When I first came to Japan in 1962 to practice martial arts, I could never have dreamed or imagined that I would grow old, let alone grow old in Japan.
None of the men in my family made it beyond the age of 74, a span I’ve already surpassed despite living an adventurous, adrenaline-charged life — but fortunately without going off to war as my father, grandfathers and uncles all did.
So when I had to have a tumor removed in a major operation in 2016, I figured it was my time to fall off the perch like my brother, son-in-law and best friend, all much younger than me, who had recently died of cancer. Instead, the following year I was off on a tour to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.
Then last month, just before returning to my home in northern Nagano Prefecture after a 10-day sojourn around Tokyo for lectures, meetings, graduation ceremonies and suchlike, I went for another checkup. It seems I’m now clear of cancer — though I need a hip replacement if I intend to go on hauling logs out of Afan Trust’s woods with our two horses, Yukimaru and Chachamaru, or leading eco-tourism trips into the mountains with them carrying our stores and provisions.
Back then it had been almost balmy in Tokyo. In contrast it was snowing at home and the bare bones of the trees were all fleshed out in white, while Mount Kurohime gleamed on the horizon. With a name meaning “black princess” in Japanese, that dormant volcano is clothed in forests to its 2,053-meter peak, from where Mount Fuji appears as a tiny cone in the distance. It is also the home of a legendary black dragon, whose annual festival falls on my birthday. As I was born under the red-dragon flag of Wales in a Year of the Dragon (1940), there are three of those legendary creatures in my life — surely very lucky for a Celt!
On returning from Tokyo back then, I of course knew that none of the nearby cherry trees, hundreds of which I planted myself, would be anywhere near to blossoming. However, I was looking forward to foraging for the little yellowish-green balls of butterburs, the first of our wild vegetables to push up their heads when winter eases.
Not that we were short of victuals, of course, because our freezers are invariably stocked with wild boar meat and venison, mostly from local hunters. Also, I was (and still am) eagerly awaiting some prime venison from a young professional hunter on subtropical Yakushima island, 135 kilometers south of Kagoshima in Kyushu, which he promises will be the best I’ve ever tasted.
Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito’s abdication has given me cause to reflect how I was at home when, as Crown Prince Akihito, he acceded to the Imperial Throne of Japan on Jan. 7, 1989. I was then in the prime of life and had permanent-resident status. Now, as a new era commences, I am among the country’s burgeoning ranks of the elderly — however long that may last for me.
Like most expatriates I have the occasional grumble, but all in all my life in Japan is fulfilling and still an interesting challenge. I was granted citizenship in 1995, even though I frequently and very publicly criticized the government (mostly over environmental and forestry issues) in speeches, writings and broadcasts. What other country would do that?
I have grown old in Japan, but at the same time I’m blessed in being able to take part in programs for young people and children, so I feel surrounded by enthusiasm and growth.
I am also grateful for the many years of patience, interest, sympathy and goodwill that readers of The Japan Times have shown me. In fact, at a memorial service in Hibiya Park, Tokyo, for the March 11, 2011, disaster in northeastern Japan, a tall guy came up to me, shook my hand, and told me that he really enjoyed reading this column.
“Thank you,” I said. “Where do you come from?”
“France,” he answered.
“Wow,” I thought, a bit surprised in view of his perfect English. I really wanted to talk with him much more, but somebody was pulling at my sleeve to give a speech.
Later, that chance meeting set me reflecting on why we ever should judge, assume, question, or doubt, another person’s origin? Growing old as a Celtic-Japanese is, to say the least, interesting. I hope it is just as interesting to be a Frenchman living here.
I raise a glass to everybody and anybody who is a tad different! Hey, come to think of it, doesn’t that, in some way or another, include all of us?