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Joy among the clouds and shadows

by Michael Hoffman

Yoko Sakata was an ordinary “office lady,” not earning much and not aspiring to much, when she began suspecting her boyfriend of having an affair. She hired a private detective, who confirmed her fears and then paid her a compliment: “You have good intuition.” He offered her a job. She grabbed it. That was 10 years ago. “Back then,” she tells the weekly Shukan Josei, “there were very few women detectives. There was a need for them. Besides,” she adds, “you earn double as a detective what you make as an office lady.”

She has since established her own agency, and spends most of her time, not all, on the trail of straying wives, husbands and lovers. Other targets include stalkers, bullies and embezzlers. Her watch, glasses, key case and cigarette lighter conceal cameras and recording devices. A life spent ferreting out other people’s dark secrets is not conducive to a bright view of human nature. It can get downright depressing. So Sakata was pleased one day when a client approached her with an unusual request.

He was a man in his 60s and evidently of a romantic turn, for he asked her to find a college sweetheart he hadn’t seen in over 40 years. The woman had been a beauty, judging by photos the client produced. Where she was now or what she was doing he had no idea. Could Sakata help?

She warmed to the assignment, imagining the pleasure she would give by bringing about this reunion. And bring it about she did — with disappointing results. The woman of course hardly looked her former self. She was old and faded. What did the man expect, eternal youth? He was old enough to know better, and did know better — we all know our fondest dreams are mere bubbles, but we cling to them anyway. His mistake was in pursuing the dream till the bubble burst, and what is one left with then?

One sad day in the life of a private investigator.

There are 14 places on Earth that are 8,000 meters above all that, and much else. It is comforting to know that, though we ourselves may not get near them. They are the world’s highest mountains. Mountaineer Hirotaka Takeuchi in M ay became the first Japanese, and the 30th human, to have climbed all of them. Interviewed recently by Weekly Playboy magazine, he spoke not of the beauty of mountains, or the beauty of heights, but about the beauty of risking your life. “Life-risking activity,” he said, “is sublime.”

That’s a hard thought to grasp — you either feel it or you don’t. Takeuchi clearly does, very deeply. In 2007, a snowslide on Mount Gasherbrum II in the Karakoram range along the China-Pakistan border very nearly did him in. Two companions died, and when rescuers finally got him to a hospital he was so near death that a doctor asked him if he had any last words for his family.

Surgery and rehabilitation followed, and to the prognosis that he would never climb again he replied, in effect, “We’ll see.” What drives a climber back to the mountain that almost killed him? Maybe the fact that it almost killed him. Maybe the quest of sublimity, or the fear of losing it in the commonplace routines below. Within a year he was back on Mount Gasherbrum II. Reaching the summit he shed tears — his first and last in connection with climbing, he says.

This is resolve on a grand scale. Is there anything more mysterious to it than, say, to a soccer player going all out for a goal? He says not. Now 41, he started climbing in high school, scaled his first of the 14 tallest peaks (Mount Makalu, straddling Nepal and Tibet) in 1995 and completed the 17-year odyssey in May on Nepal’s Mount Dhaulagiri. “It’s myself I compete with,” he explains. “I challenge that part of me that says, ‘It’s too much, I want to quit.’ “

He’s tough beyond all doubt, but to Weekly Playboy’s surprise, he doesn’t look it. Physically, the magazine says, he’s quite unimpressive, which, while bringing him closer to all of us, also works to his advantage. “Muscles consume oxygen,” he says. When your mission in life unfolds in an atmosphere where the oxygen is onethird what we breathe down here — and he climbs without an oxygen tank, keeping it simple — anything that consumes oxygen is a luxury you can’t afford.

What next? “I will continue to climb as long as my body will allow me,” he told reporters in Katmandu.

Naturally. We do what we do, whatever it is, as long as we can — Takeuchi on the peaks, Sakata in the shadows. There are pockets of happiness, maybe even of sublimity, even at street level. Here’s a happy story Sakata tells Shukan Josei:

A man on the verge of retirement approached her: “Find my son for me. I haven’t seen him in 20 years, since his mother and I divorced.” It took three months, but the young man was found, and the ensuing reunion was joyously tearful. “Their gratitude,” says Sakata, “was so touching. It’s moments like that when I think to myself, ‘This is a pretty good job after all.’”