I work at two schools here in Kochi. One school is tiny. Less than 150 students now (we’ve had a few drop outs this past school year). Its the bottom school in the entire prefecture (state by another name) and like many a vocational high school the students and teachers are concerned with nothing more than getting through the school year having done what they are there to do. For teachers, its to show the students how to make a life out of basically nothing; honest work with their hands in an industry that is hard but constant-ish. The students only need to get through three years of school with minimal screw ups. Not too difficult even for these kids. My other school is about four times the size. 450 students with 50-60 teachers. It’s name means Fields in Spring. A suitably poetic, yet ironic, name. It is a school that is famous in the region for producing some of the best produce anywhere in the prefecture and once, long long ago, the school was under the auspices of a Kami. A Kami that is now long forgotten.
A stone that gathers rainwater, morning dew and the occasional light snowfall is the central point of a very old, weather beaten shrine on the school grounds. The first or second day I came to school, I was given a lift by my supervisor. I had to ask to her what this was about. I should have expected the answer that I received.
The buildings of my school form the walls of this inner courtyard area. Dominating it is this formation of stones. They were arranged very deliberately, with one serving as a focus for the rest. The stones are as worn and weather beaten as the shrine, except that no one at the school knows what the stones are.
I see these two places three times a week. The students each lunch in and around the stones during spring, summer and autumn. The teachers park their cars next to the shrine everyday and always. No one ever thinks about either. No one questions why they are there, what they are or were. Worst of all, no one wants to know. The teachers and students see these things as quaint ruins of a time long past. Something to be forgotten and otherwise embarrassed about. Once upon a time, the words on the the stone marking the shrine would have been as clear as the noon day sun. The Kami inhabiting the fields and residing the shrine would have been named there and their history recorded. The shrine would have been a sacred place, denoted by sanctified cordons and an anchor between human and spirit-deity. Once, the Forgotten Kami would have been thanked and given offerings for the fruits of the school’s fields. Now, the most that can be said is that the faint memory of the Forgotten Kami still lingers in the fields the school uses.
After a week of particularly heavy rain I exchanged a chestnut (grown at the school’s orchard) from my altar-shrine at home for a jar of water from the shrine. A paltry exchange of tokens. Not knowing more, not being able to know more, I can’t even thank the Kami by name.
So many people the world over think of Japan as a sanctuary, a place where the old has been preserved and nurtured. Sheltered from the entropy beyond. The sad truth is that the sanctuary is a tourniquet. Over a hundred years the things Japan was supposed to be safeguarding and protecting have gradually had the circulation cut off. They have become atrophied and riddled with gangrene and an endless source of humiliation for the Japanese. Not that it is so riddled, but that it is still holding on. That no matter how hard they try, how resolutely they ignore it, it still won’t simply die. Hope without, I guess.
Rhyd Wildermuth once wrote about the differences between Reasonable and Rational. In Japan, Reason has been abandoned, forcibly and violently, in Japan for a Rationality the rules absolutely. What makes it so dangerous is not that it is absolute, but that it is so gentle.
Like a lobster in a pot.