Chapter 4: War and Peace
Spring made us glad I’d clarified the existential status of my trees with Maeda-san (see Chapter 1). Three fully-grown cherry blossom trees opened, doing a better job of reaching the end of March than Caesar, thanks to the hand that stayed my blade. Other trees, whose names and genus I have yet to commit to memory so that I refer to them in the same nomenclature I reserve for cars — the pink one, the yellow one, the white one, the five-door hybrid — blossomed alongside like backing singers trying their best to take center stage but forever destined to be mere Supremes behind the sakura’s Diana Ross.
Cherry blossoms, long the go-to image for poets who can count to 17 and consider the transitory nature of life at the same time, mean something far deeper and more philosophical in modern Japan: hanami. A blooming party to celebrate the blooming season. Nothing says “spring in Japan” like getting blind drunk on a blue tarp in the park.
In our garden, we eschewed the tarpaulin partly because I didn’t want the place to look like a homeless village below a highway flyover and (mainly) because it was acting as a bright, blue plastic weedkiller while I prepared a new vegetable patch to augment the ones already stuffed with dying and growth-restricted veggies.
I built a fire pit. There was a half-hearted attempt at one when we moved in — a hole in the ground with a couple of rocks around it — as pathetic as if a group of sloth druids had considered building their nascent civilization a Stonehenge then gave up and climbed into the trees for a good, long hang. I filled that in and planted a pine seedling on top and started again in a more central location, taking advantage of a couple of stone lanterns that had been left behind and a gap in the trees through which we can see Mt. Ontake on a clear day.
I dragged some railway ties in to act as benches — nearly crippling myself in the process — and slowly set about turning the area into what I like to think of as a clearing in the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but that my wife likes to call “a madman’s grotto.” I secreted various statuettes of unnamed deities, a couple of Grecian urns and a wooden surfer (who looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Eric Trump) in the grass, bushes and trees around the fire pit, and hung two strings of 100 percent real Tibetan prayer flags I bought from a 100 percent real Tibetan man in a 100 percent real Tibetan market in Aberfeldy, Scotland. I think it looks mystical. Maeda-san’s son, Kensuke, asked me if I was having a sports day.
My wife and I invited her family over for the festivities and, as the sun set, we lit candles in the stone lanterns and threw more logs on the fire. The Maedas joined us, the kids climbing in the trees, the adults drinking and chatting. Kensuke told me to get my guitar out and we took turns playing songs the other didn’t know — like the most anti-social karaoke night ever. My wife’s family drifted away and the next-door kids were escorted inside for bath time, leaving myself, my wife, Maeda, Kensuke, his brother Kyota and Miyagawa-san from two doors down. More beers and a rousing version of “Let it Be.”
A voice called out and Nagamatsu-san, an elderly man who lives two rice fields away, emerged from the gloaming. Behind him came two men I’d seen at community meetings but hadn’t officially met. They were introduced as Kagawa-san and Endo-san, both retired. Nagamatsu carried a six-pack, Endo a bottle of shochu and Kagawa had packets of dried squid. Another log on the fire and the party blazed up once more.
The guitar was passed over and Nagamatsu gave us a Japanese version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in a voice that sounded like he was driving a motorbike over a plowed field. More beer. More sake. More songs.
This is the life, I thought. The lubricant of alcohol and the shared language of music. By the fireside now as humans had done for thousands of years.
Our voices raised in song.
Our voices raised in laughter.
Our voices raised…
Kagawa and Endo, each perched on either end of a railway tie bench with a wooden statue of Ebisu (the Japanese god of fishermen and luck) between them, grinning in the flickering light, were arguing in a language I have yet to master but in which I hope to one day become fluent: drunk old man Japanese. My wife had gone inside. I turned to Kensuke.
“What’s the problem?”
“I’m not sure. Something about the war.”
I was instantly on high alert, the Basil Fawlty in me primed. Mention the war? This can’t be good. When I first arrived in the country one of the things we were warned in our brief and woefully inadequate teacher training was to avoid conversations on history. As a Scot, I tend not to get dragged into historical assumptions the way some of my American friends do. I once got confronted by an irate schoolboy in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, demanding to know if I was American. Presumably, he was going to demand an explanation and an apology there and then had I turned out to be from Omaha or San Diego or Fort Lauderdale:
Kagawa and Endo were up, on their feet, gesturing with their cups. What was it? Nanjing? Pearl Harbor? Nagasaki? Comfort women? Any number of contentious issues flew through my mind, and in none of them did the conversation end with hugs all round and recharged glasses. Maeda joined in on Kagawa’s side, calling Endo an idiot. Miyagawa backed up Endo. Everyone over 65 was on their feet. The rest of us watched this bizarre theater unfold in my garden Globe.
Kensuke joined in, contradicting his father. I nudged him.
“In the woods beyond the shrine,” he said, “there’s a war memorial. They’re arguing about which war.”
“Who thinks what?”
“Kagawa and that faction think it’s the second, Endo says it’s the first.
“Why don’t we go and see?” It may have been a bit late in the day for pragmatism but that was the only club in my bag.
Kensuke relayed my suggestion and my wife returned from the house in time to see the entire male party — me, Kensuke, Kyota, Kagawa, Endo, Miyagawa and Nagamatsu — trailing out of the garden with torches, the electric kind (though if we had flaming ones, we’d have used them), and back-up drinks. We zig-zagged our way around the rice fields and by the shrine, pausing to admire more cherry blossoms. Then Endo disappeared up a tiny stone staircase into the trees and we dutifully followed. Images from my childhood, like Twin Peaks and The Blair Witch Project, haunted me as we swept aside branches and picked cobwebs out of our mouths. The air was rich with the hum of insects and the smell of the local shochu wafting from our breaths.
“Aha!” Endo stood smugly, his torch dancing over the date. All but forgotten, this stone monument bore only one name, the lone local man who died in World War 1. The monument was covered in Imperial flags and patriotic sentiments. Had the dates been two or three decades later, I would’ve felt less ambivalence but Japan fought on the Allies’ side in the Great War, taking German colonies at the behest of the British. This wasn’t a political, ideological site like the Yasukuni shrine, this was a memorial such as every town in Britain has, remembering the local lads who went to fight in a war — one that had nothing to do with existential threats and everything to do with geopolitical dick-swinging — and never came back. It wasn’t there to make a point. It was there to remind. We stood in silence, taking in the melancholy of the moment, before raising our cups and cans and toasting the fallen soldier.
We returned to the fireside and finished our drinks. The party broke up soon after, each man fading into the darkness, unsteady on the road, the cherry blossoms drifting down as the wind rose.
If this is your first time reading “The Only Gaijin in the Village,” you may like to start from the beginning and meet Iain and his wife, as well as Maeda-san and his family. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series.