Writing email to a friend today, the subject—how different people view or appreciate art—reminded me of a story I first read years ago. During the beginning years of studying Japanese and learning to read what even now I consider a devilish written language, hours upon hours were spent in dictionaries looking up either the reading or meaning of characters. One week the professor assigned a short story written in 1913 by Shiga Naoya called “Seibei’s Gourds.” It turned out to be something of a watershed assignment for me, and thus a text not easily forgotten.
Suddenly the Japanese words and sentences came to me without translation, without need of a dictionary. It dawned on me that I had crossed the divide and in reading “Seibei’s Gourds” the story filled my head uninterrupted by dictionaries and grammar books. For this reason it stayed with me long after our study was history.
Seibei is a twelve year-old boy with a great passion for collecting gourds, a hobby not at all unusual at the time. His interest though is in the ordinary looking gourds with a common shape. After school he wanders around town looking for new gourds to add to his collection, and spends long hours treating and polishing his gourds until they become objects of beauty. At times Seibei disagrees with his father over what a beautiful gourd should look like. At school one day, the teacher catches the boy polishing a gourd during class. Very angry, he takes away the gourd, later passing it on to the school janitor as a worthless trifle. He reports Seibei to the boy’s parents, which results in a beating from his father, who still not satisfied, smashes his son’s collection of gourds. Needing money, the school janitor sells Seibei’s gourd for a surprising amount equal to a year’s wages, unaware that the shopkeeper will later sell the gourd for six times that. Seibei never learns what happened to his gourd, as soon after his punishment he gives up gourds and begins to paint pictures.
The writer’s theme suggests that the beauty of ordinary things is often invisible to many, especially to those who parrot the traditional, the “accepted” view espoused by “experts.” True beauty and value are often clearer to those who have not been indoctrinated.
“Seibei’s Gourds” is included in Modern Japanese Stories, an Anthology, edited by Ivan Morris.