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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #18 - Winter 1994
Contents of this Issue:


I think I wrote a while ago about how I had been getting ahead of myself with the newsletter stories, and had a whole pile of them stacked up waiting to be used. Well that certainly isn't the case these days. Although the list of stories waiting to be written is still as long as ever, I've been neglecting this work a bit more than I should, and have fallen behind again. This issue should have reached you over a month ago ...

I've still been writing though, and during the last couple of months, have had little pieces published in three of Tokyo's English language newspapers. I'm sorry they are not so accessible to most of you Japanese readers, but it will be quite some time yet before I can write any kind of intelligible 'nihongo'. Until then, you'll just have to make do with this little 'Hyaku-nin Issho' ...

From Halifax to Hamura

Our family's move to Canada had been inspired in part by the fact that the era of the 'big bands' was coming to a close. Taking a group of 20 musicians and singers 'on the road' was a very expensive process, and as musical styles changed, so did the demand for musicians like my father. He could see the handwriting on the wall, that work was going to become gradually ever more difficult to find. But one day, he heard about an opportunity being offered across the ocean in Canada. There were a number of positions available in military bands over there, and these were open to British musicians. It may have been the idea of a 'steady job' in music, with regular working hours and no endless night after night travelling that he found attractive, or perhaps it was simply his incurable wanderlust, but he took the leap, and we moved to Canada.

This all happened when I was only five, so I unfortunately have no memories of what must have been very interesting days; the sea trip across the Atlantic in the 'Empress of Scotland', the three day cross-Canada train journey to the northern city of Edmonton, and settling in to a new life. Of course, as both my old and new countries were English speaking, it was relatively easy to assimilate into Canadian society, but there were some problems, and school was one of them. It wasn't that school in Canada was difficult, but that it was too easy. I entered the Grade 1 classroom together with all the other kids of the same age, but with one big difference - they were just starting their A B C's, and I could already read and write, having been encouraged to learn both at home, and at the Preparatory school I had been attending. So it must have been very boring for me, sitting through the 'See Dick run' type of lessons. I think the teachers tried to maintain my interest by giving me a library card, and encouraging me to spend the time reading, but I guess the gap between my abilities and the school curriculum must have been fairly wide, because at the end of that first year, they attempted to alleviate the situation by promoting me to the third grade, skipping two. I have never been a 'ni-nen sei' ...

I was telling this story to my own kids the other day, and they were suitably impressed, but unfortunately, this is not one of those 'genius finishes college at age 10' stories, and when I told them what came next, they laughed instead! My 'head start' wore off very quickly, and combined with the fact that I was a pretty scrawny little kid (which you wouldn't know from that photograph in the last issue!), I soon started to fall behind. By the time I got to Grade 5, I was in trouble, and I was asked to repeat that year. So it ended up taking me six years to finish elementary school after all!

To Japanese readers, it must seem like a pretty tragic event to have a child repeat a year of school. I have never heard of such a thing happening here, and would imagine that making a child do a year over, while all his friends advanced to the next grade, would cause more social problems than it was worth. But I think the repeated year coincided with one of our family's frequent moves (every two years on average), so it was not so traumatic in my case.

Having plenty of interests outside school probably helped. I was a member of the Boy Scouts organization, and became very involved in their camping and community service activities, rising 'up in the ranks', and becoming leader of the local group. This surprises me when I think about it now, because I know I was quite a shy kid, but in retrospect, I suppose it was simply because I was obedient and could be trusted to do as I was told. Although it wasn't any inherent leadership abilities I possessed that caused them to make me the leader, I do think that being made the group leader did help develop such aspects in my character.

It was also during these years that I became an ardent, but completely unskilled, ice hockey fanatic. For Japanese boys it's baseball, and more recently soccer, but for us back then in Canada, ice hockey dominated our life for most of the year. Whether in the school ground, on an icy street, or in a neighbour's flooded back yard, we went at it every day as soon as we got home from school, and didn't quit until it was too dark to see the rubber puck. I suppose my parents must have spent many a freezing afternoon standing by the rink, cheering for our little teams, and I am more than a little thankful that my own kids don't seem to be interested in team sports ... (As I sit writing this, the girls are busy playing 'house' in the next room. They don't want me cheering for that activity ...)

All in all I guess, those elementary school years passed by quite happily, in endless hours of play, mostly with my brother, to whom I was close enough in age to enjoy activities together. We always shared a room, and although I suppose there were plenty of fights, who can remember such things now?

Collector Profile

Mr. and Mrs. Bunji Shimada

For the very first story in this series of customer profiles, I visited a man wearing a white apron and hat - Mr. Cho the baker, and this issue we've got another man who wears similar clothes, Mr. Bunji Shimada, the noodle chef!

When I first met Shimada-san, just about four years ago, he was doing a very different kind of job, working as a company employee at a flower market, but he must have been dissatisfied with that work, because just over a year ago he left that job and started up his own ramen shop, which he now operates together with his wife, Komeko-san.

I dropped in to see them one afternoon recently, but didn't really have a relaxed conversation, as there were plenty of interruptions from customers ordering noodles. But this gave me a good chance to sit and watch closely how they worked. I've eaten many a bowl of noodles since I came to Japan, but I've never seen one like this before. A huge lump of miso, big as a good-sized 'mikan'; on top of this a heap of noodles, a large ladle of the soup stock, and a half-dozen palm-sized slices of ham; then sprouts, vegetables, egg, corn, all stacked up until they started falling over the sides of the pizza-sized bowl. And this was for one person! It would take me a week to eat that! But the customer didn't even blink when Shimada-san put this gigantic concoction down in front of him, so it seems that regular patrons of this shop are well used to such things.

Running a restaurant like this with only two people means of course that the hours are very long indeed. He estimates that his working hours in a week are just about double what they were in his old job. Add to this the lack of financial security (and of course no more bonuses!), and the obvious feeling is that he must have been crazy to make this change. As you can well guess though, I don't think there was anything crazy about it at all. Hours? Money? Don't talk about such things! Talk rather about the feeling of accomplishment that comes with working for oneself. Shimada-san was no stranger to this feeling even before he left his company, as he had already taken hammer in hand to build his own home. (Is it just coincidence that two of my collectors have done this ...?)

I couldn't help thinking, as I watched Shimada-san and Komeko-san making and serving noodles to their customers, about what it was costing them to collect my prints. They obviously have large expenses for food materials, utilities, rent, etc. etc., and there can't be a lot left over from the 600 yen or so that each customer pays. How many bowls of ramen do they have to serve to pay for one of my prints? It embarrasses me to think how many. And they have 60 of my prints!

Now of course, all my collectors are in the same situation, sending me a portion of their hard-earned salary in return for a few coloured pieces of paper. But in Shimada-san's case, his burden is especially visible - one bowl ... two bowls ... three bowls ... Hour upon hour of their labour every month goes to support my dream. How on earth can I say 'thank you' enough? How can I ever repay them? Of course, there is only one way do to that. Simply do such a good job, and make such a special series of prints, that they can feel proud of their part in its creation.

So if you live anywhere near their shop, please drop in and see them sometime. Enjoy the sparkling cleanliness of the place, and the calligraphy displayed on the walls, but I warn you, make sure that you're very, very hungry when you go!

Essay Corner

While we were down at the girls' grandfather's place in the country last summer, I spent time every evening sitting out on the river bank. It was a very peaceful place, and each day, when I came back into the house after it became too dark and chilly to stay out any longer, I got out my notebook out and wrote a short piece on some topic inspired by the peaceful scene. We were there for two weeks, and I wrote fourteen of these little essays.

When we returned to Tokyo, I was looking through the pile of newspapers that had built up, and saw a notice in the Yomiuri asking for submissions to an essay contest with the theme: 'What can we do for our Environment?'. I thought this matched pretty well what I had been writing about, so I selected one of the fourteen, and sent it off. As some of you may have noticed in the media last month, my little essay was lucky to have been chosen the winner, and I was awarded the 'Ministry of the Environment Prize' in the contest.

It doesn't have anything to do with 'Hyakunin Isshu', but perhaps it will make an interesting change ...

The Neighbourhood we all Share

I've been here in Japan long enough to have grown a bit accustomed to things here, and can now notice some differences between the Japan of eight years ago when I arrived, and the Japan of the present.

Each summer, we make a trip to the country village where my children's grandfather lived. While there we swim in the river every day, usually surrounded by sun-browned elementary school children. The first time I saw that river, I was quite shocked at the amount of garbage that had been thrown into it. That this beautiful swimming area right in the centre of the village should be so spoiled with junk, was quite a disappointment to me.

We didn't say anything to the village children, and we didn't chastize them, but one day, after becoming just too disgusted by the garbage, we got some large plastic bags and started filling them up with trash. There were two kinds of reactions from the children playing in the river. Most of them either didn't notice what we were doing, or simply ignored us. But a second group, just a few, started to help, collecting garbage and bringing it to help fill our bags.

From then on, we made this a regular habit, and always returned from swimming trips carrying bags of assorted garbage, and I suppose the village gradually got used to our behaviour. Year after year, there was always lots to pick up. The garbage was mostly made up of a few standard items: styrofoam noodle cups and plastic snack food packages thrown away by the little kids, coffee, beer cans, and cigarette packages from their fathers, and third (and most disturbing) large plastic sacks that had contained agricultural chemicals, obviously discarded by farmers whose rice fields bordered the river.

Well, that was eight years ago. How is the river now? Well, as most people in Japan know, the situation has improved very much. In recent years the amount of garbage we bring home from the river has greatly decreased, and we no longer automatically take the plastic bags with us when we go swimming. It's not perfect yet. The first type of garbage is still to be seen here and there, but the second is quite rare, and I haven't seen any of the third type at all for a number of years now. Please don't think that I'm trying to take any credit for this improvement. My family is only in the village for a few weeks each year, and this gradual clean-up of Japan is a much wider phenomenon than just this one little river pool.

I understand that the Tokyo Olympics back in the 60's was a major turning point. Friends tell me that the Tama River near my home in Tokyo was an absolute garbage heap before that time, being piled with old cars, tires, furniture, household garbage, and all kinds of junk. But a new ethic has gradually replaced the old one, following that initial stimulus of wanting to show a clean face to the Olympic visitors. The old cars have been replaced by cherry trees, and the area is now the 'pride and joy' of the neighbourhood.

And of course, that's why people are now keeping it clean, because it has been transformed from 'soto', something 'outside' that belonged to no one, to 'uchi', something 'inside' that belongs to someone, in this case, the local people. The next step is obvious ... to widen this viewpoint; to include in the 'local' classification, not only our own neighbourhood or town, but each neighbourhood, town, and mountainside in Japan. And then further, to include every square inch of this entire planet.

So that's how you can help. Learn to think of the entire earth as your own home. Keep it clean, don't waste its resources, and set a good example for others.


One year ago, on this page, right in this space, I wrote "It has been a long and difficult year." And so it had been, but this time thankfully, I have to write no such thing. The year just finished has been a 'goodie'. Perhaps it was the lack of financial pressure, perhaps it was the good feelings I had about the ten prints, or perhaps it was something to do with watching my daughters starting to become 'young ladies'. I guess it was all these things. After the turbulence of the previous couple of years, this peaceful year (generally) has been much appreciated.

As to what the coming year holds, I have no idea. But if it turns out to be as good as this past one, full of opportunity and accomplishment, I will have no complaint.