Living in Japan
Best friends

Best friends

Added In: Living in Japan › Life in Japan

Jeffrey Townsend

Franciszka, my mystic nurse from Poland, has just made her annual visit. She left 3 days ago, and since her departure I have been trying to console myself by rereading Mumonkan, that wonderfully irreverent and deeply religious Zen classic. I love the image of the Buddha as a “shit-stick” (kanshiketsu), which, incidentally, is not the ancient Chinese equivalent of toilet paper, but rather a large wooden ladle used for spooning out the night soil to dry and put on the fields. How liberating to be in a world where sacred and profane sit comfortably together! There are some things that I will always love about Japan.

Another thing that this country has taught me is that you should never expect things to develop in a logical way. Preparedness is all, and always expect the unexpected.

Take my evolving relationship with my neighbor Kakuzo: the man whom I once had to call the police to deal with, and later, in return, almost succeeded in getting me thrown out of the community. His dogs used to keep me awake with their barking, they almost killed one old woman and were a constant danger to my children. But now I have to say that he has become such an integral part of life here I would truly miss him if he weren’t around.

Franciszka, who calls him my “doggy neighbor” has this fantasy that she will be having an affair with him while she is nursing me through my dotage. When I need my soiled diaper to be changed, she will be copulating with him in the kitchen. This used to be the ultimate torture in the barbed and sadistic little games that she plays with me. But somehow it doesn’t bother me any more. So Kakuzo, it seems, taught me equanimity of spirit, something that none of my Zen teachers have been able to do. 

And how did it happen? Simply by him being there. Being more part of this village that anyone else that I know. Simply by being himself.

In any village you will always find one or two families that are a law unto themselves. The Doones of this world. Kakuzo and his clan belong to that category. They aren’t educated, but they are supremely “streetwise” to every lane and tiny niche of rural life. Kakuzo’s father (he’s dead now) was often the subject of TV documentaries. He had an amazing knowledge of the mountain forest around here, not only as a guide, but also as someone who could identify any plant and its uses, as well as being an expert hunter and trapper. In ways he reminded me of Lt. Onoda, the lone Japanese soldier who survived in the jungles of the Philippines for 30 years after the end of World War II.

Kakuzo was born and raised in that tradition, but due to certain chronic weaknesses of character he seemed to be playing in a league one or two grades lower. Not so crafty and rather lazy, he was frequently in trouble. Once, in my own memory, he got on the wrong side of the local yakuza, who took him into the forest, beat him up and left him there to crawl home, with several broken bones and fewer teeth.

My wife used to say that she thought the only reason I hadn’t already been scratched out by Kakuzo was because he didn’t know how to relate to “intellectuals” (interi). That made me smile. My wife didn’t often pay me compliments.

Of course, at the height of our Cold War, when I was regularly contacting the police, the village office or city health department about his marauding dogs, he would be berating my landlord not to renew my lease. In time he succeeded, but the tactic misfired when someone else sold me another property even closer to him. So, in the end, he got me as his neighbor. Ha, ha. As Goethe says, “An evil man only succeeds in doing good” (Die Kraft die stets das Boese will und doch das Gute schaft).
At this point I thought that it would be a good time to bury the hatchet.

Kakuzo too seemed to understand the ethics of the new situation. Since I now owned the property he would never get me out. So there was only one option: to get on.

Negotiating a peace, which only cost me half a dozen cans of beer, was a very satisfying process. Now he refers to me as “taisho” (guv) and I call him “Kaku-sa.”

So we are riding a wave of friendship. But who knows what the future will bring? I try not to have hopes, so that there can’t be any disappointment.

When Franceszka rings from Warsaw, it’s feeding time at Kakuzo’s kennels and the dogs are in full cacophonic chorus. I hold the receiver in the air so that she can hear.
Natsukashii!” she yelps.
“You know, he’s my best friend now.”