In praise of furin
Added In: Living in Japan › Life in Japan
Just in case there are people out there that think they are going to read about those cute little wind bells people hang outside their houses in summer, sorry to disappoint you. This is going to be a touch more earthy, and, anyway, the Japanese-language readers amongst you will have noted that there is no macron over the “u”.
Encouraged by the many positive responses that I received for my last column about sex, in this issue I’ve decided to address the subject of adultery. Not a nice-sounding word in the English language. But, furin, the Japanese equivalent, has a decidedly different phonetic feel. Light and playful. Indeed, like the little bell. Could it be that the social attitudes here, to what North Americans unimaginatively refer to as “cheating on your partner” are, indeed, a little different?
Three or four years ago, when I confessed to my 19-year-old daughter that I was having an affair with M__, but “please don’t tell anyone because M__ is married,” I was preparing myself for one of those caustic responses that teenage girls reserve for their fathers.
But, all that she said was, “Furin ka?” in a sort of casual, almost meditative tone. Perhaps she even smiled. At her young age did she already intuit that love is subject to no laws?
Here, in my defense, I should like to say that I’m not by nature a womanizer. Coming out of one of those mid-life divorces that are almost the norm these days, I was simply surprised to discover that the autumn of life too has its flowers, and, that they are more remarkable – and therefore more beautiful - than those of the spring. Two of the women that I fell in love with happened to be married. And as the singer Peggy Lee said, when she was fired by Benny Goodman for shacking up with Dave Barbour, the band’s guitarist, (Goodman prohibited his male musicians from “fraternizing” with his female singers) “You can’t help falling in love with somebody.”
I remember once asking a friend from the nearby town how common furin was there. That was another surprise. From his comments I got the impression that it was quite fashionable. Suddenly small-town Japan acquired a mystique that it had never had. Waiting in the local bank for my name to be called, I would be assailed by all sorts of lascivious thoughts. Did the modest-looking housewife sitting on my right have a secret lover? Where did they meet? And what sort of sex games did they engage in?
Come to think of it, I remember someone on Japanese television (could it have been the egregious Junichi Ishida?) claiming that furin was part of Japanese culture. In evidence he may have cited Murasaki Shikibu’s wonderful Tale of Genji. Whatever, I wonder if he managed to convey the bittersweet flavors of a secret love affair. The silence, patience, and anticipation, the joy of reunion and the sadness of the all-too-soon parting.
Over the years, various tales of furin in Oyama have reached my ear. By far the most dramatic was that of Shiro Fujisaki (I will give him a fictitious name, because, to tell you the truth, I can’t remember his real one). Fujisaki was a superb enka vocalist, who in his time had been quite famous, but now for some unexplainable reason had become a permanent fixture at one of the Oyama guesthouses. Some said that he had been condemned to eternal dosa-mawari by his production company for some heinous transgression of showbiz ethics. Anyway, he was earning his daily bread by performing for the guests. That is, until the affair with Jiro Takayama’s wife.
Takayama, who worked at the village office, came home unexpectedly one afternoon to find his wife enjoying a siesta with Fujisaki. The upshot of this scandal was not only the quick disappearance of Fujisaki, but also the eventual divorce and departures from the village of Takayama and his wife. Rather an extreme denouement, it struck me at the time, and seemingly at odds with the casual attitudes towards adultery that were the currency in the nearby town. But perhaps the mores of village life are different from those of a town.
Still, there was an interesting postscript to the affair. A couple of years later I heard, in a message on the wind, that Fujisaki had managed to return to Tokyo, where he was working the cabaret circuit. According to the story, one day Jiro Takayama turned up at Fujisaki’s manager’s office and asked for a job on the singer’s staff. Why? How? I don’t know. I’ve asked, but no one in Oyama wants to talk about it. Even more surprising is that Fujisaki said OK. Amazing! The man really did have ninjo!
As Junichi Ishida knew, furin is like ninjo and giri. You have to be Japanese to really understand it. How mysterious! How beautiful!