Our school was located on the shore of Oike Pond, which, fed by mountain springs, was a wonderful spot for fishing and for swimming - my special interest. The faculty of the school consisted of the principal and one assistant teacher. The assistant taught one class, in which the first, second, and third grades were combined. The principal taught the other class, consisting of the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.
I was tall, even as a small child. When I entered the first grade of primary school, I was already taller than all the second-grade pupils. I always stood in the back row when we lined up, but I was the leader in many activities. For example, I was always first in wrestling and races. Gradually, I came to be the class big shot. At first, I was only a little better than average in my studies, but I steadily improved; and by the fourth grade I was number two in the class.
Number one was my good friend Sotaro Takahashi, who came from the village of Oike. His family placed a great deal of emphasis on study, and his two older brothers before him had been scholastically on top and the leaders of their classes. My family was devoted solely to farming. The minute we children came home from school we had either to look after the younger children or to work in the fields, and we thought that was perfectly natural and never dreamed of studying at home. It seemed right that Sotaro should be better at schoolwork than I. We were good friends, and I entertained not the slightest wish to compete with him for first place.
Ever since the fourth grade, Sotaro had been class leader; then in the second term of the sixth grade, the class did a strange thing and elected me in his place. Sotaro was a small, quiet boy. I suspect the other members of the class hoped it would be fun to see what a high-powered brat like me would do as class leader.
I was confused, but matters were much worse with Sotaro. His whole family was upset. All the other boys in the family had been class leaders. Sotaro's fall from the top position caused a storm in his household. The entire responsibility fell on him. Despondent over his predicament, Sotaro became what today is called neurotic. I felt sorry and worried about my best friend. There was nothing I could do about the second term of that year. I served out my period as class leader. But at the beginning of the third term, I threatened each member of the class: "If you elect me class leader again, you may regret it."
In this way, we put things back on the old footing. Sotaro was class leader, and I was number-two man. The experience I had of watching the effect of family pressure on Sotaro has stood me in good stead with my own children. I have never forced them to strive for better grades than they can achieve through conscientious effort and have always been upset to hear of other people's punishing their children for the sake of school performance.
Later Sotaro was adopted by the Konishi family, who owned a lumber company. He inherited the business and - under his own name, the Takahashi Lumber Company - made it prosper. After World War II, educational reforms called for the establishment of a system of six years in primary school, three years in middle school, and three years in high school. At that time, a middle school was built next to the old Oike primary school. Sotaro's company handled the contract and provided the lumber. I made a contribution, too, but I have heard that out of his own funds Sotaro made up the money that was lacking to complete the building. Until his death, in 1975, he was a dedicated member of the Echigo Kawaguchi Chapter of the Niigata Church of Rissho Kosei-kai.
As I have said, I was a high-powered brat; but I had very few fights. I was on good terms with all my classmates. And the only time fighting was called for was when I wanted to use my superior strength to prevent a young child's being bullied by an older one. I never hesitated in such instances, and on several occasions I was made to stand in the corner as punishment for fights of this kind. But we children always made up quickly after our squabbles. None of us held grudges. At this point, I should pause to mention the two fights I have had since reaching adulthood. Neither was glorious.
Once when I was operating a pickles dealership, the wagon I was pulling through a street in the Nakano district of Tokyo collided with a night-soil wagon. The puller of that wagon charged into me, and I downed him at once with a judo osoto-gari technique.
The second fight occurred under more complicated circumstances. When I was in naval training in Maizuru in 1927, there were several judo experts in our class. Two of them, Shiro Abe and Shimazo Ito, were to become east-west fleet champions. Later, Abe and I were assigned to the same battleship, the Nagato. I was on the judo team, too, and whenever we were in port we would go to the local judo hall for training. Once when we were at Kure, four of us decided to get in some judo work. Abe and I from the Nagato and Shimazo Ito and one other man from another ship went ashore and traveled to the local training hall.
It turned out that Abe, who was a poor drinker, had been hitting the bottle that day. The minute we walked into the Kure training hall, he shouted, "What do you call that? Not a one of you knows anything about judo!"
In the hall at the time, about twenty men were seriously engaged in training. They did not respond well to Abe's remark. We were just four sailors in uniform. Among the twenty men in the room were a number of petty officers; and as might be expected, Abe's loud jeer rubbed them the wrong way. With shouts and threats, they charged us. But we were too much for them. Before long, the four of us had downed them to a man. Deciding that we had better not hang around long, we made tracks for the ships.
When we got there, Abe and I learned that word of the incident had preceded us. The senior petty officer called us to his cabin and raked us over the coals. We had been in the wrong, certainly. And, to make things worse, we had laid hands on our superiors. We were beginning to be very worried when, after he had said his fill, the senior petty officer told us to get out and go to bed.
It was with a deep sense of relief that I crawled into my hammock, only to be startled shortly thereafter by the senior petty officer, standing at my elbow with a bottle of sake. "Drink it," he said and left. I rushed to Abe's hammock to see if anything similar had happened to him. He had a bottle too. We woke up all the other men in the cabin and had a party. I am not exactly proud of this story; but I must say that I recall the fight with a certain feeling of exhilaration and satisfaction, maybe because everything worked out all right in the end.
I always considered it part of daily life to look after younger children and to fight for them against older bullies if necessary. I often had to baby-sit with my younger brothers and sister. When farm work was heavy, in the summer, we had either to look after the small ones or to work in the fields. Working in the fields meant that we could not go to school at all. I was not an especially studious boy, but I genuinely disliked missing classes. I usually volunteered to look after the babies because I could strap them on my back and take them to school with me. In general, this system worked well. I did not mind wiping their noses, helping them in the toilet, or cleaning their bottoms when it had to be done. There was only one part of the duty that got me down. When the babies would start crying and no amount of coddling or tickling would make them stop, I felt like bursting into tears myself.
My experience with my little brothers and sister made me less susceptible to the repugnance most people feel about excrement. I recall, for instance, something that happened when I was in the first grade. One of our classmates dirtied his pants. The other children began to titter and whisper among themselves: "Something smells bad." The guilty boy stood in an awkward way and started sniveling. The teacher was not in the classroom at the time. All the others began to roar with laughter and to tease the boy, who was by then on the verge of a flood of tears. At that point, I went to the boy, pulled down his pants, and cleaned him thoroughly.
One year an epidemic of typhus struck our village. One house after another was affected. In those days, rural people knew very little about hygiene. Even after the patient had been removed to the nearby emergency hospital, the villagers would not go near the infected house. If they had to pass it, they would run, in spite of the health authorities' insistence that it was perfectly safe.
The typhus in that particular year infected someone in the house of a schoolmate, Sokichi Ikeda. The person soon recovered, and the authorities gave the whole house a clean bill of health. One evening it turned out that the next day was the Ikeda family's turn to make a track to school by getting up early, putting on snowshoes, and walking back and forth to pack down the snow that had fallen the night before. But no one had told them of their responsibility, and no one would go to the house, out of fear of contagion. All the people I knew said how bold I was to go to the Ikeda house to carry the word. I thought they were silly for talking that way. After all, the patient had recovered; and the house was declared safe.
Our first-grade teacher, Miss Jitsu Ota, was a tall, bright-eyed beauty who wore her hair in a Western style and was the subject of the love poems of all the boys in the village. She had studied very hard to become an assistant teacher and was so attractive and kind that we all considered it a great joy to be her pupils.
By the time I was in the upper classes, Miss Ota had moved to my mother's village; and little Miss Shige Onozuka had taken her place in the first, second, and third grades. I did not have her for a teacher but I enjoyed joking with her because she would joke back. Though not as beautiful as Miss Ota, she was very charming and kind. I teased her for being small, and she teased me for being tall. When I was in the sixth grade, she taught the first three grades during regular school hours and instructed the upper-grade girls in sewing until evening.
As the oldest group in school, we sixth-graders were responsible for locking up the building. Usually, however, I closed only the transom over the sewing-room door and left the rest to the girls. One day, after I put away the hooked pole used to lock the transom, I noticed that Miss Onozuka had gotten out of her seat for a moment to explain something to someone. Without her seeing it, I slipped a pincushion into the seat of her chair and quickly stepped out of the room. I heard her shout of pain as she sat down. And then the thrilling chase began. Miss Onozuka and all the girls in the class, armed with brooms and yardsticks, came dashing out after me. It was wonderful.
One day after I had finished school and Miss Onozuka had moved to Tokamachi, some friends and I were carrying firewood to sell in her town. By then a young man, I was engaging in the sole occupation that was a source of additional cash income for us. Whenever it was necessary to pay taxes or whenever I wanted to buy a book that I thought I must have, we went to the mountains, gathered firewood, and took it to Tokamachi to sell.
On this occasion, as we set our loads down at the edge of town, Miss Onozuka approached. "Well, it has been a long time, hasn't it? You certainly have grown."
Bashful and awkward, I scratched my head and bowed. She asked if I would sell her my load of wood. When I said yes, she requested that I carry it to her house for her. She started ahead of me, and I followed.
I was at the age when a young man begins to be self-conscious and aware of women. It made me shy to walk with her. Besides, I was afraid that she would start talking about the times I had teased and kidded her in school. All the long way to her house, which was located on the opposite side of town, I felt uneasy. But when we reached her house, she kindly invited me in. Seating me beside the hearth, she offered me tea and cakes and talked about our days together at school. "I suppose I remember you best because you were mischievous. A teacher always remembers the mischievous ones." She laughed, putting me at ease. After an enjoyable chat, I finished my tea and cakes, accepted the money for the firewood, and went home.
Twelve or thirteen years ago, after a lecture in my home village, I heard that an elderly lady named Shige Onozuka had come with another lady, named Yone Shigeno, and had asked to see me. Realizing that this must be our teacher and suspecting that she might have something important on her mind, I searched throughout the meeting room but without success. She had already gone. Later, I had people check and found out that she had been married, that her name was now Ishiguro, and that she was living in good health in the city of Niigata. Some time later she came to help me celebrate my sixtieth birthday. I met her two times after that. She always had something cheerful and bright to say: "You were so tall that I had to look up to you when you were a fifth-grader." I had hoped to see her again; but, sadly, on May 12, 1976, while the Japanese-language edition of this book was in proof, she died.
The third of the three teachers I want to mention is Denkichi Daikai, a warm, kind man and the principal of our school for twenty years. I tried to abide by everything he said and especially remember two of his admonitions: be kind to people; worship the gods and the buddhas. I took what he said about kindness a little too far in my eagerness to follow his advice, since I would go around constantly wondering if any one of my friends had not hurt himself, lost a book, or fallen into a stream so that I could show kindness in helping the person in trouble.
From the first time I heard it, I carried out his injunction to worship the gods and the buddhas. My family were members of the Soto Zen sect. Both my grandfather and my parents, who were pious, conducted devotionals morning and evening. Though we belonged to a Buddhist sect, we had - as do a great many Japanese families - a small Shinto shrine in the house.
After hearing the principal urge us to worship, for a while my brothers and sister bowed before the Shinto shrine and rang the bell of the Buddhist altar regularly, but they soon tired and gave it up. I was the only one who continued. Even when the others were dashing for school in the morning and it looked as if I might be late, I did not skip devotionals. If I had, I would have been uneasy the whole day.
People used to say that I was odd because I always bowed when passing Suwa Shrine (a tutelary shrine along our road to school) and the statues of Jizo (the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha) and of the Koyasu Kannon (the painless-birth Kannon). At one place, our path was dangerous because it passed between a steep cliff and a deep cleft. In the spring, snowslides occurred at this point. For the sake of protection, the name of the buddha Dainichi Nyorai (the Tathagata Mahavairocana) had been carved on a natural stone there. I bowed reverently to that too in passing. As I reflect now, I see that these formal acts of reverence, even in childhood, helped stimulate natural reliance on the absolute that controls all human life and the force that seeks to guide human beings in the right way. In providing me with two important guides--kindness to others and reverence for the gods and buddhas--the simple country-school principal became my lifelong benefactor. The things he taught me continue to direct my daily life today.
No one in the world seems as interested in love affairs as journalists. Whenever I am interviewed by the press, someone invariably asks whether I had a childhood sweetheart in my village. I was no saint as a boy; but disappointingly for the journalists, I had nothing that could be called a love affair. Recently, however, something interesting turned up in connection with me and Yone Shigeno, whom I mentioned earlier.
She was a close relative and, until her marriage, was a Niwano. The same age as I, she was a clever girl with more spirit than many boys. From early childhood, we played together. Good at everything, she always gave me stiff competition in games. After finishing school she went to work in a weaving shop in the nearby city. When she returned to the village, she was a full-grown, attractive young lady. I took her with me to festivals and Bon festival dances. As usual, we were on the best terms; but we were relatives. I regarded her as a sister.
A few years ago, a reporter went to our village to gather information about me. He met Mrs. Shigeno and came back with this story. Once when Yone was a little girl, my grandfather, who was, as I have said, an amusing and interesting man, jokingly remarked to her. "You're tall. Just right for our Shika. How about marrying him?" She snapped back at my grandfather: "What do you mean. I don't like him!" Yone told the reporter that, at the time, she was secretly fond of me but that she was too embarrassed to come out in front of a group of people and say she would marry me. The journalist reported all this triumphantly, but I could not repress a laugh. Though I am afraid it will not satisfy the romantic, this is the tale of my first love.
Almost all my memories of childhood are pleasant. In early April, the snow that had covered the mountains and the fields throughout the winter began to melt. Here and there, the white blanket on the rice paddies broke. Rivulets appeared; and along embankments, purple willows put forth silvery buds. As wild parsley and chives sent out fresh greenery, the dark earth began to appear in places where sunlight was strongest and lasted longest. All winter the hard icy sheet on all the roads seemed permanently impermeable. In early April, we would make cuts in it; and within a week, the sun above and ground heat below would have removed it entirely.
By late April, the only snow that remained would be in the valleys and on shady parts of the slopes. The trees shot forth green buds, and a variety of bracken and wild herbs pushed through the earth crust. For country families in Japan, these herbs, eaten with soy sauce or with a delicious paste of soy sauce, sugar, and ground sesame seeds, are great delicacies looked forward to eagerly each spring. In bamboo groves, shoots rose slowly from the ground. For my brothers, sister, and me, going to the woods to gather baskets of these delicious shoots was work made fun.
Seed rice was planted in seedbeds in the beginning of May; and in the middle of June, each household entered the period of frantic activity and hard work associated with transplanting the seedlings to the paddies. At those times, all hands were needed. Children were given time off from school to help by pulling up seedlings and carrying them in baskets to the fields for planting. At eleven or twelve, I already considered such childish tasks beneath me and helped the neighbors level the paddies. A horse was used in this work. Since the job was not usually entrusted to children of less than fifteen or sixteen, I was very proud to be allowed to lead the horse around by the bridle.
We kept horses and cows on our farm. This meant that every morning we children had to cut fodder. In addition, my mother raised silkworms and eagerly awaited our return from school so that we could gather mulberry leaves to feed them. None of us considered our chores unpleasant or trying. They were no more than we expected to have to do. Besides, the work was light and fun; and I suspect it helped me to grow into a large, strong man.
Transplanting the rice seedlings was to an extent a community undertaking. Families that finished early went to help families who were running a little behind. Households who knew beforehand that they were short of labor would discuss the matter together and work out a mutual-assistance schedule. The work was hard, but when it ended there was a festival to celebrate. At that time, the farm families served all the delicious things that ordinarily were not part of our diet: lentil dumplings, broiled sardines and herring, and rice cookies and sweet beans cooked in leaves. We children played while we ate.
Of course, the harvest festivities in the autumn were even more elaborate. But winter, too, had many things to offer. We played on homemade skis and sleds. Sometimes we sat indoors around the warm glow of the hearth and listened to fairy stories. We toasted and ate glutinous rice cakes and amused ourselves as brothers and sisters will. The winters were long, but we were never bored. One of the pastimes that I remember with special fondness was the building of snow houses. Packing down snow firmly as we worked, we made a large, domed mound. Then we hollowed it out from the bottom of one side to make a cave about four meters wide. Our snow houses were so strong that several people could climb on top without crushing them. From the outside, they looked like small castles. We spread straw mats on the floors inside to make a sitting room. From home we brought bean husks to make fires to keep ourselves warm - almost unbelievably comfortable when there were a number of children inside. We heated sweet sake and toasted rice cakes. Sometimes we played in our snow houses until as late as midnight. When I think back on these things, I realize how fortunate I was to have been raised in the country.
I graduated from our local school in March, 1919, at the age of twelve. The financial circumstances of our family would have permitted me to go on to a higher school, but geography would not. The school I would have attended was six kilometers away, at the foot of the mountain, in Tokamachi. Of course, this distance is not significant in a warm climate; but it prohibits commuting to school in a region like ours, where snow covers the ground for six months of the year. People unaccustomed to life in such a climate are surprised to learn that we had a summer route to Tokamachi and a winter one. The summer route was direct and permitted vehicular traffic. The winter one led over the mountain ridge and was usable only by pedestrians.
To go to a higher school, I would have had to live in the town. And when I finished that school, to continue studying, I would have been forced to go as far as the city of Ojiya, about twenty kilometers north of Tokamachi. Renting a room and eating in the town would have imposed too great a financial burden on our family. Only the richest farm families could go so far as that for the sake of education. Furthermore, everyone in our village entertained the firm conviction that nothing good would come of sending children to the city.
Nor was our village alone in this. All the people in the mountain villages in our district felt that graduation from our small local school was sufficient. It is not that I did not want to go on to a higher school. Later I learned that my father too would have liked to have sent me, but no one else in our family had been given such an advantage. It would have seemed strange for me alone to continue my education. For this reason, my father followed the accepted local custom.
I was not disappointed or dissatisfied. It was my wish to grow up as fast as possible so that I could go out to have a look at the wide world. In those days, there was no electricity in our village. Often, as I cleaned the chimneys of the kerosene lamps, I would gaze at the evening sky and dream of a world that was hidden from my eyes.
But dreams are dreams, and reality is reality. My family expected me to be a member of the working team - even if an inexperienced one - as soon as school was over. Immediately after graduation ceremonies, we went to the forests, where there was still snow on the ground, to gather firewood for the next winter. There was no more time for playing.
After the firewood gathering came communal road clearing. Then there was planting of rice seed, preparation of the paddies, transplanting of the seedlings, and repeated weedings. In between these tasks, we had to prepare the dry fields, fertilize, and plant, and fertilize again.
Though I was still not considered a full-grown man, I was to all intents and purposes a farmer. Once again, geography made life harder for us than for other people. What little flat land we had for cultivation had been wrested from the slopes by leveling and by building retaining walls. The land was all terraced. Going to work and coming home again meant constant climbing and descending of hills. Even transporting night soil for fertilizer was different in the mountains. On flat land, the buckets can be slung on carrying poles and transported two at a time. In the mountains, a person must strap a bucket to his back. He can hear the contents sloshing just behind his ears as he walks along.
I like to work, but sometimes I thought farming labor in our village was more than I could handle. Nevertheless, maybe because of my optimism or my carefree nature, I managed and never really felt that I had been made to suffer. It never entered my head to run away. But I still cherished the hope of someday having a chance to see the great world outside.
In my youth, it was a local custom to join a young-men's association at the age of fifteen, which was considered none too early for a boy to start working like a man. Our village young-men's group held its first meeting each year on February 11 (the holiday to celebrate the founding of the Japanese nation). The first part of the meeting was devoted to business. New members were introduced, and plans were made for the coming year. At the conclusion of this business, sake--perhaps fifteen was too young for this aspect of adulthood--and good things to eat were brought out. Each person contributed his own share to the fare, and we spent the rest of the day in singing, dancing, and making merry.
When I was admitted to the association, though still a child, I felt like a grown man and made a resolution to do everything I undertook with all my strength and to perform without complaining even tasks that other people disliked.
About one year later, I made a silent vow to the gods and the buddhas never to lie. During the warm days of spring that year, I had been troubled by severe headaches. Miraculously, after I made the vow, the headaches ceased; and I have never had another.
Our young-men's association was especially close-knit because it consisted of people from the no more than two hundred households in the seven villages in our district. Almost all the members were members of the fire brigade as well. I was admitted into the fire brigade when I was sixteen.
Of course, the association did a great deal of productive and constructive work like road and snow clearance; but the part of its activities that I recall most vividly and with the greatest pleasure was the music and dancing for festivals.
Suganuma celebrated many festivals. We were able to do this because we worked hard and because we were somewhat better off than the other villages in the region. For instance, not a single household in Suganuma paid tribute rice to anyone, though there were several houses in other villages that paid such tribute to houses in Suganuma.
The tutelary deity of Suganuma, whose festival we celebrated on July 11, was enshrined at Suwa Shrine. In Tokamachi, the same festival was celebrated on August 27. Both days were holidays for which we pounded steamed glutinous rice into a favorite treat called mochi and prepared sekihan, glutinous rice steamed with small red beans.
But on the fifteenth night of the eighth month according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, we celebrated a far more important festival - that of the Koyasu Kannon. One of the several manifestations of Kannon, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, the Koyasu Kannon is believed to ease the pains of childbirth. For that festival the young people put on a full musical program, including dances calling for lion masks and the mask of the long-nosed goblin called a tengu. All the songs we used were traditional and different from the versions familiar to young people today. Since the village had no electricity, we performed our rustic dances by the light of candles and kerosene lamps.
I loved the bustle and color of festivals. While still a boy, I imitated the dances. When people told me that I seemed to have talent, I started taking it more seriously. At the age of sixteen, I was practicing regularly. Then I was included in a group in which all the other members were twenty-one or twenty-two. Our dancing group enjoyed a high reputation not only in Suganuma, but in neighboring villages as well. We were often invited to other places to perform.
At about the time that I started taking festival dancing seriously, I undertook to learn to play the Japanese wind instrument called the shakuhachi. Winters were long; and, though there was indoor work - making various articles of straw and weaving on the loom - young boys wanted something entertaining to do. A group of four or five of us decided that it would be fun to learn to play the shakuhachi. In the evening, when work was finished, without a teacher and certainly without any idea of the several schools of performance, we sat around tooting merrily.
But the shakuhachi is a difficult instrument. It is said that attaining a modicum of skill requires three years. Among our group, I was by far the worst player and seemed to be unable to learn to do better. But this only stimulated me to try harder. At night, when everyone was asleep, I would cover my head with my quilt and practice. Before very long I was maybe a little bit better than average.
I continued to play the shakuhachi during my service in the navy and for a while after I moved to Tokyo. But ultimately I became so busy that I had to give it up. About ten years ago, when I was cleaning a closet in Myoko Memorial Hall, I found three of my old shakuhachi. I played a few notes on one and made a fairly good sound. The people in the room expressed surprise at my hidden talent. I thought to myself, "If you'd let me dance for you, I'd really give you something to be surprised at." But I suppose my dancing days are over. Still, I enjoy watching Japanese folk dancing and love the liveliness and brilliance of festivals. They seem to make me young again.
A young man of sixteen or seventeen wants to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere. As a youth, I did most things that adults did in terms of both work and play. I read more than most of my friends. I remember being especially moved by some works on the West by Japanese writers. With the help of notes and commentaries, I studied the Chinese classics on my own. A few of the books I read were old ones borrowed from friends, but I bought most of them with money earned by selling firewood in Tokamachi.
In terms of work, from the winter of my fifteenth year to the spring of my sixteenth year, I went to the home of my maternal grandparents to help them with the spinning of thread, an occupation they pursued in spare time left when their farm work was done. They produced the kind of strong flax and ramie threads required for the famous cloth known as Echigo jofu, produced in our region and considered among the finest of its kind.
An especially important event in my fifteenth year was climbing Mount Hakkai. In our part of the country, there are many famous mountain peaks. Among them, Mount Hakkai has long been noted for its association with religious faith. At its peak (some seventeen hundred meters above sea level) is located Hakkai Shrine; and on its slopes are the eight ponds that give the mountain the name hakkai, literally, "eight seas." All the young men in our prefecture considered it an unwritten law that one must climb Mount Hakkai before the age of twenty. Every year someone from our young-men's association made the trip, and I was eager to go too.
It was the first time I had climbed a mountain worthy of the name. I went with a young man five years my senior. We left the village early in the morning and, after crossing thirty passes, at last arrived at the foot of Mount Hakkai. When my companion said, "Now you're going to be in for it," I thought trouble must be ahead. In spite of shortness of breath and abundant sweat, however, I made it. And when I stood on the top of the mountain, I experienced an indescribably exhilarating feeling. Before me lay the broad expanse of Echigo (as our area is called) and the misty blue Sea of Japan in the distance. As I took in this panorama, I felt courage welling up in my breast. I said to myself, "I can do it." I did not know precisely what it was that I could do, but I felt determined to do something on a big scale.
Even now I can recall an emotion apparently urging me to fly into the sky. It was good to be young. That kind of stirring in the blood occurs rarely in life.
Taking advantage of the slack time winter inevitably brings to farm life, many of the people in our village worked on construction projects to make money during the cold months. In my fifteenth year, I worked helping my grandparents with their spinning. In my sixteenth year, I decided to test myself by undertaking backbreaking work of a kind considered too much for a boy my age. The Tokyo Electric Power Company was building a hydroelectric generator station at the confluence of two rivers not far from our village and, it was to that project that I applied for work.
The task to which I was assigned required a two-man team. Gravel was heaped in large straw baskets. A basket was slung from a thick log. Each of the men put one end of the log on his shoulder, and the pair carried the gravel to the place where it was needed. My partner was an almost frighteningly powerful young man three or four years older than I.
This was heavier labor than anything I had known on the farm. To make matters worse, my shoulders swelled and turned red. Then the skin peeled from them, making carrying the log hellish torture. Of course, our wages were very good. An ordinary unskilled laborer in those times earned about one yen and seventy sen a day; we were earning four yen a day.
Still, no matter how good the wages and no matter how stubbornly I persisted, I could not go on long carrying a heavy load on a log resting on bleeding, skinless shoulders. Just as I was trying to keep up my courage while realizing that though yesterday had been bad today was likely to be worse, heaven sent help in the form of snow. For the first snow of the year, the snowfall was heavy. One of the men working in the hauling shop had to go home because the snow fences were not finished on his farm. The foreman, who seems to have been observing the way I worked, surprised me by assigning me to the man's place in the hauling plant. My new task, transporting gravel, sand, and cement in wheelbarrows, made no demands on my shoulders, though the pay was the same. From that time on, my work went well; and I safely completed one and a half months on the job. During that time, I slept in the workers' shack. Subtracting the cost of my food and the little spending money I required, I still had one hundred and fifty yen when I returned to the village.
The year was drawing to a close when I reached home and handed all the money to my father. Before they could be happy, my parents were overcome with surprise. Although the yen had already begun to depreciate, in those days one hundred and fifty yen was still equivalent to about five or six hundred thousand nowadays. And for a farming family with very little cash income, it was worth twice that much. In the same year, my elder brother had gone to work for the winter at a hydroelectric power project in Gifu Prefecture. When he came home, he brought with him a total of twenty yen. My earnings were unprecedented.
My father was pleased, of course. But my mother's happiness knew no bounds. First she could not stop crying. Then she put the money in the household Buddhist altar and knelt in front of it, hands together in prayer, for a long time. I could tell that, though she was happy about the money, she was happier that I had grown to be man enough to earn it. After the New Year holidays, I went to my grandparents' spinning plant in Tokamachi, where I worked till the spring.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All right reserved.