Wednesday, April 19, 2006


This morning while having breakfast I watched one of the few Japanese tv shows I watch, wherein a 'celebrity' walks/travels leisurely through a locality of Japan in search of some unrenowned natural beauty or special craft, a secret local vegetable, cooking style, fermenting technique or other art. The celeb walks into the field or kitchen, workshop or brewhouse where folks are busy, and there surprises interesting people relevant to the subject, which means that almost always the celeb winds up talking to an elder.

This morning it was an elder in Yamagata who handcrafts zaru (roughly, 'strainer') for a living, in this case made of copper wire, plain wire and bamboo - for straining noodles, rice, tempura - all kinds and sizes of strainers, the fellow had been making them all his life, weaving them in his simple village shop where all his zaru were displayed for sale on walls and ceiling.

There is a natural delight in seeing an elder speak proudly from such a length of experience. He was in his 80s and how he could laugh, sitting there before his well-worn work board with coils of copper wire and his own beautifully crafted wares gleaming all around him, badges of his pride, as he recounted clear memories of learning it all 50, 60, 70 years ago, in another world...

It is good for all to see a lifetime of dedication being respected, the elder passing on his knowledge, the tenor of his life and labor, the learning in his hands and the value of it, of doing it, expressing it and living it thus: you can make a living with your hands and take pride in it and be happy, laugh heartily after 80 years - and here it was being recorded for posterity, on tv; he was a celebrity now...

Then the crew wandered on down the road to a grandma who showed the celeb how she made a special natto (fermented soybeans) dish using fermented rice, and later when it was ready to eat, the woman's whole family and their famous visitor sat around the table and enjoyed a bowl of it together.

Then a further meandering down the road with an elder persimmon farmer, conversing about life till at last they stood in the farmer's persimmon orchard and talked about the history, beauty, savor and secrets of a life spent working with trees.

This is one of the many small ways in which respect for elders is nurtured in Japan. And though that respect is fading a bit due to the increasing isolation of elders from youngers through loss of the nuclear family and the call of the big city with its small, elderless apartments, that respect is never very far away; even tv producers recognize the wisdom that is there to be shared and passed on, that there is a market for it, because elders are interesting (to say nothing of inspiring and photogenic), there is respect for what they know, and because soon Japan will have the greatest proportion of elders in the world. Then perhaps we'll see wisdom come into its own, for the first time in history.


Chancy said...

I may just cry. Your essay is so beautiful in it's obvious love and respect for elders which is sadly missing in our US society of today.

Tabor said...

It is a golden moment when someone's life's work is honored publically and responsibly. Most of us are so busy getting to the next place that we don't think about our life's work, and unless you acquired fame or fortune in the process you probably won't be honored here in the USA.