Sunday, July 26, 2009

Memories of Wind and Waves

Memories of Wind and Waves: A Self-Portrait of Lakeside Japan by Dr. Junichi Saga gathers the richly detailed stories of thirty-three elderly men and women who spent their lives working on or around Japan's second largest lake, Kasumigaura, located about 40 miles from Tokyo. The stories were compiled by Dr. Saga through personal interviews over a number of years. They tell of the common people's lives - of hardship, of simple joys, of the love of nature, of the fear of nature. Many stories are heart-rending because of the matter-of-fact way in which the storyteller speaks of stoically enduring and overcoming past hardships.

A poignant passage was by told by Mrs Hama Suzuki (1906-1997), who was married at age 19 to a riverboat captain. Her husband became blind as a result of drinking bad alcohol during the War, and she was left to fend for her whole family and their small farm:
I carried rice to Shinjuku in Tokyo, one sack at a time, twice a day. I'd get up at two-thirty a.m., make rice and miso soup for my husband and kids' breakfast, make lunches for everybody, and get on the four a.m. train, catching snatches of sleep when I could. By the time I got back, it was ten. Then I'd go back with the second sack. When I got home it was three p.m. - time to work in the fields. The moon watched over me while I worked. I'd get in at eleven p.m., and my husband would snap, "Where'd you been all this time? Out with some other man, is that it?" He didn't mean what he was saying, but it was hard on him, being alone all day. Then I'd do the laundry, grab a little sleep, and get up at two. That went on for years.

I always had my health. That and a lot of friends to share my troubles. As long as you're alive, you'll have troubles. I don't mind - I've had my fun too. Now it's all behind me, the children are grown, and my husband and I spend our days together in peace, so all's well that ends well.

What is poignant is not the hardship per se. Many still go through similar hardships, or worse, in many parts of the world. Instead, the poignancy comes from a sense of the inevitability of life and death that one has when reading these recollections by common people, many of whom have since passed away. A person can endure hardship and overcome challenges, eventually achieving a sense of serenity and relative peacefulness, and then ... life ends. There is no ultimate reward, no prize, except perhaps the sense of fulfilment seeing loved ones around. But even that ends one day.

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