Year of Grace, Day 10. Okuyama-san

There are people whom you know for only a short while, and yet the time spent with them seems so much longer. Looking back you feel that they had been a major part of your life. Their influence on you, on your outlook and interests and way of thinking, has been immense, and totally and surprisingly disproportionate to the time you’d been friends.

Okuyama-san is one such friend — Okuyama Shunzo — to give him his full name. ‘Shunzo” is written with the ideographs for the season “spring” and “three.” I never got to ask whether he was born in the third spring of his parent’s marriage.


Okuyama san and his log cabin, as he called it.

I have so much to thank Okuyama-san for: actually he deserves an entire book all to himself. Without him, I would never have had one of the defining experiences of my life, that of living within a Japanese traditional community. I would even venture to say that it is one of the highlights of my life.

It was he who made us pay a visit to the family who took care of the samurai house that we had wished to rent, but had been turned down. The reason: we were gaijin, foreigners. We did not think a visit would make a difference, but he insisted. I shall arrange it, he said.

Okuyama-san belonged to a clan of politicians and landowners in that part of the Snow Country. With the end of the war and land reform implemented by the American Occupation, the clan’s landholdings were vastly reduced. By trade he was a printer, and through the orders for invitations, flyers, and notices his shop received, he got wind of all that was happening. He knew everything and everybody: he had, as the Japanese expression goes, a broad face — kao ga hiroi.

There were not many suitable places to let in Yuzawa at the time. The only other one was also a former samurai dwelling located in the dense shade of Japanese cedars. It was picturesquely lovely, but awfully dark and cold. And in deep winter, colder still. The other rental places were mainly 4.5-mat or 6-mat affairs, barely enough for one to live in (room space is measured in the number of straw mats of standard size, one being reckoned sufficient for one person to sleep on). We agreed to the meeting, more to please Okuyama-san than any hope on our part.

The afternoon came and we were introduced to the family. We bowed in the old-fashioned manner no longer practised in daily life in metropolitan Tokyo: head low to the tatami — the thick straw mats laid inside a traditional Japanese house. We slid off the cushions upon giving our names and sat in seiza, formal style with feet tucked under the body. The head of the family was the former headmaster of the local high school. It was his wife whose physician granduncle had owned the samurai house. We talked about our studies and research, we drank the green tea offered and enjoyed the rice cakes that came with it. And after the pleasant and polite meeting, we left, intending to book tickets for Tokyo the next day.

That evening, Okuyama-san telephoned excitedly to say the house was ours. How could that be? What happened to change their minds? “It was the way you spoke polite Japanese and the way you behaved in the traditional Japanese manner,” he said. “They had no idea you were not like other gaijin.”

That unbelievable outcome was pure irrepressible Okuyama-san: trying, ever so charmingly, never aggressively, to find a way in, even when at first refused. Perhaps it was his engaging way of speaking the local dialect – zuzuben — as Snow Country natives called it. Perhaps it was his gentle and mild, unassuming yet dignified manner. Perhaps because as an influential member of the community, he served in a sense as our backer, our guarantor, a significant role in Japanese culture, particularly in that rural society.

It was a brilliant lesson in how to turn a no into a yes. For that, among many other things besides throughout that time we lived in that town, I am truly grateful to have known Okuyama-san as a friend and as a mentor.