be so far away. I felt as if I had been put in prison with a life sentence, while the principal was congratulating the first-graders in his speech and cherry blossoms were warmly looking down…
My father was an attentive father. He treated me so nicely throughout my childhood. My mother didn’t like how he treated me because she believed he was just spoiling me. Every time he did a nice thing to me, she got angry. To avoid her anger, he had learned to give me a treat without her presence.
Near my home was a temple famous for the five-storied pagoda, and a fair was held along the approach to it once a month. A relative of ours had a booth at the fair and my father helped carry merchandise every month. He never forgot to get some toys for me there when his work was done. There was no greater pleasure for me than seeing him entering the house, waving some play house items to me. Of course he was scolded by my mother when she caught it.
I usually slept beside my grandparents and I had suffered from chronic insomnia in my childhood. Once in a while, I had a happy occasion to sleep with my parents when my grandparents were on their trip. On one of those occasions, my mother was taking a bath when my father came to futon next to me. Since my parents didn’t know about my insomnia, he was surprised I was still awake. He thought I couldn’t sleep because I was too hungry. Not to be caught by my mother, he stealthily got out of the room, sneaked into the kitchen, made a rice ball and brought it to me. He told me to finish it before my mother came out of the bathroom. Seeing me devouring it, he said that he had never made a rice ball by himself before and didn’t know how. It was surely the ugliest rice ball, but the most delicious one I had ever had.
My mother also didn’t like to see me cry. She had told me not to cry because crying made me look like an idiot. While my little sister cried all the time, I tried not to as hard as I could. But as a small child, I sometimes couldn’t help it and my mother would get angry with me for crying. In those cases, my father always said to me, “You’re not crying, are you? You’re just clearing your eyes, right?” I hadn’t noticed until recently that there are the exact words in my song ‘Sunrise’. I’ve put his words unconsciously…
I was a nine-year-old child living in Kyoto when I was hospitalized for nephritis. In my room for six patients of the children’s ward, a girl named Ayumi also suffered from nephritis and was next to my bed. She was so little, probably three or four years old, that her mother was allowed to stay in the ward on the makeshift couch beside her bed. Ayumi’s mother studiously read thick medical books everyday to study kidney disease for Ayumi’s recovery while looking after Ayumi. She would ask millions of questions to an intern nurse and learned from her by taking detailed notes. For Ayumi’s medication, she went to get wafer papers and would divide a dose of powdered medicine into a couple of small wrapped doses three times a day so that Ayumi took it easily. Next to her bed, I was struggling to swallow powdered medicine though I was nine, and often coughed up and blew powder all over my bed. My mother was hardly around. She visited me barely a few minutes before the visiting time was over and left immediately. She blamed her dash visit for her busy work as a farmer, but I doubted she cared. Looking at what Ayumi’s mother was doing for her, I was stunned by the difference between her mother and mine. Mine had never been attentive like hers even when I was a small child as far as I remembered. The worst part of my hospitalized days was loneliness and hospital meals. As a nephritis patient, I was banned from taking in salt. My meals are salt-free and with minimum seasoning. I felt like eating sponge three times a day. The volume wasn’t enough either for me who was chubby. Because I persistently complained about the meals to my mother during the short visit, she brought me potato chips. Since potato chips were deemed as the biggest taboo for nephritis, she told me to hide under the bed and move the contents from its flashy package into a plastic bag. She continued to bring other salty snacks and I made a bag of my best mix under my bed. I was strolling about the hallway, carrying the plastic bag of snacks in one hand, munching in my mouth. In case I passed someone, I stopped munching and hid the bag behind my back. But one afternoon, Ayumi’s mother caught me. She asked me to show her the plastic bag. As I did, she said somewhat sadly, “It contains everything you can’t have.” I ignored her caution and kept snacking on what my mother brought. My mother enticed me to hide under my bed and let me eat a can of corned beef with a big topping of mayonnaise there. As a result, I stayed chubby in the hospital despite the controlled healthy meals. One day, a younger girl who had been annoying all the time next to my bed on the opposite side of Ayumi enraged me. I was bashing her with a coloring book while yelling the biggest taboo word in the hospital this time, “Die! Die! Die!”, with full force. Impatient at my unprincipled behavior, Ayumi’s mother raised her voice toward me, “That’s enough, Hidemi! Clean up your act, already!” I thought she was a carping critic because I hadn’t realized evilness of my mother yet back then and had been such a nasty child who had totally accepted my mother’s bad influence. Ayumi’s father came to visit her on his day off. I was taking powdered medicine on my bed that I had gotten used to swallowing without problems by then. He said to me smiling, “You have gotten the knack of it and no longer choked. Good for you!” I wondered how he had known that as I had rarely seen him here. A family of caring. Not that I was familiar with.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a funny, smart, and lively person. I loved her because she was quite opposite to my grandmother on my father’s side, with whom I lived. Every time she visited my house, she brought me a gift. It was almost always a biography of a historically famous figure such as Mozart, Beethoven, Marie Curie and so on. All biographies I had were from her and she provided most of my knowledge about successful people. As a child, I sensed somehow, that she expected me to be one of them in the future, because she had five grandchildren and I was the only one who constantly received biographies from her. In spite of her silent, subtle guidance, I haven’t become any important figure. So far, anyway…
When I was nine years old, I suffered from a kidney disease called nephritis. I skipped school and stayed in bed at home for a week as I felt sick and had a fever every day. It had gotten so worse that I vomited blood one night and passed out. My mother found it next morning and called in a neighbor who worked as a nurse. She urged my mother to take me to the local clinic which doctor in turn urged her to get me examined at the hospital. As a result, I was hospitalized for nephritis. As it was when I lived in a small village of Kyoto, Japan, no one in my family knew what nephritis was. My mother rummaged out a supplement of a homemaking magazine that featured medical issues. It had charts of disease that showed a result according to symptoms by following the arrows to correspond applicable symptoms. I chose the arrows of my symptoms and ended up the result of ‘death’. No matter how many times and how many different patterns I tried, the bottom of the chart concluded with a word ‘death’. “Does it mean I’ll die of this disease in any case?” My mother and I asked the same question to each other and closed the booklet. My hospitalized days in a shared room of six patients at the children’s ward began. As a nephritis patient, I didn’t have freedom of flushing the toilet. Urine had to be kept in a glass jar each time to be examined. Its amount and color told a condition of a patient. Other patients’ jars were put on the shelves along with mine. Compared to others’, mine was less and darker. I was afraid if my condition was so bad. Because I didn’t want to admit it and didn’t want doctors and nurses to find it either, I tried to cheat. Into a one-time jar, I urinated twice so that at least my amount seemed normal. It had escalated gradually and I urinated the whole day into one jar. Ironically, the abnormally large amount of urine drew an alarming attention of a nurse who thought my illness had taken an inexplicable turn for the worse. It worked directly opposite to what I had intended and I confessed my cheating helter-skelter. My six-patient room wasn’t usually lonesome as we were kids and some of their parents were allowed to stay with them on the couches next to their beds. But some got permission to go home for the night provisionally, some got well and left the hospital, some got worse and moved to a single room, all of which coincided at the same time and the room was almost empty one night. A girl whose bed was on the opposite side of mine and I were only patients in the room. After the lights-out time, she asked in the darkness if I was still awake. As I answered yes, she started telling me a story that she made. I thought she felt lonely and couldn’t sleep because the room was too quiet that night with just two of us. Her story was about two rabbits. They seeded, watered and grew carrots at each section in the field. The night before the harvest, one of the two rabbits sneaked in the field and pulled out all the carrots from the other rabbit’s section. He ate them all and put leaves back on each hole to cover it. Next morning, two rabbits came up to the field and started to harvest their carrots on their each section. The other rabbit, who knew nothing about the night before, was excited to reap his carrots since he had been looking forward to this day for long. But every time he pulled out his carrot, there was nothing beyond the leaves. He was puzzled and sang, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” While his friend rabbit was pulling out a ripe carrot one after another next to his section, he pulled out only leaves out of a hole repeatedly and sang each time, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” I dozed off and woke up by the girl’s voice of “Hidemi, are you listening?” a few times during the story. Unfortunately, my patience didn’t last until the end. I had been completely asleep at that part of the story and didn’t get the ending. With hindsight, her story may not be her original but something she read or heard since it ‘s too good for a story that a small child makes. Either way, I still remember the story for some reason. When my song didn’t sell at all although I had spent many years to complete it, I heard “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” from somewhere. One day, we had a new comer in the six-patient room. Although she was a junior high school student and wasn’t supposed to be in the children’s ward, she was sent here because the women’s ward was full. She was unhappy to be confined with kids and complained to her mother and the nurses. She looked a grown-up to me and I liked her instantly. I went to her bed to talk to her and tried to console her. I had been stuck to her bedside every day since. She often told me not to make her laugh because her wound from an appendix operation hurt. She laughed at my talks anyway. When she left the hospital, she gave me a gift. It was a small porcelain doll who was wearing a white bouffant skirt beneath which was a bell. On the skirt, there was a printed inscription saying, “I wish for your happiness.” I had put her on the shelves in my room long after I left the hospital, until I grew up and left home. I think those hospital days have influenced me immensely. I had been constantly aware of death in those days. I got well after all but I had never felt death so close to me in my life. As it’s said that people don’t live life unless they understand death, that experience has driven me to think things based on the idea that I eventually die, and therefore to do what I want for my life. Even if my carrot gives nothing but leaves.
The house where I spent my childhood was very old. Half the floor in it was bare earth and my family lived like in the way of the Wild West. With our shoes on, we walked around the house and ate meals. It was all right to throw away the rest of a drink from a cup directly onto the floor.
My father used to smoke. When he smoked, he would light a cigarette with a match and toss the match to the dirt floor. It burned itself out. That is probably my earliest memory. I remember a thrown match was burning out on the floor and I said “Ah…” According to my parents, I uttered “Ah…” every time my father threw away a match as if I didn’t approve it. And my tone was always tinged with disappointment. I guess I was already cheap as a child and couldn’t bear a thing to be thrown away after just one-time use. I was nagging at my parents about everything all my childhood, and even my earliest memory is something critical about my parents. No wonder we’ve been on bad terms for such a long time…
As my condition got better in the hospital, I went through a thorough
examination to be determined whether I could be released from the
hospital. For the examination, I was required not to eat anything but
water for 24 hours. As a child, I had hardly skipped a meal before and I
felt dizzy from hunger less than six hours into a fast. A girl whose
bed was next to mine had put up a drawing above her bed. There was a
shining sun in it, and it looked a sunny-side up egg to me. Because it
was a full examination, it was going to take long in several different
rooms. Although I asked my mother to accompany me during the whole
process, she didn’t make it, again, as usual. I gave up after waiting
for her as long as a nurse let me, and went for the examination with the
nurse. The building where it took place was far from my hospital room
and I needed to be in a wheelchair because my illness had required me to
be inactive and quiet. All those things made me very nervous, so lonely
and extremely hungry. The result was good and finally, my hospital life
in the summer at the age of nine ended after one month. I survived
nephritis but almost died from hunger on the day of the examination…