Sitting down in the empty seat next to Junko on the ferry prompted her to smile and rummage through the depths of her square-bottomed bag. Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat — tadaa! — she suddenly produced a bento lunch. “Here,” she said, plopping it onto my lap. “Have a nice lunch today.”
“I’m a typical Japanese old lady. We always carry something in our bags to give someone,” she said, linking together for me a series of what I’d thought were isolated incidents in my past: the handmade temari (Japanese toy) I received from an old lady on a public bus once, an amulet a child at a train station gave me while cradled in the arms of her grandmother, and dozens of instances of food being pushed my way when coming home on the ferry with other islanders.
I’ve received an untold number of things from older ladies over the years — all of them, it turns out, members of a well-established Old Lady Kindness Brigade!
As the ferry tooted its horn to leave Shiraishi Port, another islander, Haradasan, came over to sit with us. He leaned into my ear and said in a hushed voice, “Amy, we had to give up our boat.” I was shocked to hear this, and didn’t know quite how to take it.
I knew his cargo ship well, as it spent most weekends anchored outside the port on Shiraishi Island. If it was loaded with steel coils, each weighing 15 to 18 tons, the ship would sit close to the waterline, which meant that Capt.
Harada had a delivery Monday to one of the numerous factories dotted along the coast of an otherwise picturesque Seto Inland Sea. Other times, when they had finished their deliveries for the week, the ship sat high on the waterline, the bow soaring above the little fishing boats scuttling in and out of the port.
Every Monday, Harada-san and his brother would putt-putt out of the port on a small dinghy in the pink hours of the morning and board the mother ship, the Kaisei Maru, which electronically hoisted them, dinghy and all, up onto the deck of the 58-meter vessel.
“I thought I’d work until I was 65,” continued Harada-san. The two brothers were part of a filial line of cargo ship captains. Their father, now in his 90s, had been at the helm of wooden ships most his life. “But I find myself now having sold my boat at 62.” In a country that prides itself on hard work, and where many people work well into the twilight years, 62 seems unusually early for a Japanese person to retire.
“My younger brother could have kept driving the boat for another few years, even after I retired,” he said, which must have been the plan at the time they bought the 199-ton vessel. But his brother’s recent accident had changed everything.
A crash on a 125 cc motorbike on the island in April had put his younger sibling in the hospital for over three months, in which time the steel deliveries had suffered.
Harada-san’s wife and father helped out, but neither could replace the younger brother in the capacity necessary to continue plying the Seto Inland Sea delivering sheet metal. While the cocaptain was out of the hospital, he would never be able to work again. The brother was now living on the mainland with his daughter, who could attend to his needs.
Harada-san reflected a moment and said he really missed the boat and life at sea. I understood, as one of my fondest memories of the Inland Sea was years ago when the siblings invited me to join them on the Kaisei Maru for one of their deliveries. Traveling from Shikoku to Osaka at 10 knots, we dodged islands under a cloudless night sky while airplanes flew overhead like fireflies and small fishing boats skimmed across the water like insects.
“I never thought I’d be in this position,” he said.
“What are you going to do now?” Junko asked.
With a glint in his eye, Harada-san rummaged through his bag and pulled out his flip phone to show us a picture of his new pride and joy: a bright red motorbike. He had already booked a Harley trip around New Zealand and was hoping to take another down Route 66 in the U.S. next year. The speed at which his machine would take him was only surpassed by the speed at which he was crushing long-held Japanese stereotypes.
Junko sighed, clearly jealous of the captain’s early retirement plans. “I’m in my yakudoshi year,” she said, referring to the fact that she was now 60 (61 in the Japanese counting system — considered a bad luck age in this area of Japan), “so I don’t want to travel anywhere for a while.”
Junko’s husband had also gone bankrupt this year, a poignant reminder of the perils of bad luck years. While she and her husband wouldn’t move off the island, their longstanding business presence in the community had been drastically altered. They’d sold their house to pay bills and moved into relatives’ homes.
“What about your wife?” Junko asked him. “Is she going to ride on the back of the bike?”
“Oh no,” he said. “She has to stay home and take care of my father.” So much for crushing stereotypes.
When the ferry tooted its horn again to enter the port on the mainland, the three of us disembarked and went our separate ways. Later on that day, I found a park where I could sit down to eat my bento lunch so graciously provided by Japan’s extensive Kindness Brigade. I ruminated on all the recent changes to our island community of just 526 people, and how one small accident had heralded the abrupt end of a seafaring lineage.
Depopulation in the countryside is often defined by a gradual dying off of a community. Either people move to places where there are more job opportunities or, in elderly communities like ours, people die of old age, thus making a clear, clean break from the community.
But in reality, the depopulation of a community is far more complicated. Many experience hardships that force them to leave their treasured hometowns.
Some go bankrupt because there is no longer enough commerce to sustain them. Others move away due to family obligations, but come back to visit at certain times of the year.
Some of the elderly simply languish in hospitals far removed from their local communities because there are no basic health care facilities on the islands.
With no one to replace those who leave, traditions and family history are simply wiped clean, never to be recovered.
Japan Lite appears on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org