It is a Muzuhashi family trait to never, ever buy anything unless it's cut-price, 'seconds', sold-as-seen, extremely cheap or, ideally, second-hand, and while as a rule, I have about as much affection for the act of shopping as a footballer does for the act of fidelity, if threatened at gunpoint or bribed with the offer of limited edition New York cheesecake Choco Pie
, I will very reluctantly partake if the venue is a recycle shop.
Recycle shops are to Japan what charity shops are to the UK, and partly out of necessity (ie. recession), partly for environmental reasons (Tokyo was producing so much rubbish in the post-war years there is even an island - Yumé-no-shima / 夢の島 - built on it in Tokyo Bay), these days they're springing up all over the place.In contrast with a charity shop, however, instead of donating any old junk you think someone else might be willing to buy, you take your any old junk to the recycle shop, and the people who work there decide if someone else might be willing to buy it. The amount of money you get in return is risibly small,
but hey, at least you're giving those unwanted possessions a chance to be re-used instead of chucking them straight in the bin. (Also, and in contrast to selling second-hand goods in the UK, you get the same amount regardless of whether it's cash or part-exchange.
If you're a buyer, on the other hand - and particularly if you are, for example, a cash-strapped ALT just off the bus from Narita Airport - recycle shops can help you furnish your one-room Leo Palace apartment with nearly new and / or barely used bargains.
So with this in mind, here's my guide to the best recycle shops in and around Mito (if you spot any mistakes or can recommend any places I've missed, feel free to leave a comment):
/ せいみや (Tokai)
The original and best recycle shop, as well as furniture and 'white goods' (ie. fridges, washing machines etc), Seimiya has separate departments for hardware, antiques, office and kitchen equipment. For a small fee - and like most if not all of the shops on this list - they are willing to deliver larger items, and for a not-so-small fee, to take away your old kitchen appliances for recycling.
A word of warning: not everything in Seimiya is second-hand, so be sure to check the price and condition before you buy - if the item is new, you may be able to find it cheaper at somewhere like Nitori
or Joyful Yamashin
Directions: Seimiya is on the east side of Route 6 as it goes through Tokai-mura (there's a map
on their website). Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seimiya: washing machine, 2 x fridge-freezers, dining table & chairs, vacuum cleaner, zaseki (座席 / those chairs-without-legs often found in Japanese living rooms).
2) Wonder Rex Naka-shi / ワンダーレックス那珂市 (Naka)
The Wonder Rex chain has a new shop in Akatsuka
, but the Naka branch is, in my humble opinion, better stocked. I've purchased pretty much every item of clothing I own there, and they also have musical instruments, electrical goods, kitchen goods, toys and sports equipment
(although Mrs M tells me the women's and children's clothes tend to be a little on the pricey side).
Directions: The Naka branch is on the south side of a road that runs between Route 349 and Route 6, and part of the San Molino / Homac shopping mall, which is easy to spot because of its large fake windmill (the official Wonder Rex homepage map is here
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Wonder Rex: t-shirts, shorts, trousers, tracksuit tops, presentation set of flower-pattern Cath Kidston coffee mugs 3)
Hard Off Mito Minami-inter / ハードオフ水戸南インター (Mito)Hard Off isn't as big as Wonder Rex, but it sells the same kind of stuff, and if anything is probably slightly cheaper.
Don't go there looking for clothes, though, as they really do look like the sort of thing you would find in a run-down branch of the Sue Ryder Shop on Chippenham High Street.
Directions: The Mito branch is near the enormous K's Denki at the Route 50 bypass / Route 6 crossroads. Head towards the expressway from the crossroads and you'll find Hard Off on the right-hand side of the road (the Hard Off homepage map is here
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Hard Off: oven, de-humidifier, chest of drawers, rucksack, baby bath, Bumbo
(Also worth checking out are the Hard Offs at Akatsuka
, and on Route 123 at Mashiko
, just over the border in Tochigi Prefecture.)4)
Book Off Route 50 bypass / ブックオフ５０号水戸元吉田 (Mito) Second-hand bookshops are all over the place in Japan, but one of the biggest chains, Book Off, has recently branched out into
selling general second-hand goods. The Mito branch specialises in menswear, although they also sell surfboards, wetsuits, golf clubs and so on, along with the usual books, CDs and DVDs.Directions: It's on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass,
where the bypass meets the road that runs directly from the south exit of Mito Station (the Book Off homepage map is here
).Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Book Off: t-shirts, polo shirts, trainers, sweaters, and, er, books
(For the more adventurous among you, there is a Book Off recycle superstore - the car park, it says on their website, has more than a thousand spaces - in Maébashi, Gunma Prefecture.)5)
Sohko-seikatsu-kan / 倉庫生活館 (Mito)There are several recycle shops catering to Ibaraki University students, and the best of them is
Sohko-seikatsu-kan. While it is part of a chain, Sohko-seikatsu-kan looks more like the kind of slightly dodgy, independent
recycle shops that bargain-hunters like - well, like me - get all worked up about, and stocks furniture, white and electrical goods, along with a smattering of other bits, bobs, odds and ends.Directions: It
's opposite a Max Valu supermarket, on a side road that runs parallel to - and south of -
Route 123 (see this map
), and not far from Ibaraki University and the Ibaraki Budokan.
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohko-seikatsu-kan: hand mixer, chest of drawers6)
Seikatsu-kohboh-kan / 生活工芸館 (Mito)
Seikatsu-kohboh-kan may be small but it has a high turnover and, more importantly, is very cheap.
Directions: It's even closer to the University than Sohko-seikatsu-kan, on the T-junction of Routes 118 and 123 (see this map
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seikatsu-kohboh-kan: fan heater, washing pole7) Sohgoh Recycle Eco /
Sohgoh Recycle Eco is housed in a disused pachinko parlour, and as well as furniture and white goods, they also sell scooters and motorcycles.Directions:
It's on the north side of Route 51 between Mito and Oh-arai (there's a map
on their website)Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohgoh Recycle Eco: gas range8)
Furugi-ya-honpo / 古着屋本舗 (Mito)
Furugi-ya-honpo deals solely in clothing, and while
a lot of the second-hand stuff is 'vintage' (ie. expensive), there's a huge amount of stock to choose from, including sale rails outside.Directions:
As per this map
, it's on the westbound / south side of the Route 50 bypass, directly opposite Yamada Denki.Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Furugi-ya-honpo:
hoodie, woolly hat, yukata9) Kanteidan / 鑑定団
(Akatsuka)Kanteidan's signage and homepage claim that you can buy and sell 'anything' there, although when Mrs M and went, pretty much the only second-hand stuff we could find was in the extensive clothing section on the top floor.
Directions: Kanteidan is on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass, between the Mito expressway interchange and the turn off for the old Route 50 at Akatsuka.Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Kanteidan: t-shirts, trainers
Yasui-ya / 安い屋 (Mito)
OK, so we're scraping the barrel a bit here, but trust me, Yasui-ya is worth visiting for sheer curiosity value. Most of the goods on display (if you can call it that - it looks more like they were dumped through the front doors off the back of a pick-up truck) have apparently lain untouched for several decades, and while the furniture in particular seems a little over-priced, I get the feeling they would be susceptible to haggling.
Directions: Yasui-ya is just off Route 118, slightly closer to the centre of Mito than Seikatsu-kohboh-kan, and on a side road that leads to the Nijuhsan-yason-keigan temple (二十三夜尊桂岸寺) (see this map
Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Yasui-ya: ceiling lamp10) Shinei / シンエーYou might not think so if you went there, but Shinei is in fact a
slightly more upmarket version of Yasui-ya.Directions: It's
on a back street near Akatsuka Station, as per this map
There are a few recycle shops in Hitachi-naka, but to be honest they're not much good (the pick of the bunch, Aru-aru, has recently been demolished), although you might want to check out the King Family clothes shop, which is here
. A recycle shop in Mito that I have yet to visit is
オーディン (Audin? Ohdin? Ordin?), which is on the old Route 50 near Kairakuen (info here).One final thing: for some reason you won't find many second-hand bicycles in recycle shops. Mountain / road / racing bikes do occasionally turn up, although like the mama-chari / shopping bikes, they tend to be over-priced.
For my bedtime book I tend to alternate between English and Japanese, although when I finished Anthony Bourdain's excellent Kitchen Confidential
the other night, there wasn't much left on our living room bookshelf that I hadn't already read. In the end I settled on Hitorizumo (One-Woman Sumo) by Momoko Sakura, which is a favourite of Mrs M's, but which to be honest didn't look like my kind of thing: as you can tell from the covers, Sakura isn't exactly Andy McNab.
I say 'covers' because like many Japanese books, Hitorizumo comes in two volumes - known as the 上 and the 下 (joh
/ literally 'up' and 'down' or 'above' and 'below') - and is an autobiographical account in manga form of Sakura's childhood. In keeping with my initial expectations, Hitorizumo starts off with a good deal of what appears at first to be inconsequential fluff involving schoolgirls talking about clothes and hairstyles. As if to emphasise this, Sakura's drawing style is simple to the point of naiveté: the backgrounds are unadorned and the characters rag doll-like, with floppy looking limbs, big round faces and black buttons for eyes. Somehow, though, the more I read, the more absorbed in the story I became, and as I realised, by emphasising the uneventfulness of her childhood, Sakura was, in her own rather subdued fashion, gradually building up to the main point of the story.The young Sakura - known to her friends as Momo-chan - secretly longs to be a manga artist / writer, but suffers from a chronic lack of motivation, not to mention being fundamentally shy and anti-social. Life - which in the small Shizuoka town where she lives is already slow enough - has a tendency to pass her by, and she is invariably happier watching TV in the lounge or drawing pictures in her bedroom than she is going out or even going to school.This isn't such a big deal when Momo-chan is at elementary school, but by the time she enters high school, her peers are putting more and more pressure on her to be sociable, and she is heaping more and more guilt on herself for failing to do so. For their high school club activity
, Momo-chan and her best friend Tama-chan choose the physics club, purely on the basis that it will give them the most leeway to skive off, and having somehow managed to obtain a ham radio licence - the only pre-requisite to joining - they stop going altogether. Being a girls' high school, the end-of-year open day is one of the few opportunities they will get to meet boys, but the prospect of mixing with so many strangers proves too terrifying for Momo-chan, who sneaks away and spends the day watching TV with her father instead.In a way that reminded me of Terry Zwigoff's wonderful film Ghost World (coincidentally adapted from a comic strip)
, Hitorizumo perfectly captures that mood of teenage inertia that anyone who grew up in a small town will recognise only too well. In one memorable sequence
, Momo-chan spends an eagerly anticipated New Year's holiday with her auntie and cousins in Tokyo, but rather than promenading along the fashionable shopping streets of Harajuku or bumping into celebrities, she instead goes to a temple - something that she would have done in Shizuoka in any case - and gets an attack of diarrhea after eating some dodgy spaghetti.Momo-chan's mother is infuriated by almost everything her daughter does - or rather, by the many things she fails to do - and spends almost the entire book telling her off. Her father, on the other hand, is the exact opposite, always taking his daughter's side in an argument and never putting any pressure on her to change her lazy ways
. The couple run a grocery store, and while Momo-chan's mother busies herself with the housework, as soon as the shop shuts, her father seems to spend the entire time in front of the TV, a plate of sushi and a glass of beer within easy reach.It looks for all the world as if Momo-chan will simply drift through life - maybe go to university, maybe get an office job, maybe get married and maybe have children - but at the last possible moment, with her mother's frustration reaching fever pitch, Momo-chan realises that if she doesn't act now, her long-held and still secret ambition will forever remain unfulfilled.In the event, her mother still isn't satisfied, as Momo-chan goes from sleeping late, neglecting her school work and staying up all night watching TV, to sleeping late, neglecting her school work and staying up all night drawing manga. Her strategy works, though, and this is the point at which the significance of all
that inertia becomes clear. In the process of submitting her work to the teen magazine Ribbon (whose website
, incidentally, is possibly the most blindingly garish I have ever seen), Momo-chan discovers that she has a unique talent for relating her childhood experiences in essays and manga, and what the reader discovers is that through all those years of apparent inactivity, she has been observing and absorbing, storing those experiences up ready for the day she will re-tell them as fiction.The happy ending to the book is that after many months of
work, Momo-chan at last has one of her pieces published in her beloved Ribbon, and the happy ending beyond the book is that Sakura went on to become one of the most successful manga artists in the country: the TV adaptation of Chibi Maruko-Chan
(which Mrs M used to read when she was still at school), is broadcast on Fuji Television in a prime-time slot every Sunday evening, alongside the national institution that is Sazaé-San
(both are light-hearted, soap opera-like dissections of Japanese family life). The great thing about Hitorizumo is that beneath its veneer
of girly cuteness lie all the turbulent emotions of adolescence, and all the triumphs and disappointments of an artist trying to find her voice. I defy anyone not to be moved by Momo-chan's disappointment when the first manga she sends to Ribbon fails to get a commendation, or by her final farewell with Tama-chan, who flies off to university in America, and I defy anyone not to cringe with recognition when she falls madly in love with a boy she never even has the courage to speak to, or when she chickens out when presented with a golden opportunity to talk to her favourite comedian (in that sense, Hitorizumo is a reassuring read for anyone who has ever felt that life has passed them by: don't worry, Sakura seems to be saying, there will be another chance).The unhappy ending to
this blog entry is that Hitorizumo is only available in Japanese
, although if anyone out there fancies giving me some cash and permission to take a few weeks' sabbatical, I'd be more than happy to start work on a translation.
In amongst many newspaper stories commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake, this one caught my eye for several reasons. Firstly, it is about one of the few people who lost their lives in Ibaraki (there were twenty-four in all - twenty-five if you include another who is still missing), and one of the few who did so as a result of the earthquake rather than the tsunami. Secondly, the events described took place in Mito, which is just down the road from where Mrs M and I now live. But thirdly, the manner of her death was bizarre to say the least...A mother's heart has not healed, but she is helped by a circle of friends and supportersDaughter died with her beloved cat - Akira Ikegami's publication is her destinyMs Seguro of Mito - 'Finally I can get back on my feet'65-year-old Yasuko Seguro runs a beauty salon in Matsumoto Town, Mito City, and lost her daughter Keiko Taguchi - a housewife, who was 37 at the time - in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Yasuko showed us a recently published book that contains Keiko's story. Keiko had a cold and was asleep on the third floor of Yasuko's house when the disaster struck, and died from cerebral contusion when her collection of books collapsed on top of her. She loved novels and manga, and more than five thousand titles were arranged on the bookshelves in her bedroom. She was staying with her parents at the time because her husband was working away from home.Yasuko found Keiko's body after pushing her way through the many books that were scattered about the room. Keiko was with her beloved cat Gato. As if the cat was protecting Keiko, it was covering her face when it too died. 'My daughter had no visible injuries,' says Yasuko. 'Gato had protected her.'When this story appeared in newspapers, a publisher made an offer to Yasuko, saying, 'We want Keiko's story to appear in Akira Ikegami's book.' Yasuko preferred to quietly lay the incident to rest, and rejected the offer.After losing Keiko, Yasuko stopped eating, and lost over ten kilogrammes. Almost every day she talked to her daughter's photograph, and while she knew there would be no reply, she even sent text messages to Keiko's mobile phone saying, 'I want to meet you, I want to meet you'. Soon afterwards, Ikegami called Yasuko directly, telling her that all proceeds from the book would go towards helping people in areas affected by the disaster.'Lots of people have had a hard time, had their houses swept away in the tsunami, had family members go missing.' Yasuko agreed to the publication, and says, 'Hopefully I can contribute something to helping the victims of the disaster.'The book, published as 'From The Great East Japan Earthquake - News To Join Our Hearts', was published at the end of June last year, with Keiko's story appearing as 'To heaven with her beloved cat'. But even now, after a year has passed, Yasuko has yet to read the book. The events of 11th March 2011 weigh heavily on her heart. Recalling Keiko, she says, 'Why couldn't I have helped you?'Meanwhile, Keiko's story has appeared in newspapers and in the book, acquaintances of Keiko have come from far and wide to meet Yasuko, neighbours have given her food, and people often pause as they pass the house to bow silently. Many people have supported Yasuko.'Even if it hadn't been for the earthquake, I wouldn't have been able to put my mind in order yet. But despite having been affected themselves, everyone has shown their support for me, even though they should have been too busy to even think of me. So now, at last, I can get back on my feet,' says Yasuko, her voice filled with tears.(From the
Tokyo Newspaper, 11/3/12. Incidentally, Akira Ikegami is probably the brainiest person in Japan, or at least the most famous brainy person in Japan, and while it hasn't yet been translated into English, you can buy his book here
It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.
We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama
in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular
), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.
I first read Catch-22 as a sixteen year old, and it tapped right in to my teenager’s sense of injustice and paranoia about pretty much everything in the entire world. A couple of my more bookish male friends read the book at around the same time, and we would often sit around discussing whatever new Catch-22-style situation we believed ourselves to be trapped in against our will.
Apart from this central theme – or perhaps running gag would be a better phrase – of the world being beyond one’s control and there being no way out of an all-encompassing Matrix of Irony, I don’t remember much about Catch-22 at all, and while I rarely if ever read a book twice, in this case, something told me that it would be worth giving this one another try, if only to remind myself of why it had such a big effect on me in the first place.
So, from a week or so before we left for Japan until a couple of weeks after we arrived, I became engrossed once more in the world of Yossarian: of his ever-increasing allocation of bombing missions, his ever decreasing circle of friends and his wildly eccentric air force colleagues and comrades.
The front cover of the Vintage paperback edition that I was reading calls it ‘one of the great novels of the century’, and I would be inclined to agree, although I have a feeling serious literary critics might look down on it as being rather cultish (instead of Pulp Fiction or Scarface, did students in the sixties have posters of Catch-22 on their dormitory walls, I wonder?). The writing style takes some getting used to, but after a while I managed to satisfy myself that Heller’s excessive use of adjectives and adverbs was a stylistic choice and not a literary shortcoming. In fact, his long, ornate and elaborate descriptions of almost every character in the book (each chapter bears the name of a character as its heading) are one of its most impressive aspects, even if they do, for some reason, leave very little impression – in the mind of this reader, at least – of the physical appearance of those characters. The other thing that made me appreciate how much craft had gone into its writing – and something that went straight over my head as a teenager – is the way in which the narrative jumps back and forth in time without making this into an overt formal device: Catch-22 may be about six hundred pages long – albeit in fairly large print – but I have a feeling it was the structure behind those pages that was one of the main reasons Heller took such a long time in writing it.
There is an introduction by Heller to the Vintage edition that talks about this process, and about the subsequent critical reception and staggering success of Catch-22 (incidentally, why the hyphen, I wonder, and not just ‘Catch 22’?), although I have to say that Heller in his non-fictional guise impressed me much less than in his fictional one. For one thing, the introduction not only manages to spoil the ending of Catch-22, but also of its sequel (Closing Time, published in 1994), which must be some kind of spoiler world record, and justifies my policy of avoiding the introductions to classic books until I have finished reading them. For another, he comes across as rather self-satisfied, in an ‘imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning to find out that I had sold three million copies of the book and was therefore fabulously wealthy!’-kind of way.
I had assumed that Heller wrote Catch-22 directly after returning from his wartime service, its absurdities gleaned from bitter personal experience and transcribed straight from his diaries in an heroic effort to purge himself of post traumatic stress (cf. Primo Levi’s masterful autobiography of the holocaust, If This Is A Man), but Catch-22 was in fact written from the mid-fifties onwards, while Heller was working as an ad man in New York.
Still, much of the writing is so vivid that it can only have been drawn from reality – the description of a mid-air collision that causes a plane to crash into the sea, for example, or of exactly how claustrophobic and terrifying it feels to be cooped up in the back end of a plane that is flying through a storm of enemy flak – and however comfortable Heller’s post-war life became, however little he conforms to my romantic image of the suffering artist, fighting in a war is not something I ever wish to experience first-hand.
Oddly enough, reading the book made me want to see the Mike Nichols film again: a film that I watched just once about twenty years ago and that is by no means regarded as a classic (something tells me that Orson Welles puts in a cameo appearance, although my memory for movie trivia could be deceiving me), but which, looking back on it, contained some very powerful images, not least that of poor Kid Sampson’s top half being vapourised by the propellers of a small plane.
As with almost everything in the book – apart from one particularly bleak and depressing passage towards the end in which Yossarian goes AWOL in Rome – even Kid Sampson’s death is ultimately played for laughs (because he was on the passenger list of the plane in question, which is subsequently flown into the side of a mountain, Doc Daneeka is deemed to have been lost in action, even though he is perfectly fine and walking around the air base as normal), and it is this blackest of black comedy that is the book’s finest achievement, and what makes Heller’s central premise – not so much that war is a futile undertaking as that it is an absurd one – so powerful. Another device that Heller uses here is repetition, so a typical exchange might go something like this:
‘There’s a dead man in my tent,’ said Yossarian.
‘There’s a dead man in your tent?’ replied Dunbar.
‘There’s a dead man in my tent.’
‘But if there’s a dead man in your tent, why haven’t they taken him away?’
‘They can’t take him away because he’s not there.’
‘I thought you said there was a dead man in your tent?’
‘Oh no, his plane was shot down before he moved in.’
‘But if the dead man in your tent has never been in your tent, what’s the problem?’
‘He was in my tent once. He just left his things.’
‘If he just left his things, why don’t you throw them out?’
‘Because he never officially joined the squadron. I can’t throw out his things because if I did then the air force would have to acknowledge that he existed, and they don’t want me to do that because up till now he didn’t. The paperwork would be a nightmare.’
And so on and so forth.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this could come across as a sub-standard comedy routine or a ruse to fill out the book’s word count, but here it is used ingeniously, and no matter how many variations on the Catch-22 theme the narrative throws up, they always manage to torture Yossarian and his more self-aware friends in new and ingenious ways: Major Major Major Major’s decision to only accept visitors to his office when he is not there; the patient who is admitted to hospital encased from head to toe in plaster, and who is drip-fed the same liquid that emerges from his catheter in a continual recycling process; the Chaplain whose sociopathic assistant is constantly trying to undermine him and doesn’t even believe in God; Milo Minderbinder’s contrivance to bomb his own air base for economic reasons. The brilliant thing about all of this is that with one or two exceptions (some of Milo’s followers getting trampled to death as he parades through one of the many towns where he has been voted in as mayor; Nately’s girlfriend managing, like Jaws in the Bond films, to come back from the dead again and again), Heller keeps matters just the right side of credible, so that despite all of the absurdity, one imagines that most of the events depicted really could have taken place – hence my original belief that Catch-22 was, as the saying goes, based on a true story.
The distorted lens through which Yossarian views the world is so expertly conceived that once you are caught up in his story, you start to see the real world in the same way, and like chaos theory or the golden ratio, its patterns begin to crop up all over the place. So for now – or at least until I decide to re-read The Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – I shall be lying awake at night trying to stop myself from believing that Japan is in fact a Matrix of Irony in which I am trapped against my will.
Back in 2004 when I was working for a conversation school in Tokyo,
a student of mine had an important business meeting coming up with some foreign clients, and signed up for extra lessons so that he might better understand what was going on without having to be completely reliant on an interpreter. The meeting went well, and by way of thanks, he presented myself and another teacher at the school with gifts. Mine was a book called My Encounters With Alaska (「僕の出会ったアラスカ」) by Michio Hoshino (星野道夫), although it took me another six years of studying Japanese to be able to read it.Fortunately, it's a book with plenty of pictures, as Hoshino was a photographer who lived in Alaska for many years, before his untimely demise in 1996 at the hands (or rather, at the paws) of a brown bear, while on an assignment for Japanese TV
in Siberia .Perhaps because in some small way it reminded me of my own experiences of living abroad, I found the first chapter of Hoshino's book
particularly moving, and decided to have a go at translating it into English. Having done so, I now realise how little of it I understood on first reading, so if you have any suggestions for improvements or spot any errors in the translation, feel free to let me know (although this is all on a strictly unofficial basis, as I don't have any kind of permission to reproduce the text!).(Hoshino's homepage, incidentally, can be found here.)
A picture of Shishmaref Village
There was a phone call from Don Ross, the bush pilot.
‘A cameraman from the National Geographic magazine is on his way here. Apparently he's going to photograph the Caribou migration in the Arctic Circle, so there are a few things he wants to ask you about. Do you think you could go to the hotel for me…? His name is George Mobley.’
The National Geographic deals with nature, geography, indigenous people and history, and it’s the most influential magazine in America. It’s probably the place where photographers want to get published more than any other.
So, a staff photographer from the National Geographic. I bet he’s been all over the world… As I was thinking about this on my way to the hotel downtown, suddenly the name George Mobley began to ring a bell in my mind. Surely not…but it was definitely the same name.
I did a u-turn, went back to my house and took a photography book off the shelf. It didn’t take long to find the page. Next to a photograph that brought back so many memories was written the name ‘George Mobley’. Fancy meeting him in a situation like this…
When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the nature of Hokkaido, and at the time there were various different books that influenced me. I longed to head north, and before I knew it my thoughts had turned to to Alaska. But I had no clue of the reality - it was only a feeling that grew inside me. More than twenty years ago, there were hardly any books about Alaska in Japan.
One day in the second-hand book district of Kanda, Tokyo, at a shop that specialised in books from the West, I found a photography book about Alaska. On a shelf among many such books, why was my gaze drawn to that one in particular, I wonder? It was as if the book right in front of my eyes was the one that had been waiting for me, and from then on, whether I was on my way to school or going out, that photography book was always in my bag. I read it so much there were finger marks all over it, although in my case, all I did was look at the photographs.
In the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about one page in particular. It was a photograph taken from the air of an Eskimo village in the Arctic Circle. The grey Bering Sea, the leaden skies, the sun shining through a break in the clouds as if through a bamboo screen, the Eskimo settlement like an isolated dot… At first I suppose I was fascinated by the mysterious light in that photograph. Then I gradually started to become interested in the village itself.
Why did people have to live in a place like that, I wondered, at the end of the Earth? The scenery really was desolate. There were no people in the photograph, but you just about make out the shape of what looked like houses. What kind of people could they be, and what were they thinking as they lived there?
A long time ago, while I was absentmindedly gazing out of a train window at a town in the twilight, through the window of a house, I suddenly caught sight of a family sitting around the dinner table. I carried on looking until the light from the window had passed. Then an overpowering feeling welled up inside me. What could that feeling have been? Perhaps that group of strangers was conveying to me the mystery of a life I knew nothing about. Because we were living our lives in the same time and place, there was a sadness about the fact that I would never meet them.
It was a similar feeling to the one I had looking at the photograph of the Eskimo settlement. Somehow or other I wanted to meet those people.
In the caption beneath the photograph was the name of the village. Shishmaref… I decided to write a letter to the village. But who should I address it to? In the dictionary, I found the English word for ‘head of the village’. For an address, all I could do was write Shishmaref, Alaska, America.
‘I saw a photograph of your village in a book. I would like to come and visit. I wonder if there is someone there who will look after me…’
Of course, there was no reply. With no name and no address, how would anyone know who to deliver it to? And even if it had been delivered, there was no reason for someone I had never even met to offer to look after me. I forgot that I had even sent the letter. Then, when more than six months had passed, I got home from school one day to find a letter delivered from abroad. It was from a family in Shishmaref.
‘…We received your letter. I talked to my wife about you coming to our house…summer is the reindeer hunting season. We need a helping hand. …come any time…’
After six more months of preparation, I set off for Alaska. I flew in several small planes and saw animal colonies floating on the ice in the Baring Sea, before the photograph from the book that I had looked at for so long began to overlap with reality, and I pressed my face to the window.
Spending those three months in the village was an intense experience. It was the first time I had seen bears, seal hunting and reindeer hunting, and Arctic nights when the sun never set. Now I was standing in the village from the aerial photograph. I met many people in the course of the trip, and I was fascinated by the variety of ways in which we can live. That summer I was nineteen years old.
After that, I chose to become a photographer, and fulfilled many of my dreams. Then, for the first time in seven years, I went back to Alaska. This time wasn’t to be a short holiday. Three years…no, maybe it would be five years, I thought. The time began to fly by so quickly.
I walked the untrodden peaks and valleys of the Brooks mountain range that traverses Alaska. While kayaking in Glacier Bay, I heard the creaking sound a glacier makes as it moves. I rowed with the Eskimo in their umiak boats as they followed the Pacific whale in the Arctic Circle. I was fascinated by the migration of the caribou, and the trip continued. I recorded the lives of bears through the course of an entire year. I looked up to see the aurora borealis countless times. I encountered wolves. I learned about the lifestyles of many different people… Before I knew it, fourteen years had passed. I had built a house and put down roots in this place.
If that book hadn’t found its way into my hands in the second-hand bookshop in Kanda, I may never have come to Alaska. No, that’s a crazy thought. But if our lives progress through a series of moments, like looking at one's own reflection in a bell that rings, then life is a limitless series of coincidences.
But of course, I really did look at that photograph, and I really did go to a village called Shishmaref. From then on, as if a new map had been drawn, this different life became a reality. And the person who took that photograph was George Mobley.
I arrived at the hotel, found the room and knocked on the door. Without knowing what I had been thinking about as I made my way there, George smiled through his grey whiskers as he met me.
After a while, when we had talked about the caribou migration, I took out the old photography book and began to tell him the story I have just recounted here. George looked intently at me and leaned in close to hear what I was saying, which made me feel at ease.
‘Well, well… So my photograph changed your life…’
‘Oh no, it wasn’t quite like that, but…it gave me a great opportunity.’
‘So, do you have any regrets?’
Deep in the eyes of this wise old man, I could see that he was smiling kindly.
Life is full of tricks and mechanisms. In our day-to-day lives, despite crossing the paths of countless different people, most of us never even exchange glances. That fundamental sadness, put another way, is the endless mystery of how people come to encounter each other.And this is the chapter in the original Japanese:
ナ ショナル・ジオグラフィックマガジンは、自然、地理、民族、歴史を扱う、アメリカで最も権威のある雑誌である。カメラマンなら、誰もが憧れる雑誌かもし れない。そこのスタッフ・フォトグラファーか。きっと、世界を駆け回っているんだろうな……そんなことを考えながら、車でダウンタウンのホテルへ向かう途 中、ジョージ・モーブリイという名前が、突然、記憶の鐘を小さくたたき始めた。まさか……でも、たしかにそんな名前だった。
十 代の頃、北海道の自然に強く魅かれていた。その当時読んださまざまな本の影響があったのだろう。北方への憧れは、いつしか遠いアラスカへと移っていた。 だが、現実には何の手がかりもなく、気持ちがつのるだけであった。二十年以上も前、アラスカに関する本など日本では皆無だったのだ。
ある 日、東京、神田の古本屋街の洋書専門店で、一冊のアラスカの写真集を見つけた。たくさんの洋書が並ぶ棚で、どうしてその本に目が止められたのだろう。 まるでぼくがやってくるのを待っていたかのように、目の前にあったのである。それからは、学校へ行く時も、どこへ出かける時も、カバンの中にその写真集が 入っていた。手垢にまみえるほど本を読むとはああいうことをいうのだろう。もっともぼくの場合は、ひたすら写真を見ていただけなのだが。
そ の中に、どうしても気になるたび、どうしてもそのページを聞かないと気がすまないのだ。それは、北極圏のあるエスキモーの村を空から撮った写真だった。 灰色のベーリング海、どんよりと沈む空、雲間からすだれのように射し込む太陽、ポツンと点のようにたたずむエスキモーの集落……はじめは、その写真のもつ 光の不思議さにひきつけられたのだろう。そのうちに、ぼくはだんだんその村が気にかかり始めていった。
昔、 電車から夕暮れの町をぼんやり眺めているとき、聞けなたれた家の窓から、夕食の時間なのか、ふっと家族の団欒が目に入ることがあった。そんなとき、窓 の明かりが過ぎ去ってゆくまで見つめたものだった。そして胸が締めつけられるような思いがこみ上げてくるのである。あれはいったい何だったのだろう。見知 らぬ人々が、ぼくの知らない人生を送っている不思議さだったのかもしれない。同じ時代を生きながら、その人々と決して出会えない悲しさだったのかもしれな い。
返 事は来なかった。当然だった。名も住所も不確かなのだから。たとえ届いたとしても、会ったこともない人間を世話してくれる者 などいるはずがない。ぼくは、手紙を出したことも忘れていった。どころが、半年もたったある日、学校から帰ると、一通の外国郵便が届いていた。シシュマレ フ村のある家族からの手紙だった。
この村で過ごした三ヶ月は、強烈な体験としてぼくの中に沈殿していった。はじめてのクマ、アザラシ猟、トナカイ狩り、太陽が沈まぬ白夜、さまざまな村人と の出会い……そして、空撮の写真から見おろしていた村に、今自分が立っていること。この旅を通し、ぼくは、人の暮らしの多様性に魅かれていった。十九歳の 夏だった。
アラスカ山脈を横切るブルックス山脈の、未踏の山や谷を歩いた。グレイシャーベイをカヤックで旅しながら、氷河のきしむ音を聞 いた。エスキモーの人々とウ ミアックを漕ぎ、北極海にセミクジラを追った。カリブーの季節移動に魅かれ、その旅を追い続けた。クマの一年の生活を記録した。数えきれないほどのオーロ ラを見上げた。オオカミに出合った。さまざまな人の暮らしを知った……いつのまにか十四年が過ぎていた。それどころか、ぼくは家を建て、この土地に根おろ そうとしている。