[from A Certain Distance, 3]
I grew up in a provincial city. One of those places that’s too big to be a small town, but not big enough to be a real city. Far from Japan’s cultural center in Tokyo, it was horribly backward – a cultural wasteland. From the time I was in my teens I dreamed every minute of escape.
My father was a pharmacist. A true Meiji man, he believed in science and progress. His was the first generation of western-trained druggists. Of this he was very proud and he hoped that I, his only son, would someday attend the Imperial University in Tokyo. My failure to do so was only the first of his many disappointments.
In those days the druggist had to mix many of the medicines himself, so my father had a laboratory in the back of his shop stocked with mysterious jars, tins and bottles of all shapes and sizes containing the basic ingredients required to mix commonly used medicines. I used to help in his shop.
I loved the mystery of the little jars and the antique cabinets with the myriad drawers made to store the medicines. My father’s desk too was fitted with numerous drawers of every size and small shelves and alcoves, each holding its own secrets. Long narrow strips of paper were pasted here and there, dangling from the edge of shelves or the top of the desk’s hutch. On them were written instructions from doctors or my father’s notes written in brush and Japanese ink, using difficult Chinese characters which I had not learned yet in school.
I spent hours in the back of my father’s shop. The storage room held endless revelations. Here I discovered where my father kept his pipe tobacco. Stashed away in a dusty corner was a package wrapped in colored paper. My curiosity got the best of me so I removed the wrapping to reveal a strange white powdery substance. Much later I learned that it was opium used as a medicine in the old days and was now banned. But I was more interested in the wrapping itself. It was a woodblock print with erotic images. I returned to the storage room many times after that, captivated by the images of human bodies twisted into unnatural positions and the exaggerated displays of genitalia.
I mostly played alone as a child. There were no boys my age in the neighborhood, and my older sisters were devoted to tormenting me. The house was the exclusive territory of my mother and sisters. There was little affection available from my mother who spoke with a sharp tongue, always scolding or issuing commands. Perhaps this was as much a reason for my father spending long hours in his shop as the belief in hard work, but in any case it eventually made the family moderately wealthy.