Wind, Light, and the Twenty-Year-Old-Me
Wind, Light, and the Twenty-Year-Old-Me (Abridged)
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Having been expelled from school and needing to repeat a grade, I was twenty years old when I graduated from high school. Two years prior, my old man died and after discovering all he left for us was debt, we moved into a different house. People surrounding me said it would be nonsense for a person like me who hates studying to go to university. And, even though they weren’t really telling me not to go to university, it made sense. So, I decided to work instead. I became a substitute teacher.
By nature, I give myself license to do things at whim. With my natural disposition, it’s impossible for me to obey the orders of others. I had developed a taste for skipping classes ever since I was a kindergartener, and during my middle and high school years, I was absent for easily half my classes. I would leave all my textbooks at my school desk, and when I went to school, carried nothing with me. On those occasions when I skipped school, I would end up lying on the sand dune along the shore, surrounded by pine trees… gazing idly at the ocean and the sky. I didn’t read novels or anything like that, nor did I go to movies or to any other fun places… I was entirely squandering time—my fate throughout life.
Back when I was in middle school, I was expelled from the countryside school in my home town of Niigata and transferred to a school in Tokyo where there was a fair number of delinquent boys. Even there I was still the king of absences, and still rarely went to the movies or anywhere else. I could often be found lying in the cemetery behind the school, or nearby in the prisoner’s cemetery, a meadow of 990 square meters surrounded by trees that laid just beyond yet another graveyard, the Zoshigaya Cemetery.
After I enrolled as a student at this school filled with delinquents, I developed this vague aspiration for religion. A person like me who cannot obey the orders of others may perhaps find pleasure in obeying his own restrictive commands. But, my yearning was fundamentally ambiguous, and more like a nostalgic longing for strict ascetic practice.
It might sound strange for a former delinquent unable to follow school rules to become an elementary school substitute teacher, but as an impressionable youngster I had hopes and aspirations common for that age. Besides, I was much more mature back then than I am now. These days, I have become the sort of person who cannot even engage in obligatory social rounds, but when I was young, I possessed moderation and manners, and would speak and put on airs with parents as if some kind of respected educator.
As a substitute teacher, I was in charge of the fifth grade—the oldest group at the branch school in what used to be known as Ebara-gun, now Shimokitazawa, Setagaya Town. It was a mixture of both male and female students, seventy in total. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed all the ones that were just too much to handle from the main campus to this branch school. Because, out of those seventy students, only about as many as twenty could manage to barely write their names in katakana. Other than that, they couldn’t even write one simple konnichiwa. A good twenty of them! That group was always fighting in the classroom, and there was this one kid, who if he heard soldiers passing by singing a war song outside the building, would leap from the classroom window and go watch the soldiers. That kid was ferocious and abnormal. He was the child of a clam selling family. When cholera was prevalent and their clams could not be sold anymore, he said, “Hell, no! My clams cannot be beaten by damn cholera!” and ate the clams. Each member of his family was infected with cholera. The kid would vomit white stuff that looked like rice soup on the way to school. Luckily, though, everyone in his family narrowly escaped death.
Truly adorable kids exist among the ones that are considered bad. Children are all adorable, of course, but beautiful souls reside within the naughty ones. The naughty ones have warm hearts and an appreciation for the nostalgic. These kids should not be forced to study subjects which give them a headache. Instead, we should nurture character traits that allow them to be warm-hearted and nostalgic—traits they can rely on to live strong. Having those principles, I did not care if they were not able to write words in hiragana or katakana.
There was a milk house boy called Tanaka. He milked the cows both day and night, and delivered milk on his own. At some point in the past, he had apparently failed to advance to the next grade, so he was a year older than the other students in his class. When I first arrived at the school as a substitute, the head teacher told me to keep a particular eye on him because he was strong and bullied other children. True as that may have been, he was, however, a very nice kid.
Whenever I visited his house asking if I could see him milk the cows, he came out jumping, overjoyed. Sometimes he did bully other children, but offered a hand with physically strenuous jobs such as cleaning up the ditches or carrying stuff, and did everything on his own without fooling around. He would beg adorably, “Teacher, I can’t write words, but please don’t scold me. Instead, I’ll do any sort of labor work.” I can’t comprehend why an adorable child like him is notoriously labeled as a bad student. Under no circumstances should a child be reprimanded solely because he’s unable to write letters. It’s a child’s soul that matters most. It’s outrageous to flunk a student because the child cannot write.
Upon starting my teaching job, I moved to the second floor of a house owned by the branch school’s head teacher. It was located in Daitabashi, about four kilometers away from the school.
One of the head teacher’s side jobs was to have a teacher board with him. The person who boarded with him before me was another substitute teacher, a Mr. Nagaoka, who was later moved to the main school. He was an avid reader of Russian literature and quite an oddball. He had a peculiar disease called frog epileptic seizure, and whenever he saw a frog he went into convulsions. One year prior, when my class was in the fourth grade and taught by Mr. Nagaoka, one of the students hid a frog in his chalk box. Upon discovering this during class, Mr. Nagaoka apparently toppled over and foam began bubbling from his mouth. The milk house boy was the one who recounted this story to me. He said, “I was so startled when that happened.” I thought perhaps it could have been him. I asked, “Wasn’t it you who did it?” He said, “No, not me—,” with a cute, meaningful smirk.
The head teacher I boarded with was sixty years old when I was there. He was 140 centimeters tall—unusually short—with unbounded energy. He had a wide, muscular build, and a harelip hidden beneath his mustache. He had a fiery temper and damned those around him left and right, perhaps a result of some underlying cowardice. He leaned especially hard on the janitor and students, but when it came to school board members or influential people in the village, he went right into brown-nosing them. Whenever he lost patience with his role as a teacher or the students, he would push the responsibility of teaching class to the old teacher in charge of the first graders, venturing off instead to some influential person’s house to chit-chat over tea. Regardless, for us teachers, we were more pleased not to have him at school anyways, so we did not complain about having his responsibilities imposed on us in this way.
On those occasions when he did get fiery mad, he walloped and kicked his wife hard. On top of all that, he would charge out of his house, and into a grove of mixed trees or a bamboo forest, and recklessly hit the trunks of trees or bamboo with his walking stick. That was plain insanity. I wondered if his hands did not hurt using such tremendous power, but he totally immersed himself in the hitting for five minutes or so, shouting “Ei! Ei! Ei! Yah! Yah! Yah!”
The head teacher often disdainfully referred to young people as, “These youngsters… Greenhorns… etc., etc….” But I was not, in the slightest, affected by these slurs. Those days, I held myself entirely aloof from worldly stuff, emotionally distancing myself from feelings of anger, sadness, hatred or joy. Like a cloud drifting in the sky or water floating with the tide, I tried to live life letting nature take its course and not fussing over anything. Although overall each of us was a victim of his scorn, he often excluded me from his damning because he was afraid that if he got mad at me, I would move out and he would not be able to collect rent. He was cunning like that.
Including me and the head teacher, there were a total of five teachers. The first grade male teacher, old Yamakado, the second grade female teacher, Fukuhara, and the third grade female teacher, Ishige. Mr. Yamakado was sixty-five years old and a bit of a recluse like me. He actually walked all the way from Asabu to school wearing straw sandals. He had a daughter too, whom he coerced into working as a teacher within the city. Apparently, she wanted to get married at some point in the near future, but no-no, Mr. Yamakado would not allow that. He needed her to help with the family finances a bit longer. He argued with her every day about it, and told us about it repeatedly: “Oh my, that young one has awakened to sex or something. She sure is itching to be married. Ah, ha, ha, ha!” He’s got ten children which caused his household to be in dire straits, so he entrusted his entire well-being to a little 180 milliliter flask of sake that he got to drink each night. The head teacher did not drink.
There is a strange inversion to the moral sense of elementary school teachers. That is, they believe educators are mentors people should look up to, and thus, in order to avoid receiving criticism from others, strive to live life constantly refraining from vulgar behavior. They presume average people, indifferent to this standard, carelessly indulge in all manner of behavior even if considered wicked. Consequently, teachers grant themselves permission to share in a little bit of this vice, and a little bit of that vice. They assume: “Other people’s conduct is far worse than mine. What I’m doing is not that big a deal.” In reality, however, they commit far more crooked acts than what others would ever consider doing. The same tendency goes for those in rural villages. People in a rural area think: “City dwellers are bad, and always up to wrongdoings. So, we should be allowed a certain degree of misdeeds.” And yet, their conduct too ends up being much worse. The same goes for religionists. I think it’s inherently wrong to reflect upon any single person or group’s way of thinking and course of procedure, instead of acting upon one’s own initiative. But what’s worse is their reflection overall is a delusion. It used to surprise me that the teachers went overboard in imagining and interpreting human society as being so evil and vulgar.
The first time I visited the main school after having received official notification of my appointment, a female teacher there let me know I’d be working at the branch school, and because she lived in the area, offered to escort me to the building. She was stunningly beautiful. I had never seen such a beautiful woman until that very moment, and for the first time realized there existed a kind of beauty that could snap one completely straight. She was twenty-seven, single, and I heard through the grapevine that she intended to remain single for life. She seemed to have a sturdy conviction which made her appear incredibly noble and modest, and was kind too. Noticeably feminine, she was different from that commonly “neutral” female teacher type. I secretly held deep admiration for her. There was very little contact between the main campus and the branch school, however, so that was it. We had no real chance of conversing after that. Still, for the next few years, I embraced an impression of her as something noble.
There was an influential wealthy man in our village, and though he was quite old, he wanted to marry this teacher and make her his second wife, his first wife having died. He asked the head teacher for a favor in this matter. If successful, the promised reward was said to be a few hundred, or a few thousand yen. The head teacher, then, was something to watch: he was running around everywhere like a chicken with its head cut off, often leaving his class unattended to. But it was fruitless because the person at the heart of the matter, the female teacher, had no intention whatsoever of being married. So, every day for a month or two, the head teacher took his frustration out on everyone. It was simply too much to handle how rough, or rather frenzied, his temper was.
When I heard of the head teacher’s maneuvering, I was very anxious thinking my vision of the beautiful woman could be crushed by such an offensive marriage. I was not particularly planning to, nor wanting to, confess my love to the female teacher, or get married to her for that matter. Rather, I was happy to hold the dear memory of her in my mind. After all, my motto at the time was “let nature take its course and don’t be attached to anything.” But being aware of the head teacher’s angling made me come to secretly despise him regardless of my façade of letting nature take its course.
One of my other colleagues, Ms. Ishige, was the wife of a military police sergeant major, or something like that, a really cold, neutral-type of person. Another colleague of mine, Ms. Fukuhara, on the other hand, was a nice aunty-type. She was probably thirty-five or six, and her devotion to her students always came first. She gave no care to her appearance. Her nature, too, was more like that of a kindergarten teacher than a middle school teacher. Despite being single, and unlike many a neutral woman, she did not have a mean bone in her body. Although she did not have any lofty ideals or anything, she was indeed a nice person. For me it was a pleasant fact that she was the noble teacher’s best friend and had a worshipful kind of respect toward her while others were jealous. When I was quitting my teaching job, she said, “It is hard and sad to see you leave, but it is a good thing. You really should not remain a teacher and end your life being just that.” She congratulated me, made a bounty of food, and held a farewell feast for me. I was, however, feeling sad about my ambition which made it impossible for me to settle for a teaching job. Why could I not dedicate myself to being a teacher?
I used to enjoy lingering in the staff room by myself after school. With all the students gone and the teachers no longer there, it was just me sitting absorbed in thought. There was only the sound of the wall clock. The fact that the hustle and bustle of the schoolyard turned to complete emptiness—no sounds, no people—mysteriously made the stillness come to the fore. It was oddly hollow, and in this state of absent-mindedness, it was as though I too had disappeared to somewhere else. In the midst of being absorbed by this vacant feeling, I came to imagine an apparition of myself sticking out its neck from the shadow of the clock on the wall and saying hello. I suddenly caught myself seeing myself, and I felt like my apparition was standing next to me and speaking to me, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Although I liked having my mind in a dull haze, sometimes my apparition would unexpectedly appear next to me like this and nag: “Hey, you! Don’t be so satisfied,” he’d say, glaringly.
“I can’t be satisfied?” I asked.
“Of course not. You must suffer. You must make yourself suffer as much as you can.”
“You suffer, and only through that suffering will you be shown the answer. The nobility of a person lies in having oneself suffer. Everybody prefers being satisfied, even a beast.”
Is that true? Despite the possible veracity of what my apparition was saying, I certainly did indulge in satisfaction. Truly, I was coming close to becoming like a Zen monk, allowing nature to take its course and living without attachments. Instances where I’d become angry, happy, or sad came about less and less. I seemed to have much more composure, maturity and comprehension of things than did fifty- and sixty-year-old teachers despite being merely twenty. Generally, I did not have a desire for possessions. I did not wish for my soul to be limited. In summer or winter, I wore the same clothes throughout the year. I gave away books once I finished reading them. A few changes of clothes—shirts and fundoshi (loincloth)—were my only surplus possessions. A parent who visited me one day spread a funny narrative that I hung my fundoshi on the wall just like any other article of clothing. “Oh really?” I thought, “This habit is only mine?” I was rather taken aback. Hanging my fundoshi was purely my way of keeping tidy. There was no concept of storage in my spirit, so of course no closet was needed. The only thing I stored as my possession was a vision of the noble female teacher. The reason I was reading the Bible around that time was because I was pleasantly associating the image of her with the Virgin Mary. Admittedly, I admired this female teacher. However, I was not in love with her. I did not in the slightest have the feeling of losing my balance over her as if I was in love. All I wished for was the chance to at least sit next to her while working in the staff room at school. Today, I no longer own the image of her in my heart. I cannot even recall her face, nor do I remember her name.
Those days, I felt as though there was a life force in the sun and I saw boundless effervescence and waves of æther in the rays it cast. A mere glance upward to the blue sky to soak up its light left me content. Being carefree, and having the wind and light sweep through the wheat fields, gave me the utmost pleasure.
I could gaze at life so dear within every single drop of rain on a rainy day and within the sound of the madly screaming wind on a stormy day. I continued feeling this precious life in the leaves of trees, birds, insects, and those clouds that drifted above—always chatting with my heart. Since there was nothing at all prompting me to drink alcohol, I never considered enjoying it. I was satisfied with the mere vision of that graceful female teacher, so I did not need the flesh of a woman. At night, I was tired, and so I slept well.
The distance between nature and myself gradually narrowed, and my senses bathed with satisfaction in nature’s touch and life force. Experiencing this wasn’t directly triggering any anxiety for me, but sure enough, when feeling content, walking along the crest of a wheat field, or through a thick, dark, primeval forest, I again began to encounter, out of the blue, an apparition of myself. I’d see it speaking to me from the inner part of the woods, the top of a thicket, or the surface of a hill. My apparitions were always still, and their words delivered amicably with composure. They always spoke to me like this: “Hey you, you need to be unhappy. Very unhappy, okay? And you need to experience suffering, because unhappiness and suffering are home to the human soul.”
But, I had no idea what I should take up to make myself feel suffering. I had little sex drive, so not being with a woman wouldn’t cause me to suffer. What part of me, exactly, should do the suffering? So, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be unhappy: Poverty. Illness. A broken heart. Failing in ambition. Old age. Ignorance. Being in a feud. Despair. I had none of these things—I was completely satisfied. I groped for unhappiness, and yet I could not even grasp the shadow of it. Even my memory of being a naughty child afraid of reprimand and entirely disconsolate, was something that provided me with more of a nostalgic feeling than any sense of past suffering. What exactly is unhappiness?
Nonetheless, the intermittent appearance of those shadows of myself gradually weighed heavily on me. I thought of going to a house of ill-repute with a chance of catching the filthiest and the most horrible sexually transmitted disease. Could it help, I wondered?
These days, I have come to think that every man experiences his greatest level of maturity during the period when he changes from young man to adult.
There are two young men who have been coming to visit me lately on occasion. Both are twenty-two, hard-boiled ultranationalists with a history of belonging to right-wing organizations. But they now seem to have found a truer way for a man to live his life. Although they can somehow feel that my Discourse on Decadence and Discourse on Fall are words of truth, because of their extreme nature, the logic of these discourses remain out of reach. These young men value moderation more than anything.
There is another pair of young men, both former soldiers, one a poet, and the other an editor who used to belong to a suicide squad during the war. They occasionally stay over my house for a few nights and cook me meals making clankety-clank sounds along the way. These two men carry shadows of the battlefield, and brim with a rough, untamed, wild nature gained from having been in war. However, they own a surprising moderate quality in their souls. That is to say, they too hold dear a trace of their own graceful female teacher. Like the other two men, these young men are also twenty-two. They have not begun a life of true lust yet. They have not reached that period of growth where they mentally suffer from lust itself. Yet, each of these young men is more mature at their current age than men of forty or fifty. Their moderate nature comes naturally to them and is not fabricated, forced, or twisted like that of an older man. For a certain period in their life, I think, every man is an optimist, like Voltaire’s Candide. Then they fall and become decadent. But, I assume most lose purity in their souls as their bodies become more decadent.
While I was a teacher, I did not experience the common pain of navigating life as a staff member: no clashing with bosses, being bullied, or subject to the friction of cliques. There were only five of us. And there was no way we could have possibly had a clique, even if we wanted to. It was a branch school, and because the head teacher was not the principal, he did not have much sense of responsibility. He was, in fact, very irresponsible to begin with and had no passion for education whatsoever. He clearly had no problem neglecting his class to run around playing matchmaker for that wealthy, influential man. So, he could hardly lecture anyone about teaching—not a single word. Even though I used a slightly slanted curriculum that lacked music, and an abacus-focused math class (because I was horrible in both subjects), he did not complain. The only thing he did was, once in a blue moon, he’d pull me aside and hint that I must take very good care of the children of influential families. Since I loved all my students equally, I did not get hung up on those things nor did I feel any further need to act on the head teacher’s hint.
The child the head teacher told me to give special attention to was Ogiwara. His father was a landowner and school board member. A good kid by nature, though he was sometimes mischievous. I’d sometimes have to scold him for his mischief, but he knew well why he was being reprimanded, and seemed rather secure and calm when I’d forgive him afterward. One day, he started crying. “You only scold me, none of the others!” he said in tears. He was just acting out, being so used to having everything his own way, and in reality wanting to be pampered by me as well. “Oh, is that so?” I said. “Do I really single you out for scolding?” I started laughing. Then he stopped crying at once, and started laughing as well. The head teacher failed to recognize this kind of connection between me and my students.
Children are sly creatures just like adults. Take the milk house boy, for example, who flunked and had to repeat the same grade. He was sly alright, but at the same time, there was right courage residing within him, and he’d acceptingly sacrifice himself for others. It’s this worthy distinction in right courage that separates children from adults. It’s greater in children than in adults. Children can’t help being sly. Slyness is not a vice, and it coexists with right courage. When the proper amount of right courage no longer exists in harmony with slyness, that is a problem.
One day after school, the students and teachers had all left and I was by myself in the staff room, vacantly absorbed in all sorts of thought. I heard someone knocking on the glass window from outside. It was the head teacher.
Earlier, he had stopped by the Ogiwaras on his way home, and witnessed the Ogiwara boy’s tear-filled return from school. The boy told his father and the head teacher he’d been scolded by me. “It’s all your fault, father! Because you’re throwing your weight around being a school board member. That’s why my teacher hates me! Father, it’s your fault. You fool!”
“That child is out of control, acting unruly,” the head teacher told me. “Why on earth did you scold him?”
Little did he know, I didn’t…. Children act out because they’re sad. Invariably, there is meaning behind their actions, therefore, we should never judge a child’s actions by what we see on the surface. “I see…,” I told the head teacher. “It was not extremely bad behavior, but I had to teach him a lesson or two, so I did what I needed to do.”
“Alright, then,” the head teacher smiled obsequiously. “Why don’t you take a quick trip to the Ogiwaras now and explain what really happened? As we say: If you can’t beat them, join them. Conformity brings about a better consequence. We cannot help it, right? Hehe.” The head teacher was a man who often ended his words with this chuckling, “hehe.”
“I don’t need to go. Would you please tell the boy, and only the boy, to come here on your way back home?”
“Alright. But hey, you cannot scold your students too much.”
“Yes, I know… but they are my students, so please leave them up to me.”
“Alright. But please make sure you adjust your tone of reprimand. Especially with the children of influential families.”
The head teacher was probably in good spirits, so he took my words more readily than expected and hopped away. I had forgotten until today that he had this way of walking with his butt sticking out sideways and hopping because he was a bit lame. However those feet were awfully fast.
The boy arrived before long showing his embarrassed smile, and calling my name from outside the window, hiding himself behind it. Although I scolded him often, he was my favorite kid, and he well understood my deep affection for him.
“Why did you give your father trouble?”
“Because I was very irritated.”
“Tell me the truth. You engaged in mischief on the way home from school, didn’t you?”
The troubles and agony children lock in their hearts are persistent and serious just as with adults—perhaps even more so with children. Just because the reasons for their troubles are childish, we cannot conclude the depth of their agony is infantile. The degree of self-reproach and anguish is the same for everyone regardless of age—whether a boy of seven or a man of forty.
The boy started crying. Apparently, from the outside display table of the stationary store next to the school, he had lifted a pencil. The milk house boy, Tanaka, had threatened him and made him do it. Perhaps Tanaka had a secret that made Ogiwara vulnerable and he took advantage of it. Nevertheless, I did not need to meddle and ask all the details between the two. In any case, Ogiwara reluctantly stole the pencil. I told him not to worry, and promised to pay for it without revealing his name. He went home pleased. A few days later, carefully checking nobody except me was present, he slid into the staff room, came up to me, bringing out twenty or thirty sen, and asked me, “Teacher, did you already pay?”
As for the milk house boy, every time he sensed he was going to be scolded after his bad conduct came to light, he would start working with extreme diligence. He’d volunteer to be in charge of cleaning duty. He’d busily wipe the window glass, even. Or, he’d say: “Teacher, the toilet seems full now. So, I’ll go and draw the waste.”
“You can do that?”
“I can do anything that requires manual labor!”
“Alright. But where are you going to bring the waste?”
“I’ll dump it into the river behind the school.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Generally, that was how it would go. I found it extremely comical, since he did not fail to start his routine of diligence just as I expected.
Then, I walked toward him. He edged back at once.
“Teacher…! No, please, don’t scold me!”
He covered his ears with all his might and closed his eyes.
“No, I won’t scold you.”
“Will you forgive me?”
“Yes, I will forgive you. Now, you cannot put your friend up to stealing stuff anymore. If you really want to do bad things, do not use your friend. Do it yourself. Good things or bad things, you’ve got to do them by yourself.”
Nodding his head, Tanaka listened intensely.
If one considered what we preached to young children as life’s precepts worth following, he would find the occupation of teaching hollow, and the idea of continuing with it, impossible. When young, however, I was confident about myself. I couldn’t possibly imagine preaching to children like that now in a million years. In those days, however, I was senselessly absorbed in how it was that nature made me feel, and from within my soul, something like a hymn to the sun forever poured and played. I somehow remained completely and unblushingly void of desire—ignorant to the true emptiness that comes from being in that state. Staying there was entirely possible.
When I quit my teaching job, I was irresolute. Why must I quit? I had decided to study Buddhism and become a monk because there was this enlightenment I longed for, and a sense of nostalgia for the discipline required to attain enlightenment. Eventually I realized, though, that this same disciplined quality could be pursued and used in life as a teacher, and I came to understand fame was what I truly desired, not enlightenment. I lamented over this self-seeking lowly desire. I was devoid of hope. The fruition of my aspiration for discipline and enlightenment rested upon a need to renounce the world, and yet, deep down in my heart, I feared this idea. My sense of remorse, despair, and anxiety continued, and came from the knowledge that I was abandoning right hope. “What I was doing must not have been enough. I need to discard anything and everything. And, only after that, might I be able to grasp a way out.” I was observant of myself being single-mindedly impatient with discarding. I was like a desperate madman: discard, discard, discard—discard everything no matter what it may be. Just like committing suicide is one means of desire to live, my desperate orientation toward discarding was actually nothing more than the green spring of my youth going pitter-patter behind me. That I knew as well.
You see, I had wanted to become a novelist since I was a young boy. But I convinced myself I did not possess the talent. This deeply entrenched belief that had me give up right hope altogether could be what fundamentally drove me to madness and desperation.
Looking back and examining my history during my year as a teacher, strangely and completely satisfied, I feel as though that person was someone else. And every time I think about it, it feels like a lie—an inexplicably transparent falsehood.
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