By Ruth Reiner
Hello again. Thank you for entering my third weekly item on the book “The Great Onisaburo Deguchi” written by Kyotaro Deguchi. As I promised last week, I will begin this week’s item with a short and sweet story from Kisaburo’s (Onisaburo’s original name) childhood.
“Once, when Kisaburo was playing at home with his friends, he spread a straw mat on the floor and started a bonfire. Of course, the mat immediately caught fire, and the flames spread to the tatami (Japanese rice-straw floor covers), and to the floorboards. Fortunately, his father came home and put out the fire with the help of the neighbors, so the house was not burned down completely. Onisaburo’s daughter Naohi, who often listened to Onisaburo’s recollections, says that he probably started the fire because it was cold, but that it is amusing that he thought it would be safe if he built it on a straw mat.” (The Great Onisaburo Deguchi, chapter 2)
Yah, Onisaburo was a very creative child, and also a very talented one. For example the book tells how during the civil war in 1877, the five year old Kisaburo would aid the villagers, who would come to him with newspapers reporting the progress of the war. Although the boy could not understand the articles he could read the characters aloud to these illiterate villagers, Thanks to the education he received in his grandmother’s home. (I’m telling you I would definitely be happy if I had a chance to learn Japanese with his grandmother!!! Mine is going not very well.)
At that time there was an elementary school within Anao Temple, where children of all ages were taught together. In addition to this school, Kisaburo attended evening classes at another temple in Anao called Kongoji. Kisaburo, they say, had an extremely good memory, and a very powerful intuition that at times earned him nicknames such as “eight ears” and “devil’s ears”.
One day an incident occurred at the elementary school, during an ethics lesson. The teacher mispronounced one of the characters in the name of one of the provinces’ governors. Kisaburo happened to know the correct pronunciation, and told the teacher that the name was actually “Tadasuke” and not “Tadaai”. The teacher was furious. He refused to accept this correction, and was just about to beat Kisaburo, as the headmaster rushed into the classroom, and told the teacher that “Tadasuke” was in fact the right pronunciation.
That day Kisaburo was spared the punishment, but ever since that day the teacher was determined in various ways to humiliate the young Kisaburo. Eventually Kisaburo’s classmates followed their teacher. The teacher would beat him for the slightest mistakes, tie him up and even make him kneel for hours in front of the classroom. But, when the teacher began to make fun of Kisaburo’s father and home, Kisaburo could stand it no longer. In a fit of rage, he took a bamboo pole, waited behind a hedge for his teacher to pass by on his way back from school, and threw the pole at him with all his might! This caused a great scandal and Kisaburo was expelled from school. However the teacher was partly responsible too, and so, was also dismissed. Kisaburo was then eleven years old.
After punishing both parties, the headmaster of the temple school came up with an interesting solution for the replacement of the teacher. He asked the young Kisaburo, who was known for his outstanding ability in class, to fill the vacancy. Kisaburo took the position and taught in a quite easy-going way but after two years he quit the job because his religious views clashed with those of one of the other teachers, a former Buddhist priest.
Kisaburo lost his monthly salary along with his teaching post and so had to look for other means of support. He helped his father in the fields and tried to sell some soy sauce to the other villages nearby, but he could not get any regular salary. Finally, he became a servant in a neighboring house belonging to a wealthy farmer called Genji Saito. Mr. Saito evidently was a great drinker, and so he would take Kisaburo out with him every night to tour the bars of Kameoka. Kisaburo then found himself in a very awkward position between Mr. Saito and his wife.
But our leading character’s life was never boring: complications began concerning his father’s land. Evidently, the Ueda family some generations ago dug a pond on their fields for irrigation purposes. But since there is no longer any need for this pond, the Uedas wanted to dry it out. (It had also been a danger for life, in the Ueda’s family alone seven women had drowned in its waters), it earned the name, ”The Accursed Pond”. Opposing the Uedas were some of the rich landlords, who wanted to practice their authority. They held their meetings at Genji Saito’s house.
Night after night, some arrogant people of influence would come there, discussing ways to punish Kisaburo’s father. ”After overhearing these drunk arrogant people, Kisaburo told his master just what he thought of such guests, and vowed to fight to the last even if it meant starving to death, then took his things and left Saito’s house.” (ch. 3) Eventually they came to a solution concerning the Ueda’s property.
Still, life as farmers in that period was very hard. In Onisaburo’s collection of poems “Dreams of My Birthplace”, he describes how, after the autumn harvest, all the rice went to the landlords leaving no rice for the farmers. The farmers had to take all their radishes downtown to sell them in order to buy some rice. Then they had to mix this rice with wheat to increase the quantity and ate it with a salted sardine.
Kisaburo spent most of his youth in struggle against hunger: he worked as a servant, made straw sandals, worked in the fields, hued rice, cut firewood and tread the snowy or frosty road to Kyoto day. Onisaburo always kept some“glowing hope” in his heart. This “glowing hope” was to eventually lead him to better days. (I’m telling you this man never stops surprising me), so check out next week’s item and see how, if his luck can change like that, then we probably all have some hope!