This week’s excerpt comes from perhaps the most admired childhood memoir ever written in Japan, The Silver Spoon, a book literary critic Meera Sushila Viswanathan commends as a “nuanced and subtle rendering [of] the strange fluidity of a child's tentative apprehension of the looming world around, that wondrous and unsettling sense of discovery amid the flux.”
Kansuke Naka’s memoir sharply details life at the end of the Meiji period (1912) through the eyes of a boy as he grows into adolescence. Innocence fades as he slowly becomes aware of himself and others, while scene after scene richly evokes the tastes, lifestyles, landscapes, objects, and manners of a lost Japan. "Its enduring status as one of Japan’s most-loved accounts of life in Tokyo at the beginning of the 20th century is due not only to Naka’s historical details,” affirms The Japan Times, “but also because it is a parable for our contemporary sense of isolation." Naka’s deft hands reveal all of this to his reader with immediacy and innocent wonder.
In this particular passage Naka lyrically evokes his youth, ruminating on life with his aunt and the effects of nature on his sense of self and existence:
“On snowy nights my aunt, stirring up the charcoal-balls in the foot-warmer, would frighten me by saying that the Snow Monk in a white robe was standing right outside the door. When it was hot, she would fan me because I had a hard time falling asleep. I had preferences even for the pictures on the fan. Inside the fragrant mosquito net, listening to the mosquitoes flying about outside, I would sometimes break a rib of the fan just for the fun of it. A horned owl might come to the bush in the next-door temple and hoot. Then my aunt would say, ‘I hear the hooter is an evil bird and spits out a thousand mosquitoes in one hoot. We’ll have plenty of mosquitoes tomorrow, I’m afraid.’
As the cool winds rise, crickets begin to chirp. Once I thought of taking good care of them and put some in a firefly-cage, but after chirping a couple of times they fell silent. I looked in and saw they had all escaped through a hole they made in the silk gauze around the cage. Listening to them, even a child senses that the solitude of autumn has arrived. My aunt said they were saying, ‘It’s gotten cold, now mend the tatters,’ while the wet-nurse told my sister they were saying, ‘Suckle me, suckle me, suckle me, and I’ll bite you.’
At times, I would wake early enough in the morning to hear the cawing of crows nesting in the black pines in the Shōrin temple. When that happened, my aunt wouldn’t allow me to get out of bed.
‘They’re the first risers. You must sleep more.’
She would allow me to get out of bed only after the second or third risers cawed. That was her way of keeping me in bed until an appropriate time.
Come evening, a great many sparrows returned to nest in the mound-shaped growth of the ‘coral tree’ that was in front of my bedroom and made a din, shaking their heads, sharpening their beaks, and pecking at each other as they vied for better branches. When the sun hid itself and the lingering light faded, even the one or two who, slow to sleep, were still chirping, would fall silent and become quiet. I thought they were my good friends, and when I found myself still in bed even after the third risers among the crows cawed, their chirps as they left their nests sounded as if they were laughing at me for being lazy, and I would hastily get up.
The ‘coral tree’ does not betray its name and bears scarlet seeds. It is a pleasure to pick
them after they’ve fallen and are lying on the soft moss.”
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