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Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century

25. Triumph as Tarokaja

The third article I wrote for "Bungaku"was a review Tamai requested of the book called "Nihon Bungaku no Koten,"a Marxist interpretation of Japanese literature. I was of course familiar with the Marxism and anti-Americanism that was so popular at the time. Every month I looked over the table of contents of three sogo zasshi and sometimes I read the articles. Hardly an issue was without at least one expose of the menace of American monopolistic capitalism. But this was my first encounter with Marxism in discussions of the classics of Japanese literature, and I was dismayed. The book did not mention "Kokinshu"because it was written by aristocrats and not by the common people. "The Tale of Genji"was depicted as a revelation of contradictions in the ruling class. Other works were praised or condemned depending on whether or not they were "democratic." My review was not published for several months. When it finally appeared, it was accompanied by a counter-review by one of the three authors. He dismissed my review as an unsolicited contribution (tosho), although Tamai surely remembered he had requested it. The reviewer went on to accuse me of being a kizoku-teki puchiburuteki fuhaishita seiojin. When I recall this now, I find it amusing, but I was not amused at the time. I hoped someone would answer the accusations levelled against me, but no one did. Nagai Michio advised me to ignore the attack, and he was right. It was the price I had to pay for leaving the secluded world of academic publications and taking part in hurlyburly of journalism.

My greatest pleasure at this time was my Kyogen lessons. It had occurred to me that I would understand Japanese culture better if I learned a traditional art. After thinking over various possibilities, I chose Kyogen. I was deeply impressed by No, but equally attracted by the language of Kyogen and felt it would be more fun saying gozaru than soro. I asked my landlady how I might find a Kyogen teacher. This query eventually reached the ears of the head of the Kyoto branch of the Okura school. He decided that since I was the first foreigner to study Kyogen he would have his son, Shigeyama Sennojo, serve as my teacher.

I thoroughly enjoyed my weekly Kyogen lessons. The lessons took place in my house, which was so far removed from neighbors that no one would be disturbed by the loud voices used in declaiming Kyogen dialogue. Learning Kyogen was a novel experience. My education had hitherto been mainly through my eyes, but now I was depending entirely on my ears. When I had performed in high school plays, the director urged me to imagine I was servant or whatever the role was, but in Kyogen there was no need for imagination. I tried to imitate Sennojo's voice and movements as closely as possible. Only after one has become an accomplished Kyogen actor is it permissible to "break the mould."The need to imitate my teacher, far from inhibiting me, gave me pleasure. I felt as if I had found a place at the end of a long line of predecessors.

Occasionally the lessons took place elsewhere. I felt self-conscious in my haori and hakama when I left the house, resolved not to notice if people stared at me. On one occasion a group of young joggers stopped in their tracks and stared in astonishment. But I reminded myself that if I disliked being stared at, I had no business taking up a performing art.

The height of my short career as a Kyogen actor was as Tarokaja in

"Chidori"at the Kita Nogakudo on September 13, 1956. The role of the owner of the sake shop was taken by Takechi Tetsuji, known especially for his "Takechi Kabuki."A video about five minutes long survives of part of the performance. (At the time video film was extremely expensive and was used parsimoniously.) When I see it now I can hardly believe I am the person delivering the lines, gesturing, jumping up and down and finally exiting to the words onma ga mairu. Even more unbelievable is the audience visible in the video, including Tanizaki Junichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, Matsumoto Koshiro and other famous people. It was my one and only triumph on the stage.

Once I had settled down in my wonderful lodgings in Imakumano, I decided I would spend every morning reading the works of Basho and every afternoon exploring the historical sites in Kyoto. This would have been an economical use of my precious time in Japan, but several unforeseen developments compelled me to alter this plan.

The first occurred a few weeks after I moved to Imakumano. Mrs. Okumura, in whose house I lived, informed me that an assistant professor at Kyoto University, just returned from America, would be moving into a room on the ground floor of the omoya. The news was most unwelcome. I felt sure that the assistant professor would want to practice his English on me. Or perhaps he would regale me with reminiscences of his life in America. I decided to avoid him though this was somewhat difficult because I had to pass his room every time I went out.

After he moved in I was careful whenever I went by his room. I would gaze up at the sky or down at my feet, though I might be aware from the corner of my eyes that he was eating a soft-boiled egg. One day Mrs. Okumura, who prepared meals for both of us, said apologetically that she had visitors that evening and would like me to eat dinner that night with the assistant professor. I agreed, though with a little annoyance.

That evening the assistant professor, Nagai Michio, and I had dinner in the hanare. I don't remember what we talked about, but I felt greatly attracted to his warm personality. It also gave me pleasure to discuss intellectual matters in Japanese. For his part, Nagai-san seems to have enjoyed talking with an American who had come to Japan to learn, rather than to boast of American know-how. In any case, we decided that henceforth we would have dinner together every evening.

I had made a friend for life. Although Nagai-san was a year younger than I, I looked up to him as a teacher, my first and best guide to Japan. A month earlier, when Mrs. Okumura asked me which newspaper I would take, I had replied that I had no time to read newspapers. This was foolish, but I was determined to learn as much as possible about Japanese literature during my one year in Kyoto, and I thought that an hour spent mulling over haiku by Basho was a better use of my time than reading a newspaper. But, as the result of my nightly conversations with Nagai-san, I came to realize that I could not ignore the living culture of Japan. Arthur Waley had refused invitations to visit Japan because his interest was in the Japan of the Heian period and not in the present. I had shared his absorption with the past, but under Nagai-san's influence I not only began to read newspapers but came to desire to participate in Japanese life.

(Jul. 8, 2006)
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