Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lost Along the Way

Once more thoughts today have drifted east, curling backward through maze-like tracks of memory to faces and experiences of almost thirty years ago. No idea what it is that brings Junichi Mori to mind, but suddenly there he is, tall, gawky and ink-stained, writing in elegant swirls of jet black sumi-ink the old proverb or tidbit of poetry that was our assignment.

Soon after arriving in Tokyo all those years ago, I began looking around for someone to teach me Japanese brushwriting, shodô—in English, ‘the way of the brush.’ It was one of the first enchantments in my fascination with Japan and once settled there the hope was to jump right under the wing of a teacher. The practice of writing with brush and ink has always been taught in Japanese schools and teachers are about as rare as acorns under an oak tree, with every neighborhood boasting one, two, sometimes three teachers. I found Mrs Motohashi down at the end of my street, showed up at her door one day and sputtered out in broken bits of Japanese my desire to learn brushwriting. She told me to come back on Saturday morning at 10:00.

And there I was, sitting painfully on my heels, back straight before a low table laid out with felt pad, white rice paper, paperweight, a well of ink and a fat horsehair brush. To my left sat a college boy, and I noticed right off that he had the hands of a pianist, well-shaped and strong, not too big. It would have been obvious to anyone that the Chinese characters gliding off the end of his brush were hardly the work of a dilettante.

His name was Junichi, he lived a few houses down, was in his junior year at university studying English literature and had been a student of Mrs Motohashi since old enough to hold a brush. We became good friends and soon I was spending an hour or more at his home several times a week, his mother stuffing me with cakes and cookies, the occasional lunch or dinner and endless questions about America. Junichi’s family was the second to take me into their lives and show me the depth and breadth of Japanese kindness and heart. Conversation with Junichi—half English, half Japanese—was always easy, but curiously enough he never asked questions about English, about his reading assignments, and in the same vein, I never asked him to reinforce Mrs Motohashi’s teaching or to correct my faltering brush.

In another year he graduated from university and completely unrelated to his study, accepted a job in one of the big department stores. I soon learned that Junichi’s path was not at all uncommon among university graduates, that very few indeed ended up in a job related to university study. But he seemed happy, continued to live at home and continued to visit Mrs Motohashi once a week for calligraphy lessons.

A year passed and though Junichi was still shy of the average age when Japanese men marry, his parents began to get ideas of ‘arranging’ something. The traditional arranged marriages once common in Japan still have small presence in modern times, though it is becoming more rare, especially in the big cities.

It worked out badly for Junichi. Through both sets of parents arrangements were made for Junichi to marry the daughter of a Buddhist priest, for him to be adopted into the bride’s family with the assurance that Junichi would one day take over as the head priest at the temple in Kyoto. Yeah, I know…from English literature to a department store and then to a Buddhist temple on a mountainside in Kyoto. I attended the wedding, and I offered my best wishes to bride and groom, and to both families (my Japanese somewhat better at this point). But then for reasons I was not party to, it all came apart after several months of marriage. From the little I heard, things did not work out as the bride’s father expected.

These days, many years after the broken marriage Junichi is an English teacher in a public junior high school in Tokyo. We lost touch after the marriage failed and he returned to Tokyo from Kyoto. It was almost twenty-three years later that I got a phone call from his mother. She gave me Junichi’s number, I called, we talked but then never did manage to meet again. Feels like I lost a friend.


  1. Very touching. Good post. Use it. And like Junichi's family, many of us have endless questions about other cultures. You always allow us interested readers to peek behind the veil and the view is always satisfying.

  2. What a lovely story, sad but lovely. The marriage failure sounds like it was her loss - probably her father's unrealistic dream, not hers. Hopefully you will make contact with him again. The world turns in mysterious ways, and maybe it will twist and turn you into each other's company again. I hope so.

  3. Your ability as a writer to keep the reader "hanging on" every word to find out the ending is wonderful. I loved the story and felt the friendship between the two of you. I am sure that one day you will meet again. Who knows.....he may find out you are in Florida and come for a visit!


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America