Life is funny. It invites laughter — sometimes in mysterious ways.
The story to follow that introductory remark will feature three characters: a priest, a comedian and an ostrich. More accurately, as regards the latter, an ostrich researcher, Yasuhiro Tsukamoto — whose business card shows not his own face but an ostrich’s. Some researchers identify with the object of their research to that degree.
The chosen three are among several contributors to a series of articles in this month’s PHP magazine titled “The secret to a day’s happiness.” Happiness, this implies, is to be taken one day at a time — following, as often as not, a radical break with the past.
“People sometimes ask me why I became a priest,” writes Jisho Asada. “The answer is easy. I wanted to be someone other than who I was.”
We all do, at one stage of life or another. Usually the mood passes and we remain who we were. Whether an emotional crisis or simply extraordinary strength of character led her to go further, Asada doesn’t say. She was 19 at the time. “Entering the priesthood, you change your name, the clothes you wear, your hairstyle.” (You in fact forfeit your hairstyle, unless a shaven head is a hairstyle by another name.) “People look at you differently. I really thought I could become someone other than myself.”
The 40-odd years that have passed since then have brought no comparably wrenching change, which suggests satisfaction with the identity she crafted for herself on the threshold of adulthood. Her temple is at Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, a center of Shingon Buddhism dating back to the ninth century. Thus do new and old fuse.
There’s the religious spirit and the comic spirit — not mutually exclusive, maybe opposite sides of the same coin. The comedian in our trio goes by the name Okarina. She’s half of the comedy duo Okazu Club, whose animus is a cheerfully derisive tongue stuck out at all generally accepted standards of personal beauty, grace, taste and kawaii — not because beauty is not beautiful but because general acceptance imposes norms the full-blooded individual rejects on principle.
Okarina seems to have been born laughing. Comedy would be her vocation, she decided in early childhood — only to discover in adolescence, she writes in PHP, that she lacked the courage of her conviction. Rebuffs are terrible — or seem so until you get over that. She put her dream on hold, qualified as a nurse, worked in a hospital, learned something about suffering — as every comedian should, perhaps. She emerged stronger.
She was 25 when she tackled comedy seriously, teaming up in 2009 with Okazu Club co-founder Yui-P and attaining enough success to be saddled with the stresses and strains of success, constant exposure to the clamorous admiration of awed fans prominent among them. “I’m lucky I live alone,” she says. Alone, she can cry when she wants to. She does sometimes want to. Tears and laughter may be more closely related than they seem to be.
Some faces are naturally comical. Nature has her sportive moments. In one of them she designed the ostrich. What’s funny about it? The question defies an answer. What’s funny about anything? It’s the world’s largest bird, flightless, standing 3-odd meters high on legs that can run 70 kilometers per hour and shatter a lion’s skull — or yours — with a single kick. Its neck suggests the giraffe, its face the camel. An odd creature however you regard it. Oddity is funny. So is normality. Is everything funny, then? No, but it’s interesting and encouraging, somehow, that many things are.
Tsukamoto, the researcher, had a troubled childhood. The harder people were to get along with, the closer he drew to beasts — insects first, then birds. His grandmother bought him a sparrow to raise. He loved it. A terrible accident shattered the relationship. He accidentally stepped on it. It died. Guilt drove him to the study of veterinary science. He became a veterinarian.
It was unsatisfying, somehow. Pets seemed caricatures of animals in the wild. Tsukamoto found solace at a place called the Kobe Ostrich Farm, run by a bean sprout farmer who found ostriches suitable consumers of surplus produce. The stock grew to 500 birds. Tsukamoto observed them, studied them, began to seriously research them. Where did it get him? Nowhere.
There’s no order in ostrich life, he writes in PHP. He tried an experiment. With a sudden loud noise he startled two families of five birds each. They scattered. Calm restored, they regrouped, but differently. “They don’t recognize their own mates, their own children.”
What’s to research, then? Science seeks patterns. Ostriches defy them. Discouraged, he tried another tack. There is their immune system. It’s astonishingly robust. Deploying ostrich antibodies, Tsukamoto enlisted in the fight against bird flu in 2004 and swine flu in 2009. Now in the middle of the gravest epidemic of modern times, the ungainly ostrich takes center stage in Tsukamoto’s ongoing drama — harbinger, he hopes, of a disease-free future.
There are love relationships that transcend the personal. Tsukamoto’s is with all living things. You’d have to feel it to understand it. He acknowledges spending more time with his ostriches than with his wife and teenage daughter. That’s funny, in a way. One doesn’t know what to make of it. So one laughs.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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