Hidemi’s Rambling by Hidemi Woods

Singer, Songwriter and Author from Kyoto, Japan.

Tokyo hr659

The tiny close community of a small village used to be the whole world for me who was born to a farming family living in a rural area of Japan. The sole window to the outside world was TV through which I had encountered what I had never seen in my daily life.

Back in those days, Japanese TV dramas were made and shot in the capital city of Japan, Tokyo. The city view and the people’s way of living in Tokyo looked so cool. Everything from fashion to lifestyle was completely different from things in Kyoto where I lived. On TV, Tokyo seemed like a future world decades ahead to me. I was hooked by one particular weekly crime drama which was shot on location all around Tokyo. Every location looked as if it had been in a Western country and the detectives in the drama were extremely stylish. I was absorbed in seeing that exotic world every week and had spent the other six days of the week waiting for the drama. As soon as I finished watching that show, I would rush into my room and write out the entire show in the notebook. I reproduced all the lines of characters and all the settings by depending on my memory. Since there was no way to record a TV program as a video cassette recorder was yet to come, I read my notebook over and over again to watch it inside my head until the next show was on air. In hindsight, the world of TV dramas was fictional which didn’t exist even in Tokyo, but I was too young to realize that.

Years went by and I became a musician. By the time two years have passed since I joined my first band, the band not only had played gigs around Kyoto but also had made guest appearances and had our songs played on local radio shows from time to time. We had made some connections with music producers who came down to the western part of Japan from Tokyo as judges for some live contests. However, our progress was limited because all the major music labels of Japan were based in Tokyo. My partner and I began to consider moving our base to Tokyo as we were geographically too far off to make a career in music.

Moving to Tokyo was a big deal to me. While I seldom attended, it meant I would quit college once and for all. As a much more serious matter, an old Japanese custom didn’t allow a successor of the family, that was me, to leave home. For me, leaving home meant abandoning my family and all the privileges. Although it seemed crazy to throw away everything when I had no idea how to live on as a musician in Tokyo, I felt living there would be better than staying in my family’s home for the rest of my life. I preferred eating hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s to eating home-grown vegetables from my family’s fields every single day. I knew it wouldn’t be healthy, but at least I would be able to eat what I chose, when I wanted. To sum up, moving to Tokyo was all about freedom. I was more than willing to jump into the free world where I would make all choices by myself instead of the old fixed rules and customs. 

Oddly enough, things went unexpectedly smoothly once I made up my mind to move to Tokyo. Various kinds of obstructions that had been seemingly difficult to be cleared resolved themselves almost magically. The moving day arrived sooner than I had imagined.

I was waiting for the bullet train bound for Tokyo on the platform in Kyoto Station. A friend of mine came to see me off. She was surprised that she was the only one for me there. “Even your parents don’t see you off?” she sounded bewildered. I wondered what awaited me in the outside world of my window. I was both looking forward to it and afraid.

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The Katsura River hr658

Back in those days of my childhood, a person who was going to commit suicide always took his or her shoes off and put them together neatly before jumping from the top of the building on Japanese TV dramas. It seemed Japanese people wanted to take off their shoes even when they tried to kill themselves just as they took them off at the entrance of the house. I somehow feel convinced.

There is a bridge called Katsura-ohashi Bridge over the Katsura River about a twenty-minute walk away from my family’s house that used to stand in Kyoto where I was born and grew up. The bridge is about 400-feet long as the river under it is quite big and wide. On one summer day in the fourth grade, I went to the bridge with seven or eight friends of mine to play by the Katsura River. Because it was probably the first time each of us played at the riverside without a grown-up chaperon, the outing was felt like an adventure and we were having so much fun by the river.

After a little while, one of my friends seemed to have enough spree to suggest we walk in the river along the bridge piers  toward the opposite bank. It was midsummer and the river banks had widened with less water. To us, the river looked shallow and easy to walk in and go further. Since we were all feeling adventurous, we persuaded ourselves that a fourth grader was a big, old kid for whom crossing the river on foot was a cinch. We started splashing across the current with a war cry.

In the beginning we were only ankle-deep in water, but soon water reached to our knees. Our walking speed dropped tremendously. By the time our thighs dipped in water, the stream got fast. It was hard just to stand still without holding onto a bridge pier although we had trod across merely one third of the river. The fast stream crushed against the bridge pier and my thighs, splashing big waves. Suddenly, fear sprang out from the bottom of my guts and yelled at me, “You’re in real trouble! You can’t possibly move ahead. What if you get swept away? Not to mention the opposite bank, you’ll drown to death right here!” Panic engulfed me. I looked back to return, but I was too scared to move, feeling that with this one step I was going to be carried away by the current. There was no way either to go forward or to go backward. I was stuck in the middle of the strong current. Thinking that wasn’t what was supposed to go, I looked around other kids. They also had stopped walking with a scared face just as I did. As if a tacit agreement, we slowly tried and managed to move backwards. When we finally returned to the riverbank where we had set off, our spree had thoroughly gone. Dejected in heart, without talking, we plodded our way home.

About ten years later, I was looking at the Katsura River again from the edge of Katsura-ohashi Bridge after taking off my shoes and putting them together neatly. It was when over a year had passed since I started my career as a musician despite dissent from my parents and friends. Although I had tried harder than I had ever done before, nothing had worked. On the other hand, I didn’t want to live doing what I didn’t want to do. I was stuck without either way to go forward or to go backward, again. I leaned over the parapet and stared at the surface of the river, seriously intending to jump into it. Then, something came into view. I saw three ducks swimming out from under the bridge. They stopped right down below me and just floated there. I vaguely thought I might strike and kill them when I jumped and hit the surface. All of a sudden, that thought drove me out of a daze. I came to my senses and pulled myself back away from the railing. Until that point, the world around me had been completely silent, but noises came back to my ears all at once. I noticed some cars honked at me while passing by. I hurriedly put back on my shoes.

You should challenge at the risk of your life if you wish to fulfill your dreams. Only after you brace yourself for death, can you live your own life. To attain that understanding, I had had to do a few more suicidal attempts in the course of my life. I understood after all and keep challenging, thankfully.

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Kanji hr655

I came across a website on which custom-made T-shirts, caps and tote bags are made and sold worldwide. Since I have been in a financial crunch lately, I could make and sell T-shirts with my poor drawing on them there. I browsed others’ merchandise which designs looked professional and like works of art. Looking at them, it was obvious that my daub had no part to play there. I tried to look for some other possible designs of my own.

It was when the idea of kanji struck me. Kanji means Chinese characters in Japanese and one of three character sets used for Japanese. That character set is prevalent in Japan and most Japanese names contain it. My name also consists of three kanji characters. When I lived in the U.S. and Canada and my signature was required at shops or other businesses, the salesclerk who looked at it curiously often expressed how cool it was. I sometimes saw a person wearing a T-shirt that had kanji on it, but mostly it didn’t make sense or it had an awkward meaning. That was probably because someone who didn’t have enough knowledge about kanji made the shirt easily. While I understood that the person wearing it didn’t know her or his shirt was telling an absurd thing to the public, I couldn’t help giggling secretly. I even spotted those who tattooed that weird kind of kanji. As a native of Japan, I thought I could make kanji merchandise with proper meanings and decided to give it a try.

Every kanji has its meaning. For instance, my first name is comprised of two kanji characters one of which means ‘excellent’ and the other means ‘beautiful’, and they are read ‘Hidemi’ together. Because of the character’s meaning, my name is embarrassing, I admit. Japanese parents put their expectations and wishes into a name when they name their child. A child’s name reflects their parents’ taste and personality. They wish her or him to be gentle, or to be kind, and they choose the corresponding kanji for their child’s name in most cases. Sometimes a name seems destined specifically for a politician, or a name aims to endure life. As for my partner’s name, its meaning is to be dutiful to one’s parents. Both his parents have already deceased and whether he fulfilled their wish or not is uncertain. Japanese people have to live with carrying bittersweet names on their shoulders.

When I was little, I asked my grandmother on my mother’s side what kanji characters were used for her name Fuki. She told me that Fuki was her nickname and her real name was Fukiko by three kanji characters with the meaning of ‘wealthy’, ‘noble’ and ‘child’ respectively. I had sent her a New Year card or a Christmas card every year by that name with those kanji characters for decades until she passed away. When I attended her funeral, I saw a placard hung at the entrance of a small shabby prefabricated funeral home. It showed whose funeral this was. Although the funeral took place according to officially registered documents, my grandmother’s name on the placard wasn’t what she had told me. Her name was actually Fuki, not Fukiko, and kanji wasn’t used for it. There is a different character set in Japan called katakana, which represents only sound without meaning like the alphabet. Her real name was in those characters, not in kanji. I asked my mother if she had known that. My mother said she also had thought her name was Fukiko in kanji since she was a child. I wondered how many family members of hers had known her real name. At least her own child and grandchild hadn’t. I suppose that she wanted to be wealthy and noble, for which she chose the kanji characters, and named herself.

I chose kanji for my first custom-made T-shirt. They mean ‘hope’.

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Time to Let Go of the Attached hr653

Living in Japan, I have been recently selling what I have in my apartment through a Japanese online service that is similar to eBay.

Japanese people had basically prioritized anything new and hadn’t been accustomed to buying and using what was used. They had believed what they got should be new and unused whether it was a house or a car. Needless to say, there had been no way that they put on or used what a stranger wore or possessed. It could have had something to do with their social customs of not shaking hands nor hugging. Or, they were just simply too hygienic.

However, as the Japanese economy has steadily worsened, the used market has finally grown larger. I myself struggle to make both ends meet, and I started selling my stock of clothes and cosmetics in order to make up for living expenses. I had had a tendency to get extreme bargain items even if they weren’t strictly necessary because I loved bargain hunting. That contributed too much unused stuff all over my small apartment. Selling it is a good idea that helps give my apartment space and also give me some money.

At the same time though, I feel a little sad as I remember how much fun I had when I shopped for the item or how excited I was when I wondered where to go with those clothes on. The higher my stuff’s selling price can be expected, the harder I say good-by to that one as I like it better and have a happier memory of my purchase.

My sister used to live alone abroad in an apartment provided by her company that included a housekeeping service. She had gradually been unable to throw away empty cans or wrappers after she consumed the contents because each one carried some kind of memory to her. She had kept them until her apartment was filled with her mementos that were commonly called piles of garbage. That made the housekeeper’s work incredibly difficult and they complained to my sister’s company repeatedly. My sister got fired for that although she had held a management job and her own secretary. While I don’t think I am as extremely attached to my stuff as she is, I can understand to some extent how she feels. Does DNA work here, I wonder.

During my daily parting with my attached things and memories, my mother called me the other day. She was going to rent an apartment and asked me to be a surety which was required for the contract. I gaped at her audacity to ask me a favor after she has deceived and tormented me mentally and financially so many times. I refused her request outright. As always, she couldn’t think of anything but using me in any possible way. My adamant refusal seemed to put an end to our relationship at long last. As for this matter, I felt relieved and free rather than sad. 

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Radio Days hr652

During my school years in the late 70s and the early 80s, many teenagers in Japan where I grew up were hooked on late-night radio shows. It was the time when SNS didn’t exist and video games just emerged, and I myself also used to be excited to turn on the radio every night. I was fascinated by the feeling that radio personalities such as comedians and musicians were talking right beside me about what had happened to them in daily life or something funny. Listening to the show let me visit the blithesome world of celebrities and forget the reality of my hopelessly boring rural school days.

I was not satisfied with just listening, but regularly sent messages on postcards to the show. Not email or texting, but a postcard by mail. I would hold a pen in my hand and write down a message, a comment, or a request for a song by my own made-up radio name with a pun. Then I would edge the card with a coloring pen to make it distinguished, attach a stamp that I sneaked from my father’s collection, and go out on my bike to drop it in a mailbox. That was one of my daily routines. Sometimes the local station picked up my message or a request and introduced it on the show, which made me explode with joy feeling as though I had become a celebrity. I would patiently wait to experience such an ecstatic moment again while listening to the radio in bed almost until dawn. Because of that, I used to lack sleep on weekdays and was always sleepy. I would sleep in class at school and sleep on the local bus that I rode home from school for 50 minutes. I often slept too tight on the bus to miss my stop and woke up riding far past.

I still listen to radio shows of U.S. online with my smartphone. Now, I have finally started my Podcast program. There, I read one episode from the books I wrote and talk about it. As I set up the instruments for that in my home studio, it looked awfully like a radio show. I was thrilled. Although I also felt nervous and couldn’t sleep well the night before recording, I was excited again to see me sitting in front of the microphone like a radio personality and pushed the record button.

I recorded an opening message for the show that I had prepared and read an episode from my book without problems. When I was about to talk freely next, suddenly and unexpectedly, I froze. Nothing came out of my mouth. I couldn’t figure out what to talk about and inside my head was completely blank. As I tried to squeeze out something, only sweat spewed out instead of words. I was speechless. After a few minutes of silence in which I writhed in agony without a single word, I gave up and pushed the stop button.

I had overestimated myself as a person who could speak fluently as long as circumstances allow. But things weren’t so easy as I had expected. In the end, I made a list of what to talk, and then did the recording over again from the top. The finished take disappointed me with my extremely nervous, faltering talk although it was redone. However, I strangely felt good, having a sense of fulfillment somehow. Before I knew it, I already looked forward to the next show and began to prepare some ideas for it.

Come to think of it, I have managed to realize what I had wanted to become. I’m a singer-songwriter and a recording engineer both of which I have wished to be since I was a teenager. This time, I have become a radio personality that was my answer to the graduation questionnaire of what you dream to become in the future when I finished the elementary school. But only few people know any of what I have accomplished. Needless to say, none of them have brought me money of course. I may have wasted so much time and effort all these years for the totally meaningless. One thing is for sure, though. I have spent a remarkably enjoyable time throughout. 

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