At the end of the year — and, particularly, the end of a decade — an old man’s fancy turns, involuntarily, to nostalgia.
No, dear reader, I am not lamenting the dimming of yesterday’s light, nor am I about to wax over waning powers. There are some things that bring back the past with a vengeance of passion when we least expect it. Marcel Proust had his madeleine, and Henry Miller had lots of Madeleines, which only goes to show that you can have your cake and eat it too.
Each of us goes all emotional and blubbery (though in Miller’s case this may not be the proper choice of word) over something. It is, I must confess, an insect that does it for me. Lest you think this is a hitherto undisclosed Pulversian perversion, let me explain.
When I am away from Japan and feeling homesick, I don’t stalk karaoke bars in Kuala Lumpur or sushi stands in Sheffield. A few months ago I saw a guy making takoyaki (fried octopus balls — surely one of the most infelicitous food-name translations of all) in Sydney and I walked right by without so much as a whiff of concern.
Yes, you read right: an insect. It is an insect that brings me to the point of tears; and, whenever I see one, I make a beeline for it. The insect is the akatonbo, the little red dragonfly.
And it’s all because of the song “Akatonbo.”
Back in 1989, the NHK show “Japanese Songs, Hometown Songs” conducted a nationwide survey to find out what was Japanese people’s favorite song. More than 650,000 letters were received. Had this been in the e-mail era, the number might have been tenfold. From out of over 5,000 songs, “Akatonbo” was the national favorite, hands down.
Most Japanese would associate this beautiful and plaintive refrain with the composer/conductor Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965). But whenever I hear this song or see a little red dragonfly, I think instead of the man who wrote the poetic lyrics, Rofu Miki (1889-1964). The story of his life highlights the song’s sorrow. At sunset and in the twilight’s glow / Little red dragonfly
The song depicts Miki on his mother’s back, and recalls how for the first time he recalls seeing an akatonbo, wondering . . . Was it then I caught sight of you? / Am I dreaming this? / Gathering wild mulberries / In that little basket
To Miki, the gathering of wild mulberries was a task he associated with his mother. Even when he waited patiently counting the berries, she did not come home.
The fact is that Miki’s mother left home when he was 5 and never came back. His longing for her, as expressed most tenderly in “Akatonbo,” preoccupied him for his entire life.
His father was the profligate scion of wealth in Tatsuno City, Hyogo Prefecture, a town on the Seto Inland Sea so lovely it was called “a little Kyoto.” His mother, Kata, who was married off at age 15, gave birth to two boys, Misao (Rofu) and Tsutomu. But she soon tired of her husband’s absences on alcoholic binges.
In 1895, when Miki was 5, his parents divorced and Kata, with 2-year-old Tsutomu on her back, departed for her hometown of Tottori. Miki returned home from kindergarten one day and his mother was simply gone, without so much as a note or a parting word. The only person who could bring him up was his paternal grandfather, a bank president and the first mayor of Tatsuno City.
Kata soon left Tottori for Tokyo, where she enrolled in the nursing course at what is now the University of Tokyo Hospital. In 1897 she became a nurse and soon remarried, this time to a man five years her junior. The couple left for Otaru in Hokkaido in the spring of 1902.
In Hokkaido, Kata became involved in early feminist causes, editing a magazine titled “Women’s Rights” and forming a group to fight for them. When Miki was 18, he received a letter from her in Otaru. By a blank space on a page she wrote, “I place a kiss here to be put to your cheek.” Miki, it is said, clutched the letter and wept like a baby.
The akatonbo of the song, whose zoological name is akiakane (Sympetrum frequens), is unique to Japan, though there are related varieties around the world. The little akatonbo that visit the garden of my home in Sydney, causing me such unplanned rushes of nostalgia, are Orthetrum villosovittatum, common in eastern Australia. Are they as cute as their Japanese cousins? In my eyes, absolutely.
The ancient name for this type of insect in Japan is akitsu, but by the Edo Period (1603-1867) the word tonbo, from tobu (to fly) and bo (stick), came into use. That the sound was close to that of the word for rice paddy (tanbo), where dragonflies are often seen, is a happy coincidence. Yet it is a coincidence that is threatening the very life of these insects. The estimated number of akiakane, for instance, is now a tragic 1 per cent of what it was 20 years ago — due to the copious use of pesticides in Japanese rice cultivation. Perhaps organic farming is the only hope for the little red dragonfly. This is a good example of how environmentally friendly practices resonate not only in nature but in the very culture of a nation as well.
Miki’s mother, Kata Midorikawa, lived a long and productive life, dying, age 91, in 1962. Carved on her white marble gravestone are the words, “At rest here, little dragonfly’s mother.”
Miki himself died only two years later, age 76. He was leaving a post office in Mitaka, Tokyo, was struck by a taxi and rushed to hospital, where he passed away.
Another reason for writing about this now is that both Rofu Miki and Kosaku Yamada died on Dec. 29, their deaths just one year apart.
Such coincidences, I suppose, make the nostalgia for these old symbols of Japan all the more intense.
The most poignant lines of Miki’s song are the final four that conjure an image of the solitary beauty that both haunted and enriched his life as a poet: At sunset and in the twilight’s glow / Little red dragonfly / Resting, waiting / On the end of a bamboo pole.
The last three lines were written by him when he was 12.