"Emperor"

February 28, 2019

 

   The building was so close to the Dotonburi Canal, that from the top floor we could look almost straight down on the foot traffic on the Ebisu Bridge. Hundreds of people hurried in both directions on the eve of the three-day New Year’s national holiday. They looked like clumps of sand rushing toward the bottleneck of a huge hourglass.

     “So we can make things happen just by thinking them?” I asked skeptically. My friend Rich was lecturing me on metaphysics over a tandoori grill at one of Osaka’s popular Indian restaurants.

    “That’s what I’m saying. The world is basically plastic to our thoughts.” Rich came to Japan to study martial arts twenty years ago. He now runs a cram school, where Japanese high school students come to learn English conversation after their regular school. He is an avid student himself—of Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony. “The entire outer world is submissive to your mind. Your body, your home, the winds and the rain, even the earth itself. When you know this fully, you gain mastery over all of these things.”

    “That’s hard to see,” I said, “to put it mildly.”

    “Doesn’t matter. It’s true, whether you believe it or not. But you’re not alone. Most people don’t know any of this.”

    “I’m relieved. I say, stay with the herd. Especially when they’re totally clueless.”

     He laughed. “Suit yourself. But imagine what happens when you have thousands, or millions, of people thinking the same way.” He took a sip of iced tea. “Take war. It’s just the out-picturing of massive amounts of fear and anger in the subconscious of a tribe or a nation. When it boils over into the material world, you get, you know, a Verdun or a Stalingrad.”

    “Yeah, I can sort of understand that,” I said. “So maybe I can summon a nice ten-thousand yen note to cover the check just by using my mind.”

    “You could. But you’d probably need to meditate for seven or eight years first,” he replied smiling.

    Eventually we split the check and headed for our commuter trains.

    Right after the New Year break, I took a short trip with two Japanese colleagues to our agency’s office in Brussels. One of our global electronics clients wanted to enter the European market with a new computing product. I directed our team there to develop an ad campaign to support the launch. Our work went well and I knew my boss would be pleased. My Japanese co-workers flew back on Japan Airlines. I stayed an extra day to tour Waterloo and flew back to Japan by myself on Lufthansa.

    My flight was strange from the start. I sat in an aisle seat near the rear of the business class. After drinks and dinner, the lights turned low and people reached for blankets and pillows. As I put my head back to relax, I saw from the corner of my eye a small man crawling out from under the curtain separating us from the coach section and come to rest right below the feet of the passenger in the aisle seat of the last row. The man in the seat was a Japanese businessman with his shoes off. He had to lift his feet out of the way of the intruder, now curled up asleep in front of him. This went on for several ludicrous minutes, until the flight attendant came back to rouse the obviously drunken man and guide him back through the curtain to his assigned seat.

     We flew over the Arctic Ocean and made a short stop in Anchorage. I got off the plane and looked out the big terminal window. The massive peaks of the Chugash range, spread across the horizon, were smoldering with ice and snow in the wind. I bought a soft drink and a New York Times at the newsstand and re-boarded the plane.

    Back in my seat, I took out the newspaper. The front-page headline read:

 

                  Hirohito, 124th Emperor of Japan, Is Dead at 87

 

I read the article, which linked to photos and coverage on the back page. The passenger seated directly across from me, an older Japanese man, woke from a nap and slowly looked over at my paper. Suddenly and very swiftly, he lunged across the aisle, and with a surprisingly powerful motion, tore the newspaper from my hands. Stunned more than actually angered, I sat back and watched him slowly read the front page. He sat motionless for several moments, and then he began to weep profoundly. Trying to respect his sudden grief, I took out a book I had brought. From time to time I glanced over at him. He sat very quietly with my newspaper crumpled in his hands resting in his lap, with a sorrow that seemed to compress his whole body. I turned back to my book and eventually rested my eyes. After a while, I fell asleep myself. 

     The next day back at the agency was understandably subdued. I went through my mail and a stack of memos. Following the Japanese custom of bringing gifts back from a trip, I distributed small samplers of Belgian chocolate to my team. I also presented a bottle of Mandarine Napoleon, a Belgian liqueur made from tangerines and cognac, recommended by the hotel concierge, to our Group Creative Director.

     By the end of the week, we were all back to full speed at work. The lethargy of the long New Year holiday, prolonged by the days following the passing of the emperor, fell away. The days went by, cold but always sunny. In my experience, it never rains in Japan in the winter months.

     Some days later, as I walked past the desk of one of my colleagues, I was stopped short by a photo in the Japanese-language newspaper he was reading. It showed a Japanese salaryman in a business suit jumping out of an upper window of a high office building. The photo must have been taken with a telephoto lens, because you could see the man’s face, rigid and resolute, as he began to fall to his death. I asked my colleague, Mr. Hasegawa, who was our international department translator, to explain the story behind the photo. I wondered, I said to him, if it was tied to the emperor’s death.

     “It says this man committed suicide because he could not get along with his co-workers,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not about our emperor.”

     In an impulsive lapse of manners, I bluntly replied, “Well, Hasegawa-san, if I didn’t get along with someone in our office here, it wouldn’t be me going out the window.”

     Mr. Hasegawa, momentarily taken aback, responded with an embarrassed laugh, and then said energetically, “Ah, yes, different culture, different culture!” We both laughed as I nodded in contrite agreement.

     On February twenty-fourth, the emperor’s funeral was held in Tokyo. By Buddhist tradition, forty-nine days had passed since his death. It was a national day of mourning, so I spent much of the day at home in Ashiya City, in suburban Kobe. I watched the ceremonial events broadcast nationally on NHK, following the commentary as best I could and remembering what I knew about the man who was once considered a living god by his subjects. His sixty-three-year reign had seen his nation transformed from the remnants of a feudal society to an industrialized world power. It had witnessed a descent into totalitarianism and near annihilation in the Pacific War. Finally, it had experienced an astonishing rebirth to even greater power and prosperity in the following decades.

    I wondered who he truly had been. Some pictures show him as a military dictator, mounted on a regal horse, inspecting troops of the Japanese Imperial Army. In other photos, he appears as a small, shy man who quietly, but passionately engaged in a lifelong study of marine biology. From the date of his death, he became formally designated the Showa Emperor. Showa translated means “Radiant Peace”—for what that is worth.

    I will always remember that day, not because of the events, but because of the weather. It rained in Tokyo all day. The rain was heavy. From time to time, live feeds from other locations throughout Japan were broadcast. It rained everywhere. Rain poured down all over the Japanese archipelago. It showered the wild cherry trees, soon to burst with blossoms, in rural Yoshino. Rain came down all day long on the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. And everywhere it fell, groups of mourners huddled under the roofs of temples and train stations and noodle shops, in solemn silence, in tears. When I walked to the station next morning, the pine trees in the park along my street were still damp from the downpour.


 

J. Wade Cook is a certified alpine ski instructor at Mount Sunapee Resort, Vail Resorts. Born in Miami, Florida, he graduated from Dartmouth College, earned a Master of International Business Studies from the University of South Carolina and studied Japanese at Waseda University, Tokyo. He was previously marketing communications manager at Texas Instruments and creative supervisor at Dentsu Incorporated. He writes both fiction and poetry. His work has been published in The Louisville Review, Indiana Review and Descant. He lives in Newbury, New Hampshire.

 

 

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