Unexpected Cherry Blossoms

Life is full of the unexpected.  Some surprises change your life for the better, while others are extremely painful.

All of us in the JET Programme have different reasons for wanting to live in Japan.  Still, I am always surprised when I talk to someone who has dreamed of coming here since childhood.  I often hear, “I’ve just always been fascinated with the culture.”  Of course, I admire people who are interested in a culture with which they share no blood connection.  That notion, however, is not something I understood until I entered my 20s.

I didn’t have a particular fascination with Japan, or any other Asian culture, as a child.  My family celebrated its strong Irish roots, even though my siblings and I also share German and Czech blood.  We went to Chicago’s famed Irish parades on St. Patrick’s Day, my Mom cooked Irish food and I studied the literature of the country.  As a result, I always dreamed that Ireland would be the first country outside of the U.S. that I would visit.  I assumed this would be on my honeymoon because that was the first time my parents traveled outside of the country.

But as I grew independent and traveled on my own, my worldview slowly changed.  With the help of some scholarship money and my parents, I traveled to France on my first international voyage.  Six months later, I left for an extended stay in Ireland, a country I still admire and feel a connection to.

But Japan is my home for the time being, and it is a country I love for many reasons.  I will always feel a deep admiration for Japanese culture, even if I can never call myself Japanese.

When I visited Chicago in August, my Mom asked that I spend one afternoon organizing some books stored in our attic.  I was taken aback when I saw the Japanese book (written in English) The Old Man Who Made the Trees Bloom, or as it is known in Japan, Hanasaka Jijii.  The book was a gift to me and my twin sister Brigid from our parents.  They bought it for us to commemorate our first visit to the Art Institue of Chicago.  In this folktale, an old, poor couple in rural Japan grieve after their greedy neighbor kills their beloved dog Shiro.  The kind and patient couple are rewarded, however, when the dog’s spirit brings them wealth in the form of gold and cherry blossoms.  When I opened the book, I read this inscription from my parents:

July 6, 1991

To Sheila and Brigid,

I hope you enjoy this book.  This was your first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 6, 1991).  Mom and Dad took both of you on the train.  We ate in the Garden Restaurant. 

Love,

Mom and Dad

Never in a million years did my seven-year-old self dream that one day, I would be living in the same country where this book is set.

Reading the book again 20 years later was a very happy surprise.  Thank you, Mom and Dad.

The Grateful Crane

A crane rests in Namerikawa, Japan

As I study more Japanese, I am trying to read old Japanese folk tales for children. Although English stories such as Peter Rabbit are popular here, so are several famous Japanese stories that I had never heard of prior to coming to Japan. The first story I picked up was 鶴の恩返し (tsuru no ongaeshi), which roughly translates to “The Crane’s Return of Favor”, or “The Grateful Crane.”  It is about a poor field worker who helps an injured crane. Soon after, a mysterious woman enters his life and brings him wealth. My wonderful co-worker Miki-san helped me translate the text as I read the book. Read Miki-san’s translation below.

I find Japanese folklore very interesting because the stories don’t necessarily end happily. Most often, elements of Buddhism and the Shinto religion play an important role in the tales, as does nature and altruism. If you want to read more translations, I stumbled upon this Website, which has an English text for several popular Japanese tales.

The Crane’s Return of Favor

Once upon a time, there was a young man. He worked very hard in the field. But he was poor. One day, he found an injured crane. “Oh, what a sad thing!,” he said. He felt very sorry for the crane, so he decided to take care of it. He nursed the injured crane back to health, and it flew away.

One day in the night, a very beautiful young woman visited his house. “May I please stay here?” she asked. The young man was very surprised, but he said yes. They lived together and were very happy. One night, she said to him, “I am going in this room to work. Don’t open the door completely. Please don’t watch me.” He said OK and went to bed.

The next morning, she gave him a very beautiful cloth. “Please, sell this cloth,” she said. He sold it in town for a lot of money. At the market, everyone said, “How beautiful!” The young man started to become very rich. Every night, the young woman would return to the room, and every time, she would tell him “Don’t watch me!” She became very slender, so one night, the young man went to check on her. He opened the door and gasped. There was a crane weaving its own feathers.

“Oh my gosh! You look completely different!” he said. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The crane replied, “I was the crane that you helped. I came to your house to repay you for your kindness. But you know the truth now, so we cannot live together anymore.”

The next morning, the crane flew away. And she never came back.