I spent almost the whole first year at the private junior high school as an uncool geek. Every get-cool scheme of mine had failed. Neither breaching the school rules nor joining the drama club worked. I hadn’t come up with a new idea and had hung around with my not-so-cool friends.
One day we were having a hilarious time at recess with tongue twisters I had devised. I had made a list of oddly sounded words on a piece of paper and read it out quickly in front of my friends. I seemed to sound so funny and they laughed hard. As we were making a racket, other students began to look at us curiously. Some cool girls from rich families approached us and asked what was going on. They never came near uncool girls but I drew their attention this time. I showed the list and demonstrated my tongue twisters, which didn’t appeal to them at all. They sneered and left. But I realized one thing: cool girls starved for laughter because they put on airs and kept their countenance every day. If I could make them laugh regularly, they might like me and include me in their circle.I commenced my assaults in earnest. Since then, I had behaved in a silly way whenever I passed by cool rich girls at school. I made funny faces, walked by dancing weirdly, or mimicked a TV comedian. At first they just looked at me in dismay, but they were gradually interested in me. They stopped and talked to me, “You’re so funny!” Then I would press an insurance laugh with haphazard puns or gags. Since I didn’t have a talent for making people laugh basically, I was out of comic materials so easily. I had to use the fact of a farmer’s daughter to make them laugh. This last resort of mine really succeeded. Soon one of the cool girls asked me to have lunch together, and I was invited to her circle.
I officially joined the cool group at last. That acted like magic and other students stopped mocking me completely. In the end, after so many trials, to be the class clown was indeed the solution to be cool at school for me…The effect of being in the cool and rich group at junior high school was much bigger than I had expected and was almost magical. I was no longer a geek at school. Other students’ attitude toward me changed dramatically and they even respected me. I jumped into the whole new world.The girls in the group looked through a teen fashion magazine and chatted about its contents zealously at lunchtime. It looked like an adult life to me, as I had never been interested in fashion, let alone talked about it with my friends. After school, they would hang around the downtown area in the city, looking around the shops or having a snack at a fast food restaurant. I had seldom been downtown and I felt like I started a city life all of a sudden. Walking by elegant shops had never been my usual habit, and as for a fast food restaurant, I had never stepped into it before. On weekends, they would go to the movies together. My way of spending time outside school completely changed and it was almost like I began to live in America.
On the other hand, there was a huge set back to be a part of the group. It was horribly costly. My scant monthly allowance didn’t last more than a week while other girls from the rich family didn’t have to care. A coin jar in the dining room in my house became empty quickly. My younger sister’s stash of money in her desk drawer had been shrinking steadily by my regular stealing.One of the girls in the group had a friend in a boys’ school and he invited us to his school’s homecoming. Since ours was a girls’ school, it was an exciting opportunity to meet boys. There, the boys asked us out after the homecoming, but I was the exclusion among the group. No one asked me out. While they were headed for a fast food restaurant, I went home, crying.I would do anything to stay in the cool circle, including acting a totally different person by giving up being myself…
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…
It’s common in Japan that a child remains at a parents’ house after going on to college or starting to work at an office, or even after marrying. That had been my family’s tradition for a very long time and as a result, we lived in the exact spot where our ancestors had lived, without moving for hundreds of years, because a firstborn should have stayed in the parents’ house. That had lasted until one particular firstborn broke the tradition by leaving the house; that was me.
So, my grandparents, my parents, my uncle, my younger sister and I had all lived together when I was little. This uncle of mine is my father’s younger brother and he was such a troublesome man when we lived together. He constantly teased me and stole from me. My biggest pleasure back then was to get a snack at a nearby small candy shop after school with my scarce allowance. But the snack was often gone the moment I put the bag in the house and looked away from it. My uncle would eat it. I never understood why a grown-up like him sneaked a kid’s snack.
He brought me a toy whenever he went on a trip or out for an errand. Even so, his daily plunder harmed goodwill, and I earnestly wished he would leave the house as soon as possible…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
When my younger sister had learned Japanese dancing for a couple of years, my mother decided to get her on a local TV talent show. Unlike me, my sister was always my mother’s pride for her prettiness.
To be on the show, there was an audition in a city, about 20 miles away from our home. My father was going to drive them there. I assumed they would go with just three of them, leaving me behind as usual. For this particular occasion though, I felt rather happy not to join them because I had borne a grudge against Japanese dancing since my mother let my sister take lessons not me. But my mother had the nerve to demand me to come with them to the audition, saying that it was a huge event for my sister and I should show support for her.
I got in the car, not for her audition but for a possibility to eat out at a restaurant on our way back, which we hardly did and the three of them might do without me. My mother was never punctual and we were already late by the time we left home. From then, things were just like the movie, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. When we got there, the registration was closing and the judges were leaving. My mother desperately begged for the audition. They reluctantly allowed it with the obvious intention of making it finish quickly. After my sister danced for a few seconds, they stopped the music and said thank-you. I kept asking my mother if it meant she passed or not while my sister gloomily undressed.
When my mother admitted my sister failed, I felt over the moon. I thought justice had been served. I was in an utterly good mood and was saying, “Let’s eat out! Which restaurant shall we go?” all the way in the dismal car. My parents and my sister were too depressed to respond to me and we ended up going straight home. I couldn’t get to eat out after all…
One day, when I visited my grandparents’ house, my grandmother on my mother’s side asked me to sing a song. I sang the then popular song with dancing in front of my grandparents and my parents. I was about seven or eight years old and it was just casual singing. While everybody was laughing, my grandmother alone seemed very impressed. She seriously said to me, “You should become a singer when you grow up.” And turning to my mother, she said, “You should make her a singer.” Although my mother shrugged it off as rubbish, there was no joke in her suggestion.
She herself loved singing. In her later years, she learned Japanese old traditional singing, which had a unique, slow melody on a Chinese old poem. She often told people around her, including me, that she wanted to be skilled at singing one particular song for celebration so that she could sing it at my wedding. Eventually, I became a singer, but she passed away without singing at my wedding because I still stay single…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
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.
One summer in my childhood, my grandfather on my mother’s side invited my mother and me to lunch. The restaurant’s specialty was eels. An eel is an expensive treat in Japan. We arrived at an awfully old-fashioned Japanese restaurant where we took off our shoes and sat on the floor at the low table. Except for us, only one table was occupied by a woman with a small child, who was busily stuffing the leftovers into a tin box she had brought. Every time my grandfather needed a server to come to our table, he clapped his hands twice and called out, “Hey, sister!” It was an obsolete manner no longer practiced, which embarrassed my mother and me.
When our house was rebuilt, I had my own room for the first time. That time, my grandfather took my mother and me to a furniture store to buy me a bed and a wardrobe. After we chose the items, a young salesperson calculated the total. My grandfather naturally asked for a discount but the salesperson’s offer didn’t satisfy him at all. He was an old patron of the store and had bought every piece of furniture there for my mother when she got married. He was used to special treatment and assumed he would get one there. But the salesperson declined the further discount, as he was new and didn’t know my grandfather. Even so, my grandfather persisted and decided the total amount of his own. He handed bills to the salesperson, and told him how much the change to be brought back should be. My grandfather’s way apparently perplexed the salesperson. Standing next to my grandfather, I was so embarrassed again.
Eventually, a long tug-of-war was over and the salesperson brought back what my grandfather had told him. My bed and wardrobe were successfully discounted, but I learned my grandfather’s style was outdated in the modern world…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods