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Consulting the hermit monk Ryokan reincarnated

by Michael Hoffman

So I’m to be a kyōju (教授, professor) again. Imagine that. Am I doing the right thing? Where’s my jisonshin (自尊心, pride)? Shouldn’t I have keibetsu shita 軽蔑した, spat in their faces) when they asked me back, or told them I was busy?

I wasn’t busy. True — but I should have been! Instead of fusagikomu (ふさぎ込む, moping around) for weeks on end, why didn’t I get started on that book on the Edo Jidai (江戸時代, Edo Period [1603-1867]) I’ve been meaning to write for the past 30 years? There is nobody living who knows the Edo Jidai as I do! Ah, karaibari (空威張り, brave words!)

The Edo Period, with its samurai-scholars, hermit-poets, ribald chōnin (町人, merchants), junreisha (巡礼者, pilgrims) thronging the roads to Ise Jingu (神宮, Ise Shrine) — how it all gripped my imagination! Long before I came to Japan. Jūdai no jidai ni (十代の時代に, as a teenager) in England, I had this sansei (三世, third-generation) Japanese kanojo (彼女, girlfriend), and I used to tell her I was the inja (隠者, hermit-monk) Ryokan reincarnated. And she boku wo baka ni shita (僕を馬鹿にした, laughed at me), but dōji ni (同時に, at the same time) she half believed me! Shōjiki ni ieba (正直に言えば, to tell you the truth), I half believed it myself. Still do. Why, I could recite his poems in kampeki na (完璧な, flawless) Japanese before I even knew how to say good morning!

Ryokan, my shōgai no tomodachi (生涯の友達, lifelong friend), my sensei (先生, teacher) and inspiration, what message have you for me today? As always when I’m nayande iru (悩んでいる troubled), when my tamashii (魂 soul) is in konran (混乱 turmoil), I pick up your book of verse, open it tekitō ni (適当に at random), and . . . hmm: “Kawazu naku nobe . . . (蛙鳴くのべ, In fields where frogs sing)” . . . Where are they now, those kawazu naku nobe? What can this possibly mean to the cell phone-transfixed, slightly nibui (鈍い, dim) students at Wakaba Women’s College?

Well, it’s my job to make it mean something to them! Should I tell them I’m Ryokan no umarekawari (良寛の生まれ変わり, Ryokan reincarnated)? Seriously now, shouldn’t I stay home and write my book instead? … “Why Peter! Fancy meeting you here! At — what time is it? — two minutes shy of 3 a.m.!”

Ojama shimasu (お邪魔します, sorry to bother you) …”

Iie, iie (いいえ、いいえ not at all). What are you doing up at this hour?”

“What are you doing up at this hour?”

“Thinking. I do that sometimes. Iya na kuse (嫌な癖, nasty habit).”

“I’ve been thinking too, Dad.”

“Oh?”

“About . . . well . . . could you tell me something?”

“I can try.”

“You’re a rekishika (歴史家, historian), right?”

“Right.”

“What’s so important about kako (過去, the past)? Iitai no wa (言いたいのは, what I’m trying to say is), wouldn’t it be better if we just forget everything that’s happened up to now? And, like, saishuppatsu suru (再出発する, start all over again)?”

“Oh, sure, if we could.”

“I mean . . . you’re teaching Edo and Heian Jidai (平安時代, 794-1185), right?”

“Right.”

“What do Edo and Heian have to do with us? How can knowing about Ryokan and the Dog Shogun and the rest of them help us with the problems we have today? Problems they sōzō de sae dekinakatta (想像でさえできなかった, couldn’t even imagine), like shōshika (少子化, declining number of children), kōreika (高齢化, aging society), fukeiki (不景気, recession), shitsugyō (失業, unemployment) . . . “

“What does the past have to do with us? Well, this: They were human, and we’re human. Forgetting about them would make us less human.”

“What’s so great about being human, anyway?”

“Talk like that will get you reborn as a robot. Be careful.”

“Dad?”

“What?” Akubi wo osaeru (あくびを抑える, I stifle a yawn). It’s 3 a.m., after all.

“About . . . Amerika ni ryūgaku suru koto (アメリカに留学すること, going to school in the United States.).”

“Well?”

“Is it too late . . . I mean, can I . . . kangae wo kaeru (考えを変える, change my mind)?”

“Change your mind? Now?” Is he joking? No. There’s not a hint of laughter in his face. Haji (恥 shame), yes, tōwaku (当惑 embarrassment), yes — laughter, no. “But we’ve been planning, making arrangements . . . to say nothing of the trouble it took to okāsan wo nattoku saseru (お母さんを納得させる, talk your mother into it)! And now . . . why? What happened?”

“Nothing, I just . . . “

Fiction series “Keyes’ Point” appears on the first Wednesday of each month.