Guidepost to Life’s Journey : an Unexpected Discovery
Once in a while, one comes across a moving story about people who achieved remarkable things with great ideas. As one gets older and such discoveries become rare, one appreciates them all the more. This particular gem—about a unique Japanese ethnologist and his father who influenced him greatly—I came across only eight years ago after I had moved to Vancouver from Singapore in 1997.
I read the biography of the man called Tsuneichi Miyamoto, who lived from 1907 to 1981, which I spotted in a book review and bought right away. As I had hoped, I found the man and his work totally absorbing, as they inevitably became enmeshed with the personal context of my own rootless “journey of life,” in a manner of speaking. If I had only read about Miyamoto when I began my career as a journalist back in 1966, I might have gained more and lost less in my life thereafter. That’s how Miyamoto’s life story made me feel.
The essence of Tsuneiuchi and his father’s philosophy (more on this later) must be useful to anyone young and old who is interested in “exploring” in the wide sense of the word. One’s focus can be on anything, from the changing details of familiar neighborhoods to traditional customs of distant places. How far you physically travel is not really relevant.
The biography by writer Isao Nagahama is about a man who spent much of his life traveling, mostly on foot, around small towns and villages in almost all parts of the Japanese islands, collecting personal accounts from all sorts of people. Proud of his own origin as a farmer, he would spend hours and even stay overnight with old couples or widowers living in remote rural villages, as they slowly poured out their hearts to him about their days gone by. Matsumoto left scores of volumes of his studies and essays, as well as countless magazine articles, special projects and countless other works on folklore, agricultural and fishery techniques and many other aspects of folk culture. It is not certain whether all of his voluminous amount of work will ever be published.
Nagahama’s work H?k? no manazashi – Miyamoto Tsuneichi no tabi to gakumon [The gaze of a wanderer – The journeys and scholarship of Tsuneichi Miyamoto] (Akashi Shoten) came out in 1994 (so I wouldn’t have been able to read it back in 1966). As Nagahama explains, “wanderer” in the title refers to the fact that Miyamoto did not travel by schedule but went wherever his whim took him, for as long as he pleased. Also, “gaze” refers to the caring look of a friend, rather than to the “look down the nose” of some distinguished scholar talking to “ordinary people” or to the scheming eyes of an eager researcher trying to collect usable “material” for his pre-conceived theories. What he wrote about came from the people, not from his quest for any specific information.
As unique and attractive a human being as he was, Miyamoto was practically ignored by the academic mainstream to the extent that Nagahama, while working on the biography, was astounded to find practically no preceding research work on Miyamoto, while scores of volumes existed on the famous pioneering ethnologist and one of Matsumoto’s mentors, Kunio Yanagida (1875-1962). Two of the main reasons Nagahama offers for this is that Matsumoto’s studies were too unique, personal and independent of the academic factions at the big universities, and the fact that his studies which were too unique to conform to any trends were seen as reactionary and contrary to the “masses-exploited-by-the-capitalists” orientation of the academic mainstream at the time. Incidentally, both Yanagida and Matsumoto’s ultimate aim was to identify the origins of Japanese culture.
From what little I’ve learned about ethnology (from an ethnologist cousin in Finland), its subjects are often changing aspects of life that are too commonplace to be addressed by any of the major disciplines of the academic establishment. One example in BC might be the history and disappearance (?) of “conkers,” the traditional British boys’ game of pitting your horse chestnut on a string against your opponent’s, taking turns to smash each other’s “conker” until one cracks. (The game is still played in official championships in Britain and elsewhere, but my thoughts turn to how researchers in Morimoto’s time didn’t have access to the internet like we do.) Another might be a quaint custom I observed in Singapore where I lived until 1997. Old men and ladies getting on buses would smack the hard plastic seats someone had just vacated, before sitting down on them . . . apparently from some traditional Chinese belief about cleansing the seat of the residual spirit of the previous occupant.
There are many fascinating details to Miyamoto’s life, but for lack of space I shall just cite below the remarkable list of “ten instructions” (H?k? no manazashi pp 25-27) that his father, a poor farmer, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Shikoku, gave Tsuneichi when he sent the latter off to Osaka at age 16 to learn a skill at a telephone/telegram operator training school. Much of the materials by and about Miyamoto will probably never be translated into English, these “instructions for life” effectively make up the aforementioned “essence” of Miyamoto’s philosophy that I would like to share with all our readers.
(1) When you get on the train, keep your eyes on what’s outside the window. What crops are planted in the paddies and fields? Are they growing well? Badly? Are dwellings in the villages large or small? Do they have thatched roofs or roof tiles? These are the things you must look at. When you arrive at a station, look at the people getting on and off. Study how they are dressed. See what sort of items are kept in the baggage check-in area. These are the things that tell you whether that locale is well off or not, whether the people are hard-working or not.
(2) In a town or a village, when you arrive in a new place climb to a high vantage point and look around. Get your bearings and note what stands out. If you should come across a place like a mountain pass overlooking a village, first look for landmarks like shrines with their groves and temples, the layout of the houses and paddies and fields, and at the surrounding mountains. If anything attracts your interest from atop a mountain, you should always try to go there. If you study its location carefully from above in advance, you will almost never get lost.
(3) If you have money, try eating local specialties and cuisines. It will give you an idea of the standard of living there.
(4) If you have spare time, walk around as much as possible, for you will learn many things.
(5) Money is something that is not that difficult to make. But to spend it is difficult. This you should never forget.
(6) I am not able to let you study as much as you want, so I will not demand anything of you. Do as you wish, but do look after your own health. Until you reach the age of 30, I shall pretend that I’ve disowned you. But when you pass the age of 30, remember again that you have parents.
(7) However, if you become seriously ill or if you face a situation you can’t resolve, come home. You parents are always here for you.
(8) From now on, it is no longer time for children to exercise piety toward their parents, but rather, time for parents to exercise piety toward the children. Otherwise, there will be no improvement in our world.
(9) Do what you think is right. Even if you fail, your parents will not reproach you.
(10) Look for things that other people have overlooked. Among them you should find many important things. Walk firmly along the path you have chosen for yourself.
Remarkably, most these instructions, written down around 1925, with modern modifications, are applicable to today’s “watchers of life” in many walks of life, including writers and artists, if not the likes of private investigators and industrial spies, as well as ethnologists. All that from a man in remote, rural Shikoku who as a young man once migrated to Fiji with a Japanese group but failed and returned as one of 115 out of the original 250. He was too poor to send Tsuneichi to middle school, so he told Tsuneichi he could do whatever he liked with his life. The instructions above reveal him to be an extraordinary man.