Translating Japanese

Chuzaburoh Tanaka 2

This is another episode from Chuzaburoh’s writings.

At the time when there was no electricity, all the washings were done at the river bank and rice was cooked with firewoods. This was just normal, but the energy it took cannot even be compared with the current time.

After I was born, a nanny called “adago” was hired.

Young girls were often hired from neighbourhood for child-keeping and other houseworks, but there was no custom of paying salary. Instead, the girl would get three meals a day and new clothes at New Years and mid year festivals, when the ancestors return.

Many peasants had only little land to plough, and due to poverty, it was very normal for children to be sent out to other families for work when they became teenagers.


Then after my younger sister was born, I was brought up by another nanny nearby.

I used to call her Kakka. I was very close to her.

Her hair was already white, and she was always wrapping her head with a dirty cloth. She was an old lady skilled in stitching living in a very simple house. Kakka would often undo old kimono stitchings and remake it into underwear kimono, or stitch together old clothes and make them into a diaper.

She would not waste even the smallest piece of cloth, or even strings.

“When you undo the kimono stitchings, you first soak it into rice water. The strings will come out easily and can be reused again. Even a matchbox size of cloth should not be wasted. Cloth covers our body and protect us from cold and heat. It is very precious.”

Things are precious because they support our lives.

Food is offered by our ancestors, so we can live. That’s why we must never forget its grace and gratitude. Kakka often told me.

On hot days in summer, she would bring medicine bottles filled with cold water just taken from the well and put beside me taking a nap. And she waved fans against it so I get cool breeze. The breeze was as chill and soft like a natural air conditioner.

In winter, she told me old stories around the fireplace.

“People go to the hills after they die.”

At lower-north there was that famous Osore-zan “Terror-mountain” holy ground, and the inhabitants were all its faithful devotees.

“In the hills, they live as ancestor-gods. And at different seasons, they become herbs and fruits, that’s how they return to their children and grandchildren. That’s why you must not waste food. Revere it and eat with grate gratitude. And they will return home at new year and mid year. Sometimes they randomly come down and stay near the ceiling to check what is happening. So don’t do anything naughty thinking that nobody is watching. Ancestors all know about it…”


I often followed her to the fields. In between, she told me some stories.

“When I was small, there were only few paddy fields in lower-north. We mostly ate different kinds of millets. We used to dig out bracken roots and hit them so many times with mallet, then take the starch to make bracken cake. Also kudzu root. That’s how our ancestors lived many hundreds and thousands of years.”

Kakka believed that every existing being has its own life. So even when she was taking vegetables and mushrooms from the hills, she was so sorry and said “You grew so big, I’m sorry” as she plucked each of them.

She also said sorry when she were slicing fish. Fish are also living. And fishermen take great effort to catch them. So we must say sorry when we eat living beings, and be thankful to them.

Kakka taught me that the fundamental of caring for things and food is kindness and how important it is. Wealth is not what matters. That is what she taught me through her life.


Twenty years had passed. Kakka always found any spare time to do stitching work. When she became unable to stand, she made her own diaper so others the least work for her. She was also stitching a white kimono for when she becomes a dead body. It was hemp kimono.

“When we die, we all go to the hills. The hill path is a hard path. Hemp wears do not absorb much sweat, and also hemp that I grew from seeds and spun into strings will easily go back to earth”.

The white kimono, diaper, and another underwear kimono she made was, in the end, not used. Cotton was already quite popular at the time, so her family bought her a cotton set from town and put it on her dead body.
Kakka left this world.

“Gravestones are not to be made big.”

Kakka often used to say this.

Gravestones will be broken and fall down one day, and after a few generations, nobody will be looking after it.

It is something to be forgotten in the end. So I should not be a burden to the society even after I die…

Just become soil after you die, and not leave anything beyond.

“Eco” has become a trend in the world, but is this not the ultimate “eco” philosophy?

Kakka knew that she will be forgotten one day.

And she knew what was to be left.

It is not any materials, wealth, or a big gravestone to be carried on to the next generation. Kakka taught me that it is only kindness that can be handed over.

When I look back, she spoke to me in my childhood as if she knew that I would become an anthropologist of old daily artefacts. She was always serious in telling me about the life in lower-north.

She built a wooden storehouse in the backyard, which was not very normal for a lone female household, and left for me clothes and furnitures there. I carried everything into my storage. The materials told me so much about her young time and last days.


Although Kakka was born in a rural area in lower-north, she has lived for a couple of years in Hakodate in Hokkaido, where modern civilisation had blessed its influence. She never spoke to anyone who was the father of her two daughters, while she was never married. I wonder what kind of man he was.

She once said “women are demons” as she was holding me in her chest.
Even if that was true, I think only a demoness could have loved me as a child so dearly. Humans can become evil and demon sometimes. But that is also why they can become so kind.

Only those who know their demon inside can be kind; that is what I believe.


(Chuzaburoh Tanaka 2011: p144-147, in Mono-niwa-Kokoro-ga-aru, published from Amuse Edutainment)


Chuzaburoh Tanaka lived 1933-2013.

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