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Calligraphy by Nako Oizumi

The evolution of a single human neither starts with their birth, nor stops with the end of their childhood. Each of us has been given pieces of the past by previous generations from which we make new meaning and, in turn, hand it on to the young.

In the 10 months that this column has been running, I’ve profiled people who have experienced life-changing transformations — that is to say, evolution from what they were, into what they will become. Through their connection with nature, with the Japan of their ancestors and the philosophies of Asia, they have crafted new, more enriching lives for themselves. These new lives are simultaneously a result of their own personal evolution as well as living examples of ways for others to grow and develop.

Not least of the beneficiaries of this rich life they’ve created are their own children. In my travels all over rural Japan, I have met many of them, and I can say without hesitation that they are all remarkable human beings.

Nako Oizumi (daughter of San Oizumi, featured in Alternative Luxuries Dec. 2) is one of them. Now 19, she is studying archaeology and Korean language and culture at Japan’s first and only university-level Asian Studies department at Chukyo Women’s University.

“I’m in love with Korea,” the bright-eyed but serious teenager tells me when we first meet at a lecture on underground radioactive waste disposal. She is standing behind a table full of antinuclear books, petitions and pamphlets, and as we talk she occasionally makes sales or answers a question from one of the older people who have come to attend the lecture.

Later, back at her family home in the mountains, I ask her how she first became interested in Korean culture.

“Many friends of my father are Korean,” she says in her crisp but gentle voice, “and they would often visit us here. When I was a girl, one of them, a newspaper reporter, gave us some really delicious nori [seaweed] and I started wondering what kind of a country something so delicious could come from.

“Also I am fascinated by old things. When my father came back from Korea, he would often bring back antique pieces of pottery or old roof tiles. I wanted to know more.”

In high school, Oizumi visited Korea herself and discovered a lot of things she was never taught in school.

“Most of what people think of as ‘Japanese culture’ came originally from Korea,” she says. “If you want to know about old Japan, you have to know about Korea. Once you study Korea, you can reconsider and reevaluate Japan.”

Oizumi’s fascination with things of the past, which eventually led her to study archaeology, reaches far back beyond her own generation. Her maternal grandfather was an author of several comprehensive dictionaries and textbooks of the Japanese language, and her mother is a highly accomplished teacher of tea ceremony and of flower arranging. Her father fires all his pottery in a traditional wood-fired mud kiln, and is also a walking storybook of tales about old Japan. There is no television in their house.

The younger Oizumi’s pastimes are also redolent of times past. Her mother tells me that on any given day, her daughter will decide in the morning to devote herself to her calligraphy practice. She then takes the entire morning to clean her room from top to bottom to try to clear some space in her mind. Then she spends the next two hours doing exactly nothing, just to empty out more. Finally, in midafternoon, she will begin her calligraphy practice and continue for hours on end, completely unaware of the passing of time.

I asked Oizumi what she felt had been the effect of growing up in the mountains, surrounded by nature.

“Perhaps the reason Japanese people are lacking in vitality,” she says, “is because the places in nature where they can run and move about freely have all but disappeared. In the mountains, you can really feel excited and alive, healthy and vigorous. In the city, there are so many people around all the time, it’s tiring, and soon you begin to space out, and all of a sudden the whole day is over.”

According to Oizumi, being in the city is like going to a video game parlor.

“Everything’s already there for you, prepared, arranged, and you just let your time flow away from you in that video game center. You feel that all your needs are satisfied without having to do a single thing yourself.”

As people all over the world come into greater and greater contact with peoples of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, many choose to avoid the difficult issues, or gloss over the very real gaps in ways of living by resorting to platitudes. Oizumi, however, is quite up front about the differences in culture.

“One time when I was in Korea,” she says, “I got dragged all over the place by a boy, even though I tried to tell him subtly that I wasn’t interested in going to those places. But I believe that the problem stems from the fact that, in general, Koreans are really active, forward and outgoing people. It’s a mistake to interact with people from other cultures by comparing them with an ideal of what humans should be like that you have established already in your mind.”

“Japan isn’t a ‘pure’ country as many would like to believe,” says Kuniko Tanioka, president of Chukyo Women’s University. “It’s a patchwork, brewed and blended from many different cultures.

“We have received a lot from Korea, but because of the various historical tragedies, and especially because of Japanese feelings of superiority, there is a block about learning the Korean language and culture. But the younger generation has the possibility to heal these wounds, to create real friendship. That’s one of the reasons I set up the Asian Studies program.”

Until recently, Oizumi had planned to move from Japan to a safer country without nuclear power, such as New Zealand, as soon as she had finished her studies.

“This year, though,” she says, “I have been reevaluating that idea. I can’t just think about my own safety. I have to be concerned about people in the future’s safety as well. I can’t run away to another country that doesn’t have nuclear energy. I should participate in the citizens’ opposition movement as my father does, whatever the chances of success.”

It’s this love for the future, for those yet to come, that inspires many profiled in this column to cherish the past. We have all received a lot from our ancestors, and it’s good to know, that in the case of Nako Oizumi, it has successfully been passed on.