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April 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

The Year of Japan: Part 1

Janet Braithwaite has BA Hons. Degree in Classics from London University, a Post-graduate Diploma in Social Administration from London School of Economics and an MA in International Relations from Coventry University. She has worked in Greece, the UK and France. Janet has written poetry on and off most of her life, usually at threshold periods of deep change.

 

Background

At school I had no idea what I wanted to do eventually, but I knew I loved learning languages, so I concentrated on Latin, Greek and French with German and Spanish at a lower level. I then did a degree in Classical Greek and Latin at London University. Being in London I came under all sorts of new influences and became increasingly attracted to psychology and social work, so after my degree I did a year studying the basic social work course at London School of Economics. After that, combining my two main interests, I went off to Greece to work in an intermediate-technology team in the very impoverished area of North-West Greece, Epeiros. Because of my knowledge of the language it was decided I should set up an adult education programme in some villages. While doing that I realised one of the most practically useful things I could do would be to teach basic English and German to young people intending to emigrate to Germany or Australia or America. At the end of my 2-year contract with the team I went to Athens and got a job in a Greek-owned English school. This was the school where Mario Rinvolucri was working – I had already met him when he visited the team in Epeiros and we’d subsequently stayed in touch. At the end of a year there, in 1965, I returned to England and into social work, where I stayed until the mid 70’s. By the mid 80’s I had been married and divorced and had two children. I had moved away from London and back to the Midlands where I’d been born. As a single parent I found social work didn’t fit well with family life because of the evening work, so I got a job in an EFL school run by another friend who I had met at the Athens school.

This was where I first came into contact with Japanese people who were working for a local Japanese company, and I was soon approached by the company and invited to teach their staff. They wanted a teacher who could teach staff members just after they finished work and their wives during the day. This suited me very well and I taught the men at my home and their wives at their homes as they tended to be nervous of driving – all the lessons were one-to-one. Because of this very personal contact it was a marvellous opportunity to gain an insight into family life, the way they looked at things and generally into Japanese culture. Because I felt they were rather isolated, especially the women, and not made very welcome by English people, I did my best to befriend them, inviting them to eat at my home and sometimes taking them out. For some of the women particularly I became a confidante – somebody outside of the company whom they could talk to in confidence. One of the older women told me she wanted to learn English in order to be in charge of paying the household bills – her area of responsibility which she particularly didn’t want her husband, a senior manager at work, taking over. One of the younger women told me she wanted to stay in England as long as possible because she had her own house here, whereas in Japan they lived with her in-laws. Because I taught them at home, I got to know the very little children very well and was adopted as a kind of funny foreign auntie by some of them. In the end I worked for the company for over 20 years, teaching a series of staff members and, in some cases, their wives and children and keeping in touch with many of them for years after they returned to Japan. So generally, I had a much deeper, complex and more personal contact with them than one would usually have teaching groups at a school.

Seiya Kobayashi, the subject of “The Year of Japan” arrived at my house one day in July 1992, unannounced and accompanied by a senior manager whom I had taught, together with his wife and daughter a few years before. As usual they parked in the back road and walked up through the garden to the house. I was sitting in the garden reading and they passed by without noticing me, so I followed them up to the house. They were surprised, I was surprised, so we were all three taken slightly off guard. We were introduced and a lesson time was agreed and then they left. Seiya was about thirty at the time and was an accountant working as Accounts Co-ordinator, which meant he co-ordinated the accounts between the parent company in Japan and the branch companies in England, Germany and America. Because of the time differences he often had to work late at night and generally seemed to work long hours and be under a lot of pressure, so he was often late and sometimes couldn’t make it at all. Unlike his colleagues, he hadn’t wanted to come abroad and didn’t like being in England – in fact, he seemed very unhappy when I first met him. He was unmarried and lived alone. He was also the shyest person I’ve ever met and for a long time he was almost completely tongue-tied, so teaching him required considerable efforts of ingenuity and application to get him going at all. Even his work colleagues said he was an extremely shy and quiet man. From July 1992 until February 1993 (the date when “The Year of Japan” begins) I taught him one hour a week. In February I suddenly had the idea that switching over roles somewhat might make it easier for him to talk, so I suggested very tentatively that perhaps he might like to come for a second free hour when he would teach me some Japanese words and answer my questions about Japan and for the other hour, which the company paid for, we could continue English lessons as usual. To my great amazement he accepted this idea and actually seemed very pleased. So, we adopted this plan for the rest of that year and until April 1994 when he went back to Japan.

Working with a student who has such extreme difficulties with communication and the effort required to get some insight into their emotional world is the work of the imagination and I personally can’t do it without a high degree of emotional involvement. Sometimes therefore it feels like a kind of love affair. At the same time It’s crucial to differentiate rigorously between fantasy and reality and to hold the tension at all times. So, the poems are written and read as a series of love poems, but they describe my interior world as opposed to my teaching practice, which was always completely professional. I was just over fifty at that time, so I had a lot of experience in disciplining and holding this kind of emotional tension and I was aware of the comic aspects of the situation. Because I could feel how unhappy he was during the early months of our acquaintance from July 1992 and through the first winter and because I could see how isolated he was and how much pressure he was under at work, I did everything I could to make the time that he spent with me enjoyable and relaxing and I was constantly trying to invent teaching strategies to make it easier for him to express himself. It’s quite usual for Japanese men to be inhibited by their fear of losing face if they make a mistake. However, in Seiya’s case I always felt his diffidence and self-containment were much deeper than superficial reactions to outward stimuli and were much more essential characteristics of his interior emotional landscape. He once told me his first name meant “the sighing of the wind” and his surname “The small dark forest”, both of which seemed deeply appropriate.

 

February

 

For Seiya

Silence sighing in the trees

softly as the wind

lightly shimmers

through dappling shadows –

still music in the forest’s darkness.

 

So your laughter
glancing off the surface shyness
ripples singing
through the quiet depths
of your calm stillness’ deep dark waters.

 

 

My eyes into Japan

This year
winter ended
on the February evening
we made our diffident bargain,
and you agreed
to my surprise
to become
my eyes into Japan,
offering me glimpses of light
into the opaque mystery world
that lies behind
the closed frontiers of your eyes
in exchange
for business English
and unspoken passion.

 

 

March

 

I throw open the window

I throw open the window
and there you are
running down the garden path
suddenly informal
almost childlike.

 

Momentarily watching
your slim small form
- the dark hair
and oriental face,
immaculate clothes
and briefcase
clutched beneath your arm -
running incongruously
down an English garden path
in March,
I remember
how you walked briskly
business-like
into my life
one July afternoon,
all stiff formality
and shy confusion,
your face slammed shut
against my Englishness,
as I lay swinging
in a sunlit hammock,
wrenched from my books,
stunned, unbelieving,
as you walked past me,
dreamlike and surreal

 

  • and my rapt heart

turns over.

 

March

 

All that time allows

I lie awake,
the shroud of sleep
ripped suddenly away,
stark naked,
not a shred of drowsiness
or dream
to shelter me.
Four o’clock
on a morning crisp with stars.

 

Desire strikes
like fever seeping through the blood
as images of your body torture me,
intense and palpable,
dark hair and muscularity
smooth beneath my hands,
your small compactness
taut within my arms,
resistance loosening
as my lips ravish yours
with greedy tenderness,
delirious with your beauty.

 

Breathless fantasies
chasing through my mind
in full flight reined back hard,
as I remember
my faltering body,
no longer young,
slackening –

slow corruption creeping unseen
through the flesh,
the spirit yearning
though the flesh is weak,
not even weak – unlovely
to another’s youth-blind eyes:
and I reel back
from your alluring image
- youthful beauty,
untouched,
unattainable -
into the dark abyss,
racked between passion and mortality,

 

bound without mercy
on the wheel
that turns relentless,
poised within
the twin-poled tension
- sex and death.

 

Is this impassioned torture
all that time allows,

as shadows start to gather
at the darkening margins
of my sunlit days
and silence lurks,
deep as the grave,
somewhere just beyond
the dying fall of music
and the lull of voices,
as I confront
the fragile loveliness
of yet another transient spring
and feel,
within the summer’s scent-hazed heat,
the hovering chill
dark-winging
through my time-fused fleeting hours
and death-skimmed dreams of passion?

 

That autumn of bereavement

It was endless dark descending
that long autumn of bereavement
when you and I staggered shell-shocked
stranded deep in grief’s grey wasteland,
iced-up, cut-off,
through reeling days,
becalmed, befogged
upon a winter sea of pain,
passed parallel through hells of loss
and chanced to meet,
feeling faint tremors through the chill
benumbing dark opacity
- slow autumn sluggish with despair
which solaced by your sadness found
a transmutation – out of loss
brings an unexpected freedom.

 

March

 

Hanten*

It was a Sunday morning
liquid with daffodils and scudding showers
when I arrived
armed with my alibi,
unannounced,

and took you by surprise
as you opened the door,
your face pale and shuttered,

limpid dark eyes distant
with recent drowsiness
and cherry-blossom dreams
drifting
beneath snow-capped mountains,
pale glittering volcanoes,
festive,
dazzling,
in your Sunday clothes
the turquoise blaze
bright across your chest,
dark shirt,
perfect white trousers
- azure sea,
pine-shadow blackness,
distant snows
reflecting
in your eyes
- cool distance
melting
as we talk
translucent
into warmth.

 

*Sunday best

 

April

 

The soft sigh of farewell is built into your name

All
aware
suddenly
knowing full well
as I’d always done
from that giddy moment
when my wakened heart spun round
three hundred and sixty degrees
in a split fraction of a second
that there could
only
be
no hope
no future
no ongoing
continuity
no cooling-off process,
that the soft sigh of farewell
is built into your name
inevitably
sayonara
willingly,
Seiya,

or
no,
laughing
ruefully
in the face of
life’s absurdity,
resolutely reckless
to the end – I decided
true to myself to let feeling
soar, joyous passionate free-flying

till
farewell
brings silence
and an
end.

 

April

 

 

Iki Masho  1*

Can’t you                                           Make your choice in
just once                                            either
or twice                                              language
break out                                           then
of your shyness,                                 abruptly tell
knock your schedule                          your bloody boss
sidewards,                                         to go to hell,
let go                                                  get stuffed,
of the curtain                                      or some
of your caution,                                 short Japanese
shielding                                            equivalent.
you from                                            And
these imagined,                                  at least
self-inflicted                                      just for
dangers                                              one long evening
lurking                                                           let your hair down,
in the dark streets                              and come
of the city                                          with me
- curtains                                            and hit the town,
are so                                                 let pleasure rip
insubstantial                                       and drink
just swish through them.                   and dance

Pluck up                                            till the music
courage                                              ceases softly,
- Japanese is                                       dying
rich in rudeness,                                cadence
using                                                  falling
grammar                                             gently,
to be cutting                                      darkness
- structured insults!                            fading,
English                                                          homeward
just has                                               speeding
crude expletives!                               with the dawn.

 

* let’s go
                      

April

 

Iki Masho  11

I could just kidnap you
- pleasure’s passionate guerrilla
in a rainbow balaclava
militant for long holidays
and free time
against the grey wastes
of Capitalism
with a capital English ‘C’
or a Japanese ‘shi’
- and rescue you from your schedule
- it’s easier for me – schedules
are so foreign to my nature -
and carry you off
protesting
for three months holiday
or more maybe, depending on
when they paid the ransom
and the exchange rate mechanism
- a gentleman’s sworn agreement,
nothing in writing – or hard cash
already spent well in advance
on our UK tour – then
Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid,
Vienna, Amsterdam,
anywhere you want to sightsee
- your Japanese efficiency
tempered with my random approach.
Then at last,
if you really yearned
for work and company,
I’d hand you over gracefully
- till next summer maybe?

 

May

 

Sakura*

Cherry blossom
in Japanese
is spelt like
Greek for sweetness,
pronounced like

sacra,
sacred things in Latin.

This year
because of you
I counted it
among those things
which I hold sacred
and left it
as an offering
on your doorstep
- affectionate
propitiation,
memory -
in this obscure sunset outpost
where you stand
- conscript of the eastern empire
winged from half way round the world,
unlikely Hermes -
as guardian of the threshold
of my dark rites of passage
through secret seasons
of the flesh
and spirit,
last accounts’ coordinator
of the unfinished business
for my years’ ending.

 

*cherry blossom

 

May

 

Maybe

Meanwhile
the cherry blossom frothed to fullness
overflowed
and fell
- I swear
you’d not have noticed
had I not left some
on your doorstep-
the garden
flower-flooded
overnight
and summer blazed
regal in lilac
resplendent in peonies
on my birthday,
which this year you share,
the usual pallor of your face
just slightly flushed with wine
below your eyes,
as we eat
and wander
in each other’s wordland
down the sinuous desire paths of language
exploring obscure glades of dappled shadows
where meaning shimmers intertwined with feeling’s
flowing rainbow of chameleon colours,
and you tell me
how the clear-cut harsh definity of English
beside the liquid suppleness of Japanese
makes promising
feel difficult
- imposed constriction
on the future’s
unknowable uncertainty
with no escape clause.

 

And I watch the flow
of feeling
flickering
across your face,
etching on memory
mood-light and shadow
of your passing thoughts
in these snatched hours
which I await
with such intensity of pleasure
and something recently like calm,
as I attune myself more finely,
senses vibrating in sympathy,
melody freely modulating
with the fluctuations of your life.

 

And when you go
you leave behind
your promise,
fluid as maybe,
as a gift.

 

                  

The consolidated accounts

The consolidated accounts,
you say,
will be finished
next week
and you’ll be free
- maybe……

I wish, by all the gods,
that my accounts would
consolidate
instead of slipping
through the nerveless fingers
of my memory
like globules of quicksilver
from a broken flask,
propelled haywire
in all directions
by the imperious pressures
of much more important business -
imagination’s
throbbing blood pulse
through my heart and brain.

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