It’s hard to predict when Tsuyoshi Yumoto will be sitting on the pavement outside Harajuku Station, just before the right-hand turn toward Meiji Shrine. It depends on the weather, you see, and what else he is up to in life.
He is there on this day, however, and on request creates a gift for my grandson in Toronto. All he needs from me is the name and a while to think about it.
So saying, he takes a square sheet of washi paper from a neat pile, and lays it before him. He takes up his pen, moistens the tip and prepares his inkstone and then gently turns his face to the sky.
Five minutes pass. Returning quietly to the present, he begins to write a poetic message, mostly in black, but with the characters of the name in red running throughout. “When is his birthday?” he asks in fragmented but perfectly good English. He then writes 2006.4.26 along the bottom edge of the paper, followed by the name again in katakana.
The message — perfect for both Max and his parents — is very poetic in Japanese, with much word play. (In translation): Looking into the future, you can’t see at all. You feel anxious, but your father and mother will support you so that you can keep going.
Yumoto calls himself a rock poet. He uses the word rock as an adjective, meaning not just a poet who rocks, but instead of cool, or hip, or the latest term in youth culture. “I rock,” he explains. “I’m a rocking poet. And I’m 69.” This is the age he claims to be on his Web site. The number 69 rocks, apparently (maybe in tribute to The Beatles?) “My real age is a secret.”
Yumoto left his native Nara after graduating and moved to Osaka, which is where he lives and is normally based.
He describes his father, mother, elder brother, elder sister and grandmother, as “a typical nuclear family.” Being the youngest, he was sometimes spoiled, sometimes treated strictly, but “always with love.”
He respects his parents, he says, more than anyone else in the world, because they never gave up on him, even when he was in despair.
“I’ll never be able to pay them back for what they’ve done for me. If I appear on TV or in the press, I don’t want it to be because of bad behavior. I want my family to be proud, saying Look, that is my son! Or, that’s my brother! I want people in general to say, oh my God! Is he that Tsuyoshi?” Apparently people thought him a strange boy and let him know it. He was bullied throughout high school in particular. “I was always alone. I had no friends at all. All my energy went into tinkering with motorbikes and cars and audio systems. The only subjects I enjoyed at school were mechanics and — don’t laugh — English.”
At college he became interested in music and the way peoples’ minds tick, so studied clinical psychology. “I had a rock band, worked as a DJ and a fashion model.”
Moving to Osaka was even more liberating. “I tried anything and everything that seemed interesting. I wanted to prove to myself that there are no limits.”
When he began playing music, he also wrote lyrics, and earned a reputation for being good with words. “I used them to criticize society but at the same time encourage individuals.”
He remembers how confused he was by being shunned by his peers at school. “I was always wondering what I was doing wrong. It got very bad at one point. I locked myself away, tried to commit suicide.”
Rescue came in the form of the band Blue Hearts, which in the early 1990s reached out to Japanese youth with the message “You are not alone.” It was the band’s message — that he was not alone — that encouraged Yumoto to begin writing down his thoughts and experiences. “I wanted everyone to hear from a man who had been bullied and tried to kill himself.” He thinks most people in the world feel weak and too scared to reveal that weakness to others. If he can help them feel stronger, then that’s a pretty good reason for living.
Yumoto began scribing messages on the street nearly five years ago now. He can write around any name or object or theme. For inspiration, he mediates, and ideas “shower down.” Or they simply come from life around him — on a bus, talking with friends.
“I’m not a fortune teller,” he emphasizes. “What I write is nothing to with forecasting the future. A person does not even have to be with me.”
With no fixed schedule, he works at home on various projects — such as creating signs for stores, welcome boards for couples at their weddings and hikidemono gifts for guests, and anniversary presents.
He sets up to compose and scribe on the pavement near Osaka Station or Shinsaibashi at weekends.
“You’ll have to check my Web site for trips out of Osaka. When I’m in Tokyo, I stay with friends.” On the street he doesn’t charge much, asking for 1,000 yen or a donation. “I’m flexible. If someone is poor, then it’s up to them to give what they can afford. It someone offers more, that’s great, the important thing is to offer encouragement, cheer people up.”
His motto “Success comes only from challenge” is one he feels that Japanese youth needs to hear. He’d appreciate the Japanese media and Education Ministry giving him the opportunity and means by which to reach other victims of bullying.
He doesn’t criticize the bullied or the bullies. He just wants to help them escape their situation. Bullied children must find a way forward for themselves, just as he did.
Teachers must face up to what is happening. There’s as much bullying among teachers as among students, he says. The trouble is they’re often too tired to cope. They should rest, renew their energy, then do something about it.
He has strong words for the Monbusho’s new ordinance regarding bullying. It’s nonsense. Punishment solves nothing. The ministry needs to confront the reasons why bullying takes place. “Please give me your support,” he mails just before Christmas. “Please cheer me on.”
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