[from A Certain Distance, 4]
It was 1912 and a new era had arrived, the Taisho era, and I was ready to advance to middle school. It was an idealistic time. People talked about democracy and individual rights. One of my teachers was a Christian, but I don’t recall him ever talking about religion. His concerns seemed to be more social and political. He talked a lot about the uniqueness of the individual and how one goes about developing an independent mind. Most of my teachers were progressive, interested in the new ideas that had reached Japan.
It was around this time I became interested in literature. I had always enjoyed learning how to write with the brush when I was in elementary school, and I was also taught how to compose haiku poems since it went hand in hand with calligraphy. Now I found myself receiving praise from my teachers whenever there was an assignment involving writing.
I read everything I could get my hands on. For the first time I had friends my own age. It was still unusual for someone of my background to go onto middle school and high school then, but the number of middle schools had increased. The old temple school in our town had been made into a middle school under the new curriculum.
I suppose I should have been more appreciative of all this since a shop keeper’s son would normally be unable to enter a college prep school. But my father insisted that I get a college education, and now he had the money to send me to a good school.
With my new found friends I read and discussed all the latest novels and poetry, including translations of European poetry. And we read philosophy too, including Marx and Nietzsche. The more I read and pursued my own interests the less likely it became that I would follow in my father’s footsteps. Besides, I wasn’t very good at math and science.
Things were changing fast then. My friends and I were excited about everything new, especially things introduced from the West. Foreign languages were an important part of our curriculum. I studied both French and English as well as some German on the assumption that I would be studying medicine. I loved the sound of French and like everyone else loved Baudelaire and his Paris, but I did best in English. It wasn’t really that strange or difficult studying foreign languages since Japanese itself was like a foreign language. We had all grown up speaking the local dialect, and now we had to master the new standardized Japanese. At the same time, we still had to familiarize ourselves with the old style of writing, as well as classical Japanese and classical Chinese as used in Japan’s own tradition of writing poetry in Chinese. None of this had anything at all in common with the language we grew up speaking.
I would spend hours with my new friends after school discussing literature and philosophy. A European style café had just opened up in our town. It made us feel so civilized! We would hang out in the café talking and drinking coffee. Occasionally one of our group would produce a pack of cigarettes and we would have a smoke. This made us feel especially sophisticated, but cigarettes were expensive for students (even the cheaper brands were at least five sen for a pack of ten) so this was reserved only for special occasions. The topic of girls began entering the discussions as well. Sometimes a group of students from the girl’s school would visit the café. This always created an air of excitement, but we were too shy to talk to them.